Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Theology of South Park

One of my more cynical friends sent me this week a bit of dialogue from “South Park”. The episode is entitled “Kenny Dies” and contains some dubious theologizing by Chef.

Stan: Why would God let Kenny die, Chef? Kenny’s my friend. Why can’t God take someone else’s friend?

Chef: Stan sometimes God takes those closest to us, because it makes him feel better about himself. He is a very vengeful God, Stan. He’s all pissed off about something we did thousands of years ago. He just can’t get over it, so he doesn’t care who he takes. Children, puppies, it doesn’t matter to him, so long as it makes us sad. Do you understand?

Stan: But then, why does God give us anything to start with?

Chef: Well, look at it this way: if you want to make a baby cry, first you give it a lollipop. Then you take it away. If you never give it a lollipop to begin with, then you would have nothin’ to cry about. That’s like God, who gives us life and love and help just so that he can tear it all away and make us cry, so he can drink the sweet milk of our tears. You see, it’s our tears, Stan, that give God his great power.

This would be simply outrageous and offensive if it didn’t represent exactly the view many people have of God. Perhaps they would not express it as crassly as Chef, but their actual understanding of how God interacts with his creation is practically the same. When people wonder where God was when the earthquake in Haiti struck or the when the towers fell or when a child or spouse or parent died, it is Chef’s God they are wondering about. A god in direct control of every event cannot evade the charge of injustice and even cruelty. This is the god the “new atheists” despise and scorn. And I don’t blame them. I would despise such a god as well. But this is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Recently I was part of a dialogue with an orthodox Rabbi friend. We were discussing what both the Church and the Jews still need to learn from the holocaust. My friend suggested that both Jews and Christians had been seduced by Greek speculative theology. He insisted that the Bible does not try to explain God, it rather tells stories about God. Our attempts at rationality, at explanation, leave us backed into an intellectual corner. Our explanations result in a god that is either ineffectual or a monster. Rather than a God who is “not willing that any should perish” or a God that notices the fall of a sparrow, we have a god that plays random and cruel games with his children. Such a god is more like the vicious, arbitrary, and cruel gods of the Greco-Roman world. My friend said that like most young Jews coming of age after the Second World War he wondered where God was during the murder of Europe’s Jews. In the end he said he realized that God did not build the gas chambers or stoke the fires of the ovens. Those were the cruel actions of human beings.

During holy week we recall that far from causing us pain for the sake of his amusement, our God bore our pain for the sake of  our salvation. This God calls us to join him in his effort to renew and restore his creation. This God calls us to confront evil and suffering. This God looks to his church to be the presence of his kingdom in anticipation of the new heavens and the new earth where righteousness dwells. The god of Chef and the new atheists is a caricature, a monstrous distortion of the God who forgives, loves, and endures the suffering of his people. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the waiting father who throws a party when his manipulative and wasteful son arrives home. This is the God who with us makes all things new.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


There is nothing new about name calling. It is as old as childhood. Call someone a fundamentalist or a liberal, a fascist or a Marxist and you have diminished and dismissed them. You no longer need to listen to them, because you already know what they think. You no longer need to look at them, because you know what you are going to see. Name calling is a form of intellectual laziness. It amounts to a refusal to stay in conversation, let alone sustain a relationship. The United States has experienced periodic outbursts of name calling. In my lifetime there have been three such outbursts. When I was a very young child Joe McCarthy brought name calling into ill repute with his reckless claim that “communists” had infiltrated the government. When I was a young adult, supporters and opponents of the Vietnam War hurled epithets at each other. Soldiers returning home were “baby killers”. Protesters were called “dirty hippies.” And now, over the last 20 years we have experienced a political balkanization that is producing another spate of name calling—and worse.

In her recent book The Lacuna Barbara Kingsolver explores the changes in the United States that led to the rise of McCarthyism and the virulent fear of Communism. Her protagonist Harrison Shepherd was the son of a Mexican mother and American father. Physically abandoned by his father and emotionally abandoned by his mother he struggles to make his way in two alien cultures. Living in Mexico as a young man he is befriended by muralist Diego Rivera and his painter wife Frida Kahlo. As a result of these friendships he is introduced to Leon Trotsky, the former Communist leader now on the run from Stalin. He helps Diego by mixing plaster. He cooks for the household and acts as a secretary for Trotsky. Although he is sympathetic with their political aims, he is more interested in telling stories. He returns to the states, lands in Ashville, North Carolina and begins his career as a novelist.

At the height of his success he is caught up in the “red scare”. His past associations are seen as damning evidences of disloyalty—a charge he denies. Kingsolver uses the grim paranoia of the post-war years to point to a fundamental change in America. One would have thought that following victory in the Second World War Americans would be brimming with confidence. She suggests that on the contrary in the post war era American politicians began using fear to control the conversations and accrue power. Russian communists were ready made opponents. They became the monsters lurking under the beds and crouching in the closets. Guilt by association was the order of the day. In the hands of a skilled politician an opponent’s reasonable appeal for justice and compassion could be morphed into Communist sympathies. Political demagogues like McCarthy found fear of Communism a very useful tool for rallying the troops. During these years, truth, fairness, and common sense were in scarce supply.

This is not to say there were no things to fear in the post war era. This is not to say there were no dangerous people and deadly situations. The nuclear threat was very real. But we had faced dangerous people and deadly situations before without sinking into morbid fear and vicious name calling. But this was an America growing more diverse. This was a time when people at the margins were beginning to move to the center. Our isolation was ending. We were now an international power with growing responsibilities. Rather than grow into this new diversity we became a country of adolescents. Can anyone watch CNN or Fox today and have any doubt that we are still behaving like adolescents? There is a hole in our soul carved out by fear—a fear of loss of power, control, wealth, prestige, and security. Ironically, this fear itself and the national adolescence it produces may bring about the very corruption and collapse we fear. If our current public conversation is any indication, we need to grow up—fast.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Chance for Renewal?

The news out of Europe for the Roman Catholic Church is not good. Following on the heels of a disastrous sexual abuse scandal in Ireland is an even more embarrassing scandal in Germany. The press is raising questions about how Pope Benedict XVI handled the case of a pedophile priest when he as an Archbishop. Outraged Catholics in Europe are calling out for greater accountability from their leadership—particularly from local bishops. Whatever moral authority remained for the Roman Catholic Church in Europe is quickly draining away. The church seems plagued by sclerotic leadership more concerned with the preservation of institutional prerogatives that with openness and truthfulness. I fear that excessive worry about preserving power in the hands of the clergy and hierarchy has cost the leadership its power rather than enhanced it. Will the church long survive without completing the renewal process began under Pope John XXIII but sabotaged by John Paul II?

I speak, of course, as an outsider to the Roman Catholic community. But my own Protestant community is in no less trouble. The mainline church seems determined to tear itself to pieces over human sexuality. Having accommodated itself to the culture long ago it is struggling to find a message and a purpose. Since the 1960s its numbers and influence have declined precipitously. It seems to unerringly swerve wherever the cultural wind is blowing. Will the mainline church long survive without clarity on the gospel, connection with a Christian past, and commitment to a Christian future?

My own community, for better and for worse, is Evangelical. In spite of apparent gains we have no reason to be smug. The evangelical community suffers from a nihilistic individualism that continues to fragment churches and denominations. Its churches are frequently glittering and large. Their programs are impressive. Their pastors are masterful communicators. But are they any less accommodated than their mainline sisters and brothers? Are their values rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ or in market capitalism? Are they as thoughtlessly wedded to the political right as the mainline church is to the political left? Evangelicals are no less subject to squabbling than the Protestant mainline churches. But they suffer from having no center, no tradition, and no larger community of discourse. In another generation will the Evangelical Church exists only as shards and fragments?

Perhaps the future of Christianity requires a total collapse of its current institutional forms. Perhaps followers of Jesus need to called back to his message, his gospel. Perhaps out of the ruins of our Christian present we can reclaim a Christian past. Perhaps we need to be formed once again as disciples in a community that reads God’s word, worships breaks bread, and loves one another—and the world. I am not anti-institutional. I have been a part of the institutional church all of my life and served it in my adulthood. But I wonder if the church of Jesus Christ in both its individual and institutional form has ever needed a renewal, a reformation, more than today.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Glenn Beck, Social Justice, and Big Government

Last week Glenn Beck created quite a stir among Christians committed to social justice. He denounced churches concerned for social and economic justice and recommended they be “turned in” by their parishioners. The Sojourners folks immediately responded, recommending that “social justice” Christians “turn themselves in” to Beck. In a subsequent broadcast Beck backed off a bit. But he still insisted that “social justice” or “economic justice” is a smoke screen for “big government.” I wonder about this. Certainly some social justice advocates are also advocates of “big government.” Others do look to government for solutions to injustices and corruptions—but this does not necessarily indicate a universal love of big government. Still others are as wary of big government as Beck and his allies, though perhaps for different reasons.

Social justice Christians draw their inspiration from the prophets of Israel. For the prophets the governments of Israel and Judah are “part of the problem”. Isaiah rants, “Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieve; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them” (Isaiah 1:23). Judah’s most powerful and wealthy citizens are denounced in no uncertain terms for their dissolute living and indifference to justice and mercy (See Isaiah 5). Amos similarly denounces the rulers of Israel: “You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.” He continues, “There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times for the times are evil” (Amos 5:11-13).

Passages like this could be multiplied over many pages. The solution to the oppression of the poor in the law courts and the burdensome tax levies was not for the prophets more government or less government—it was good government and just government. God’s law set the parameters for human flourishing. Following the will of God meant caring for the entire community of Israel. If the poor were over taxed and their cries for justice were ignored, this was a violation of God’s communal order. Not even their sacrifices would atone for such perversions: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though your bring me burnt offerings, I will not accept them” (Amos 521 ,22). Rather, God declares, “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24).

The prophets’ critique is a critique of the powerful from the margins. In contemporary terms it is “populist.” It is a critique of powerful and wealthy elites. According to the prophets they are more concerned with savoring the good life than carrying out the will of God. They prophets also attacks leaders who forget their obligations to the entire nation of Israel. The rulers appear to live in an individualistic, every-man-for-himself bubble. But the prophets insist they pay attention to the suffering and injustice at their very doorsteps.

The charges made by Israel’s prophets can easily be laid at the feet of both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Both parties contribute to injustice and the grinding of the poor. So how should Israel, should we, respond? The prophets did not call for revolution. They called for a moral and spiritual renewal of their leaders. “Seek good, not evil that you may live. . . .Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:14, 15). In the end, pursing justice has never been about pursuing power. In John’s great vision in Revelation the opposition to the power of the Roman empire is a slaughtered lamb. He wins through love, sacrifice, and witness. And so will those of us who follow him.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


"The consumption society has become a system of exchange of signs, rather than an exchange of actual objects."
Rene Girard

Rene Girard has argued that primitive humans used sacrifice as a means of diminishing the rivalries that threatened to devolve into societal chaos.  The fear and violence associated with rivalries were blamed on a "scapegoat."  Sacrificing the scapegoat became a safety valve.  Blame and scorn were heaped on the scapegoat, unity and focus were restored  to the community and chaos and violence were diminished--for a time.  Eventually the ritual would need to be repeated to insure the survival of a given community.  

Scapegoats often came from already despised groups: enslaved enemies, ethnic minorities, deviants, and criminals.  At other times the choice of a scapegoat could be quite arbitrary.  Girard contends that Judaism and Christianity eroded the effectiveness of scapegoating.  In the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament the scapegoat mechanism is exposed.  Story after story, culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus, declares the scapegoats innocent, or, at least not guilty of the charges made against them.  Biblical figures like Joseph, Job, and Jonah illustrate this. 

Today scapegoating is still in use, but its effectiveness, at least in the west, is waning.  For all the critique of the so-called "victim mentality" it demonstrates western sensitivity to scapegoating.  Marginal groups refuse any longer to accept the role of societal whipping boy.  This is a fairly recent development.  In American society the time is not long past when it was acceptable to speak disparagingly of African Americans or Jews or Communists or sexual deviants.  Hatred of such marginal people underscored the goodness and  enhanced the cohesion of the majority.  Despising "those people" told me who I was and where I belonged.  Such scapegoating of persons at the margins, of course, continues.  But, as suggested, is much less effective and acceptable.

Scapegoating is about creating and sustaining group identity and cohesion.  It reduces rivalry and violence by attending to the alien other.  Girard suggests that today the consumer society is an attempt to accomplish this by another means.  Since limited resources are a source of rivalry, the consumer society provides a glut of cheap consumer goods.  It then assigns to these goods a transcendent meaning.  What you drive, what you wear, where you live, and where you went to school determine who you are.  Your identity is shaped and declared by goods you consume.  Advertising is quite explicit about this.  Consumerism is an exchange of "signs", not an exchange of goods.  The signs that one is "cool" or sophisticated or culturally savvy are always shifting.  Consumerist identity is constantly morphing and generating novel desires.  The consumer must remain constantly vigilant. 

Our wars and financial crises contribute to our crises of identity and unity.  We fear financial losses and limitations not just because we fear hunger and poverty.  We fear a loss of identity.  When we can no longer spend as freely as we like, we can no longer differentiate ourselves. In a consumerist society we are our desires. We find ourselves hollowed out when we can no longer fulfill them.  No wonder our leaders want to restore our economy at almost any cost.  They too fear the loss of identity and cohesion and the violence that is sure to follow.