Saturday, October 30, 2010

I, Scandal

I've been thinking about my penultimate post, "Rock."  I came across the quote I shared while working on a word study for a seminary class on the Greek word skavndalon, usually rendered "stumbling block."  The quote struck me because it opened up this story about Peter and Jesus in a fresh way and clarified how much I, like Peter, am offended by the cruciform nature of Jesus's mission.

In the story, found in Matthew 16, Peter swings wildly from being right on ("You are the Messiah") to being wrong wrong wrong ("This must never happen to you").  I have been swooning these past few years, ever since N.T. Wright switched me on to it, over the glory of the resurrection and the excitement of Christian eschatological hope.  It seemed the cure to what ailed me--namely the deep-seated unsettling I experienced as a history major learning about the cruelty and rampant injustice of humanity's past, present and future.  Not that the immediate nastiness of evil has been removed by this hope, but that we have the promise of a good king coming to settle the accounts.  Eschatological passages like Psalm 2 have become simultaneously chilling and thrilling, since the future they imply is both scary (the implication of God wreaking havoc on the kings of the earth seems frighteningly violent and chaotic) and wonderful (the kings of the earth are, by and large, power-hungry, greedy, murdering bastards--explicitly or implicitly).  Sorry, classical liberalism, I just don't buy your metanarrative.*

Yet, for all my trembling adoration of the coming king, I have suspected myself of not fully tangling with the cross.  It's convenient to exult in the righteous warrior (which I do not intend to cease doing) and easy to forget the suffering servant.  Any good Christology must embrace both, however discordant they might feel, and recognize they are inextricably and causally linked.**  Jesus has established the archetypal pattern for being fully human, for realizing the full potential of God's original charge that man might "have dominion" over the earth.  And that pattern is marked first and foremost by the cross:  self-sacrificing love for others as part and parcel of an unflagging commitment to God's purposes for humanity.

Like Peter, I find myself scandalized by this notion.  It's all well and good to state it as a concise bit of biblical theology as I just have, but quite another thing to wrestle with its full existential implications.  As the rogue once said, "Good against remotes is one thing.  Good against the living--well that's another."  And, honestly, I'd rather my cosmic judge conform to the classical, Greco-Roman hero ideal.  Aragorn trotting that horse passionately before the black gate.  Luke nailing the rat-sized exhaust port.  McFly with the left hook to Tannen.  Mr. Incredible flinging the car into Syndro's plane.  That satisfying comeuppance of evil which often caps off the hero's journey of training and self-actualization.

We do get that with Jesus.  He's coming back to tear down the kingdoms of this world and finalize his own.  But between now and then, he's calling his people to fulfill their creational mandate to be image-bearers, and he's calling them through the cross.  This is where I live:  enraptured by the dream of eschatological glory and filled with dread at the cruciform path which leads there.  With Peter I exclaim, "You are the messiah!" only to quickly remonstrate "This must never happen to you."  What I'm really saying, what I'm really pleading is "This must never happen to me."  I am a skavndalon to the purposes of God in my life, and I want to want to change.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me--a sinner.  Grant me your grace, strength and perseverance to tread the path you've laid out for me, to trust that you will vindicate me in the end if I will only follow you with all trust.  Deliver me from fear and timidity; make me the man you've always intended--enable me to realize my potential to bear your image and, through you and the power of the Holy Spirit, be a blessing to this world.

*That we can hope for political power to uphold justice and prevent chaos, to solve the basic problem of global human society.  But I voted for Obama and don't regret it, so chew on that.
**Philippians 2:5-11; Revelation 5:12.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Swift Justice of Jesus

The following is a transcript of my homily preached Friday, October 29th during morning prayer at Shepherd's Heart Fellowship in Pittsburgh, PA. The homily is based on a reading from Matthew 13:24-30.

I wish that I could tell you all this morning that I can explain all the suffering in the world. I wish that I could offer you an immediate solution, some sort of good versus evil strategy that would rid our world of evil. You’d like to hear that, too, I bet, if it didn’t sound so much like a fairy tale. Like a comic book fantasy where the superhero cleans up the mess and everyone goes home happy. I can’t offer that kind of a story this morning, because the gospel of Jesus Christ is more than a story with a happy ending. The kingdom of heaven is more than a nice idea—it’s lived out in the midst of the messiness and even downright nastiness of human life.

In our reading this morning, Jesus tells a parable about God’s kingdom. A man plants wheat seeds in a field, but then an enemy comes along at night to plant weeds in the same field. When the plants finally grow, the wheat and the weeds are growing right alongside each other, competing for nutrients from the soil and water and sunlight from the sky. The man’s servants report this to him, asking whether they should root out the weeds for the wheat’s sake. He instructs them to let both the wheat and the weeds grow alongside each other until the harvest, until all the plants will be collected and sorted—wheat will go to his barn and weeds will be burned by fire.

What’s going on here? How do we understand this story Jesus tells us? We’re lucky, because just a few verses after our reading Jesus explains what he meant. The one planting the wheat is the Son of Man—Jesus—and the field he’s planting in represents the whole world. The wheat seeds, he says, are the children of the kingdom. That tells us first that the kingdom of heaven is about Jesus growing good in the world by placing his followers in it.

The enemy, no surprise, is the devil, and the weeds he plants represent his followers. Not just devil worshipers either—you don’t have to seem like a follower of satan in order to be one. Remember the old saying that the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing people that he doesn’t exist. If the devil is responsible for planting the weeds, then we know that evil and evil people are not God’s will. They weren’t planned or put there by Jesus.

The servants question the fieldowner, “Where did these weeds come from?” I think this question is common to every person who has believed in a good God. We look at this world we live in and wonder—where did all this evil come from? Why are people so terrible to one another? It bothers us, it affects our lives. Where did these murderers come from? Where did these racists come from? Where did these greedy people come from? Where did these hateful and abusive people come from? The devil has been planting them in the world since man left the garden of Eden.

Like the servants, our first response is “Get rid of the weeds! Get them out of here!” We want justice to be swift, ruthless and clean. We want to wipe out our enemies in war, to eliminate our villains in the electric chair. But Jesus, like the fieldowner, restrains us, because in attacking our enemies we end up attacking ourselves. “In gathering the weeds,” reads the parable, “you would uproot the wheat along with them.” We cannot be God’s good for the world and also serve as judge, jury and executioner of the evil. Rather than a decisive victory today, we’re waiting for the harvest, that day when wheat and weeds are both gathered up and the good go into Jesus’s home and the bad are burned in the fire.

Jesus promises in verses 41-43 of chapter thirteen that

"The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!"

Listen, everyone. Jesus is coming back, and he’s coming back as a good king with swift justice. He’s sending his angels to take out every oppressor, every murderer and rapist, every greedy person, every man or woman whose words or actions have turned people away from God. This is good news. And it is good news for we who believe and trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, because his mercy protects us from the judgment we deserve.

If this message makes you uncomfortable this morning, maybe it’s because the swift justice of Jesus Christ doesn’t sound like good news to you. All of us here have reason to fear God’s judgment except for the mercy and grace of Jesus. Maybe you’re here this morning and you fear the swift justice of God because you know you don’t have the protection offered you by Christ. I say to you today, repent! Believe the good news that Jesus has been raised from the dead and is coming back as a good king to rid the world of evil. Confess your sins to him, put your trust in him and he will forgive you. If you want to make him your Lord and Savior today, please say the following prayer with me:

Lord Jesus, I believe that you died on the cross and were resurrected by God after three days. I believe that you are the Lord of the world and the only one who can save me from sin and suffering. I confess to you that I have led a sinful life and have hurt myself and others, I ask you to forgive me my sins and receive me as your child. Have mercy, Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


"But he turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
~Matthew 16:23

"Because the way of Jesus to the cross became a σκάνδαλον* to Peter, he himself became σκάνδαλον to Jesus, i.e., a personified temptation to turn aside from God's will."

~Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-1976), 348.

*Gk., a stone that trips someone or springs a trap to ensnare them

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

15 Directors Meme

I'm posting this after seeing it on FlixChatter, a blog I linked to from IMDb. The idea is to list 15 directors who have shaped the way you watch movies (obviously a practice of film nerds like myself). To quote directly from FlixChatter: "These are auteurs whose work I admire, even if I don’t necessarily go and see every single one of their films. Some of their work [has] defined my taste in movies and some are those that I could watch over and over again." I've decided to limit myself to directors whose work I can explicitly identify as formative to me as a film watcher. They're listed here in alphabetical order, by last name. The movies listed in parentheses are concrete examples of their formative influence (not just "favorites"). I follow up the list with a brief commentary on a few of my choices.

1) Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Punch Drunk Love)
2) Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille)
3) James Cameron (Terminator 2, Avatar)
4) Joel & Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men)
5) Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth)
6) Peter & Bobby Farrelly (Dumb & Dumber, There's Something About Mary)
7) Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train, Vertigo)
8) Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey)
9) Michael Mann (Heat)
10) John McTiernan (The Hunt for Red October, Die Hard)
11) Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away)
12) Martin Scorsese (The Departed, Gangs of New York)
13) Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien)
14) Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park, Jaws)
15) Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds)

"Look at all the blood..." young Joseph Mazzello intoned with reverent awe, staring at the empty Hawaiian field later to be filled in with a digital hulking Tyrannosaur tearing at its prey. At 9 years old, in my movie theater seat, I was that kid, seeing the digital creation he only pretended to see, no less awed by the life force spilling from the predator's mouth. I saw the film at precisely the right moment for it to impress a movie-watching framework upon my mind that has lingered nearly twenty years: movies at their most thrilling and important fabricate vital, visceral experiences which involve the viewer vicariously and, sometimes, voyeuristically.*

Many of the films on this list fit this description, and it has a noticeable lack of cerebral, ennui-ish fare (French New Wave, Terence Malick, etc.). Some films end up standing in for other things, like the fact that No Country for Old Men preceded my interest in noir and hard boiled stories and so ended up more of a direct influence than Chinatown or The Big Sleep even though both of those earlier films are genre forebears of the later one. Other films, like Pulp Fiction, get weeded out because their influence had so permeated pop culture by the time that I saw them that they seemed fresh more in historical perspective than in their contemporary cultural landscape.

I left off two directors I really like, Steven Soderbergh and Edgar Wright, simply due to the derivative nature of their films. They may be masters of the derivative (I love The Limey) but the work doesn't register as innovative enough to be called influential, unless you consider creative derivativity** to be the post-modern meta distillation of Pulp Fiction's inevitable legacy. Where Tarantino transcends his own trajectory, however, comes especially with the poignancy of Kill Bill, Vol. 2's ending but even more so with the deconstructionist take on war and vengeance that was Inglourious Basterds (whose line "Frankly, watchin' Donny beat Nazis to death is is the closest we ever get to goin' to the movies" fits neatly with my aforementioned framework). Wes Anderson might also fit this category, though he has enough eccentricity to find his own directorial voice on a regular basis.

And lastly, I've included some movies here unlikely to be considered "great films" by anyone, yet I consider their influence unquestionable. They say comedy is murder, and it's due in no small part to the fact that what makes people laugh is so darned inconsistent across demographic groups. That said, the Farrelly brothers have made some gut-bustingly hilarious movies which I suspect divide people sharply*** into those who love their movies, those who regard them as infantile and boorish, and those who regard them as masterpieces of infantile-boorish absurdity. Of course I'm in the latter camp, albeit with caveats if you press me on the subject. Additionally, John McTiernan has never been called an auteur (that I know of) but many of his films have a direct, analog, blood-and-guts urgency missing from so many contemporary, synthetic action spectacles.****

*Take that, V for Vendetta.
**I made this word up, I think. It's a derivative of derivative and creativity. Isn't that so meta?
***Just like Jesus! :D
****Film critic David Edelstein has described his boredom with epic digital conflicts as "CGI ennui."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Good Soil

The following is a transcript of my homily preached Friday, October 12th during morning prayer at Shepherd's Heart Fellowship in Pittsburgh, PA. The office readings for Friday were as follows: Psalms 137, 144, 104; Micah 3:9-4:5; Acts 24:24-25:12; Luke 8:1-15. The homily is based on the reading from Luke.

Today’s gospel reading makes it easy on us. Jesus tells a parable, he explains why he tells the parable, then he explains what the parable means. There’s something interesting going on here, because he seems to mean his words to be easy to grasp. He’s talking to farmers and people of the land about sowing seeds—he’s speaking right at the level they’re at. But then he explains that actually he’s given this parable that those hearing wouldn’t understand, that he didn’t want them to comprehend his message and therefore respond. Now that’s what I call a paradox. One plus one does not equal two here, it seems.

We might look at this passage and say, “Jesus, what’s going on here? You don’t want people to understand you? What’s the deal?” Right? Because, certainly sometimes we have enough problems hearing and understanding him, so how should we think about this? I think the answer is right here in the parable itself.

Now, Jesus obviously explains his meaning to his disciples. He makes a distinction—there were those guys over there that I hid my meaning from (and I meant to) but I’m going to tell you guys here close to me what I’m really talking about. In this parable, he says, the seed being scattered is the word of God. So the man scattering seed is like someone out among the people with God’s message. God’s word that there is a new king, he can free you from your sins and you don’t have to be dominated by the oppression in this life any more. Jesus, right? And ironically, of course, those people who hear but don’t understand this message have it delivered to them by the ultimate embodiment of God’s word—Jesus. The ultimate seed to be planted in our lives.

And there are all these different kinds of situations and responses to the word we see here. They’re familiar, right? Sometimes the word gets trampled on and devoured—sounds almost like crucifixion. There are people who will look at the gospel and step all over it, who think it’s just a worthless fairy tale and has no power for anyone. They do not know Jesus, the gospel-bearer, and they are blind to the power of the word of God. Sadly, they cannot be set free. Sometimes the word reaches a heart so hardened or hateful or hopeless that it won’t take root and grow in that person’s life. Some of us just can’t even stand the thought of there being truth and beauty in the world—and, surely, some of just don’t even want to repent. Then sometimes the word gets choked out by weeds already present in the soil, like those many things in our lives that compete with God’s word for our worship and love. It’s no surprise to us that money, people and other concerns strangle the word of God in some lives.

But then, there’s good soil. Oh, in the good soil that wonderful message that Jesus reigns and forgives and frees us bears fruit and shines to the glory of God. “These are the ones,” Jesus says, “who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.” It wasn’t just that Jesus’s words spoke to them in familiar language about planting seeds, but also that his words had to be received with a holy posture of heart before God. The cynics, the hopeless, the idol worshipers—they can’t receive the word, they can’t even hear it. It’s honesty and goodness that enable us to understand God’s message to us, that enable us to understand Jesus.

So, how can we become good soil? Notice that Jesus made sure his word found good soil; he took his disciples off to the side and explained to them what was going on. They were the ones given the gift of understanding his teaching, of comprehending the gospel of God. But beloved, these men would not have been “good soil” without the closeness of Jesus. Without God working upon their hearts and minds, they would not have left their families and jobs to follow Jesus around. And they wouldn’t have gained the honest and good hearts that enabled them to hear what Jesus had to say to them.

Here’s another paradox—another “one plus one does not equal two.” God wants all of us to hear and respond positively to his word. But we’re broken creatures, stained by the fall and incapable of hearing on our own. Our hearts by nature aren’t honest and good, but deceitful above all things. We need the kind, powerful touch of God in our lives in order to hear his good word to us. We need to respond to his call, leave behind the things that hinder us and put ourselves in a place to be changed. The disciples stayed around Jesus constantly, slowly learning his ways and being delivered from their sin. Let us also draw near to Jesus, plead with him to change us and free us from sin, and hope to understand and live in the light of the gospel, for the glory of God.