Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Book Review: The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World

This book, by Douglas John Hall (Fortress Press 2003) styles itself as an extended meditation on the “theology of the cross,” articulated most notably by Luther in his Heidelberg Disputations.

While I don’t think that Luther’s conception of the “theology of the cross” necessarily bears a privileged position just because Luther coined the phrase, not only does this book fail to do justice to Luther’s conception of the idea, Hall fails even on his own terms. Hall again and again turns the theology of the cross into a self-congratulatory conceit.

Hall begins by drawing particularly on Luther’s 19th thesis in the Heidelberg Disputation: “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Ro 1.20).”

Hall contrasts this with “triumphalism,” which he says “refers to the tendency in all strongly held world-views, whether religious or secular, to present themselves as full and complete accounts of reality, leaving little if any room for debate or different of opinion and expecting of their adherents unflinching belief and loyalty.”

I’m not persuaded that Hall’s “triumphalism” is what Luther really aimed at in his 19th thesis, particularly given the citation to Ro 1.20. But that’s neither here nor there – the irony is that Hall sees the triumphalistic mote only in the eyes of others, and seem to be blind to the triumphalistic log in his own eye.

I’m fully willing to grant the contingency of human knowledge (even if that’s not what Luther meant in his 19th thesis). But that doesn’t mean that I reckon only that the knowledge of the poor slobs who happen to disagree with me as limited and contingent. It also must mean that I recognize that my own knowledge is contingent and limited.

Yet where is the humility of contingent knowledge in Hall? He thunders absolutes against those with whom his disagrees. He expresses no self-doubt or skepticism about the conclusions he draws, or of the historical judgments or scientific conclusions he states with religious certainty.

It reminds me of an on and off discussion I have with an academic who is a self-proclaimed “anti-foundationalist.” He lectures anyone and everyone about the contingency of human knowledge. Yet these and related lectures are full of definitive judgments about what history and science do and do not teach. It’s hard to resist the idea that his ostensible anti-foundationalism is little more than a rhetorical trick, deployed not because he actually believes it, but as a smokescreen aimed to disarm those with whom he disagrees by suckering them into first agreeing that they’re arrogant if they think they know what they claim they know. All the while he deploys definite certitudes about what history teaches us about the evils of foundationalism.

So Hall asserts “incontrovertible economic, environmental, geopolitical, and other statistics” that condemn what Hall deems to be the sins of the U.S. lifestyle, and he dismisses contrary voices as “exaggeration and scare-mongering.” Without my being closed to what these statistics tell us, and how they might indict U.S. lifestyles, how can Hall be deaf to the triumphalistic spin that he places on his conclusions? Where is his circumspection. Or is circumspection only for others?

And then there’s cheap sentimentality like this: “In some ways, as a Christian in this so-called First World, I envy my fellow Christians in contexts less affluent, less developed (so-called), less technologically and economically smug; for I know that it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven . . .” There’s an easy enough way to become what he envies, and biblical precedent as well: “Sell all you possess, and give it to the poor.” I doubt that someone’s holding a gun to Hall’s head telling him to stay in Canada and enjoy the affluent Western lifestyle.

Or there’s throw away lines like this: “What such observations tell us . . . is that any deep and honest [emphasis in original] analysis of our own context today must lead to a probing, a self-assessment, a judgment for which few church folk, not to mention citizens at large, are the least prepared.”

Aside from being oblivious to the non-contingent reporting of what “observations tells us,” in this an numerous other passages in the book, Hall congratulates himself on not being like us sinners. First the commending criteria – “deep and honest analysis” – then the bland assertion that “few” are so deep and honest as to do the analysis; an analysis that Hall will then go on to detail for us. The implication is clear. The author himself is one of the few so deep and honest as to face what these observations tell us.

What answer is there, except to roll one’s eyes at the conceit?

The biggest fault of the book, however, is that Hall gets the “theology of the cross” exactly wrong. Even the casual reader of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation recognizes that, in it, Luther seeks to draw out the implications of human sinfulness for understanding the things of God on its own terms. Rejecting this, Hall instead insists:

“Liberalism was right, surely, in cutting itself loose from the fatalistic and grim anthropology of Protestant orthodoxy, which had become not only moribund but also incredible to the mind of modern Western humanity.”

Where to start with this? After all, Thesis 19, which Hall ostensibly sets at the heart of his theology of the cross, flows precisely out of Luther’s desire to reassert an Augustinian anthropology as against the more “triumphalistic” views of his time.

Further, after almost 100 pages of pitting the “theology of the cross” against “Western” triumphalism without batting an eye, Hall now appeals for his authority to the ostensible fact that “the mind of modern Western humanity” finds something “incredible.” Ironically, up to this point in the book, Hall would have taken Western incredulity as a sign of something’s truth, not a sign of error.

Finally, at the crescendo of the book, Hall can’t but help but deflect from what the theology of the cross means for oppressed Christians. Hall rejects what Peter says is true: “If you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed” (1 Peter 3.14), or “to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing” (4.13).

Instead, Hall writes:

“Feminism has been especially critical of this [perspective], because such a theology has been used to persuade women of their duty to accept their lot as long-suffering wives and mothers, in much the same way as this theology has been used to keep enslaved races or economic groupings from complaint or revolt.”

To be sure, I have no truck with “using” the theology of the cross to keep women in their places, or to prevent enslaved people from complaining or from revolting. But there comes a point when every Christian needs to ask whether they in fact believe the promise. The apostle Paul writes that if we have hoped in Christ for this world only, we are of all men most to be pitied. If we trust Christ, then this life is a piffle, no matter our lot.

In response, the world can’t help but write us off as foolish for dreaming of “pie in the sky, bye and bye.” But there it is, the irreduceable nub of disagreement between the world and the cross. Hall ultimately can’t square the circle.

So, for Hall, the theology of the cross does not speak directly to those who are suffering. It instead speaks only of the duty of non-suffering Christian to serve those who suffer. I agree entirely that Christians should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner. But that’s not what the theology of the cross is about. The theology of the cross speaks directly to the hungry, the naked, and to the unvisited prisoner, and tells them that they are blessed, because they have joined Jesus on the cross. This is foolishness to the world, and Hall runs away from it as well.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"A New Man" -- My new prison thing

Last night was the third week of my new thing at a near-by prison. I had to name it (in order to go in), so I call it "A New Man." It seems to be going well. But then usually the guys are so thankful to interact with outsiders that you could pretty much do anything and they'd tell you it's going well.

I wanted to start small, both because it allows me to get to know the men on a first-name basis, and to interact with them a bit personally, but also because I'm writing the material for the thing as we go along. (I'm not sure exactly what to call what I'm doing. Calling it a program or a class makes it sound more clinical than it is, calling it a "ministry" makes it sound more official than it is). Anyway, I figured it'd be wise to keep things small for the first go round. The guys say that they really like the material (but see above).

I go in with another guy from church. We meet with 22 guys on the inside. The thing should last around 15 weeks or so. We get to the prison a little before 6 p.m., get cleared through security and get to the classroom. The guard in the hallway then will call out the guys -- although last night some of the guys told me that they have to go up and tell the guards in their units that they have a layin, because the guards aren't calling them out. Once the tell them, though, they seem to be allowed to come to out, no problem. So I guess it's working.

As the men dribble in over the first 15 minutes or so, we chat about the past week and stuff. Then we pray, and have a study over the topic for that week. I've been grateful that the men have proven very willing to talk and interact with me and the material, and to ask questions. (More so than in most of my Sunday-morning classes.) So that's good. After the study, we spend 15 or so minutes taking prayer requests, which the men have also been very willing to share.

I'm pretty bad with names, but after last night I have about one-third of them down (assuming it sticks until next week). After next week, I think we'll have a "share night," devoted wholly to the men talking about whatever it is that they want to talk about. Usually they will talk about some aspect of their faith or what they've been learning, less often they talk about their background. Usually they're eager to talk, at least more so than in similar situations in the outside, where people often don't want to look too eager.

I'm writing my own material, not because I think everything out there sucks, but because I write my own studies for Sunday school anyway. Not that my stuff is original, it's just that I find it easier to teach material which I've put together in a way that makes sense to me. That, and I think that most teaching material aimed to be taught to laymen is too simple-minded.

More substantively, the materials I know from Prison Fellowship and The Association of Ex-Offenders tend to be somewhat more law-based than I think they should be. When I've worked with these groups (and I'm still working with TAX at another unit on Tuesday nights), I rewrite the individual studies so that I'm more comfortable with what I'm teaching.

And don't get me wrong, I'm very, very thankful to these groups for making it easy to become involved in prison ministry. I am almost positive that if it were a matter of me getting something like what I'm doing off the ground without prior experience with these groups, then I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. So they deserve the credit.

But I wanted to make the material I covered more "Lutheran." And not just the individual studies, but I wanted to hit some consistent themes throughout the series of studies we cover.

So here are the themes I wanted to emphasize a little more. (I stress that these themes aren't unique to "my" study. It's just that I have a very limited knowledge of what's available.)

First, I want to make each lesson Christocentric in the sense that it's not about us "becoming" better people by obeying God's law -- we are already 100 percent holy and righteous in Christ. So we can't get any better than that, at least not in God's eyes. Rather, it's about receiving Christ's grace and reflecting the new man that God's forgiveness creates in us; allowing the new man naturally to blossom and to bear fruit. Further, each study begins by looking how Christ expressed the the study's theme towards us. (That may sound obvious, but many of the studies I've seen for prisoners start and end only with the moral principle as applied to human behavior. As a result, the study basically boils down to, "this is what you have to do to make God happy," as opposed to, "expect Christ to reflect out of you in this way as a result of what he's done for us.")

A second overarching theme is that the world cannot comprehend the cross, and so it rejects the cross as foolishness. As a result, we can't be surprised when the world also rejects as fools the new people whom the cross creates. (Indeed, what our new nature in Christ desires to do will seem crazy to our "old man" as well. This often raises questions of suffering and affliction.)

Finally, this life is a daily struggle between the old man and the new man; we are simultaneously sinner and saint. We need to be vigilant to "drown the old man daily," continually receiving the grace that Christ provides to us. This sometimes becomes a bit touchy for the guys, since my experience has been that most of the strongest Christians among the guys inside are perfectionists (in the theological sense of the word).

The guys say they like the studies (but see above). And for some reason, they really, really like the fact that I hand out written outlines for the studies. This is just a habit of mine, mainly to help me keep on track, and to help people follow the lesson. But guys in the past go on and on about how useful the outlines are, and how they studied them in their cells, and how they were going to use them to teach the lessons when they were released. Same already with these lessons.

But in a real sense, my emphasis isn't really the Bible study, it's more on the fellowship "over" the Bible study, and before and after the study. These guys face a pretty tough time in prison (I'm not at all excusing them -- almost all of them committed the crimes for which they are being punished, and hurt other people doing so), and perhaps an even tougher time when they get out. I know I feel, well, refreshed when I get together with Christian friends and we talk about things related to the faith. So my hope with the guys is that, like me, they feel a little refreshed as well when we get together and talk about things related to the faith.

Monday, February 19, 2007


It seems funny to me when people turn on God when we suffer rather than turning on the world. Isn't that just a replay of the original deception? God says that eating of the tree brings death. Satan contradicts God, suggesting that the real aim of God’s command is not to protect Adam and Eve, but to deprive them of good things, of life. Or even worse. The serpent suggests that God is selfish and gave the command so Adam and Eve would not share what he has.

Adam and Eve eat, suffer, and die, just as God said they would.

While promising life, the world delivers nothing but suffering and death. When we suffer, the ugly nature of the world is revealed to us, is revealed in us, and is revealed through us. You think we would have figured it out by now. But instead of hating this world of suffering and death, and turning to the life that God offers us in himself, we instead blame God, or upbraid him. It's just like us to draw exactly the wrong conclusion from our suffering, turning against God and toward the world. But there's nothing new there; we're just like our parents.

Perhaps no where more do our minds resist a message, than this one: "To the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing." How dare we, particularly in this day and age? What an embarrassment it is when we offer oppressed people only "pie in the sky, bye and bye."

And that’s what Christ does offer.

"Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly" (1 Peter 2.18-19).

I don't want to talk about larger issues here, like the obligation of other Christians to seek their freedom, or proper treatment, etc. I stipulate to all of that. Yes and amen. But none of that gets around the rub, that while they wait for the rest of us to get our act together and rescue them, they (or we) are blessed when they bear up in this type of situation.

It seems to me that the critics of Christianity have it absolutely correct. Christianity offers burdened people the hope of blessing for bearing up under unjust suffering in this world. The critics call it foolishness, and so it is, if Christ did not rise from the dead. Paul bluntly admits it in his letter to the Corinthians, "If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most to be pitied" (1 Co 15.19).

I don't see any way to get around it. And there's no getting around the related question when we suffer, "Do you find God trustworthy?" If we do, then we bear up in suffering. If we do not, then we do not bear up because we do not believe that there, really, is anything to bear up for. We instead believe that God has brought us into the wilderness only to let the world kill us.

It is abject foolishness to the world. And I completely understand that conclusion. If the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but is the power of God to us who are being saved, I don't expect that as we pick up our crosses and follow Christ, that the world will think of us as being any less foolish.

But the world's criticism is rather more pointed. It’s one thing that someone created a religion that teaches that sort of foolishness, it’s quite another thing to spread it around, particularly when you’re not one of the suffering.

The truth is that I suffer a lot less than many others. I realize my own absurdity when, every week, I face the guys in prison, telling them that they are blessed when they suffer. I'm not talking about suffering as a result of their crimes. Rather I'm talking about the many other indignities they suffer in prison, particularly as a result of being Christians, from the other prisoners as well as from the guards. And about the many, many troubles they will face, even (or especially) from the church, if and when they are released.

For many in the world, I am the worst sort of deceiver, commending patience to these men on the basis of a pie-in-the-sky hope, rather than urging them to resist, let alone assisting in their resistance. How dare I? How dare I?

I have no defense at all against this accusation, but that, God help me, I am the fool as well.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Kudos to Wayne for "Be what you are"

I don't remember when Wayne (a.k.a. "Carrifex") first mentioned it to me, but some years ago he made a passing reference about characterizing the way that Paul discusses sanctification in his epistles as the argument, "Be what you are." (Actually, I think that Wayne told me that he got it from one of his seminary professors. But I got it from Wayne, so I'm giving him the kudos on my behalf.)

The idea is this. Paul doesn't argue, "obey the law so you become righteous and holy." Rather, he argues that we are already 100 percent righteous and holy in Christ. Good works naturally flow out of the new nature that we receive by God's grace and forgiveness in Christ. Our holiness result solely from the merits of Christ, and our good works flow solely out of those merits as well.

This pithy phrase captures a critical turn in Paul that helps us to understand how it is that sanctification has nothing to do with our justification, but nonetheless flows from our justification.

But I'm not thanking Wayne just for teaching me a pithy way of capturing an important concept in Paul's epistles, and in Lutheran theology. (Although Wayne is a pastor in the PCA, he was raised LCMS.)

More importantly, is that I've ripped off Wayne shamelessly in using it to explain this important idea to the guys in the prison ministries that I work with.

I've found that prisoners, and most prison volunteers, tend to express the first notion of sanctification I noted above, i.e., that we become holy and righteous by acting holy and righteous. To be fair, most of these people don't hold this position self-consciously. While they might struggle a bit with the tension this introduces with respect to the Gospel, they don't recognize how it undermines the assurance that comes from a right understanding of justification. (There is also a strong perfectionistic strain among both the prisoners and prison volunteers. I suspect that this arises from the churches that most come out of, and the churches that tend to people the prison chaplaincy, as well as engage in most prison ministry.)

What I've also found, however, is that Wayne's phrase, "Be what you are," provides an understandable and almost universally acceptable way of reframing sanctification in the more orthodox manner. Because it's so pithy, it's easy for the guys to remember, and I've found that it sticks with many of them. Weeks after introducing the phrase (and concept), I've had guys come up to me and say, "'Be what you are,' I still remember that!"

I'm impressed that they remember. Still better, though, is that it teaches them, and it teaches me, to look to Christ for our sanctification as well as for our justification. Like our justification, our sanctification flows solely from what we receive from Christ, not from what we offer to Christ.