Book Note: Harvey Cox’s The Market As God

Harvey Cox, The Market As God (Harvard University Press, 2016). (Amazon; Bookshop)

In The Market As God, the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, Harvey Cox, ponders the deification of “the Market”. This begins will a series of comparisons between the way people have spoken of the personified “Market” and deities like the biblical “God”. For example, the “Invisible Hand of the Market” echoes discussions around Providence in Christian theological works. The Market is presented as a Creator who brings into existence the “corporation-person” or the corporation-with-personhood. This deity is contrasted with some of the images of the biblical “God” who prohibits things like “usury” (i.e. predatory lending) and calls for periods of wealth redistribution (e.g. the “Jubilee”).

Once Cox has accustom the reader to a theological way of talking about economics, he explores the many unhealthy deficiencies in our capitalist system. To be clear, Cox will come to argue at the end of the book that “the Market” can redeemed when it is saved from the burden of being “divine,” so he doesn’t appear to be anti-capitalist, per se, as much as critical of what he perceives to be abusive forms of capitalism that can’t bear the weight of our expectations.

The final third of the book explores the history of how money and religion have related, looking at how money may have played a role in providing St. Augustine with his victory of the (declared heretical) monk Pelagius; how Adam Smith’s economics was grounded in his theology; and other similarities between modern economic-speech and theological-speech, such as a sense of mission and the missionary mindset, the function of “liturgical” seasons, and various forms of eschatology.

This book is insightful. While connected, certain parts could be read independently of the others as mini-essays. Whether or not Cox’s confidence in the small-m “market” is justified is something not all readers will resonate with but his broader comparative insights are thought-provoking and at least raise the question of whether work and business is taking the place in people’s lives that religion once occupied.

On a related note, I’m happy to promote a video that I had a small part in scripting: Religion For Breakfast, a.k.a. Andrew Henry, has addressed a related book, Carolyn Chen’s Work Pray Code in the video (“Tech Companies: A New Religion?”) linked below:


Critique of a received Nietzsche

Yesterday, I was asked the following question on Facebook by my friend Fr. Nate Bostain in response to my post “Christianity as ‘a technique of survival for the oppressed'”:

Nietzsche’s critique of Buddhi-Christian morality in places like “Genealogy of Morals” is that it is a slave morality meant to hold the powerful and capable down by the dictates of the masses. The herd is driven by ressentiment to hold in bondage the excellent and superior through sanction and shame. Thus we must transvalue all of these values by rising above them and overcoming the herd. Do you think that sentiments like Thurman’s prove Nietzsche right? Or is there another dialectic at work here? I have my own thoughts, but I want to hear yours.

Now, I’m not widely read on Nietzsche. I’ve encountered too many different interpretations to speak with confidence about his ideas like the Übermench, the will to power, or the death of “God”. But I do know of this received Nietzsche that’s understood by some critics to be an inspiration for Hitler, by some admirers as Ayn Rand’s continental counterpart, and maybe by both as an example of social Darwinism. So, I’ll try to speak, briefly and generally, about this received Nietzsche and whether his received philosophy rebuts people like Thurman and Thurman’s reception of Jesus.

First, I don’t understand personhood and individuality to allow for this received Nietzschean paradigm to work. This may be due to several years of introducing students to Buddhist and Confucian thought but as with the Buddhists, I can’t fathom reality without a recognition of our absolute interconnectivity. In fact, I place such philosophical weight on this idea, that Indian monism and Spinoza’s god have been ideas I’ve been giving a lot of thought. This isn’t to say that I’m a determinist or a Calvinist in the Christian tradition. I do believe in will. Whether or not we should use the term “free will” is something I’m still pondering. I might say we have “free-within-limits will,” which is something I presume most defenders of free will recognize but is something I want to emphasize. I can’t will myself to fly to the moon in my body alone; I can’t will myself to have the body-type necessary to qualify as a potential NBA or NFL or even MLB player. There are limits and those limits are determined, in part, by who I am as a person and the systems/societies/cultures of which I’m part.

Since our interconnectivity goes all the way down, I look at people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk not as a geniuses that rise above the system but as the eventual beneficiaries of a system that has evolved to create such people. If Bezos and Musk weren’t Bezos and Musk, someone would be them, because our forms of hyper-capitalism (or techno feudalism!) functions to create these people. Again, this isn’t to say Bezos and Musk didn’t contribute to their eventual standing, just to say that they didn’t will it independently of the system that made it happen and the people who build Amazon, Space X, etc.

We’ve lived through the perfect example of the point that I want to make: the Covid-19 pandemic. Our current globalized system of trade and travel made it almost inevitable that this virus would spread across the planet. Were some decisions made by powerful people that may have contributed, like the discarding of the Obama Administration’s pandemic-playbook by the subsequent administration, factors? Yes. Were powerful individuals involved? Yes. But could have the former president made the decisions that were made by his administration had he not been elected and been elected in a system where the majority vote wasn’t the determining factor? No. He would’ve been just a famous TV star and wealthy real estate mogul with a Twitter account.

Systems are powerful realities that mean more for our understanding of the world than “great men”. Systems cause people sick with a virus on one side of the world to eventually impact people on the other side of the world—people they never met and never will meet. If, god forbid, nucular powers like India and Pakistan engaged in atomic war, it doesn’t matter than I live in Texas. I will feel the impact.

My person is not isolated; my person is determined by the networks of which I’m part and in turn contributes to those networks to influence others. This is why I mentioned Confucianism because I agree with the idea that rituals form us—doing the same thing over and over again becomes normalized for us and shapes us and changes who we’ll be, whether this is brushing your teeth, pledging allegiance to the flag of your country, or saying prayers.

Second, and related, while there’s no doubt that certain elites benefit from the social-power constructs of a given age, that does not follow that they themselves are inherently/ontologically “excellent and superior”. As I said regarding Bezos and Musk, as individuals they’re not completely accidents of the system but there’s nothing that says that those two men had to become who they became or that two other people couldn’t have arisen to create a massive online trading platform or a privatized NASA. I liken Bezos and Musk to men bench pressing with people holding up the bar on each end and then mocking the person next to them for being unable to lift as much weight.

A while ago I listened to a podcast series that explored how Blockbuster collapsed and Netflix rose to prominence (season 2 of Land of Giants). And yes, there were decisions and individuals to blame for how that happened—but as you listen to how everything unfolded, you realize that this sort of thing is more than any one person, and more than any one decision. And now, Netflix looks weakened. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re the next to topple. If this happens, some individuals will play a part but no one person will determine Netflix’s survival or demise.

Third, I’d note that those in power are completely dependent upon the systems they inhabit and often are lucky that those systems aren’t easily toppled. Engels mourned the reality that London was full of people who had the combined power to overthrow a system that oppressed and used them but wouldn’t (couldn’t?). And history shows that most people stay in power because gaining unified mass and mass resistance is very difficult (once again, because systems are powerful). As the architects of the United States Declaration of Independence wrote, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” In other words, powerful people’s power is at the mercy of the basic, observable fact that it takes a lot for the masses to move together toward their own liberation. This doesn’t prove that the masses are full of weaker, less competent people; it proves that systems are difficult to change when people are used to them and the alternative is unknown. (Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, as it’s said.) Didn’t The Matrix teach us this? And Plato?

In summary, I don’t believe in the Übermench as he has been received. (I don’t know enough about Nietzche’s thought to directly address his concept.) I don’t believe in the “great men” of history, even Jesus. In fact, whatever its historical value, the canonical value of the Book of Acts for the Christian New Testament is that it decenters Jesus in order to center him. In other words, Jesus’ greatness is determined by, as the Fourth Evangelist (John 14:12) presents Jesus as saying, “I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” Jesus’ greatness is determined by the community and his absence. (Yes, I know that Johannine “absence” is still presence by the Spirit but that only adds to my point that Jesus-multiplied in his movement, i.e. Jesus-absent from his movement, is what makes Jesus great in the logic of the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts.)

I believe that the Buddhists are right that I have no-self outside of the variety of external contributors to the located collection I am. I believe the Confucians are right that I have no-self outside of the rituals and practices that form me, many which I receive, passively, from my society. I believe Thurman is correct in inviting the oppressed to see hope in the way of Jesus but also in inviting the oppressor to repent because the oppressive actions we do against others—others who are not ultimately as separate form us as we imagine—will harm us. There’s only so long that you can pour the pollution downstream before there’s no where for it to go—as the rapid change of our global climate is showing us in real-time. And you can contribute only so long to a culture of harm before you’re harmed by that culture—see how America’s belief that redemptive violence is the solution to everything has created a culture of violence here at home, where most Americans own more than one gun—not because they fear people from the other side of the world but because they fear their closest neighbors. This is what Thurman knew; what Jesus knew.

Christianity as “a technique of survival for the oppressed”

I continue to toss around Adam Clark’s words in my head: Christianity is “an invitation to see ‘from below’”. Now, as someone who teaches religious studies, I’m aware that there’s no essentialist definition of Christianity. There are liberating forms of Christianity, like those mentioned by Clark, and there are other forms, like the white supremacist, nationalistic versions that have become increasingly empowered over the past half-decade. But if the word “Christianity” is going to remain a meaningful word for me, then I need definitions that make Christianity a concept worth pondering.

I’ve come across another statement that helps me think. I found it this morning in Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited (p. 18) this morning:

“The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed.”

I’ve noticed, thus far, that in admiring Jesus it appears that Thurman avoids the anti-Judaism found in many hagiographical writings about Jesus. This is meaningful to me and I hope that when I finish the book this has remained a consistent theme. For now, the thought of Jesus’ teachings and way of life being a method or a technique is a valuable lens.

Book Note: Danté Stewart’s “Shoutin’ in the Fire”

Danté Stewart, Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle (New York: Convergent, 2021). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Danté Stewart’s Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle is a beautiful and troubling book. It’s beautiful because it’s a testimony to Black-strength, Black-resilience, and Black-pride. It’s troubling because I’m a white reader who was confronted with the meaning of whiteness. But the synthesis of this beauty and this trouble is that it’s essential if you want to hear a contemporary voice speak aloud about what it means to be Black and Christian and American (p. 6).

The title comes from the story in the Book of Daniel where the three Hebrews are thrown in the fiery furnace by the order of the King of Babylon. The title is unpacked through chapter-after-chapter of testimony as to how the Black Church is a witness to this spirit—the spirit of fidelity in the midst of a life-and-death trial. This book is written with the recent murders of Black Americans from Treyvon Martin to George Floyd being always present but also with white silence, especially white, Christian American silence, blaring in our ears.

I was raised as a Oneness Pentecostal who left that tradition for the broader, more mainstream white Evangelical Church. Stewart was raised as an Apostolic Pentecostal who left his tradition for the broader, more mainstream white Evangelical Church. Eventually, Stewart leaves white Evangelicalism and in the process is able to rediscover some of the life-giving treasures of his Apostolic Pentecostal roots. I have left Evangelicalism as well but I couldn’t look back to my Oneness Pentecostal roots with the same fondness. It was easy for me to see that the major difference is that Stewart’s Apostolic Pentecostal community was held together by more than its doctrine but also by the shared experience of being Black Americans, a shared experience I didn’t have with my fellow white Oneness Pentecostals. In other words, my white Oneness Pentecostalism didn’t contribute to my struggle for freedom or the for the recognition of my humanity like Stewart’s Apostolic Pentecostalism did for him. As I read, I could see that Stewart had experienced something in his formative years that I couldn’t and that while our Christianities shared creedal similarities, that’s where the parallels mostly end (though running, shouting, tongue-taking, etc., are shared experiences).

White Evangelicalism didn’t try to rip my identity from me. But white Evangelicalism did try to rip Stewart’s identity from him. And his departure from white Evangelicalism was when he realized he had a role to play in the struggle for Black-liberation in this country. That’s when he was empowered to read Martin Luther King Jr., James Cone, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, et al. And that’s when Stewart was given words that informed his voice as a writer. When you read this book, you’ll be glad that Stewart found his way out of white Evangelicalism because we need his voice: it’s prophetic, it’s poetic, it’s powerful.

The two chapters that will live in my brain forever are “Rage.” and “Back Roads.” It’s in “Rage.” that Stewart explains how he recognized the power and life-giving strength of Black-rage against white supremacy and its impact. But this is also the chapter where he talks about his journies in white Evangelicalism, how he wanted to be accepted in those circles, how he found himself being numbed to the Black experience in this country, and how he escaped.

Stewart writes of how he initially responded to a question asked across social media, “What radicalized you?” with the tweet “JESUS & JAMES BALDWIN” but how he then came to realized that as important as Jesus and James Baldwin were to him, “It wasn’t Jesus or James Baldwin who radicalized me. It was white people. Apathetic white people.” (pp. 78-79) Stewart tells stories about how his Evangelical Church tried the whole “racial reconciliation” approach, which for those in the know, is often code in many Evangelical Churches for “Black Christians are welcome to join our white Church and embrace our traditions, music, hermeneutics, etc., as long as you don’t make us feel bad about the state of race relations in this country”. But as Black people were murdered by the police, Stewart realized he was not in a place that seemed to care. Their approach to racial reconciliation was to do a small group study around a book written by John Piper (p. 80). Yes, John Piper.

As I read this, I remembered my time in white Evangelicalism. While my experience was nothing like Stewart’s because I’m white, I can say that his criticism of white Evangelicalism’s approach to racial reconciliation is every bit as problematic as that chapter describes, and their sense that their theology is normalized “theology,” traditional “theology,” even orthodox “theology,” rather than a specifically situated expression of white theology is what makes it all so very troubling.

It was “Back Roads.” that made me stop several times to digest Stewart’s words. I want to share three extended quotes from that chapter, then I’ll shut up, step aside, and encourage you to buy and read this book:

“Any conception of God, Baldwin wrote, must deal honestly with the ways Black people are unloved in American society and in the American church and give us all something that helps us to work for a world in which all bodies experience what God desires.”

Shoutin’ in the Fire, p. 111

This reminds me of the words spoken by Irving Greenberg, who wrote in Cloud of Smoke; Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity After the Holocaust (p. 506), that, “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” Likewise, no Christian theology can be done in America that isn’t credible in the presence of Black Americans who have seen white American Christians hide behind their theology while continuing their acts of oppression. (As James Cone taught us as Adam Clark recently reminded us.)

“If the white folk I worshipped and went to school with and had dinner with had the imagination to see C.S. Lewis’ Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as Jesus, then I knew there should have been no problem when Black folk said Jesus was Black and Jesus loved Black people and Jesus wanted to see Black people free. Just as they found meaning in the symbol of Aslan’s representation of love, I found meaning in the symbol of Jesus’ solidarity with Blackness. But, sadly, I found out that many could see the symbol of divine goodness and love in an animal before they could ever see the symbol of divine goodness and love in Blackness.

Shoutin’ in the Fire, p. 115

These words remind me of the embarrassing and shameful response I heard from many white Americans to the statement, “Black Lives Matter”. Many of the same people who could listen to the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…the meek…those who hunger and thirst after righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…those persecuted,” and recognize that Jesus was being derogatory toward the rest of humanity but instead was highlighting the special value of those often overlooked and trampled on by society, somehow couldn’t stand the idea that Black Americans were saying, like Jesus, “In a country that says we don’t matter, we declare we matter.” Instead, many white Americans just reinforced the point by trying to silence Black voices.

“I saw why they insisted on saying Jesus was Black. Of course they were not talking about his skin color, though he definitely wasn’t white; they were talking about his experience, about his solidarity with the oppressed, about his universal love, about his commitment to God’s just future, about his healing of wounds, and his good news that Black life does not end in this moment but will forever be beautiful, worthy, and loved. They knew Jesus knew what it meant to live in an occupied territory, knew what it meant to be from an oppressed people, and in a place that does not care about your religion—at least not the way they practice it—but does care to remind you of its idea about your place in society. The threat you pose to their lies. They knew Jesus knew what it was like for people who looked like him to care more about being in proximity to power, and he knew that those in power did not care about people that looked like him.”

Shoutin’ in the Fire, p. 117

When I first read James Cone critique of whiteness, I was taken back; I was upset. I didn’t get it. I thought he was talking about me, the individual. This meant I needed to hear what he was saying because I was identifying with whiteness—not pigmentation but the cultural perks and privileges that come with being recognized as “white” in America. If I wanted to follow in the ways of Jesus, I’d have to abandon my pride in my privilege, in my whiteness, like the “rich young ruler” was asked to abandon his pride in his privilege, in his wealth. When I read the last quote from Stewart, I was reminded of this ongoing challenge for white Christians like myself that want to do better. We must recognize that if we’re going to learn to be Christians, we must learn from the people with whom Jesus would surround himself, with whom he’d identify, with whom he’d be in solidarity.

Go read Shoutin’ in the Fire.

Christianity as an invitation to see “from below”

When I teach, I tend to sideline my own religious and theological views, especially with a new group of students. I do this for a few reasons. First, while I do teach at a private Episcopal school, and therefore lack the constraints that a public school teacher would face when teaching religion, I’m not there to make duplicates of myself. I change my own views on matters of greater to lesser importance so frequently, that if I tried to make a disciple one semester, they’d find themselves out of step by the next semester. Second, I’m not trying to make disciples; I’m trying to provide students with the necessary tools to think about their world critically as they emerge into adulthood—and it so happens that my area of expertise and gifting has to do with exploring our world through the lens of religion. Third, there remains something about teaching adolescents rather than young adults, or high schoolers rather than college students, that requires you to recognize that you’re educating people who are part of an intrinsic relational web that includes their parents, extended family, and possibly their religious community. I take that complexity seriously aiming to be more of a tour guide to the world of critical thought than a polemicist for my own views.

That said, there are matters about which I’m passionate and they rarely have to do with the things that traditionally divide religious communities. I’m not deeply concerned with the theology proper of my students. I’m probably more influenced by Indian monism or Benedict Spinoza than the Cappadocians. Often, I tell them that theology is partially aesthetics so that the theology that makes me feel alive isn’t necessarily the theology that will satisfy the analytic mind but instead the theology that will make me see the beautiful potentiality of the world. (I think I got this from Tripp Fuller, mentioned below, but I listen to a lot of podcasts on my commute, so I can’t remember exactly who planted that thought in my brain.) When students read the Bible in my classes, I try to get them to think about the text from a variety of perspectives, introducing traditional “academic” approaches like reading as historians, literary critics, or philosophers while also trying to push them to think about how this text has been, currently is, and might be received by various readers and communities of readers. I don’t have a bibliology that I push, though they can tell I’m not an evangelical and I embrace critical scholarship. When it comes to ethical hermeneutics, I tend to preach that the Bible is like a mirror—whatever parts of it resonate most with you probably tell you more about yourself than they do about the Bible which is a diverse library, not a monolog of a book.

But when pressed, once I have established rapport with my students and they know me, my teaching style, and that I care not just about their grades but about the formative potential that critical thinking and liberal studies offer them, I may open up a little more about my views on matters, if it’s safe. For example, eventually, students ask me which religion it is with which I identify. I’ll put my cards on the table and tell them (a) I’m a Christian; (b) that many Christians may reject my claim and that doesn’t bother me; (c) and that my Christian identity is analogous to my identity as an English-speaker. Christianity is my religious “mother-tongue,” if you will. As an English speaker, I wish I was bilingual or trilingual, as many people are. (In fact, this analogy works better in the United States than it would in many other parts of the world.) As an English speaker, I can learn how to speak another language pretty fluently, though I’m prone to learn a second or third language through English. And just because I speak English, and understand the world through English, doesn’t mean speaking Spanish, French, Russian, or Japanese is “wrong”. Similarly, I speak “Christian”. It’s my religious-language that helps me symbolize the world and decode it. I can speak some other “languages” fairly well, like Judaism and Buddhism; there are other “languages” with which I lack fluency and my speech needs work, like Shinto and Indigenous American religions/spiritualities.

Some people are raised bilingual. I say this literally, as in you may have grown up speaking English and Spanish, and I say this metaphorically, as in you may have been raised in a family that’s part Hindu, part Christian, as a few of my students have been. You may create a pidgin language but when you do, observe that fewer people can communicate with you in your new Judaism-Buddhism hybrid language than if you spoke Judaism to some people and Buddhism to others. Anyway, you get the linguistic analogy. The point is that I’m not going to sidestep being Christian once my students push me to tell them where I stand (especially once they start guessing and asking if I’m everything from an atheist to a Buddhist, which I understand to mean I do such a good job of trying to teach about various religions truthfully and fairly that they don’t know my own views). But I don’t see my Christianity as something at which I arrived objectively, or that I see as “right” over against religions that are “wrong”. I see my Christianity as the symbolic system that informs my embodied hermeneutic. And even then, in the words of May Angelou, “I found that I really want to be a Christian” but this doesn’t mean I’ve arrived at whatever it looks like to be a Christian in a way that benefits the world around me.

This can be dangerous though because my Christianity has a specific white American accent and with that accent comes ways of seeing and explaining the world that can be unhealthy as my “worldview” may be informed by racist, colonizing, patriarchal, etc., presuppositions of which I need to be aware. I’m not objective. I stand in a place and a time. I recognize this and this means I also need to hear not only how people speak about the world through other religions but also, to continue my flawed metaphor, how other accents from my own religion may help me see the world differently.

I wish there was a transcript of the recent Homebrewed Christianity podcast where Tripp Fuller revisits 01/06 with Adam Clark and Jeffrey Pugh because there’s something Clark said that has stuck in my head for several days now but that may not be word-for-word accurate. Clark said something about defining Christianity as “an invitation to see ‘from below'”. Why has this lodged itself in my brain? Well, I admit I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with the institutional Church, in spite of having received all my education from places that identified as “Christian” and even now working for an Episcopal school. I’ve been uncomfortable not only because one of my first memories of visiting the Church that raised me was a kid saying something to the extent of “you don’t belong here” (I was five and that comment stuck) but because time after time, especially since the election in 2016, but now reinforced during the pandemic, I’ve begun to wonder if Christians and Christianity, at least in the United States, might be one of the least-Christlike identities one can hold. It’s Christians who are willing to bury our democracy in order to create a theocratic ethnostate that appears to have emerged straight from the imagination of Margaret Atwood.

One trap into which I’m prone to fall is to accept the monopolizing claims of the white Church in America as the true representatives of Christianity. This leaves me with a decision—accept what they’re selling or distance myself from Christianity. This is a false choice because the white Church isn’t the only witness to the Gospel, and in spite of their institutional power, publishing houses, colleges and seminaries, etc., all that makes them appear to be everywhere, there’s the voice of the Black Church, the Latino Church, the Asian-American Church, et al. There’s the voice of Christians who have been living their Christianity without power and support of the state, or the ways of seeing the world, normalizing the world, and universalizing our own subjectivity, that comes with being in the majority.

But back to Adam Clark‘s comment. Christianity from a certain place isn’t this type of an invitation. The Christianity represented during the January 6th Insurrection isn’t this type of Christianity. That’s the type of Christianity that embarrassed me and makes me want to never identify as a Christian again. But those aren’t the only Christians. For every John Piper and Mark Driscoll-type who make god out to be a violent monster who wants us to all burn eternally because of divine arbitrariness or whatever, and who needed Jesus to die because he was thirsty for blood and violence, we have a James Cone whose The Cross and the Lynching Tree will have forever altered my view of Jesus, the crucifixion, and what it means for our theologies. If there’s a god, and I hope there is, then this god must be a god like the one envisioned by Cone—a god who suffers with us not who created us to watch us suffer; the loving and overcoming god of the Black Church and not the triumphalistic deity of Christendom and of many in the white Church.

This is why I need to read the Hebrew Bible alongside Jewish exegetes (because Christian-hermeneutics go off the rails when we don’t listen to Jewish thought) and Black womanist theologians like Wil Gafney and her Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. I need to hear not just Martin Luther King Jr. interpreting the Gospel but also the voices that make white America less comfortable, whether Christian or not—the Malcolm X’s; the James Baldwins; the Octavia Butlers; the Cornel Wests. I don’t read them virtuously; I read them in desperation. I need to hear a voice that helps me understand how I can salvage my Christianity and because I need my religious-language to understand the world, and I don’t want to start from scratch as I near age forty, I look for people who live Christianity in such a way that I can imagine Christ entering their Churches.

Now, all of what I said is extremely selfish. I didn’t say I read these authors for their sake or for the sake of their communities. I don’t think they need me. They may need me to get out of the way, to learn to listen, but that’s it. I need them. If I’m going to avoid the vacuum that would form by abandoning Christianity altogether out of shame then I need someone to show me how Christianity should and can function. (Not to fetishize the Black Church, or the Latino Church, etc., as if they are problem-free, but to recognize where they do Christianity rightly.) I need to see from the perspective of those who read the Bible from a place where they can identify with Jesus; I need to learn how to see “from below,” as Clark said, rather than from the triumphalistic perch of a crumbling, racialized Christendom. I need to read the Bible and hear the Gospel in such a way that I recognize I’m the Romans in the Gospels, not Jesus’ closest disciples. And I need to try and repent and humble myself before the Galilean.

Tripp Fuller, James McGrath, & Donna Bowman explore The Matrix Resurrections

I’ve written about The Matrix Resurrections on this blog twice already: see “Lana Wachowski, The Matrix Resurrections, and our hypocrisy (?)” and “Trinity’s comment to the Analyst in ‘The Matrix Resurrections’ and how the sequels correct the original”. Well, Tripp Fuller’s podcast, Homebrewed Christianity, hosted a discussion of the movie with James McGrath and Donna Bowman in the most recent episode, so of course, I must link to it, especially since I’ve been happy to hear them making the positive connections to the sequels that I see as well. Go take a listen if you’re geeking out about the film as well: “Exploring the Matrix Resurrections!”

Book Note: Elie Wiesel’s “The Trial of God”

Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God (as it was held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod) (New York: Shocken, 1979). (Amazon; Bookshop)

A few years ago, I watched a television play that had been shown on PBS titled “God on Trial”. It’s based on an experience that Elie Wiesel had in Auschwitz. He writes in his 1979 book The Trial of God, under the header “The Scene,” that the genesis of his book was “a strange trial. Three rabbis—all erudite and pious men—decided one winter evening to indict God for allowing his children to be massacred. I remember: I was there, and I felt like crying. But there nobody cried.” It was Wiesel’s experience that provided the setting for the PBS special but the book itself isn’t about Auschwitz. Instead, Wiesel sets his play “in a lost village…1649, after a pogrom”.

In the Forward by Robert McAfee Brown (p. vii), he recounts the following about Wiesel’s response to the aforementioned trial in Auschwitz:

“For years Wiesel lived with the tension of dilemma of that memory, pondering how to communicate its despairing solemnity. Nothing ‘worked.’ It did not work as a novel, it did not work as a play, it did not work as a cantana. Each successive manuscript ended up in a desk drawer. (Wiesel admits to having a large desk drawer.) Finally, he took the event out of the present, resitutated it in the past, just after the widespread Chmielnicki pogroms in the years of 1648-1649, and turned it into a Purimschpiel (a play to be enacted on the feast of Purim), although one written in the style of a ‘tragic farce’.”

p. vii

In a sense, this play is about what Wiesel experienced in Auschwitz but it’s communicated through one of the many other horrific experiences of the Jews in Europe. The characters include three traveling minstrels named Mendel, Avremel, and Yankel; an innkeeper named Berish; Berish’s daughter, Hanna; a servant who works at the inn named Maria; an unnamed Russian Orthodox priest; and at the end a strange man named “Sam”.

It’s a play, so I won’t dive into the details. That could ruin the joy of it. I will say it’s an important book to read. (In fact, a student of mine is doing a research class with me, and he’ll be reading this book.) What I will say, is that the setting is brilliant, being connected to the events of Purim when the Jews celebrate the story of the Book of Esther wherein a Jewish queen of Persia (Esther) helped save her people from genocide. The traveling minstrels hoped to put on a performance for pay only to discover that the Jewish community where they found themselves had been decimated. When they should be celebrating the deliverance of the Jews by celebrating Purim, an eery cloud of dispair descends.

As the play progresses over the course of an evening in an inn where the minstrels find themselves, a trial (like the one remembered by Wiesel) takes place in response to the threat of more antisemitic violence that has been rumored to be about to take place that very evening. And here’s what really stood out to me—and here there’ll be a spoiler, so turn back now if you’d like—the problem is that the trial can’t go forward because no one is available to be god’s defense attorney. That is until a man named “Sam” arrives. Sam, like Job’s friends, gives a rich, theologically “sound” defense of god’s justice, placing the blame for violence against the Jews anywhere but on the deity. And here’s the brilliant part (and the spoiler): “Sam” is actually Satan. The best theologian to defend god is Satan himself.

I’ve been re-reading the Book of Job this week, and I think Wiesel’s decision to cast Satan as god’s defender in his play is brilliant. As you’re aware, Job’s friends are rebuked by god at the end, even as their arguments sound a lot like parts of the Jewish Wisdom tradition and Deuteronomist theology in the Tanakh. But theological apologetics, while trying to defend god, can be sinister. For Wiesel, like the author of the Book of Job, the most wicked thing one can do (my apologies to some Calvinists here) is defend divine justice in the face of human suffering. For Wiesel, the one who would master such an approach to addressing human suffering is none other than the devil himself.

NPR discusses the prosperity Gospel

In the New Testament, Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. In the United States today, many Christians believe in something radically different. In what’s known as the prosperity gospel, wealth is a sign of virtue and God’s favor. The effects of this belief can be seen throughout American life from business to politics to social policy.

Listen here.

Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner’s “What Is God Like?”

I received my copy of Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner’s beautifully written and illustrated children’s book, “What is God Like?” It’s vision of divinity is loving and inclusive. It’s imaginative and open. It offers anyone caring for children a way to teach a healthy theology, as displayed on the page I shared below. (“But whenever you aren’t sure what God is like, think about what makes you feel safe, what makes you feel brave, and what makes you feel loved.”) I love it. It’s a perfect reflection of Rachel’s legacy and her love for people—especially people who felt disenfranchised by institutionalized religion.


It’s available June 15th wherever you buy books.

The meanings of Pentecost/the end is near

I’ve been thinking about a couple of core doctrines of Christianity:

  1. Christians receive the Holy Spirit of God as a transforming power that prepares them to become the type of people that the Creator intended humans to be (especially so they’ll be prepared for the Day of Judgment).
  2. These Spirit-filled Christians are to wait for the return/reappearing of Jesus Christ which can happen at any moment (according to some).

Today is Pentecost Sunday. On this day, these two ideas converge. And since they’ve been on my mind, I thought I’d ramble a bit about them. Be warned: I don’t arrive at a satisfying solution to my dilemma though I’ve heard many people try to offer one.

This spring, I found myself thinking more about the Christian doctrine of the Parousia (appearance of Christ)than usual, even though I was teaching topics I’ve covered for the past few years. As I mentioned in my last post, I covered many “apocalyptic and millenarian ideologies: John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, John the Seer, broader Jewish apocalyptic thought and literaturethe Latter-day Saints, the Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Pentecostals, Scientologists, The Peoples Templethe Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate.” While teaching one class about John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, etc., the other class was learning about Joseph Smith, William Miller, Charles Taze Russell, Charles Parham, William J. Seymour, L. Ron Hubbard, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. As I often tell my students: be careful when you hear people predict the end of the world. So far, they’ve been correct 0.00% of the time. That said, modern threats like AI and climate change give scientific supports to modern apocalypticisms that ancient apocalypticisms didn’t/couldn’t enjoy. Nevertheless, the end hasn’t happened and doesn’t have to happen soon.

But early Christians like John the Baptist and Paul expected the end of the world as we know it and they seem to have expected it to happen soon—likely within there lifetimes. Same for all the names mentioned from William Miller to David Koresh. But it didn’t happen.

As someone who was raised in the Pentecostal tradition, I was used to apocalyptic fever. Yes, go to school. Yes, get a good job. But Jesus could/should/will return any moment, probably. I heard people participate in what Pentecostals and Charismatics call “tongues and interpretation” (see this article by the Charismatic Chuck Smith for more details) where one person speaks in tongues and the other interprets “in a known tongue” the “meaning” of the outburst. Many times—more than I can count— an eery dread accompanied the message as the “interpreter” claimed to be the conduit through which Jesus himself told us his return was very soon. Now, I know if I were to talk to old friends who remained Pentecostal, and if I were to question the accuracy of these “interpretations,” they’d probably appeal to an argument as old as the reason given for the delayed return of Christ found in the Second Epistle of Peter (2:8): for God “a thousand years is as a day and a day as a thousand years”. Fine, can’t argue with that logic…but then what are we who live a day as a day and a thousand years as a thousand years to do with divine messages that say “soon”?

As I near age forty, and as decades have passed since those claims were made when I was a pre-adolescent and an adolescent, I’ve often wondered to myself what to do with the Christian doctrine of the Second Advent. The doctrine of the Second Coming isn’t just a fringe Protestant doctrine; it’s part of the Nicene Creed: “He will come again in glory/to judge the living and the dead/and his kingdom will have no end.” Does Christianity demand a belief in the possible physical appearance of Jesus of Nazareth in the twenty-first century or can one adhere to Christianity while rethinking this teaching? (I know the answer from a religious studies perspective: if someone believes it, and claims to be a Christian, then obviously Christians can hold to the view…but what’s the sociological impact of fudging the tradition this way, for that’s the real purpose of the creeds, no?)

I say all this to address something that has been interconnected for me since my youth but that has proven more and more problematic as I age: Christianity, in its early decades, seems to have had many people who made a connection between the age post-Pentecost when the followers of Jesus would be differentiated by their infilling of the Holy Spirit and that this infilling prepared participants to be ready for the end of the world (as we know it). Christians would stand out from the crowd because the Spirit was regenerating them. The Book of Acts and the Pauline Epistles can be read as suggesting (1) followers of Jesus will be different because the Spirit is changing them and (2) this difference demarcates them as the people ready for the return of Christ.

Yet, let’s be honest. Many Christians are no different from non-Christians. Sometimes, Christians can be much worse than their neighbors. The stages of my life when I sought a dogmatic home also happen to be the stages of my life where the version of myself I see in the rearview mirror was the least kind, tolerant, loving version of myself I know. Now, I know the old C.S. Lewis argument: imagine the Christian you think is terrible and then try to understand they could be much, much worse without the Spirit’s work in their lives. Fair enough. It’s impossible to combat because it’s impossible to prove without peering into a multiverse. But it seems to me that the Evangelists and Paul were under the impression that the work of the Spirit would be quite obvious, or should be, though their own writing aims seem to suggest that they were wrestling with the reality that “Spirit-filled” humans seem to share many of the same struggles as, well, everyone else. So, on Pentecost, what’s to celebrate if we’re looking for Christians who are markedly more spiritually mature because of a divine work than their non-Christian neighbors? I’m not sure.