Category Archives: Church Culture

The Theology of Superman: Hope for the Empire

By now, many will have already seen this article or others like it describing the Warner Bros. campaign to get pastors to talk about Man of Steel this past Sunday, which was Fathers’ Day, using a guide developed by Pepperdine theologian Craig Detweiler. The main thrust of the sermon is centered around this question: “How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?”

The CNN story goes on to set up the “debate” surrounding this marketing tactic on the part of Warner Bros. as between Christians who think this is a good way to show the world that we can get behind something in pop culture and those who think films are “pumped out from Hollywood’s sewers.”

What is fascinating to me about this set up is that it simply takes the messianic parallels as given and obvious. The film is just obviously about Jesus and parallel to his story–so now the only question is whether or not Christians are willing to trust Hollywood to speak the story of Jesus to them through a “worldly” medium like film. As Detweiler himself is quoted in the article, “All too often, religious communities have been defined by what they’re against. With a movie like `Man of Steel,’ this is a chance to celebrate a movie that affirms faith, sacrifice and service.”

My concern is that “faith, sacrifice, and service,” while all wonderful attributes to have, do not sum up the story of Jesus. In fact, by making that the distillation of Jesus’ life and ministry, the sermon notes seem to direct us away from what should be the most troubling divergences between the story of Superman and the story of Jesus by focusing on the archetypal parallels.

No one should be surprised that Man of Steel, or the mythology of Superman more generally, has strong parallels to the Jesus narrative. You would be hard-pressed to find a story archetype in Western literature that cannot be traced back to the biblical narrative. With regard to superhero archetypes especially, the parallels to the story of Christ and the messianic archetype (which does not originate with Jesus) are more than obvious. So what, then, could these sermon notes be other than a reminder, saying, “Hey! Stories like Man of Steel are retellings of your religion’s story of salvation. But with way more explosions. Let’s look at this clip!” Superman is a story of hope. Kal-El is a character (like Spock, like Gandalf, like a lot of characters in the world of science fiction and fantasy) who deviates from his origin, his true nature, choosing to become more human and embracing those characteristics (usually emotion, empathy, etc.) which are made to be the epitome of humanness, and suffering some consequences for it.

The problem is that to say the story of Jesus can be encapsulated in a single statement about the hope of salvation makes that story completely one-dimensional and misses the what of salvation entirely. And by the way, this one-dimensional view of salvation is probably how many Christians view their own faith: Jesus has punched my ticket into Heaven–now that’s something I can put my hope in! That’s why we love stories like this–or any other myriad versions of the story of hope in salvation from… something.

It’s that something that makes up the really vital difference between Superman and Jesus. Man of Steel is an origin story, establishing the basic relationships between Superman and everyone else so that a few more films can be made before another reboot. One of those relationships is between Superman and the US government–that is, Superman and the empire. Some (especially Evangelicals) will find that comparison offensive, but it’s certainly true. You don’t earn the title of “World Superpower” without being an empire. So Superman goes “on call” for the empire at the end of the film. He’s not its soldier, like the Marvel parallel Captain America. He still maintains some independence, but he also has no interest in subverting the empire in any way. Now, I don’t mean a coup d’etat like his friend General Zod stages on Krypton. But the US perpetrates plenty of injustice worldwide on a daily basis. What would be really Christlike is if in the second film, we see Superman staging nonviolent protests against drones strikes against innocent people, or helping to shut down Gitmo, choosing not to use his immense power when he very easily could–we could go on and on like this. Instead, Superman becomes a symbol of hope for the empire itself. The film may portray Superman’s struggle with his identity, and I think it does a good job of that, but at the end of the day, Superman is not just a human–he’s an American.

Admittedly, the nonviolent Superman probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting film. Superman’s power is not in his ability to speak radically in a way that moves an agenda of radical subversion against an oppressive empire. He punches stuff. And flies. And cuts stuff with his heat vision. All of that is fantastic–I really enjoyed the film. But none of it represents the mission of Jesus. There’s no account of Jesus fighting Tiberius through the streets of Rome (the Colosseum didn’t exist yet) which, I must admit, would’ve been badass.

The hope that Jesus brings is salvation from the oppressive force brought upon the poor, the weak, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick by the powers of the world–the Roman empire and all those in service to it. And he does this through a radically nonviolent means of subversion to the point of his death. This is the fuller, deeper meaning of the hope of salvation. The moment we begin to compare Superman and Jesus in this respect, the parallel falls apart.

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For Your Reading Pleasure…

I (Joel) have been invited to participate in a new blogging community called Flux of Thought. There you can find brief discussions on theology, philosophy, political theory among other related things.

You can read here: Flux of Thought

You can follow the blog on Twitter here: @fluxofthought

I’ll still be writing and posting at A Church Unbound as well since FoT is going to be made up of much shorter posts, and I can’t help but be long-winded sometimes.

Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt: Kurt Vonnegut’s Theology of Suffering

**Update** I recently changed the subtitle of this from “Kurt Vonnegut’s Critique of the Theology of Culture” to what you see now. Two notes on that: 1) I think stating what I see happening in Vonnegut’s work (particular Slaughterhouse-Five here) in the positive rather than the negative gives a better sense of what is at work theologically. “Theology of Culture” is sort of hard to pin down. 2) Vonnegut never developed a theology of anything–that should go without saying–but I think that what he is getting at in much of his work speaks to an idea of a theology of suffering that is far superior to much Christian thought on the subject.
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Below is my final paper for a seminar I took at Fuller last quarter called “Theology and Culture.” This was probably one of my most favorite papers to write because I feel like I was finally able to connect Vonnegut to theology in a meaningful way. The argument I put forth would certainly be contested by many current Vonnegut scholars, but I think this gets at the heart of what I see Vonnegut’s work doing. Even without the theological articulation, I think the argument still stands.
This is probably the longest piece I’ve posted here. Here’s a short abstract:
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five critiques a social imaginary that acknowledges only the good life and not only ignores the tragic, but condemns it as a means of achieving the good life. Thus, it serves to critique a theology of culture that would see “God’s good purposes” in everything, including the tragic. While, the paper does not dive into lengthy explanations of theodicy, more classical models of God’s action in the world (Augustinian blue-print models, etc.) are what the novel is critiquing. In other words, when bad things happen, there is no necessity to explain such events in terms of God’s will or action. Sometimes horrible stuff just happens, and it’s not to achieve a greater good or make someone stronger or test someone. It’s simply because the world is broken. Much of Vonnegut’s work makes the case that to sweep tragedy under the rug, so to speak, by viewing the world through the “Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt” lens is in fact a greater, more damaging tragedy.
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           Reflecting on the fifth anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s fall on the steps of his New York City brownstone, which ultimately led to his death four weeks later, Vonnegut scholar Robert Tally, Jr. writes that “[p]ointing out the absurdity of everyday life was perhaps Vonnegut’s greatest contribution to American literature.  Whereas Hannah Arendt had marveled at the banality of evil, Vonnegut duly recorded the banality of … well, everything.”[1] This certainly is an appropriate starting point for understanding Vonnegut’s work. Vonnegut’s prose is deceptively simple, almost childlike at moments, and yet it simultaneously reveals, with great accuracy and often to the great embarrassment of the reader, the most prominent vices of American culture. However, only in recent years has Vonnegut criticism turned to the redemptive quality of his work. Indeed, there is still resistance to such readings, as Tally himself demonstrates, concluding his reflection with, “Yet Vonnegut gets the last laugh, as both his detractors and his admirers are fooled into imagining, respectively, an overrated hack or a undervalued genius, whereas Vonnegut remains what he always was: a tragicomic performer, as willing to tell a story as he is to take a tumble, and always just for the hell of it.”[2] Many critics agree with Tally that Vonnegut cannot be dismissed as a hack writer, a blip on the screen in the grand scheme of American literature, nor can he be lauded as a writer with a profound message that transcends generations—that his genius and place in the history of American literature is as the author who defied all categories.[3]

I would resist this notion. While it is certainly problematic to place too much emphasis on the “morality” of Vonnegut’s novels (or the genius of them for that matter) because such a reading is in danger of ignoring the actual cynicism of the real-life Vonnegut, we must recognize that there is a redemptive quality that speaks both to theological anthropology as well as a theology of evil. In the midst of the tragedy of Vonnegut’s novels, particularly the middle and later works, emerges an understanding of humanness and culture that can fruitfully be put into conversation with theology. In this paper, I will be offering a close reading of Vonnegut’s sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, in conjunction with an understanding of the relationship between theology and culture as presented by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and James K.A. Smith. The violence of Slaughterhouse-Five, presented to the reader through the technique of defamiliarization, serves to gesture toward itself as absurdity, to the point where the text becomes saturated with the absurd and the horror of war is equated to the death of bottled champagne. Juxtaposed to this violence is the recurring sentiment that life can and should be viewed in the totality of its most beautiful moments. Taken together, these two elements can operate as a critique of a theology of culture that would claim the world as wholly sacred, addressing any notion of the profane with violent hate or complete desensitization, resulting in the oppression and death of others in order to uphold the ideology of the world’s sanctification. The novel thus vacates God from a culture of totalizing beauty and places him as necessarily present in the profane-made-sacred.

Methodology

I will begin with an overview of the theories of the theology of culture that I will employ in the paper. First, a word on the general project of reading cultural artifacts theologically. I concur with Vanhoozer and Smith that culture, in its broadest sense is a gesture toward the good life.[4] In this view, the products of culture are intended to move us closer to our own (or our broader society’s) notion of what the good life is. That is, we desire the good life, as Smith points out, and engage with the cultural products we believe will get us there. When we believe strongly enough that certain cultural artifacts will produce the good life, our engagement with them can quickly become ritualized. Smith uses the example of the mall. If desire is at the core of what it is to be human, then the mall as a cultural text has quite a bit to say to us. We can see that every store as well as the concept of “the mall” as a whole institution affects what we desire and who we should then be. Retailers want us to believe that their products will make us better people, will finally grant us the good life that we’ve sought after so desperately and that without their product, we run the risk of missing out on the good life.

I will not be discussing worldviews, then, as they relate to culture; rather, I will follow Smith when he writes, “In order to recognize the religious power and formative force of the mall, we need to adopt a paradigm of cultural critique and discernment that thinks even deeper than beliefs or worldviews and takes seriously the central role of formative practices.”[5] In relation to Vonnegut, my method will be to extrapolate the ways the novel speaks to the formative practices that have created the theology of culture described above in order to demonstrate how it offers a critique of both the practices and the theology they produce. Vanhoozer is helpful in this regard. It would be easy to restrict a reading of Vonnegut solely to “cultural hegemonies” particularly because the novel is so overtly against war, capitalism, and the American Dream as ideologies. While such a reading is important as a preliminary understanding of the way in which the novel itself engages with and is shaped by the culture of its time, it will also be valuable to put the novel in conversation with theology. Vanhoozer writes: “To understand a cultural text truly thus requires putting it into theodramatic context—reading it in light of the control-script; viewing it thrice over in terms of creation, fall, and redemption.”[6] Thus a situating of Vonnegut both within his cultural milieu as well as within this theodramatic framework will be necessary. That is not to say that other, similar texts of its time do not speak to us theologically—only that I see Vonnegut’s work, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five saying something different.

Vonnegut in the Context of Anti-War Fiction

            Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s most famous work, is an anti-war novel, and along with Cat’s Cradle, is usually compared with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Historically, both Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse fall between the two, Catch-22 published in 1961, Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse in 1963 and 1969, respectively. One of the key characteristics of all four is that each narrative is massively fragmented in some way in order to explore the utter meaninglessness of the atrocities committed during war. Catch-22 is told from multiple perspectives and jumps back and forth in time. Cat’s Cradle is broken up into 127 chapters, though it is fewer than 300 pages. Slaughterhouse-Five relies even more heavily on time, incorporating the actual time travel of the main character, Billy Pilgrim, as the reader is left to try and piece together Billy’s life and more importantly, his experience in WWII and the firebombing of Dresden. Gravity’s Rainbow has close to four hundred named characters, and even though the reader primarily follows Tyrone Slothrop, Slothrop’s story is erratic, disjointed, and ultimately the validity of certain aspects becomes questionable in the reader’s mind. The novel is also broken up into four parts and 73 ‘episodes.’ By the end, it seems the only character story the reader can trust is that of the V-2 rocket, named 00000, as by the end, it is the only “character” left from the beginning.

Ultimately, this fragmentation points to the loss of meaning, just as Modernist texts do, but the novels go further to subvert any attempt to try and re-establish or recover meaning because they suggest that there is actually no meaning to be found and that such attempts are absurd.[7] In Pynchon’s and Heller’s work, the reader is confronted directly with a complete loss of meaning without any hope for discovering it. The arc of the V-2 rocket itself in Gravity’s Rainbow represents an utter hopelessness, an inevitability of meaningless violence. Yossarian of Catch-22 deserts at the end of the novel because he cannot cope with the meaninglessness of war. He says, “Let the bastards thrive since I can’t do a thing to stop them but embarrass them by running away.”[8] There is an acceptance of this loss, almost a reveling in it especially with Heller.

Vonnegut’s relationship to these authors is complicated. There are certainly shared elements, particularly the loss and satirizing of meaning in the face of unspeakable atrocity. However, with Vonnegut, as I shall demonstrate in this paper, there is also a gesture towards a solution—a redemption. This gesture does not come in the form of a modernist hero or glimmer of hope; rather, it comes through facing and accepting the profane for what it is, thus allowing oneself to find the sacred beyond the profane. Much of Vonnegut’s middle work supports this reading. Sacred and satire are held in tension together. The human attempt to create meaning often results in absurdity in Vonnegut’s work; however, the destruction of life is clearly a terrible thing to Vonnegut. The refusal to recognize the “constructedness” of reality and meaning is what becomes the primary target of satire. In the face of such a disturbing, absurd destruction of human life, what do we do? This is the question raised in Slaughterhouse-Five right from the beginning.

Absurdity

            At the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator describes Billy’s job as the chaplain’s assistant and says that he played a small organ and was in charge of a portable altar. The narrator then provides the reader with this seemingly unnecessary information: “The altar and the organ were made by a vacuum-cleaner company in Camden, New Jersey—and said so.”[9] The effect of this is a “profaning” of the sacred with the purpose of demonstrating that objects are made sacred and are not inherently sacred. This is a constant subject of concern for many of Vonnegut’s narrators, and the narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five is no different. Behind this concern for the construction of the sacred lies an even greater concern for Vonnegut: That everything is ultimately meaningless and uncontrollable. The narrator, toward the end of the narrative, writes of the novel itself, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless play things of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”[10] There is an important affinity here, expressed well in this passage, between Vonnegut and the work of atheistic existentialists particularly the work of Albert Camus (namely, the concept of the absurd.) However, there is also a vital difference, which will be important for the theological case that will be made later.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes the conditions that constitute the absurd: “The world is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.”[11] Camus is pointing to the immensity of the universe and not only the inability of our narratives to account for it or contain it but the desire for them to do so. When one recognizes this immensity and sees the failure of our human constructs to explain it, one experiences the absurd.

Vonnegut’s treatment of death in Slaughterhouse constitutes a response to the absurd. Camus gives other practical examples: “At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them. [. . .] A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive.”[12] For Camus, both man and nature “secrete the inhuman”[13] at times. When one stands at the edge of Niagra Falls, for example, one may be taken by the immense beauty of nature but may also suddenly realize that this same nature could also utterly destroy the human body. This realization of human frailty in the face of the immense universe constitutes the absurd. Camus’ solution to experiencing the absurd is to invent meaning. The power of Sisyphus,[14] says Camus, lies in the fact that he would not succumb to death, but persevered though his situation was unbearable and maddening. In that way, he defeated the gods who sought to defeat him. In the same way, human beings must continually overcome the inhuman that becomes unveiled in the universe, especially in our own selves, by creating meaning and identity for ourselves. While the creation of meaning is positive for Camus, Slaughterhouse-Five wants to draw our attention to the problem of treating made meaning as inherent meaning. This isn’t to say that meaning creation is bad—only that it can be bad and often is. The primary mode of meaning creation satirized in Slaughterhouse certainly is, as we shall see.

Furthermore, for Camus (and others such as Jean-Paul Sartre) the creation of meaning is strictly a human affair for oneself. That is, Camus is interested in “Knowing whether or not one can live without appeal.[15] In other words, Camus is not interested in an exterior transcendent, but an interior one—man’s own transcendent self, his goals, etc.[16] There is a clear distinction on this point between Vonnegut and the atheistic existentialists that will be helpful as we turn to the theological significance of the novel. Man’s own transcendent self, for Vonnegut, is what gets in the way of creating the sacred because Vonnegut sees that quite often the creation of the sacred according to man’s own goals is precisely what constitutes the absurd. Recall the organ manufactured by the vacuum cleaner company or consider the monograph of Howard J. Campbell in which he describes what it is to be poor in America:

It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. [. . .] Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money.[17]

Here we have quite a negative view of a transcendent ideal (that to be rich is to be wise and to be poor is a crime) that humans place upon themselves. Vonnegut’s work does point to a transcendent “part” of human beings, but questions whether or not that transcendence is given by man to himself. In contrast to the above passage, consider this passage from Breakfast of Champions where artist Rabo Karabekian describes his most famous painting:

‘I now give you my word of honor [. . .] that the picture your city owns shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal—the “I am” to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us—in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.’[18]

One could argue that this awareness is exactly what Camus is talking about: our ability to recognize the absurdity of our situation and continue on in the face of it. However, Vonnegut’s work pushes against the notion of a self-dubbed sacred humanity and instead points to sanctification coming from the o/Other.

This also pushes against the idea that our response to horror should always be to make positive meaning out of it, a point explored at great length shortly. Ultimately, what matters to Vonnegut are the human beings who are caught in the “amber of the moment”[19] not the “why” that humans want to attach tragedy. “There is no why,”[20] I would argue, is an appropriate theological response to tragedy.

Defamiliarization

Before I begin an examination of the novel, I must first define one technical literary device that Vonnegut employs throughout the novel, which is vital to an understanding of the effect that the novel produces. Defamiliarization is a term coined in literary studies by the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, in a 1925 essay entitled “Art as Technique.” There, Shklovsky writes, “as perception [of an object or concept] becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. [. . .] all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic. [. . .] In this process [. . .] things are replaced by symbols.”[21] In other words, we cease to see the meaning or implication of objects—they are reduced to their utility. Shklovsky continues: “By this ‘algebraic’ method of thought [referring to the unconsciously automatic transforming objects into symbols] we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics.”[22] Defamiliarization occurs when we are brought abruptly out of this mode and forced to see the object in a new light, reevaluating its details and gaining a new, more detailed understanding of it.[23] The effect typically forces us to see how objects were at one time assigned meaning or new meanings that the object perhaps did not have before.

In Vonnegut, we see this occur surrounding moments of death, particular because of the use of the phrase “So it goes” following most deaths in the novel. Death becomes defamiliarized particularly because the phrase follows and draws our attention toward not only natural deaths but “deaths” that turn to satire (i.e. the death of champagne or water.) Death is not only reduced to neutral phenomenon, but the process of defamiliarization seeks to reduce those who die to the level of neutral object, or as the narrator of Breakfast of Champions says, “machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.”[24] This forces us to see those moments as terribly cold or callous, thus calling our attention to the ways in which we make death meaningful—which, in this case, turns out to be affirmed by the novel.

Vonnegut’s use of defamiliarization is often complex and thus difficult to understand. It is not enough to say simply that the intention behind the technique is to satirize that which is being viewed through defamiliarization. In some sense, the neutral response to death is an object of satire. Satire is often critical sometimes even polemical, and the equivocation of dead champagne to dead people is a clear example of this. However, satire also always contains a kernel of truth. That is, there is also a sense in which Vonnegut’s use of this technique reveals the way things actually are. While we may not respond to the “death of champagne” in any classifiable way, Vonnegut rightly points out that there is a certain ambivalence when it comes to the death of human beings, particularly when that death is on a horrific scale. When death is defamiliarized, our attention is drawn to the artifice of meaning; however, a response of non-meaning is also criticized. The two are held in tension together.

Theodrama. So it Goes.

Our task now is to examine the features I have described above within the context of the theodrama of creation, fall, and redemption as described by Vanhoozer. Slaughterhouse-Five presents the reader with a tangled, yet theologically appropriate vision of creation and fall. That is, the novel holds a dual vision of creation as valued yet also fallen and tragic. At the beginning of the third chapter, the narrator relates the following episode that illustrates this tension well:

His bandy legs were thrust into golden cavalry boots which he had taken from a dead Hungarian colonel on the Russian front. So it goes. [. . .] One time a recruit was watching him bone and wax those golden boots, and he held one up to the recruit and said, “If you look in there deeply enough, you’ll see Adam and Eve.”

Billy Pilgrim had not heard this anecdote. But, lying on the black ice there, Billy stared into the patina of the corporal’s boots, saw Adam and Eve in the golden depths. They were naked. They were so innocent, so vulnerable, so eager to behave decently. Billy Pilgrim loved them.

Next to the golden boots were a pair of feet which were swaddled in rags. They were crisscroseed by canvas straps, were shod with hinged wooden clogs. Billy looked up at the face that went with the clogs. It was the face of a blond angel, of a fifteen-year-old boy.

The boy was as beautiful as Eve.[25]

The interplay of the perfect boots, where the boots came from, the innocence of Adam and Eve become quickly smashed together in the image of the teenage boy, feet wrapped in rags stuffed into wooden clogs, yet beautiful. Beautiful and broken at the same time. His location further compounds this. He is a teenage boy at war, most likely destined to die. His beauty becomes conflated with Ronald Weary’s “cruel trench knife” as the thieving corporal calls it “a pretty thing.”[26] The clear lines between innocence and violence that were being drawn at first are broken down so that the beautiful is no longer pure—it “secretes the inhuman.”[27]

There are many more examples throughout the novel where beauty and horror, humanity and inhumanity, sacred and profane become blurred. Theologically, this seems to be an accurate depiction of our condition as fallen human beings. In other words, our ability to produce or experience the beautiful or the sacred is always going to be mediated by our brokenness. We do not have the ability create or experience these things without the aid of God nor do we have the ability to experience or create them the way that God would without the transformative power of redemption. The picture that the episode above paints is one of broken beauty. Innocence that is slightly off-center. It is beauty that is in need of redemption.

However, our brokenness and, more specifically, the results of our brokenness cannot always be described theologically. That is, although brokenness and tragedy point to the necessity of redemption in the theodrama, the causes of and God’s action in specific moments of tragedy and brokenness do not need to be explained in terms of God’s theodrama apart from the more general sense of the Fall of creation—which brings us to the crux of the theological force of Slaughterhouse-Five. To do so is to create a naïve theology of culture in which all tragedy is ultimately positive and all victims are ultimately made objects of God’s plan rather than subjects acting in it.

This point will require further explanation. One of the most central moments in the novel occurs when Billy Pilgrim is struck with an epiphany as his wife is asking him about the war: “A crazy thought now occurred to Billy. The truth of it startled him. It would make a good epitaph for Billy Pilgrim—and for me, too. [. . .] “EVERYTHING WAS BEAUTIFUL AND NOTHING HURT.”[28] Why should this be “true” to Billy Pilgrim? Looking broadly over the entire novel, it should not be. The epitaph is true only for a dead Tralfamadorian—the extra-terrestrials who kidnap Billy Pilgrim to put him on display in their zoo. When Billy asks his zookeeper how it is their planet can always have peaceful days, the alien responds:

“Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments [. . .] That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.”[29]

The only response Billy can muster is “Um,” and it is completely appropriate. Although this Tralfamadorian worldview is what ultimately spawns Billy’s epiphany, this is not and can never be Billy’s experience. Like the Tralfamadorians, Billy is “unstuck” in time, traveling sporadically from one moment in his life to the next. However, unlike his alien hosts, he has no control over where he will go or what he will see. Instead, he is always reliving the most beautiful, horrific, and mediocre moments of his life. Thus, the thought that everything is beautiful and nothing hurt could not be an accurate description of Billy’s life. He has to instead take every moment as it comes again and again—as we all do.

The novel ultimately critiques this worldview through the defamiliarization and satirizing of a neutral response to death through the phrase “So it goes.” Like the epitaph, this phrase is also connected to the Tralfamadorian worldview. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator relates a letter to the local newspaper that Billy had written describing his inter-galactic friends and in particular, their views of time and death: “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.’ ”[30] We can see how this worldview, which Billy Pilgrim attempts to adopt, ends up becoming a critique of itself through the devices of defamiliarization and satire.

Theologically speaking, this is a worldview that would mold all aspects of culture to be a part of “God’s will.” Under this view, the statement “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” entails, theologically, that God be present in all events, both beautiful and tragic, for the ultimate purpose of good. In other words, even the most horrific tragedies, the bombing of Dresden to put this in terms of the novel, are explainable ultimately in terms of God’s greater good. Such a view, however, is inconsistent with Vanhoozer’s notion of theodrama because it does not allow for a robust understanding of fall and redemption. If even the “most fallen” of human endeavors and events ultimately serve God’s good purposes,[31] then the act of redemption, though still present and necessary, is severely twisted since it suggests that God will use human fallenness in his act of redemption rather than ultimately transforming that fallenness.

We can also put this in conversation with the desire for the good life. The novel critiques this theological view in relation to the good life in a number of different ways. First, if this sort of theology of culture is adhered to as a means of achieving the good life, then it will have great difficulty engaging with and discerning between institutions as means to achieving the good life. A theology that sees everything as beautiful can hardly see anything as ultimately bad. Thus, when Smith discusses the ways in which particular institutions such as consumerism, patriotism, and education come to shape our identities, one could ultimately argue from the “Everything is Beautiful” position, that these institutions cannot negatively form our identities because God will ultimately use them for good. Returning to Howard Campbell’s monograph, we can see how works and ends up creating a narrative of oppression against the poor:

“Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. The inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.”[32]

This belief among both the wealthy and the poor is what serves to create the immense oppression that Campbell describes in his monograph—and seeing things this way has formed a certain kind of person. Comparing the Tralfamadorian way of seeing things to the way that Smith talks about formative practices, we can examine the ways in which such a theology would shape our desires and our identity negatively in relation to Christ-like Christian practice.

The desire that drives the Tralfamadorians is the good life achieved by only existing in the good. The joke of this part of Vonnegut’s novel is that the Tralfamadorian social imaginary sounds so good—who wouldn’t want to live that way? Much like the promises of consumerism, which Smith describes, such an imaginary could never be realized, and Vonnegut makes it very easy for us to see that since the Tralfamadorians are nothing like us—they are time traveling aliens. That Billy Pilgrim believes he can adopt their social imaginary is a part of his tragic nature. The novel then calls us to question an imaginary among human beings that would attempt to ignore the bad and only see the good—or see the bad as good or neutral. It allows us to see how destructive that actually is. Vanhoozer summarizes this well when he writes that “theology and understanding alike are short-circuited if we are not able to discern (1) how our faith is affected by the world we live in and (2) how we are to embody our faith in shapes of everyday life.”[33] We are not living in the world if all tragedy is beautiful—if all bad can be explained in terms of God’s greater good. Rather, the brokenness of the world must be engaged on its own terms, apart from God’s action in order to arrive at the most robust understanding of God’s transformative redemption. We pass through the profane to arrive at the sacred.

Conclusion: Cross-Pressure in the Immanent Frame

I’ve suggested that the novel critiques a vision of the world that would see only the most beautiful moments, ignoring or attempting to destroy those that are not. Much of Vonnegut’s work struggles with this conflict between wanting to acknowledge the beautiful and not allowing the beautiful to dominate our vision. Another way of articulating the situation that Billy Pilgrim finds himself in over-against that of the Tralfamadorians is found in Charles Taylor’s notion of the immanent frame. For Taylor the secular distinction between the transcendent and the material is ultimately an immanent frame: “the different structures we live in: scientific, social, technological, and so on, constitute such a frame in that they are part of a ‘natural,’ or ‘this-worldly’ order which can be understood in its own terms, without reference to the ‘supernatural’ or ‘transcendent.’ ”[34] Billy’s desire to see everything as beautiful is in, many ways, an appeal to the transcendent. The Tralfamadorians have the ability to “transcend” time in that they can choose “when” they look at—they defy the metaphysics of presence, able to be present in any moment. Billy’s condition is misleading both for him and the reader in that he is still immanent despite his ability to travel through time. It really is no ability at all since he has no control over it, as discussed above. Thus, the tragedy that Billy must continually relive is simply a part of the structures he lives in. He cannot escape, and his attempt to ignore those moments is reflected in the objects of the more overt critiques the novel makes against American culture in general.

Taylor’s notion of cross-pressure in relation to how both believers and non-believers exist in the immanent frame together is also helpful in further understanding the dilemma that Slaughterhouse presents. Taylor writes that “those who want to opt for the ordered, impersonal universe, whether in its scientistic-materialist form, or in a more spiritualized variant, feel the imminent loss of a world of beauty, meaning, warmth, as well as of the perspective of self transformation beyond the everyday” and continues, arguing that on the opposite end are those “haunted by a sense that the universe might after all be as meaningless as the most reductive materialism describes. They feel that their vision has to struggle against this flat and empty world; they fear that their strong desire for God, or for eternity, might after all be the self-induced illusion that materialists claim it to be.”[35] Vonnegut situates his characters right in the middle of this tension.

Billy himself is flat, without an identity,[36] and the novel ends with a question, “Poo-tee-weet?”  which signals the absurdity of attempting to draw meaning from something as horrific as the bombing of Dresden. The theologically minded reader feels the burden of the tension. Such a reader senses that Billy Pilgrim is in the first position, but Billy has already lost the world of beauty despite his desire to be Tralfamadorian. Furthermore, such a reader will identify with the second position in the face of the atrocity that the bombing of Dresden presents particularly when the response of both characters and narrator is one of indifference. If, however, we read those moments of indifference as satirizing such a response to atrocity, then the novel points us to a theological position where our response to tragedy is to understand it on its own terms and situate ourselves in the hope of God’s redemption.

by Joel Harrison

Bibliography

Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus, Trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage   International, 1955, 1991).

Heller, Joseph, Catch-22 (New York: Random House, 1961).

Smith, James K.A., Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation             (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2009)

Tally, Robert T. “Kurt Vonnegut’s Last Laugh,” Continuum Literary Studies         http://continuumliterarystudies.typepad.com/continuum-literary-studie/2012/03/kurt-   vonneguts-last-laugh-guest-post-by-robert-t-tally-jr.html> 15 March 2012.

Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2007).

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends          (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2007).

Vonnegut, Kurt, Breakfast of Champions (New York: Random House, 1973).

—, Slaughterhouse-Five ((New York: Random House, 1969).


            [1]. Robert T. Tally, “Kurt Vonnegut’s Last Laugh,” Continuum Literary Studies http://continuumliterarystudies.typepad.com/continuum-literary-studie/2012/03/kurt-vonneguts-last-laugh-guest-post-by-robert-t-tally-jr.html> 15 March 2012.

            [2]. Ibid.

            [3]. The fashion among Vonnegut critics has often been to see him as one of his own tragi-comic characters, either Pilgrim or Kilgore Trout or another, who are always depicted in a “me versus the world” sort of way.

            [4]. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2007) 45.

            [5]. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2009) 24.

            [6]. Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology, 41.

            [7]. A term to be defined and discussed at length later.

            [8]. Heller, Joseph, Catch-22 (New York: Random House, 1961) 462.

            [9]. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (New York: Random House, 1969) 31.

            [10]. Ibid., 164.

            [11]. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 1955, 1991) p. 21

            [12]. Ibid., 14-5.

            [13]. Ibid,. 14.

            [14]. In this myth, King Sisyphus is punished for his trickery against the gods by being made to roll an immense boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again.

            [15]. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 60.

            [16]. See Jean-Paul Sartre Existentialism is a Humanism.

            [17]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 129.

            [18]. Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (New York: Random House, 1973) 226.

            [19]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 77.

            [20]. Ibid.

            [21]. V. Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique,’ J. Rivkin and M. Ryan (ed), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Blackwell Publishing: Massachusetts, 1998) p. 15

            [22]. Ibid.

            [23]. Jamie Smith uses this technique when describing the mall at the beginning of Desiring the Kingdom, 19-22.

            [24]. Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions, 225.

            [25]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 53.

            [26]. Ibid., 54.

            [27]. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 14.

            [28]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 121-2.

            [29]. Ibid., 117.

            [30]. Ibid., 27.

            [31]. This is, of course, also ignoring any complex discussions of theodicy.

            [32]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 129.

            [33]. Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology, 16.

            [34]. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2007) 594.

            [35]. Taylor, A Secular Age, 592-3.

            [36]. This is because identity is formed through the achievement of goals over time. Billy is unable to do this given his “unstuckness.”

What Did Jesus Come to Abolish?

It may be that this post is a little late given that sharing on Facebook of and responses in the blogosphere to this viral video have died down. A lot has been said, and now, all that’s left seem to be memes like this little gem:

I fall somewhere in the middle of the responses to this. I can appreciate what Jeff Bethke is trying to do. I don’t like phony, legalistic Christians either. So in that sense I can resonate with my friends who shared this on Facebook and elsewhere–they want to focus on what is important to our faith (whatever that is–I’ll get there in a minute.) At the same time, I agree with Tony Jones and Jonathan Fitzgerald that there is something amiss here. Does legalism equal religion? Certainly not.

I agree with Fitzgerald on this point:

“See the problem is, Bethke doesn’t mean religion either, but he’s rehearsing a popular evangelical trope, that the freedom that Christians find through Jesus is freedom from structure, organization, and authority.”

He makes the salient point that if Bethke had called the video something else, had used “Sunday Christians” or even “False Religion” instead of just “Religion,” he would have avoided many of the problems that have been raised about his diatribe that is meant to help believers get beyond behavior modification and following a laundry list of rules in order to reach the “center” of their faith–following Jesus [in whatever way that looks like as long as it doesn’t involve rules.]

There are two important observations we can make about rules. First, Fitzgerald and Jones are right that structure [rule-making] is inevitable, simply a fact of human nature. Even in the rule-hater’s quest to abolish the rules, he or she is most likely still abiding by codes of conduct and social mores because let’s face it–no one is going to listen to you unless you play by the rules or are willing to resort to significant violence. And even when you choose the latter, it could be that nothing changes. Wittgenstein makes this same point when he talks about “language games.” Changes are possible in language, but only if the game is played [people understand and accept the change–which takes a very long time and cannot really be predicted or directed.]

Second, why should rules be inherently bad? Thinking of games again, I would hate to play Monopoly or Settlers of Catan with no rules. It’s just not possible. Imagine a chess board laid out before you. You and another person decide to play, but you have no idea how–so you make it up. Right from the beginning, a decision governing the type of play has to be made: Are you playing against each other, or are you on a team playing against the board somehow [as in Solitaire.]  It probably makes the most sense to play against each other. From that point you have to set objectives, a mode of play–and rules that govern those things. You cannot proceed toward an end, a goal, without establishing the way in which that is to be achieved. It is simply unavoidable if the game is to have any coherence at all. The very notion of play to begin with suggests some kind of structure.

In this more abstract, philosophical sense, it makes no sense to talk about abolishing the “rules of Religion” in order to just follow Jesus and love people when we would have no idea how to do those things without first receiving instruction. Like play, when we start with an idea of “practicing a faith” we are already bound by a certain structure. We may not think of that in terms of “rules,” and that’s okay, maybe even beneficial, but the idea is the same. That kind of instruction may be more like flexible guidelines than rigid rules, and there were commands from Jesus (pick up your cross and follow me) that probably fall in this category. However, Jesus really was not the anti-religion, institution destroyer that Bethke and his fans want him to be.

Most people think of the Pharisees when they think of the sort of person bound by the chains of Religion that Bethke is talking to: someone going through the motions of dead ritual without any power behind what they’re doing. Jesus did have a problem with that–but he didn’t call it religion.

He called it “not bearing fruit.”

In Matthew 21:18-22, we have one of the more misunderstood and strange actions of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.

In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”

People normally talk about the power of prayer or faith in relation to this passage [or how Jesus maybe wasn’t a fan of ecology] but it makes more sense to read this short episode in the context of what has just happened. Jesus made his entrance into Jerusalem the day before and spent the whole day ridding the temple of practices that were not bearing any fruit. He returned the following day and presented the chief priests and Pharisees with a couple parables that conclude with this:

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

Later, in Matthew 23, Jesus gets explicit about his issue with what the Pharisees are doing. In short, he’s pissed that they are screwing up religion. Not that they’re practicing it. Religion isn’t what is getting in the way–the Pharisees are getting in the way of themselves. Jesus even begins this passage by instructing the crowd to do what the Pharisees teach them–just not what they actually do (23:3.) Jesus asks the Pharisees if the gold or the sanctuary that gives the gold significance, the gift or the alter that makes the gift sacred, is more important. Jesus is all about church buildings (he just didn’t say what those had to look like.)

He’s all about ritual too. In verse 23, he points out that the Pharisees have tithed spices, but neglected “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith,” but there is no indication that the spices or the act of tithing them are themselves bad. Rather, Jesus is pointing out that these “smaller” matters should be vitally connected to the weightier ones. Tithing should bring about justice, mercy, and faith. Religious practice must produce fruit.

If there is anything Jesus came to put an end to, it was practicing the law without that practice resulting in a spiritually full life, one that would abundantly bless others. I think if Bethke were to read this, he’d probably agree and say that was what he meant. Unfortunately, 16 million viewers have heard differently.

by Joel Harrison

Conversion: Thoughts on the Great Commission and Discipleship

I’m sitting in my regular coffee shop, reading, milling around on the Internet, and I’m listening to a man on the couch eight feet from me try to convert a man sitting in the adjacent armchair. The man in the armchair is elderly. He wears a UCLA cap and a fleece pullover. He’s been there for over an hour, listening to this other man talk about his devotion to Jesus. As he sits, his children and grandchildren have been coming in to check in on him to say hello. They’ve been shopping or engaging in some of the festivities that are happening downtown—doing things that this man is too tired to do.

The man on the couch is a regular. I haven’t seen him often, but I know he must be because another regular whom I see every time I’m in here no matter what time of day is sitting in a different chair, chiming in and asking questions with some familiarity. The man on the couch is in his 40s, clean cut. He prods the elderly man:

“Have you ever been to church?”

“Do you know what Jesus says about you? That he loves you?”

“Do you know what the book of Revelation says about the end of the world?”

This question has piqued the interest of the regular who sits opposite the elderly man. He asks a question about the worm who never dies and what that means. He asks about the mark of the beast. The two of them believe that it will be a chip implanted in our skin which will be the only means of making purchases anywhere.

“Would you get a chip implanted in you if you knew it were the mark of the beast?” the man on the couch asks.

“Oh I don’t know about that,” the elderly man replies kindly.

This goes on for quite some time; all the while, the elderly man in the armchair smiling and responding politely, excusing himself from the conversation for those moments when his grandchildren come running into the coffee shop to tell him about something they’ve seen or done outside.

The man on the couch keeps repeating this phrase: “Jesus called me to follow him 21 years ago. I figure the least I can do is give him my life by telling people about him.”

Up until a few years ago, I would have thought this man was noble. Yes, some of the directions he guided the conversation were bizarre. I’ve never thought scaring people into the arms of Jesus was the way to go. But he was kind. He had a genuine heart and desire to see others come to Jesus, and he wasn’t afraid to share that.

Here’s the problem: Is that what making disciples looks like? In Matthew 28, Jesus commands his disciples to make disciples themselves of all the nations. He doesn’t follow that with any sort of explanation for how to go about making disciples. But he doesn’t have to. The entire gospel preceding this point has been a handbook on how to make disciples.

Call someone into relationship with you. Walk with them. Challenge them. Help them acquire the language and knowledge necessary for discipleship. The timing will always be different for each person.

Brad Kallenberg in Live to Tell describes this much. He gets into philosophy of language, the ways in which we acquire knowledge, but the most important practical point is that those who are not Christians are typically not equipped with the knowledge necessary to make a solid commitment to follow Christ. First, they need to be disciples.

That sounds backwards. When I was a kid in Sunday School, discipleship class was for the really churchy kids. The ones who had memorized whole epistles and large sections of the gospels. That led me to the conclusion that discipleship was the meat of Christian faith, that new converts—let alone those who had yet to accept—were not ready for the challenges that discipleship had to offer.

But why should discipleship just be one thing, one level of difficulty? It’s clear from the gospels that Jesus’ disciples were novices. They did not understand what Jesus was doing—they only believed that it was something important, something worth devoting their lives to. Aren’t the best relationships born that way? When someone is willing to pour significant time into us, we respond in turn, wanting to seek that person out, to pick up some of their interests, hoping of course that they’ll pick up some of ours.

And Christianity is a highly relational faith. Much of Jesus’ teaching is about human relationships and how they affect our relationship to the kingdom of God. Above all, we are called to love people, to care for them, to be humble and put their interests before our own.

Sounds like a really great friendship to me.

For Kallenberg, this is the only way to effectively bring someone to Christ—to let them see your life completely, to be ushered in to and made familiar with the language of Christianity, before making a decision. Is that decision prompted by the Spirit? Sure–why not? Ultimately, that isn’t what is at stake here. Rather, the concern is how we have been defining discipleship, expecting that people first convert and then be discipled in order to make that decision stick.

What would American Christianity look like if our focus were discipleship rather than conversion? Wouldn’t that be a more faithful commitment to the command of the Great Commission?

I probably won’t see this elderly man again. I don’t think the man on the couch will either. Even if he had tried the discipleship route, to befriend this man, one could argue that the chances of them striking up an enduring friendship were probably slim—that in this case the most effective evangelistic method was simply to come at it straight and ask the guy if he was a follower of Jesus. I can’t argue with that first point—who knows what would have happened? Friendship is volatile, relationships fragile.

So is a commitment to Christ born out of fear, confusion, or coercion.

by Joel Harrison

Suspicion and Faith and Hating Mother Teresa

Christian reaction to the news of Christopher Hitchens’ death last night of complications due to cancer have certainly been mixed. Tweets jovially poking fun at the New Atheist read “ ‘Hitchens doesn’t exist anymore’—God.” Many more conservative Christians vindictively celebrate the death of someone whom they probably felt had backed them into a corner along with the other three (self-titled) Horsemen of New Atheism (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.) Now one is gone. Just as they celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden, so they celebrate Hitchens’ untimely demise. Chalk one more up for us. It’s been a good year.

Then there are the more progressive Christians, mostly academics that I know, who are posting about how much Christopher Hitchens’ improved their faith. After all, we were all decrying belief in the same god—the god of fundamentalism, violence, and empire that is clearly not the God of the Israelites, of the Bible, of the universe. I have to agree with them. While I didn’t grow up in an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist home, I understand why my friends who did are grateful to Hitchens and the other New Atheists for exposing the flaws in a Christianity that has its grip on so many American Christians. The hermeneutics of suspicion can be quite powerful. And Hitchens, et al. are not the first to bring such glad tidings to Christians looking for a better way than the idols of their past. Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Heidegger—many 19th and 20th century philosophers preceded the Horsemen pointing out many of the same flaws in believing in a god who would condone the violence perpetrated by fundamentalist religion. Of course, none of these philosophers nor the New Atheists believe that they’re freeing the religious from their own dogma so that they may experience a better, more robust faith. That’s beside the point here, however.

I hesitate in participating in either strand of response. The first for obvious reasons. It isn’t so much hesitation as refusal: Christians should never celebrate the death of another human being. And while I identify with friends who’d rather celebrate Hitchens’ life, in some ways seeming like a back-handed way of saying to atheists, “You have no idea what actual Christianity entails, let alone actual religion,” I have trouble celebrating the life of a man who made a career out of spitting venom at others. If he had been a Christian doing this to atheists or Muslims or anyone else, we would have been appalled. I recognize that Christianity abides in the sort of humiliation Hitchens and others seek to pile on to us—that above all, our call is to humility to the point of death (Matt. 16:24-25). But Hitchens’ vitriol went beyond just trying to prove how dumb religious people are.

The man hated Mother Teresa. He thought she was a complete fraud. On top of that, he ironically supported the Iraq Warbecause it was leading to the death of Islamic fundamentalists. What’s that saying about strange bedfellows? Fundamentalist Christianity could link arms with Hitchens and sing some songs together over that point. What we need to be careful of is not caving too quickly to the pressure of expectations. Atheists expect Christians to be celebrating, so those of us who do not identify with that group of Christians desire to distance ourselves quickly by talking about what a tragedy it is to lose someone so brilliant. It is certainly tragic to see someone die before his time, especially someone who did contribute fruitfully in some ways to the demolition of religious fundamentalism. I’m on his side in that. But I can’t ignore the rest. He was extremely misguided, not only in his account of history but in his responses to some important contemporary issues as well. I won’t celebrate that part of his life.

by Joel Harrison

Church Unboundless

What does it mean for the church to be unbound? Though I’ve been writing this blog for nearly two years now, I haven’t ever addressed this question. My guess is that among the people who read the blog, follow the Facebook page or Twitter feed, there are a number of varying definitions.

One gentleman wrote a response on our Facebook message board to a question regarding new church movements that I found fascinating:

Your “Church Unbound” is just another symptom of the same emerging church “Church In Laodicea”. Such churches think they’re so “deep” and transcendent and above and new and fresh and esoteric but the Bible says that they are, “…wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Revelation 3:17) Rick Warren, Brian McLaren, D. A. Carson, Doug Pagitt, etc… This road is wide and leads to destruction, (Matthew 7:13).

Keep your “Church Unbound”. I’m sticking with, “Paul, a BONDSERVANT of Jesus Christ…” (Romans 1:1)

Oh. Oh no he didn’t. Rick Warren? He’s tossing us in with Rick Warren? Ignoring the vitriol, what’s interesting is that this list and his inclusion of A Church Unbound in it reflect that he doesn’t really know what the Emerging Church is. Or rather that he has a very different definition than, say, Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibbs. He hit two major players (McLaren, Pagitt)—but D.A. Carson wrote the book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church. And Rick Warren? From my standpoint, if this guy thinks Rick Warren is a part of the Emergent movement, then he is most likely very conservative. A more general and perhaps more important question is this: What brought this guy to A Church Unbound’s Facebook page? What does he think it means to be “unbound?”

Clearly, once he discovered that we were talking about new church movements, new theology, etc., he made his decision: That’s not the sort of “unboundness” he was looking for. Maybe he was thinking becoming unbound means freeing the church from outside influences: the media, secular philosophy, pop culture. Just the facts. Just the Word.

We saw similar things happening with responses to Tad’s post on the Rapture back in May. Now, the purpose of the blog and the Facebook page is to invite this sort of discussion—so this is not in any way a complaint about this activity. Still, it was again fascinating to see how vastly different the worldviews of some people were from my own. But not totally different. Toward the end of the comments section under Tad’s post, one of the most vocal participants left it at this:

Thanks brother… we shall know all things one day in heaven… or do you not believe in heaven either? jk jk!!! have a blessed night!! always proceed in love!

It’s that last sentence that intrigued me. I’ve been using that as a tag line of sorts for the blog, stolen from John Caputo’s understanding of what deconstruction brings to theology. What it means to me is that even though we disagree on this point of doctrine (and probably others too if I could ask) we seem to agree that love is vitally important. But what does love mean? How do we define it?

I seem to be raising more questions than providing answers.

A couple more examples.

A gentleman became quite disgusted with me over my position regarding the authority of Scripture (also on the Facebook page.) In this case, it wasn’t that he thought I was too liberal—it was that I wasn’t liberal enough. He seemed to be in line with Bart Ehrman, believing that our holy text is just a dubious mash up of incomplete semi-historical records that have been hacked to bits through translation (though even Ehrman’s position isn’t quite that polemical.) A few weeks after that though, he was in complete agreement with both our position on Osama bin Laden’s death and the posts on the Rapture.

Finally, and most recently, are some debates regarding the Occupy movement in the U.S. In short, it’s been two proud Republican Facebookers (I hesitate to call them readers, since I’m not convinced they would’ve stuck around as fans of the page had they read anything we’ve posted) arguing against the evils of big government and the selfishness, envy, and jealousy of the protesters. That argument aside, I discovered that one of the participants and I share mutual friends—a marvel of Facebook’s friend finding advertisements. Six mutual friends—five of my extended family members and one close friend from my home church.

I wonder how his opinions would change if he knew that I thought.

Maybe he does, and it doesn’t change anything.

Here’s the matrix thus far: Anti-Emergent-Church-and-Rick-Warren-loving-dispensationalist-textual-critical-suspicious-of-authority-right-wing-anti-government-pro-freedom-capitalist-Christians.

That’s difficult to read. Depending on how you read it, it can say different things—things that aren’t even reflected in the examples above but are still probably descriptive of some of the 650+ people who follow our Facebook page. And it certainly doesn’t cover everyone either with the exception of one word: Christian. How we define “unbound” with relation to the Church must be proceeded by our definition of what it means to be a Christian. This entails that there always be more questions than answers. Christianity is far too fragmented to be able to ever come to an agreement on what it actually is. My concerns are strictly related to the West and American Christianity in particular. That’s a really small piece. Part of what is in my sights though is the ignorance of that fact, which leads to epistemic violence. Even the dismantling of that one, very particular world view is too large a task for one lifetime.

Which is an important part of what it means for me to be unbound.

I started this blog with a post entitled “The Post-___________ Church.” Admittedly, I was in a phase. I had spent quite a bit of time studying postmodernism and post-structuralism both as a literary and philosophical movements and cultural phenomena and had been grappling with the idea of post-secularism possibly as some sort of incorporation of religion into all of that. I wanted to know where the Church was headed.

The summer before I moved back to California, I was out visiting for a job interview, and met up with an old friend for coffee.

“I think we’re headed for a second Reformation,” he said. “The first Reformation followed a major communication shift. The printing press was invented and had a hundred years to completely change everything. We have the Internet. And it ain’t gonna take a hundred years for that to change stuff. It’s already happened and is happening.”

That’s a really heavy prediction to make. But I kept thinking about it.

“The more people say another major revolution in the Church isn’t happening, the more we can be assured that it is,” he concluded.

Second Reformation or not, it doesn’t matter. If that’s what we’re on the verge of or at the beginning of, we’ll probably never know. If not, that doesn’t remove the force from what we’re trying to do. Being unbound, to me, has to mean something radical. There’s nothing anti-Christian about radical movements. The Gospel itself is the documentation of a radical movement. Being unbound is another way of saying being transformed completely by the life of Jesus Christ. Not a feeling you have in your heart that Jesus is in there, kicking around.

A completely transformed life. The difficulty, I’m discovering, is that a transformed life will look different for different people. Given everything I’ve written for the blog so far, I could never sit here and tell you that there’s a line, a measurement for transformation, a way of determining whether or not a person has been transformed.

I’m reminded again of the impossible. That’s where the transformative power of the gospel truly is. If we can speak at all of a standard, that’s it. And in attempting to live that out, in trying our best to reach the impossible, in giving economies of giving a chance—the politics of forgiving, the risk of hospitality, the failure of love—we reach out to the impossible, and we are transformed.

Being unbound is answering Jesus’ command to lay down everything and pick up our cross. All that means, simply, is to put ourselves, our understandings, our desires, out of the way so that the power of the Gospel can work in our lives.

That’s it.

by Joel Harrison

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