Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Aliens and the Law

The following is a blog post written a few years ago by my friend and respected teacher Paul Zahl:

Aliens and the Law

It is amazing. I heard about a sermon preached recently at a large and celebrated evangelical church (not in Pittsburgh), and it was that massive same-old, same-old. The preacher said that there are two questions we shall all be asked on Judgment Day: One, did we accept Christ? And Two, how did we do after we had accepted Christ? He said that he “guaranteed” that we would all be asked these two questions.

Now here is this preacher acting like Britney Spears: “Oops! I did it again.” Oops, I preached the Law again, to Christians. I started by preaching the Grace of God – that is, before you accepted Christ – but then, after you became a Christian, it’s the Law for you!

This is just the same thing we hear everywhere and Sunday after Sunday, from here to eternity. You preach forgiveness to sinners, then once they respond in joy to that great enabling word, you place their necks securely under the Law.

I note that more and more of our students are referring to Christianity as “covenantal nomism.” This is a technical phrase from the “new perspective on Paul,” according to which Paul’s idea of Christianity was simply that of his rabbinic colleagues – i.e., “covenantal nomism” – with the little extra additive of Christ being the Messiah. The actual religion of Christianity was, and is, just Judaism minus the body-piercing and the special diet. Jews are covenantal nomists, and Christians are lucky to be the same, but without the ethnic part.

The preacher who sang the song of “Oops! I did it again” – which is to say, rats, he preached the Law instead of the Gospel, like just about every single one of his evangelical co-religionists – is the Gentile embodiment of a First-Century rabbi, with, again, that little messianic plus.
This is terrible.

The conservative Christians are preaching the Law. The liberal Christians are preaching the Law – and in the case of ECUSA bishops, canon Law. So where is there a place for any son of Adam or daughter of Eve to lay his head?


Which brings me back to Aliens, and Jesus Christ.

I inventoried my Outer Space videos the other night and divided them into a couple of categories. First, there are movies in which the alien is pure Law and attack, utter and decisive judgment. Such as The Thing and It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Second, there are movies in which the alien is well-meaning but misunderstood, such as It Came From Outer Space and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Third, there are movies in which the alien is truly benign and dear, such as The Bellero Shield (Outer Limits) and Rod Serling’s The Gift (Twilight Zone). In the latter category, the aliens are almost always Christ-figures.

What you see in the movies is paralleled precisely in theology. All aliens are obtrusive and intruding, and fully other. They are not nice and they are not humane and they are definitely not Grace-filled. They are pure Law, and suppressive and controlling, and often terminating.

The best alien story ever written is the story of Christ’s coming to the earth. Why? Because it is truly an alien story. The gift of Grace is alien to the human condition. Grace is not Law. It does not accuse, nor does it demand, nor does it legislate, nor does it require. It sets all that aside. The best tag-line for a science-fiction move that has ever been written was written by St. Paul, when he said, “Christ is the end of the Law, for them that believe” (Romans 10:4).
That is alien wisdom. It could never have come from a human hand.

We would have put in requirements, or conditions, or “tweaked” it (a truly Legal phrase), or talked about “good cop, bad cop,” or put it in our own action-consequence lingo. We could never, ever have come up with something like, “Christ is the end of the Law.” And for Christians, no less.

St. Paul was not a “covenantal nomist.”

Flee churches that place nice Christian sufferers under the Law.

But… where will you go?

Love, and always, your,PZ

P.S. If you want to watch a nice movie this Saturday afternoon while they are counting the ballots in San Francisco, put on It Came from Beneath the Sea. It is easily available at any Best Buy or from Netflix, and its plot (and locale) speaks for itself.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Perfect Power Casts Out All Love

Two excerpts from the biography Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore chronicling the early religious education of Joseph Stalin:

The Empire's seminaries were "notorious for the savagery of their customs, medieval
pedagoguery, and law of the fist," comments [Leon] Trotsky. "All the vices banned by the Holy Scriptures flourished in this hotbed of piety."

The seminary was to pull off the singular achievement of supplying the Russian Revolution with some of its most ruthless radicals. "No secular school," wrote another seminarist, Stalin's comrade Philip Makharadze, "produced as many atheists as the Tiflis Seminary." The Stone Sack (nickname for the seminary - DB) literally became a boarding-school for revolutionaries.

One of the great arguments of the theology of the cross is that God clearly reveals Himself in creation (Rom. 1) but, contrary to the teaching of a lot of natural theology, the human condition (or our skewed reason) is such that all of that becomes academic. He is as imperceptible to us as He could possibly be. For that reason, we go into Romans 2 and 3.

The interesting thing is that, even though God reveals Himself in suffering in the cross, clear revelation doesn't register at all. We are still so impressed with power and assertion that we turn the Christian insight, which is clearly the opposite of our idea of power, into power. If we could only convert Congress to Christianity, then everything would be OK. We would have the power brokers on our side. If we could only get people to behave a certain way, everything would be OK. So, we'll really earnestly engage in behavior modification.

The problem is that when Christianity is the vehicle of what impresses us (or if it becomes the manifestation of we believe to be right... Romans 2 and 3 again), then it ceases to speak to us and begins to scold us. Take the seminary that Joseph Stalin (!) attended. It was stifling. They forbade Hugo, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and a variety of other profound authors and engaged in coercion to try and produce the sort of behavior they wanted. Almost utterly devoid of the sort of love and encouragement that the Christian faith embodies. The place where last-ness meets last-ness. And we got Joseph Stalin and a bunch of revolutionary Bolsheviks.

It's the same result with the Crusades (we are dealing with the repercussions of that today!), power-wielding prelates, and hard-ass Bible colleges and seminaries that try to mold people into their own image (how many atheist and wounded refugees from that world have I spoken with? It's heartbreaking.).

Anytime straight-line (Capon) power and Christianity are mixed, disaster happens. What impresses us is just not right. What we stumble on and decry as foolishness is, in fact, what is right and profound. And every Christmas, we see it. Right there in the manger. Pure vulnerability, weakness, love, and compassion. Last-ness reaching out to last-ness. Why do refugees from the Church come back on Christmas? Well, it's just not too hard to figure.

The So-called "Nominal Christian"

Here is part of a post from The Rev. Dr. Leander Harding, a seminary professor of mine:

"I have become more and more suspicious of the concept of the nominal Christian. Our parish churches are supposed to be full of nominal Christians who are just going through the motions, of half-believers who are relying on their good works and who have not really surrendered to Christ and accepted the Gospel. In any parish church there are a few real apostates, and a few real scoffers and perhaps a few who genuinely hate God. Their numbers are routinely exaggerated. Most of the people who come to the church Sunday by Sunday know they are dying and are placing their hope in Christ. It may be an inarticulate hope, it may be a confused hope. Often there are huge brambles of misunderstanding that must be cleared away before the whole power of the good news can come in upon them. Often there is real darkness into which the light of Christ has not yet come and which cries out for a light-bearer. Yet, they come. When Jesus saw such as these gathered in their multitudes on the hill side, the sight provoked in him not contempt for the nominal but compassion, “for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (read the whole thing here)

Here is a follow-up comment from a friend of mine:

"This quote directly addresses something I recently heard at a diocesan clergy meeting where a rector of a large church talked about how most of the people in our church were not true "disciples" but just "consumer Christians" looking to have their needs met. Now, I am not lauding narcissism or praising the "me-first" sort of Christianity. But I found this pastor's comments so contemptuous, so lacking in compassion. Shouldn't we praise God that there are actually people coming to church on Sunday, instead of lamenting their level of so-called discipleship? Anyways, I love Leander."

Sermons to Date

Here is the sermon I preached on August 15, 2010. It was the 12th Sunday after Pentecost and the Scripture is Luke 12:49-56.  I have named it "Pressing the Bruise".

Here is the sermon I preached on October 10, 2010.  It was the 19th Sunday after Trinity and the Scripture is Ruth 1:1-18.  The title is: "Nobody Knows You".

Here is the sermon I preached on December 12, 2010, the 3rd Sunday of Advent.  The Scripture was Matthew 11:2-15 and the title is "Revolution in the Air".

In the Bleak Midwinter

The Gospel According to The Who

Al Green

Al Green is the preacher here in the true sense. You can tell he is troubled, wounded (arm), and potentially high. He is literally holding his heart out for everyone to see and singing about Jesus as Savior. It is the opposite of a conceptual head trip, yet it holds up the Gospel. I love the recitation of the Lord's Prayer at the beginning.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Penn & Teller

"It's the poooower of love!" (Huey Lewis and the News) And by that I don't mean contrived love as per the Law which says "Hey. All you do is love the non-Christian." I mean love as per the Gospel in which we see ourselves as prodigals in the midst of a famine of our own making but totally loved in Christ. That outlook can only be created by God (by the theology of the cross) and it spills out "unawares" to our fellow sufferers.