Friday, September 30, 2011

John's Revelation, Bonhoeffer's Germany, and Our America—Guest Post By Lawrence Garcia

Around the turn of the first-century, several congregations in Asia Minor received a letter from a grey-haired and banished Apostle John who, at that moment, was a resident of the island of Patmos. No doubt they had received Johannine correspondence before, but this one was different. This letter functioned more like a gateway to another world, with John himself playing the role of mediating host. It would not be long after they had taken up residence within John’s visionary escapade that they would realize they weren’t in another world per se but rather their own world, albeit from a different perspective. This was home—Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum—this was Asia Minor.

The torrent of images all had their points of contact with aspects of daily Greco-Roman life and history: the wounded and healed head of the beast recalled the recent rumor of Nero redivivus, the prostitute on the beast had its correspondence with the Magna Mater, the goddess Cybele worshiped in the area, and Babylon’s opulence that depicted all too well the wealthy aristocrats situated on Rome’s posh Palatine Hill. Thus, it is in this sense that John’s letter is an “apocalypse”, that is, a removal of the veil exposing what was previously hidden.  According to the revelator, the particular reality that was being unmasked was that of the Emperor Cult and its ubiquitous propaganda which the churches seem to have accepted as truth. Dio Cassius, a contemporary of John wrote:

At that time Caesar was attending to general matters, and he permitted the establishment of precincts to Rome and to [his] father Caesar—calling him the hero Julius—in Ephesos and in Nicea, for these were the most distinguished cities of Asia and in Bithynia respectively. He ordered the Romans who settled among them to honor these two. But he allowed the Hellenes—to concentrate precincts to him, the Asians in Pergamum and the Bithynians in Nicomedia… Yet even there (Rome), various god-like honors are given after his death to those who rule uprightly; and heroic shrines are built to them.”[1] (emphasis added)

The bestowal of divine honors upon the emperor, coupled with the erection of imperial shrines, had its very beginnings in Asia Minor, which happens to be the locus of all seven churches. This is not a connection to be merely glossed over in a mad rush to have the book tell us all we want to know about the end of the world.  Such a shallow reading is ruled out of court, precisely because the parodying of Roman-imperial propaganda that can be witnessed throughout Revelation was designed to reveal the true nature of the empire itself at that exact point in history. Small wonder then that the letter asks of its recipients to “Hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” for it would demand that they open their hearts and minds to this startling alternate reality. One commentator sums it up well:

Revelation is a call to have faith in God rather than empire. This call takes place in a narrative through which John tells of his visionary experiences… This plot is the story of YHWH’s plan for the people who live in a world dominated by concentrations of human power. The Biblical Story of a people called to be ‘set apart’ from power arrangements that characterized Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.”[2]

So in the light of John’s vivid drama, Rome’s military glory, its material prosperity, and its forms of justice and peace were shown forth to be nothing more than a ravaging of the earth, blatant economic exploitation, and raw violence and bloodshed.   Thus, the churches in Asia Minor were to renounce their allegiance to Rome, see Rome for what she really was, and “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.”  In light of this realization, they would find the Lamb’s way of conquering not by way of martial victory, but rather, that of blood-stained love.

Undoubtedly, John’s creative way of unmasking empire would have proved invaluable in the churches continued struggle to not be absorbed into the wider imperialistic culture—a struggle endured from the days of Constantine to our own.  Perhaps the struggle is due to our susceptibility as human beings to be shaped by the constant bombardment of imperial propaganda?  For those in Asia Minor, absorption occurred by way of imperial temples, altars, coins, festivals, and inscriptions, all serving to legitimate the divine status of Roma Aeterna (Rome eternal)And closer to our own time, such as exemplified in the early twentieth-century by Hitler’s propaganda machine, as Erwin Lutzer, states:

Hitler believed that books could never bring about a revolution; only the spoken word, delivered by a person who could convert them to a radical agenda. He said that when you want to tear down a world and build another in its place you must first separate the supporters and the members. The function was to attract supporters, and change people’s minds so that they would be in agreement with the aims and the philosophies of the movement.”[3]

Lutzer continues to site Hitler’s Mien Kampf which is worth quoting:

“The first task of propaganda is to win people for subsequent organization… The second task of propaganda is the disruption of the existing state of affairs and the permeation of this state of affairs with the new doctrine, while the second task of the organization must be the struggle for power, thus to achieve the final success.”

We can only speculate, but could the mass murder of millions of innocents have been averted if the largely German Christian nation would have “heard and obeyed” John’s call to resist uncritical allegiance to Empire?  In his book, Authentic Faith: Theological Ethics in Context, Heinz Eduard Tödt recalls Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (one of the few German Protestants to actively resist Hitler) reflection on social “stupidity” in the face of power:

Bonhoeffer knew that what he saw was not obvious to all. His surprising thesis in the section on stupidity [Dummheit] is that stupidity ‘is not an intellectual defect,’ and ‘not so much a psychological problem as a sociological problem… On closer examination, it appears that every strong external exhibition of power, be it political or religious, stupefies a large section of people.’ Under the ‘overwhelming impression of exhibition of power,’ people often lose their ‘inner independence’ and refrain from ‘finding an authentic way of responding to the given circumstance of life’.”[4](174)

Bonhoeffer’s analysis of society’s “Dummheit in the face of impressive displays of power characterizes the failures in Asia Minor vis-à-vis Rome, and in Germany vis-à-vis Hitler.  Indeed, seductive displays of power need apocalyptic visions to counteract these stupefying effects of imperial propaganda. Thus at this point  it can become all too easy, as we stand from our perspective at the precipice of history, to critique those in Asia Minor who colluded with the imperial cult, while also passing judgment on those German Christians who signed oaths of allegiance to Hitler, silently stepping aside and standing by as he “Cleansed the Land.”  Engaging as it were from a superior perspective while ignoring the question of whether or not we in America today, in something of a Constantian power paradigm, are likewise  blindly following the pro-military propaganda that allows our government to advance its agendas unhindered.  I suggest that it is vital for us to begin reading John’s apocalypse in light of our current situation, especially as our government maintains a constant idle of fear and power that it might quickly rev-up new military ventures by employing the familiar rhetorical tactics put to effective use by Rome and Germany. We would do well to heed the warnings of the apostolic visionary, lest we also be condemned by history for refusing to “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.

[1] Dio Cassius 51.20.6-9 Translation by Loeb.
[2] Wes Howard-Brook, Anthony Gwyther, “Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now,” (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY, 1999), pg 23.
[3] Erwin W. Lutzer, “When A Nation Forgets God: 7 Lessons We Must Learn From Nazi Germany,” (Moody Publishers: Chicago, IL, 2010), pgg 76-77.
[4] Hienz Eduard Tödt, “Authentic Faith: Bonhoeffer’s Theological Ethics in Context,” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, MI, 1993), pg 174.

Guest Blog Post Coming Soon!

Hello, fellow revolutionaries!

I am pleased and very excited to announce an upcoming guest blog post from my friend Lawrence Garcia entitled John's Revelation, Bonhoeffer's Germany, and Our America.

Lawrence is a thought-provoking writer who has made it his life's work to "teach Christians not only to tell and live out their faith, but to think it through with equal vigor." I am honored to be featuring his thoughts here at EverydayRev.

I encourage you to check out the post when it arrives later this evening (I have read it, and it is fantastic!), as well as generate some meaningful discussion based on the information. I would also highly recommend Lawrence's blog, where you will find even more good thoughts and discussion starters.

Looking forward to watching the conversation unfold!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Brief Polemic Against a Bumper Sticker Faith

Beware the bumper sticker faith, my brothers and sisters.

You know what I'm talking about. There are lots of different types: those who prefer icthus fishes to express their faith for them (and those who go one step further, in case anyone didn't get the picture), and those who prefer hellfire and damnation stickers; there are those who choose cutesie stickers with theologically shallow messages, those who prefer theological stickers with thinly veiled political agendas, those who prefer political stickers with thinly veiled theological agendas, and then there are those of us that just prefer stickers, period:

(This is my own truck, by the way)

I say again: beware of this, my friends.

Admittedly, I am just as guilty of this as any. And it's pretty easy to see how others derive satisfaction from the lazy activism that bumper stickers afford. I enjoy waiting at the millions of stoplights on the main highway that runs through my town, watching in my rear-view mirror the expressions of unsuspecting drivers who pull up behind me as they read the stickers that plaster the backglass of my camper shell. These looks are extremely gratifying, ranging anywhere from, "Ugh. He's a Christian with a big mouth," to "Hooray! He must be a liberal!" to "What the hell does that even mean?"

But we must realize that a bumper sticker faith—like a faith that relies on so-called "contemporary worship" songs to emotionally stir the person singing them—often says more about the person who shows them off than it does about the causes they represent. Telling the world that you are against abortion or the death penalty is the bumper sticker equivalent of bragging to your entire congregation, "I could sing of Your love forever!"

When we begin to let our catchy slogans speak the truth of the Gospel for us, we're just being lazy, or clinging to what we know is safe when we know that we should be sticking our neck out. In a video interview made for Alter Video Magazine by The Work of the People, Phyllis Tickle says this on the "politicalization of spiritual virtues":


We have our liberal or conservative niches (or even moderate niches, I'm now finding), where we titter and gossip about what our niche is doing right that the the other niche is doing wrong. We get angry at the injustice of the world and pound our fists and get red in the face—but none of this really does all that much. We convince ourselves that we can't really do anything where we are at the moment—or worse, we erroneously try to convince ourselves that we actually ARE doing something where we are at the moment—but that's really just a cover for our own shameful inactivity.

If all you're doing for the Kingdom is talking about it, or blogging about it, or tweeting about it, you're not really doing anything at all for it, are you? It's much easier to do these things than to actually commit to some level of activity. To paraphrase Tickle, your activism and "noise" should only arise from the experience of serving others. I know that I often try to do this the other way around, and it just doesn't work. If you really want to "be the change you wish to see in the world," it begins with love, and it begins with the simplest actions born out of love: Feed a stranger. Stop when you see someone stranded on the highway, no matter how much of a hurry you think you're in. Give money to those people who wait at the interstate ramps, even if you are assuming they will use it to buy drugs—a radical idea, right? Better yet, pick one of them up and take them out to lunch.

I'm gonna get off this stinkin' computer and go do something.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bucket List

Hooray for having a list of things you'd like to do before you shuffle off this mortal coil!

For some time I've been thinking, What do I want out of life? I mean, what do I really want?

And so I've decided to put together a small list of attainable goals that, once I have accomplished them, I can look back on my life and be proud of my experiences. Here's what I have so far:

1. Learn Neil Young's "Old Man" on the guitar and perform it on my 24th birthday.
For some reason, this song always reminds me that I'm going to die. And it's such a beautiful song, it just seems apropos to play it at a point in my life where I have to submit to the realization that a quarter of my life is over.

2. Visit the Holy Land; particularly the Church of the Nativity, the Mount of Olives, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 
This one has some personal significance, as my great-grandfather (a Methodist minister) traveled to the Holy Land back in the 70s. But I am also excited by the actual historical implications of such a visit. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be Indiana Jones. Now, having a little experience in history and anthropology and a deep abiding fascination with archaeology and the religious experience, I really would like to gain a visualization of where some of these events occurred that are so formational to the Judeo-Christian faith.

3. Float in a canoe from Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico via the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Yes, it's possible. And it will take almost 50 days to reach the Gulf. I had to use math to figure that one out.

4. Hike a sizable portion of the Appalachian Trail. I don't care where or how far exactly. I just want to spend about a month or so hiking and camping. Preferably with friends.

5. Help organize and run a house church for one year. House churches are quite possibly the only churches that are able to function with little to no money. It has long been my dream to be a part of one, ever since I learned of their earnestness in "doing church" through my reading of Wolfgang Simpson's Houses that Change the World. Not long ago, a professor asked me what 100 questions I would ask of a church that is seeking relevance and (financial) sustainability. My main answer: I really don't care, since most of what a typical "church" is seeking is usually tied up in how to pay the church's bills in the long-run. But Christianity is a philosophy, a Way of Life, and costs nothing to practice. To me, helping to run a house church is perhaps the best way of engaging in real and honest Christian worship. 

6. Visit an ancient Irish monastery for a retreat. Many of the Celtic abbeys in Ireland are only accessible by boat! This makes my inner monk smile with joy. Iona, one of the oldest monasteries in Europe, is still open to visitors and pilgrims seeking reprieve.

7. Go one week without speaking. In today's world, it is nearly quite literally impossible to do something like this. All I want is to find my inner silence, and practice equanimity of mind. It was said of Abba Agathon that for three years he carried stones in his mouth until he learned to be silent. 'Nuff said.

Well, there you have it. My bucket list, thus far. I will be adding to it periodically, but for now I have enough to work toward. Do you have a bucket list? Why or why not? What are some things you'd like to accomplish before you die, and why?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The One Thing

The man was pushing 85 years old, and spoke with a rural accent so thick it was often hard to understand him. But he had kind eyes, and walked with delicacy that disclosed his care and concern for the land that he tilled. Later, I sat speaking with him as he carefully washed a bucketful of freshly picked jalapeno peppers one by one, dropping them into another five-gallon bucket.

It was cold, and I pulled the sleeves of my sweater down from my elbows to my wrists.

"It's pretty chilly today," I said.

"Yessir, it is. I gots my long underwear on today." He chuckled, plunging his hands into a bucket of water that had to be nearly freezing.

A long silence.

"I can do anything," he said suddenly, without looking up from the task at hand.

I leaned in to listen.

"What I mean is, my whole life I've been able to do stuff on m'own. If I see a brick-layer layin' brick, I think to myself, Wull, I can do that, and I do; and they say to me, 'Why, you been layin' brick for years!' and I tell 'em, 'Nope. This is my first time.' This is jus' plain survival skills, that ever'one needs to have. You need somethin', you learns how to do it yourself."

I've been stewing on this conversation all day. It prompted me to recall another discussion I had with a former employer—a pastor—of mine. Not long before I moved from Cape Girardeau to Liberty, this pastor (who was under the mistaken notion that I am intending to direct my life towards the pursuit of leading worship through music) mentioned to me that I do too many things. "You try to do so much; narrow it down, or you'll end up being mediocre and many things, and truly excellent at none." This of course, in context, was a suggestion to give up my peripheral interests—canning, baking, pottery, art, literary study, poetry, etc.—in order to become a full-time worship leader.

The core sentiment was still striking. My personality is much like that of the farmer's: I look at things, think Well, I can do that, and then I do them.

But sometimes the pastor's words haunt me; occasionally I wonder if my conversation with him was perhaps unintentionally prophetic. Paul Tillich said that faith is essentially what a person is most concerned about. In a similar fashion, Jesus proclaimed that "where your treasure is, there your heart is, also." Where, I often find myself asking, is my ultimate concern? Sometimes I feel that I have sacrificed a life focused on the One Thing (whatever that may be) in order to attempt to experience the Many. Let's face it: I'm good at a lot of crap. Any of my friends can attest to this. But often, my little abilities are really just that: crap. No real substance or power to be found; just a petty little interest or hobby that is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire.

This reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a romanticized film version of the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

Do few things and do them well, Francesco proclaims as he rebuilds a burned-out chapel that will become his home, Take your time; go slowly. Good advice. How I so strongly desire greatness through focused concern! To be like St. Francis, or Gandhi, or Dr. King. People of conviction, who pursued their conviction with tenacity. These people sacrificed their lives for their One Thing.

What is your One Thing? Have you sacrificed any measure of faith in the One in order to pursue the Many? Gimme some feedback.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Farming: A Handbook," by Wendell Berry

This week I got my brand new copy of Wendell Berry's Farming: A Handbook, a re-released collection of poems first published in 1971. It was from this book that Berry's famed Mad Farmer first crawled from the pages and began to preach megaphonically the gospel of the land.

Every single poem the man writes seems to speak directly to how I feel. Observe:

The Wish to Be Generous
All that I serve will die, all my delights,
the flesh kindled from my flesh, garden and field,
the silent lilies standing in the woods,
the woods and the hill and the whole earth, all
will burn in man's evil, or dwindle
in its own age. Let the world bring on me
the sleep of darkness without stars, so I may know
my little light taken from me into the see
of the beginning and the end, so I may bow
to mystery, and take my stand on the earth
like a tree in a field, passing without haste
or regret toward what will be, my life
a patient willing descent into the grass.

This, my friends, is poetic nourishment. Thought for food.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On Fasting

You should know that I have a pretty poor body image of myself. I have struggled with overeating and being overweight for as long as I can remember, and it is still something that fills my thoughts most often during the day. Even in high school, when I was in reality quite trim, I saw myself as grotesquely fat.

For several years, I was involved in an unhealthy relationship with a girl that I almost married. Once, not long after I started college, I began to experiment with fasting. At the root of this was my own self-loathing; I ate too much, and saw the best solution as not eating at all. However, I was also deeply psychologically tied to this girl. Once, in a conversation about fasting, she told me, "I don't think you should do it; you are doing it for the wrong reasons." This simple declaration has haunted me since she said it.

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The modern or contemporary evangelical understanding of fasting is pretty simplistic in nature: one fasts because it is a sign of devotion to God, that one has the faith to give up something as a show of faith. It is something that a person must want to do, or they shouldn't do it at all. Usually, fasting is associated with the liturgical observance of Lent; in my personal experience, I have met few evangelical Christians who regularly practice the spiritual discipline of fasting.

"I am giving up chocolate for Lent, because I believe in God."

"I am listening to only Christian music instead of secular music during Lent, because I want to be close to Jesus."

"I am giving up television."

The laundry list of New-Year's-resolution-style fasting commitments goes on and on.

So I've been doing some thinking, and I keep coming back to that same question that my ex-girlfriend provoked me to ask of myself almost five years ago:

What is the "right reason" to fast?

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I've been taking a church history course at my seminary called "Sacred Journey," and last week we covered a small unit on early Christian monasticism. In contrast to the modern evangelical understanding of why we fast, ancient desert monks saw fasting as a form of self-denial; something that they didn't necessarily want to do, but that they recognized they must do. Ancient monks believed—in contrast to so many Christians today—that all sin stems from hunger, physical or otherwise (This contradicts Augustine's assertion that human sin originates with human sexual lust). The temptation of the stomach is at its core what makes us human and what also draws us into overconsumption (America, anyone?) and excessiveness. Of course, monks did all kinds of crazy things to themselves. It was said of Abba Agathon that for three years he carried stones in his mouth until he learned to be silent.

Fasting reminds us that one of the greatest fruits of the Spirit—self-control—is the fruit that is not eaten.

I have seen this illustrated in the life and teachings of the Mahatma Gandhi. In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi writes at length about the relationship between food and the spiritual life, and confesses his own struggles with indulgence. He writes:

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"Passion in man is generally co-existent with a hankering after the pleasures of the palate...I have considered myself to be a heavy eater. What friends have thought to be my restraint has never appeared to me in that light...I began with a fruit diet, but from the standpoint of restraint I did not find much to choose between a fruit diet and a diet of food grains. I observed that the same indulgence of taste was possible with the former as with the latter, and even more, when one got accustomed to it. I therefore came to attach greater importance to fasting or having only one meal a day on holidays. And if there was some occasion for penance or the like, I gladly utilized it too for the purpose of fasting. But I also saw that, the body now being drained more effectively, the food yielded greater relish and the appetite grew keener. It dawned upon me that fasting could be made as powerful a weapon of indulgence as of restraint." (pp. 320-21)

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So I am coming to find that my own misguided journey hasn't been so misguided, after all. My conversation with my ex should serve as a warning that we must be careful of what we choose to say to one another, as we never know the spiritual consequences of our own words. Though it has been an exciting adventure to rediscover fasting as of late, there were several painful years of being caught in the uncomfortable position of thinking that I was not good enough or that I did not have the right mindset for fasting, paired with my discomfort at my own excessive behavior. I overate, but couldn't fast to correct myself.

I recently learned that the word "prodigal" is a synonym for indulgence. When we refer to someone as prodigal today, we usually mean it with the connotation that the person has been gone for a while and has returned; this is, after all, the plot of Jesus's famous parable. But prodigality—excessiveness—was the sin of the younger son and the primary motivator in the story plot. The great humility of the son that prompted him to return home resulted from his own "forced fasting," which was a consequence of his extravagant living. Why do we not remember this?

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I am learning more and more that fasting is indeed the answer to excessiveness, rather than conviction of excessiveness being the reason not to fast. My own hunger disgusts me, and fasting is a way of combatting that self-disgust, laying aside my preoccupation with what I will eat and what I look like, and spending time focusing instead my relationship with the Divine.

I now begin my own little "experiment with truth." And I am able to do so with a freed conscience.