The St. Lawrence audit

Have you heard the story of St. Lawrence? He was archdeacon of the Roman Church in the third century, at a time when Emperor Valerian issued an edict condemning all Christian bishops, priests, and deacons to death. During these episodic persecutions it was customary for Roman authorities to confiscate the property of condemned Christians. Eventually Lawrence was summoned by the Prefect of Rome and ordered to hand over all church property under his charge. As archdeacon, this would not have been insubstantial. The prefect said he was aware the church owned large sums of gold and silver, and the Roman army needed money to fund its troops. He gave Lawrence three days to make inventory and turn it in.

Lawrence set about gathering together all the poor in the city who were under the church’s charge. On the third day Lawrence presented to the prefect a large crowd of beggars, cripples, lepers, orphans, widows, and other social outcasts. Outraged and confused, the prefect demanded to know where the promised treasure was. Lawrence replied:

“What are you displeased at? The gold that you so eagerly desire is a vile metal, and serves to incite men to all manner of crimes. The light of heaven is the true gold, which these poor objects enjoy. Their bodily weakness and sufferings are the source of their patience and virtue; vices and passions are the real diseases by which the great ones of the world are often most truly miserable and despicable. Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the church’s crown, by which it is pleasing to Christ; it has no other riches; make use then of them for the advantage of Rome, of the emperor, and yourself.” (1)

Lawrence’s creative subversiveness was built upon sound theology, but as we can imagine the prefect wasn’t amused. The prefect, in turn, had Lawrence tortured to death on a gridiron. The story goes that after a long brutal torture session, before dying Lawrence quipped, “It is well done. Turn me over!” (2)

The most important part of this story is not St. Lawrence’s heroic death, but that his response to the authorities embodied the teaching of Christ in Luke 14:13-14: “Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then indeed will you be blessed because they have no way to repay you. But you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (NCV)

Threatened with all the stern pageantry and military might of Rome, this courageously light-hearted saint responded by throwing a Bible party! He was obviously a man after Jesus’s heart because he recognized who was most valued in God’s kingdom (Matt. 20:16). He understood that loving Jesus means recognizing him in the marginalized, and being in solidarity with them (1 Cor. 1:28-31).

When St. Lawrence gathered all these various outcasts to stand with him before the prefect, he was asking them to risk their lives with him. He must have had strong rapport with them, that they were willing to undertake this dangerous act of public mockery of the Roman authorities. Such rapport could only be achieved through the deep bonds of solidarity and relationship, not the detached charity we’re so used to these days.

Charitable giving implies maintaining a certain distance between giver and recipient; it enables unjust social boundaries to remain unchallenged even while some good is being performed. Despite the good charitable giving accomplishes, it isn’t the type of action to which Christ summons us. What I glean from St. Lawrence’s hagiography is that he went beyond charity and took upon himself the hard work of becoming one with the people he served. That’s solidarity, the family values of God’s kingdom. Such is what Christ calls us to do as His presence in the world. I think this is what the apostle James had in mind when he wrote, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and undefiled is this: to come to the aid of orphans and widows in their hardship and to keep oneself untarnished by the world.” (James 1:27, NCV)

What if St. Lawrence were sent on a heavenly mission to come evaluate us today, to audit how American Christians are treating their wealth? No doubt he would interview many individual Christians, clergy, and bishops. Maybe he’d meet with parish councils or board members. I’m sure he’d walk through the poorest neighborhoods of various communities and ask what the churches are doing for them. He might drop in for Mass or other worship services and check out the demographic makeup of the congregations. He’d likely evaluate what Christians and their leaders are saying about political and cultural issues, what political candidates/groups they’re supporting and for what reasons. Because so many people say we are a Christian nation, I’m sure he would be curious to see how our government uses its resources domestically and around the world.

My guess is that after he finished his audit, St. Lawrence would conclude that America has very few Christians and is most definitely not a “Christian nation.” Based on our priorities, it’s difficult not to conclude that the American church (speaking in broad, pan-denominational terms) for the large part serves Mammon and Mars rather than Christ. St. Lawrence would lament that we the people are persecuting Jesus in rather vicious ways, and a great many who call themselves Christians cheer it on. We regularly say things like “God bless America”, but we’ve chosen to reject His blessings, curse them as evil, and do horrible things to them.

What else do we call it when our elected government makes a policy of shutting out immigrants fleeing extreme poverty and violence to seek refuge among us? When we separate families at the Mexican border and cruelly lock children in prisons without adequate supervision or care? When our president declares his open hostility to immigrants from Muslim countries? When he pushes for so-called merit-based immigration, which welcomes the wealthy and privileged from around the world while demonizing the poor?

Why are we building a giant wall across the Mexican border? How can people who follow Jesus be okay that we’re deliberately leaving asylum seekers to suffer in squalid conditions just outside of our border, where they’re subject to rape and extortion in refugee camps? How about inside our borders where we have a thriving abortion industry which preys on the poor? If the policies of our nation could speak, they would say it’s easier and more desirable for the poor to kill their unborn than it is for us to provide them with what they need to live well.

The poor have been coming to us from around the world for quite a while, yet we’re increasingly hostile to them and let our president denigrate them by calling them “criminals”, “dangerous”, “infestations”, and so on. The poor within our nation, we denigrate as being lazy and stupid. We patronize them with crumbs and ask why they can’t get their act together to join the rest of us at the table (Luke 16:19-31). The poor and sick are God’s blessings to America, but our economy and military power are sources of temptation. Yet our priorities are backwards. We treat the poor as less than worthless, but we serve Mammon and Mars to the detriment of ourselves and the rest of the world.

That a great many so-called Christians find this status quo agreeable, and cheer it on and defend it as if they were defending the faith, is evidence that Christianity seems to hardly exist within our lands anymore. Those who disagree with what’s going on aren’t necessarily exonerated. I increasingly ask whether I could consider myself a Christian, by New Testament standards, seeing as how I too am firmly implanted within “the system.” These days I increasingly pray for ways to find liberation from the soul-slavery that is the American dream.

I watch the president declare in his State of the Union address that we worship Mammon and reject Christ’s vision of the world in exchange for a decidedly nationalistic vision, and I see prominent “Christian leaders” enthusiastically endorse his message. So many within American Christendom have empowered a great evil all in the name of being “pro-life”, though seemingly oblivious to the fact that respecting human life entails respecting it in all of its dimensions. A truly “pro-life” Christian stance embraces the dignity and humanity of everybody regardless of anything, including our nation’s policies or interests.

No, I’m afraid that Christianity hardly exists in our country. There are of course prophetic voices in the darkness of American culture, and there always will be prophetic voices in times of apostasy. We’re all implicated in this apostasy; I cannot self-righteously stand above it. To the extent I condemn all that I’ve condemned, I have to include myself because I share the guilt of being an American. More broadly than that, we share the guilt of being human. The good news is that we share in the redemption in Jesus, God who became man.

I don’t think God will bless America because we’ve been rejecting those blessings in favor of idols. Thankfully America is not our hope, nor is the American church. Rather, “Therefore, just as one man’s transgression brought condemnation for all, so one man’s righteous act resulted in justification and life for all. For just as through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one man the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18-19, NCV)


What if Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection actually happened?

Let that question sink in for a moment. Whether or not you finish reading my blog post, reflect on the implications an affirmative answer would have. To the best of your ability imaginatively strip away roughly 2,000 years of built-up religious traditions and focus solely on the historical possibility (however improbable it may seem) that Jesus of Nazareth, as narrated in the Gospels, was a real wonder-working teacher who claimed divine origin and actually came back to life after his crucifixion.

My big question here is directed particularly at a western Christian audience because I think we’ve so taken the core of Christianity for granted that we scarcely believe it anymore. This what if? question is something I’ve been mulling over for quite a while now, and sometimes when I’m lucky I achieve brief moments of startling clarity where a sense of Christ’s historicity cuts through the thick cloud of my over-familiarity and stabs me in the face with a strong dose of, “Whoa.”

And the thing about getting stabbed in the face is that aside from catching your immediate attention, it can lead to things like headaches, permanent disfigurement, and death. I’m a medical professional, so I know a thing or two. The more I ponder the historicity of Jesus and think about what it means to take seriously his authoritative claims on my life, the more of a headache it proves to be.

I can’t follow Jesus and be content with status quo living, and this especially means status quo “Churchianity.” You know, the common assumption that Christian living can be summed up in terms of individual piety/holiness/orthodoxy/churchgoing while contentedly pursuing the American dream. It just isn’t consonant with what I read in the Bible or the lives of the saints. It’s a huge headache to gradually come to grips with how little I actually take seriously the implications of Christ’s historicity, how enthralled I really am to everything which is opposed to Christ.

Inevitably if I want to follow Jesus on his terms as spelled out in the Gospels, it will definitely upset the flow of my life, inwardly and outwardly, in a way that one could very well describe as a disfigurement. Or better yet, a death. Jesus was fond of using death analogies to communicate the implications of what it meant to follow him and live his teachings with integrity. It wasn’t that Jesus was a morbid kill-joy philosopher; to the contrary, he affirmed life at every turn and affirmed the goodness and dignity of humanity. But he grappled with the reality of humanity’s dark impulses and was realistic about what it meant to be a disciple.

If Jesus actually did resurrect from the dead after his crucifixion, if what the Gospels record about him is reasonably accurate, where’s the apocalyptic energy expressed by the disciples after the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost? I’m not talking about maintaining a high level of emotional energy all the time or neglecting to live daily lives as real people. I’m talking about suffusing our daily living with the conviction of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth and taking seriously what he taught in the Gospels.

The demoniac at Gerasenes wanted to join Jesus and his disciples after being healed, but Jesus told him to return to his village and tell the others what God did for him (Luke 8:26-39). Jesus told some people to drop everything and physically follow after him, but others he sent back to their ordinary lives with the charge to proclaim the Good News. Certainly this man’s daily living from that point on was permeated with the mark of Jesus’s touch.

This story is very special to me because I feel a deep sense of connection to it. I may not have been literally possessed by the hoards of hell, but Jesus has nonetheless cast figurative demons out of my heart and forgiven me many wicked acts. And similar to the Gerasenes man, I’m often haunted by a deeply felt longing to embark on some radical uprooting journey in the name of Jesus. But I realize time and again that my charge is to be a disciple in my life as it exists, conventional setting and all. What I am not to do is to let the conventional setting woo me and placate me into paralyzing complacency. This is impossible apart from much effort and God’s help.

Perhaps the persistent restlessness of spirit I’ve always had, from which I’ve never known respite, is that very gift God has given me to prevent me from falling away from Christ in comfortable complacency. The words of Christian activist Shane Claiborne resonate with me as much as they haunt me. With this I will close:

“I know there are people out there who say, ‘My life was such a mess. I was drinking, partying, sleeping around…and then I met Jesus and my whole life came together.’ God bless those people. But me, I had it together. I used to be cool. And then I met Jesus and he wrecked my life. The more I read the gospel, the more it messed me up, turning everything I believed in, valued, and hoped for upside down. I am still recovering my from conversion.” (1)

  1. Claiborne, Shane. 2016. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (10th anniversary edition). Zondervan. p. 39.

Propaganda value?

Here’s a video that hit the internet recently, a fine example of contemporary American political propaganda. I’m posting it because I derived much amusement from it, and I hope I can share with you a portion of this experience. Perhaps I’m also harboring ulterior motives, aiming to subtly influence you under the guise of bemused entertainment and commentary. But now that I’ve outed myself as yet another anonymous propagandist, I’ve sabotaged my own efforts by announcing what should have been an unspoken slight of hand. Then again, perhaps you appreciate my lighthearted self-deprecation and barely notice yourself lowering your guard, thus making you more susceptible than ever to my influence. If you’re still reading and haven’t yet decided I’m a total geek, here’s the video I’m referring to:

Do videos like this serve a useful purpose? The larger question is, does propaganda have a legitimate place in political discourse? Briefly for the sake of argument, let’s say you agree with the assumptions belying this video and and believe President Trump and his religious allies need to go. Knowing the general public (as a universal rule) is more responsive to brief, emotionally-appealing messages rather than to lengthy or complex arguments, is it ethical to seek to influence popular opinion through videos such as this?

Perhaps your efforts at disseminating propaganda will positively contribute to influencing public opinion, and in your case you believe a change of administration is a good thing for everybody. Perhaps the current administration (now we’re merely speaking abstractly) is a threat to human rights or the free press, and re-election of the same people could do irreparable harm to the fabric of society. You fear for all the people whose lives stand to be trampled by the current government.

But in the act of disseminating propaganda you legitimate the rather lamentable state of affairs in which the majority of the population is more interested in consuming propaganda than analyzing well-reasoned arguments from multiple angles. Perhaps this general affinity to quick and easy slogans and emotional appeals, which naturally makes the public more vulnerable to manipulation, is part of what got the nation into its current mess in the first place.

Your participation in propagandizing the public not only legitimates propaganda as a means of political discourse, but it’s also your contribution to the general affinity toward ignorance. Through aggregate effect, the widespread use of propaganda and lack of meaningful resistance to it will continue indefinitely. Resorting to propaganda because of its effectiveness and expediency inevitably turns each election cycle into a battle not of well-reasoned ideas and policy proposals, but of sloganeering and public image grooming. It becomes a war of advertisers and marketers. Consumerism penetrates ever deeper into the political, everything becomes commercialized, and real substance is banished ever further from the public sphere.

Perhaps you reason to yourself, we can’t change human nature and it’s therefore better to take the short term wins rather than lose everything in the name of utopian ideals. You decide to disseminate propaganda, to fight fire with fire, in the name of immediate wins you hope will slowly result in a turn toward the better. Then again, perhaps these compromises fundamentally alter the substance of your movement so that expediency, rather than ideals, become its guiding principal. In that case, all is lost.

This is all just broadcasting some of my unresolved thoughts. I don’t intend to answer the question as to whether or not propaganda per se is legitimate in political discourse. As with many things, I suspect there are shades of truth lying somewhere in between the stark polarities of absolute “yes” and “no”. And propaganda has many uses other than political.

Congregational hymnody, for example, was introduced by Martin Luther as a means of inculcating important theology to the laity by setting theological motifs to simple rhyme and meter. This is propaganda, though without the shadowy undertones we attribute to the notion of its political counterpart. Hymns were a brilliant solution to the widespread theological ignorance plaguing Protestant congregations during Luther’s time.

So we can see an example in which propaganda can plausibly be used to elevate people above the darkness of ignorance, rather than trapping them perpetually in it. But it’s legitimate to skeptically ask whether the lesson of hymnody can be translated and applied to the political realm with similar results. After all, the polis isn’t a choir voluntarily gathered to sing and learn about the same set of ideas.

I would like to analyze the video a little. For starters, it’s a 2 minute and 44 second bombardment of numerous video clips which have been smashed together in a highly deliberate manner. Each of these clips are entirely devoid of their original context. In fact, this video creates an entirely new context for each of these clips, in a most interesting way. Rather questionable or unsavory comments (at least, this is how they sound apart from their original context) are thrown together in rapid sequence, implying with a heavy hand that Donald Trump and his religious allies are corrupt and untrustworthy. The upbeat Gospel choir playing ironically throughout the video creates a thick air of mockery, simultaneously playful and bitterly sarcastic.

This video invites us to laugh at the apocalyptic naïveté of the sycophantic religious leaders, scoff at the hypocrisy of this seemingly mismatched alliance, and shudder in horror that such people are able to generate a formidable electoral base for a manipulative megalomaniac. Furthermore, the video affords us the rare pleasure of watching Trump and his allies publicly accuse themselves of crimes against truth and decency. We all know this experience is artificial, but there is another sense in which we might on a deeper level believe it uses artificiality as a means of conveying truth.

Sentiments are what this video conveys, not ideas; if this video succeeds at influencing you, your mind will get to work fashioning ideas to fit the feelings this video implanted. They’ll become “your own” ideas, and scarcely will you realize just how much “your ideas” are in fact the result of your brain’s natural tendency to rationalize and validate felt emotion. This calls into questions wider, more disturbing questions regarding how often we actually think for ourselves or whether we can tell a difference between what we believe is our own thinking, versus our brains responding to subtly implanted desires and feelings. How much of our perceptions are the result of deliberate manipulations on the part of authority figures, advertisers, and so on? And by extension, how much of what we call our “personalities” are really hybridized creations of an environment awash in advertisements and propaganda?

So what of the video? Is it genuinely useful? I found it useful as a launch pad for a discursive blog post. I guess a better question might be, is this video beneficial? Maybe, if we dig deeper, identifying its claims and analyzing said claims. But who’s going to do that? Not too many people. Perhaps the sentiments the video conveys do correlate with truths about Trump and his big wig religious allies. We won’t know unless we dig deeper for ourselves. I have my own opinions about the current administration and its allies within American Christianity, and rest assured I plan to write more about it. But I leave that for another time.

An Arabic Christmas carol

Across the globe the liturgical calendar is marked by Christmas. For Roman Catholics this is the final week of Christmas. Some branches of Orthodoxy celebrate the Nativity on January 7th or the 17th. Despite the various partitions of the apostolic church, Christmas celebration is in full swing in the region of the world where the Nativity occurred. And not unlike the events described in the Gospels, this region is again marred with renewed bloodshed, hatred, and political intrigue around the time we celebrate Christ’s birth. I falter when trying to describe my perceptions of the current state of affairs between my country and Iran, and the Iraqi people caught in the crossfire of it all. Needless to say it involves feelings unpleasant and viscerally felt. But I believe music, not to mention art in general, is more powerful than any words I can publish. So I give you “Al Yaoum Youladou Mina Al Batoul.”

God told me to rejoice

Right now I’m 75% of my way through a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an eminent Protestant theologian and pastor whose resistance to Adolf Hitler cost him his life. There’s a lot of material in this biography I feel inclined to write about, but the most important thing I’ve gleaned thus far is Bonhoeffer’s approach to the Bible. As internal political tensions heated up in Germany, his faith began to deepen to the point that its depths rivaled, if not exceeded, his towering intellectual capabilities.

Rival campaigners at Germany’s 1933 synodal elections. The rise of Nazism instigated a schism within German Protestantism between nationalists who sympathized with Hitler’s nascent regime, and those who believed it was dangerous.

By the time Bonhoeffer was involved with the semi-underground Confessing Church, he unashamedly believed we should read Scripture as God’s personal words to us in the moment (1). This sounds axiomatic, but it wasn’t uncontroversial in the theological world of Germany in the mid-twentieth century. German theology at the time was highly academic and world-renown for its scholarship, but it tended also to be spiritually sterile.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of those rare breeds who ultimately excelled on both planes. His standing within academic and ecclesial circles afforded him privileged channels of communication outside of Germany that were vital both to his underground church work and to the anti-Hitler resistance. Just as importantly, he nurtured a fiery love for Jesus which would sustain him when many of his colleagues withered in the face of Nazi seductions and threats.

His intimate approach to the Bible was a foundational principal he passed on to the seminarians of the upstart Confessing Church. Some of the students were nonplussed that their formation required meditation on a single Bible verse thirty minutes a day for a week at a time, without supplemental materials such as commentaries or cross-referencing tools (2). In an academically-oriented world this seemed rather naive, not to mention suspiciously pietistic to more traditional Lutheran sensibilities. Nonetheless, most of his students overcame their initial skepticism and found the practice highly beneficial, especially under more trying circumstances later in the war.

Bonhoeffer on retreat with confirmands in 1932.

Bonhoeffer’s commitment and appreciation for God’s word were infectious and remain so today. Reading about it lit a fire within me which had up til then been reduced to barely-burning embers. I’ve written before on the importance of Scripture in our daily lives, yet it’s strikingly easy to let the discipline of daily Bible reading slip one small compromise at a time. This is a big reason I recommend breviaries or daily devotionals (I’ve been using Give Us This Day for a good while now), since they provide daily Scripture readings with short meditations in a structured format. But periodically, some (or many) of us must nonetheless be awakened from the coma we allow ourselves to slip into.

What I like about Bonhoeffer’s method is that his restriction to the same one verse, everyday for a week, is so unnatural for me. I’m inclined to read much more in a week’s period, yet at the end of the week can I say my understanding or faith were deepened? Usually not, at least not to the extent they could have been. Bonhoeffer’s method forces us to acknowledge the power of God’s words by containing us to literally one verse at a time as we explore the depths of the Scripture within the milieu of our here-and-now living.

When practicing this daily exercise, Bonhoeffer forbade his students from consulting commentaries or the original languages in which the Scriptures were penned (3). Disallowing the traditional tools of the theologian removed from them a thicket of distraction in which they might try and hide from God’s voice. It was genuinely shocking to hear such things coming from a cosmopolitan, culturally polished scholar of his stature. Yet his love for Jesus, which lead him to immense personal sacrifices, was directly connected to his conviction that the Bible is the living, breathing word of God…God’s message of love…for each of us, not merely a text to be analyzed and talked about. And he lived what he believed.

The daily exercise was all about cultivating an undying love for Jesus and staying grounded in the present moment, conscious of God’s presence. It all sounds quite similar to St. Francis de Sale’s recommendation for how to study the Scriptures, and I think the two methods combined could seriously compliment and strengthen one another.

The verse I’m meditating on this week is Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say: Rejoice!” (NCV). I was already reading through the letter to the Philippians when I decided to practice Bonhoeffer’s exercise, and this particular verse spoke to me louder than the rest. The command to rejoice always in the Lord, when you consider how bleak or downright awful life can get, is a no-compromise claim on the totality of who we are. Rejoicing in Christ as a deliberate act of worship, in the midst of the worst things you could imagine happening to you or someone you love, means you place the worship of Jesus above all else. This word from the Scriptures admits no room for anything which would dissuade us from adoration of Christ.

This isn’t a command to force ourselves into a posture of naive positivity, nor is it a command to summon up a gush of positive emotion no matter what. Forcing a felt response of cheerfulness is as futile as trying to pump water from a dry well. In fact, the more realistically you assess your circumstances (good or bad) or the more deeply you feel yourself in the midst of darkness, the more substance there will be to your rejoicing. So we must conclude that rejoicing always in the Lord is an act of the will in defiance of all possible circumstances and feelings to the contrary, something we certainly must ask God for the strength to do.

This is actually quite freeing because I cannot and should not associate this verse with positive feelings. The cult of spontaneous positive feelings or inner tranquility, which seems to be promoted too often within Christian circles, is shattered by this one verse if we think through what it means within the context of our real-world lives. In fact, this has nothing whatsoever to do with “happiness.” Inside and outside of the church, the notion of personal happiness has been turned into a false god whose worship compels us to some of the most despicable acts of cruelty toward others (and equally heinous acts of indifference=cruelty).

Happiness, a gift from God in the natural order, has been co-opted and deformed into a seductive disguise the devil himself wears so as to move about freely and unnoticed in our society and in our churches. Happiness is best left to serve us as it was intended: as an accident of circumstance and body chemistry which comes and goes at its own pleasure, like a hummingbird. So let’s be clear that Philippians 4:4 is not about happiness, but about worship. Much natural happiness can be experienced in worship (and thank God when it is), but as an accident rather than part of its substance.

To rejoice always in the Lord makes me think of Eucharistic adoration. Worship of Christ in the Eucharist is the core of Catholicism, its beating heart and soul. The practice of Eucharistic adoration (outside of the Mass) is unique to the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, and I think it nicely compliments the worship and reception of the Eucharistic Lord during the Mass. No matter what is happening within our lives, we are compelled by conscience to come and worship the Lord up on the altar. It is our command and privilege.

During adoration we can kneel before the consecrated host, gaze upon it and worship it, offer our prayers and supplications to it, pour our religious energy onto this object of worship—precisely because this is Jesus himself, hidden only by the elements but visible to the eyes of faith. We can come to adoration to spend time in the presence of Jesus, tangibly localized to that particular time and place with us. During Mass when we receive the consecrated elements, we commune with Jesus in an intimate manner unfathomable in its depth of meaning to the paltry human intelligence.

But we carry within our innermost being, the Lord Jesus Christ who resides in the temple of our bodies. Through us Jesus maintains a real presence in the world, animating and enlivening us with the Holy Spirit. This is a true miracle, especially given what sorry materials he has to work with! Nonetheless we are the people of God, gathered together in faith around the Lord in Word and Sacrament…somehow we are his mystical body. This mystery suffuses the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who at the dedication of a monastery said:

What sanctity can these stones have that we should celebrate their festival? They do indeed have sanctity, but it is because of your bodies. . . . Your bodies are holy because of your souls, and this house is holy because of your bodies.

Yet how often I leave Mass and almost instantly forget this! Just as I frequently forget that God truly and personally speaks to me, communes with me, through the printed and spoken words of Scripture. If we need any proof for why we ought to rejoice in the Lord in all times, the great mystery of Christ’s ongoing presence in our world, in our bodies, in our lives, up on the altar, is it! Rejoicing is the response of someone who loves Jesus, and so we’re told to tend to the too-often fading embers of this love by rejoicing always—especially when we’re least inclined to do so.

  1. Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson. pp. 128-129.
  2. Ibid, pp. 268-269.
  3. Ibid.

America’s epistemological despair

Thesis: American politics and public life are shattered by an epistemological crisis so thorough, we can no longer have confidence in a cogent notion of “reality.” The last three or so American presidents; 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the penetration of mass media and cyberspace into every facet of our lives: these key events are implicated in the accelerated banishment of reality from the social and political realms. Our metaphysical crash into unreality was finalized with the ascendancy of President Donald Trump and the bold era of “post truth” he ushered in.

Over the past decades we gradually forfeited our ability to agree on objective unifying narratives. We’re always confronted with radically divergent narratives, self-contained conceptual universes with their own teleologies and facts, pushed forward by powerful news agencies, special interest groups, and public figures (including the president himself) who saturate our lives with their presence. These narratives overwhelm us with their omnipresence and always confront us with threats of imminent destruction unless we support x or do y. Cross-checking facts no longer holds sway in our discourse because fact-checkers are routinely accused of political bias and thereby neutralized.

The ongoing movement of the social and political into cyberspace will solidify our metaphysical imprisonment and further alientate us from any meaningful signposts that can be generally agreed upon without suspicions of political bias or ulterior motives. This will result in more tribalism, more polarization, intensification of the so-called culture wars, and it will continue to bring disrepute to any cogent notions of objective truth. This will increase widespread anxiety, leading us deeper into authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism increasingly holds widespread appeal because it promises a coherent narrative, a sense of purpose in a society devoid of substance, the strength to assert an assurance that objective truth can be clearly known. Liberal democracy, with its pretensions that it could discern truth by treating all ideas as equal in a theoretical public “marketplace of ideas”, has reached its terminus with the explosion of information technology and its total colonization of our lives.

In President Trump we see clearly the authoritarian impulse organizing itself and gaining widespread appeal among a large segment of the populace who feel disoriented, disempowered, and marginalized. According to Trump’s narrative, he is the liberator and protector of the true inheritors of the American tradition, those who are indeed marginalized and disempowered. In Trump’s conceptual universe all who oppose him want nothing less than the total destruction of America and everything we cherish; you’re either with him or against America.

That the core of his narrative fails to correspond with the truth doesn’t matter; he has banished the last vestiges of reality and now defines the “real” according to his will. We no longer are able to appeal to objective truth against his word, or the word of anybody else. Those who support Trump are pulled into the orbit of his fiction and are transfigured into fictive beings themselves.

In short, the recent impeachment is nothing more than a symbolic rebellion against our metaphysical imprisonment. Ironically, this symbolic gesture of rebellion will further serve to strengthen the hallucinatory state in which we’re lost. Eventually, one way or another, Trump will leave office and another president will take his place. But our state of metaphysical zero gravity will continue unabated and drive us further into epistemological despair. America will become authoritarian in proportion to this despair, and many people who call themselves Christians will enthusiastically support the establishment of authoritarianism.

God’s Gift: Hope

Day 21 of Advent and God’s Gift. Bible Reading: Habakkuk 2:1, 3:16-19 Standing on the tower–waiting and watching. . .doing it with the knowledge that destruction is probable. But, hope. Hope is a powerful equalizer. It lifts up despair, and like Habakkuk declares, makes one sure-footed, confident, as a deer. There is hope even in the […]

God’s Gift: Hope — Seasoned

This is from an Advent devotion my wife wrote and was published at her church. Today’s is one of my favorite readings.