A Good Friday / Holy Saturday Reading and Playlist

Instead of writing something new for this already overly-busy Holy Week, I decided to take some time for reading and musical meditation on the death of Christ and the meanings that it has for me. If you also need to slow down and pause to contemplate the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, here are a few suggested readings and songs from my interweb wanderings on this Maundy Thursday evening. Wander along with me, or share your own favorite readings or musical meditations in the comments.

David Henson – “The Crucifixion: A Tale of Two Kingdoms (Good Friday Homily, John 18:1-19-42)” Reflections on how Jesus’s passion reflects a conflict between two types of two kingdoms: “One, the kingdoms of humankind, which come to power through violence and maintain it through oppression and the sword. The other, the kingdom of God, which comes to power through love and sacrifice and a towel.”

Fr. Stephen Freeman – “A Lesser Atonement” – An Orthodox point of view about how the work of Christ on the cross was about union, not about substitution.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro “Ten Thoughts on Good Friday” – A Jewish point of view on the meanings of Jesus and Good Friday and how even non-Christians can honor the day.

Mark Sandlin – “God Did Not Kill Jesus on the Cross for our Sins” – Mark Sandlin reflects on Jesus’s death as what the fullness of love looks like in action.

Brian Zahnd – “Jesus Died for Us . . . Not for God” – Zahnd approaches atonement with these questions: “Where do we find God on Good Friday? Is God found in Caiaphas seeking a sacrificial scapegoat? Is God found in Pilate requiring a punitive execution? Or is God found in Jesus, absorbing sin and responding with forgiveness?”

What Wondrous Love is This

Were You There When They Crucified My Lord

Beautiful Blood

He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

“See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

– Isaac Watts (1707)

Featured image

Del Greco, La trinidad (c. 1577)

Rethinking Hell (Progressive Christian Resources)

Some Christians insist on the scriptural reality of a Dante-esque hell of eternal horror. Some of us, however, have a hard time reconciling the idea of a loving God with traditional doctrines of hell, or we have objections to fear-based theology or to belief systems that over-emphasize the afterlife and turn Christianity into little more than a religion of requirements and rewards. As it turns out, there are biblical alternatives to the hellfire and brimstone approach.

There are scriptural arguments to support not only the belief in eternal conscious torment for the unrepentant in a literal fiery hell, but also the belief in annihilationism or conditionalism (that those who are unreconciled to God are simply annihilated, rather than existing eternally) and even the hope for universalism (that all souls are eventually reconciled to God). In his documentary Hellbound? Kevin Miller claims that the amount of scriptural support for these three positions is roughly equal (see his list of scriptures here, and find a link to the documentary website below).

What this means is that we don’t have to accept an understanding of hell or the afterlife that is inconsistent with our understanding of a loving God who through Christ is reconciling the world (all of it!) to Godself.

Below are resources to listen to, watch, or read that present various arguments for annihilationism/conditionalism and universalism, beginning with an excellent and thorough discussion from the podcast That God Show. If you are looking for alternatives to eternal conscious torment, here are some places to begin:

LISTEN:

 “The Biblical Alternative to Hell” (Podcast) That God Show, Episode 17 with Benjamin L. Corey and Kurt Willems. Synopsis: “Most of us grew up believing that those who reject God will spend eternity in a literal place called hell, where they are consciously tortured day and night, for ever. But is that what the Bible actually teaches? Not quite– in fact, the Bible doesn’t teach hell as we were taught it at all. In this episode, BLC sits down with Kurt Willems to talk about hell, and the theology of “conditionalism.” If you’ve ever questioned hell, but didn’t want let go of something that was in the Bible, this episode is for you– you’ll walk away with your Bible intact, and a totally different view of hell.”

“The What the Hell Show” (Podcast) from The Moonshine Jesus Show. Mark and David tackle the topic of hell. They aren’t as thorough as Benjamin and Kurt, but in my opinion, the MJS is always worth a listen.

WATCH:

Hellbound? A Documentary by Kevin Miller (Currently available for instant viewing on Netflix). Synopsis: “If God is our pure, all-loving creator, can he really turn his back on sinners and allow them to suffer for eternity in hell? Where did this vision of hell come from? Is it possible we’ve got hell wrong? Or are recent challenges to the traditional view merely an attempt to avoid the inevitable? “Hellbound?” is a feature-length documentary that seeks to discover why we are so bound to the idea of hell and what our views on hell reveal about how we perceive God, justice, the Bible and, ultimately, ourselves.”

READ:

Benjamin L. Corey’s “Letting Go of Hell” Blog Series. This series has some excellent, easy reads that make great starting points for exploring biblical alternatives to eternal hellfire and brimstone. The post “What Jesus Talked About When He Talked About Hell” is particularly eye-opening for people who have never been taught about the actual Greek words translated as “hell” in the New Testament. BLC also gets down to the nitty gritty of whether eternal conscious torment is “biblical” with “25 Bible Verses that Disprove Eternal Conscious Hell.”

“What [the] Hell? Is Annihilation Within the Bounds?” This is another Biblical case against eternal conscious torment, from Prof. Ed Christian.

Rob Bell, Love Wins. In this controversial book (which was influential enough to cause the Southern Baptist Convention issue a resolution to double-down on the reality of eternal conscious torment) Rob Bell makes a scripturally-based argument for a kind of Christian universalism. The book references C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which offers another alternative take on hell. You can also find Rob Bell discussing his views in youtube videos like this one.

Kurt Willems also has a blog series on hell: “Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares?”, and more recently he suggested that Christians give up the doctrine of hell for a year to see how it could revolutionize our relationships with others. Food for thought: “Giving Up Hell for a Year.” 

Mark Sandlin, in “Hell: Yeah, I’m Going There -or- Hell yeah, I’m Going There,” has a different take on hell that overlaps somewhat with Rob Bell, but with a unique spin on how we’re all going to hell (but that’s not the end of the story!).

Rethinking Hell: Exploring Evangelical Conditionalism: This website put together by a variety of evangelical Christians contains blog posts, podcasts, and other resources related to beliefs about hell, particularly conditionalism.

Ellin Jimmerson: Baptist Minister. Liberation Theologian. Immigrant Advocate. Film Maker. LGBTQ Ally. Craft Cocktail Connoisseur.

I’m caught this week in a crazy rush of pre-spring break grading and other tasks, so in lieu of the usual post, I thought I’d give a quick shout out to my amazing friend Rev. Dr. Ellin Jimmerson, who is a tireless advocate for justice, a theology nerd like me, and a mixer of most excellent margaritas.

If you don’t already know who she is, Rev. Jimmerson is an advocate for immigration justice and more recently she has been in the limelight for another cause: marriage equality for same-sex couples. She made headlines as one of the first ministers in Alabama to perform a same-sex wedding last month when Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban was ruled unconstitutional.

Rev. Jimmerson has written articles for Patheos.com about immigration and LGBTQ issues, but as of this week she has her very own blog, which I highly recommend that you hop over and check out. Her debut post “What is Q?” draws an intriguing connection between the “Q” in LGBTQ and the biblical “Q” source, and I look forward to reading more of what she has to say!

Rev. Jimmerson is also the writer and director of the award-winning immigration justice documentary The Second Cooler. If you are interested in immigration issues you need to see this eye-opening documentary! Borrowing from the documentary’s website, “The Second Cooler is a documentary about illegal immigration shot primarily in Alabama, Arizona, and northern Mexico. The premise is that Arizona is the new Alabama, the epicenter of an intense struggle for migrant justice. The documentary’s purpose is to bring basic immigration issues into focus. Those issues include the impact of free trade agreements on migration, the lack of a legal way for poor Latin Americans to come to the United States, the inherent abuses of the guest worker program, the fact that many migrants are indigenous people, anti-immigrant politics, the reality of thousands of migrant deaths at the border, and an escalating ideology of the border.”

The Second Cooler has only been available at limited showings around the country at film festivals, churches, and universities, but beginning April 17, it will be available online and on DVD. So if you haven’t been able to see it, your opportunity is on the way!

Follow Rev. Jimmerson’s blog or look her up on Facebook or Twitter to keep up with news about The Second Cooler and her other advocacy work.

Second-Cooler-Poster   www.thesecondcooler.com

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God is . . . an angry turtle-torturer? Theology and the Limits of Metaphor

Featured imageI once read an “About” section of a blog in which a pastor described how he ended up in the ministry. He referenced an old political joke about a turtle: basically, if you see a turtle on a fence post, you know that it didn’t get there by itself. Someone picked it up and put it there. The implication, of course, is that God took this guy and put him in a position that he didn’t expect to be in and would not have reached on his own.

And that’s fine, as long as you don’t think very deeply or have a particular affinity for turtles.

I happened to have had a pet turtle for 15+ years, and when I read this probably-intended-to-be-cute metaphor, the first thing I thought was “What kind of jerk puts a turtle on a fence post?” Probably unawares, this writer had dragged a bit of animal cruelty and some other unfortunate  political-joke connotations into his ‘About’ blurb.

If you think for about half a second too long about the post turtle as a metaphor for God’s involvement in a human life, it breaks down and calls into question 1) whether the writer has any more business being a pastor than a turtle has being on a fence post, and 2) whether God meddles in our lives like an adolescent boy who would trap, frighten, and endanger an animal just to see what would happen.

I know what you’re thinking . . . of course I’m over-analyzing it. I know this.

But metaphors require interpretation, and like it or not, they often drag with them a host of meanings and associations, both intended and unintended. Metaphors–and words themselves–have a way of getting away from their writers and evolving meanings of their own. As any good student of literary analysis knows, the author’s original intent has to compete with the experience and knowledge that every reader brings to the text. And this reader wants no part of a God who is a jerk to turtles.

In theology, we use metaphors to explain what is inexplicable and even unknowable, whether it be the character of God or the workings of salvation. God is a father, a king, a refuge; Jesus is a shepherd, a sacrificial lamb, a cornerstone; but in a literal sense, neither of them is any of those things. These statements are all metaphors, and no matter how true they may seem, they all have limitations. We use so many metaphors to describe the divine not because they give us the whole truth, but because each one gives us a glimmer of truth.

If you stretch any metaphor too far, though, the parts that are not true overwhelm the part that is and the meaning becomes distorted, just like the unfortunate vision of God that the poor post turtle inspires for me. Metaphors also become problematic when we take one and give it precedence over all others as if it alone contains the sum of all truth.

For me, one of the most obvious examples of this problem happens with our understanding of salvation when some Christians present penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) theory not as one metaphor for salvation but as salvation itself. If you aren’t up on the terminology, PSA theory is primarily a product of the Protestant Reformation, and it is what many American evangelicals have been taught is the primary (and perhaps the only) meaning of the death of Jesus: that according to God’s divine plan, Jesus was punished on the cross as a substitute for sinners to satisfy the wrath of God against sin and make forgiveness and salvation possible.

The idea that Jesus willingly sacrificed himself for us–as unworthy as we may often be–is a compelling one. Progressive Christians who critique PSA theory sometimes forget that it does speak a powerful and redemptive truth to many people (“Formerly Fundie” blogger Benjamin L. Corey had some interesting comments about this recently, and another progressive blogger puts in a good word for PSA theory here).

Even as a critic of PSA theory, I recognize that like many metaphors, it points us toward some important grains of truth. However, it is a human metaphor based on human ideas of crime and punishment, and if we push the metaphor too far (as hardcore reformed folks like John Piper do), then we end up with a monstrous vision of God. Here are some of the problems that emerge when we carry the PSA metaphor to its logical conclusions:

  1. It means that the predominant quality of God is not love, but wrath, because God is either unable or unwilling to forgive without punishment. (Basically, God has an anger management problem and Jesus has to save us from God.)
  2. It means that there is no forgiveness, because someone always pays. A paid debt is not the same as a forgiven debt. (See Bo Sander’s apt debt analogy here)
  3. It means that God is unjust and unmerciful, because there is no justice or mercy in punishing an innocent victim for the crimes of others (Sanders and McGrath both comment more on this).
  4. It means that God is violent and that violence is redemptive, and thus it encourages the justification of violence. (Find a great starter discussion of nonviolent atonement here)
  5. All of the statements above go against the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. They negate the grace of God and the reconciling work of the incarnation.

One might argue that these conclusions are a result of over-analyzing the metaphor, but if PSA theory is presented as THE one and only gospel of salvation (as it often is in certain circles), then all of its implications must stand up to critical inquiry.

And the truth is that they do not. When PSA is over-emphasized, the partial truth that it contains is terribly distorted by the problematic nature of the human crime and punishment metaphor.

The good thing is that there are multiple atonement theories that can hold meaning for us and many Biblical metaphors for salvation. Other metaphors include transformation (being a “new creation”), liberation from bondage, return from exile, light in the darkness, sight for the blind, life to the dead, food and drink, and liberation and forgiveness from sin (list borrowed from Marcus Borg’s Convictions).

All of these metaphors give us a glimpse of both the human condition–our need for reconciliation, salvation, and transformation–and of the God who offers us the hope that those things are all possible.

We should be wary of leaders or communities who try to impose any single, uninterrogated metaphor to represent the truth of God or of salvation because those truths are bigger and better than any language we can devise.

When it comes to theology, metaphors are perhaps best when mixed.


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On the Excuses that Some Christians Use to Discredit the Faith of other Christians

Note: This is a two-part post. “Me and My DCFs,” recounts how I was mocked and insulted during an online conversation with a pastor and his friends. If you want to skip the set up and get right to the conclusions, scroll down to the title “Excuses for Discrediting the Faith of Others (And Why You Should Not Accept Them).”

Me and my DCFs (Dear Christian Friends)

Recently I dove into a debate with fellow Christians because I shared a blog post from David Henson that offers a view of salvation based on the incarnation of Christ rather than one based solely on the crucifixion. I liked the post because I have become much more of an incarnational Christian, with my faith focused on the miracle of incarnation that allows us to know and be reconciled to God and to participate in God’s vision for the world by following Jesus in faith and action.

A pastor friend of mine commented on the post by blasting Henson, who is an Episcopal priest and an earnest Jesus follower, as ignorant and a “false teacher,” and then he reposted the link so that his friends could second his opinion. I will try to recount parts of the resulting conversation without insulting the people who were participating, but in case I am not quite successful, I want to state up front that I consider them fellow Christians who are worthy of respect. I grew up and first came to faith in a tradition like the one that they represent, and although I have come a long way since then, I still value and even love many aspects of that foundation. This conversation left me disappointed that the same kind of good, loving folks that I grew up with could be not only be so rude and disrespectful toward a fellow Christian, but that in the end, they could also pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

I joined the conversation, commenting that there are different ways of understanding salvation that are as valid as the view of my pastor friend (basically, penal substitutionary atonement). Another pastor who has never met me (I’ll call him my DCF – dear Christian friend) showed up to dismiss Henson’s post as part of a “satanic effort,” adding that his response would probably not sit well with “Ms. Leslie.” Nothing like a nice touch of faux formality to make the degree of condescension crystal clear from the start.

Though I let the snark bleed through by suggesting that he could call me Dr. Kaiura (my actual title), I did not attack my DCF’s response by attacking his theology or his faith. However, I did maintain that there are alternate understandings that should be respected when the theology bears good fruit (which is the criteria Jesus gave us for judging the teachings of others in Matthew 7). For my trouble, I was told, “You seem to have a ‘Holy Chip’ on your shoulder that has possibly been placed there by intellectual pride.”

Later on, after I had very seriously (and in a totally snark-free manner) explained how I understand my salvation in Christ, my DCF openly mocked me, writing, “What a blessing it is to sit at your feet of intellectual wisdom! Gods infinite capacity is truly revealed in your propensity to exult in the monotonous intellectual humility you reveal per post.”

Throughout the conversation I was repeatedly accused of being prideful simply because 1) I am intelligent and articulate and 2) I would not agree to every belief held by my DCF and his friends. Furthermore, I got this reaction when I was intentionally refraining from attacking their beliefs because, as I was attempting to explain, I think that Christians should have more respect for the beliefs of others who profess faith in Christ.

I don’t claim to be 100% pride (or snark) free, but another Christian who observed this exchange (and whom I have never met) messaged me to apologize for the way I was treated and to comment: “I didn’t think you were in any way prideful. I actually thought you were the most humble in that conversation. Thank you for being a breath of fresh air and Jesus in that stifling Pharisee-like comment section.”

Nevertheless, I was accused of being prideful while my DCF and his friends felt perfectly within their rights not only in “rebuking” me, but also in questioning my faith and being openly insulting. The coup d’etat was this anti-intellectual and assumption-filled statement: “I have met many like you, ever learning but never able to come to conclusive truth. Maybe this is why Paul stated that ‘not many wise…are called.’ Don’t you know that even your intellect has to be processed through redemption and sanctification as well? Your mind may be sharp but has it been renewed? [. . . ] your unredeemed intellect is not a friend but should be brought under submission to the Spirit of God.”

So let me lay this out. I repeatedly affirmed that I have faith in Jesus Christ and that I believe in the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. And yet because I refused to agree that penal substitutionary atonement theory is the only way of believing or that the Bible is inerrant, I was mocked and relegated to the category of “apostate” (i.e. one who abandons belief and no longer belongs to the group). I had mentioned that I lead book studies at my church, and to this my DCF insultingly replied, as if from one Facebook thread he knew me and all of my beliefs: “No wonder many churches are in the apostate condition they are in…. I personally wouldn’t allow you to teach in the nursery.”

Ouch. Good thing I am confident enough in my faith not to be dissuaded from it by such rudeness and judgmentalism. I worry for those who are not.

Excuses for Discrediting the Faith of Others (and Why You Should Not Accept Them)

I hope that my Dear Christian Friend (who is a lead pastor, remember) is kinder and more respectful to seekers and inquisitive, thinking folks at his church than he was to me. If he isn’t, then I am fairly sure that he has driven some away from the gospel instead of leading them toward it.

Sometimes I am astonished at how unloving and judgmental some Christians can be in their attempts to discredit other faithful Christians. In fact, most of the hate mail and vitriolic commentary received by progressive Christian bloggers comes from other Christians, and that is ridiculous. It is also in direct contradiction to how Jesus commands us to love, adding in John 13.35 that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Some Christians would do well to learn that objections can always be expressed in a firm but polite way, without compromising one’s own beliefs or insulting or demonizing another Christian (or anyone else, for that matter). (And since I sometimes have a tendency to let my frustration with black & white thinking turn to snark, I admit that I am still perfecting this approach myself.)

One of the final posts in the conversation described above lamented “I just hope an atheist doesn’t come upon this thread.” My DCF’s response reveals a total lack of self-awareness: “I think it is good that an Atheist or an Agnostic would see passionate believers passionately defending scripture.”

I’m sorry, my DCF, but all that a typical atheist would see on that thread is a group of Christians ganging up to discredit and ridicule another Christian who is simply expressing an alternate understanding of the exact same faith that they hold themselves. Not exactly inspirational or admirable. I am a dedicated Christian, and the only thing it inspired in me was a firm desire to never, ever walk into a church pastored by someone like my DCF.

However, the conversation did prompt me to reflect on the excuses that some Christians use to discredit other Christians. I critique some of them here in hopes of helping other earnest seekers and spiritual misfits and encouraging them to not let “well meaning” Christians belittle them or discredit their faith (or their attempts at understanding faith and making it meaningful) with these excuses.

1) The Attribution of Pridefulness: An accusation of pride is often code for “You dare to have a different opinion and refuse to submit to mine” by people who are prideful enough to believe that they are 100% correct about everything. I think that this accusation is probably applied more to women and young people than to others, but we all deserve more respect than that. It is true that we should not be unduly prideful and that we should be open to learning, but simply stating your beliefs and sticking to them (particularly when they are informed and thoughtful) does not equate to having sinful pride.

2) Criticism of Intellectualism: Christians who critique intellectualism or resort to quoting 1 Corinthians 1:27 (“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise”) at you when you are engaging intellectually with faith are trying to force you to abandon your own ability to read, pray, think, and come to conclusions in favor of their conclusions. If a person or community will not honor your own earnest efforts to study (2 Timothy 2.15) and work out your own salvation (Philippians 2.12), then find one who will.

3) Insistence on Biblical Inerrancy and the Impossibility of Interpretation: People like my DCF will not only insist on the inerrancy of the Bible (a relatively recent and problematic belief), but 1) they will also reject the very idea that the Bible can be interpreted (all the while vociferously preaching the interpretations like penal substitution, which is also problematic), and 2) they will make believing in Biblical inerrancy a prerequisite for salvation. My DCF claimed in our conversation that “There is only one thing that produces faith…. The Word!,” and by this he referred to the Bible, not to the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. In my humble opinion, that is idolatry of the Bible and a deformation of the gospel.

Featured image(Image borrowed from nakedpastor)

Jesus called us to have faith in himself and in God. Don’t let anyone tell you that your faith has to be placed elsewhere to be valid, and don’t let anyone convince you that the Bible cannot be interpreted as a way of shoving their own interpretation down your throat. It is the nature of language that every spoken utterance and written word is subject to interpretation, but that does not mean all interpretations are equal. We can and should seek out faithful and intellectually honest interpretations that shore up and enliven our faith.

4) Claiming that because you interpret the Bible differently, you have “dumbed it down” or made it “easier” to follow for your own benefit. People who claim this are willfully ignorant of the fact that any genuine attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus is hard and requires sacrifice. That being said, if your understanding of Christianity requires no sacrifice or transformation, you should perhaps take a second look at it what it means to follow Jesus.

5) Excusing their own rudeness and lack of love and grace by pointing out that Jesus and Paul rebuked other believers. There is no excuse for insulting a fellow believer (or any one else), particularly when you do not know the person. Assuming that you have a free license to rebuke others in any situation is a mark of pride, not humility or spiritual maturity. When we form loving and supportive relationships with other believers, there is a place for instruction, correction, and at times, even rebuke. In the absence of loving and meaningful relationships, those things are fruitless and often based on incorrect assumptions. Make sure that when you give a pastor, a mentor, or a community spiritual authority in your life that they know how to exercise that authority in a loving and respectful manner that allows you the freedom of thought and conscience to follow your faith.

Final Thoughts

To fellow seekers, I say this: Do not let anyone insult or belittle you out of their concern for your salvation (which usually masks a concern for being right and a desire for you to submit to their often questionable rightness). If you are looking for a vibrant and meaningful faith, there are reputable Christian leaders and mentors out there who will love you and respect you and your journey to faith. Don’t settle for leaders who use excuses to badger you into submission to their authority rather than to the authority of Jesus. Never let anyone shame or guilt you into giving up your quest for an authentic and intellectually engaged faith.

As for me, I have a lot to learn. I have beliefs and ideas that need to be fleshed out, tweaked, and perhaps even reconsidered completely. But I also have the capability to read and interpret scripture and to choose wisely which authorities (theologians, Biblical scholars, pastors, mentors, friends) I look to in order to shape my understanding and my faith. And not only do I have that capability, I have that responsibility.

And so does everyone else. 


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