Lent: Jesus and the Demon of Status Quo

Mark’s gospel tells us that after Jesus called his first disciples—Simon, Andrew, James and John—they left their nets and followed him. They all went to Capernaum. On the Sabbath day Jesus was teaching in the synagogue and a demonized man was there.  The man screamed, “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus quieted the man, cast out the demon, and he set the man free (Mark:1-21-28).

This was Jesus’ first healing, and his first confrontation with the Darkness after his wilderness temptation. And it happened in a house of worship. The three L’s of exorcism are: location, location, location

Diverse interpreters of the Bible understand these unclean spirits differently. The quasi-charismatic evangelical hermeneutic that shaped my reading of the text, takes the spiritual world as a given. These are demons—beings of personal evil bent on destroying humanity. Post-Enlightenment bible scholars with a bent toward demythologizing the supernatural look at what the spirits means within the early church’s proclamation. So one group looks at demons as personal evil (could it be . . . Satan?) and the other group see demons as representations of cultural and institutional structures (e.g. the ‘spirit of the times’). The result is that one camp reads this account as Jesus’ confrontation with a very real spiritual being, the other camp understands this as Jesus’ encounter with systemic, structural evil.

Of course these two readings are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to observe, in the context of Mark, a man in the synagogue who was really demonized and that Jesus’ first miracle and confrontation with the demonic happened after his teaching challenged the teaching of the scribes. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).

Ched Meyers observes, [T]he meaning of the powerful act must be found by viewing it in terms of symbolic reproduction of social conflict” (Binding the Strong Man, Orbis 1988, 2008, 142). The demonic stronghold becomes apparent as Jesus opposes the pervading political, social and religious thought.

Meyers writes:

Although Jesus identity is hidden to the protagonists (e.g. the disciples) in the story, the demons know exactly who he is. Clearly understanding the political threat he poses to the status quo, they struggle to “name” (that is control) him (1:34; 3:11) (143).

In Lent, it is easy to talk about following Jesus and the cost of discipleship. It is even easier to conceive our Lenten journey as our own little private devotion to God. However, walking with Jesus the way of the cross necessarily will bring us into spiritual, political conflict with evil. Following Jesus means opposing structures and systems which hurt people. In Mark’s story, Jesus’ teaching is contrasted with the scribes for the authority of his teaching (1:22, 27). In Matthew 23, Jesus is explicit in condemning the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, and the way they subvert true justice. And yet these were the social, political and cultural leaders of his day.

The way of the cross is not about private spiritual devotion. It confronts political realities. This was as true at the beginning of Jesus’ mission as it was at the end.

“What’s that got to do with us Jesus of Nazareth?”

The status quo tends to hurts people. If you want to see the reality of demons, question it. When you hear the phrase what’s that got to do with us (or what that’s got to do with me) you may be listening to a demon. Cain, the first murderer, uttered a similar sentiment, “Am I my brothers keeper?”  That’s demonic. It is also demonic when a Christian apologist shames mass shooting victims for speaking out about assault rifles. Or when the victims of domestic or sexual violence are discounted because of due process. Or when you see an angry outburst when someone dares to say black lives matter, and challenges the practices of law enforcement and mass incarceration. Narrow is the gate to salvation but we have institutionalized the wide way of destruction.

Following Jesus will bring us more and more into confrontation with the powers because the way of Jesus is diametrically opposed to the kingdom of this word. To walk with Jesus will mean challenging unjust systems, structures and the status quo. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.




Crouching Corriedale, Christian Dragon: a ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ book review.

 Christians are supposed to be different. They are supposed to be in the world but not of it and reflect Christ’s coming kingdom more than the prince of this age. Yet too often we are indistinguishable from the wider culture, with the same dysfunctions and proclivities.  Nowhere is this felt so acutely as in the realm of power. The ongoing Christian fetish with leadership means the church often mines the corporate world and politics to discover how to lead churches and impact communities. The results are something effective but not without cost. Too often our leadership doesn’t reflect the character of Christ or challenge the power structures.

9780718022358_3Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel are two guys who grew up in a church and wanted to probe what the Christian approach to power and leadership should look like. They observe, “Over time we have come to see the way of power commended in Scripture is not the way of power we have seen in evangelicalism”(xxi). They describe examples of unhealthy power dynamics in the church.For example, Goggin relates visiting a church with a model of a ziggurat in the lobby, the church’s accomplishments on plaques on the side. There was apparently no sense of irony that the church had reconstructed the Tower of Babel in their foyer. Years later the church leadership melted down due to lack of financial accountability, fear and intimidating leadership and divisiveness (59-60).

They delinate other aspects of flawed and toxic leadership in the church:

Leadership of any kind will always be alearning to unhealthy, domineering and narcissistic individuals. The church is not immune to this, because the church can provide a context for power. A toxic leader is someone who maintains power and significance by manipulating followers through their own fundamental drive to be powerful and significant. Toxic leaders dominate and control. Toxic leaders weild their personalities to cement their power, relegating their followers to a position of dependence on them rather than on Christ. Toxic leaders do not develop other leaders, because they pose a threat to their own power. Toxic leaders create an unhealthy symbiosis between themselves and the organizations they lead, such that their absence would equal the collapse of the organization. In other words, a leader is toxic if he ceases to live according to the way of Jesus—the way of love, humanization, and truth, giving himself instead to the way of manipulation, dehumanization and deception (147).

If you have been part of a church, you likely have experienced and seen these dynamics (and maybe caused a few of them?). So, in The Way of Dragon or the Way of the Lamb they take a journey through the landscape of Christian culture to gain wisdom from some Christian sages. They intentionally sought out people who did not use their power for their own sake (16). They interview J.I Packer, Dallas Willard, Marva Dawn, Eugene Peterson, Jean Vanier and John Perkins.

These sages have a lot to say to Goggin and Strobel! From Packer, they learn that in “Christian life and in ministry, weakness is the way” (23). In their conversation with Jim Houston and his wife Rita, they probe how the quest for power in the church has revealed the quest for self-redemption. In contrast, Christian spirituality points to dependence on Christ and his example of self emptying as the key to human flourishing (43-44). Marva Dawn,  a theologian plagued by a lifetime of physical infirmity, is well acquainted with weakness, but also aware of the need to stand against the powers—insitutional and systemic evil. She points out the power of weakness and standing with the weak.  Perkins reveals the power of love in overcoming racism, xenophobia, and hate. Vanier speaks of the power in shared vulnerability and weakness in community. Peterson describes how to pastor a church in the way of the lamb. Willard described the importance of faithfulness over the value of success (152-53)And they said lots of other things too.

Because this book was fashioned around a series of conversations, it isn’t strictly linear, but cycles around similar themes. I think it is significant that the people profiled here are lions in winter, leaders at the end of their lives reflecting on what it has meant to live a lifestyle that is both faithful to Jesus and reflects the way of the lamb. Since their interviews both Dallas Willard and Rita Houston have gone to be with the Lord.

This is the second book that Goggin and Strobel wrote together (their previous book is Beloved Dust). I loved their first book and I couldn’t help but like this one too. It didn’t hurt that they literally interviewed all my favorite authors. As a Regent College guy, I have been strongly impacted by Peterson, Packer, Houston and Dawn. Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy shaped my understanding of Christian formation. I met Perkins in the midst of urban ministry and found someone who loved more, suffered more and had more wisdom than my (at the time)twenty-something heart could hold. I’ve long admired Vanier and the work of L’Arche and Peterson shaped my entire understanding of what it means to be a pastor. My admiration for each of these folks continues to grow. If evangelicals sainted people, each of these sages would make the short list.

I appreciate the insights that Goggins and Strobel draw from their interviews and their encouragement to lead different and wield power differntly from the world. I give this book an enthusiastic five stars. -★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

From ‘the Will to Power’ to God’s Will for Power: a book review

I admit it. I am suspicious of power. Some of my uneasiness stems from where I have seen injustice done towards those on the margins.  But I also embody the typical GenX suspicion of authority and institutions.  I mean, I am no anarchist, but I have an Anabaptist-like suspicion of all who wield power.  Yet Andy Crouch’s new book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power has got me to think hard about the positive, creative purpose of power. According to Crouch, power is not the problem, misdirected power is. Power is a gift from God which enables each us to flourish and engage in the creative task of image bearing.

After Crouch’s introductory chapters, Playing God unfolds in four parts. In part one, Crouch lays his case for Power being a gift.  Two biblical explorations–The creation account in Geensis 1-2 and the wedding feast of Cana where Jesus turned water into wine–frame part one. Crouch avers that the creation account provides a picture of God’s creative power and its connection to our image bearing. In chapter two, “Power is a Gift,” Crouch argues against Nietzsche’s ‘Will to Power’ and might-makes-right vision of power. The Christian vision of power unfolded in the Bible is, “Real power, not just passive-aggressive coexistence but the power to turn the page of history, to deliver the poor,  reconcile the lost, and raise the dead” (53).  The Nietzschean view of power is unmasked as idolatry (ascribing ultimate power to an illegitimate source) and injustice (grasping at power, while leaving others powerless–chapters three and four, respectively). Chapter five shows that the alternative to injustice and idolatry is to be an icon reflecting God’s image. Power becomes a means of creatively embodying the Kingdom in our context. The Wedding of Cana provides a case-study of the proper exercise of power (i.e. Mary and Jesus’ example in the narrative).

Part two describes the grip of power. Two biblical passages also bookend this section of the book–the ten words of Exodus 20, and Jesus washing the disciples feet in John 13.  Power, is often hidden from those who possess it (i.e. an executive whose words always close the meeting). The consequences of non-self aware power is that we fail to leverage it for good (chapter seven). Sometimes our personal power is the result of privilege (through our status as westerner, our wealth, our whiteness, or really anything else that sounds WASP-y) (chapter seven).  Crouch also questions the assumption that power is ultimately about  violence and coercion (as assumed  variously by C. Wright Mills,  Anabaptists,  and Nietzsche).  The alternative view of power that Crouch is sketching is our creative image bearing and does not treat  power as a zero-sum game where the powerful dominate the powerless (chapter eight). The ten commandments orient us with the proper disposition to power and questions our underlying  idolatry and proclivity towards injustice.  John 13 show how Jesus, aware of his power and privilege modeled a different order of power for his disciples.

Part three is dedicated to  describing the role of institutions. While institutions are broken and are often responsible for profound injustices, Institutions are also necessary for  human flourishing.  Commenting on one of the contemporary institutional failures in recent memory, the Catholic church’s pedophile priests, Crouch observes that there was both the failure of “underlords”–priests who abused their position and power, and “overlords”–bishops, cardinals (& popes!) who failed to hold these priests to account (213-4). He concludes, “So we find that in any failing institution, as common as the abuse of power is the neglect of power (214).   Crouch urges us to be ‘trustees’ working within broken institutions to provide places and ways for people to flourish.  International Justice Mission (IJM) is one example of an organization which works to strengthen institutions which restrain evil in particular nations and cultures (207-9). Crouch’s biblical exploration of Philemon illustrates how the apostle Paul did not attack slavery directly but used his power, influence and hospitality to advocated on Onesimus’ behalf.

Part four describes the ‘end of power’ in terms of its telos, its porper limits and the eventual cessation of human power as it is swallowed up in praise of God.

This is a great book, inviting thought about how power, properly construed, is a necessary component of our image bearing, enabling to fulfill God’s mission in the world. Some fruitful insights I gained from Crouch was the connection between idolatry and injustice (and the implications for evangelical’s evangelism and social action). I also found his examination of the ;hidden aspects of power’ and privilege incisive.  Many injustices are perpetuated by well-meaning people who would never grab for power at the expense of others. Nevertheless non-examined privilege is responsible for a whole lot of systemic injustice. Crouch is able to sing the praises of power, while taking an honest look at where power goes awry.

The picture of power which Crouch paints is different from the ‘will to power’ bequeathed to the modern world by Nietzsche, Foucult, et al.  Crouch’s reference point for power is God’s own creative purposes described in the Bible (with special reference to the opening and closing chapters)  This makes it a radical departure from power as usual. Thus while Lord Acton could say, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts, absolutely,” Crouch points out that no one has more absolute power than a parent has over their newborn babies; yet rarely does a parent use their power for ill towards them. If anything, a parent properly uses their power to care for, nurture, protect and feed the child.  Power is not the issue, the disordered exercise of power is. Crouch made me long to see more redemptive acts of power, not in the mold of Nietzsche’s ‘will to power,’ but of ‘God’s will for power.’

I give this book 5 stars. ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Jezebel is pretty bad (so is this book): a book review

One of the most helpful classes I took  in seminary was a course on Inner Healing and Deliverance (Inner healing is healing of past wounds through prayer, deliverance is the casting out of demons).  Personally I needed take that class so I could think through what I thought of this ministry and healthy ways of approaching it. As part of the course, the professor had us read selections from various different inner-healers and deliverance ministers. When we sat down to discuss our first reading, one of the guys in the class waxed on about the author’s Gnostic tendencies and dualistic worldview. The professor listened patiently while I mentally prepared my own list of critiques and concerns to vomit on the class. When the professor spoke he reminded us that we were reading selections from practitioners not from academic theologians and therefore there would be a certain lack of doctrinal precision. He then advocated that we read with a sympathetic-critical eye. This meant that we  should first read in sympathy with the author (do they give us a way forward? Is it helpful?) and secondarily apply a more critical approach (i.e. How thought through  is the argument? Are there problems? Is it biblical? Is the emphasis appropriate?).

I mention this sympathetic-critical approach at the start of my review for Confronting Jezebel because it delineates the sort of approach I have tried to take with this review. This is not a book that I will recommend and find much of it deeply problematic but I have tried to listen to what is helpful and good here.

In this newly revised edition author Steve Sampson aims to expose the ‘Jezebel spirit, the demonic principality of control which sows discord, manipulates, causes rebellion, wreaks havoc and destroys lives. Sampson examines the biblical story of Jezebel and Ahab and draws inferences from her life (and other biblical controllers) about how  this demonic principality was at work  in the events described. But most of his observations about the so-called Jezebel spirit are drawn from his ministry and observations of manipulators and controllers and the havoc they have made in church, families, business and the wider culture.  Along the way he shares stories of manipulation, characteristics of a Jezebel (i.e. takes undue credit, never admits faults, jealous of attention, manipulates the flow of information, etc.),  how someone with an ‘Ahab spirit’ works in passive compliance with a Jezebel and  the need to confront controllers by calling them to repentance and freedom by the Spirit’s power.

What this book  helpful here? Does it give us a way forward?

I think Sampson is right to point out that their may be a spiritual dimension to people’s behavior. Controlling manipulators have deep wounds and insecurity which opens them up to demonic influence. Suffice to say, I agree with the author that Satan is real, at work tearing down and hurting others and certainly uses human manipulators to do his bidding.  I also appreciated that throughout this book, Sampson ends each chapter with a prayer inviting the reader to self reflection on where they have controlled others, been under inappropriate control, or our failure to confront manipulators. This means that the attentive reader would not just read a book like this and diagnose the spiritual condition of  bad bosses  and bitter spouses, but should also look at their own heart condition to see where they are manipulative or complicit in someone else’s unhealthy control.

What is problematic?

Unfortunately I find I struggled to find much good to say about this book.  Here are some of the problems I had with the book:

  1. Sampson doesn’t handle the Bible very well – For the most part, Sampson’s description of those with a ‘Jezebel spirit’ is rooted in experience rather than in scripture. When the Bible is referenced, stories are interpreted in line with his analysis whether or not the text warrants it. The story of Jezebel in the Bible does not tell you that a spirit stands behind her every action (or Ahab’s inaction). But Sampson applies a bizarre typology to the Old Testament where every enemy of God is interpreted as to represent a demon (there are a rash of charismatic books which do this and I don’t think it is helpful). This means he reads into the story details which are not appropriate or helpful (i.e. Jezebel had eunuchs because the Jezebel spirit emasculates men and controls them. What?). Jehu (the King of Israel that deposed of  Jezebel and ended Omri’s line) is also read typologically as a godly man finally fed up enough with Jezebel that he confronts her and destroys her. Jehu was certainly God’s instrument to get rid of Jezebel and her son (like Assyria and Babylon weren’t good nations even though they carried out God’s judgment against Israel and Judah specifically) but he didn’t exactly go on to be a godly king.  If you care about interpreting scripture well, this book will be painful to read.
  2. I didn’t really trust Sampson’s analysis. This book has tons of examples of Jezebel manipulators but with many of the stories I found myself feeling like I wasn’t getting the whole story. Often these were stories about the evil controller and their innocent victims, told from the perspective of the victim. As I read, I didn’t doubt that the situations that Sampson were describing were unjust, but I found myself wondering what details were left out and if the innocent parties were as innocent as Sampson claimed. I also felt like he loaded the idea of a ‘Jezebel spirit’ with any sort of societal, social and personal evil. Rebellion? That is a Jezebel spirit. People are too passive? It is because they are controlled by a Jezebel spirit. Society is pro-abortion? That is what a Jezebel spirit does. Homosexuality? Jezebel. In the end, I found the concept of Jezebel spirit to be so malleable that  I don’t think it really offered much insight. If everything is Jezebel than nothing is. Why not just say the devil made me do it?
  3. I struggled with Sampson’s emphasis- I don’t know how you are suppose to read a book like this without second guessing whether or not  every sort of opposition and jerkiness you have experienced in life is the result of somebody being demonized. I am not sure that this book advocates the sort of love, understanding and graciousness I want to characterize my human interactions. I am not someone to back away from confronting manipulation and control when I see it, but I don’t think that arming oneself with  a list of characteristics of those who have a Jezebel spirit is proper spiritual discernment.
So while I think this book does name the spiritual dimensions to conflict and control, I didn’t find it all that helpful. By all means, bind the Strong Man but don’t use Sampson’s book to do it.

Thank you to Chosen books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.