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.

 

 

 

J is for Journey (an alphabet for penitents)

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. –Phillipians 3:12

Journey is seen, in Scripture, most poignantly in the Exodus, but it comes to describe the very nature of the spiritual life. In Lent, we describe our ‘lenten journey’ and trace Jesus’ circuitous and difficult road to Calvary. Early Christians were called ‘followers of the Way,'(cf. Acts 22:4) indicating that we are a people on the move. We are pilgrims on a journey; we are brothers on the road. We are here to help each other, walk the mile and bear the load.

Israel left Egpyt bound for the Promised Land. The end of their wilderness wanderings took them to Canaan. Israel crossed over the Jordon River and entered the land. African American spirituals pick up on this Exodus/journey motif (historically speaking the coded language of abolition):

Come and go to that land
Come and go to that land
Come and go to that land

Where I’m bound
Where I’m bound

There are two aspects of journey which I think are instructive for us. First, our current actions—the things we do and the steps we take—are determined by our destination. We do what we do because we are going where we are going. Even in the relative ease of modern air travel, we begin our journey by resetting our watches to the time zone we are heading toward. We look out the window and watch the landscape change beneath us. We count down the hours and watch the airplane’s journey on the little screen on the seat in front of us. In the same way, followers of the Way are always looking for signs of God’s inbreaking Kingdom. Are we there yet? We press on, eager to hold of that for which Christ took hold of us. Second, we also know we have not yet arrived. Are we there yet? Nope. Things aren’t as they should be. We aren’t where we want to be. We aren’t in the land of Promise yet. We haven’t arrived at our goal. 

These two aspects of our journey are in tension. Our destination determines our current action, but we haven’t arrived. This is the already/not yet tension of God’s Kingdom. We acknowledge that both the things out there and our own interior life are not where they need to be. But we don’t settle for where we are either. We haven’t arrived but we are on the move. Holding these two aspects in tension helps us to hold on to our idealism and be gracious with ourselves (and others) for not being there yet.

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image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saar_Pass_Malana_Kullu_Himachal_Pradesh_-3.jpg

Waving Bye and Hi to God: a ★★★★★ book review

This isn’t an apologetics book, though I took from it what I normally get from one (a rationale or some ground for continued belief). Mike McHargue, also known as Science Mike, doesn’t set out to convince you of your spiritual path. Finding God in the Waves is a memoir of McHargue’s own spiritual journey. I love memoirs, especially ones with a Hobbit-like shape ( There and Back Again). McHargue describes both losing his faith, and finding God again (SPOILER ALERT) in the waves. Along the way he shares the scientific and philosophical axioms which allow him to hold on to faith in the face of science, reason and doubt.

sciencemikePodcast listeners will be familiar with Mike McHargue from his Ask Science Mike podcast or from The Liturgists podcast which he does with Michael Gungor. The name Science Mike, a vague discipline combined with his personal name, doesn’t really communicate anything substantial about McHargue’s credentials. It is kind of like calling yourself Humanities Jane, Literature Harry, or Theology Bob. Rob Bell christened him as Science Mike, so what are you going to do?  McHargue’s bio doesn’t tell you what kind of scientist he is (or if he is), you just have his assertion that his years as an atheist, when he could examine evidence without religious ideological lenses, made him a better scientist. Perhaps, but this book is more science-y than anything approaching hard sciences.

McHargue grew up in a devout Southern Baptist family. He said the sinner’s prayer at the age of seven, grew up as an evangelical praying to Jesus and believing. Hormones and playing in a band transformed him from an nerdy fat kid into someone more likeable and cool.  For a season he broke from the church (which frowned on premarital sex), until he fell victim to the flirt and convert. Jennifer Carol Frye, a girl he was smitten with, demanded that if he was serious about her, they attend church together. So he did, trading bar gigs for church camp and a worship band. By the time he was twenty-five, he and Jenny were married and McHargue was serious about his faith.

Then his faith fell apart. The cracks came when his dad left his mom for another woman, after almost thirty years of marriage. McHargue saw no biblical ground for divorce and  wanted God to fix his parents’ marriage. He began reading the bible through at a voracious pace and praying fervently. He noted contradictions in the Bible which he didn’t know were there before (i.e. the differences between the Genesis 1 and 2 creation accounts) and doubts began to form. Reading Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis helped him move past the need to fix his parents marriage and showed him that you could be honest about your doubts in the life of faith.

His Christianity weathered his parents divorce but not its next challenger: Richard Dawkins. An atheist friend got him to read The God Delusion. McHargue read it, along with dozens of other works from skeptics. His faith fell apart, particularly as Dawkins parsed the evidence against answered prayer. He became an atheist albeit a secret one. He had no desire to undermine the faith of his wife or others. He continued to teach Sunday school and be a deacon at his church. Eventually his wife (and mother) uncover his collapsed faith, but he remained a secret atheist to everyone else until he was roped into attending a religious conference put on by Rob Bell.

Remember I mentioned the Hobbit shape of this memoir? McHargue does make it back to the shire of belief, but just as with Bilbo, the landscape changed for him because of the journey. Rob Bell, a beach house and the waves, shake him out of atheism into an Eucharistic encounter with the divine, but he doesn’t return to the fundamentalist, evangelicalism of days of yore. He finds a progressive church that he feels comfortable worshiping in and writes axioms which allow him as believing skeptic to give a rational account of subjective religious experience and its benefit (i.e. the physiological benefits of meditation and contemplative prayer).

I really liked this book and found McHargue’s story a compelling one. I found I could relate to parts of his journey. Like him, my evangelical parents’ marriage dissolved after almost thirty years and I was left there to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of it all. Like him, my reading of books by skeptics and believers alike stretched my understanding of God, the Bible and the life of faith. I haven’t ever walked away from the faith but I know the experience of dissonance between outward expression of faith and doubts swirling around my insides.

McHargue doesn’t provide trite answers to tough question or cherry-picked evidence that demands a verdict. However, his axioms are a starting point for others on their way back to belief. These axioms make smaller and more general claims than the orthodox Christian tradition about God, prayer, the afterlife, salvation, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church or the Bible. I am unhappy with McHargue’s axioms as guiding principles for life and faith but I  appreciate the way he frames what he says. Each axiom begins by explaining what each element (i.e. God, sin, salvation, etc.) are  “at least.”  He gives skeptics a provisional place to begin their explore God. Just enough.

I give this five stars and highly recommend it. Those who have wrestled with religious doubt will appreciate the honest way that McHargue explores his own doubts. Not every skeptic will be helped by his answers and many believers will wish he voiced things with a little more theological precision and substance; Yet if you have walked this road, you will appreciate the way McHargue names the in-between-places. ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from Blogging For Books in exchange for my honest review.