Category Archives: Biblical Studies

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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A Brief Discourse on Justice

“When justice is divorced from morality, when rights of individuals are separated from right and wrong, the only definition you have left for justice is the right for every individual to do as he pleases. And the end of that road is anarchy and barbarism.” – John Piper

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t a post about John Piper or even fundamentalism per se. Taking them down is too easy, and frankly, they see enough abuse from other progressives. I say that because what I want to suggest in this post might at first sound rather pedestrian, some kind of banal plea for social justice. But stick with me. I intend to do a few posts about justice, so in this one, I’m just trying to lay out the primary tension and raise some really difficult questions.

I’ve been thinking about justice a lot since moving to Chicago. I now live in a city that suffers some of the worst systemic oppression in the country (not that Los Angeles is much better), and I live in a neighborhood (Rogers Park) that experiences a large portion of that. I live among people who, according John Piper’s understanding of justice, deserve some sort of punishment–not the justice that comes through the undoing of systemic oppression.

The understanding of justice posited above begs two important questions:

Is justice tied to morality, and if so, how?

Christians tend to think of justice in two fundamentally distinct ways: Legal and Social. Most Christians probably wouldn’t disagree with Piper, i.e. we need morality or else civilization degenerates into anarchy. I also don’t doubt that most Christians, including Piper, have a heart for the poor and oppressed. That varies widely in how it’s embodied, but I think most Christians today know that’s part of the program, and they want to participate, whether they really mean it or not. The problem is that these two categories aren’t divided so neatly. It’s not as if all those who suffer under systemic oppression are really saints with hearts of gold in desperate need of liberation. Many who would qualify under the Social probably also qualify under the Legal understandings of justice. So if we really want to stick to the legal/moral understanding of justice–that true justice punishes the wicked and vindicates the righteous–we have to shuffle a bit if we also want to be biblical followers of Christ and address the social. In other words, it’s really tough to love a homeless drug addict with the love of Christ when you also feel pretty strongly that he should go to prison for the stealing the money he needed to buy his drugs.

I know some might object to the idea that Jesus didn’t have a moral understanding of justice. He did, but not in the sense of bringing punitive justice to the rule-breakers. For Jesus, the true moral breach was living in a way that did not bring liberating justice to the poor and oppressed. That is his message to the Pharisees. (See Matthew 23:23, for example.)

Here’s the primary problem: Why should it make sense to us to tie justice primarily to punishment when the gospels seem to tie it to liberation?

Why is it that we’re perfectly comfortable with our notion of “God’s love” exceeding our wildest expectations and definitions, yet when it comes to justice, we seem to want to limit God to an exact replica of our own penal system? Why wouldn’t “God’s justice” be just as radical as God’s love? And why wouldn’t those two things be tied together?

The typical response to this sort of question is, “Oh, but they are! You see, when a parent loves a child, she disciplines that child for the things he does wrong. It is just that the child be punished for the things he does wrong.”

There are two glaring problems with this.

1) We don’t love our criminals. That isn’t why we punish them. When we think of the people who are “going to hell,” we think of the “bad guys” (probably because it’s too painful to think of some atheist relative, but that’s a future post.) We want the people who have done us wrong punished. We want them to suffer a bit–or a lot. Most of us have never been wronged in any serious way by a criminal, yet we still demand punishment, mostly because we sense that it will make us safer. That’s what the Piper quote at the beginning is getting at. If there’s not punishment, all us civilized folk are going to be forced into a state of anarchy. That might be the case for describing a practical social structure. But that has less to do with some notion of maintaining morality for the sake of morality than it does just making sure we can walk safely on our own street (and I recognize that even those points are debatable.)

2) People who make the above claim always forget the second part of it: Forgiveness. The punishment doesn’t work the way the parent intends unless the child is allowed to return to the loving arms of the parent. If you’ve been scouring the gospels this whole time for the place where Jesus tells the adulterous woman to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11),  you need to ask yourself: If the woman did continue to sin, would Jesus not continue to welcome her back regardless of whether or not she repented? And that isn’t even the whole verse:

10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”

11 She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” [CEB]

Jesus doesn’t condemn her, and I think it would be hard to make the case that he would change his mind regardless of whether or not she followed his final instruction to her. (Of course, this is all ignoring that John 7:53-8:11 is a disputed section of the gospel anyway. Critical editions of the Greek New Testament don’t have it. So if one really wanted frame Jesus as a moralist out to nab the rule-breakers of the Ancient Near East, one would need to look elsewhere.)

The extreme tension in understanding what justice is according to Jesus comes when we try to reconcile our moralist sensibilities with the fact that Jesus welcomes everyone and doesn’t condemn them. That starts raising all sorts of grinding, insomnia inducing questions about murderers, sex offenders… Questions that cannot be written off or taken lightly, but questions that we’ll have to cover later.

There is only one group of people Jesus says are excluded from the his kingdom. He says everyone except those who wield power against the poor and oppressed are welcome in the kingdom of God. And it isn’t because there’s some sort of “sin force field” keeping the power wielders out. It’s that the kind of thing that the kingdom of God is is the kind of thing that they absolutely despise. Those on the outside, in the outer darkness that Jesus speaks of in Matthew, aren’t weeping and gnashing their teeth because they’re being horrifically tortured–it’s because the kindgom of God is an absolute affront to the power they hold so dear, and they just can’t stand it. They can’t bear to see God’s justice being handed down–not against them but for those they were against. The powerless coming to power.

It might seem like our notion of justice is a bit of a mess at this point. There’s a lot I haven’t addressed yet. We haven’t really defined “sin.” As I’ve alluded to, we haven’t talked about justice for victims of crime, especially violent crime, about justice for victims of despots like Hitler or Stalin. We haven’t talked about what forgiveness is or might look like in any of those situations. Those are all very important points. What I want to do in subsequent posts is tease out the ways in which even our conceptions of what justice should be like in these situations is challenged by the nature of God as I want to suggest it. For now though, let’s think about what the implications might be for the sort of justice I’m suggesting. What do we lose if we remove morality from the equation? What do we gain?

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For Your Reading Pleasure…

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

You can read here: Flux of Thought

You can follow the blog on Twitter here: @fluxofthought

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

(audio and notes) Merold Westphal’s Philosophical Hermeneutics

For the last two weeks, I took an intensive on philosophical hermeneutics at Fuller by visiting professor Dr. Merold Westphal.  I was so excited to get to study under a philosopher of his caliber (who has devoted a great deal of his career to exploring hermeneutics), having read several of his books before.  The class exceeded all expectations, and I suspect when I look back at my time at Fuller, it will be the class that shaped me the most.  And a shout out to all the guys in my class whose conversations together on the material we covered made the class even better!  I only wish we had more than a day and a half at the end to cover the distanciation found via the hermeneutics of suspicion in Neitzsche, Marx, and Freud.

Also, we got Dr. Westphal to sit down and ruminate on the current interaction of theology within Continental philosophy for the Homebrewed Christianity podcast!  I’ll be sure to update you when the interview posts.

As for the material itself, we started with the developement of Romantic era hermeneutics at the time of Schleiermacher.  This era prized deregionalization, the Schleiermachean hermeneutical circle, psychologism, and objectivism.  From there, we traced the past two centuries of hermeneutical and linguistic development through Dilthey, Hirsch, Wolterstorff, Gadamer, Derrida, Ricoeur, and others.  We arrive at the “death of the author.”  Gadamer’s thesis is not that the author has no role in determining the meaning of the text, but that we have no definitive access to what the author intented (nor, ultimately, does the author herself know exactly what she meant by the text she wrote, since there are always factors outside our awareness that find themselves in our text).  In practice, this means that any interpretation/application of the text involves the reader inserting his/her own meaning into the text.  We never “just see” what the text “plainly says.”  Neither do we even have the option of simply returning to “the original intent of the author.”

Regarding the death of the author, I remember several years ago when it first occurred to me how odd it is that we so confidently reinforce doctrinal conclusions from one Biblical writer by supporting it with verses written by another.  It is not that the whole cannot ever be used to support the part (and vice versa), but this should always be done with a fair amount of skepticism and a great amount of care.  I had realized it should be patently obvious that the writers were not all working from the same theology (indeed, what two people ever agree on everything), and from there, the obvious question is “how much of that disagreement gets recorded in the text?”  An easy example of this is the recent debate that has played out in Evangelicalism over the unpopularity of Hell; many have retorted “what does the Bible say?” as if the text has a unified doctrine of afterlife.  The clear problem is that an afterlife did not begin to really develop within Israelite-Jewish thought until the 6th century BCE, meaning Abraham, Isaaac, Jacob, and Moses would have differed with Ezra and Nehemiah (who would have differed with Paul, and so forth).  This gets resolved in one of three ways.  1) you can acknowledge the ambiguity and dissonance in the text (which is the position I take). 2) You may claim God-as-author overrides all human influence/difference/ambiguity in the text. 3) Westphal notes that the doctrine of perspecuity in the Reformed tradition emerged to deal with this.  Perspecuity essentially claims that if you interpret the text correctly, you are “just seeing” the plain meaning of the text.  Option 2 is a properly theological claim (if speculative, unsubstantiated, and a priori), and option 3 is more a hermeneutical method that, inevitably, retreats from all modern progress in hermeneutics.

I cannot tell you how helpful this has been and how much I wish more people grappled with these concepts.  Psychologism is the term for the intent of the author in his/her own mind.  Psychologism, along with objectivism, was a staple of hermeneutics two centuries ago, but has since been demonstated to be impossible.  But you wouldn’t know that from popular discourse in religion and politics.  We naturally tend to submerge into the illusion that a theological conclusion can be derived only from “what the text plainly says” and “what the original author plainly meant.”  Hermeneutics since Schleiermacher has progressively dismantled this, resulting in the complete deconstruction of the text with Jacques Derrida.  In other words, there is a giant chasm between the hermeneutics taught at the academy and the naive realism reinforced by pulpits and pundits.  That lead me to ask Dr. Westphal a question during our last Q/A session about the role of hermeneutics in theology: if the so much of theological discourse essentially ignores the progress made in hermeneutics over the last two centuries, what hope do we have for dialogue with those who admit no need for hermeneutics?  His answer was that there may be none at all.  I’m hoping there is a better way forward.

Several friends asked for the audio of the class.  I hope the ordering is clear enough (1a is day one, session one.  2d is day two, session 4, and so forth). Here it is, all 30+ hours of Westphal’s hermeneutics:

Week 1

Westphal 1a Intro and Schleiermacher

Westphal 1b Intro and Schleiermacher

Westphal 1c Intro and Schleiermacher 

Westphal 1d Intro and Schleiermacher 

Westphal 2a Speech Act and Heidegger

Westphal 2b Speech Act and Heidegger

Westphal 2c Speech Act and Heidegger

Westphal 2d Speech Act and Heidegger

Westphal 3a Wolterstorff and Speech Act

Westphal 3b Wolterstorff and Speech Act

Westphal 3c Wolterstorff and Speech Act

Westphal 3d Wolterstorff and Speech Act

Westphal 4a Gadamer

Westphal 4b Gadamer

Westphal 4c Gadamer

Week 2

Westphal 5a review

Westphal 5b Gadamer

Westphal 5c Gadamer

Westphal 6a Art

Westphal 6b art

Westphal 6c art

Westphal 6d art

Westphal 7a Gadamer

Westphal 7b Gadamer and power

Westphal 7c hermeneutics of suspicion

Westphal 7d legality and perspicuity

Westphal 8a Gadamer

Westphal 8b Conversation

Westphal 8c habermas

Westphal 8d Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Westphal 9a QA

Westphal 9b Freud

Westphal 9c Hermeneutics of Suspicion

by Tad DeLay

Border Breaking

I can’t take full credit for the basis of this post, since it came from an insight a friend offered up during a group discussion in our Matthew book study this summer at Fuller. We were discussing Matthew 16:21-23, where Peter, who had just been named the rock upon which Jesus would build his church, suddenly finds himself as the stumbling block, failing to understand Jesus’ declaration of his own death. The friend pointed out that the disciples, being ancient Jews, had no category for understanding resurrection. That was not part of the Jews’ understanding of death. When one died, one was simply dead.

It is sometimes difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples, to try to remember that they, being first century Jews, thought of things differently than we do today. It’s one thing to talk about the fact that the Messiah defied expectations. History tells us that the Jews were expecting their Messiah to come and liberate them from imperial rule, to overthrow their oppressors, once and for all, to put the power back into their hands—olam. This is demonstrated by the [disastrous] revolts led by Judas Maccabaeus (167-160 BCE) and Simon bar Giora (70 CE). This is why Jesus waits to reveal his death explicitly; he needs the disciples to come to their own conclusion that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Had he told the disciples from the beginning that he must die and be raised again, there’s a good chance they simply would not have followed him. Who wants to follow a dead Messiah? What good can a dead Messiah be in a revolution to seize power back from the Gentile oppressors for the nation of Israel?

We tend to rebuke Peter with Jesus at this point, saying, “Didn’t he hear what Jesus said? He’ll be raised again! C’mon, Peter. You’re smarter than that.” Peter’s response is borne out of two things we have difficulty understanding. First, is his expectation for who the Messiah is—and it is not at all what Jesus has just revealed to them. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the exact subversive act of humility that destroys the satanic vision of the Messiah (remember Matthew 4?) that Peter and so many other children of Israel have in mind without ever seeing it as such. Peter is expecting the sword. He’s expecting Jesus to ride into Jerusalem on a warhorse, to lead a horde against the oppressors, to obliterate them of the face of the earth. Peter is looking to win no matter what the cost. This is the way Satan offers Jesus—use your power to bring the world under your feet—which is what elicits Jesus’ response to Peter. In this moment, Jesus is requiring what we call today a Gestalt switch—a change in worldview—with regard to his belief in the Messiah.

But there is something else in Peter’s way, and this is where my friend’s point becomes so vital. Peter did hear, but he was incapable of understanding at that precise moment, not only because of his worldview and lifelong expectations regarding the Messiah but because Peter had no category with which to understand the resurrection Jesus is talking about. It’s not as though resurrection didn’t happen before Jesus—it did. There are three occurrences in the Old Testament: one involving Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24), another Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-37), and the third Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:21.) The account of Matthew 16 also appears in Mark 8, both of which occur before Jesus begins brining the dead back to life. The common thread between all of these resurrections is the intervention of someone else—someone great. The moment Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection, the bit about coming back to life is most likely immediately dismissed by not just Peter but the rest of the disciples as well. Which one of them could perform such a task—raising the supposed Messiah from the dead? This is why we can say that Peter had no category, no way to comprehend what Jesus was talking about. All he knew in that moment was that the man he had been following, who he believed was the Messiah is now telling him that he must die. Jesus, however, is demanding through his rebuke that this border of Peter’s be broken.

This leads us to consider a vitally important, potentially terrifying point for us today: What categories do we lack? What borders is Christ calling us to break? Do we ever even recognize that we are lacking categories of understanding?

The answer is no. We don’t. Unfortunately, we tend to think that because we have the Bible and have had it for nearly two thousand years now, we are already given all of the categories we need. I wonder though about something like human sexuality. Is this a category we fully understand? I think that the typical Christian response to something like gay marriage demonstrates that it is not. Many tend to read Romans 1:26-32 as very explicitly talking about homosexuality as we know it today, in general. To be homosexual is to be an abomination, given up to lustful passion. However, one only needs to make a few gay friends to suddenly be confused about how this could be the case. Christians tend to find it surprising (sometimes terrifying) that members of the homosexual community are people, just like them, possibly sharing the same interests, hopes, dreams—even the same faith. Certainly immorality exists in that community. Immorality exists in all communities.

Exegeting Romans 1 is beside the point here though. What we need to understand is that there’s a good chance that particular categories, whether they be general (personhood, human sexuality) or more theologically specific (sacrament, revelation) are not fixed, which is how we tend to think of them in the everyday.

We see what happens to Peter in this process of unfixing. Once Jesus is arrested, he and the rest of the disciples scatter—right after Peter (according to John) draws his sword and cuts of the ear of the slave to the high priest. He’s not there yet. His Messiah is still the satanic messiah who would utterly destroy his enemies at any cost. In his defeat, Peter denies knowing Jesus three times. He thinks that his side has lost. He’s not prepared to deny Jesus when he still believes Jesus is the all-powerful Son of God who is preparing to lead Israel to war in which victory is assured. Once Jesus is arrested and sentenced to crucifixion, Peter is certain they’ve lost, and if he doesn’t forget Jesus and move on, he’ll be next.

He’s missed the most important part of Jesus teaching: to gain all, one must lose all—that the only way of the Messiah is through the cross. That is the way of Israel’s future. That the coming of the Son of Man is not a one-time event—it is eternal. Yet even though Peter was badly mistaken, once he realized his mistake (following the resurrection), he was empowered and became a champion for the church. Why, then, do we fear being wrong about something like human sexuality? It’s because we take that part of the story for granted. We’re already reading Peter as the father of the church from the very beginning. We don’t let the story come to us. Avid readers know that there’s something to be said for allowing a narrative to unfold for you again and again—that even if we are anticipating what happens next, we allow ourselves to get lost in the story. We forget to do that with the gospels.

I’m not calling for an oversimplification here. It would be really easy for me to say: “The answer is we just love each other, just like Jesus loved everyone” or “Hey, be humble!” or “Take up your cross daily.” But those kind of pastoral platitudes have little meaning to us anymore. We have to look beyond these commands to what their implications are and to what they mean in the context of a world that is all around us screaming things that sound very similar or are identical—we become messianic, in solidarity with Christ, when we die to ourselves. We usher in God’s kingdom to the here and now. That’s probably a good starting place. However, all of this points to something very important: love and humility, even the cross, are not categories we fully understand either. The problem then is bigger than an inability to understand something like human sexuality because once we understand those who are other than us, what do we do with that if we don’t understand how to love?

But this is jumping ahead too far. Jesus didn’t ask Peter what he was going to do in the face of the resurrection or how he was going to make his own disciples while Peter was still struggling with the reality that his Messiah had to die. What we need to do first is recognize that we have some horizons which need unfixing. We don’t know what love, humility, or the cross is in totality. And that’s okay. Paradoxically, it’s that recognition that allows us to pick up our cross and do those things better.

by Joel Harrison