Thursday, June 24, 2010

"For freedom Christ has set us free..."

In preparing for this upcoming Sunday's sermon, where I continue preaching on the letter to the Galatians, I was re-reading Luther's "On Christian Liberty." I am ever thankful that I had been assigned this treatise in seminary. The resonance with Paul's letter is rich.

A man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body to work for it alone, but he lives also for all men on earth; rather he lives only for others and not for himself. To this end, he brings his body into subjection that he may the more sincerely and freely serve others, as Paul says in Romans 14[:7-8], "None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord." He cannot ever in this life be idle and without works toward his neighbors, for he will necessarily speak, deal with, and exchange views with men, as Christ also, being made in the likeness of men [Phil. 2:7], was found in the form as a man and conversed with man, as Baruch 3[:37] says.

Man, however, needs none of these things for his righteousness and salvation. Therefore he should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and the advantage of his neighbor. Accordingly the Apostle commands us to work with our hands so that we may give to the needy, although he might have said that we should work to support ourselves. He says however, "that he may be able to give to those in need" [Eph 4:28]. this is what makes caring for the body a Christian work, that through its health and comfort we may be able to work, to acquire, and lay by funds with which to aid those who are in need, that in this way the strong member may serve the weaker, and we may be the sons of God, each caring for and working for the other, bearing one another's burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ [Gal. 6:2]. This is a truly Christian life. Here faith is truly active through love [Gal. 5:6], that is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward; and for himself he is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.
The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Toys and Nietzsche - Toy Story 3 and Community

Don't read, if you want absolutely NO spoilers for Toy Story 3. Some are found below.

My wife and I took our boys to see Toy Story 3 this weekend. I was looking to be entertained. I didn't expect two things. The first thing was the sheer emotion that welled up and just gushed forth. It did not help that I was sitting next to my oldest who had just finished first grade, that I had just played the day before with my youngest pretending to chase down the Joker with the Batman playset, AND that my wife and I are expecting our third child, our first daughter, literally any moment now. I cried for the first quarter of the movie, and then for the last quarter of the movie, all because the fleeting moments with my children seemed all too fleeting, and I was sure that my oldest was about to head off to college tomorrow. The second surprise, and more important one for this blog post, was the defense of dependent community over and against the cult of the individual who owns his or her own destiny.

Not to give away too much, but due to a misunderstanding, the remaining toys in Andy's room get separated from Woody, and head for the trash heap. Woody goes after them, even though they avoid the trash without his help. Nonetheless they believe that Andy meant to throw them away and they would rather try their luck at the daycare center. They are hurt to be sure, but they simply will not listen to the words of Woody calling them back to their faithfulness to Andy. The recurrent theme throughout the Toy Story films, the indellible mark placed upon the toys by Andy, returns here as well. And it was impossible for me not to see this continued theme in the light of baptism. As each of us are marked with the sign of the cross in the waters of baptism, that indellible promise, we are showered with grace, claimed as God's own, and placed in a relationship where we can live out a response to that love. The toys having been claimed by Andy, Woody asserts, are called to respond by always being there for him. Granted the image of Andy as God breaks down, but here the toys are certainly called to trust that Andy would not abandon them and would take care of them whether he took them to college or put them in the attic.

But the toys don't trust Andy, which is probably a good thing since the story would have been over really quickly and the special 3-D fee would have been really really painful, and they end up at the day care. At the day care, the toys meet a whole new host of characters, all under the seemingly benevolent leadership of Lotso (Lotso Huggin', a pink stuffed bear, who smells like strawberries). He welcomes the new toys, has Ken lead them on a tour of the facility, and tells them they get to be in the catepillar room. Lotso makes sure to portray the place as a utopia. He plays on their distrust of Andy and claims that there at the daycare, they never have to worry about being lost of rejected again. The toys there are not bound by dependency on others. Each toy is his or her own master. Dependency leads to being cast aside, but since the children constantly rotate through the daycare, there is no dependency.

But we find out that Lotso is not the caring bear he seems to be. He is in fact the ruler of the daycare toys, and rules by sheer will. His word is law. By allowing certain toys into his circle of power, these other toys cooperate in the culture of fear. When Andy's toys, minus Woody who leaves the other toys to return to Andy, find out what the Caterpillar room means, preschoolers who do not so much play with the toys as abuse them, they attempt to get transferred to the Butterfly room. Then they find out the real nature of Lotso and his method of governing.

At the heart of the movie is this debate. Which is better, living in a particular, dependent community, or to be master of one's own fate, a truly independent individual? Actually that is the way Lotso wants to pose the question to Andy's toys, and Lotso is pretty adamant about that being independent is the better station in life. Being taken in by this line, the toys from Andy's room that remain, find a dramatic bait-and-switch. They are not independent at all. Lotso enslaves them with the false image of true independence coming through the exertion of their own wills. Lotso models the Nietzschean will to power. Atomistic individuals struggling for power, who refuse to buck the system seeing how it is stacked in favor of the powerful. And they want nothing more than to be included in that inner circle. So they play the game.

Into this atmosphere though come a particular band of people who know what true community, an enfleshed community rooted in love, is and looks like. The toys discover that it is better to be enslaved to a loving benevolent master who seeks their true best than a power-hungry toy who seeks only their domination. Andy comprehends the true dignity of their selves. Lotso believes the toys are nothing but trash to be used and discarded. And near the climax of the movie, in a scene strongly reminiscent of the book of Daniel, there is a moment when we believe that Lotso might have repented and could save them all from sure destruction. But he stops short and lets the toys go on to their destruction, and he calls out, "Where is your boy now?" I could not help but hear the distinct echo of Psalm 42:10, 'My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, "Where is your God?"'

But there is deliverance and redemption. The lies of Nietzsche are laid bare and the promise of a community dependent upon the truly benevolent master is shown victorious. Andy, the benevolent master, knows the true identity of each toy. He knows what is best about each of them. In the end the true telos of the individual is to live in community dependent on others, not just for basic needs but for our sense of identity as well.

At its best, the church is such a community. We know that we are dependent upon God for our identity, even if there are times we would rather not be so dependent, when we'd rather be 'spiritual not religious' that is, to live in a pseudo-community that says we can be arbiters of our own destiny. Nonetheless we have an external objective reality who has promised to be there for us throughout it all. Some of us are placed in the attic at rest until we are awakened. And some of us continue on with the work to which we have been called. Sure the reality is messier than that, but the truth remains, we simply cannot live on our own, seeking our own goods, and remain the people God intends for us to be.

Even children's toys know that...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dystopia and Glee -- Law and Gospel

Linda, a friend of mine from college, who majored in politics, became a lawyer, started writing incredibly insightful AND amusing movie reviews as a hobby (becoming a blogger before there were bloggers), ultimately becomes a full-time blogger, who now writes the NPR blog on popular culture, Monkey See. She still writes great reviews and commentary on movies and television, and takes great joy whenever anyone comments on her blog along the lines of "I can't believe they pay you to write this stuff!!!' But she is good. She is able to cut to the deeper subtext of the viewer. Her cultural criticism is a HUGE part of what the task of preaching should be about.

I read with great interest her blog post More Misery! More Death! More Cruelty!: The Onset Of Dystopia Fatigue" where in the beginning she reports the questions of other critics whom she respects, ask how in the world Glee can be so popular. Her answer:
Just a hint: check the title. It's called Glee, for the love of Busby Berkeley, and we are currently in a period of such critical and popular dystopiphilia (yes, I made that up) that it sometimes feels like once in a blue moon, it would be nice to enjoy something because it is enjoyable, nevermind the fact that it isn't about the dark, cavernous emptiness that is the heart of mankind.
Now, what a great answer. And if you don't love her for the answer, then please love her for the creation of the word dystopiphilia. She is brilliant.

She comments quite accurately on the reality that our movies and television are populated with an overabundance of dark and violent images that fill us with our share of the grisly and empty side of human nature. And she for one stands up and declares that she has dystopia fatigue. It tires her out and wears her down. And so she names at least three alternatives that run an opposite tack. Glee, Modern Family, and Pixar movies, most notably Toy Story 3, opening this weekend.

I cannot help then of being reminded of the scene out of Kevin Costner's film The Postman (from the book by David Brin). A film is being shown for the band of survivors, known as the Holnists, but it is too violent. They begin throwing rocks down upon the projection booth in protest. The projectionist knows what they want and ultimately puts on The Sound of Music. In a reality where they suffer from a dreary existence, centered on the brutality of their tyrannical leader Bethlehem, they don't want to see more of the same. They want something that brings about enjoyment, and perhaps reminds them, in the midst of their apocalyptic aftermath, of their previous lives. Their remembrance brings about a sense of hope, not mere escapism.

And that is after all one possible answer to the popularity of these shows and movies. They are pure escapist stories. They help us forget for a time the reality of the world, and instead allow us to leave it for however briefly.

And in some cases that might be so. But not in all cases. We need not always focus on what life IS like, but sometimes on what it SHOULD be like. And this dichotomy lies at the heart of Law and Gospel preaching. Just as the Law lays bear the reality of the world, providing us the mirror of our existence, the Gospel gives us the proclamation of what life should and will be like in eschaton.

Preaching that focuses solely on the Law is preaching that, as my homiletics professor used to say, crushes toes with the hammer of the Law. It breaks our spirits, crushes us under its weight but gives no release, allowing us to instead strive futilely under our own efforts. We are killed, but have nowhere to go but remain in the grave.

Preaching that never deals with our reality and focuses only on the Gospel, too easily falls into escapism. Too easily makes it seem as if this world doesn't matter. We don't need to concern ourselves with this bodily existence because we have some pie-in-the-sky dream that allows us to escape the dark and dreary world. Very often I believe this is what people want. Critical reflection about the darkness of the world is necessary so that the reality of what God is doing in Jesus Christ can be made manifest most powerfully.

Our culture can reflect these two extremes. For a people who are constantly under the assault of images or war, environmental disasters, local news that is almost always disaster-ridden, it is too easy to think that this is all there is. And we fall in love with the dystopia. Any messages that speak otherwise, of redemption and hope, are met with sneers and jeers.

But the faithful proclamation of the Church continues to speak of both Law and Gospel. We hold both together in tension so that we may know of the brokenness of this world, but of the transformation that is being wrought in Jesus Christ so that our daily death to this brokenness of sin might be overcome in the good news.

We all long for something more than just what reality gives us.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Reno's New Commentary on Genesis (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible)

Yesterday, I received the newest volume in the Brazos series of commentaries, R.R. Reno's volume on the book of Genesis. I try to read through at least the Introduction of these volumes when I get them. It doesn't always happen but I try, and I did read through Reno's Introduction this morning. To say I am excitedly intrigued would be an understatement.

Reno used the name of the book as the stepping off point. "Genesis" means birth or origin, he says. And we often think of the origin or birth of the world. Given the creation stories that begin this book, it really should not surprise us. Nonetheless, Reno sees in Genesis the origin, not of the world, but of the reality coming through God's promise and establishment of the covenant. He writes,
As a book of origins, Genesis is far less concerned with the source of what is that what will be. In order to do justice to this overall thrust, I offer an insistent reading of Genesis as a promise-driven, future-oriented. As the covenant with Abraham makes clear, God blesses his creatures with a new future. The promises break the bonds of sin, because God secures their fulfillment. they perfect our created natures, because God fulfills then in our flesh.
As would be expected, I think, Reno continues to maintain focus on the grand narrative which God tells and not get sidetracked in all too common discussions of Genesis and scientific narratives.

That he mentions God fulfilling promises in our flesh is probably not surprising. How else do we think of Jesus after all. However, he closes his Introduction, with an attack on gnosticism, and particularly as to how that relates to the book of Genesis. Immediately before this lengthy quote, he has made clear that he employs historical-critical study of the bible when he finds it helpful in answering the questions he has. It is the case that the historical-critical method does not always answer the questions that arise, and so he is not beholden to that alone. This paragraph is rather short because he see something much more problematic. Reno writes,
I am especially concerned to set aside distracting and epiphenomenal concerns about modern critical scholarship, pro or con, because this commentary has an enemy that I think much more important: the gnostic temptation. Who hasn't felt its appeal? It is a painful fact that the diversity of nations and cultures has not led to a brilliant pageant of difference, but instead to our bloody world of conflict. Moreover, our own cultural inheritance is fraught with painful moral demands and offensive social mores. The labels of accusation are familiar: racism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, patriarchy, and most of all the general horror over the way in which we allow the past to claim authority over us. What sensitive observer would not conclude that our historical particularity seems a curse, not a blessing? Our bodies seem no less troublesome. We feel ourselves battered by our fickle desires. We age and decay. Visit a graveyard, and ask yourself, Are our bodies anything other than crumbling prisons?
Who, then, would want to find a way to transcend the cruel restrictions of history and throw off the rusting chains of the body? It was the dream of the Greeks, who contemplated unchangeable forms. It is the hope of modern philosophers, who try to replace hard-won virtue with method and to set aside the vagaries of judgment by appeals to logical and experimental certainties. It is the desire of any spiritual seeker who wants to transcend the differences that separate religions and cultures in order to dwell in their deeper, greater truth. It is the project of the modern educator, who wants critical reason to supervene over and sift through the demands of an inherited culture. It motivates plastic surgery to stave off the wrinkling ravages of time, and it endorses euthanasia in the hope that an act of the human will can somehow control and triumph over death itself.
Beginning with Irenaeus, many have observed that the account of creation in Genesis cuts against the gnostic temptation. The world that God has created is good, and therefore it can't be the problem we need to overcome. The observation is certainly true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough, because the goodness of creation has never been regarded by Jews and Christians as the full and final goodness that God wills for his creatures. God tenses creation with the desire for the seventh day of divine rest, and this greater-than-creation goal seems always to tempt us to turn our spiritual lives into an upward reach that seeks to escape the bonds of finitude. God promises more--and we too easily interpret more as other, as the sweet nectar of the eternal that will palliate our vulnerability to decay and death, as the balm of the indubitable, universal, and necessary truth that will cure our wounded, unpredictable, unreliable wills. My overriding goal in this commentary is to block this slide from more to other.
For Jews, the more is the Torah, and for Christians, the more is Christ crucified and risen. The difference is incalculable, all the more so because it contests over the inheritance of promises that both Jews and Christians trace back to Abraham. Jews and Christians are not ships passing in the night. They collide in daylight. The history that has grown out of this collision is painful to contemplate. Nonetheless, Jews and Christians share a common theological judgment, one vividly present in Genesis. God does not give to Abraham anything remotely resembling what we hope for in our perennial and persistent gnostic dreams. True enough, the blessing that God promises is rest in fellowship with him. But God does not remain on a remote heavenly throne while we mutilate our humanity to get to him in vain efforts of spiritual ascent. God comes to us. He gives us a new future in the flesh, not a new metaphysical location. I hope that I do not tax the patience of readers by repeating this truth again and again. (Reno, Genesis, Brazos Press, 2010, pp. 26-27)
Given today's milieu, I do not think Reno could repeat it enough. The physical world matters. Our physical bodies matter. If they did not matter, I suspect either God would not created a physical world to begin with, or else he would have had us mark ourselves as his people with physical acts, circumcision and baptism.

I am very ready to read this commentary...