Category Archives: Culture

“The Beast in Me”: Johnny Cash on Sin and Human Frailty

The beast in me,
Is caged by frail and fragile bars.
Restless by day and by night,
Rants and rages at the stars.
God help the beast in me.

The beast in me,
Has had to learn to live with pain.
And how to shelter from the rain.
And in the twinkling of an eye,
Might have to be restrained.
God help the beast in me.

Sometimes it tries to kid me,
That it’s just a teddy bear.
And even somehow manage to vanish in the air.
And that is when I must beware,
Of the beast in me.

-Johnny Cash


No, I’m not suggesting that Christians are werewolves.  There is something to this concept, though; earlier spiritual writers spoke of “the shadow side” (like St. John of the Cross).  We have the capacity to be angels or beasts.  Judging by everything around us in contemporary North America, most of us are choosing the beast over what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

This sense – a Christian sense – that something in us must be restrained, caged, is profoundly unpopular these days.  We have mistaken license for liberty, and we’ve traded the freedom to be children of God for slavery to our basest whims.  Modern culture, psychology in particular, would deny that this “beast” is real.  They say don’t “repress,” don’t “hold back,” “be real.”  Surely we are spiralling downward so rapidly that we can’t help but soon realize that the world’s definition of “real” is a facade, a complete fraud.

To be who God has called us to be, there is some necessary trimming, some things that must be left behind, rejected, forsaken.  Christians call this freedom.  But, contra many of the evangelicals in our midst, the turn to Christ is not accomplished in one glorious moment.  It’s a daily affair.  Daily we die to self, we live into our baptism and must be born a new.  The beast is caged, but he still roars.  May God help the beast in all of us.

…With One Stone: The Blessed Virgin Mary and Homosexuality

My brain made an interesting and (since I am a Protestant) non-heretical connection while reading ECT’s new joint declaration on Mary: I see an unwarranted emphasis in many corners (albeit different corners!) of the Church on the Virgin Mary and on the issue of homosexuality.

Bear with me here (if you know what Theotokos means, that’s a wordplay).  First off, I greatly appreciate the work of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.  To be sure, part of this is because it is an ecumenical group that shares my convictions on matters theological and political, especially abortion.  But in particular I enjoyed this new statement on Mary.  Marian devotion is something I learned little about in seminary, and probably the biggest dogmatic issue I have with the Roman Catholic Church.  I felt that the Evangelicals did much to right the Protestant ship, which has steered away from the Catholic position on Mary (which was shared by Luther and Calvin) since the 16th century.  As well done as this was, they also held firm on Protestant convictions: Mary as eternal virgin, as sinless, as a dispenser of grace, are all concepts we do not find warranted from Scripture.  Through perhaps not harmful beliefs, it seems strange to require them of the faithful.

In other words, Scripture’s witness does not support the emphasis on Mary that Catholic piety and theology have sometimes shown.  It was noteworthy that in this joint declaration, the Catholic signatories acknowledge that “the determination to draw a clear line against Protestantism sometimes led to exaggerations and distortions in Marian devotion.”  Of course they would not agree that doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception represent such exaggerations, but the acknowledgment of a downside is helpful.  (And to be sure, the Protestant authors were right to lament the almost total loss of Mary from the Protestant sphere – although I confess I don’t know what recovery looks like for myself and my church.)

I am also firmly convinced that the Church’s overwhelming preoccupation with homosexuality is a focus without biblical or theological warrant.  Certainly I believe that Holy Scripture has clear teaching to offer, but it’s also the case that one can count the number of references to homosexual behavior in the Bible on two hands (and perhaps one).  While Jesus has a great deal to say on poverty, love, healing, and other aspects of life, he never once mentions homosexuality.  Outside of that, references in the Mosaic covenant and Paul’s letters offer the clearest guidance.  But such meager Biblical emphasis has given way to what can only be described as political clash that has spilled over into the Church.

We have let the (unfortunately) so-called “culture wars” become normative for our own business.  While wars rage and poverty and disease plague people across the globe, we are splitting churches over gay ordination.  Episcopalians, now with an engraved invitation to Rome, are bleeding members over the issue of ordaining gay bishops.  The largest Lutheran body, the ELCA, recently voted to accept gay ordinands, with many parishes threatening to leave and/or divided amongst themselves.  The United Methodist Church has been embroiled over this for two decades, and if (when) that change does occur it will threaten the moniker ‘United’.  Why are we breaking under an issue that the Bible cares so little about?

Let Scripture guide us (not Scripture alone, but Scripture primarily).  Being faithful to the witness of Scripture, living under God’s Word, does not consist in a simplistic biblicism that seeks fidelity only through quotations and out-out-of-context references; we must make the Bible our world, make it’s stories our stories, and make its priorities our priorities.  If this is done, I find it highly unlikely that our priorities will include the Blessed Virgin Mary and the quagmire that is the human sexuality debate.

Tea with Bunyan: A Pilgrim’s Life

Over my hot tea this evening, I found myself flipping back through a  well-worn copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress.  This is simply one of the greats in the Christian (and otherwise!) literary canon.  Yes, the language is difficult, but it is entirely worth the effort.  As much as I enjoyed The Shack, Eugene Peterson’s endorsement was a bit too strong: it does not compare to Bunyan’s masterpiece.

Consider this jewel, with All Saint’s Day coming up:

Good Christian, come a little way with me, and I will teach thee about the way thou must go.  Look before thee; dost thou see this narrow way?  That is the way thou must go.  It was cast up by the patriarchs, prophets, Christ, and his apostles, and it is as straight as a rule can make it.  This is the way thou must go.

Magnificent.  These were the words with which Good Will (*not* Hunting) sent Christian on his journey to the Celestial City.  Ours is the age of “Yes we can!” and “Do not follow where the path may lead…” and “Follow your heart.”  Does anyone else hear Penn and (not so much) Teller yelling, “BULLSHIT”?  In this age of revenge against all norms, traditions, and paths, Bunyan reminds us that the path God calls us to is not one of our choosing.  We are called to a path we do not find on our own; we are defined by a story of which we are not the author.  We are not “the captains of our soul,” we are simply run down by the Hound of Heaven, captured by Amazing Grace.

And in an age where we perpetually confuse wants with needs, and have lost the practices necessary to sustain even a modicum of Christian self-discipline, Bunyan’s Christian reminds us,

I walk by the rule of my master, you walk by the rude working of your fancies.  You are counted theives already by the Lord of the way, therefore I doubt you will not be found true men at the end of the way.  You come in by yourselves without his direction, and shall go out by yourselves without his mercy.

A little harsh, perhaps.  But all-in-all, good medicine for mainline Christians who, in despising their evangelical brothers and sisters, have lost all concept of discipline and the consequences attendant to its failure.  If you’ve not read Bunyan, put down your John Shelby Spong or John Piper or Joel Osteen – please, for the love of God – pick up The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Bunyan’s allegory will, I can promise, guide your own pilgrimage toward the heart of God.

Clergy In a Hypersexualized Culture

From a new study by Baylor University:

In any given congregation with 400 adult members, seven women on average have been victims of clergy sexual misconduct since they turned 18, a new national study reveals.

“… we were surprised it is so prevalent across all denominations, all religions, all faith groups, all across the country,” said lead researcher Diana Garland… “Clergy sexual misconduct is no respecter of denominations.”

The study revealed that more than 3 percent of adult women who had attended a church in the past month reported that a religious leader had made sexual advances to them. Research found that 92 percent of those sexual advances were made in secret, and 67 percent of the offenders were married to someone else.

The full study has not been published yet, but I’m curious how “sexual advance” was  defined for the purposes of the study.  The study also mentions the “culture of niceness” prevalent in churches.  One wonders if a number of the perceived advances were indeed so cut and dry.  Of course, we often don’t know our own motivations.  A scientific study can’t reveal the complexities of such interactions.  How often could a simple compliment be construed as an advance?  It is not difficult to imagine legitimate pastoral concern being (intentionally or otherwise) perverted into a flirtatious encounter.  I don’t mean to be overly apologetic.  This study just makes all clergy, across the board, come off a little too predatory.

Of course, it is fascinating that this holds across all denominations and religions.  I don’t know if this should take wind out of the sails of those who insist that Catholic clergy abuse is due to the celibate lifestyle.  It seems that we’re all sexually out of control.  As persons and clergy, we have been so formed (read: malformed) by a hyper-sexualized culture that we cannot even control ourselves among those whose spiritual care we are to direct.

Just this week I was at a local gas station, and realized that the $.75 machine in the men’s bathroom, in addition to the usual assortment of contraceptives, was also advertising XXX photos for sale.  I know this is not moral, and I’m not even sure it’s legal.  But unfortunately, it is no longer surprising.

The Fathers of the Church would be horrified at our distorted notion of freedom.  What we call freedom, they would rightly call slavery to our basest impulses.

Translation or Catechesis?

Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry

I’ve been working my way through UMC Bishop Will Willimon’s excellent Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, and came across a very interesting passage, and one that I think I agree with:

Just as it is impossible to learn French by reading French novel in an English translation, so it is also impossible, as Lindbeck notes, truly to learn Christianity by encountering it through the translation of existentialism, or feminism, or the language of self-esteem.  One must learn the vocabulary, inculcate the moves and gestures of this faith, in order to know the faith. (Pastor, 209)

The occasion for this quote is a discussion of George Lindbeck’s excellent but (very!) dense The Nature of Doctrine.  Willimon is part of that postliberal school that went from Yale to Duke, a school I am largely comfortable with as an alternative to either fundamentalist or liberal theologies.  The above quote is explained, to my knowledge, best by William Placher here:

Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation


The argument goes something like this: in an increasingly post-Christian society (the West), how do we make disciples?  Some favor “translation” and others favor “catechesis” (my term).  The former would be those who use catch-words like “relevant,” “contemporary,” and “seeker-friendly” when discussing evangelical tactics.  The latter favor a more tradition Catholic/Orthodox model, where people are made Christians by learning Christian doctrine through constant exposure to the liturgy and sacraments, through learning the Scripture (and not The Message), and through (and this is the crux) learning to self-identify as “Christians.”  The latter crowd is not composed of people who want to open a coffee shop that talks about Jesus and call it church.

I am largely sympathetic to the postliberal school and its orthodox/Barthian leanings.  But I have concerns as well, that are exemplified in Willimon’s quote above.  It seems to assume that there is some “pure Christianity” that we can somehow identify and get back to.  Moreover, many in Willimon’s camp would affirm the above but still favor reading Christianity through the lens of, say, Aquinas (Hauerwas and MacIntyre), who was himself heavily influenced by Aristotle.  And of course, he was reading Augustine who was heavily Platonist.    Have these individuals “translated” Christianity through Aristotle or Plato, and thus bastardized it, or used the tools of high culture to better understand God’s revelation in Jesus Christ?  Surely it is the latter.  But how is this different from reading Christianity through the lens of existentialism, feminism, etc.?  Perhaps it is merely less popular.

But it seems a fine line.  I firmly believe in catechesis; and while the term “relevant” has many problems (as does the magazine of the same name), it points out something important: our teaching and enculturing must be accessible to people here and now.  The theology of the cross must be balanced out by the theology of the incarnation.  Our teaching must have flesh that can be recognized by our fellow Americans/Southerners/young people/Democrats/etc.  But we must not let this “incarnational” principle be used to justify wishy-washy theology.  It is a fine line, indeed.


Kanye: A symptom, not a disease

The outrage over Kanye’s recent antics at the MTV movie awards are largely an exercise in missing the point: the problem is not Kanye, the problem is us.  We; you; me; us; our kids; our brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews…we all allow people of Kanye’s caliber to amass millions of dollars and have a profound impact on the lives of our young people.

Contra the President, who self-reverently called us “the ones we have been waiting for,” we should be pointing the fingers at ourselves.  This is simply further evidence of a sick culture.  Many artists have problems, but traditionally even artists with problems can show a modicum of class.

Sadly, Christians are a part of all this.  Our kids buy these albums.  I’ve danced to him.  All further evidence that we are entrenched in a world of sin that we cannot extricate ourselves from entirely.  That is why the “Armor of God” is a daily excercise in humility and vigilance.  We must remember who we are – and whose we are – every day.  When we forget, we allow ourselves to fall victim to the most base aspects of our existence.  Our art, and our artists, are merely a reflection of this.