Michael Sattler: Radical Christian

Though Protestants have in more recent years come around to the principle of separation of church and state, this was not so in the beginning. While petitioning for the freedom to challenge the church and follow scripture as their consciences dictated, they simultaneously believed that it was the duty of the state to inflict punishment upon those they saw as heretics. John Calvin supported the execution of the unitarian Michael Servetus, Ulrich Zwingli saw to it that Balthasar Hubmaier was tortured for his view of believer’s baptism, and Martin Luther will forever be connected to his advocacy of religiously motivated state violence towards Jews and those who took part in the Peasants’ Revolt. In this milieu it was the so-called “radical reformers”–the Anabaptists—alone who, after taking a close look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, made this idea central to their Christian belief and practice; and it was Michael Sattler who helped to codify this belief into an Anabaptist confession of faith.

John Howard Yoder gives the basic outline of Michael Sattler’s life up to this pivotal event:
“Michael Sattler was born sometime around 1490 at Staufen in the Breisgau. He entered the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter’s, northeast of Freiburg, where he became — or was likely to become — prior. In the 1520s he came , by way of Lutheran and Zwinglian ideas, to forsake the monastery and to marry, and by March, 1525, had become a member of the Anabaptist movement which had just begun at Zürich two months before” (Yoder).

This summary accounts for all that is known of Sattler’s life save for the last two years in which he bursts onto the scene of history (though Snyder, one of Sattler’s biographers, views even this basic outline to be rather conjectural at a number of points). It was in these last two years that Sattler became “the most significant of the first-generation leaders of Anabaptism” (Yoder).

This significance is due in large part to his central role in framing the Schleitheim Articles, the aforementioned Anabaptist confession of faith which would cost him his life and underline the importance of the doctrine which he viewed as central to the Christian faith. The articles, which included confessions on Anabaptist principles such as believer’s baptism and oaths, also spoke very clearly on the distinct roles of church and state, noting that Jesus and the Apostles seemed to forbid those tools of violence which magistrates viewed as essential to executing their duties:
“the rule of the government is according to the flesh, that of the Christians according to the Spirit. Their houses and dwelling remain in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. Their citizenship is in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. The weapons of their battle and warfare are carnal and only against the flesh, but the weapons of Christians are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldly are armed with steel and iron, but Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and with the Word of God” (Schleitheim).

Shortly after the confession was unanimously endorsed by a meeting of Swiss Anabaptists, Sattler, along with his wife Margaretha and other Anabaptists, was arrested for his alleged heresy. Snyder summarizes his fate briskly:
“The trial lasted two days, at the end of which Michael Sattler and his codefendants were found guilty. Sattler was sentenced to have his tongue cut off, to have his body torn seven times with glowing tongs, and finally to be burned to death. This verdict was carried out on May 20, 1527” (Snyder).

The Martyrs Mirror, a 17th century collection of the stories of martyrs (particularly Anabaptists), gives a more dramatic account. It begins with Sattler answering the charges against him with boldness. After being accused of taking the side of the enemies of the faith by not being willing to take up arms against the Turks, Sattler responded:
“If the Turks should come, we ought not to resist them; for it is written: Thou shalt not kill. We must not defend ourselves against the Turks and others of our persecutors, but are to beseech God with earnest prayer to repel and resist them. But that I said, that if warring were right, I would rather take the field against the so-called Christians, who persecute, apprehend and kill pious Christians, than against the Turks,was for this reason: The Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith; and is a Turk after the flesh; but you, who would be Christians, and who make your boast of Christ, persecute the pious witnesses of Christ, and are Turks after the spirit” (Martyr’s Mirror).

As can be imagined, this response did not lead to his immediate acquittal. The town clerk, in attendance at the trial, responded to Sattler, “You desperate villain and archheretic, I tell you if there were no hangman here, I would hang you myself, and think that I had done God service” (Martyr’s Mirror). He seemed to be speaking for the judges as well. The sentence they passed read:
“In the case of the Governor of his Imperial Majesty versus Michael Sattler, judgment is passed, that Michael Sattler shall be delivered to ‘the executioner, who shall lead him to the place of execution, and cut out his tongue; then throw him upon a wagon, and there tear his body twice with red hot tongs; and after he has been brought without the gate, he shall be pinched five times in the same manner” (Martyr’s Mirror).

The men who were with him were later executed by the sword and the women, including his wife, were drowned. His chief crime was believing that Christ’s Kingdom was not of this earth, and that because it is not His disciples do not fight. In an age where Christians are exceedingly obsessed with gaining and maintaining power to protect our social interests, and where various religious radicals use violence to terrorize civilians and governments, Sattler’s approach stands out. It seeks to conquer not by violence or threats of violence, but by refusing to compromise on the non-violent, non-retaliatory faith that Christ once for all delivered unto the saints.

 

References

Martyr’s Mirror. Retrieved June 11, 2016, from
http://www.homecomers.org/mirror/martyrs057.htm

Schleitheim Confession. Retrieved June 12, 2016, from
http://www.anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php/Schleitheim_Confession_(source)

Snyder, C. A. (1984). The life and thought of Michael Sattler. Kindle edition.

Yoder, J. H., & Sattler, M. (1973). The legacy of Michael Sattler. Kindle edition.

Holding Firm to the End: The Epistle to the Hebrews and Eternal Security

It is popular within evangelicalism today to think of salvation in terms of a “once saved, always saved” framework. Though a Calvinist variant of this belief posits that God keeps His elect by causing them to persevere to the end, its free will counterpart argues for a faith that, once initiated, does not require perseverance in order to secure final salvation. It is this latter view that is beyond the pale of acceptable Christian doctrine and which the author of Hebrews refutes thoroughly and repeatedly.

There are several lines of argument which the author uses to substantiate the need to persevere, but the strongest and most prominent is the comparison between the Israelites in the wilderness and those in the New Covenant. Whereas Moses was a servant in “God’s house,” Christ is over God’s house (Hebrews 3:1-5). But even though Christ is much greater than Moses, He cannot guarantee our perseverance any more than Moses could guarantee the perseverance of the Israelites in the wilderness:
But Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (Hebrews 3:6, ESV).

The author of Hebrews goes on to parallel our faith as Christians with the faith of those Israelites, citing God’s words in Psalm 95 as a present exhortation for us:
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest’” (Heb. 3:7-11, ESV).

By way of context, it ought to be stated that prior to their rebellion, “the people believed” (Exodus 4:31, ESV. See also Exodus 14:30-31). This is the key component to the parallel that the author is making—their faith begun did not guarantee that they would finish in it, and it is finishing in faith that allows one to take hold of God’s promises. Our author does not go on to say, “but there are better promises for you,” but, “take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God… For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (emphasis mine. Heb. 3:12, 14, ESV).

If there were any doubt remaining that the author was concerned with the salvation of genuine Christians, such doubts ought to be dispelled by the fate he described for those who had, “been enlightened . . . tasted the heavenly gift . . . shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:4-5, ESV) but had “fallen away” (v. 6): they are like a worthless crop bearing thorns and thistles, set aside “to be burned” (Heb. 6:8, ESV).

If even this is not explicit enough to change the mind of someone holding to a doctrine of eternal security, the author of Hebrews circles back around to it again in chapter 10:
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27 ESV).

Notice the parallel rhythms of 6:4-8 and 10:26-31: a person was enlightened (6:4), receiving the knowledge of the truth (10:26); they then fell away (6:6), went on sinning deliberately (10:26); in their present state it is impossible to restore them to repentance (6:6) since there no longer remains a sacrifice for their sins (10:26); and the judgment which awaits them is to be burned (6:8), a fury of fire (10:27).1

After describing the fate of the apostate in 10:26-27, the author appeals to Habakkuk chapter 2, wherein God declares, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him” (Heb. 10:37-38, ESV). This citation not only puts an exclamation point on the fate of the unrepentant apostate spoken of earlier, but also brings up the issue of what living by faith really means.

Thankfully, our writer does not leave the answer to this question up to our imaginations but provides concrete examples of what saving faith looks like throughout the next chapter. He begins by explaining that faith is confidence about things we do not yet see. Though we do not yet see Christ reigning over the world and creation restored, we trust that this will be the case and live our lives according to this trust in what God has said He will do.

Next, he goes on to look at individual examples of faith from the Old Testament scriptures and from Israel’s history. For instance, Noah’s trust in God led him to follow God’s command to build the ark even though he could not yet see with his eyes the need for it. Similarly, Abraham trusted in God’s promise to give his descendants the land of Canaan even though he died not having seen such a promise fulfilled. Such an attitude our author commends, saying, “if they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Heb. 11:15-16, ESV). Since God has put eternity into the hearts of men and women (Ecclesiastes 3:11), we feel drawn to God even as we feel pulled back into the false security of faithless living. Noah and Abraham resisted that temptation and were therefore commended for their faith, as was Moses, of whom we are told:
“[He chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb. 11:25-26, ESV).

If faith in God is made difficult by our limited vision, how much more so when there is an obstruction before our eyes? Though God delivered from oppression and violence many of the pre-Christ saints, this was not the case for all:
“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb. 11:35-38, ESV).

And yet despite this obstruction to their ability to see the telos of God’s purposes, they trusted in Him nonetheless. If this is true of them, why should it not be true of us who have obtained the fulfillment of promises they longed to see?:
“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39-40).

Indeed, Christ was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. And though many of these promises have not been realized in their fullness, we have more evidence upon which to base our faith than they had. Such a benefit ought to stir up an even greater faith—and a desire to live by it—in what God is going to accomplish for us. And if they could persevere until the end, what excuse can we give for not doing so? For not only do we have resources they did not (the down payment on God’s promises in Christ’s first advent, more of God’s plan revealed to us than was revealed to those who came before, additional power from the Holy Spirit, etc.), we also have their example to follow. The author concludes:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:1-3, ESV).

The cloud of witnesses—those saints who came before us and persevered to the end—testify to us that we can and should persevere. Furthermore, we have not only an example but a great advocate in our Lord Jesus Christ. Though He suffered, he endured because of “the joy that was set before Him.” Faith is not therefore a commitment to suffer because suffering is inherently praiseworthy or noble, but a commitment to follow Christ regardless of the consequences because the reward of such a commitment is participation in Christ’s resurrection and coming kingdom. Our faith, which the author of Hebrews defines as “believ[ing] that [God] exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6, ESV) with the result that we draw near to Him, gives us the strength to endure—for without confidence that God exists and that our present struggles are worth enduring, we would give up the race. Finally, anything which holds us back from finishing the race (what our author refers to as weights) should be cast aside. It is not good for us.

To conclude, the belief that one cannot forfeit salvation even though she abandon Christ is simply not biblical. Not only do we not have any such promises, but such a mindset contradicts the goal of the gospel—our union with Christ and the restoration of all things. If we fail to be interested in these goals, we have no place in the coming kingdom of God. Salvation is not about going to a nice place when you die, but about participation in Christ. Our entry and continued place in Christ’s body is on the basis of faith, and this faith lives (runs the race) on the basis of its confidence in the reward of reaching the finish line.

1 To see these parallels laid out more explicitly, see Nathan E. Brown’s Hebrews – An Exegetical Analysis, p. 103. (Link)

How Jesus’ New Covenant Priesthood Fulfills the Promises of God to Israel

At this point in history Christian evangelism to the Jewish people is something of a minefield. Because Christian-identifying gentiles have so often oppressed Jews, any attempt to proselytize has, to many Jews, become synonymous with anti-semitism—a kind of spiritual pogrom. In addition, it is not uncommon for traditional Jews to accuse Jewish Christians of self-hatred and of abandoning their people to join an oppressor. For many of these traditional Jews, becoming a Jewish Christian is more shameful than becoming a Jewish atheist.

As grievous as the church’s antisemitism has sometimes been, and as understandable as it is for Jews to be wary of the Christian faith, whether or not self-identifying Christians have been antisemites is not logically connected with whether or not the Christian faith is itself antisemitic, let alone with whether or not it is un-Jewish to accept it as one’s own. To underline this point, it would be advantageous for us to go back before the antisemitism in the church to the days of Jesus’ Jewish apostles. When we do, we fill find in a New Testament document entitled “The Epistle to the Hebrews” an argument centered in Tanakh (the so-called Old Testament) that the acceptance of Jesus as Messiah is the logical outworking of the acceptance of God’s Tanakh. Though other Jewish (and gentile) Christians made various arguments to this effect, the author of this epistle’s argument focuses on the fact that Jesus’ covenant has a better priesthood, covenant, sacrifice, and ministry than that in the covenant made through Moses. More than that, he establishes that the Tanakh itself points to the fact that these Mosaic ordinances were only temporary until the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

A Better Priesthood

In chapter 7 of this epistle our author highlights a priesthood which predates Levi’s—that of Melchizedek, king of Salem.1 Melchizedek was a priest of God whom Abraham gave tithe to;2 and since Levi was still, so to speak, in the loins of his great-grandfather Abraham, this means that in some sense the entire Levitical line paid tithe to Melchizedek through Abraham. Of this man we know next to nothing. His birth, death, and ancestry are never even alluded to. And yet David, when writing of Messiah, said that the Lord had sworn of him, “you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”3 This new prophesied priesthood, which is not by Levitical line but by oath of God, is the key to the author’s argument in this section. After all, if the Levitical priesthood was perfect and eternal, why would God mention another to come after it?

Although the great Rabbi Maimonides wrote that Jesus could not be Messiah since he caused the Torah to be altered,4 David’s prophecy of a new priesthood tells us differently. As our author tells us, “when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”5 In other words, if David looked forward to a different priesthood, this means the old one was passing away. And since this priesthood was at the center of God’s Torah, and the Torah was at the center of the covenant, the priesthood of Messiah (whom both the Torah and the rabbis taught would be of the line of Judah, not Levi) would initiate a new covenant.

Although Melchizedek is only apparently immortal (since we never learn of his birth, death, or ancestry), the Messiah’s priesthood truly is eternal. This is one reason why His priesthood is superior to that of the Levites: “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him.”6 An eternal priest is able to make intercession for his people to the end of the age.

More than this, “he has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (7:27). This underlines the fatal weakness of the old priesthood: its priests had to make offerings continuously. In contrast, Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself was final and fully efficacious, and His remaining priestly work consists of making intercession for those who draw near to him (7:25).

A Better Covenant

Now, if a change in the priesthood requires a change in the law, what has happened to the covenant which commands the keeping of the law?7 For this the author quotes at length (in chapter 8) from the prophet Jeremiah, who told the Jewish people, on behalf of God, that:

the days are coming… when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah… I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hears, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people… For I will be merciful to their iniquities and I will remember their sin no more.”8

It is important to note that this new covenant is not made with gentiles as if God would abandon the Jewish people. It is instead a covenant made with the Jewish people but extended beyond the boundaries of ethnic Israel to the nations who are blessed through them This is why the Jewish apostle to the gentiles, Paul (also known as Saul or Shaul), wrote of a gospel which went “to the Jew first and also to the [gentile].”9 Furthermore, he warned gentile converts to Jesus as Messiah that if they thought of themselves as superior to the Jewish people, who are God’s “tree” by nature, God would remove the gentiles (branches which were not natural but grafted in) from His people.10 This teaching undermines the rabbinic narrative that Christianity, properly practiced, is part and parcel with the gentile abuse of the Jewish people just as it undermines the claim of any antisemite to be a Christian in good standing.

In any case, an obvious question presents itself here: if a new covenant is spoken of, where does that leave the old one? According to the author of this epistle, “in speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”11

This does not suggest that the Tanakh is useless. As the Jewish believer in Jesus, Adolph Saphir, wrote:

And yet no portion of Scripture can ever become antiquated, losing its instructiveness, significance, and value. No period of the history of God’s people, no type, no institution, no event of any dispensation, can be forgotten; nothing that God has said, given, or done, will be lost. For the eternal Spirit, who saw the end from the beginning, hath so ordered it that the whole Scripture ministers unto all generations of His people, that as the fathers cannot be made perfect without the children, so the children who are privileged to see the better things provided for them by God are gathered unto the fathers, and blessed with the ancient household of faith…”12

It is not that what God had revealed through Moses was useless, but that it anticipated what He would reveal through Christ. In the case of the covenant, it looked forward to a new covenant, spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah, where sins would be cleansed fully by a different kind of high priest and the law of God would be written on our hearts instead of on tablets of stone.13

A Better Sacrifice

If the priesthood has changed, and the covenant with it, what kind of sacrifice remains for sins? Although it is common for the rabbis to claim that prayers will have to substitute for our offerings until the temple is rebuilt, the author of this epistle gives an answer which is much more tightly integrated into the fibers of the Tanakh. Indeed, our author reminds us that, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”14 If the basis for both our forgiveness and for the Mosaic covenant is sacrificial blood, and the Mosaic covenant can no longer offer blood sacrifices, there must be a new covenant if there is to be forgiveness of sins.

In chapter 9 our author summarizes the procedure of sacrifice for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). On this day alone could someone enter into the full presence of God in the temple’s most holy place, and even then only the high priest. This mediator, “entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.”15 Upon this fact our author hangs his most essential point. This sacrifice obviously could not perfect either the priest or the people since (1) it had to be offered over and over and (2) it could not open the way into the most holy place, and the presence of God, for all. The Day of Atonement was centered around an imperfect priest making imperfect sacrifices for a people who were not perfected by them. This doesn’t make those sacrifices useless, however. They served their purpose at the time they were given. But if this is so, “how much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”16 Through the final and perfect sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah, we may have complete forgiveness of sins and the Spirit of God motivating our motives, actions, and intentions.

Ministry

For our author, the old covenant sacrificial system pointed to something greater to come. If the new covenant, priesthood, and sacrifices are better, then the ministry which our high priest performs on behalf of his people is as well. Since the New Covenant was established upon better promises, then also “the ministry Jesus has received [is] superior” as well.17 Why? In summary, because:

Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”18

Final Thoughts

What is the application for those living today? Because of what Jesus did, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”19 and “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body.”20 Furthermore, we may be grateful that God fulfilled what was only a shadow in his beautiful Torah, forgiving us of our sin by the ministry of our New Covenant High Priest and by making a way to cleanse our conscience from sins once for all.

1. Or, more literally, King of Righteousness, King of Peace.

2. See Genesis 14.

3. Psalm 110:4, ESV. All additional biblical citations are from the ESV.

4. See his work The Laws Concerning the Messiah.

5. Hebrews 7:12.

6. Hebrews 7:23-25.

7. As we read in Exodus 24:7, “Then [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.‘”

8. Hebrews 8:8-12, quoting from Jeremiah chapter 31.

9. Romans 1:16.

10. Romans 11:16-21.

11. Hebrew 8:13.

12. Saphir, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Exposition, Kindle edition.

13. Compare the giving of the Old Covenant law in Exodus 19-20 to the inauguration of the New Covenant by the writing of God’s law on the heart in Acts 2, both taking place on Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks.

14. Hebrews 9:22.

15. Hebrews 9:7.

16. Hebrews 9:14.

17. Hebrews 8:6.

18. Hebrews 9:24-26.

19. Hebrews 10:10.

20. Hebrews 10:19-20. See also Matthew 27:51, which tells us that at the time of Jesus’ death, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

The Gospel According to Batman V Superman

Fresh from the theater after having seen Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, I have been reflecting upon one particularly fascinating theme within it. In a far more thoughtful and sophisticated manner than the vast majority of overtly “Christian” movies, this film promotes a theology–even a gospel.

Warning: some spoilers ahead.

From the outset, I want to point out that this isn’t a theologian finding theology where it wasn’t intended. Indeed, Lex Luthor (of all people) reiterates explicitly and repeatedly that what transpires in this film points to something greater–the problem of evil and man’s relationship to God.

Luthor provides the viewpoint of the unrepentant cynic. Superman is odious because he resembles God and God cannot be trusted. If God couldn’t prevent the suffering of a young, abused Lex, better for God to die (or at least his proxy). Luthor therefore attempts to orchestrate deicide against Superman, first by the hands of man (Batman) and then by the hands of the devil (Doomsday).

The answer to Lex’s supposedly unsolvable problem of evil comes out of left field. How does a seemingly omnipotent and omnibenevolent God respond to evil, particularly when it results in free human beings who want to kill him despite His desire to save them? He identifies with their humanity and gives his life in order to defeat him who has the power of death (in this case, Doomsday). In doing so, he inspires conversion in men (represented here by Batman) who for the first time see God as loving–and pure love means being willing to suffer for the good of the beloved even though the lover doesn’t have to.

If God is willing to suffer with us, maybe our suffering isn’t as meaningless as we think it is. This seems to be the catharsis of Bruce Wayne. When Wayne sees Superman as powerful and alien, Superman (like God) seems quite dangerous. But when Wayne realizes that Superman has taken on humanity and even feels a love for his human mother as great as Wayne did, this changes him. Suddenly Wayne is overwhelmed with compassion–with empathy even–and helps Superman to rescue his mother from the clutches of Luthor. One can hear echoes of Jesus’ words to John on the cross to take care of Mary: “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27).

This theology addresses what bothered so many fanboys about this movie–Batman’s willingness to kill. In this reading, it makes sense for Batman to kill for most of the movie–life is ultimately meaningless to him, so he creates his own purpose. It is Superman’s love and sacrifice that changes Batman, not a cold, deontological ethic grounded in passionless conviction. Despite what the enlightenment deists affirmed, it is not philosophy which makes us good but love. After seeing Superman’s self-identification and self-sacrifice to save humanity from death, Batman is determined to be a better man. This is the reason why he decides not to brand Luthor in prison, a brand which we are told sets inmates apart for death by the hands of fellow prisoners.

Though it has to be teased out, there is a rich theology in this film which is frankly unparalleled by what the Christian film industry is producing. It presents a gospel which is somehow more moving and more compelling despite not having to be spelled out.

The Medium is the Massage: on the Temptation to Replace People with Technology

Sherry Turkle is distraught. The more this MIT professor of the social studies of science and technology looks at the world around her, the more she sees an obsession with technology that undermines genuine social interaction and hinders meaningful relationships. She goes to technology conferences and finds that “what people mostly want from public space is to be alone with their personal networks.” This is because, “online life provides environments where one can be a loner yet not alone, have the illusion of companionship without the demands of sustained, intimate friendship.” In other words, we find that we need something outside of ourselves, but at the same time we don’t want the messiness and difficulty inherent in traditional relationships. New technology helps us to circumvent this tension. Said one elderly Japanese woman of a robotic dog in her nursing home (as quoted by Turkle): “It is better than a real dog…It won’t do dangerous things, and it won’t betray you….Also, it won’t die suddenly and make you feel very sad.”

In one sense, Turkle’s critique goes too far. In another sense, it doesn’t go far enough. Most of Turkle’s critiques could also be applied to just about any other medium which stands in for traditional communication. The internet meme with a decades-old photo of a train full of passengers all reading newspapers instead of talking to each other underlines that point quite nicely. Once a medium acquires respectability (through nothing more than time and familiarity), we simply stop noticing how much it gets in the way of face-to-face interaction. The Disney film Beauty in the Beast, for example, features an 18th century female protagonist, Belle, who is thought strange by her neighbors for her obsession with a medium of communication, namely books, and the impact that this has on her ability to socialize with them (it really is a tale as old as time!). However, we are expected to sympathize with Belle, whose anti-social habit we now view as sacrosanct, and view the villagers as provincial and outmoded. Replace Belle’s books with online video games and the lesson would be a very different one—and at the very least the online video games have a more obvious social dimension. In sum, Turkle seems to be missing the point by picking on only the contemporary technologies.

At the same time, this is exactly why her critique doesn’t go far enough. Books connect you to people of a different time and place, giving you the ability to see through their eyes and enter into a kind of dialogue with them. Similarly, online video games and chat rooms provide opportunities for those who struggle to fit into their own communities to form others with satisfying friendships and regular affirmation of their interests and personalities. However, insofar that both can become a replacement for and not a facilitator of our interactions with others, they become something akin to an idol—an object of obsession which stops us from loving God and loving others. As John Calvin wrote, our minds are a “perpetual factory of idols.” We allow pornography to replace our spouses, the Bible to replace God, and chat rooms to replace friendships. Anything which stands in the way of our loving God and others is a threat, and our trouble is not necessarily that we love the wrong things, but that we can quite easily make good things into idols. As Turkle astutely puts it, “emotional life can move from ‘I have a feeling, I want to call a friend,’ to ‘I want to feel something, I need to make a call.’” The trite but accurate expression, “we are supposed to love people and use things” is relevant here, and we must always fight the temptation to get these reversed.

The Syrian Refugee and the Good Samaritan


A recent article about John Kasich, the governor of my home state of  Ohio, noted his opposition to providing asylum to Syrian refugees. Kasich’s reasoning is also that of many of my conservative friends and family members, though admittedly more polished:
“‘The governor doesn’t believe the U.S. should accept additional Syrian refugees because security and safety issues cannot be adequately addressed,’ Kasich spokesman Jim Lynch said in a statement. ‘The governor is writing to the President to ask him to stop, and to ask him to stop resettling them in Ohio. We are also looking at what additional steps Ohio can take to stop resettlement of these refugees.'”

Kasich’s concern is that in seeking to take in Syrians whose lives are threatened by radical Muslims, some of the aggressors might tag along with them. In light of the attacks in Paris, this concern has come to the forefront of the minds of many.

Setting aside the fact that the 9/11 hijackers went through the proper legal channels to receive tourist and work visas, and that Islamic radicals have also come about  within our own country (see, for instance, John Walker Lindh), it must be admitted that we are far too unrealistic when it comes to the threat of death or violence. While we should always do our best to stave it off, Americans have a tendency to think that it can be quarantined in some place where it can’t reach us. As such, any risk of danger is not a risk worth taking, even if the payoff is extraordinary.

This is the American civil religion: America is a holy nation, set apart for its own works and meet for its own purposes. Our apostles proclaim the gospel of American exceptionalism to the American first, and secondly to the rest of the world, though ritual circumcision would be an easier obstacle to overcome to become part of the covenant community of God than the process of seeking asylum.

This attitude is America at its worst, though it would be unfair to deny that there are compassionate Americans who would love to  help Syrian refugees, but who also want to minimize the risk of spreading radical violence to their own nation where their families (the people they are most responsible for) would be in danger. There are practical concerns here which aren’t inappropriate to raise.

However, for American Christians, who often identify as conservatives, there ought to be more balance in how we talk about this issue. The Bible is not silent on this topic, and the Parable of the Good Samaritan provides us with at least one important moral teaching which ought to inform how Christians should think about this problem.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25-37 (ESV)

   The scene is a road beset by violent robbers. An innocent man falls to one of them and will surely die if no one intervenes. A priest and a Levite both walk by him, ignoring his plight. These are two men who view themselves as having a privileged position due to their nationality and their place within their own society. Why did they fail to stop to help someone so clearly in need? Apathy may be part of the reason, but perhaps the threat of violence was the greater concern. Jesus had already established that this was a dangerous road, and there may have been a genuine fear that the apparent victim was merely bait to draw them in so they could be more easy prey. Better to just walk on. This man wasn’t any of their business, really, and there’s no good in risking their lives for someone who might not really need their help after all.

   This is the same rationale that informs the anti-asylum/America first position, and according to Jesus it carries a great danger: you put yourself at risk of forfeiting eternal life because you shut yourself off from loving your neighbor as yourself.

   If other equally valid moral concerns eventually lead us to determine that we cannot take these refugees in ourselves, we must still do what we can so that we can say, with all sincerity, that we looked at the example of the good Samaritan and sought to go and do likewise. To do otherwise is to demonstrate that Christian America’s faith is one without works, and is therefore dead.

Nietzsche for Bitstrips

In celebration of a new book I’m working on that discusses the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Antichrist (among other anti-Christian works), here is a collection I put together of some of Nietzsche’s most disturbing words set to Bitstrips, that silly little comic strip creator that puts a facsimile of YOU in the action!

I looked, and behold! a spray tan horse (or, how the loss of literacy could spell the end for western civilization)

When Kim Kardashian tweeted, “Today marks the 100 year anniversary of Armenian Genocide!” as if she were giving a birth announcement, it predictably elicited some snickers. But not from John McWhorter. In his Daily Beast article appropriately titled “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good,” McWhorter argues that America is shifting from book-patterned thinking to more informal, verbal-based communication, and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just an example of “times changing in ways that hurt no one.”

On the surface, he seems to agree with media theorist Neil Postman’s premise that the primary communication medium a society uses will necessarily shape how it communicates, and that each medium has its own structure and emphases. What he doesn’t claim (and what Postman does) is that not all mediums are appropriate for all messages, and that when a new medium becomes the predominant one in a culture, it can fundamentally change the public discourse. Writing, for instance, is linear and builds upon previous information. Television, in contrast, must be formatted to be consumed in bite size chunks where no previous knowledge can be assumed. This is why Postman argued that education, as traditionally defined, is better accomplished through writing than through television.

Although this concept of mediums shaping messages was given popular expression by media theorists like Postman and Marshall McLuhan, it has much older, deeper roots in Judeo-Christian thought. In the Old Testament, we find two mediums of communication privileged when it comes to facilitating theological education and worship: writing and speech. Writing seems to be the highest form of discourse given the place of primacy that the Ten Commandments, and indeed the whole Torah, had in the Jewish mind (see Deuteronomy 31:10-12). However, oral discourse also had a distinct religious importance since it was the primary mode of daily communication; thus the command to talk regularly about the law of God with one’s children (Deuteronomy 6:7).

In contrast, pictorial representations for the purpose of teaching and inspiring worship were not completely without merit (Exodus 25:22), but could not be used to facilitate worship proper, as the Hebrews learned all too well during the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32). God could be represented in words, particularly those written words that He inspired, but not in images. The implication of this is that the medium in which a message is transmitted is not irrelevant to the content of the message. Pictorial representations of the God of Israel were not seen as capable of conveying the things about Himself which He wanted to disclose, but would instead lead the recipients of His self-disclosure astray.

The relationship of medium to message is implicitly disclosed in the New Testament as well. Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant preacher, relied primarily on verbal modes of communication, and can therefore be contrasted with Paul, the writer. Jesus told memorable parables and stories which could be easily remembered and reinterpreted for different contexts. Paul wrote long letters that relied upon sustained linear argumentation. He communicated his points by building his case progressively and carefully arranging his data. He wasn’t interested in quickly grabbing the attention of a passerby and sharing a convicting aphorism for him to remember, but in demonstrating his thesis to someone who was willing to follow his train of thought from beginning to end. The result is that Jesus’ theology has to be constructed by the reader while Paul’s already is constructed. The listener trying to make sense of Jesus’ philosophy will miss quite a lot if he isn’t capable of laying it out systematically, as Paul did. That’s what makes Kim Kardashian’s tweet, symptomatic as it is of a larger trend, so terrifying. It represents a fundamental failure to think beyond 140 characters.

The danger we find ourselves in today, of casting aside the more literate Pauline approach, is that in doing so we will have lost the ability for sustained, developed, complex thought and be left instead with a worldview resembling a Twitter feed—a random arrangement of slogans and metaphors. Once we have given up literacy because it’s too difficult, we cannot be like those oral cultures which were shaped by Homer, the Mishnah, or Beowulf. We’ll be lucky if we can aspire to Lady Gaga.

Is Kim Kardashian the harbinger of the West’s doom, and proof that careful, structured thought is on its way out? Perhaps. But that is exactly why westerners should remain, as the Qur’an referred to Jews and Christians in an era of increasing illiteracy, a people of the book.

Christian Involvement in Politics Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

When Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 (after being granted the status of an approved religion by Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D), believers found themselves responding in one of two ways. Some basked in their new found power and luxury, holding it over the now disenfranchised class of pagans. We’ll call them the Constantinians. Others, the monastics, sought to check out of this new institutionally supported Christianity which they saw as sensual and double-minded. These extremes ignored a third option–to simply participate in society as one group among many and allow evangelization to happen through freely established relationships instead of coercion which mitigates against sincerity on the part of the coerced. This model was at least implicitly affirmed by the New Testament writers who demanded no revolution but only asked for toleration and freedom to worship and evangelize.

This false dilemma was recapitulated at the time of the Protestant Reformation, during which time the Roman Catholics and Magisterial Protestants sought to crush religious dissent via the power of the state while the Anabaptists went into hiding and designated Christian participation within the larger society, and particularly in politics, as sinful.

Fast forward to the summer of 2015 in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that same sex marriage is a civil right. Prior to (and precipitating) this ruling, the majority of confessing evangelicals and Roman Catholics had demanded that their government maintain in the law a Christian value judgment on marriage which they were not willing to replace with a more pluralistic non-religious entitlement such as civil unions. After the ruling, with one new view of marriage backed by the force of the state, Christians are increasingly anxious that this new entitlement will lead to government discrimination against Christians.

For these Constantinian Christians, politics is a zero-sum game. If a non-Christian group gains something, this means Christians have lost something. The debate over gay marriage was set up intentionally to be this kind of arrangement, but the risk of becoming a displaced special class was considered worth it if it meant that their side might prevail.

That the debate over gay marriage was nothing more than a power play can be demonstrated by comparing how conservative Christians compare this ruling with other, more egregious ones. For instance, the Dred Scott Decision which came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, declaring that slaves did not have the same rights as free persons and thus undermining the Christian belief in human equality before God, is not generally considered to be a loss for Christianity because Christians as a group lost no political power. But as power has now been wrested from the hands of Constantinian Christianity, American Christians are saying, as one evangelical writer did, “I am horribly grieved that a lifestyle that is so contrary to Christian morality is being celebrated in a country that once honored Christian values.”

It is, of course, not Christian values which America has honored, but Christian hegemony, even if it comes at the risk of sacrificing Christian values. As such, American Christians generally believe that there are two options open to them in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision–fight for the return of their political power or remove themselves from society.

May I humbly suggest that we still have a third option?

The Defeat of American Constantianism and the Resurrection of Grace

I once heard Phil Burress, head of the religiously and politically conservative organization Citizens for Community Values, talk about the political work that his group had done. While most of it was pretty standard religious right stuff like campaigning against pornography and gambling, one issue stuck out. He spoke of legislation they supported which protected exotic dancers from being groped by customers.

What made this cause unique was that instead of simply working to shut down strip clubs (which CCV would no doubt be in favor of), they were seeking to protect women who found themselves working in jobs which were morally objectionable. They were essentially saying to these women, “what makes you valuable isn’t whether or not you refrain from engaging in behavior I find to be morally wrong, but that you are made in the image of God. As such, I want to show honor to you as a child of God that He loves.”

While Christians who have the freedom to participate in the political process need to take this responsibility seriously, we often imbue it with too much importance. We forget that the world and its people are fallen, and we are shocked and dismayed when it behaves accordingly. If American Christianity has lost the battle against legally recognized gay marriage, what does this loss teach us that we didn’t already know? We live in a country where people who are willing to live and let live can do more or less anything else they choose to. The benefit of such an arrangement is that as Christians we have the freedom to explore our faith without fear of reprisal. The corollary to this is that others are also free to reject Christian belief and behavior.

Is our key responsibility to these people to consolidate political power and treat them as our opponents in order to remind them who’s in charge; or is it to treat them as human beings made in God’s image? June 26, 2015 may stand as American Constantinianism’s Waterloo, but it need not be Christianity’s. God’s grace has and will conquer. If we respond with love and humility toward those whom Christ died for, it can be our Milvian Bridge.

Making Jesus the Center.