Category Archives: Doing Theology

Jesus was “handed over”: What that means for our own passion

Le baiser de Judas (ca. 1996) — James Tissot

Let’s start with the man Christians love to hate: Judas.

In chapter 16, Luke  introduces the twelve main disciples of Jesus and gives Judas an extra title: “the traitor.” The noun is less commonly translated “the betrayer.” Judas is famous for betraying Jesus, so you’d think that verb would be all over the accounts of his deed in the Bible. But this line in Luke is the only place Judas is directly called a betrayer. In the thirty-one other occasions he or his deed is mentioned another word is used: Jesus was handed over by Judas. That verb root  should be returned to its proper theological place. The Lord’s passion and our passion is more about being “handed over” or “given over” than being betrayed.

In the Gospel of Mark, when his account gets to Judas going out and coming back as a guide for the authorities, an entire change of literary viewpoint takes place. Up to that point, Jesus has been the center of action and the verbs are mainly about what he is doing. After Judas hands him over, the verbs are mainly about what is being done to Him.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is waiting,  anticipating the judgment and violence of the powers that be. Then he is handed over to them. Previously in Mark, he had given his love freely and was the main power, even if hidden, in every scene — even now we can feel his affection as his love acts on us. But once he is handed over he enters into passion (which means suffering overwhelming forces). He is dependent on who loves him. Bearing our humanity, Jesus becomes vulnerable to overwhelming powers and waits for what will be done to him.

I think we often see Jesus, and so see the image of God in our own humanity, primarily through the lens of the first half of Mark — like Jesus is another action figure on the hero’s journey, mastering his suffering and moving into transcendence. But I think it is more true to the revelation in the Bible to see the passion experienced in the garden, then during the trial and then on the cross, as elemental to our own spiritual development and our calling.  The passion of being handed over is also an example for us. We are made by the God who waits; we are endued with the capacity for suffering love.

Peter says this rather plainly, doesn’t he?

If you endure when you do good and suffer for it, this is a commendable thing before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21;2).

[I was happy to run across an unusual book that inspired my refined thinking on all this. You might want to read The Stature of Waiting by W.H. Vanstone.]

Trying to be impassable in the zone of control

We are innately passable

In my therapy practice, I am often talking to a suffering person who, nevertheless, feels compelled to be impassable, not experiencing negative feelings or any feelings (same root as passion).  Their face may even be devoid of expression. They think it is shameful to have endured the trauma they have experienced or feel guilty because they are suffering. If they have grown up in the church, these poor people may have an impassable God as a model, which adds further motivation for trying to be in control.

Many influential theologians have seen God as impassable. Some people accuse them of caving into a Greek philosophical lens. Others suggest the earliest theolgians were contrasting God with the very emotional and volatile descriptions of Greek gods. They emphasized how God is not controlled by human emotions but is independent and unaffected by the whims of humanity.

You can see how this thinking might go too far and imply that God has no emotions at all, even though love is central to God’s character. So some theologians qualified the doctrine of impassability to mean God is not subject to sinful emotions, involuntary emotions, or emotion unworthy of her character. (See this article).

I don’t think there is anything unemotional about what Jesus experiences in Gethsemane and Paul says Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Jesus is passable, or able to suffer. There is nothing we went through today that was emotion-free, either. We are also passable. Though we may use a lot of energy defending against suffering and suppressing the memory of it, we suffer every day. We suffer what is past and present, and even suffer what we anticipate the future will be. Jesus struggled the same way we do and struggles with us now. Take a few seconds, at least, and feel that Jesus cares about your suffering — so much so, he is bearing it with you.

Betrayed

I think there are some good reasons to cut the first translators of the Bible into English some slack. I think they unwittingly, repeatedly, mistranslated the words based on the Greek word “to hand over” as “to betray.” They even did it in Paul’s often-repeated “words of institution” of the communion ceremony in 1 Corintians 11:

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you [there is the verb], that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed [there is the same verb mistranslated] took a loaf of bread…”

The first Jesus followers made it a point to say “the night Jesus was handed over.” Handing over and being handed over were central to their view of Jesus, themselves and the world. Maybe we could say they were passion-centered, passability thinkers.

Paul uses the verb in other significant places, and it is translated accurately:

  • And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself (handed himself over) for me (Gal. 2:20).
  • He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up (handed him over) for all of us, how will he not with him also give us everything else? (Romans 8:32).

Paul’s letters were apparently written before the Gospels were collected. In those later writings, Judas is highlighted as the one who shows the nature of God in a significant way as he hands Jesus over and Jesus suffers the sins of humanity. Judas is still despised as a betrayer. But he begins the Passion. If he hadn’t been there someone else would have done the deed (“Is it I, Lord?”). Peter betrays him later in the evening, too.  The disciples all scatter like scared sheep. Judas just turns out to be central to Jesus being handed over, which is central to the Lord’s passion. I think the early church expected to be handed over, at some level, and encouraged one another to develop a deep trust for God instead of just a deep resistance to suffering.

I can see how the word betrayed overtakes handed over as translations evolve. For one thing, the word in the Latin translation, with which the first English translators were more familiar, is much easier to lean that way than the Greek. But I also think the word betrayed appeals to bloodthirsty humanity. Betrayed implies: “You thwarted my action. You stopped me cold. You defeated me in an underhanded way.” Doesn’t it betray your sense of agency, safety, value and power when you are handed over? Seen through the lens of betrayal, Jesus still looks powerful as he mocks the dirty deeds of sinners by dying according to God’s plan and rising up in their faces on Easter. (Check out the atonement explanations if you want to think this through).

I think the mistranslation contributes to our sinful assumption that following Jesus means we always have power over suffering and injustice — just do God’s will and it will all end up as a “win.” We have been betrayed and we should make that right. We feel entitled to such power, even though the main percentage of the Gospels are devoted to Jesus not exercising power and being handed over to suffering.

The glory of God in Jesus is also revealed when he finishes his active work and becomes subject to the authorities. As he taught quite clearly, his final passion is the ultimate turn of the other cheek. He does nothing to protect himself. He waits.

Life is not Wakanda forever

We’re all action figures here. It is Wakanda forever. There is goodness in that. Jesus is also about suffering love for the abused, oppressed and poor. But his love transcends the power struggle, just endlessly fighting the power. His own death vividly shows that the powers of the world are doomed to their redundant self-destruction and unavailable for resurrection.

Nevertheless, for most of my readers, only what we do is valued, what we produce. We don’t wait around. We inevitably introduce ourselves by what we do. If you are unemployed you are hard to see as a person at all. Retirees are expected to do things for themselves and they are reminded to keep active.  But eventually we all  will be subject to what comes upon us. Old people better hope someone loves them or they will be handed over to be housed by the state or processed by the hospital. During Covid (and for many, that is right now) we all got a taste of being passable; we were patients (from the same root as passion: bearing suffering), we were called on to be patient, since we were vulnerable – and we hate that, some people wouldn’t even submit to a mask.

The beginning of the great work of Jesus begins with being handed over. He waits for what will happen in the garden, assuming it means death. He does not fight it. Like John says, he told his disciples, “Night is coming, when no one can work” (9:4). The night came. Like John says, Jesus told Peter, “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (21:18). The time came. We can’t always do something (I learned).

I got overpowered by ruthless church leaders and handed over to an unexpected future. When I complained about it, my spiritual director called the expereince “a passion.”  I did not like it. Passion, like Jesus experienced, was something I had almost never experienced. I had barely even been in the hospital. I had been pretty impassable, similar to the  heretical view of God that ends up tormenting so many people. I am still figuring out what it means to be vulnerable, passable, dependent on love or subject to the lack of love. How about you?

I hope W.H. Vanstone can sum it up and inspire you in this last quote (which is full of his  passive voice and his unassertive assertions). Your suffering has meaning, too. Your waiting for the impossible to occur is also like Jesus. Your patience in the face of tragic circumstances, your vulnerability, is also a vehicle for the love of God. Your passion is like God’s passion!

The divine image we bear may be an image of passion no less than of action; for the God Who is disclosed in Jesus in the One Who hands Himself over to be affected by the world, to receive the impact and the meaning of the world, to wait upon the world. It is of this God that we bear the image – an image that includes passion no less than action, waiting no less than working. Now within our human experience there is one kind or occasion of waiting in which it is not too difficult to discern at least the faint image of the God Who waits; and that is the waiting to which we destine ourselves by loving. In the human figure who, because he loves, finds himself exposed and vulnerable to what may be done to him, the image of God Who is disclosed in Jesus is not unrecognizable: one might almost say that that figure seems a ‘holy’ figure.

Evil: N.T. Wright helps you think it through, again

Friends, clients, and loved ones were wrestling with their experiences of evil this week. One was attacked at work and felt guilty, but then realized the accusations were so irrational, they might be evil.

Another watched The Comey Rule series on Netflix and was reintroduced to the evil ways of Donald Trump. Another was overwhelmed by the sheer extent of evil that has gone into the production of climate change. Another was disheartened because the church is not better than the world and seems as subject to the aforementioned evils as anyone else.

Have I already used the word “evil” too much for you? Or is it still OK to name it where you come from? Last week, Governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbot, both claiming to be practicing Catholics, used immigrating Venezuelans to own the libs in Barack Obama’s playground. Did you call that evil? Name it a political stunt? Call it illegal human trafficking? Consider it an appropriate response to an onslaught of border crossers? Did you sink into confusion? Stay uncommitted? Remain avoidant? Evil is harder to identify than one might think and even harder to deal with, especially in an environment in which it is often a word you’d be embarrassed to say. Maybe you haven’t said “Jesus” in polite company in a while, either.

I was companioning someone in their spiritual growth not long ago and they broke into tears because of the evil done to them. They were “triggered” by their church’s feckless response to the present evils that threatened them. They asked, “Why does God allow evil to flourish if he loves us?”

Exodus 1952-66 by Marc Chagall. Used for the cover of the Chinese version.

Why is there evil?

Brilliant people have been answering that question for centuries, ever since European Christians wanted their theology to compete with every philosopher that popped up. Why is there evil and why doesn’t God save me from it all if Jesus saves? That’s the perennial question. I still like N.T. Wright’s stab at dealing with it in his book Evil and the Justice of God. I rarely think his applications have as much genius as his theologizing, but I think he was mainly gifted to think well for us, so that’s OK. Here is a summary of the book, if you like.

Spoiler alert. People criticize Wright for answering the perennial question by not answering it. He says the Bible doesn’t answer it, which leads him to believe he doesn’t need to either — what is beyond us is beyond us. He is much more interested in talking about what God is doing about evil than what, exactly, and why it is. God’s action in response to evil is a topic the Bible exhaustively explores. Likewise, the Bible leads us to learn what we should do about it, since “the line between good and evil runs through each one of us” [video including Jesus, Solzhenitsyn, and many others].

I thought about Wright when my comrades were lamenting and I was confronted with the question again, which usually feels like a temptation to me – “Why is there evil and why didn’t Jesus fix it for me?” Wright does a better job at what I am about to try, when he tries to get behind what we feel about facing evil in us and around us. But here is a small bit of thinking to keep evil in your sights before it overwhelms you.

God judging Adam — Wiliam Blake. Used for the audible version

Back to Adam and Eve

Demanding an answer to the questions “Why is there evil if the creator is good?” and “Why am I experiencing evil if our loving Savior has already defeated it?” is a lot like the dialogue between Adam and God in the Garden of Eden.

God: Why did you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
Adam: The woman gave me the fruit. It’s her fault.

Somehow the dialogue about good and evil usually ends with shame and blame.

The argument goes on, something like this. We would know; we’re often replicating it.:

God: Why did you choose evil?
Adam: I wouldn’t have had the choice if you had not offered it. You’re God, after all.  Why did you supply it? Besides, I didn’t choose it. It happened to me. It is happening everywhere.
God: But aren’t your questions more important to you than my love? Didn’t you choose the question?

The deepest expression of the image of God in us is love. God is love. God is not you or your knowledge or your control or your safety. The power of the knowledge of good and evil will not protect you from others, yourself, or God.

Roku has been playing a film of a live performance of the musical Heathers in which a high school couple sings “Our Love Is God.” The thought of it was creepy when I first heard it sung and keeps getting moreso as the play goes on. The power struggle in us destroys and destroys.

The Garden dialogue went on, and goes on in us, something like this:

God: As my friend who I gave this garden, as my loved one, you greeted my question with skepticism and reproach. You set yourself up as my judge, and your own. You ate the fruit.
You prefer the control you gain by staying ignorant and miserable instead of being receptive and humble before the unknown. You don’t trust me.

Wright works with this in his great chapter on forgiveness:

It will [always] be possible for people to refuse forgiveness–both to give it and to receive it–but [in the end] they will no longer have the right or the opportunity thereby to hold God and God’s future world to ransom, to make the moral universe rotate around the fulcrum of their own sulk.

I have often said to myself, and to others, in the middle of these questions and answers, “If evil were not happening around you, you would invent it. You are just like Adam and Eve. If we dare to look, we can see how we perpetuate the loveless habits of our childhood self-protection schemes. We can’t part with the patterns because we think we’ll lose ourself without them. Every day we get mad at people we can’t control and keep protecting against the terrible feelings of need we have and rebel against the demand to trust, hope and care.

If you want more on the themes of political and corporate aspects of evil, Wright might suggest Engaging the Powers, by Walter Wink. For thoughts on forgiveness, see Exclusion and Embrace, by Miroslav Volf. For answers to the problem of evil in modern thought, see Evil in Modern Thought, by Sue Neiman or The Crucified God, by Jurgen Moltmann.

If you want to follow Wright into what God is ultimately going to do about evil, you could check out his most accessible book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.  In it, he does a final takedown on Greek philosophy and offers a vision of eternal life that matches the Bible better than what most of us have been taught. If you are tired of thinking about how terrible the world is, how evil is at the door, this book might encourage you by opening up a good thinker’s vision of the future. Spoiler alert: It is better.

How did SHOULD get into my meditation?

It is wonderful to watch the Evangelicals catch up with the rest of the Church when it comes to experiencing that personal relationship with God they always talk about. I had to desert them, for the most part, to have one.

I spent my first years of faith with the Baptists as they fought with the charismatics, who scared the pants off them (recent example). I felt a little guilty about my thrilling charismatic dalliances, because I was taught people like me were following feelings not facts and undermining the authority of scripture, thinking the Spirit was going to begin something already settled. The way I looked at, and still do, the Evangelicals arrested their development because of their Eurocentric and Enlightenment-dominated theology. They had to have the Bible front and center and had to interpret it in a way they considered “literal.” Only their “literal” was a pseudo-scientific, supposedly “innerrant” set of principles that still resemble a textbook to me. I suppose that’s why so many of them are still fighting about textbooks.

But I think a lot of Evangelicals are now catching up with last century’s main spiritual movement. Their development  parallels the translation development of a familiar Bible verse I was taught as a youngster — Proverbs 23:7 in the King James Version (KJV):

For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee.

My preachers regularly skipped the meaning of this Proverb to concentrate on the first eleven words, which I was assigned as a memory verse: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” I got the idea, being male and all, that what we think is paramount. When CBT was invented, Evangelicals liked psychotherapy a bit more, since the modality was all about think-> feel-> behave.

But when boomers go looking for their memory verse in the new Evangelical Bible, the New International Version (NIV), they can’t find it. It has disappeared into a much more accurate rendering:

Do not eat the food of a begrudging host, do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of person who is always thinking about the cost. “Eat and drink,” he says to you, but his heart is not with you.

The extricated bit the preachers emphasized in my youth has appropriately become part of the previous sentence. The readers have begun to find out, like the Bible really says, that true discernment is all about the heart and right relationships, not just about how excellent one’s thoughts are.

The staying power of should

The Evangelicals are, more and more, turning toward developing hearts. But as they do, they often bring their heresies with them and undermine the process.

I stumbled on an example of this undermining when I explored the  Pause app. It is part of John Eldridge’s latest reinvention as a spiritual director. The app is a generous free gift that encourages us to buy his book and other things, as most apps do. I have friends who are enthusiastically using it. As with most Evangelical things, it is wordy and teachy. But the heart of it is good: Please pause and center in on God with you.

I decided to try the app to see if it is a good thing for my tech-connected spiritual companions. Normally I feel like relating to God through a machine is dangerous. But that is arguable. Even though I was holding my app fears at bay, I did not get far until I ran into a problem that made me not want to run into any more.

I had a Bible isssue. The whole thing is coming from the Bible, assuming it is the essential way God is revealed and our primary means of forming a relationship with Him. The Bible does not teach itself as that, especially in the passage in question. But I love the Bible and I think studying it is fundamental to following Jesus. So what does the Pause app give me? The New Living Translation (NLT). It is the revised Living Bible from the 1970’s. I had one of the originals with a cool handmade leather cover. I tried to find it so I could take a picture but I think I threw it away when I downsized since I hadn’t cracked it in 30 years.

The very first entry centers on a beautiful key passage from Ephesians 3 which opens up an expansive picture of all it means to know God through Jesus Christ. The NLT says:

I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God

Pause and let God speak to you through that! It is a wonderful statement and very accessible writing.

The NLT has merit, but I don’t think it is a good translation. It gets rid of things that might trouble postmodern sensibilities and adds things that fit modern evangelical preferences. Maybe it is still more of the paraphrase it started out as. I found it hard to meditate on it because I love relating to the Bible writers and couldn’t get over disputing what the translators considered revelation. I was also concerned about those less suspicious than I am.

I also had a heresy issue. This is my main reason to write today. Perhaps I learned to attend to clauses too well since one in this sentence bothered me:

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.

For one thing, nobody else translates the verse this way. The Greek implies to me a great celebration of the already but not fully realized place we stand in Christ, where we are one with God and growing into our fullness. Paul knows he and his readers have an eternity of revelation to relish; we are incomplete. But he also believes we are already risen with Christ, living in Him right now, and are fully entitled to know and love Him as we are known and loved. We don’t need to wait until we are dead or deserve it.

This most offending sentence includes the word SHOULD: “[M]ay you have the power to understand ” (as if you don’t ), “as all God’s people should.”  I was too irritated by the ever-present Evangelical “should” inserted, at the very beginning of the app’s program, no less! I could not even get started! I don’t think that “should” can be construed from the Greek. The paraphrasers just had to get it in there. I don’t think Paul is looking at his readers ruefully as if they should get their act together. Nor does he think God looks at him that way.

l am particularly sensitive to the overriding should my Evangelical directees bring to their development. They got the point. They get arrested by it. When they look inside they see guilt. They are always an aspiration, never acceptable, never enough. Their hope is often based on getting better, thinking better, behaving better, not on pausing to experience being better by being with Jesus, as Paul is praying they will know.

Drugs: What do you know about the rising sea in which we swim?

Are you among the many people who will use a drug this month? When you answer, you may first think about what prescriptions you are taking. But include “self-medicating” with alcohol and marijuana — and maybe some other stuff.

You may also be experimenting with “psychedelics.” I am acquainted with people who have had profound experiences with two of the increasingly popular array of mind-altering drugs being offered to people seeking mental health (whether health means eradication or remission to them). Ketamine, psilocybin, and MDMA are high on the list of researchers as they look for new solutions to age-old problems.

In the consumer-driven U.S., buying whatever products are offered almost seems like an obligation, whether we need them or not. We have a lot of what we need, here, and a lot we probably don’t. Drugs are a well-advertised product, so you are more likely to be using them than not. I am with you. I will keep using the prescription drug I have been taking every day until the treatment is over. On our walk yesterday, I thanked God for a pain-killer that was so helpful to my wife, not long ago. According to SAMHSA, about half the people in the United States used a prescription drug in the last month. 24% used two or more. 13% used five or more (13% of the U.S. is 43 million people).

According to the CDC, when people went to see their doctor in 2018, 860+ million of them were given or prescribed drugs. 68.7% of visits included drug therapy. The drugs frequently prescribed were analgesics (pain), antihyperlipidemics (blood), and antidepressants (mental health).

In the same year, people who went to the emergency room were given or prescribed drugs 336 million times. 79.5% of the visits involved drug therapy. The drugs most frequently prescribed were analgesics, minerals and electrolytes (hydration), and antiemetics (nausea) or antivertigo agents (dizziness, nausea).

drugs: top ten drug companies 2022
The FDA approved 50 new drugs in 2021

Last year, the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer (42nd St. NYC), netted $21.98 billion. Johnson and Johnson (New Brunswick, NJ) netted $20.88 billion. Two Swiss companies, Novartis and Roche were #1 and #4 in the top five profit-makers. Local favorite, Merck (Kenilworth, NJ), netted $12.35 billion to be #5. If you watch commercial TV for five minutes, you are likely to hear from one of these worldwide mega-corporations selling their latest wonder.

The medical/pharmaceutical industry is designed to sell products for consumers, like everything else in consumer economies. It is no wonder, with huge corporations needing to sell so shareholders profit and a huge distribution system dispensing drugs as a primary means of healing, there is a lot of encouragement, even pressure, to use drugs of all kinds, legal and illegal.

Suspicious drugs

Like so many products people want, certain drugs that used to be illegal are creeping into mainstream acceptance. People will kill the planet to inject fossil fuels into their environment, so we have companies too big to die who extract and refine those products for them to buy. It is not the same, but similar, with drugs. People do not think they should suffer and die (ever) and will buy whatever promises to stop that.

Drugs that were formerly illegal (or still are) are creeping into mainstream use. People appear to be more desperate for them every year. Legal opioids famously addict and kill thousands of people every year. Prescription opioids (natural and semi-synthetic opioids and methadone), along with heroin and synthetic opioids other than methadone (primarily fentanyl) caused 21,000 overdoses in 2010. People were aghast when that number rose to 69,000 in 2020. In 2021 the number shot up to 107,622.  2022 is expected to see further increase.

The sea of drugs we live in is full of wonders, but there are a lot of predators in it, too. So the experts are doing studies and the news people are reporting on what they are finding. I am writing because I think the researchers and reporters could be a bit more suspicious.

drugs: psilocybin capsule
A psilocybin capsule Credit…John Karsten Moran/NYU Langone Health, via Associated Press

For instance, the NYTimes published a story last week about how psilocybin (‘shrooms) curbed excessive drinking. The researchers suggested it might be a new treatment in the making. AA suspects it is more likely a new way to lose one’s sobriety. MDMA (ecstasy) is being tested as a treatment for PTSD.

In general, psychedelics are moving into mainstream mental health treatment. Forbes recently published a helpful article about the trend, focusing on treating autism. In it, the author noted the increasing use of ketamine for mental health purposes:

While the drug’s usage carries serious risks if used recreationally, there is a reliable protocol for doctor-controlled use that has a steadily increasing track record of success for treatment-resistant depression. There’s even an FDA-approved spray called Spravato that is helping to make ketamine more and more mainstream, and improve more lives each day.

I think it is easy to notice that most drugs which provide out-of-control experiences are rarely effectively controlled. The Spravato website is worth a look to see, again, how salesmanship leads the way when it comes to introducing treatments.

Generosity about drug use needs limits

With the legalization of marijuana and mainstreaming of hallucinogens, it is no surprise that the use of those substances among young adults rose to an all time high in 2021, according to the NIH.

When the NIH, CDC, DHHS, etc. talk about drugs, they are even-handed. They try to stick to the facts — even though they track illegal uses and deaths, which implies disapproval. I think I might have a similar generosity. I have clients who use cannabis for more than recreation. Other clients have had life-altering experiences with ketamine and mushrooms. In their cases, the impact was not long-lasting. But I don’t know about everyone else. I generally reserve judgment.

Even though our minds are open, our discernment needs to be sharp when we introduce drug technology into our bodies. About seven years ago, the church in which I served offered a time for our theologians to think about drugs together. I wrote about our findings and I think they still provide helpful discernment. What do God and the Church think about drugs? What are some practical ways to approach life in the midst of constant wooing into and opportunity for drug use?

Colombian drugs smugglers shipwrecked
Shipwrecked cocaine smugglers on rising seas in 2019

I’m still pondering and applying what I learned then and have learned over the past few years. Each year, as overdose deaths rise (significantly in my own hometown!), the need to think and act becomes more urgent. I can’t help but notice that as the oceans have risen due to climate change, the sea of drugs has been rising with them. Do the powers-that-be extravagantly use them to pacify the most vulnerable? Regardless, like the Covid-19 vaccines did not solve all the problems of the pandemic, most drugs over-promise and under-perform until the general population feels it is normal to have 100-year floods and 100+ thousand opioid deaths in a year.

I repeatedly encouraged drug use for my clients and loved ones last year. Some wonders were worked. But I suspect I am being too generous about the new normal, in which we use drugs as the first act of healing. I think of giant drug companies as part of the powerful forces who brought the world to the present disasters we face. Now they want us to rely on them to solve the problems with their latest products.

While I don’t think the blanket mistrust rampant these days is the answer, Psalm 146 comes to mind. Discernment begins with trusting God, not just assessing the data and making endless, experimental choices.

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish. (Whole psalm)

Is MrBeast teaching us philanthropy or greed?

One of the benefits of a week with my teen-age grandchildren is learning about what is going on with the internet. That’s how I was introduced to MrBeast. If you are under 25 you probably know all about him. I am way out of his target audience, but he corraled my eyes anyway. He is very good at that.

All week we were watching movies together and spent some interesting time after each film “breaking it open,” as we say (thank you Mel White, I think). Part of our dialogue included seeing the films through a Jesus lens. After one such session, I made a reference to seeing the MrBeast video we watched earlier in the day through a Jesus lens (the one replicating Squid Game). I made the hyperbolic statement, “That video was the greediest thing I have ever seen.” I soon found out a few of my grandchildren knew the myth of MrBeast more exhaustively than they knew much of the New Testament.

My contention was, and is, that MrBeast is an amazing entrepreneur and his money giveaways are, though well-intended, a great marketing ploy and a fun way to surf the wave of greed which constantly churns through the United States. Maybe I stated my contention too defensively, since I feel unfashionable when I mention what the Bible mentions all the time: greed is deadly. I will quote just one verse. Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15 NIV)

When I suggested MrBeast was dealing in greed, one of my grandchildren immediately looked up his counterpoint on Google, which was “He gives away most of his money. He is not greedy.” I stood corrected, since I had just met MrBeast and was not quick-to-the-draw with Google.

I gave one of those apologies that has a “but” on the end and said, “I just watched him spend a boatload of money, which came from somewhere, to produce that elaborate video full of people doing stunts to get money.” Now that I know more about MrBeast, I could have said, “Most of them got the fun of acting in his video for free. Many got an unusually generous payout. The winner got an amazing sum. Then Jimmy Donaldson (MrBeast) got all the ad revenue from the video, which has 282K+ views on the MrBeast channel with its 102M+ subscribers. Plus he got to sell his merch.” According to YouTube analytics service SocialBlade, MrBeast makes up to $2 million a month from YouTube ads alone. That does not include the in-video brand deals which earn him untold millions.

MrBeast in Rolling Stone

Who is MrBeast?

Jimmy Donaldson is a social media influencer. He was born in Kansas but raised in North Carolina, where he still lives.  Donaldson uploaded his first video to YouTube in 2012. He was just 13 at the time, operating under the handle “MrBeast6000” and rarely appearing in his videos. His earliest output was mostly of the “let’s play” (video games) variety, though he’d also comment on various YouTube dramas, offer tips to potential content creators, and estimate the net worths of well-known YouTube celebrities. His subscriber base consisted of about 240 loyal followers by 2013.

By 2016, Donaldson was gaining in popularity on the heels of his “worst intro” videos, which poked fun at the various introductions he found on YouTube. He dropped out of college around this time to focus on content creation, wrangling old friends to help him and gaming the platform’s algorithm as the subscriber count increased.

His first viral video aired in 2017 when he was 19. He counted to 100,000. It took him more than 40 hours but his efforts paid off.  As a result, he broke the 100,000 subscriber mark. Since first airing, the video has been viewed over 26 million times. It was followed by other successes like counting to 200,000, reading the dictionary, and watching Jake Paul’s music video for “It’s Every Day Bro” for 10 hours straight.

In 2018, the man now known as YouTube’s biggest philanthropist found his niche in the online world: giving away money to strangers. His stunts tend to have a philanthropic angle, like adopting an entire shelter of rescue dogs. It has almost become a joke that when people first see him, they hope/expect to get money.  He talked to his mom about this in 2018 when he decided to give her money. She did not want it. In a video, he told her, “If I don’t give it to you, I don’t have a viral video.”

Where does the money come from?

Like so many popular (and unpopular) YouTube channels, MrBeast’s comes with video ads. See MrBeast (103M), Beast Reacts (19M), MrBeast Gaming (29M), MrBeast Shorts (15M). With each ad comes a respective cost per mille (CPM), which is the amount an advertiser pays a website for every one thousand people who see the ad. The exact CPM can vary from one country to the next, but most sources suggest that it averages out at around US$5 per one thousand views. Multiply that by the millions of views that each MrBeast video racks up and you begin to see all kinds of dollar signs. By 2021, when he turned 23, Forbes estimates he made $54 million.

Donaldson quickly understood his worldwide reach and began to “localize” his videos to increase his influence and revenue. He reports that the English channel views amounted to more than 122M in the first half of 2022, and the localized channel views added up to more than 160M in the same period. In March alone, the combined total number of views for all his channels was above 283M.

MrBeast approaches localization through dubbing. He has created separate channels for Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, and French content, and hired native speakers to provide voice-overs for his videos. These are MrBeast’s international YouTube channels:  MrBeast en español (Spanish), Beast Reacts en español (Spanish), MrBeast На Русском (Russian), MrBeast Brasil (Brazilian Portuguese), MrBeast Gaming en español (Spanish), MrBeast en Français (French), MrBeast Gaming Brasil (Brazilian Portuguese).

By most estimates, 40-50% of MrBeast’s net worth comes as a result of merchandising and other business opportunities. Some sources report that the YouTube star earns as much as $2.25 million a month through merchandising alone, including sales of his own clothing line. Well-versed in internet economics, MrBeast reportedly receives around $1 million a month from the main sponsors on his primary YouTube page. There are further sponsors for his secondary channels and other social media accounts, as well as sponsors for his various charitable efforts and sweepstakes.

In 2020, Donaldson launched MrBeast Burger, a delivery app that brings signature fast food items straight to your door. It’s currently under contract with over 1000 brick-and-mortar locations throughout North America and Europe, with plans to expand. Along similar lines is Feastables, a chocolate bar company that MrBeast launched in 2022. In the spirit of Willy Wonka, the company routinely holds sweepstakes with prizes ranging from an Xbox game system to a Tesla Model 3. You can also download his game app: Finger on the App

Behind the scenes, MrBeast is a fairly active investor and partner in various startups and companies, including Backbone, Juice Funds, Current, Quidd, CSGO Lotto, and TikTok. He is a firm believer in crypto, but he received backlash in 2021 after Refinable, a token and NFT platform that he personally backed and promoted, plunged in value.

He is popular in Greenville, where his headquarters continues to expand.  As of 2022, the MrBeast team was made up of 60 people.

Shall we look through a Jesus lens?

Philanthropy is an essential part of MrBeast’s operation. Not only does he give away considerable cash prizes to the participants of his many stunts, he also donates tons of money directly to charity. Over on the Beast Philanthropy channel (10M), 100% of the ad revenue, sponsorships, and merchandise sales go to charitable organizations (like to my pet causes through Team Trees and The Ocean Clean Up).

He’s also quite modest in terms of his lifestyle. As he told Joe Rogan, “I think living your life chasing like a nicer car, and a bigger and bigger box to live in is kind of like a dumb way to go about life.” Mr. Beast also talked to Rogan about his ongoing struggle with Crohn’s Disease.

Put everything together and you get the picture of a passionate content creator, with an eye on his mortality, who would produce a blockbuster stunt and donate the proceeds before buying himself a fancy car. But keep in mind, MrBeast is only 24 years old and has plenty of time to build upon his already impressive fortune and develop a taste for big houses and sweet rides.

As with every person, I have no intention of judging what Jesus is doing with Jimmy Donaldson, personally. Not.My.Job. As far as what he is doing publically, and as a person who profits from influencing people I love, I have to exercise some discernment. So I did my research.

What I like about him is his alternativity, his simplicity and his community-building.

What I think deserves some skepticism, is #1, the greed factor. Most of what he is doing is about money: making it, giving a lot of it away, and investing it in a masterful, entrepreneurial empire. The Greenville headquarters alone is worth at least $14 million and they are scouting the town for more property. The attention of the greedy, gullible young, worldwide, is the fuel for the enterprise.

Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15 NIV)

Individually, Jimmy Donaldson “appears” (the all-important YouTube word) unconcerned with possessions. So maybe he could be considered interested in the second clause of Luke 12:15.

But MrBeast sure is good at acquiring possessions — especially subscribers! And his millions of followers are fascinated by his handouts. Most of his performers (except his mother) are greedy for some spillage.

Since we live in the hyper-capitalist US, we should beware of the Jekyll and Hyde nature of living greedy all day but trying not to really be (or appear) greedy. I think MrBeast teaches us greed, but Jimmy Donaldson might like his life to be about philanthropy. If you watch the video about headquarters, you will see that Jimmy lives in a little room inside of the huge MrBeast enterprise (he also has another house) — that picture is a visual warning to us all. We live in the house of greed and only Jesus can save us. Without Him, we will be swallowed. Look at poor Jimmy! Isn’t he a feastable?

Your worth: Check your attachment style before you decide

I am writing on Good Friday, when millions of Christians consider the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The most popular interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death is well-attested in the Bible: Jesus is “dying for our sins,” as my collection of atonement explanations can show you.

The story goes: We have become creatures unworthy of God’s love, since His justice cannot tolerate the betrayal of our duty to worship and serve him as we should. There are many more specific sins we carry, as you can probably  enumerate, which just makes things worse.  The good news is: we become worthy as God sees us through the lens of Jesus. We are free to live up to our new, official status as individuals saved by the grace of God.

This particular atonement explanation is especially good news for people with the “secure attachment style” they developed as a child. As for the rest of us, we might want to have another look.

Your attachment style matters

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth did us a favor by exploring how we arrive at our sense of worth when they came up with “attachment theory.” This theory of infant development is so common, you’ve probably investigated your own style. I think such investigation is a good idea, as long as you don’t think the label you discover is more than a suggestion or a starting point.

When you consider what the death of Jesus means for you, your attachment style makes a difference. If you do not have a “secure” attachment style, you already felt unworthy of love when you heard about Jesus. So the story above resonated: “I need a Savior because I am unworthy of love.” I have had clients say, “I am perpetually unworthy. My only worth is what God imputes through grace by the work of Jesus.”  Their theology dovetails with their lack of self-esteem. If you keep the theory in your head and don’t let it get muddled up with your feelings, it kind of works; just don’t look too deep.

If you have a secure attachment style, the preacher may have to do quite a bit of work to make you feel unworthy so you can receive the Lord’s worth. I grew up hearing very convincing speakers who made me feel guilty and terrified if I did not confess how bad I was and get saved. But, I have to admit, I felt the love of God long before I was listening in on adult church meetings. I kind of added on “substitutionary atonement” to my general sense of living in God’s grace. Jesus has always been more of my friend than my lawyer.

Your view of yourself may cloud your view of God

One of my favorite descriptions of the atonement is the famous story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. God is described as a worried father of two sons. Neither are securely attached. That might be due to the fact no mother is mentioned in the parable. When their father talks to each of them, he needs to convince both of their worth.

But they were never unworthy. Their father was always sharing everything he had with the older son and was anxiously watching for the younger son to return. God sees us as children whether we are at home, sulking, or coming up the road, skulking. As a parent and grandparent, I understand the Lord’s story of love and hope much better than the courtroom picture of being freed from the consequences of my sin so I can appear before God with impunity. My children were loved little sinners. I saw the best in them.

The work of Jesus is described in various ways in the Bible and that may not be a  mistake. It seems like the ways are tailored to the intended audience and come from a particular style of person. I’m arguing that people with different attachment styles see themselves, God, and the atonement differently — that is realistic and good. I also think it is better to come to God as oneself instead of cramming yourself into a one-size-fits-all rubric from the 1600’s! What’s more I think we need a different side of the atonement at different developmental stages of our lives. At eleven years old, when I was baptized “as an adult,” I needed more substitutionary atonement than I do now.

The Bible’s view of our worth

No one writing the Bible is shy about naming the sinfulness of humanity. If we did not have the Bible, the Spirit of God could use today’s headlines to convince us of our bondage to evil. At the same time, she could use each individual as an example of the wonder of creation. It does not take long to meet up with the work of God alive in each human when you get to know them. In my work, I get to know a lot of humans intimately, and each one, even in their suffering, is amazing.

The Bible shares my view of humans, I think. The writers all obviously think they know God and have something to say, so their personal sense of worth is intact. When they talk about other people, they often reinforce the fact that God sees her creation as good. Jesus talks about his work as rebirth, assuming there is a seed planted in each of us that can multiply. Psalm 139 famously says,

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

Our own sin and the sin committed against us does wreck us. We need to be saved and we can’t do it on our own. But once I get next to Jesus, I think it is a sin to keep seeing myself as contemptible. Being responsible for being contemptible may be the terrible lesson we learned as a child from which Jesus is trying to save us! If we continue to insist we are unworthy of God’s love, that might be more about our attachment style than God.

Some kids in Mary Ainsworth’s attachment experiments, when left alone with a stranger for a few minutes,  were quite unsure they would again be lovingly received by their mother, or if she would even come back!  They sound like the son who was coming back from feeding the pigs who only imagined getting back into the household as a slave. Other children in the experiments were so sure they would not be cared for, they didn’t even look for any care and stayed alone. If I stretch it, they seem a bit like the other son feeling all alone in the back yard while a party was going on in the house.

Paul, who was certainly good at sinning and felt sin at work in him even when he was writing his dense letter to the Roman church said, as he was ending up his treatise on the work of Christ:

[Y]ou did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17).

Again, in those lines, there is that intimate, parental image right at the climax of his argument. There is no condemnation. The law of the Spirit is greater than any other law. You were always meant to be a child of God and now you know that, not in theory but in experience.

When Jesus bent to taste your death with you, it was surely because he felt you were worth it, wasn’t it? You were worthy even before you were born. You were the sinner worth dying for standing in front of the cross looking at Jesus helplessly. You were always the wonder he knew you could become, just as you were created to be. I don’t think God needs a Jesus lens to look at us. I think it’s we who need the new lens.

Freedom for the word “religion”

The members of my spiritual direction cohort, by and large, love David Benner’s book Soulful Spirituality. In it he is working on reinforcing how my spiritual life is embodied –– we are also incarnations of the Holy Spirit in our unique and dependent ways. I am not as big a fan of this book as my friends, so far. I’ve been told it gets better. Even if it doesn’t, we will always have The Gift of Being Yourself, which is one of Benner’s gems.

I may have been in a mood when I was reading, but I became fixated on Benner’s binary assumptions regarding “religion” and “spirituality.” This is a common dichotomy, so I don’t know why it began to bother me. It’s not like I haven’t heard it all before.

For instance, at Psychology Today’s site, a contributor talked about the same issue. She wrote:

The purpose of religion, in general, is to unite a group of people under the same values and principles and to facilitate their collective and individual communication with a Higher Power and/or philosophy. In other words, religion was meant to enhance spirituality.

That said, it must also be said that it is entirely possible to be a very religious person yet be totally out of touch with spirituality and its essential connection to an authentic Self. On the other hand, true spirituality unites a person with his or her authentic Self.

By the way, I think the author, Andrea Matthews, capitalized “Self” because her interest and writing leans into “The territory of the Self” and “differentiating between the authentic and the inauthentic” leading to a “peaceful internal home.” Psychoanalytic and Jungian people, in particular, use a capital S Self to differentiate from the false, unrealized, unintegrated, lower-case self. (Me too, sometimes.)

You don’t need to hear all my arguments about her Christless musings. I just want to offer one argument about “religion” that made me feel better.

Religion is a modern invention

I decided to find out when people in the so-called “West” started using the word “religion” in the way Benner and Matthews use it. As when Matthews starts with “the purpose of religion” and she assumes we all understand the abstraction called “religion” and can sort various groups under that definition. I had never studied it, but I had the idea that “religion” is probably a modern invention, like a lot of powerful things contributed by the Enlightenment and Europe’s project to colonize the world and remake it in its own image.

Brent Nongbri

I came up with a very interesting book that confirms my suspicion: Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013) by Brent Nongbri. He is now a professor at the Norwegian School of Philosophy in Oslo. But he was raised in Texas and got his doctorate at Yale.

My thought was the way Benner is talking about religion does not match the Bible’s worldview. Like so many things, the word “religion” had been redefined to fit the straight-jacket of European (and now American) thinking that posits a unifying theme and then collects like things under it. We are all being fitted into abstract categories as if that is important. I often squirm under the abstraction “identity,” which comes from the same thinking; now we all must choose an identity to become authentic. On the map we are all wrestling with the abstraction “nation,” defined by lines which cut through family systems and language groups and create endless conflict in service to a European imagination; the U.S. wall along the border with Mexico is a visual reminder.

Nongbri’s thesis is straightforward. For the past two centuries people have assumed “religion” is “a universal human phenomenon, a part of the ‘natural’ human experience that is essentially the same across cultures and throughout history.” This modern notion has been criticized in the last thirty, postmodern years. The main criticism comes from the fact that no ancient languages have a term that really corresponds to what modern people say when they mean “religion.” In fact, the names of supposedly old religions can be traced back to the recent past. “Hinduism” for instance, starts showing up named around 1787 and “Buddhism” in 1801.

The isolation of something called “religion” as a sphere of life ideally separated from politics, economics and science is not a universal feature of human history. If you take a look at the Bible, no one is thinking that way. If you look at the Bible from a European Protestant lens, through which all the past looks like a projection of European thinking, then you can find the separation. But once you begin to imagine a world in which God is present in every activity and, indeed, enlivens the planet, then these abstract separations can’t be found.

James Tissot — The Tribute Money (Le denier de César), 1886-1894.

It is not in the Bible

For instance, in Matthew 22 Jesus famously said, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The modern lens sees a dichotomy in the verse between the secular government and the religious establishment, or between the realm of humans and the realm of God. I find the stultifying arguments that Bible students have had my whole life over this quote pretty tiresome, much as I was finding Benner’s dichotomy between religion and spirituality. The endless arguments about abstractions are a modern imposition.

I don’t believe Jesus or the writers were seeing the world through such a corrupt lens. Nongbri notes that Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, reflected 1 Tim. 2:1-2 when he interpreted what was “owed to Caesar” were prayers on his behalf. In the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan understood Jesus to be encouraging people to give up their property and lead an ascetic life like he was living, free of Caesar’s things.  No one in the Bible thought Caesar’s things should be religion-free (like John Locke) or thought religious things would be threatened by secular authorities (like Roger Williams).

I don’t like being an abstraction in the lens of some powerful leader corralling me into their Eurocentric organizing principles, especially when they do it in the cause of religion or spirituality. Moreso, I like trying to walk with Jesus in the light of God’s revelation in the Savior. When I am suckered into seeing through the eyes of modern thinkers — and that is not unlikely since they made the situation we are in, I feel caught. I think Jesus is still calling us out. Paul says, in Col. 2 (and Gal. 4)

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces (basic principles) of this world rather than on Christ.

I suspect Benner is going my direction and also wants me to be close to my Savior. But I would like him to tighten up his thinking. The idea of religion is a recent abstraction that has become a debilitating “basic principle.” I think people fill the idea with good meaning and use it in good faith to good ends. But I don’t want to live under it and I do want to get in touch with what the rest of the church in history taught and what many non-Europeans intuitively know.

The love story about God and us: Another version on Netflix

I have slowly been watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix. I hope they don’t disappear it before I am done. It is a surprisingly religious show which my wife should like. But it is also bloody, which she does not like. So I watch it on very rare occasions when I am watching TV alone.

King Alfred’s daughter in need of a rescue

I won’t tell you the whole medieval plot: soap opera, action/adventure, theological Ted talk all rolled into one. The heart of the plot, usually, is what it means to love. Last night King Alfred had to decide whether to give all the treasure of Wessex to ransom his kidnapped daughter from the Vikings (a daughter who fell in love with a Viking and spiced up the plot, since we all hate her husband). Alfred asked his wife if he were being selfish not to let his daughter die for the sake of the country and impoverishing peasants to get the silver required to pay off his enemies. She told him, “Your honor and hers cannot be ruined by the shameful spectacle of leaving the symbol of God’s anointed in the hands of the pagans.” Another advisor told him he was, indeed, betraying his duty as king for the love of his daughter. It was another interesting Christian thought problem. Should the king sacrifice everything for the love of his child? Should the child sacrifice herself for the good of the country? Is justice or love the main question? Is there another way?

Much of the conundrum (in a TV show!) circled around the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement” which began to develop into the preeminent doctrine it is about the time Alfred was king. I am not a fan of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement as it is generally taught, although I work with it since it is one of the atonement explanations offered in the Bible [here is a short explanation of all of them]. At the basis of the explanation is the idea there is always a law to be honored, a principle to be served, some justice that must be satisfied. Jesus pays the ransom due; he takes the judgment we deserve; God sacrifices his own son to save us from the consequences of sin.

This can sound legal and distant, just the facts. It already happened, just receive the gift. In King Alfred’s case there is a deep love to be expressed. He will give all his treasure, even at the risk of denying his vocation as king and risking the capacity of his beleaguered country to survive, because he wants his daughter back. People take the love out of substitution, as if the whole thing is happening in a courtroom. But The Last Kingdom offered a scene that shows how it is the king’s love that offers everything to the evil in which the child is held. He is working with the evil deal that runs the world. He satisfies the false justice and does it extravagantly for the sake of his beloved child. God did the same for all of us in Jesus.

There are other explanations, other ways

As if turns out, the still-pagan warrior who is pledged to Alfred (for a variety of reasons) manages to free the daughter and upend the Viking conquest plans. There are many other ways for God to rescue us, too. The plotline of God’s love for humanity is extensive.

Aethelflaed saved

Sometimes I feel like a pagan warrior surprising one of my Christian clients with an escape route they did not imagine. The worst side of the dogma of substitutionary atonement is the idea that we are so bad we are about to be sentenced to death for our many sins. Justice must be satisfied, because King God must preserve the basis of his kingdom, which is his holiness, his sovereign rule, his law. My clients often feel like a stench in God’s nostrils (as they have been told they are). At best, their inner critic is always matching them up with who they should be according to the law instead of the wretch who causes the blood of God’s Son to be shed. In their heads they know they have been saved, but it is hard to dislodge the deep wound of shame for causing Jesus to die — especially since they are quite sure they will sin again.

On the other side of Christianity, the one before the Roman Empire became the Roman Catholic Church and beget all the other Eurocentric churches, lies J. Phillip Newell and his deep appreciation for Celtic Christianity. This pre-Roman faith is still soundly Biblical but not infected so deeply with the law-oriented dogma with which so many are familiar. Here is his experience of sloughing off the worst aspect of substitutionary atonement as taught in the church of his youth.

I had an epiphany moment in my early adolescence. It came through someone else [than God] who looked to my heart, my mother’s mother. She lived with us when I was a boy. Granny Ferguson, from Banffshire in Scotland, was a presence of unconditional love in my life. I could do no wrong in her eyes even though she knew full well I was a mischievous “scallywag,” as she called me. But she looked at my heart. I knew that to her I was precious….I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was nothing I could so that would make my granny not love me. And so my epiphany moment came when I realized that Granny was more loving than the God of my religious tradition.

I had been given the impression that God somehow required payment to forgive, whereas I knew that my granny would never need to be paid to forgive me. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and the general religious atmosphere that surrounds the dogma, struck me as a violation of everything I most deeply knew about love, that it is entirely free. Who are the people who have truly loved us in our lives? Could we imagine them ever needing to be paid to forgive? In my mind, it was like the prostitution of God, payment for love. I did not have theological tools at that time to unpack the implications of this realization, but I knew deep within myself that there was something wrong with my religious inheritance.  – Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation by J. Philip Newell (2008)

King Alfred thought his daughter was precious (and so did the Viking who saved her life from abuse in captivity!). She was loved. That’s why she was going to be ransomed. That’s why he made a binding deal for her, as was customary in that time. That’s why King Alfred was willing to give everything.

Love is the heart of the story

But I think Newell has a better answer for the depressed, anxious, fearful and angry Christians I meet in therapy. It may take a long time for many of them to become porous enough to feel the love of others or the love of God. It could take a long time to let the idea of being precious to someone or to God get through their wall of constant self-criticism. They are living the famous line from Groucho Marx: “I do not want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.“ Self-loathing may be human, but elements of the church have made things worse. As a result of bad teaching, many of us look at ourselves in ways God, like Newell’s granny, never would.

Rather than seeing Jesus receiving the sentence we deserve, which is more a reduction of the Bible explanation than the whole of it, I think I might prefer to see Jesus as a wild warrior, driven by love, available at just the right time, against all odds, to save us from what has us in its clutches – like the grip of condemnation that keeps some of my clients committed to their captivity. Many depressed, angry, critical Christians are stuck working out a piece of logic in which the facts are all stacked against them and God is so interested in justice he will kill anyone who stands in its way. They perform goodness to stay off his radar or exact justice to please him. But they would rather be loved. Thank God that is really at the heart of the story!

Is there anything that does not meet the “eye” of the left brain?

Western Culture has slowly been taken over by the ascendant features of our left brains. The left hemisphere is the powerful home of language and so analytic thought and so science. The sometimes-maligned “right brain” is the brain’s home for the “big picture” as well as the “right now;” it is also, apparently, where our music, empathy and religion are generated.

The Culture War we are in has a lot of wacky features, often personified by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. But  the “red” side may have more substance to it, all over the world, than it is usually credited in my “bluer” territory. Science is great, but people feel pushed around by science. Language is the essence of human connection, but when it is forced into the service of making boundaries and punishing people for saying (or thinking) the wrong thing, it does the opposite of connecting. My clients who don’t want to be vaccinated because they don’t trust science or any of the authorities trying to talk them into it (like their therapist!) are often characterized as ignorant fools. I think they may be throwing out their health baby with their rebellious bathwater, but there is a lot of dirty bathwater to consider. They have a feeling that more is behind what is going on than meets the eye.

Is there more going on than meets they eye?

The book I am slowly reading, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World is doing a great job of convincing me that my own unease with the way my betters have presented knowledge and have made laws in service to only half our brains. [Click pic for summary]. There is, indeed, more going on than the left brain can see, when it is left alone to dominate.

I want to engage the other half of my brain, the fundamental right half, which has generally been sublimated for the sake of human, materialist achievement. My clients of color and all those lovely, impoverished people I have visited all over the world, even the ones who made it clear I represented “The Great Satan” of the United States (which I did not!), operate in a much less one-side-of-the-brain fashion. They rarely make superb weapons, but they are more in touch with what it means to be human and, as a result, more accessible to God. Do you also feel that you are having endless arguments with people instead of relating? Are you tired of pastors telling you to “Get out of your head and into your heart” even as they make a careful analysis of scripture?

Albert Einstein said there is more than meets the eye of science — and rationality, in general:

“The supreme task of the physicist is the discovery of the most general elementary laws from which the world-picture can be deduced logically. But there is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance, and this Einfühling [literally, empathy or ‘feeling one’s way in’] is developed by experience.” *

Einstein accepted his left-brain task of logical deduction and discovered things scientists are still unpacking. He never told anyone how to make an atomic bomb, but his famous equation E=mc2 explained how the energy could be released in one. Sure enough, an atom bomb became the logical extension of his brilliance in our left-brain-boundaried world. This happened even though the revered Einstein led people to see beyond the limits of science and to feel their way back into the  intuition and other wonders that mainly reside in the right-hemisphere of each of our brains.

The Bible had this argument before we needed to argue about it again

Ian Gilchrist, the author of The Master and His Emissary, spends a lot of time piling up the science that demonstrates how a system enclosed within the structure of the left brain might get trapped into thinking it was complete in itself. Try on this quote:

“The existence of a system of thought dependent on language automatically devalues whatever cannot be expressed in language; the process of reasoning discounts whatever cannot be reached by reasoning. In everyday life we may be willing to accept the existence of a reality beyond language or rationality, but we do so because our mind as a whole can intuit that aspects of our experience lie beyond either of these closed systems. But in its own terms there is no way that language can break out of the world language creates – except by allowing language to go beyond itself in poetry; just as in its own terms rationality cannot break out of rationality, to an awareness of the necessity of something else, something other than itself, to underwrite its existence – except by following Gödel’s logic to its conclusion. ** Language in itself (to this extent the post-modern position is correct) can only refer to itself, and reason can only elaborate, “unpack” the premises it starts with. But there can be no evidence within reason that yields the premises from which reason must begin, or that validates the process of reasoning itself – those premises, and the leap of faith in favour of reason, have to come from behind and beyond, from intuition or experience.“

Political “progressives,” like those with whom I travel, are often just making a left-brain argument in honor of Jesus. They are just moral agents within the domination system of rationality.

But their justice-loving Bible clearly says:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:20-21)….”What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, [is] what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:9-10).

That is a splendidly intuitive, right-brain piece of poetry debunking the wisdom systems of the world (like modern science) whenever they masquerade as ends in themselves.

You can hear Paul undermining the primacy of language, as well, whenever it creates a closed system. As he says above, his “foolish” message about God’s work in Jesus can hardly find a place to rest in known lexicons! Later on, in Chapter 14, he teaches about speaking in tongues, the language that is “out of the left brain’s mind,” a right brain expression in direct connection with God which short circuits the left-brain control system and logic making.

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also (1 Cor 14:14-15).

When my “conservative” brothers and sisters want to stick to the letter of the Bible, they are really just surrendering to the worldly project of Europeans who got caught up in themselves and decided they were the central feature of the world, armed with their arguments (and weaponry) to subdue the earth according to their godless logic, describing everything in black and white, including people.

I just wanted to give you a taste of the education Gilchrist is giving me.  I suspect as you read his book you would also feel like your gut feelings were being verified. After all, you studied the Bible, experienced things unseen by human wisdom and may have spoken in tongues! The church is all about music, art, poetry and experiencing all the wonders the right brain is organized to facilitate.

Life in Christ is being squeezed from within the church and without. When Hildegard of Bingen was doing her science, art and philosophy in about 1133 — and leading as a brilliant woman, it was a right-brain outburst that almost got her thrown out of the patriarchal church, which was just starting to get a rationalistic ball rolling. That ball barreled right through the pious Rene Descartes who concluded “I think, therefore I am,” and it rolled right down to the very religious Joe Biden who quickly hung a portrait of Benjamin Franklin in the Oval Office when he got there to signal that science would guide him. I think a lot of people, many of whom are Jesus followers, feel they’ve been run over quite a few times, themselves.

If any of you resonated with any of this, what do you think and feel? This might not be the best place for a dialogue, but we certainly need one.

______

* Planck, M. Where is Science Going? (with a preface by Albert Einstein), trans. J. Murphy, Allen & Unwin, London, 1933.

** Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that are concerned with the limits of provability in formal axiomatic theories. These results, published by Kurt Gödel in 1931, are important both in mathematical logic and in the philosophy of mathematics. Wikipedia

Wrestling for the blessing and becoming one

“Jacob Wrestling the Angel” (2012), Edward Knippers

One of the best stories in the Old Testament is told in just seven verses of Genesis 32. It begins:

So Jacob was left alone.

You might relate. Most of us feel alone and the feeling torments us.

What’s more, the pandemic weaponized the loneliness built into our society. Our “freedom” to be “independent” turned on us. We need to feel connected.

Then a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 

Jacob fled his home and his brother at sundown. He returns at daybreak. The point of this post will be, “I hope you also lean into your dawn as you wrestle.” Each of us is changing all the time and the process often, if not always, feels like “wrestling.” Now the whole world is struggling toward a post-pandemic life. We’re all wrestling.

When the man saw that he could not defeat Jacob, he struck the socket of his hip so the socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated while he wrestled with him.

When they heard this story, people started setting apart the hip ligaments of slaughtered animals to honor the unknown, supernatural being who humbly wrestled with Jacob all night, even though he could have killed him with a touch.

Robert Alter says this being with whom Jacob wrestles is the “embodiment of the portentous antagonism in Jacob’s dark night of the soul. He is obviously in some sense a doubling of Esau as an adversary, but he is also a doubling of all with whom Jacob has had to contend, and he may equally well be an externalization of all that Jacob has to wrestle within himself.” [Strangely good price on Alter’s translation]

So many of us are furious with God for our dark nights and the wrestling that seems “forced” upon us. We think of our limps as signs of shame. But Jacob, whose original name could be construed to mean ”he who acts crookedly” is permanently bent by his wrestling match in order to stand before his betrayed brother in truth and stand (as you will see if you finish the story) in unexpected grace. If you are not marked by wrestling in the dark, you probably have minimal spiritual awareness and you are likely bound up psychologically. Wrestling does not always come to good, but no good comes without it.

Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.”
“I will not let you go,” Jacob replied, “unless you bless me.”

The way Frederick Buechner tells the story, after he was made lame Jacob says,

“I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.

He said, ‘Let me go.’ The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching. He said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’

Only then did I see it, the first faint shudder of light behind the farthest hills. I said, ‘I will not let you go.’

I would not let him go for fear that day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy. I said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.”

 The man asked him, “What is your name?” 
He answered, “Jacob.” 
“No longer will your name be Jacob,” the man told him, “but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.”

Jacob’s prevailing, and ours, means taking the risk to be alone with God in the dark and staying with the process of transformation, no matter what, until the day breaks.

Then Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.”
“Why do you ask my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, explaining, “Certainly I have seen God face to face and have survived.”

He did not get the power of handling the name. And we won’t get the power we crave, which does not belong to us, by defining and labelling things and people, either. But he did get the blessing of being named and having an experience that ended up with a face-to-face glimpse of God that felt like coming from death to life.

Unlike when Abram becomes Abraham, the story continues to primarily use “Jacob,” not “Israel,” when he is named. In subsequent poetry, when the nation is named, it will often be called Jacob in the first line and Israel in the second. I love how the Bible is so honest about who the people of God are! We are all Jacobs who limp with the memories of our sin and stumble with the death that stalks us in the night. We have all betrayed those we love and have been afraid we would be killed. We wrestle. But, if we prevail, we are also all Israels who get to the dawn with a new name and an astounded outlook. We face God and gain enough courage to get across the next river and so welcome the miracles that accompany intimacy with our Creator and reconciliation with others.

Lately I have felt like I am again wrestling on the other side of a “Jabbok,” my crossing-over place. In the darkness I have yearned for a blessing and resisted the necessity of becoming one in a new way. I can feel both movements in my heart at the same time, of course. I am likely to fear what is on the other side of the river even as I am delighted with how Jesus is leading me through it by the hand!

Today I am glad to receive the gist of the story of Jacob coming home as a call to stick with the process. Don’t think you know everything about what all this wrestling is about. And don’t be too surprised when you realize it is already dawn. Those touches of pain are usually the very places God is suffering with us to make us fit to be a blessing in whatever is coming next.