I almost missed it! Sure, I knew that the world is a huge mess. There’s Putin and Iran and China and a myriad of fears fueled by fear mongers. There’s massive uncertainty about the roller coaster ride of the stock market! And, I don’t mean to be trite, but as all Chicago Cubs (an American Major League baseball team) fans know, there’s also the fact that this current Cubs team has a good chance of breaking “the curse of the goat” by making it to the World Series – their first since 1945.
During the last week or two of August a few people asked me about Shemitah. I knew about the goat curse of the Cubs but here I am, a Christian minister, and I had no idea about Shemitah, so I had to look it up. Before I looked it up, silly me, I would have believed you if you told me that Shemitah was a new electric car or another new raw fish craze, like sushi. But then, finding out Shemitah was now presumed to be another “sign of the end” I had a few more conversations with people who were 1) really worried about all of the doomsday predictions for September 2015 and 2) others were really worried that their family and friends were buying up freeze dried food and moving to the middle of Kansas to get ready for Shemitah.
Shemitah refers to an old covenant mandated cycle I am well aware of, but until now, not by that name. According to the old covenant, Shemitah is a seven year land rest for the land, and “at the end of every seven years you must cancel debts” (Deuteronomy 15:1). The last day of the Shemitah this year is September 13.
According to the current doomsday prophecies and their prognosticators, since September 13 is on a Sunday, then either Friday, September 11 or Monday, September 13, the U.S. stock market will crash. But I don’t get it – they are all saying the Dow Jones will crash. But the United States is in massive debt to the Chinese. So, wouldn’t it be just as logical to predict that President Obama will sign another executive order, and declare that the entire United States will now live by the stipulations of the old covenant? That would be convenient, wouldn’t it? Then, wouldn’t it make sense that Obama would then inform President Xi Jinping that because of Shemitah the United States has no debts to China whatsoever. Won’t the Shanghai markets crash and won’t the Dow Jones soar?
It used to be said that silence is golden; however, it is also been said that all that glitters is not gold; It can be counterfeit. In 1965 Simon and Garfunkel sang about a silence that,”… like a cancer grows.”
In the current 2015 federal election campaign in Canada, there seems to be a conspiracy of silence about speaking of current criminal justice policies and prison conditions. Careful not to upset the public, one might hear about policemen being hired, but not about the fact that Mr. Howard Sapers, the Federal Correctional Investigator (ombudsman), who for over a decade has faithfully and courageously monitored Canadian Federal prison conditions, has essentially been shown the door by the Harper government. Click onto his official web page, www.oci–bec.gc.ca, and you can find his reports repeatedly calling for more enlightened crime policies and for more just and humane conditions in Canada’s prisons. His last report of May of 2015 disclosed the continued overuse of solitary confinement, which is disproportionately and inappropriately used for managing mentally ill, aboriginal, and black people; the number of Caucasian inmates’ in solitary is steadily declining. That’s dehumanizing, unjust, and smacks of corporate racism to me. Sapers’ reports’ recommendations for reform and action have been regularly ignored in Ottawa. As we know, the Harper government, having run on tough law and order values rhetoric since the beginning of its mandate, has objectified criminals as collateral for a strategy for winning votes from victims and a fear-conditioned public. Mr. Sapers’ latest report it seems paradoxically to be no longer convenient to the powers in portraying inmate-bashing as an effective moral model for dealing with crime in regards to public opinion. Official Conservative crime policy has not really been about people and the common good it seems; it’s been more about politics, and silence is golden in politics when politics demands it.
But does the church cry out in the wilderness or streets that in Christ our warfare…. against crime and drugs etc…. has been accomplished? Admittedly the ombudsman’s reports, when aired or published, don’t usually get much attention in Canadian society, church included. I can’t recall Sapers’ moral concern for prisoners’ conditions finding their way into many sermon notes or theological journals. I must admit there is aired some concern for their souls. Concern for the criminal, like the enemy, since the creation of the modern Westphalian state (1648), is left up to the care and mercy of the state’s coercive power which basically exists, it seems, to preserve itself. Most citizens in our disconnected society, therefore, don’t need to think long and hard about loving the socially distant prisoner and enemy very much, having lost their sense of co-humanity with them. A prevailing sentiment seems to be that a short prayer for their soul, and for a few prison ministries is adequate; their fate is left up to the state and God’ sovereign will do justice; not much to do here for human responsibility to other humans. Having lost the meaning of biblical justice to legal positivist hermeneutics, the public does complain fervently when punishment by the state is not seen to be severe enough. Sadly there have been politicians who are pleased to follow public opinion and silence inconvenient truths. But, as Simon and Garfunkel imply, the sound of silence will speak for itself.
Now, silence in the body of Christ about corporate injustice sounds alarmingly like collusive silence to me. We in the institutional church are not called to be political in the partisan sense, but we are called to speak our prophetic mind; to speak out against the injustice and abuse of the poor and needy; justice for the plight of the widow and orphan, and for the refugee and prisoner. The great commandment and Christ’s sermons on mount and plain, demand it. We certainly do need an intelligent hermeneutic regarding our underlying cosmology and doctrinal thinking that impact our social cognition and social action. However, as a social institution in relation with the neighbour, it is ethics, love, that is the ultimate mark of the church, not doctrine.
Increasingly in our individualistic consumer society, we may have lost a sense of covenant, relational, identity with the poor and enemy. Salvation has become a narrow search for personal salvation, a rescue from feared eternal perdition. Western liberalism’s concept of negative freedom legitimates legislation and coercion as a legitimate defense against threats to personal choices so as free autonomous citizens can achieve and enjoy what they desire. Ideologically of course there is also silence due to political philosophical forces that wish to keep religious values out of public discussions, seeking mythical neutrality. Deliberative democracy in a Rawlsian and Habermasian way, its public moral discourse, is important when done intelligently, respectful of those holding opinions of other than our own; but neutral discourse is not sufficient. Public moral conversation is anemic without transcendent values and prophetic voices. What is required is for the followers of Christ to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. We will need to become aware of the shadow side of our own biases and prejudices, develop our moral insights, and speak the truth in love to a world that no longer hears the voice of God, that has lost the light of God’s direction for peace, good order, and the common good. We live in a time in history, I think, when the social-political conditions, much like those of the first century, is a time in when we are called to be worth our salt in all areas of life.
There is an arresting statement about God in I John 4:8: Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. “God is love” is an essentialist statement about God: who God is in God’s essence.
There is also an arresting call to Christians in Ephesians 5:1 & 2: 1Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
The family trait of a Christ-follower is love: God’s essence is love; so should Christ-followers’ essence be love. “Following God’s example” means being “imitators of God” (in the original), who is at the core “love”.
What does this love look like?
What it does not look like is the kind of “justice” practised by the Pharisees. Translations often use the term “righteousness” for the Greek word dikaiosune, that above all is a relational word, and thus best translated as “justice”. “Relational” that is: towards God (theological), towards oneself (psychological), towards others (sociological), towards the creation (ecological), towards the cosmos (cosmological). Matthew 5:20 states: For I tell you that unless your righteousness [justice] surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
What love does look like is seen throughout the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 – 7, and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. In a word: “love” looks like justice. Which as we’ve seen is God’s essence and should be that of all who aspire to imitate God through the atonement effected by Christ.
This moves us into the realm of the Two Greatest Commandments. Here is Matthew’s rendition (Chapter 22:36 – 40): “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
But this is the admonition of the writer of Ephesians 5:1 & 2: live a life of love. And incidentally, Jesus’ call in the Two Greatest Commandments is the hermeneutical “overacceptance” of the entire sweep of Scripture theologically towards the essentialist revelation of God as love. (“Overacceptance” in the theatre “indicates an improvised reframing of the action of a drama in light of a larger story one wants to tell (Samuel Wells in Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (2004), p. 65).”) The larger biblical story wanted to be told is: God is love. And God’s followers should fully imitate that love too.
There is a kind of inexorable Gospel logic that moves from love of neighbour as litmus test of love of God to love of enemies as litmus test of love of neighbour to enemy-love as litmus test of love of God.
Wayne Northey has been a forerunner in restorative justice and the author of the novel, Chrysalis Crucible
Mark Bowden, in his endorsement of Cullen Murphy's God’s Jury, invites our attention to the fact that "we need to be constantly reminded that the most dangerous people in the world are the righteous, and when they wield real power" we see the real pathology of the "righteous."
It is not only the ISIL righteous destruction of some of the world’s greatest and most valuable cultural artifacts because they are pagan – the Puritans in Britain did the very same thing, only they destroyed Christian artifacts, not pagan ones. Barely a week ago, some righteous Orthodox Christians in Russia also decided to destroy some artifacts which they considered "incompatible with Christianity."
One is reminded of the reply of the Caliph to the entreaties of John Philoponus to spare the great library in Alexandria: "If the books substantiate the Koran, they are unnecessary and must be destroyed. If they do not substantiate the Koran they are worthless and must be destroyed." The torture chambers of the Inquisitions, which devised new ways to make burning at the stake infinitely more painful, and more long lasting, than had ever previously been known, was commanded and operated by the righteous. Oh, not that the priests or bishops did any of the "hands on" torturing, no that would have soiled their hands (in addition to their souls), and the twisted, pathological mind of these righteous-ones cleared its conscience by having lay people carry out the actual performance of the evil.
What is the proper response to violence? In an increasingly violent culture, this is a question we must all ask ourselves. And as Christians, we must answer this question in a way that is not only practical but also faithful. It isn’t just a question of what “works” to reduce violent crime; it’s also a question of how God has called his people to live. In what follows, I will offer my own convictions, though I readily admit that fellow Christians will differ in their responses to this sensitive subject.
I can think of no better place to start—for this or any other issue—than with Jesus. So let’s begin by considering what he has to say on the subject.
When asked about the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40).
Jesus does something radical here. He doesn’t simply list the most important commands—he reframes the entire Law in the light of one basic mandate: love. Love is the reason for every command God has given.
This concept is so important that all three Synoptic Gospels include a similar account (see Mark 12:28ff and Luke 10:25ff), and in the Gospel of John, Jesus narrows it down to just the second half. “This is my commandment: that you love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12–13).
Jesus essentially says that love of neighbor (or “one another” or “friends”) is how you show love to God, and he defines that love as sacrificing yourself for the sake of others. This echoes what he said in the parable of the sheep and goats, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). And such love of God via love of neighbor fulfils the Law, as Paul and James would later confirm (see Romans 13:8–10, Galatians 5:14, and James 2:8).
But “who is my neighbor?” This question was posed to Jesus in Luke’s account cited above. Jesus responded with a parable. And in this parable—we call it “the good Samaritan”—Jesus cast the most unlikely of characters for the role of neighbor. Jews hated Samaritans. They viewed them as the lowest of the low. Yet this is who Jesus said to love.
But that’s not all Jesus taught. He didn’t merely say, “Love the neighbors you don’t really like.” He also said, “Love your enemies.”
A Quick History of the 'Monster God'
The term "Monster God" became 'a thing' in 2014 through a series of sermons, debates and blogs, and while I can't be sure of its earliest use, one will note that its popular usage is typically tagged to Pastor Brian Zahnd (Word of Life Church and a CWR columnist). It came onto my radar through a sermon in early May entitled "Death of the Monster God," a lenten sermon on Luke 23:34, 46 (Jesus' prayers to the Father) asking, "What is God like?"
The central point of the sermon is summarized by Brian in these words:
When we look at the death of Jesus on the cross in the light of the resurrection, we are looking at our salvation. But, what do we really see when we look at the cross? Are we looking at the appeasement of a monster god through barbaric child sacrifice? Or are we seeing something else? Is the cross vengeance or love? When Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," he is not asking God to act contrary to his nature. He is, in fact, revealing the very heart of God! The cross is not about the satisfaction of a vengeful monster god, the cross is the full revelation of a supremely merciful God! In Christ we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. Once we know that God is revealed in Christ, we know what we are seeing when we look at the cross: The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The crucifixion is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive, but what God endures in Christ as he forgives.
Somehow, the sermon also led to the formal "Monster God Debate" between Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown at the Kansas City IHOP. He contrasted the cruciform God who became incarnate to save us from ourselves with the monster God from whom Jesus needed to save us. Much of this is clarified in his article on "How does 'Dying For Our Sins' Work?"
Zach Hoag's Critique of the Monster God:
1. God of Absolute Power
Minister and blogger Zach Hoag has picked up on this terminology and begun to apply it to contemporary issues in American Evangelicalism. I'm less interested in how he uses the Monster God motif in his critiques than in how he describes the Monster God's nature. Thus, I've mined two of his articles for clarity and definitions:
Back cover description: Books on C.S. Lewis, the Inklings, and Thomas Merton are a rare breed. This book brings together a variety of essays, from a more personal and confessional level, on the perennial relevance of Lewis, Inklings, and Merton from writers who, in many ways, have been fellow travellers on a similar pathway.
It has been said that a key aspect to cultural ‘tipping points’ is the role of those special leaders that we might label ‘connectors.’ Isolated focus groups become movements when these connectors facilitate the linking of arms across persistent divides to create relational bonds and new networks. I believe that the great writers and thinkers of the 20th century were highly creative and extraordinarily literary; they were also connectors par excellence.
For example, while C.S. Lewis stood firmly in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, his Socratic Club drew together a spectrum that drew agnostics and evangelicals into sane and productive conversations. Thomas Merton was probably history’s premier connector between Christianity and Buddhism, introducing new and lasting levels of compassionate engagement to Buddhism while retrieving their contemplative insights for the Christian community that had regressed so badly on that front.
To Lewis and Merton, I would add Ron Dart’s name as a significant ‘tipping point connector.’ For decades, he has continually compared, contrasted and synthesized the thought of an enormous variety of spiritual figures and streams (e.g. contemplative, charismatic and social prophets); he’s introduced individuals to one another who’ve forged profound working relationships and new networks (not least of which is the editorial circle of Clarion Journal).
Now, Ron has applied these qualities to coordinating and compiling this fine little booklet of essays, White Gulls & Wild Birds, encouraging us to think of Lewis, the Inklings and Merton in one breath. This wasn’t a big surprise to me until I opened the book and found far more than I anticipated … names I would not have connected either as authors or subjects. The variety of perspectives and insights is the chief selling point and deserves to be listed:
After an introduction by Dart, we have:
“My Journey with Charles Williams,” by Stephen Dunning
“Meeting the Mystery of God’s ‘Inexorable Love’ and Mercy in [George] MacDonald and Merton”
“Madeleine L’Engle’s Contemplative Vision,” by Joy Steem
“An Introvert’s Reflection on Merton’s Approach to Silence and Solitude,” by Matthew Stern
“Merton and Me in Merit,” by Jessica Lamb
“In the Footsteps of C.S. Lewis,” by Bill McGladdery
“Ruminations on the Inklings and Thomas Merton,” by Wayne Northey
“Our Journey with C.S. Lewis,” Daniel and Serena Klassen
“A Widening Vision” by Heidi Rennert
“C.S. Lewis’ Socratic Method,” by Tyler Chamberlain
What struck me about the book was that the various authors speak so personally. They are describing their encounters with these sages in the way that my Orthodox friends think of relating to the saints. Chrysostom’s interpretation of Paul began with a personal love for Paul, a sense of ongoing dialogue with him, and real transformation at his master’s feet. I get that sense in these essays: while the author’s are competent thinkers and practitioners in their own right, many of them unveil their experience of the Divine through their contemplative receptivity to the likes of Lewis, MacDonald, Merton and L’Engle.
Further, while the reading is at times devotional and contemplative, it’s not the Christianese kitsch or lukewarm pablum that we’ve come to despise. That said, the whole book is beautifully readable.
I would recommend this little introduction especially to those whose hearts have already been endeared to Lewis, Merton et al, just for the joy of it. But I can also to commend it to those wondering where to start and whether they’re up to the great classics of the last century. This text will serve as an encouraging testimonial ‘yea’ to diving in.
There can be no doubt that Doug Frank, in a "A Gentler God", has faced into the darker and more disturbing aspects of the North American reformed and evangelical ethos--he did so, courageously, in his earlier to me also--few have done so in quite the same poignant and evocative manner. Frank knows, in his heart and head, bones and flesh where to say No (and why) and where to say Yes (and why) to the larger faith issues (and their distortions) that press in on us. I think, in many ways, the publishing of Brad Jersak's "A More Christlike God" should be seen as a fine and fit companion read to Frank's "A Gentler God"--time tried elder meets aspiring, incisive and probing mid-stride exegete and theologian in these two must read books. I might add that Wayne Northey's, "Chrysalis Crucible", more from a literary angle, makes for a must read trilogy--an ample published and literate prophetic counterculture of sorts. Needless to say, the Sanhedrin will not be pleased by such a challenge to their questionable yet establishment reformed agenda.
Book Review of A Gentler God: Breaking free of the Almighty in the company of the human Jesus Menangle: Albatross Books, 2010; 390 pp.
In the Introduction, author Doug Frank describes a billboard, erected doubtless by an “evangelical” Christian, that reads "TRUST JESUS!" Frank imagines another a mile further down the road, that reads, "OR ELSE!" These capture something quintessential about evangelical belief and tone, the author, an evangelical Christian himself, claims. This is reminiscent of The Four Spiritual Laws, distributed by the millions by evangelical Christians. Its opening line goes, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” But as Hans in my novel Chrysalis Crucible (2015) rejoins: “But if you don’t buy in, God hates you and has a terrible plan for your afterlife.” (p. 401)
This book is an attempt to understand the source of the twisting in my guts, and to offer hope to those who share this condition with me (p. 19).
Does he look like the divine Spirit whom Jesus called his “Father” (p. 19)?
If not – and now you know my conclusion before I begin – where in the world has he come from (p. 19)?
A Farewell To Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace, Brian Zahnd, Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2014, 208pp.
[NOTE: The copy of the book used for review was an e-book and hence there are no page numbers.]
This is an outstanding read.
The author, senior pastor of a large evangelical church in St. Joseph Missouri in his “Prelude” wishes the book well, one that just willed itself to be written, especially in light of the arrival of the author’s three grandchildren. Near the end of the book, Zahnd in fact states:
For years I had ignored this mural of peace in the Denver airport. I simply had not seen it. Just like I had for years ignored the gospel of peace in my life and preaching. I simply had not seen it. I was blind. But I’m beginning to see, at last I am waking up —waking up just in time to try and make a difference for the world of my children’s children. I suppose it is for them I have written this book.
Zahnd begins with confession of his worst sin: on January 16, 1991, he ordered pizza and with a group of friends watched the start of the Gulf War on TV, like a prize fight, which indeed it was. He writes: “America is always right in war— I’d known that all of my life. Like many Americans, I had grown up believing that war was both inevitable in life and compatible with Christianity.” But fifteen years later, “while I was in prayer, for no apparent reason this whole scene from a decade and half earlier played back in my mind. I had forgotten all about it. But there it was, played back in my memory like an incriminating surveillance video. Then I heard God whisper, ‘That was your worst sin.’ ” The book under review is consequently “the story of how I left the paradigms of nationalism, militarism, and violence as a legitimate means of shaping the world to embrace the radical alternative of the gospel of peace.”
The author not only believes in Jesus in an “orthodox” way, he believes in Jesus’ ideas in a “radical” way. For that is who Jesus is, when it comes to the political: radical. When we fail at embracing Jesus’ political ideas, we inevitably recruit him in support of the (national) status quo. The author claims this has plagued the church since the fourth century. The church forever (almost) has separated Jesus from his ideas.
Regardless, claims Zahnd, Easter changed everything! We may consequently change everything (about how we think about violence). The author did!
God is not opposed to nations, but God is opposed to empire. Why? Because Jesus alone is Lord (Emperor), and his “Empire” is the Kingdom of God that alone rules.
In Chapter 2, Zahnd contrasts the private personal salvation gospel with Jesus’ politics. He works with the idea, drawing on Jewish scholar Emil Fackenheim’s book To Mend The World of “tikkun olam—“repairing the world.” Tikkun olam is the idea that although the world is broken, it is not beyond repair— that it’s God’s intention to work through humanity in order to repair his creation.” Fackenheim talks of a 614th commandment in the Torah: “Thou shalt not give Hitler any posthumous victories.” The author calls us to “A Christian understanding of tikkun olam [which] is that God is restoring all things through Jesus Christ.” He adds several Scripture references where this is precisely the claim. He critiques by contrast what many Christians “embrace [namely] a faulty, half-baked, doom-oriented, hyperviolent eschatology, popularized in Christian fiction (of all things!), that envisions God as saving parts of people for a nonspatial, nontemporal existence in a Platonic “heaven” while kicking his own good creation into the garbage can!”
Zahnd calls us to deny Cain as founder of civilization (based on murder) by being our brother’s keeper. Human civilization is ever founded on murder; God’s kingdom on love (of neighbour/enemy).
Cynthia could hear the sound of car doors slamming and the chirp of vehicles as they were locked. She followed the sound of feet shuffling up the stone stairs as she made her way to the door. Within the first knock, Cynthia opened the door and greeted her guests with a smile.
Her visitors don't give a second thought to the temperature of her flat, Cynthia’s idea of a literal warm welcome. They simply filed in and took their preferred seats in the sitting room.
Cynthia, a woman in her late 60s, had been the churches’ favourite Sunday school teacher until her recent retirement. She had taught most of the members of the church and even some of their children. Therefore, she held a place of prominence in their hearts. This group, of a dozen or so fervent Christians, gathered weekly in her flat on the housing estate. Charles, the church’s small group leader, had felt directed by God to use Cynthia's place as a mission hub. Several years previously, he had shared a vision he had of pricks of light shining from every home. Charles and Cynthia worked together to encourage the group in the Word, sing songs celebrating Christ's victory over sin, and pray with conviction for the depraved nation, not to mention, eat Cynthia's delicious homemade fruitcake.
A couple of months back, a new family moved in to the flat next door. People usually minded their own business within the complex, yet when Cynthia witnessed the neighbour’s son, an overweight 13 year old sobbing in the stairwell, she couldn't ignore him. Cynthia had lost her husband to cancer soon after they had emigrated from Jamaica 40 years ago. She never remarried but she became a sort of surrogate mother and grandmother to those around her. She asked the parents of the young boy if he could join her Bible study group. Their only response was a disinterested, “if he wants to go, we won’t try to stop him.
His name was Shaun. He was a self-possessed young man and, initially, preferred to watch the group from the edge of the room. Cynthia steadily won a bit of Shaun's trust with each passing week. She sat beside him and answered all the questions he had about the group and the man they all discussed, Jesus.
During the last meeting she had witnessed a breakthrough; Shaun had spoken up during prayer requests. He expressed worries he had about his parents’ marriage. Cynthia was delighted at his courage. The group looked to Charles to hear his response. He patiently listened before encouraging Shaun to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savour and pray the sinners’ prayer, which Shaun attempted. Tears welled in Cynthia’s eyes as she smiled at Shaun. Charles then began to pray a comforting prayer in which he said, “God will work all things together for good to those who believe.” Shaun was saved.
Tonight, as the weekly session was drawing to a close, the group began to sing their final worship song. As they sang, the sound of a muffled argument came from the walls of the flat next door. It was only a mild distraction at first, but as the voices rose louder it was obvious that Shaun’s parents were having a serious row. The music stopped and Cynthia put her arm around Shaun. His body was stiff with shame and growing rage. The force of the argument intensified and Shaun's mother could be heard screaming. A series of thuds were followed by silence. Everyone in the room felt as if the walls had disintegrated.
All eyes were on Shaun. Charles held a beatific smile and signalled for the music to begin again. Within seconds, the entire group, including Shaun, sang loudly over the screams, which had begun again.
Knowledge of God is something I acquire through possession, through ownership: it is something that belongs to me. It is a knowledge based on communion of the heart and intellect (nous). At such moments, the intellect is submerged within God and contemplates God from within. That is the heart’s communion with God.
This knowledge is more than theology, because together my heart and intellect think about God from within. This is, as a result, a kind of perichoresis. My intellect and my heart begin to delve into what is, in a manner of speaking, the inaccessible sanctuary of God, to enter deeply into His darkness, because for us God is darkness, something unknown (cf. Exod. 20:21).
There is, then, this perichoresis, and my knowledge now becomes a quest. I begin to search, to hunt. An amorous pursuit now unfolds between me and God, in the gardens, at night, during the day (cf. Song 3:12-15, 1:7, 3:1). And why do I pursue God? Because God pursues me. …
When bombarded with a new (to me) idea via independent sources in less than 48 hours, I tend to do a double-take. I wonder if the multiplied coincidences might be providential winks from God, calling me to pay attention. Maybe. Or maybe not. But I pay attention anyway.
So in the space of less than a day, friends and family in altogether different contexts nudged me into awareness of the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy ... I was alerted to recent examples and realized that I've often encountered it unawares. I'm recording my observations here because I think others may also benefit from recognizing this fallacy at work, especially as it pertains to faithfulness to Christ and the gospel.
The 'No true Scotsman' fallacy (faulty reasoning) appeals to purity as a way to dismiss critiques in one's position or flaws in one's argument.
The idea is that no matter what you believe or however valid the critiques against it, when challenged, you can simply move the target so that the critiques can't apply to a supposedly 'true' or 'real' example. Any evidence or examples given to verify the critique are dismissed as caricatures or 'straw men' of the 'true' version.
This kind of post-rationalization renders all criticisms invalid. It also makes the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy quite dangerous, because those who use it are no longer open to correction and become impervious to critique. That means it can also serve as a handy shield for dysfunctional movements or belief systems, especially those with a puritan bent.
You can often sniff out the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy when you offer a critique and are charged with 'creating a straw man.'
Let's use a clear and recent example that I'll use precisely because I trust this author's motives and I am inclined to agree with him. Nevertheless ...
Thomas Kidd wrote an article entitled "The 'Evangelicals' Who Support Donald Trump." It's well worth reading, both because the author raises very important questions, but also demonstrates the fallacy I'm describing.
In the article, the author attempts to deny the claim that "so many Evangelicals" support Donald Trump. He claims that the term "Evangelical" has been co-opted by those who self-profess as Evangelicals because (i) they vote Republican, or (ii) they watch Fox News, or (iii) they identify as Evangelical regardless of their theology or church involvement.
[In this article, I'm capitalizing Evangelical when I refer to the movement or tradition, whereas I use the lower-case evangelical as an adjective for those who might faithfully adhere to the 'evangel' -- the good news of Jesus Christ].
If I understand Kidd, his argument is essentially this:
Critique: Why do so many Evangelicals support Donald Trump?Counter argument: There's no need to panic, because 'true Evangelicals' would not support the likes of Donald Trump!
The author's argument is that true Evangelicals would not be so silly or shallow. He wants to say there is a big difference between true evangelicals (those who follow Christ) and the broader phenomenon or movement self-described as Evangelical. So far, so good. I think that's demonstrable.
But even if I were to offer example after example of Evangelicals (in the movement) who are both evangelical (definitely believe the gospel), yet also fit the 'Trump-Fox-'Merica' or 'Duck Dynasty Christian' stereo-type, Kidd's counter-argument is that they are simply not 'true Evangelicals.' In his own words,
It is a matter of rooting out corrupt influences which blur people’s understanding of what “evangelical” means, and more importantly, what the message of the Christian gospel is. Sorry, folks, but the gospel has nothing to do with the Republican Party, Fox News, or the United States of America.
He advises: (i) Don't panic. (ii) Do distinguish between authentic evangelical faith and American civil religion. Excellent. And yet ... while I actually agree in principle with his last statement, the article obviously commits the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy. And because it's an actual fallacy, I'm afraid the author inevitably corners himself into a wheat and tares dilemma.
First, he's created an awkward call to 'root out corrupt influences.' Awkward because I wonder who will arbitrate this 'rooting out.' Who is the 'true Evangelical' -- which is the pure remnant --that can rightfully act as judge and jury of who or what is corrupt? Who gets to determine the true definition of 'evangelical'? By what criteria is an influence considered 'corrupt'? Historically, the puritans who've thought to do so -- those confident about establishing the boundaries and dictating the rules and rooting out the impure -- well, more often than not they became the corrupting influence. Indeed, don't most of the historic heresies and modern cults begin that way?
Nor is this a new problem ... recall the parable of the Wheat and Tares? What happens if we start pulling up what we think are the weeds? (Matthew 13:24-30) On the other hand, what happens when you don't? It appears like a double-bind where either the servants mistakenly destroy the wheat or the weeds end up choking it out. Jesus opts for the latter risk. In fact, he issues a direct warning and instruction: "No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them." He was about correction rather than exclusion (and to be fair, the article can also function that way).
If we ignore Jesus' warning, Kidd's logic can actually turn on and turn out many of our Evangelical brothers and sisters. Like so:
Respondent 1: I'm sympathetic to what the author is trying to do, but I think the problems of American Evangelicalism are deep and well-entrenched. I don't find it at all surprising that significant numbers of Evangelicals enthusiastically support Trump... and they do! Somewhere along the way -- Cold War days, Moral Majority days, the rise of Fox News -- American evangelicalism confused Americanism for Christianity. It's not a small problem.
Respondent 2: I guess I am trying to defend that segment of people in our "evangelical" world -- my church, your church, our families... -- That are living out the euangelion in beautiful ways and are nothing like the typical "Evangelical." Maybe you are right... maybe the term and the majority of those who self-identify with it have morphed into "something else." Sad. [Note how the respondent must distinguish between 'typical evangelicals' and the Kidd's 'true evangelical.']
Respondent 1: I think the term "Evangelical" has become so associated with partisan politics and the culture wars that it is beyond rehabilitation. (Except in theological circles as a technical term.) [Note how this respondent concludes that the term 'Evangelical' as it is most commonly used in America is now so different to the author's historically accurate 'true evangelical' that its common usage determines its current meaning ... and must therefore be abandoned.]
Points to Ponder
It seems to me that if we want to find any passion and determination inside of ourselves (collectively or individually), we need to have some clear and shared sense of which enemy we are really wanting to fight. If we can find a common enemy that crosses political (or theological) lines, so much the better.
What many politicians throw at us is these days is that the enemy is “terrorism” – a ridiculous, if not laughably pathetic, answer given that a) the statistical odds of being directly affected by terrorism in North America (and most countries) is minuscule and b) when we want to identify the enemy we would be better off identifying the disease (which is present everywhere) and not the symptom (which is mostly present in the places already devastated by the real enemy). Terrorist acts are the predictable effects of a much greater enemy, and that is the enemy we should be trying to track down – the enemy that has proven itself capable of continually generating fresh pockets of terrorism.
Of course it is political opportunism that has deliberately offered up “terrorism” as the replacement for “communism-as-master-enemy,” a very useful enemy that had the misfortune of falling apart after nearly a century of justifying nearly every evil imaginable. What after all (the powers-that-be seem to think) is a little genocide, assassination or economic enslavement here and there if it helped the West to protect itself from the spread of communism?
I’ll grant that communism was certainly a better suggestion as an enemy than terrorism in that it goes a couple of levels closer toward what I will soon suggest is the actual enemy. The problem, however, isn’t so much that communism was an “effect” of the real enemy (though that case could also be made), but that it was only “one example” of the real enemy. The crucial thing to remember is that all the violence and exploitation that was used to defend the “freedom” of corporate business interests reveal another example of the enemy closer to home.
In a brilliant but sobering moment, President Eisenhower in his farewell speech warned Americans about the dangers of both the “military-industrial complex” as well as the “scientific-technological elite.” This was now getting even closer to the naming of a true enemy; one sign that this is true is that his language named the enemy at work both at home and among opposing power blocs. (Never trust the naming of an enemy that is not at work at home as much as abroad.)
It’s quite possible that Eisenhower’s terms still have a great deal of currency, and I wouldn’t argue against anyone who still focused on those terms. However, when I think of today’s global corporate world, which is increasingly entangled through huge trade pacts that always sacrifice human scale (the small, local and personal) for the sake of mass global competition (and thereby always sacrificing the weak in favour of the powerful), then I think new language is now required.
So here is my suggestion, which I confess from the outset is, unfortunately, not nearly as catchy as “military-industrial complex” or the “war on terror.” I believe the enemy that we face is the “global system* of dehumanization based on exploitation, fear and violence that co-opts the participation** of masses of good people.” When it doesn’t occur directly through the exploitation, fear and violence, this co-opting takes place by cloaking itself either in inevitability or invisibility (i.e. layers of mass bureaucracy or laws and agreements that are indecipherable at any human level). There is a clear subliminal message that we are powerless to change any of this – so just submit, obey, and hope for the best. This is the enemy we need to fight, and I believe that it is an enemy regarding which we can join together across many of the arguments which divide us. (And it’s ok with me if you want to call this enemy Satan – though more accurately that probably refers to the “spirit behind the system.”)
Memorial to the Victims of Communism (Prague)
*I hesitated about making this plural or singular – certainly there are many systems, but increasingly these systems are all becoming entangled with one another and it may be fair to consider it as one mass network of systems. Of course, Walter Wink’s writings on “domination systems” are part of the inspiration for this perspective.
**The co-opting of the masses is a crucial aspect (in spite of the complication this adds) because no enemy is frightening and powerful enough if it doesn’t make us all participants in the evil.
The author is an established British journalist. In the “Introduction” he explains that his research took him “across nine countries and thirty thousand miles, and it would last for three years (p. 2).” At the end of the Introduction, the author writes:
It turns out that many of our most basic assumptions about this subject are wrong. Drugs are not what we think they are. Drug addiction is not what we have been told it is. The drug war is not what our politicians have sold it as for one hundred years and counting. And there is a very different story out there waiting for us when we are ready to hear it – one that should leave us thrumming with hope (p. 3).
I confess at the outset that so much of his material corresponded to what I have known as a longstanding practitioner in the criminal justice field. Part I is called “Mount Rushmore”. Chapter 1 is entitled “The Black Hand”. The start of the war on drugs, the first shot fired, is by Harry Anslinger, whose face would be one of three carved into a Mount Rushmore for drug prohibition. The author proceeds to tell his story, one of many throughout the book. The first scream “chased” in the drug war was none other than that of Anslinger’s own mother, who, Anslinger as a twelve-year-old discovered, was an addict. He learned his lesson from her screams: that drugs were the great “unhinging agent”. Hari writes:
When he grew into a man, this boy was going to draw together some of the deepest fears in American culture – of racial minorities, of intoxication, of losing control – and channel then into a global war to prevent those screams. It would cause many screams in turn. They can be heard in almost every city on earth tonight. This is how Harry Anslinger entered the drug war (p. 8).
We read similar accounts of how others entered the drug war: