Category Archives: Joel Harrison

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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Gatsby and the Resiliency of American Empire

The Great Gatsby opened this week in its fourth film adaptation to very mixed, leaning toward negative reviews. The complaints range from the film being Baz Luhrman’s attempt to do a perfect Baz Luhrman impersonation to the awkwardness of the mash up between the early twenties and contemporary hip hop to the plodding pace of the plot and the poor attempt to mask that with a lot of flashing lights and CGI. There even seems to be a recurring complaint that the adaptation misses the point of the novel entirely, celebrating American empire and all the decadence of the Roaring Twenties rather than telling a story about its downfall.

One of the interesting things about the reviews is that they seem to claim exact opposite things about the film: Where one blasts the mashup, another praises it; where one says the film is shallow, another says it carries the message of the novel perfectly, and so on. What this tells me is that people (still) don’t really know what to make of this story. It’s one of those novels that everyone supposedly read in high school; people tend to like to use it as a touchtone for their own cultured-ness, a way of showing that they have some semblance of knowledge about literature. One of my brothers used to keep a copy in the glovebox of his car on the off chance a girl happened to open it.

I have many thoughts about the success of the film (or lack thereof), though this is not meant to be a review. I will say, however, that the aspect of the novel I’m going to discuss is brought out through what I think is the film’s greatest failure. As an adaptation, the film does an incredible job being faithful to the timeline and construction of the plot as well as the dialogue, with much of it taken word for word fromt the text of the novel. With regard to the major themes, my impression was that the film, in a sometimes heavy handed way, makes it a point to alert the viewer that, through the quintessentially modernist devices of lost love and failed attempts to recover the past, this is primarily a story about empire; namely that American empire is cold, destructive, and tragically resilient. But while the film attempts to beat that into the viewer with melodrama and over the top mise-en-scène, the novel sketches a much more careful, delicate picture which has made it notoriously difficult (some say impossible) to adapt.

This brings us to the film’s greatest failure which also happens to be, I think, the novel’s greatest trick: Nick Carraway. Both novel and film are told from Carraway’s first person perspective (though the film sometimes departs.) This is obviously a very deliberate choice for Fitzgerlad: Why write a novel so heavily dependent upon the revealing of another character’s backstory in the first person? At times, the devices utilized to convey those details of the past feel stilted, contrived, usually a telling of a telling. Furthermore, a story that is so tightly centered around deception and fantasy does not lend itself well to reliable first person narration, even if it isn’t the narrator intentionally lying, and indeed, many scholars have attempted to make the argument that Nick Carraway is in fact an unreliable narrator. The film plants that possibility in the viewer’s mind right from the beginning by having Nick tell the story of Gatsby from a sanitarium where he is being treated for severe anxiety and alcoholism–an unnecessary addition, to say the least. Nick Carraway is an unreliable narrator, but not in the sense that the story he has told is false in anyway.

The trick is that while being faithful to the story that he lived, he is not honest with the readers, and more importantly himself, about his participation in the empire that destroys Gatsby and George and Myrtle Wilson by the end of the novel.

The natural effect of first person narration is that the reader or viewer begin to identify with and trust the narrator. In fact one of the effectual goals of the novel is for us to begin to think that we are Nick Carraway–to be able to see ourselves sympathetically in his shoes. I’m not sure any film adaptation carries this as well as the novel, and it is why every adaptation has ultimately come up short, seeming not to capture the elusive essence of the story.

One of the most carefully crafted details about Carraway’s character is his own privilege. It’s well concealed and very easy to forget especially since he is so often juxtaposed between Gatsby and the Buchanans. However, the novel begins with Nick relating this advice from his father: ” ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ ” It is clear that he is not Tom Buchanan, but it is because he is not that we are able to identify with him. It adds an important layer of complexity to what would otherwise be a rather banal modernist theme, old versus new, which the film hits on quite strongly. Nick seems to be set outside of that somehow and gives the impression that he is above the games being played, telling the reader, “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

But it is Nick Carraway’s self-ascribed honesty that actually prevents us at first from being able to see his character completely; that is, his privilege has afforded him the opportunity to be passively drawn into a story which he could break himself from at any moment. In that sense, he is actually no different from the Buchanans, Jordan Baker, or even Meyer Wolfsheim, who all treat their own lives in the exact same way. He has romanticized Gatsby’s persona much in the same way as Daisy, referring to Gatsby’s misguided attempts to repeat the past and win Daisy back as his “incorruptible dream.” The famed last line of the novel emphasizes this as well: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past,” suggesting that the never ending attempt to recover a more real, more pure past is a noble endeavor. But it is a romantic endeavor, one that Nick and Daisy both have the ability to pursue and abandon at their leisure. Gatsby never has the option to break from his dream, and both the Wilsons’ attempts to do so end in their deaths. Nick pushes the blame for all the terrible events of the novel on to Tom and Daisy, telling us, “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

But I don’t think Nick’s hands are totally clean here. The tragedy Nick sees in his story is not that Gatsby, because of the uncontrollable circumstances of his life, was considered nothing and never had any chance in the face of real American empire. Rather, it’s that his farce was ruined, and he was not permitted to continue to live out the romanticism that Nick so admired.

In this way, Nick participates in the resiliency of American empire that is made explicit in his indictment of the Buchanans. And he has drawn the reader unwittingly into that participation. We revere Gatsby for all the wrong reasons and his story suggests that there are only two ways to really participate in the empire: be born into it or be a self-made criminal tycoon like Meyer Wolfsheim. [Aside: In the novel, after Gatsby's death, Wolfsheim tells Nick that he made Gatsby what he was, that he gave Gatsby everything he had.] The rest of us, the Nick Carraways of the world, will hate that, we’ll actively despise it, go so far as to insult it and see ourselves as better than it [Nick says of his last encounter with Tom, "I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child."] Yet we will have no problem romanticizing individual efforts to overcome it, even when they fail, if we are privileged like Nick to be able to do so. Our privilege affords us the pseudo-active ability to be outraged from our living rooms and behind our computer screens, bringing no real change to the problems that have outraged us. And American empire continues to thrive.

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Theories of Religion: Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant, a late-Enlightenment German philosopher, is most famous for what is known as The Kantian Synthesis which extends through both metaphysics and epistemology. I have made reference to and explained it elsewhere, but in short, Kant’s contribution made it possible for both philosophy and science to proceed beyond the radical empiricism of David Hume. At the same time, however, Kant still upheld the rigorous commitment to reason championed by Hume and other empiricists of the period (Locke for example) who maintained that one’s knowledge was derived empirically through perception and no other way. For Kant, reality is divided into two realms: the phenomenal or sensible world conditioned by the categories of our understanding (i.e. time and space) and the noumenal or things-in-themselves world. There are two important claims here. First is that there really are “things-in-themselves”–things as they really are “behind” what we perceive them to be. This is also called “transcendental idealism” because it claims that Reality consists of ideas that transcend what we can actually have knowledge of. Second is that if we were able to take away the categories of our understanding, we’d be able to come into contact with the noumenal. The purpose of science, for Kant, is to limit the interference of the categories as much as possible in order to get us close to the noumenal. Science is right on edge of the phenomenal.

This worked quite well for everything in Kant’s system that had to do with immanent matters; however, it created a significant complication for the place of religion. Under Kant’s system, any attempt to make a reasonable statement about God must be by definition not reasonable since such statements can only come from phenomenal experience, and God must be, by definition, wholly noumenal. What then constitutes reasonable religious discourse?

Before we can understand Kant’s answer, we must also understand his ethical system as that dovetails with epistemological concerns in his understanding of religion. In Kant’s discourse on practical reason (his ethics), he argues that in order for one to act morally, one must only ever act according to one’s duty in any given situation; thus, the consequences of actions are not what are important in Kant’s system, only the motives behind action. An act driven by pure duty is the highest good–a purely good will. This differs from previous ethical theories, particular Aristotle’s virtue ethics, in that, for Kant, the highest good is something that we already have the capacity for, not a place we are striving to get to. This will be immensely important for Kant’s understanding of religion. The highest good cannot concern things like pleasure, intelligence, happiness, or freedom because these terms are far too relative and cannot be universalized in relation to duty. Someone may find freedom, happiness, or pleasure in the harm of others, which is unacceptable in Kant’s system. Thus, the will itself is the only thing that can be truly good, and its goodness is determined through two conditions known as the categorical imperative:

1. Motives must be able to be generalized into universal law.

2. An action can never use another human being as a means to achieve an end whatever that end may be.

Something like lying can never be ethical because it cannot be universalized–even if it actually results in good. One’s duty is to, through one’s own good will, act according to the categorical imperative at all times. For our purposes here, it’s important to note that this results in a disinterested morality–a morality that does not evaluate the conditions of particular cases.

The question for Kant in relation to religion then becomes what will arise from doing what we ought to? What is the result of the aggregate of dutiful action? The answer is religious life. In other words, morality in itself does not require religion, but acting morally will inevitably lead to religion. In order to trace this out, we have to start at the nature of humanity–Kant’s theological anthropology. As stated above, Kant believes that human beings have the capacity already for the highest good because that good can only be our own good will. Humans are naturally good. This capacity is in the form of our ability to reason. Reason, remember, is central to Kant’s entire philosophical system. For Kant, our reason has not been tainted by sin as earlier theologians had argued. At the same time, however, humans are free to use their reason to follow their duty and the moral law or  to not do that. Sin is not depravity, some universal condition we are all under, nor is it our inability to obey our duty and the highest good; rather, it is our tendency to follow a different law, that of our own self-interest. Each human being incurs what Kant calls radical evil upon him or herself through choosing self-interest. It is a choice, our own responsibility, and we have the responsibility or freeing ourselves from it. In short, if we ought to do something, it means we have the absolute ability to do it.

It is here that we can insert Kant’s flimsy argument for the necessity of God’s existence. Because duty-bound morality must be disinterested, which is plainly against our nature as human beings, there must be an external reason why someone would choose to act according to duty. Kant’s answer is that there must be a reward which could only be conferred by a being who had ordered the world in such a way from the beginning: God. From this, we can see that the role of God is little more than a footnote in Kant’s account, and once we begin to look at how traditional doctrines become articulated, we can see that even more.

Given his “ought” equals “can” position, Kant must reframe the doctrines of atonement and justification in order for his system to work. Christ, for Kant, was a Second Adam but only in that his good example counteracts Adam’s bad one. Atonement is exemplary rather than substitutionary. Jesus shows us what it looks like for the will to act according to duty at all times. There isn’t much room, then, for justification as a work of God within us by grace. Our regeneration is as a new moral person constituted through our ability. We are not in need of divine grace. In fact, if we remember what we laid out in the beginning regarding God and the noumenal world, this precludes any interaction between God and the sensible world. This view contrasts greatly with the theologians of the 16th century Reformation for whom justification by grace alone was immensely important; thus, we can see that everything in Kant’s system must bow to the principle of reason.

Perhaps a better way of saying that, though, is that Kant still maintains religious commitments but they become reframed as the sacralization of the individual. This cuts two ways: The autonomous ability of the individual to realize the highest good is sacred and the highest good (the will for the categorical imperative) only exists in relation to other individuals, who therefore, must have a special status, though Kant is less interested in the latter because ultimately one’s own duty excludes the consideration of another’s well being except where that consideration satisfies the categorical imperative.

Situating this sacralization of the individual in relation to Kant’s notion of sin and evil will help us see how morality inevitably results in religion. Remember that there is no state of total depravity for Kant; the individual has the autonomous ability to overcome self-interest (sin) and choose duty. However, sin still exists beyond the conversion of the individual (Kant calls this persisting of sin “radical evil.”) We can see that this is plainly true, since individuals are constantly falling back to self-interest, have yet to convert themselves to duty, etc. Competition between individuals makes it extremely difficult to act according to duty even though we are naturally good. Thus, in Kant’s view, the only way to eliminate radical evil is for a corporate ethical existence to arise (the ethical commonwealth). This is more than just a group of individuals acting according to duty together, and it is also a different “kingdom” than that of the civil state, echoing Augustinian-Lutheran two kingdom discourse. The ethical commonwealth consists of everyone acting according to the freedom of everyone else, people in relationship with each other and the moral law at the same time.

If this all sounds dangerously like Pelagianism, then you know your early church heresies. However, identifying Kant’s view as heretical only to dismiss it doesn’t do any real work for us in terms of understanding our own position. Rather, what I want to re-emphasize are two points that I’ve already highlighted: The centrality of reason and the sacralization of the individual. The centrality of reason as Kant and the Enlightenment understand it has resulted in some undesirable side-effects, namely the scientism of New Atheism that claims a monopoly on all “real” knowledge as being found (literally) in the sensible world. Paradoxically, this has stuck somewhat in the contemporary religious consciousness even if we dismiss the conclusions about religion to which this led Kant. It isn’t necessarily something that a lay person, for instance, would rely on intentionally in practice; rather, it is a latent effect, a rarely understood or reflected upon claim in the back on one’s mind that may lead a person to holding tightly to particular “foundational” beliefs for fear that letting those go will cause the entire system to dissolve. Or it may lead to one claiming the ability to see all the physical work that God is doing (i.e. a heavy reliance on visions or miracles in order to keep one’s belief afloat.) Now, this isn’t to say that empirical evidence is superficial in religious experience. Indeed, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, appeals to first hand accounts–empirical evidence–of the resurrection of Jesus in order to prove to the church at Corinth that there is indeed resurrection from the dead, and Jesus accomplished it. But this is still an experiential proof that already assumes the existence of God a priori as well as the fact that Jesus was the son of God. Paul and the Corinthians agree on that. The resurrection is incredibly important for the viability of Christianity, as Paul says many times elsewhere, but it would not disprove God’s existence for anyone in the ancient world if it turned out it had not happened, even for Paul.

Our core beliefs do not collapse easily. There is a certain amount epistemological resilience that keeps them more or less intact, even if the warrants and claims that support them shift slightly. I’ve written about this sort of epistemological holism here. If we take that to be the case, then there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to hold strongly to the account of reason that Kant gives especially since he’s probably correct in his religious account that follows it. What American Christianity tends to do is exchange Kant’s human reason for “God’s reason” which is still just human reason since even if we believe that God reveals Himself, we certainly can’t contend that such revelation is completely unmediated. This “reason” coupled with the availability of an abundance of “empirical evidence” for God’s existence is what ultimately results in a fundamentalism that necessarily ignores science, even vilifies it, in favor of its own brand of “scientism.”

Thus, it is not enough to simply say that Kant was wrong about religion. His account of religion is accurate, but only if we assume that reason and ethics should operate the way that he claims they do. It’s there that we must begin a new road.

Theories of Religion: A Series

I thought it would be a good idea to begin a series on some important developments in the theory of religion since the Enlightenment given that I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading on the subject lately in my first year of doctoral work. There are a number of reasons why I think it’s important to understand these developments as a Christian. This sort of study reveals the historical development of the challenges contemporary Christianity faces with regard to religious epistemology especially in relation to science and secular reason. The suspicion raised in many of these treatments of religion helps us to see where the historical practice of Christianity has failed miserably in understanding its own epistemological underpinnings. That is, understanding these developments and criticisms can help us see how our current practice or ways of thinking about our practice might be shifted to move us toward a much better account and method and even a richer experience.

This is a broad topic, and there are many places one could begin. The first post of the series will deal with Immanuel Kant’s account of religious experience. The reason why Kant makes for a good starting point is that in contrast to many thinkers of the medieval and early modern periods, the question of the metaphysical reality of God (whether or not there is a God) is not of primary importance. Rather, Kant is interested in the rational viability and function of religious experience and practice in general. In other words, he is asking and seeking to answer this question: Is religious belief reasonable?  In fact, none of the thinkers covered in this series are  necessarily interested in the existence of a transcendent being, though many make the indirect claim that there is no such being. However, they do so on their way to an account of the origin and function of religious experience.

Remember: this series is not evaluative–at least not in the sense of pure refutation of the claims set forth. Rather, the purpose is to extract the salient points and reflect on what these thinkers contribute to our understanding of religion.

A Brief Note on the Nature of truth

A friend of mine on Facebook shared this post from Mark Driscoll yesterday:

“In a society where there is no truth, the greatest ‘sin’ is saying someone is wrong.”

Pastor Mark has seen his fair share of beatdown over the last month, so I’m not looking to contribute to that. The post itself, which expresses a sentiment that could belong to any conservative Christian, is what I’m interested in. Normally, I don’t think that such a weak, late 20th century banality would have caught my attention. I’m sure Mark Driscoll is posting this kind of superficial garbage parading as insight multiple times a day, but it appeared just below a post by Bo Sanders of Homebrewed Christianity responding to Roger Olson’s recent blog that has caused a bit of controversy where he describes what he sees as the problem with liberal and progressive theology (two terms that he conflates.)

There are similar sentiments at work in both the Driscoll post and the Olson blog: There is such a thing as Truth, and they have it. Olson makes the following two points (which Bo objects to very nicely in his post) that I find to be completely incoherent:

“I look at their approach to “doing theology.” How do they approach knowing God? Do they begin with and recognize the authority of special revelation? Or do they begin with and give norming authority to human experience, culture, science, philosophy, “the best of contemporary thought?” That is, do they “do” theology “from above” or “from below?” Insofar as they do theology “from below” I tend to think they are liberal theologically.”


“If I ever wake up and find that I think like a true theological liberal, I hope I will be honest enough to stop calling myself ‘Christian.’ “

I’ve written many, many posts that deal with the sort of complaint that Olson is raising. In the first point, he’s assuming that there’s no mediation between special revelation and an articulate knowledge or theology–no interpretive work. That is, if one is doing “correct” theology, one is simply the mouthpiece of God. Whereas the theology of the liberal “Christian” is based upon the contingent, immanent, imperfect disciplines he lists, Olson’s theology is somehow not based on anything except the authority of special revelation. His own contingency, personal experiences, education, etc. don’t play into his theology. In the second point, he’s stating explicitly what Driscoll does implicitly: “There is such a thing as Truth, and I have it, so don’t be mad when I tell you you’re wrong (and not a Christian.)” Frankly, I’m just so tired of hearing this sort of arrogance come out of the mouths of people who profess the love of Jesus Christ.


Put aside what you think about postmodern notions of truth, whether or not you think any relativity in truth is absolute relativity, etc. for a moment. Christians simply cannot continue to hold the positions that Driscoll and Olson espouse anymore. The history of the church from the very outset is marked with accepting radically different beliefs and practices (or lack of practices) into the church community. That doesn’t mean there should be no attempt to talk about normative practice or belief. But that normative activity is fluid, not solid. It has to be able to flex, to grow in order to account for human history, for new cultural contexts. When Roger Olson or Mark Driscoll place a boundary around what it is to be Christian, around what truth is, they are actually placing limits around what the gospel can do more than what it should be. You, me, Driscoll, and Olson are human beings. We are thrown into a particular time and place from which we must think and write. We may believe that the gospel message transcends that, can speak across history and culture, and that’s great, but don’t for one second believe that you do.

On Recovering Dialectic in Argument

A few years ago, I was teaching college freshmen how to write argumentative research papers: Taking a side of a particular issue and using actual research to make a compelling case for that side. Invariably, I would have a student who was especially passionate about a particular topic: legalizing marijuana, abortion rights, and lowering the drinking age were what drew the most attention. These papers were always well researched; it seemed as though students thought that if they could convince me, they would have an impenetrable case for something that was deeply important to them–a worthwhile endeavor. The most glaring issue with a large number of these papers, however, was that they typically failed to take into account the opposing viewpoint. The university at which I taught even had a database called Opposing Viewpoints as part of its library resources which linked students to a variety of periodical and peer reviewed sources. As a result many of these papers ended up being a victory parade before any challenger was ever faced: a self-congratulatory exercise. The best papers I received always took their opposition seriously and tried their best to meet those challenges head on, whether they were entirely convincing or not. Sometimes engagement with the other side even led a student to change his or her position.

I want to state a case for something very simple that has been important in the philosophical understanding of rhetorical argument but which I very much doubt has ever been a consciously recognized tool in popular argumentation. Dialectic, which I will define in a minute, is a tool as old as Plato that would be immensely helpful if applied publicly. By “publicly,” I don’t mean in the political sphere necessarily (though it certainly couldn’t hurt), or the Media at large (because critical thought is not what they’re in the business of selling), and I’m not really interested in arguing for its importance within the Church as such (then again, a little could go a long way); my aims aren’t that grandiose. I just want my friends to use it, at least think about using it, in social media when they’re arguing about issues like gun control, gay marriage, or any other myriad of hot topics that seems to flood my newsfeed daily.

Argument is a techne, to use Aristotle’s term–an art. It requires finesse, guile, and above all a level head in order to see how one can appeal to those one is attempting to reach. It seems over the last five years or so with the exponential rise Internet message boards and social media comment threads, we’ve been bombarded by voices upon voices screaming their viewpoints at the top of their lungs. At the risk of oversimplifying, there seem to be two options: Ignore those sorts of conversations altogether, or change the disposition with which we enter them in the first place. What I want to propose here is called dialectic, but it doesn’t even need that name. It’s simply taking a viewpoint opposed to yours seriously enough to critically reflect on it and honestly ask yourself if there is something worthwhile there that you may be missing. This isn’t as a hard and fast system of rules by which we must abide; it’s a guide and a means for opening the door to productive discourse in the first place.

Dialectic consists of three parts: Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. If you ever participated in a “Socratic Seminar” method of classroom discussion in high school or college, then you’ve probably encountered this either explicitly or not. The idea is that one person offers a claim, a thesis statement. This is countered by another statement, the antithesis. The method, recognizing that there is probably value in both statements, seeks to draw out the truth kernel in each and form a synthesis of both, thus creating a new thesis statement. The process then starts over until, as Socrates [Plato] hoped, one arrives at Truth itself where no more antitheses may be offered against the True thesis statement.

The problem with most popular political debates is that they begin from the point of Truth. That is, the first argument offered is itself Truth in the mind of the person offering it. There is nothing more to be said except subpoints which can do nothing but support the initial truth claim. Those themselves are of course true because the initial statement is. This is called circular reasoning. At the risk of being incendiary, take this example:

P1: All marriages are between man and woman.

P2: All homosexual relationships are between man and man or woman and woman

Q: Therefore, all marriages exclude homosexual relationships.

This simple syllogism (a kind of logical philosophical argument) is logically valid but not logically sound. It’s valid because we have two premises and a conclusion drawn from them that doesn’t contradict either. But if we think about the premises, we might see a problem. Both are definitional, but only one is what we would call a tautology: P2. Put simply, a tautology is a statement in which the predicate repeats what the subject is in all possible interpretations. In other words, we define a homosexual relationship as a relationship between two people of the same sex. There is no other way to interpret the term “homosexual relationship.” But consider P1. A person making this argument would probably assume that P1 is also a tautology. But it begs the question: Is it? Is marriage only between man and woman? This is indeed the very crux of the debate itself. P1 is not an agreed-upon definition for marriage; to state it as such is to inevitably draw a fallacious, unsound conclusion. That’s not to say one couldn’t make a case for why P1 should be accepted, and if you’re compelled to quote the Bible or talk about God’s covenant, then I’ve done my job–you realize that further proof is needed for P1.

Dialectic demands two things of us in an argument. First, we are required  not to begin with Truth, but to realize that one’s initial proposition is simply a thesis that one expects to be rebutted with an intelligent antithesis. (The word “intelligent” is problematic, of course, in these sorts of disagreements because the assumption on both sides is almost always that the opposition is not intelligent; for our purposes, however, we will proceed as if the opposition does have some degree of intelligence. We want to be generous dialecticians.) Second, the method forces us to listen to the opposing viewpoint receptively. Dialectic doesn’t work if we’re not actively trying to draw out what might be true in what the other person is saying.

That’s all I’m after here. What would a social media debate look like if two (or more) people engaged in this type of discussion or, at the very least, allowed it to inform how they enter into these sorts of disagreements? I’d like to go one small step further and submit that even if a person on the other side of the fence seems unwilling to engage in this sort of discussion, begins with a mild insult, etc., it is still possible to treat that person’s propositions as theses to be considered and synthesized if for no other reason than to exercise our own critical thought muscles. I want to expand our notion of what is engageable in argument and how we should go about engaging others (to an extent and within one’s own practical limits of course. There are most certainly very serious exceptions where a proposition is simply abusive, offensive, and genuinely offers no usable insight, but at that point, one should feel no guilt about simply exiting the thread.)

With these very basic principles of argument in mind, even engaging someone like this Sam Elliot meme should be possible.


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.
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.
           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.


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.


            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.


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


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   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> 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.”

Reimagining the Seminary

This essay originally appeared in Fuller’s campus magazine, The SEMI. What follows here is a revised version of the original essay, which can be read on The SEMI’s website.

* * *

I have to begin by overstating the humility with which I’ve tried to write about the future of seminary. Like writing about the future of anything, we have to first say, “We don’t really know what is going to happen.” What I write about here is also deeply rooted in my personal experience of seminary. Of course, those who know me well know that I don’t believe in the possibility of an objective point of view, but I find it necessary to acknowledge that my observations come from what I and others I know have seen.

The future of seminary is vastly complicated because it is the only institution I know of that is affixed and must answer to a particular culture [Christianity] but also the larger culture in which the particular is embedded [both Academia and American/Western culture.] We have a double consideration, two standards, sometimes competing, held in tension together. That tension is worth exploring because it is within it that I believe seminary must forge ahead into the future.

When I think about the first consideration, our particular Christian culture, here’s what scares me, and many others I’m sure, about viewing the future of seminary pessimistically:

The perception of many today seems to be that Christianity, Western and American in particular, has regularly failed over the last century to address the serious questions and most pressing problems held by our larger culture in any relevant way mostly because of the rise of fundamentalism. Think about the focus of the media on very particular aspects of the Christian public persona. The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, the false dichotomy painted by mainstream cable news networks [CNN, Fox News] all point to a severe mis-education [there is certainly no lack of bad education out there] of both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Seminary seems vital because, given this climate, we need educated pastors to speak the healing power of the Gospel into those situations because I believe that the Gospel narrative provides us with the tools to overcome empire, violence, and empty religion. I know Fuller offers that sort of education. I’ve seen it completely overwhelm fellow students to the point of breaking down as in some sort of conversion experience or manifest itself in a standing ovation for a professor who has masterfully and compassionately demolished pervasive and damaging readings of Scripture or understandings of doctrine. Fuller grads [and current students] are out in the world working for the sort of difference that I’m taking about, fighting against the public perception that Christianity is a religion of fundamentalism, whether directly or indirectly.

Yet, is seminary necessarily the location of that sort of learning? I don’t know that it is. I think it is a mistake to assume that people can’t learn how to properly read Scripture and be transformed by it and thus lead other people to the same transformation without a seminary education. Not just a mistake—it’s wrong on every level. It ignores history, and like many others have with the same hubris, such a belief claims the end of history. This is as good as it will ever get. It’s hegemonic. It assumes that millions of pastors around the world who are legitimately doing God’s work are under-qualified and what—perhaps not really doing God’s work? Is Fuller or any seminary in the world prepared to say that? Maybe some are, but I know Fuller isn’t. The question isn’t whether or not education itself is important. It is vital. I just see seminary as one option, born out of a particular culture and not as the pinnacle of all theological learning. Thus, any reflection on the future of seminary must first recognize that we are not the height of understanding when it comes to theology. There is no Babel here.

We also have to recognize that believing a seminary education is necessary for the practice of ministry, as most mainline and evangelical denominations do, also assumes that seminary adequately prepares students for pastoral ministry in the first place. It’s no secret that Fuller has struggled to make Ministry Division courses relevant to MDiv students. Those course requirements are one of the primary reasons many people switch from the MDiv to the MAT every year. Who wants to pay $10,000 or more in tuition and add another 18 months of time for courses that are teaching you something you are learning already in practice at your church? Maybe those courses simply can’t teach certain things that practice or even other programs can give students, especially for students who are planning to enter a specialized ministry area.

A friend of mine dropped out of Fuller this quarter. The news was surprising to me at first. He had already put over a year into his MDiv, so I wondered, Why now? When I asked him what he was going to do instead, he told me he was applying to MSW [Master of Social Work] programs. “So you want to be a case manager, work for the government?” I asked him.

“Oh, no way,” he replied. He had recently been brought on as the Pastor for Recovery Ministry at his church. “I just realized that an MDiv wasn’t going to give me the training that an MSW would for what I’m doing. I really wanted to believe that I could get that at Fuller. But I won’t.”

His decision is a really important picture of the future of ministry not only because he is proving one does not need an MDiv to do ministry, that other graduate programs may actually prove to be more useful, but also because it alludes to the reality that the days of the theology or Bible major who goes to seminary and becomes a pastor are dwindling. Look at the wide, wide, range of educational backgrounds students at Fuller come with. I know more fellow English majors than I do Theology, Bible, or Christian Studies majors. Part of that is Fuller seems to attract many students who are looking to expand their horizons beyond their particular perspective. Many of us are looking for an intellectual challenge, a forging of our faith rather than a confirmation of things we already think we know.

Still, it may only be a matter of time before most people who feel called explicitly to ministry simply go directly into church leadership, or non-profit work, or missions, bypassing seminary all together, allowing the church itself [organization or mission field] to be the training ground. More and more church plants seem to value real world experience rather than seminary experience in their pastors. [Note that I’m not talking about those churches that take an anti-intellectual stance towards theological and biblical study.] More and more church goers want to know that the person who is helping them through their struggles with the real world also lives in the real world, is affected by the real world, exists outside of the circles of Christianity—which can be vast and impenetrable to some people. I don’t think we lose anything if one day we end up going to a model that resembles this—as long as honest, critical education as opposed to indoctrination exists.

This is where seminary can maintain its relevance. All of what I’ve said so far may seem like I’ve been pointing to the growing obscurity of seminary. However, there are developments occurring outside the seminary in that second sphere, secular academia, which say otherwise and may help us reimagine the purpose of seminary—not as a location of practice but as a space to explore the significance of religion and theology in both academic and public life. Stanley Fish, in his New York Times blog, writes from time to time about the growing pessimism surrounding the humanities and the arts at colleges and universities around the country. The study of religion possesses the good fortune of being situated sort of on the border of the humanities and the social sciences. Religion is a social, human phenomenon and thus is an object of study of anthropologists, sociologists, archaeologists, and so on—people who can secure major federal funding for their research projects. However, in recent years, it has also gained renewed interest among humanities disciplines, particularly literature, philosophy, and film studies.

Fish usually alludes to this intersection, and in this case from his December 26th post in which he is surveying the changing landscape of the latest MLA [Modern Language Association] Conference presentation catalog, Fish is referring to literary studies:

Religion is the location of, and for many the source of, renewal, aspiration, redemption and hope. The very fact that so many papers explore the intersection of literature and religion may be evidence that literary studies are attached to a value that will sustain them even in these hard times.

The hard times he is referring to are the questions of relevance that have been circling the humanities for the last decade like vultures. People make a number of arguments in support of the humanities: They produce more well-rounded citizens and workers, they enhance our culture. They give life a certain value that cold, fact-laden Science, simply cannot produce. But no one really believes those any more. English professors can’t pull in federal research dollars like physics professors can, and that really is the bottom line for university administrators, as Fish wrote in an October 2010 post regarding SUNY Albany President George Philip cutting the French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theatre departments from the university. What humanities discipline is safe? Maybe none. But perhaps the question of “relevance” occurs because we are too close, too caught up in Enlightenment thinking that has refused to die in culture—that scientific and science-related disciplines [finance, for example] are the only “practical” degrees offered. Perhaps it is also blindly tied to the inescapability of capitalism. You’re getting a science degree so you can get a job that pays well, or because it’s easy to find a job. You’re getting a degree in art or music because you can teach or you hope to be paid for your performance. We tend to measure seminary the same way: With the rising cost of tuition, is an MDiv really worth the money? How can a new pastor expect to be paid enough to begin paying off the debt he or she racked up in seminary? And if we’re talking about making a seminary education strictly academic, then doesn’t that make the problem worse?

Fish makes the case that these sorts of “outside” considerations—opinions about certain disciplines held mostly by the man-in-the-street—are not asking the right questions when it comes to their relevance. Instead of asking whether or not an academic discipline like theology or religion can compete practically in the free market with a degree in chemistry, we should be asking whether or not theology and religion are disciplines that the chemist would find useful, that would inform his work in a way beyond the sphere of personal spirituality. The seminary could be a place that more fully explores the intersection of religion and other disciplines. We already do that at Fuller. We’ve had courses on biomedical ethics, literature and theology, film and theology, theological anthropology. We have professors (Nancey Murphy, Robert Johnston, and Bill Dyrness all come immediately to mind) who are already able to explore the intersections of disciplines from the arts to the sciences with religion. Fuller offers two, sometimes three courses a term that could be deemed interdisciplinary. Imagine five or six more training students to flesh out the ways in which religion informs and is informed by other disciplines.

Of course, this is tricky, because theology can never be a purely second order discipline, which is what I’m describing above. Fish doesn’t take his idea of disciplines informing one another as far as theology proper. He uses examples like French or classics in conjunction with architecture or engineering. And he’s taking about universities with multiple colleges and departments. Theology is a special discipline and seminary a special case. We cannot forget about that first sphere. Here’s that tension coming back again.

Before coming to Fuller in 2009, I was living in Fort Collins, earning an MA in English at the University of Northern Colorado, working on a career as a composition instructor, and becoming increasingly fascinated with how post-structural thought related to the future of the Church. My closest friend while living out there, the associate pastor of the church I was attending, said this to me: “The study of theology has to come back to Earth somehow. Because the Bible isn’t something we just read and dissect; it’s something we live. The last thing the world needs is more scholars in ivory towers—especially scholars of Christianity.”

The most dangerous thing about suggesting that the seminary evolve into a space for the exploration of theology and religion’s intersection with and reciprocal impact upon other disciplines is that seminary could also very easily become a place that furthers a separation between academically elite Christians and those who are self-taught, devout followers of Christ. No location of theological education can become a purely academic institution. If taken to the extreme, what I’ve suggested would be terribly damaging because Christianity is first and foremost a lived faith, theology a lived discipline. This is where our education differs the greatest from other graduate programs. To illustrate this difference with an analogy, note how Fish describes the line between literary studies and literature appreciation:

The “Hamlet” you enjoy as a reader or a playgoer is one thing; the “Hamlet” laid out and etherized upon an academic’s table is another. The first needs no defense. [. . .] There is no reason that non-academics should understand or appreciate the academic analysis of the aesthetic productions they love with no academic help at all. The mistake is to think that the line of justification should go from the pleasure many derive from plays, poems, novels, films, etc., to a persuasive account of how academic work enhances or even produces that pleasure. It may or may not, but if it does, that’s an accidental benefit.

Replace “Hamlet” with “Jesus” or “Paul.” Replace “aesthetic productions” and “plays, poems, novels, films, etc.” with “biblical texts.” Replace “pleasure” with “understanding” [though pleasure can certainly be an effect of the Bible.] Suddenly, I’m not that comfortable with a defense like this for the study of Christianity. Should the Jesus or Paul I understand as a graduate student and aspiring scholar be different than the Jesus or Paul that the people in the congregation of my church, the students of my youth group, or even my own family understand? If so, then what’s the point of studying and making arguments about scripture? Fish can argue that such a study of literature or French philosophy or whatever can inform other disciplines. I’ve made the case that the study of religion can as well—but not without working toward a shared understanding among all believers. Christianity has absolutely no meaning apart from the believers who live it everyday. There is no such thing as theological analysis apart living it, no academic table apart from the pleasure of the text.

That is the crux, the greatest point of tension when considering the future of seminary: With the increasing irrelevance of practical training for ministry, how do we make the academic study of theology, Christianity, and religion in general practical and relevant for all believers? How do we return theology to Earth?

I don’t think anyone could ever answer that question definitively, but we should allow it to shape our imaginations as we consider the future of the seminary.

by Joel Harrison

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


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