Thursday, December 24, 2015

Film Awards 2015, part 2

  • Most Blatant Case of False Advertising Since The Neverending Story

Watching the trailer for Suffragette, it appeared that Meryl Streep had a significant role to play in this piece of historical fiction. In reality, the trailer showed almost the entirety of her performance. Meryl Streep is in this film in the same way that Sean Connery is in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - by not really being in it at all. The comparisons between Suffragette and Prince of Thieves don't end there, however. Both focus on a character who joins the cause of the oppressed. Both lead characters challenge the injustice of the law and are thus treated as outlaws. Both feature a despicably evil male antagonist. And both don't quite live up to the subject matter. Now Suffragette is far superior to Prince of Thieves. Most films are. But there is something about it that didn't quite work for me. It's decent, but I thought it would be brilliant.

  • Best Shot

I expected Sicario to be thrilling, but I didn't expect it to be beautiful. There is a stunning aerial shot
of a convoy of SUVs serpentining (?) its way into Juarez which shows the makers of the awful True Detective season 2 how it's done. But the best shot of all captures the silhouettes of an elite team of operatives descending into a hidden tunnel as the sun sets on the Texas desert. This cinematic flair combined with excellent performances from Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro distinguishes Sicario from the pack.

  • The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason and Logic and Bigotry Award for the Film which Contributes More to Science than Richard Dawkins Himself

If I ever end up stuck on Mars, I want to be stuck there with Matt Damon. I don't use the word "hero" lightly, but he is the greatest hero in American history, It's almost impossible not to like him, And it's almost impossible not to like his character in The Martian. Without exaggeration, this is the coolest botanist you're ever likely to see on screen. Matt Damon gets to deliver some cracking lines, such as: "I'm going to have to science the shit out of this." And that is quite literally what he does, since he uses his own poo as a way to grow potatoes on Mars. I wasn't a huge fan of the scenes which didn't feature Damon, but overall The Martian is like a light-hearted version of Interstellar (which also featured Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain), and it is all the better for it. It is full of science and reason and logic. And given its "white-washing" of some Asian characters who originally featured in the novel, it is also full of bigotry. Richard Dawkins would be proud.

  • Worst Car Chase

It could only be the one featured in Spectre. Bond and the henchman race around Rome in a couple of lavish sports cars. They don't drive particularly fast. There are no machine guns attached to the vehicles. There are no laser guided missiles. No banana skins are released from the rear. They don't even bump into each other. Bond simply gets a small head start on the henchman, and maintains it without much fuss for a minute or two, until he drives into a river or something like that. It is boring beyond belief.

  • Best Hagiography

The Steve Jobs depicted in Steve Jobs is an asshole. There's no denying it. He's rude, manipulative, heartless, mean, arrogant, vindictive. The film doesn't shy away from this side of him. But he's not a bad man. Yes, he's "poorly made." But his supposed worst offence - his neglect of his daughter - is amended by the end of the film. All his other petty squabbles and character flaws are covered over by the healing of this central relationship, as Danny Boyle's three act play comes to a neat close. But Steve Jobs was not a "regular type asshole." His crimes against humanity are completely overlooked. Where was the snappy pre-launch conversation with the mother of the Foxconn employee who committed suicide? This is an all too sanitized account of a flawed, modern saint. I have heard people cite Steve Jobs as an argument for allowing Syrian refugees into the States, If anything, Steve Jobs embodies the only argument for not allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. "But he invented the iPhone!" Exactly. I rest my case.

  • Best Second Part of a Film that was Unnecessarily Divided Into Multiple Parts

I was a big fan of the first two Hunger Games films. Not so much the third, but it grew on me after the second viewing. The Hunger Games III/2 does not rival the first two in terms of thrills and the amount of Woody Harrelson we get to see, but for its sheer bleakness and subversive narrative it deserves this award. I just didn't see this end coming. That just shows you the extent to which I have been tricked into thinking that war ends well.

  • Best Remixed Christian Film

I'm convinced that Christmas with the Coopers began life as a "Christian film", with Kirk Cameron ear marked to play the lead role. It has all the hallmark signs: family values, Christian character who always finds the moral high ground, saccharine voice over, wisdom from the elderly. But then someone got their hands on the script and decided to marry it with some edginess: a young girl who swears, a gay character, some weird kissing. Much like the marriage in the film, this one is not happy. The film is entirely confused about what it wants to be. It's neither dramatic nor funny, and it has some very odd moments. And in the biggest twist of all, it ends with the Coopers doing some zany dancing in the middle of a hospital ward, because, you know, they don't have inhibitions like normal families. (What do you mean "that's almost exactly how Little Miss Sunshine Ends"?) The Coopers also don't have tact. Joyous dancing in the middle of a hospital: insensitive much? This is truly awful stuff.

  • Most Ridiculous Temper Tantrum

Imagine someone with a propensity for outbursts of rage being given some upsetting news. Now imagine that person with a lightsaber in their hand. We're treated to not one but two of these scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They feel like out-takes from Spaceballs, which is not a compliment. Yes, it's funny to see the new Darth Vader trashing things with his lightsaber and the fear of those who bring bad news. But these scenes only serve to make what should presumably be a scary character seem like a spoiled child who's just been told he's not allowed to play with the death star. We're moving dangerously close to Kick-Ass 2 territory at this point, which I don't think is where Star Wars wants to be. It's not where anyone wants to be. If this is the character whose journey we're supposed to follow over the next 17 Christmasses, then it doesn't bode well. The same goes for the character played by the new Keira Knightley. The greatest trick J.J. Abrams ever pulled was convincing the world he makes good films. The Star Trek reboots are crimes against cinema. I read an interview in which Abrams cited Terrence Malick as an influence for this Star Wars re-make. While that does explain the half-hour spent looking at a tree while the C3PO contemplates the ambiguous nature of the force in a voice-over, there is none of Malick's daring in this safe but forgettable adventure. Malick leaves himself open to boos (although he never actually hears the boos himself, since he spends his time cutting people's hair in a cave just outside Paris). Abrams has probably never heard a boo in his life (Exhibit A: Star Trek: Into Darkness has an 87% rating on RT. I will never get over that). Star Wars will make its billions. But if by some divine miracle it doesn't, just make sure the Disney executives don't have lightsabers in their hand when you tell them the bad news.

  • Best Film

I came into this film with no expectations, and without having seen any of the previous films in the series. I left Mad Max: Fury Road with a renewed faith in cinema and a strong urge to play the electric guitar while spraying chrome into my mouth. This is a film which has an enormous amount of care and craft behind it, which seems a strange thing to say about a film which opens with the title character stuffing a lizard down his throat. But in all the mayhem – and there really is a lot of mayhem to go ‘round – there is this odd but intoxicating aesthetic which is maintained throughout. Consider this film an ode to moving vehicles of all shapes and sizes, and an antidote to Spectre's excuse for a car chase. In truth, though the film bears Max’s name, it belongs to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. Without having to say much she is an inspirational hero. We join her and her fellow escapees on a war rig as they attempt to flee the patriarchal tyrant Immortan Joe, whose hold over his people is symbolised by his control of the city’s water supply. Will their attempt at escape be successful? You can’t be certain. But what is certain is that you will have one hell of a ride watching the whole thing unfold. The cinema was made for moving pictures like this. Forget film of the year: this is the best action film I’ve ever seen on the big screen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Film Awards 2015, Part 1

Before I moved to Aberdeen I had it on good authority that there is nothing to do other than go to the cinema. Now that I've lived in Aberdeen for 3 months, I can tell you on good authority that there is nothing to do other than go to the cinema. A Cineworld Unlimited card is therefore not a luxury but a necessity. Without one you will die. Between now and this time next year I expect to have seen over four thousand movies. This blog post will therefore be a lot trickier in 2016. For now, however, I feel capable of presenting you with The Decy's - my awards for the films of 2015.
  • Funniest Film

Maybe it was the Venezuelan heat, maybe it was the fact that it wasn't Two and a Half Men (one of the shows shown in English on Venezuelan TV), maybe it's the fact that good comedy is hard to find these days, maybe, just maybe, it was actually a decent film. But whatever the reason, this award goes to Horrible Bosses 2. This is one of those rare sequels that actually outshines the original. If you like Charlie whats-his-face from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia then you will probably like this movie. I like Charlie whats-his-face from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

  • Best Western

This may have been the only western I saw in 2015, but that doesn't mean that The Salvation is here by default. Which it is. Nevertheless, this Mads Mikkelsen-led revenge piece is solid to a fault.  This really is Western-by-numbers, complete with evil-mustached-gunslinger-terrorising-small-town, and woman-in-need-of-help. Well beneath the surface there is some subversive political commentary, but for this most part this is a straight shootin' western of reasonable caliber.

  • Best Film Starring Landry from Friday Night Lights

Honourable mention to Black Mass, but the gong goes to Bridge of Spies. This was a surprisingly witty and wonderfully shot film. Clean, crisp, and without a wasted moment or word. It did leave me a bit cold, however. I never felt any sense of tension, even when we arrived at the titular bridge. The movie always had the feel of a story that would end well. But it's nice to see Landry doing well for himself, eh?

  • Best Actor

For his portrayal of a young Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy, I'm giving The Decy to Paul Dano. The highest compliment I can pay to Dano is to say that if the film had spent all its time with his Brian WIlson rather than cutting to the later Wilson played by John Cusack, Love & Mercy could have been film of the year. The scenes in the recording studio are engrossing, and there is a memorable moment when Dano's Wilson plays his new song "God Only Knows" on the piano for his angry and controlling father. Here we see the genius, the sadness, and the vulnerability all at work. And then X-Factor went and spoiled it all by doing something stupid like having someone butcher this Beach Boys classic Alexandra-Burke-Does-Hallelujah style. Is there nothing sacred?

  • Best Sequel Which Erases the Memory of Mission Impossible 4

This franchise is a case of odd numbers decent, even numbers crap. I have previously expressed by dislike for MI:4 (the one where Slavoj Zizek plays the bad guy). I'm pleased to report that Mission Impossible 5 is a vast improvement, i.e. it's watchable. The opening scene with the airplane is incredible, and there is a teriffically tense sequence at an opera. It all goes a bit flat after that, but this is still by far and away the best sequel to Mission Impossible 4 released this year. A worthy winner.

  • Best Film that's Better than All Previous Jurassic Park Sequels but Still Considerably Worse than the Original
If Landry from Friday Night Lights is the omnipresent supporting actor of our times, then Bright from Everwood is the omnipresent lead actor. I can live with that. Jurassic World has little of what made the original so memorable, but there is plenty to keep you entertained, and one genuinely laugh-out-loud moment featuring Nick from New Girl.

  • Best Film Which Has Paul Giamatti Play the Kind of Character Paul Giamatti Played 15 Years Ago

There can only be one winner here: San Andreas. While The Rock received all the acting plaudits for his nuanced portrayal of a macho rescue pilot, Paul Giamatti does what Paul Giamatti does best: he plays a geeky tech guy who shouts a lot. A true return to form for Giamatti, and one for the grand-kids' college fund.

  • Worst Casting Director

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s Reg Poerscout-Edgerton may just have out done the Mummy 3's Ronna Kress in managing to cast the most amount of actors who play major characters from other countries. We have an American playing a Russian, a Brit playing an American, a Swede playing a German, and an Australian playing an Italian. The accents are as ropey as the film in general. Were there no Russian actors to call upon for the role of Illya Kuryakin? I seem to recall a very talented Russian actor playing Harrison Ford's nemesis in Air Force One. Was he not available? As for the role of Napoleon Solo, the list of actors considered for the role reminds me of Manchester United's recent shopping list: all big names, but none of them remotely interested. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ryan Gosling, Channing Tatum, Alexander Skarsgård, Ewan McGregor, Robert Pattinson, Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Michael Fassbender, Bradley Cooper, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joel Kinnaman, Russell Crowe, Chris Pine, Ryan Reynolds, Jon Hamm, Tom Cruise. Yep, all of these actors were "considered" by Reg, but he decided that Marouane Fellaini Henry Cavill was the man for the job. Suuuuure, Reg. We believe you.

  • Best Film About a Terminally Ill Teenager that Leaves You Feeling Heartless for Hating It

Pace the Sundance Film Festival, I thought Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl was properly crap. Yet another film shamelessly sucking up to the film industry. Yet another film with CRAZY parents who make our own parents seem to boring. Wow, did his dad just say that!? Dad's don't say that kind of thing! That's crazy! I wish my dad was like that! I think Stanley Tucci is a repeat offender in this regard. Third strike and he's out. I'm serious, Stanley. Play a crazy parent again. I dare you. I double dare you motherf****r! In what could have been an interesting film about friendship with the dying, we are instead treated to "one young man's personal journey", with the central dilemma being: will he get into college? The film also lies to us. I mean flat out lies. If we can't trust the movie industry, who can we trust?

That's all for part one. Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow, where I will be presenting eight more awards, including the prestigious Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason and Logic and Bigotry award for the film which contributes more to science than Richard Dawkins himself, as well as the award for film of the year.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Yoder and the Work of Christian Theology

What do you do with a highly influential (and deceased) Christian theologian who has been exposed as a systematic abuser of women? That, apparently, is a question worth pondering at a social gathering of theology students. (We also do Bar Mitzvahs and children's birthdays.) Anything useful I say here has almost certainly been borrowed from a colleague. Anything stupid is entirely my own.

For those who do not know the story, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, in the last years of his life (he died in 1997), was forced to admit to various counts of sexual abuse toward women and to undergo a process of repentance and restoration. The dominant narrative up until recently has been that Yoder repented, submitted to a disciplinary process, and came out the other end a restored Christian. By and large his work continued to be used by Christians well after his death. I am among these Christians. You will be hard pressed to find an essay of mine written for my undergraduate degree that does not include a citation of one of Yoder's many works. I approached his work entirely uncritically, and focussed solely on the fact that his exegesis of Scripture was convincing and convicting.

What I did was wrong, with or without the latest information regarding Yoder's crimes (crimes for which he served no time in prison). To be uncritical is to cease to do the work of Christian theology. In truth, it is to cease to do the work of a Christian. A Christian is not a positive thinker. There should be no one more critical than a Christian, for there was no one more critical than Christ. We learn that from his first instruction as a wandering prophet: Repent! Why and how we do the work of criticism is another question, but there can be no question that it is work which must be done. The uncritical church will not be a "positive" influence in society. It will be a miserable place of secrecy and betrayal, with no hope of truthful communion. 

To bring this back to Yoder, there can be no escaping the sin of the institutions who allowed him to abuse women under his supervision. Institutions - and the church is here no exception, but perhaps the great exemplar - cannot bear criticism, because criticism quite literally comes with a cost. How many times has the church acted as if it is above criticism, as if it can sweep criminal actions under the rug in the name of a warped view of the church's standing in the world? What is this other than a grossly sinful attempt to maintain the church's being as a "light to the world"? What is this other than Genesis 3 repeated: wilful disobedience and blatant cover-up, followed by excuses along the lines of, "Well, there's two sides to every story..." The Wire - that great, modern critique of institutions - puts the matter straighter than most Christians would: a lie is not another side of the story; it's just a lie.

I said that, until recently, Yoder was used by and large uncritically by theologians. An article written in January 2015 has made this uncritical stance impossible. The story of Yoder the theological genius who had a grave sin in his life, who repented of this grave sin and underwent church discipline, and who has now been restored to us as a brother, is not another side of the story. It is a lie. Yoder wrote numerous theological essays which justified his actions. He could never see that what he was doing was sin, and so he could never properly repent. He used not only his position and power, but also his theology to make possible his life of violence against over 100 women.

What do we do with John Howard Yoder? Much depends on who this "we" is. I have had this conversation exclusively with Christians, which should tell us that this is not an "academic" question but an ecclesial question. It is tempting for Christians theologians to turn this into an academic issue, and to treat Yoder as first of all a source, someone who's work can be cited in university papers. In this register our duty is to the integrity of ourselves and our academic work. But that is to miss our primary duty, which is to the church. We when the question of Yoder is asked with the church in mind, I think there is little doubt as to what our action should be: hand Yoder (his person and work, which Christian theology has taught us not to separate) over to the flames in the hope that he will be saved. The Church has. a certain times in its history, quite literally burned the work of theological geniuses who were deemed destructive for the Church's life. The case of Yoder should make us more sympathetic to this drastic action. If nothing else this teaches us that the Church does not live by the work of its theologians. The Church lives by the Word of God. All other texts, from the greatest (Church Dogmatics) to the least (take your pick) are dispensable. Thomas Aquinas was really on to something when he called his life's work "so much straw." 

Furthermore, Christian pacifism does not require the witness of Yoder for its intelligibility, who in truth is a counter-witness. Christian pacifism's intelligibility and witness is secured by the lordship of Christ in His Word and the presence of the Spirit in the Church. What should really worry Christian theologians is not the question of whether to cite Yoder in one's work. It is the question of how (if at all!) one handles the Scriptures. That there will be thousands of theological works which contain not one jot or tittle of Scripture should make all Christian theologians pause and think: what am I doing? To what tradition do I belong?

Another factor which must be included in this discussion is sex (as in male and female). It is an incredibly small sample size, but from my interactions with people it seems that men are more inclined to struggle with the question of Yoder, whereas for women it is quite straightforward. Thinking (uncritically) as a man, I find myself producing the following logic: well, I'm no less sinful than Yoder, and given the same conditions I could easily do what he has done, and who am I to judge? In short, the tendency is to sympathise, man to man. This sympathy is misguided and wrong. It is wrong because it is a sympathy with the powerful, not with powerless. It is sympathy with the oppressor, not with the oppressed. It is a sympathy which thinks of itself as understanding, compassionate, forgiving, but it is a deeply patriarchal sympathy, and as such it is a sympathy which Christ opposes.

When I described the duty of the theologian as being a duty to the Church, in the case of Yoder the duty of the theologian is first of all to the women of the Church. It is a duty to the victims of Yoder's abuse, victims who may read your work. The Church must listen to these women, and to all the women - theologians, ministers, laypeople - who see things far clearer than the men. Sympathy with Yoder is not a virtue. Just the opposite. The question for me as a man is: can I have solidarity with Christian women? The answer is that I can and I must, but this is no easy task.

I am writing my PhD on Christian love. Since I began my theological education 1 Corinthians 13 has performed a critical role. It has reminded me first of all that human knowledge is partial knowledge. It is relative, not absolute. We see in part and know in part, and all our strongest theological dogmas are provisional, in need of constant criticism in the light of the revelation of Christ. Second, it has reminded me that faith and knowledge without love are empty. I can be a "theological genius" (whatever that might mean), but if I have not love I am nothing. Genuinely nothing. Yoder was known as one such "theological genius", yet he lived a life without love. By the judgement of Scripture, therefore, his words are meaningless noises, his life and work reduced to nothingness. To use Yoder as a pacifist thinker has become entirely unintelligible, because we can say without a shadow of a doubt that he was not a pacifist. If we learn anything from the life and work of Yoder, then,  if there is any "good" to come out of this by the providence of God, we learn that pacifism - indeed, theology itself - is not a "position" or an "idea," but a practice.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Why Remembrance Day in the Church is u̶n̶B̶a̶r̶t̶h̶i̶a̶n̶ unChristian

Karl Barth's most important contribution to the church is not this or that doctrine, but a way of doing theology. This way begins with the being and action of God as revealed by the person of Christ. This being and action of God is what is really real. Human being and action is only real to the extent that it corresponds to the divine. So, for example, we do not know what a father is, and then understand God in the light of our experience or practice of fatherhood. Rather, we know God as Father, and human fatherhood or lack thereof can only be seen in this light. Human fatherhood is first of all judged and then redeemed by the Fatherhood of God. Or better, first of all redeemed, and then judged.

One of Remembrance Day's effects on the church is the undoing of Karl Barth's contribution. On Remembrance Day we begin with a human understanding of sacrifice, and in the light of this we understand "the greatest sacrifice" offered by Christ. In churches up and down the UK, the relationship between Christ as Lord and the church as servant is reversed. We remember our deeds and judge Him on their terms, when we should be remembering His deeds and opening ourselves up to His gracious judgement. On this day of reversal we forget that Christ was the collateral damage of a foreign occupation conducted in the name of peace, and that he suffered at the hands of those who sacrificed their lives (and the lives of their enemies) for the empire.

One does not need to be a pacifist, then, to oppose the "celebration" of Remembrance Day within the church. One only needs to pay attention to the proper logic of Christian talk about God: a logic based on the truth that when we talk about God we are not talking about a greater version of ourselves.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Spectre and the Ghost of James Bond (minor spoilers)

When I wasn't watching Champions League on a Tuesday night during my teenage years, I was watching James Bond. RTE had what seemed like a never-ending "Bond Season," and I lapped up every minute of it. I have a strange affection, then, for a promiscuous, murderous agent of the empire, and I have an ideal Bond film - From Russia With Love - against which all other Bond films are measured.

Against this measure, Spectre is found wanting. Like the other Daniel Craig outings, this just doesn't feel like a James Bond film. It feels more like a slightly (but only slightly) camper version of the Bourne series. Spectre makes this shift in tone explicit in its portrayal of Bond as an assassin.

The Bond that I remember from those Tuesday nights was no assassin. He was a spy. Killing wasn't something that Bond set out to do. It was what got in the way of sleeping with women and gambling at luxurious casinos. Bond lived an extravagant life, moving from one fancy hotel to the next, having no attachments, no roots, no mundane responsibilities. Bond's mission was to see what's going on over in X. He would go, he would make his presence known, he would get shot at or chased or both, he would do some investigative work, he would land himself in deep trouble, and he would find a way out of it. To reduce him to a hired gun is to strip him of everything that makes him who he is. This is what has happened since Daniel Craig took the wheel.
I have some sympathy with this new direction. I have some sympathy because I have seen Die Another Day. But this is not the way to go.

The best way to illustrate the gulf in class between a classic Bond film like From Russia With Love and Spectre is to compare the train sequences in both films. In the former, we spend quite a bit of time on the train with Bond and his female accomplice. There is a tension to this trip, because we know that the bad guy is somewhere on board the train, but Bond doesn't know. Indeed Bond ends up having dinner with him, unaware that he is dining with the man sent to kill him. This all builds to a dramatic showdown, where one of Q's gadgets comes to save the day. This is brilliant film making. It is brilliant because it devotes time to this sequence, and time means tension.

Contrast this to Spectre. The train sequence receives no time at all. We are given no time to see the relationship between Bond and Dr Madeleine Swann. We're just on a train because a train is a cool place to shoot an action sequence. The bad guys shows up unexpectedly, starts fighting Bond, and Bond wins. It's all rather dreary, because no time has been devoted to it, and therefore no tension has been allowed to develop. For another example of this dreariness, watch the car chase in Rome. It is, without doubt, the most boring car chase in the history of cinema.

It's time for Bond to have a good, long look in the mirror. It's time for some screenwriter to look back at the best Bond films and analyse why they were so good. (Aside: when you see that a film has four screenwriters you know that something fishy is going on. Spectre wears this multiplicity of writers heavily, suffering as it does a complete lack of continuity.) And it's time for Daniel Craig to step down. Perhaps James Bond as espionage's Don Juan is a character that just doesn't work any longer. The world is smaller now, and Bond's extravagant lifestyle isn't as extravagant these days. Spectre at least tried to make a case for our need of James Bond. It just didn't make a convincing one, because the Bond it tried to justify was no Bond at all.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Who Is Jesus Christ For Us Today? A Sermon

It seems that I do not know what I think until I deliver a sermon. And afterwards I wonder, "Is that really what I think?" But of course the hope is that I am not merely giving a collection of my thoughts (there are enough preachers in the world doing just that), but a faithful exposition of Scripture. Nevertheless, it is an exposition which I take full responsibility for, though I maintain the right to disagree with what I've said!

This was my last sermon in my home church before I left Galway for Aberdeen. The passage is Mark 9:30-37.

“Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”

This was a question asked by the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1944, from a prison cell in Nazi Germany. It is a question which Christians down through the ages have asked. It is also a question which has been and continues to be asked outside of the church. Jesus has proved to be a person of interest not only to His own, but to all of humanity across time and space. And so we have ended up with many competing answers to this question, which is to say, many competing Jesuses: Jesus the communist, Jesus the capitalist, Jesus the Buddhist monk, Jesus the white, middle-class Christian, Jesus the warlord, Jesus the pacifist, Jesus the Jew, Jesus the Aryan.

Bonhoeffer’s question regarding the identity of Jesus actually receives its first formulation from the mouth of Jesus Himself. “Who do people say that I am?” He asks His disciples. He follows this up with a more personal question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus asks this question of all his followers, not only then and there but here and now. “Who do you say that I am?” There is no more urgent question which we can be asked today. And what makes us the church is that we have been and continue to be taught how to answer it. We are not the church because we are more moral than everyone else – history bears witness to the church’s painfully mixed record when it comes to morality. Rather, first and foremost, we are the church because we know who Jesus is.

Yet the answer which we have given in the past to Jesus’s question “Who do you say that I am?” cannot be repeated unthinkingly. No doubt that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but it is precisely his eternal and constant nature which makes our very human knowledge of him so open to distortion. If we learn nothing else from the New Testament we learn that Jesus is just as capable of surprising the church as He is the world, and if we learn nothing else from history we learn that the church is just as capable of bearing false witness to Jesus as is the world.

And so we read and hear this gospel story from Mark this morning not merely to confirm what we already know about Jesus, but to encounter Him again for the first time. We come to this text asking once more: who is Jesus Christ for us today?

Mark, in what should have perhaps come with a spoiler warning, tells us in the first verse of the first chapter of his Gospel who Jesus is: He is the Son of God. Mark might just have left it there. I remember asking Arden Autry – a New Testament scholar who used to teach here in Galway – what is the most important thing we learn in the New Testament. Without thinking twice he said: that Jesus is the Son of God. It could be argued, then, that Mark tells us everything we need to know in his gospel’s first sentence.

However, Mark does not end his Gospel at verse 1. Rather, it turns out that Mark’s spoiler in verse one is a trick of sorts. His statement that Jesus is the Son of God conjures up expectations of power, of royalty, of wealth, of prestige, of invincibility, of leadership. In the Roman world into which Jesus was born the Son of God title referred to the Roman Emperor Augustus. And as Son of God Caesar Augustus was the bearer of divine sovereignty on earth, ruling with an iron fist. Mark’s readers may expect Jesus to be a new Caesar when they read that He is the Son of God. As they read on, however, their expectations begin to be called into question by the reality.

In Jesus we meet not only the Son of God but also the Son of Man. This, indeed, is Jesus’s favourite way of designating Himself. We have heard this title Son of Man in our passage this morning. In Mark 9 verse 31 Jesus takes His disciples aside and tells them that the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and that these human hands will kill Him.

This statement is so irrational and upsetting that when Peter first hears it in Mark chapter 8 he actually takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him! In Peter’s mind Jesus is clearly mistaken about what His identity entails. But Jesus is not the kind of Messiah that Peter thought He had to be, and He is not the kind of God that we think He has to be. For who could imagine a God who would be betrayed and killed at the hands of human beings? What kind of God would allow Himself to be so humiliated? What kind of people would even want to worship such an impotent God?

Yet this is precisely the God revealed in Jesus. This is the God who makes Himself nothing. This is the God who becomes flesh, flesh which withers like the grass, flesh which suffers and dies. Mark tells us that the disciples didn’t understand any of this, and that they were afraid to ask Jesus what He meant. We can perhaps empathise with their confusion. Who can understand how the omnipotent God becomes captive to human power? How the God who cannot suffer endures immeasurable suffering? These are great mysteries which the church still struggles to answer.
But there is one thing which the church has always and must always proclaim: that Christ became captive and suffered for us. 

Judas’s delivering of Jesus into the hands of men in exchange for money is the definitive act of human sin. It symbolises Israel’s and the church’s infidelity to her husband. Judas gives the authorities Jesus, and they give Judas 30 pieces of silver. As many Christians have since discovered, Jesus can be sold for a tidy profit. Judas, we must remember, was a disciple, one of the twelve. He had heard Jesus teach and witnessed Him perform miracles. He had even been sent to do ministry in Jesus’s name. In short, he was no less a disciple than any of the other eleven. He was called by Jesus, and he was obedient to the call. He was, it must be said, a friend of Jesus. After all, it is only a friend who is capable of betrayal.

Yet before and above Judas’s human act of betrayal is a divine act. It is true that Judas handed Jesus over to sinful humanity. But it is even truer that Jesus handed himself over to these same sinful humans. What Judas meant for evil, however, God meant for good.

God’s powerlessness – if I can use such a phrase – was in this very moment of weakness and vulnerability shown to be stronger than any human power. The human act of subduing Jesus, of making him a religious and political prisoner, of putting Him to death, was in its full truth an act willed by God out of His freedom and love, an act through which God brought about liberation to captives and forgiveness to sinners.

And so Jesus can say that the Son of Man must suffer because He has freely and graciously chosen this way to save us. And this choice itself reveals the character of God. God chose not to overwhelm us into submission with a dramatic display of power. Nor did God choose simply to destroy us, as one might expect an all-powerful ruler to deal with his enemies. In the death of Christ God’s omnipotence is revealed to be not the brute power to subdue or destroy but the power to embrace at all costs. Paul calls this the power of the cross. It is the weakness of God which is stronger than human strength. It is the foolishness of God which is wiser than human wisdom. It is the faithfulness of God which overcomes human infidelity.

And so at the end of Mark’s gospel, as Jesus hangs from the cross, seemingly forsaken by God, the perhaps sarcastic remark of a Roman centurion reveals the deep truth of Mark’s Gospel: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” This man, and not Caesar. This man, the carpenter. This man, the Jewish prophet. This man, a condemned and defeated rebel.  This is why Paul, writing to the Galatians, can describe Christ as “the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or as others translate it, “the Son of God who loved me by giving Himself for me.” He is the Son of God precisely in His giving of Himself for us.

But the Gospel is not a tragedy. It is, in fact, a divine comedy. Jesus predicts in Mark 9 that He will rise from the dead. His gift of Himself to us was not in vain. This is the proclamation of the early church: you killed Him but God raised Him from the dead. God saw to it that His servant would not see corruption. But this servant did not come to serve Himself. This one who gave Himself for us even to His own death was also raised to life for us. The cross and resurrection of Christ therefore mark the beginning of a new history for humanity. As in Adam all die so in Christ all shall be made alive. The old order of sin and death has been ruptured. It continues to have a present, but it has no future. The time has been fulfilled, the kingdom of God – a kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit - has broken in to all our human kingdoms. God will be all in all. The resurrection is the first fruits of all of this, and we meet here each Sunday in anticipation of its fulfilment.

Now resurrection in and of itself is not good news. For example, if I stood here this morning and told you that just last night the resurrected body of Adolf Hitler was seen walking around the streets of Berlin, there would most likely be panic and dread among us. This would be terrible news. But when we learn who Jesus is, when we see His compassion and mercy, his love and justice, his faithfulness and holiness, his judgment and grace, his being always for us even when we are against Him, his resurrection is good news indeed, for it is a vindication of everything that He is and does.
For this reason the gospel is not the good news about eternal life, or salvation, or moral improvement, or church community. It is, first and last, the good news of Jesus Christ. He Himself is the content of the Gospel.

But what does it mean to know Him? What does it look like to give an answer to the question: who is Jesus Christ for us today? The next part of our passage in Mark gestures toward an answer.
The disciples and Jesus head back to their base in Capernaum, and Jesus asks the twelve, “What were you arguing about on the way?” The disciples remain silent, embarrassed by the content of their argument. As someone who studies theology this little snippet from the Gospels unnerves me. I can imagine Jesus gathering all the theologians together in the age to come and asking us: “So, what were you arguing about on the way?” The church’s theologians are suddenly silenced. The arguments about infant baptism and paedobaptism seem trivial now. The arguments about what actually happens around the communion table lose all their meaning when one is confronted by the risen Christ Himself. The arguments about whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son seem like needless hairsplitting. That is not to say that theological arguments are not worth having. They can and must be had, and other arguments can and must be had also. But the first duty of the church is not to speak; it is to listen.

In the story of Jesus’s transfiguration which comes at the beginning of Mark 9, we hear Peter speaking even though he didn’t know what to say. He says to Jesus: “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” The response of God the Father to Peter is emphatic. But it is not only directed at Peter, but at all those who would be disciples: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” We are faithful disciples of Christ to the extent that we listen to Him, and pattern our speech in accordance with His word of grace and truth.
But as we learn throughout Mark’s Gospel, disciples of Jesus are in the habit of getting things badly wrong. In this case, after hearing about the Son of Man’s humiliation at the hands of man, the disciples proceed to argue about which of them is the greatest. They had turned following Jesus into a rat race, a competition for power and prestige. In other words, they had completely misunderstood who Jesus is and what it means to be a part of His community. 

Much like Peter, we may be able to confess the right things about Jesus, we may be able to proclaim Him as the Son of God, but our lives can so easily betray our confession.
The extreme but instructive example of this is the Christian crusaders of the West. As they fought Muslim armies during the middle ages, the crusaders would shout “Christus est Dominus”, “Jesus is Lord” as they cleaved the skull of one of their enemies. While the sentence “Jesus is Lord” is eternally true, we can see in this instance a failure to understand the true nature of Christ’s lordship. Their violent, merciless actions bear false witness to Christ.

To know Jesus as the Son of God, to know Jesus as Lord, is to know Him as the Servant. And to know Him as the Servant is to know ourselves as fellow servants. Not conquerors, not oppressors, not leaders, not those with their hands on the handles of power, but servants. Jesus makes this clear in Mark 9:35: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus had said something to this effect in Mark 8: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Indeed, each time Jesus predicts His suffering and death in Mark 8, 9, and 10, this prediction is accompanied by a teaching on what it means to live as His disciple. 

We can only know Jesus as the Son of God when we stand at the foot of the cross and see Him as the One who was crucified for us, and not only for us but for all. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. 

When we have been taught to see in the death of Christ the event of the world’s reconciliation to God, however, we do not then remain detached from Him, as if we can observe Him and follow Him from a distance. Rather, we are summoned by Him to participate in His mission which is ongoing; we are called and empowered by the Spirit to be witnesses and ministers of this cosmic reconciliation. We bear witness with our words and also with our deeds, embodying a life together that is shaped by the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. What does this life look like?

In order to demonstrate it, Jesus calls over one of the children that had been playing in the house and puts the child among the disciples. Jesus then takes the child into his arms and says one of the most remarkable things in all the Bible: "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me."

In order to understand the full force of this statement, let me read out to you a comment on this passage by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel:

“In a Greco-Roman milieu, children were the least-valued members of society; they were considered not yet fully human. According to the institution of patria potestas, children had no legal rights. A father had the right brutally to punish, sell, pawn, expose, and even kill his own child. Newborns could be exposed—abandoned in a public place—where they would generally either die or be picked up by strangers and raised for profit as slaves, prostitutes, or beggars.”

The child which Jesus takes into his arms does not symbolise cuteness or cuddliness, but absolute vulnerability and weakness. Moreover, taking a child into one’s arms is a stereotypically feminine act. By doing so Jesus was confounding his male audience. He was showing them a way of discipleship which was best modelled by the nurturers and carers in the community. In other words, he was saying that his most faithful followers were in fact women. The Gospels demonstrate the undeniable truth of this. It is women who supported the work of Jesus financially. It is women who stayed with Jesus to the end, while all the men fled in fear. It is women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection, and the first preachers of the gospel. The church has of course mostly tried to suppress all of this, but Jesus gives women and children a dignity and prestige which runs against the grain of earthly kingdoms but which manifestly runs with the grain of his own kingdom. The stereotypically masculine forms of leadership and service are completely subverted. The welcome of a child becomes the standard by which disciples of Jesus are measured.

Yet Jesus says even more regarding the status of children. I asked at the beginning, who is Jesus Christ for us today? In Matthew 9:37 Jesus hints at one answer: whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Jesus identifies himself with this vulnerable, helpless kid. This is not the only place Jesus makes such an identification. When the risen Christ confronts Saul on the road to Damascus he asks him, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Saul of course did not know that that’s what he was doing, and we also do not really know that that’s what we’re doing when we either do harm to another or care for another. But Jesus is unequivocal in his insistence that that is what is happening, whether we know it or not. In our daily interactions with our neighbours we are acting for or against Him.
The parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 makes this even clearer. There Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger. When did we see you as any of these?, they ask. And Jesus replies: whatever you did or did not do to the least of all my brothers and sisters, you did or did not do it to me.

Who is Jesus Christ for us today? We need not look very far in order to find out. He is among us in veiled form as those we are in the habit of ignoring, as those who we think do not merit a welcome, as those whose needs impinge on our precious time and energy. As we cannot love God without loving our neighbour, neither can we know Christ without knowing these ones. 
Yet it is not only others who display Christ, but we ourselves are also identified with Him. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins tells of this truth beautifully in As Kingfishers Catch Fire. Let me read the final six lines:

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Who is Jesus Christ for us today? Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Christ “the man for others”. We here today are a tiny portion of these others who Christ is for, and in whom Christ wills to be formed. He is for us not as a distant, abstract idea or concept, but as the One who dwells among us, if we would only have eyes to see and ears to hear. He will not be who He is apart from us, and we cannot be who we truly are apart from Him. He will not be the Son of God without His brothers and sisters, who are collectively called His body, the physical manifestation of His presence in the world and for the world. This identification is not our own working but a gift of God made actual by the Spirit of God. Christ’s being for us can neither be earned nor grasped but only received in faith as a truth which we have no control over, a truth which is true even when we are false to it. Our faithlessness does not nullify the faithfulness of God. He will be who He is: the God who loved us and gave His only Son for us. And so we can say with Paul:

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

We as the church are witnesses to this Son of God. And as Christ is for us we are called to be for him. And if we are called to be for Him we are called to be for others. The life we now live in the flesh is a life of openness and attentiveness to those for whom Christ died and rose again. As we live such a life we may be surprised by where we encounter the presence of Christ.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Sermon

Here is the text of a sermon I preached in my home church this past Sunday. The passage for the morning was Ephesians 2:11-22.

Everyone from politicians to beauty pageant contestants claims to desire peace. We may rightly question the sincerity of these claims – if not those of the beauty pageant contestants then certainly those of the politicians – but peace itself is at face value considered to be a universal good, an ideal toward which we are to strive. How to get there and what it might look like when we arrive are hotly contested questions, however; questions which have received different answers across time.

The answers which one gives to these questions – how do we achieve peace and what does genuine peace look like – depend on one’s diagnosis of the problem. One story told today is that scarcity and lack are the problem. If the world can manage to eradicate these through technological and economic progress this will bring about the end of poverty and the satisfaction of all our desires. We in the West are championed as heralds of this peace. We are the so-called cradle of civilisation, the developed world, the first world, even the founders of New Worlds. All our leaders preach this Gospel of Progress, the freedom of men and women to be and do whatever they want provided they do no harm to their neighbour.

This all sounds rather commendable and honourable. One small detail is left out of this optimistic narrative, however: our relentless and remorseless violence and division. Under the powers and principalities of this world the progress towards peace is a competition, and in every competition there are winners and losers. The cost of technological and economic progress is the lives of millions of slaves, of indigenous peoples who resisted colonisation and Christianity, of those who quite literally can’t or don’t buy into this notion of freedom and peace, those who end up on the wrong side of the tracks, which is to say the wrong side of history.

This, as I said, is one contemporary story of peace. Those of us familiar with the biblical story will not be surprised by the self-deception and violence it contains, nor will we be surprised by the wilful falsifications or omissions in the dominant telling of the narrative. Seen from one angle, the Old Testament can be read as a history of violence. In the opening chapters of Genesis we are offered a picture of paradise, yet almost immediately it all goes wrong. But whereas the Modern Man will tell you that the problem with humanity is an ignorance which leads to regression and recession, Scripture offers a different diagnosis: the sin of pride. This is the quest of humanity to become God, which stems from a refusal to be under his gracious command. And with this prideful refusal comes violence.

In Genesis 4 the first murder is committed, a tragic instance of brother killing brother. The blood of Abel, like the blood of countless other victims throughout the ages, cries up to God from the ground. From this point on humanity is characterised by a willingness both to glorify itself and to destroy itself. Our fate within this vicious circle appears to be sealed.

But God calls the idol-worshipper Abram away from his family to a new land, and promises to bless all the families of the earth through this one family. God promises peace in the face of overwhelming violence. It is an impossible promise, one which is reiterated again and again throughout the Old Testament. Yet it is a promise which never quite comes to fruition. Why not?

The chosen people of God, what Paul in Ephesians calls “the community of Israel,” are no different to the people around them. The same pride and the same violence is to be found within their ranks. Even one of the great heroes of the Old Testament, King David, was forbidden from building the temple because he was a man of war. Indeed David’s last act on earth was to give his son Solomon a hit list, imploring his son and successor to kill his father’s enemies. And Solomon himself, the king of Israel during its most peaceful and prosperous period as a nation, maintained this peace and prosperity at least in part through a harsh policy of forced labour. When this policy is mentioned in 1 Kings 9, our imaginations are being sent back to the opening chapters of Exodus, with Solomon cast in the role of Pharaoh.

And yet…these people of God are different. They are the people of the covenant, whose sign is circumcision and law and Sabbath. For Jews this was all the difference in the world. They were and are, after all, God’s people, chosen by him from among all the other people of the earth, related to him as a son to a father, called to be a royal priesthood. No other nation could boast such credentials.
For Gentiles, too, the Jews were different. They were a peculiar race with peculiar habits and morals, a people who worshipped a peculiar God. We cannot appreciate the force of our passage in Ephesians if we do not first appreciate the radical difference between Jew and Gentile. Yet we must distinguish between the actual difference and the perceived difference. By that I mean the true difference and the false difference.

God’s calling of Abraham seemed to divide humanity in two. On the one hand the chosen, on the other the reprobate, the unchosen. On the one hand the holy, on the other hand the unholy. On the one hand the friends of God, on the other his enemies. On the one hand the blessed, on the other the cursed.

But was and is humanity as neatly divided as this? Was God’s choice of Israel really his rejection of all those outside of Israel? What about our own categories into which we like to divide people? I don’t have to list them now, but we can run through these divisions in our own minds. What comes of these divisions when they are exposed to the light of the Gospel?

What Ephesians teaches us is that the Gospel explodes these divisions. Or rather, it brings together what we have torn apart.

What does this mean for the Jews? Primarily, it means that the reason for the distinction of Jew from Gentile is not to be found within Jews themselves. God’s particular love for his chosen people is a sign of his love for all of humanity. “For God so loved the world” is not an empty cliché, but a startling declaration that none are excluded from God’s covenantal promises. It is precisely because Abraham and his descendants were just as tainted as everyone that they can be a sign of God’s unconditional grace, a grace given and received before circumcision, as Paul reminds us in Romans 4. And as Paul argues in Romans 9-11, God’s mercy to his chosen people was done in anticipation of his mercy to those who are unchosen. For the Jew, therefore, there can be no boasting, no pride, no animosity toward the Gentile. The message of both Old and New Testament alike is that salvation is by grace.

Yet the question remains: how can God’s promise of peace be fulfilled? How can the Jews complete their vocation to be a blessing to the nations? Here we can only affirm what Paul affirms in 2 Corinthians: In Christ all the promises of God are Yes and Amen.
In Ephesians, Paul says that Christ is our peace. To the two questions I posed at the beginning – how is peace to be achieved and what does it look like? – we receive one answer: Jesus Christ. Christ is our peace with God. Christ is our peace with our neighbours. Christ is our peace even with our enemies. To understand how Christ is our peace we must follow Paul’s lead in Ephesians and speak of Christ crucified.

Crucifixion, for the Romans, was an instrument of the Roman peace. It was the threat which awaited those who rebelled against the established order, and a sign to onlookers of what would befall them if they too stepped out of line. Seen from the Roman perspective, then, the execution of Jesus was a sacrifice offered by the Romans to their gods as a way of keeping the peace of the city. Jesus was perceived to be a threat to the empire, a threat to a very worldly form of peace whose basis was fear.
The Romans, it turns out, were right: Jesus was and is a threat to this peace. When Paul writes in Ephesians 2:17 that Jesus came and proclaimed the good news of peace, this proclamation had a two-fold purpose. The first purpose was to cut through the false notions of peace to which we attach ourselves. Christ calls into question our own versions of the Roman peace, our desire to live and act as if Jesus is not the Lord he claims to be and was proved to be by virtue of his resurrection. In this sense, then, Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword.

Yet even this sword which Christ brings is good news. It is good news first of all to the victims of false peace, the ones whose sufferings are the price of comfort and security for others. Yet it is good news also for the perpetrators, for Christ chose to fall on his own sword, so to speak. Even when we say No to Him he has already said a Yes to us which echoes throughout eternity. Even in our following after other gods He continues to pursue us. Even in our capitulation to the Roman peace He is and always will be the one who has overcome the powers and principalities on our behalf, and who invites us to participate in his triumph.

This overcoming, as Paul writes in Ephesians, is the achievement of the cross of Christ. Our hatred of God and our neighbour is forgiven at Calvary. Our hostility, past, present, and future, is put to death. Our captivity to that which opposes God is broken by an act of love which liberates us to love God and neighbour. As I said earlier, seen from the perspective of the Romans the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was a way of maintaining the peace of the city. Christ was a sacrificial victim offered by the people for their own safety. Lest we think this a barbaric practice we moderns have left behind, we should remember that this practice continues in our own day, as the powerful rulers of our age send their poor citizens away to die or kill on behalf of the nation’s interests.

Seen from a divine perspective, however, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth represents an entirely different kind of sacrifice which achieves an entirely different kind of peace. It is a sacrifice of self-giving love, a pouring out of himself not for the sake of maintaining the status quo but as a revolutionary act whose goal is the reconciliation of enemies and the establishment of a new kind of kingdom which usurps the old.  Theologian Karl Barth – I am contractually obliged to quote him at least once every time I speak – is therefore apt to call the event of the cross a “coup d’état,” a change of power within the world.

This brings us to the second purpose of Christ’s proclamation of peace. Not only does it expose and defeat false notions of peace. It also invites us and empowers us to share in true peace, however partially and provisionally. This is symbolised in Matthew’s Gospel by the tearing of the veil in the temple. It is symbolised in Ephesians by the language of twoness and oneness.

Previously humanity was divided in two, Jew and Gentile. The achievement of the cross is to create one new human out of these two. Former identities are reconfigured as the walls which we have built up between each other are broken down. Few embody this new creation more than Paul himself. We read in Philippians how he has laid aside his former identity as a law-abiding Jew; indeed he tells us in rather explicit language that he counts his former identity markers as refuse, as dung, as crap. And in First Corinthians he tells us that he has become all things to all people, to the weak he became weak, to the Jews a Jew, to the Gentiles a Gentile. Paul didn’t transcend these identities because of an identity complex, nor was he sneakily pretending to be like his audience as a missionary tactic. Rather, Paul was embodying the truth that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. He was enacting the very salvation to which Christ had invited him.

And as we are taught in Ephesians 2:8, this is a salvation that has its beginning and end in grace. What, then, is the relationship between peace and grace? The first thing, and perhaps the only thing, we can say is that grace comes before peace, and peace necessarily follows grace. The two go hand in hand in this order, as they do at the very beginning of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We cannot have peace with God without the grace of God. Our friendship with God is only possible because of His grace. Paul ends chapter 2 of Ephesians by talking about all the things that the church and its members are: citizens and holy ones, those who belong to God’s family, a holy sanctuary, a place in which God indwells by his Spirit. We are these only by grace, which is to say, we are these things insofar as we are in Christ. For it is Christ who is first of all the true citizen of the kingdom, the holy one, the one who belongs to the family of God as the Son of God, the holy sanctuary in whom the fullness of God dwells. And by the grace of God what is true of Christ becomes true of us; or at least is becoming true of us as we continue to grow together in Christ though the power of the Spirit.

And not only is this grace the cornerstone of our friendship with God. It also makes possible our friendship with our neighbours. No longer do we have to see those around us as competitors, as rivals for the scare goods which we long to possess and which end up possessing us. Nor must we see our neighbours as irredeemable, as beyond the pale. Christ is not only my Lord or our Lord; He is the head over all things, the firstborn of all creation, the one in whom and through whom and for whom all things have been created. And the Fatherhood of God is not a narrow idea, but it reaches out to all the families of the earth.

This brings us to one of the central tensions of the New Testament: the desire of some to restrict the grace of God to a select group of holy persons, and the desire of Christ and his followers to see the grace of God gather up all things on heaven and on earth into a cosmic peace.

Nevertheless, the New Testament is not reluctant to highlight the failings of Christ’s followers on exactly this point. Think of Peter. His record in the Gospels is a mix of triumph and tragedy. It is tempting to conclude that by the time of Pentecost he finally cleaned up his act. We read in the book of Acts of his powerful preaching, his acts of healing, and his courageous leadership within the church. We also read a story of his encounter with a Gentile, Cornelius. Peter, we must remember, was a Jew, and as a Jew he held to certain dietary laws. How disturbing and confusing for him, then, when God tells him in a vision that the food which Peter had previously called unclean (on the basis of the very law of God!) has now been declared clean by God. Likewise, then, the Gentiles who previously were excluded from the covenant have now been included. The salvation of Cornelius was not a hoax. Peter could have fellowship with this Gentile; he could eat a meal with him as a brother. This is truly radical stuff, an example of the oneness of which Ephesians speaks.

Yet this was too radical, in fact, for Peter himself. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he recounts another incident involving Peter and Gentiles which occurred some time after Peter’s encounter with Cornelius. As Paul tells it, when Peter came to Antioch he was able to enjoy peaceful meals together with Gentiles. But all this changed when a group of Jews rode into town who had been sent by James. Fearing their reproach, Peter distanced himself from the Gentiles he had been eating with and slipped back into the circle of his own kind. Barnabas followed suit. This may sound like mere canteen politics, the kind of seemingly petty thing that happens in schoolyards or workplaces or college campuses or church events. And that is precisely what it is. Yet Paul calls this behaviour an assault on the truth of the gospel. The gospel, it so happens, has everything to do with meal time. Our peace with God and neighbour is embodied in our fellowship around a table. The table of communion, first of all, but following this the dinner table in our homes.

We cannot read about the life of Jesus in the Gospels, after all, without remarking just how often he spent his time eating with people. And not just with his circle of friends and family, but with Pharisees, prostitutes, and everyone in between. And how often does he picture salvation as a banquet, a meal to which the most unlikely people are invited? It will strike some of you here as good news indeed, then, when I say that eating dinner is central to our salvation. A meal together can be an outworking of God’s grace and peace.

This, then, is the peace which Christ proclaimed to all he encountered, those who were far off and those who were near. In fact, it was often the case that those who appeared most far off –tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, Samaritans, Gentiles, women – were in fact the most near, whereas the so-called near – the wealthy, the biblical scholars and theologians, political and religious leaders, men - were actually the farthest away. It would be a mistake to think that the same is not true today. We are reminded in Ephesians that we who were once far from Christ have been brought near. Yet how often throughout history and even today can the Church be so far from the peace of Christ? How often is the faith which Christ seeks to be found in the most unlikely places? In light of this we must always remain humble.

Humility, indeed, is a defining mark of Christ’s peace. Without humility peace is impossible. We can recognise the truth of this from the human side, since so much of our conflicts are caused by pride. Yet this is also true from the divine side. St Augustine said that we do not understand God until we understand that He is humble. Christ’s proclamation of peace was therefore at the same time a proclamation of his own humility, and therefore the humility of God. Right after He invites us to come to Him to find rest, he says “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest.” Peace can only be enjoyed by the humble, just as grace and only be enjoyed by the humble. And we learn humility from Christ. This is another reason why the cross of Christ achieves peace: in the cross of Christ we see manifested the humility of God and thus the form which peace takes in the world. As Paul declares in Philippians 2:

“though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

What could be more humiliating than for the Creator of the world to allow himself to be tortured and hung as a man on a Roman cross? What a strange God we Christians worship. What a strange saviour we follow. We must never lose sight of this strangeness. The humility of God must forever keep us humble. In this way and only in this way can we be what Paul urges us to be in Ephesians 5: “imitators of God.”

The fall was the destruction of the original peace between God and humanity, and consequently between one human and another. There have been many attempts on the side of humanity to restore this peace, but more often than not these attempts end in the increasing of bloodshed and further division. How many men, women, and children have been killed in the name of peace? How many lives have been sacrificed? There is one sacrifice, however, which has achieved what humanity by itself could not achieve. The broken body and the shed blood of Christ which was poured out for all has reconciled God with humanity and humans with each other. The Church is the community which recognises the truth of this strange peace, and which witnesses to the truth of this peace in word and deed. It is the community which gathers around the Lord’s table to receive the peace of Christ, and which gathers around the dinner table to give this peace to others. Around these tables there is no cause for boasting, for pride, for pretence, for we remember that everything we are and have has been received as a gift, and in so remembering we thank God for his grace and peace, and we give freely of what he has given us.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Deadwood: A Recommendation

He wants me to tell him something pretty. 
- Al Swearengen

I read somewhere that if The Wire is there to tell us why institutions fail, Deadwood is there to tell us why they spring up in the first place.

For those unfamiliar with this almost ten year-old show, Deadwood is a Western of sorts, set in the Dakota territory in the 1870s. It follows the life of a nascent camp bereft of law and order, and shows how the chaos of lawlessness gradually morphs into what we proudly call "civilization."

If all this sounds too abstract then fear not, because Deadwood tells the above story by paying painstakingly close attention to the characters which make up the town (many of whom are historical persons). Indeed, so close is the attention paid to characterisation that it's often difficult to know what exactly is happening in any given episode. That may sound like a problem but it it's not, because Deadwood is defined not by what it is about but who it is about.

The writers of the show introduce us to lawmen, politicians, saloon owners, prostitutes, gamblers, drunks, actors, prospectors, capitalists, teachers, all of whom fit together as part of some strange machine called a town. And though it is rarely (if ever?) seen, the character which lurks in the background of this drama is gold, with all its promise and its potency. Gold makes all this possible, yet we are left asking ourselves if the price is worth paying.

Which brings me back to the quote at the top of this post. A sacrificial murder has just taken place to appease the wrath of the venture capitalist. One of Swearengen's employees wants to be reassured that the murder was done humanely. In one of the many Shakespearian soliloquies featured during the shows three-year run, Ian McShane's utterly captivating Al Swearengen says to himself, as he wipes the fresh blood from his office floor, "He wants me to tell him something pretty."

With this line Deadwood exposes our desire for a lie instead of the truth. We want to think our civilization is built on the back of hard work and creativity and honest dealings, and we would like for a show like Deadwood to convey as much. We want the writers to tell us something pretty about how all this came to be. But the blood on the floor from a sacrificial victim speaks a truth we would rather not hear. The history of which we are a part is violent, unmerciful, greedy, though it is by no means entirely without virtue, as Deadwood  attests (particularly in the form of the town doctor).

Deadwood is slow going, and filled to the brim with record-breaking vulgarity. This is another way of saying that it will not be to everyone's taste. But if you appreciate intricate characterisation, thoughtful dialogue, and anti-capitalist sentiments then Deadwood may just be the perfect show for you.