Tag Archives: Charles Wesley

The Gospel According to Frank Underwood

[Warning: Spoilers about a very intense Season 3 House of Cards scene, and broader HOC spoilers, below.]

Photo of Kevin Spacey by Sarah Ackerman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Kevin Spacey by Sarah Ackerman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What does Frank Underwood believe about Jesus? As Underwood, Kevin Spacey masterfully plays the House of Cards protagonist, a character with moral abandon seldom seen on the small or large screen.  In season 3, just released by Netflix, now-President Underwood is not showing any signs of slowing down.  He (literally) urinates on the memory of his ancestors to open the season, and an episode 4 ethical dilemma finds him talking ethics with a Bishop late one night in a church.  Spacey’s Underwood is so skillfully sleezy that we almost believe him when he tells the good Bishop he wants a few moments alone to pray.

C’mon, do you really think Frank is going to pray to anyone but himself? (To be fair, he has conversed with Satan on screen as well.)  Of course not.  He stares up a crucifix, shares a few critical words with Jesus, and then spits upon it – a treatment not unlike what the real Jesus endured on the cross, actually.  As you can imagine, this scene shocked audiences.  Much has been made of this scene, but the broader implications of his conversation with and about the Son of God has been largely ignored. Here’s a snippet, edited down to the relevant statements:

Underwood: “I understand the Old Testament God, whose power is absolute, who rules through fear, but…him?” [points to crucifix]

Bishop: “There’s no such thing as absolute power for us, except on the receiving end….Two rules: Love God. Love each other. Period.  You weren’t chosen, Mr. President. Only he [Jesus] was.”

(Frank asks for alone time to pray.)

Underwood – looking up at crucifix: “Love? That’s what you’re selling. Well, I don’t buy it.”  [Spits]

Frank, without knowing it, has just made a theological argument for a very old Christian heresy.  Notice the strong division between the  “Old Testament God” and Jesus.  For Underwood, the OT deity is a being of power and intimidation, and, while he doesn’t elaborate, his attitude towards Jesus on the cross indicates he understands the discontinuity: this Jesus wields power very differently than does the fictional President.  This bifurcation between the Old and New Testaments, even to the point of asserting the centrality of different deities to each, is called Marcionism.  The definition from Theopedia is helpful:

“Marcionism was an early heresy led by Marcion, who proposed the first canon of Christian texts. The proposed canon consisted of the Gospel of Luke and several of Paul’s epistles; however, Marcion edited the writings by deleting any references that appeared to approve of the Old Testament and the creator God of the Jews. Marcionism thus rejected the Old Testament God, claiming that Jesus represented the true sovereign God who was different from the God of the Hebrew people.”

Underwood expresses a sentiment that is still not uncommon today, though typically less developed than Marcion’s own views.  Here in the Bible Belt, you even occasionally drive by churches that advertise themselves as “New Testament Christians,” whatever the hell that means.

It’s no surprise that Frank’s gospel is a false one, a heresy (to be fair, he’s kind of an inverse Marcionite, since he identifies with the “Old Testament Deity” that Marcion rejected).  What is a surprise, a problem even now, is how easily we still buy into Marcion’s lie today.  Make no mistake: the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament both contain the revelation of the one God’s gracious activity towards us, God’s creatures.  Where Marcion posited radical discontinuity, the orthodox position has always on a strong connection between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  There is a beauty to the canon, which is no surprise if you believe (as Christians do) that the 66 books of our Bible represent a beautiful library in which everywhere God is revealed in  loving self-disclosure.

The life and witness of Jesus makes no sense without an appreciation of the Old Testament narrative.  There is no understanding Jesus and his mission apart from his role as Israel’s Messiah, fulfilling the promise to Abraham to “bless many nations” as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.  This same Jesus is sent by and begotten of the Father and united with the Spirit, one God in Triunity, who (Christians believe) is none other than the God confessed still by Jews in the Shema: “Hear O Israel, your God is one.”

Two Testaments. One God.  Frank Underwood is a very effective politician, but as a theologian he is a pure heretic.

An icon of the Holy Trinity, based on the famed Rublev Icon.
An icon of the Holy Trinity, based on the famed Rublev Icon.

The good news is that God’s loving action is revealed in both Testaments, which tell the story of a God radically committed to His creation.  So committed, in fact, that God abdicated all God’s power  and, in Christ, subjected Himself to the totality of wrath, sin, evil, and abandonment that vexes humanity, and submitted to death on our behalf.  In submitting to death, it was conquered, and we were healed.

To Frank Underwood, and to us, the cross is and always remains a scandal.  After all, a God of power is comprehensible, recognizable on the world’s terms.  But what earthly ruler – a Nietzschean like Underwood, a Caesar, or a Putin – would dare endorse the seeming naiveté of a God who gives up power out of selfless, other-regarding love for ungrateful creatures who will ultimately put God to death rather than submit to His Kingdom of love and mercy?

Thus St. Paul said to the Corinthians,

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.” (1 Cor. 1:18, CEB)

At least Underwood is honest enough to know that he cannot conduct his affairs as he does and also worship the God who hangs on a cross. Frank understands the foolishness of the cross.  But now the question is to us, followers of the risen Lord. Do we, “who are being saved,” embrace the foolishness that is the cross?

I conclude with the words of Charles Wesley, who captures both the pain and the beauty, the incomprehensibility and the glory of the cross in his excellent hymn:

O Love divine, what has thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s coeternal Son
bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’ immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

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Christian Perfection or Christian Perfections? John Cassian on Degrees and Kinds of Perfection

just forgiven
“Just” forgiven? Shockingly, good soteriology is hard to do in 5 words.

“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” says a popular evangelical bumper sticker.  My grandpappy in the faith, John Wesley, would disagree – as would many other Christians who think salvation is not less, but certainly more than, justification.  But is the perfection that is a gift of God’s grace one address, or a street with many different addresses?

Wesley famously defended his unique (among Protestants of the time) doctrine in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.  He quotes one of his brother Charles’ hymns to show that they had believed and taught perfection from the beginning of their ministry:

Safe in the way of life, above
Death, earth, and hell we rise;
We find, when perfected in love,
Our long-sought paradise.

O that I now the rest might know,
Believe, and enter in!
Now, Saviour, now the power bestow,
And let me cease from sin!

If we back-pedal many centuries, though, we find that what Wesley rediscovered for Protestants was something present quite early in the Christian tradition.  John Cassian, a great influence on Benedict and his Rule, spends a chapter in his famous Conferences discussing perfection.  He records the following from a conversation with Chaeremon, an Egyptian anchorite:

“Scripture summons our free will to different degrees of perfection, and this in proportion to the condition and the measure of the individual soul. It was not at all possible to propose to all together the same crown of perfection, since everyone does not have the same virtue, the same disposition of will, or the same zeal. Hence the Word of God lays down the different degrees and the different measures of perfection.”

He quotes a variety of Scriptures to back up this claim, including Psalms ascribing blessedness for a host of different virtues, and 1 Cor. 15:41-42, “Star differs from star in brightness. And so it is with the resurrection of the dead.”  Chaeremon adds,

“So you see, then, that there are different grades of perfection and that from some high points the Lord summons us to go higher.  Someone blessed and perfect in the fear of God will walk, as is written, ‘from virtue to virtue’ (Ps. 83:8), from perfection to some other perfection.  That is, with eager spirit he will rise up from fear to hope, and then he will be invited to a holier state, that of love.  He who was ‘the faithful and prudent servant’ (Mt. 24:25) will pass to the relationship of a friend and the adopted condition of sons.” (Conferences, 11.12)

In a sense, this is where Cassian and Wesley finally meet on Christian Perfection: love.  Earlier in Conference 11,  Chaeremon notes that three things keep us from sin: fear of punishment, hope of the Kingdom, and love.  He then goes on to describe lesser and greater perfections in terms of this sequence: “We should strive to rise from fear to hope and from hope to love of God and of virtue.” (11.7)

For Wesley, the perfection that is possible for the Christian to attain, with God’s abiding presence and gracious gift, is always a perfection “in love.” It is not a complete freedom from temptation or fault, but a transformation of “tempers,” a habit of the soul which has been so marked by the Spirit that it is completely filled with love for God and neighbor.

Christian perfection, for John and the early Methodists, was only a possibility for a long-time saint, probably near death.  Later Wesleyans would distort what he took to be a long process into an instantaneous gift, of course.  But the early Fathers and Mothers would agree with Wesley that virtue and holiness are not quickly obtained.

So are there a variety of perfections open to the Christian, or just one?   Cassian opens up the possibility that perfection is not merely a single destination, but several along the way to that final glorification for which we long – when we at last can behold the blessedness of God, not in a mirror, darkly but in full and magnificent splendor.  Like John Climacus – and, much later, John Wesley – Cassian reminds us that complete salvation is not achieved in an instant, but given by the grace of God over a long, grace-imbued road.

None of this is to our credit (this is worth repeating at the end because we Wesleyans are often accused of Pelagianism), but rather as Charles Wesley reminds us again, our boast is in the goodness and mercy of God:

Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.

A Stirring Ode to Methodism: A Response to Mark Tooley

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Methodist DNA, courtesy of United Methodist Memes

Earlier this month, Mark Tooley of the always-cuddly IRD got a Chris Matthews-style “thrill” up his leg courtesy of John Piper’s poem “The Calvinist,” now set to a dreamlike video complete with cheesy musical score.  This surprisingly apparently moving poem stirred up all kinds of warm fuzzies about Calvinists for Tooley:

“These determined people endured the flames, created their own cosmology, generated revolutions, crossed oceans, conquered virgin lands, built civilizations, and writ themselves large across history. Calvinism inspired literature, art, work ethics, and systems of governance. Theirs is a world of fire and drama.”

This is in contrast, he says, to the Methodist world. We Methodists are a friendly bunch, with our pot lucks and warm smiles, but we are not particularly inspirational. “Methodism doesn’t easily spark the electricity that Calvinism often has,” he laments. Tooley even asks if we would have the moxie to produce something akin to Piper’s bold poem/video.

I’m afraid this confirms a long-held suspicion for me: the leaders of the denominational caucuses, left and right, are not lovers of the Methodist tradition. They look longingly to the progressive utopia of the UCC or Episcopal Church, or enviously to the famous pulpits and lockstep doctrinal enforcement of the Reformed and conservative evangelical communities, and everywhere see greener grass than that of their own ecclesial yard. Yes, they love that John Wesley was inclusive, or read the Bible a lot, but their interest in being United Methodist Christians pales in comparison to their desire to see their ideological agendas win out among competing factions. I am reminded of Solomon deciding the case between two women who both claimed to be an infant’s real mother (1 Kings 3:16-28); the difference here, of course, is that both “mothers” (read: ideological agendas) would sooner see the baby split in two than the other side “win.”

But on to my own Ode. I have no gift for rhyming; I’m no Jay-Z or Charles Wesley, but I do love my church family, warts and all. Yes, there is some truth to Jon Stewart’s charge that we can be the “University of Phoenix” of religions, and we’ve all felt the Methodist Blues. Wesley’s descendants are nice to a fault, which is probably why the LifeWay study showed we have the most positive name recognition of any denomination. We don’t have celebrity pastors like John Piper or Mark Driscoll (for which we thank the Almighty), but we do have some pretty awesome folks like Will Willimon and Adam Hamilton. If the 19th century was the Methodist century, and the 20th century was the Christian Century, then the 21st sometimes looks to be a dystopian spiritual landscape in which only the most shallow or extreme forms of Christianity can survive. What is left for the messy middle, or, more properly, the Extreme Center?

I believe the movement started by the Wesleys still has much to offer. We do not have great systematic theologies from our founders to pore over like the Calvinists do, but we do possess  some excellent sermons and correspondences, and hymnody so fantastic that even stoic Presbyterians can appreciate it. We may not be known for dogmatic rigidity, but we are doctrinal bridge-builders: Wesley’s eclectic approach to soteriology combined the juridical concerns of the Christian West and the therapeutic focus of the East in a unique manner that offers a potential grounds for détente between these two long-separate parts of the Body of Christ.

That is characteristic of Methodism, actually. As my teacher Randy Maddox (see link above) put it, Methodists hold together what other Christians often pull apart. We can boast a love for Scripture & tradition, works of mercy & works of piety, spiritual & intellectual formation, evangelism & sacramental life, grace & works, personal & social holiness.  In other words, we demand to have the cake and devour it, too.

Moreover, we may not have American theologians as renowned as Jonathan Edwards, but we have an impressive network of hospitals, camps, universities, and other mission agencies (in the US and abroad) doing God’s work in diverse ways. Our empire may not have the grandeur of Calvin’s Geneva, but we can boast an early emphasis on abolition and women’s ministry that Calvinism cannot.

Tooley sounds forlorn when stating that Methodism, while quaint, doesn’t “spark the electricity” that Calvinism does. But Jesus never describes the Kingdom like a bolt of lightning (that has a decidedly pagan ring to it). Instead, he says it is like a mustard seed: small, but growing into a giant tree. Or, the Kingdom is like leaven, working slowly and quietly, but with great impact. No, Methodism does not snap and crackle like Calvinism does, but if a little less wattage is the price we pay for not having the horrific imagery of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” on our conscience, it is a happy trade in my book.

As for poetry, I’ll see Dr. Piper’s wager (as sexist as it is simple) and raise hymn (ha!) a Charles Wesley tune which, for my money, has more beauty in this single stanza than Piper’s entire poem:

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

In closing:

For me, being a part of a church is a bit like a marriage. We belong to the church in sickness and in health, for better and for worse. When other suitors begin to look more attractive than our own spouse, it’s not time to wax poetic (and adulterously) about someone who is betrothed to another. Rather, it is time to rekindle that old flame and remember the covenant. That might be my prescription for Tooley and for all in my tribe to who appear to be more about “Right” or “Left” than anything resembling the faith and practice of the Wesleyan movement (or about Jesus, for that matter!): take some time, look at the old photographs, pull out the love letters from the shoe box in the attic, and remember that no relationship grown cold has ever been reignited by singing the beauty of another.

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     If you can’t say anything nice about your own church,
          at least don’t sing the praises of other churches.

John Wesley’s Case Against Phyllis Tickle

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“What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9

Psuedo-history is a dangerous thing.  By psuedo-history, we far too easily create a world designed to make “our side” look righteous, correct, and hip.  Like Scripture, history is too easily re-narrated to fit our own worldviews and prejudices.  Such is the case with Phyllis Tickle’s “cycles of history.”  As Andrew Thompson ably points out, this kind of
self-aggrandizing revisionism sells books, but it is not ultimately history as such.

Thompson points out* several problems with Tickle’s approach: 1) The obsession with numerology is a practice as ancient as it is misleading; 2) Tickle’s theory betrays an inescapably modern, progressive view of history – each sea change every 500 years is seen, as is the current “Emergence” – as on balance being for the better; this telling of the Christian past is not just hopelessly Protestant it is also Eurocentric in the extreme; 3) The “arbitrary” factor: Tickle has chosen events that fit her thesis but ignored major events of the Christian past that do not fit into the 500 year schema.  This is my jumping off point for something I’d like to add to the conversation.

In essence, my thesis is this: insofar as John Wesley can be identified with the theology, aims, and methods of what is named as “Emergence” Christianity, Tickle’s 500 year theory is all the more thoroughly undone.

Of course, trying to define Emergence Christianity is like trying to nail Jell-O floating in a pool of mercury.  In Emergence Christianity, Tickle lays down two goal-posts at opposite ends of the liturgical and theological spectrum: the declaration of Papal infallibility at Vatican 1 and the the reaffirmation of Scriptural inerrancy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the essence of and motivating force behind “fundamentalism”).  It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, according to her description, everything that A) falls between these goal posts – absolute declarations of authority for either Church or Scripture – and B) is not part of Mainline Protestant establishment is, in some way, a precursor to and later an example of Emergence Christianity.  Thus, everything from the Azusa Street Revival and ensuing Pentecostal movement, to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, along with Taize and Iona and similar communities, form the womb of what would later grow into full-blown Emergence Christianity. (See Chapter 4)

Fast forward to today, and all manner of quasi- or anti-institutional expressions of church – almost all of them politically progressive while theologically and liturgically eclectic – are claimed by the Emergent/ing/ce (???) crowd. House church? You’re in. Neo-Monastic (which is to actual monasticism what the Episcopal Church is to Roman Catholicism) communities are emergent.  So are the hyphens: the Metho-Costals and the Angli-Charismatics and such.  The missional church is also included, for good measure.  As I read it, therefore, Emergence Christianity is in many ways a clearing-house for all expressions of Church that are united in their desire to different than that perennial boogeyman known as “The Institutional Church.”

How does Wesley figure in to the picture? Because Wesley was doing most of these “Emergence-y” things in the middle of the 18th century – smack dab between those magical 500 year cycles.  His was a movement connected to the institutional church but also subversive of it.  The early Methodists took the gospel to the people before Rauschenbusch ever told the rest of Protestantism to do so.  John and Charles Wesley explicitly held together much of what the Christians of their day separated: Scripture and tradition, justification and sanctification, personal and social holiness, “knowledge and vital piety.” (I owe this line of thought to Randy Maddox.)  Wesley was fascinated by the science of his day before doing so made you interesting.  Methodists emphasized the work of the Spirit like few others besides the Quakers, and re-emphasized the Eucharist at a time when it was not hip among his own Anglican church (the Wesley brothers also embraced mystery when it came to their Eucharistic theology, a move that was much more counter-cultural in its day than it is in our own postmodern context).  They insisted that faith was lived in community before community was a buzz word.  Wesley couldn’t get a church and so he proclaimed the world his parish.  He was both a rebel and a loyal Anglican until the day he died.  In short, John Wesley was doing most of what Emergence Christianity touts at a time when Phyllis Tickle’s theory says it shouldn’t have happened.

I do not claim to be an expert on all things Emergy, but I have read a couple of Tickle’s books.  Color me unconvinced.  Rather than being the next big phase in Christianity, Emergence Christianity, to me, appears to be little more than liberal Protestantism that has retraced its steps a bit and recovered important pieces of the Christian past.  This is, of course, a good thing.  I like candles and sacrament as much as the next Christian.  But this is nothing new – regardless of how much one cherry-picks the historical narrative to make it look like the next Wittenberg.

P.S. I may sound a bit triumphalist about Wesley and the early Methodist movement.  I am, of course, a lover of my own tribe, but I do not intend to suggest that Wesley is the end-all and be-all of Christianity.  Rather, I present he and his movement as a kind of test case against the historical narrative that Tickle has created.  While I respect the breadth of her knowledge, and much of the thought and practice of the movement for which she is a figurehead, I find this telling of history to be too self-serving to be taken seriously.  I welcome your feedback about ways in which I have misunderstood Tickle’s argument or Emergence Christianity.

*I have attempted to both summarize Thompson’s points and put them into my own words.  Something may well have been lost in translation and I encourage you to check out his original, thought-provoking post.

Preaching and Theology: Let the Twain Meet

Unite the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety:”

-Charles Wesley

Are you a preacher? Are you a Christian? You should read this.

Today I was privileged to spend the day listening to Bishop Will Willimon lecture on Barth & preaching.  He reminded us that Barth’s own preaching was gloriously naive in technique, and unapologetically theological in content.  Too often, preaching is considered a pragmatic task and theology as an academic or purely intellectual pursuit.  True theology, however,  is always wedded to proclamation, because it is concerned with speaking truthfully about the God revealed in Christ Jesus. As the Orthodox say, “The one who prays is a theologian, and the theologian is the one who prays.”

Similarly, preaching that is not theological will descend into mere sentimentality or utility (sermons that are either aimed at making people “feel good” or being “useful”).  We have far too many theologians who have lost their vocation as teachers of the church and proclaimers of the Word made flesh, and certainly a plethora of preachers who have forgotten that the center of their preaching is a crucified Jew from Nazareth who came neither to make us feel good nor to give us useful ideas about life.

My teacher Michael Pasquarello* has a beautifully rich vision of preaching, of which I was reminded today.  In his excellent Christian Preaching, he argues for a rediscovery of preaching as a theological task of the Church which is centered on the Triune God, exclusive of all other homiletic foci:

“Christian preaching, then, is theological rhetoric, a gift of the Spirit in which Christ, the incarnate Word spoken by the Father, condescended to indwell Scripture and the church, himself speaking the restoration and fulfillment of creation by confessing the praise of the Creator.” (p. 56)

Like the best preaching, that definition is beautiful, wonderfully deep, and thoroughly Trinitarian.  The wall between preaching and theology has been, in many places, been erected for too long.  Tear down this wall.  Let the twain meet.

 

 

*By a happy accident, I was able to take preaching with Pasquarello even though I was at Duke and he teaches at Asbury.  It’s a story that is longer than it is interesting, but suffice it to say he is an excellent teacher and a preacher-theologian I greatly respect.

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus [Advent 1]

The great hymn writer Charles Wesley penned these beautiful words over 200 years ago:


Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art:
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child, and yet a king,
born to reign in us for ever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.

By thine own eternal Spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all-sufficient merit
raise us to thy glorious throne.

It is hard to imagine a more appropriate hymn to reflect on Advent.  As we begin the Church’s year with the season of Advent, looking back to the promises that culminated in the Incarnate One, and looking ahead to his return in glory, let us remember to “find our rest in thee.”  This is a season of hustle and bustle, bargains, madness, and, for many, loneliness, bitterness, and hurt.  Don’t let the world take the season’s joy away.  Remember Israel’s consolation, the joy of every longing heart – Jesus Christ – who was, who is, and who is to come.  May God draw us nearer to Himself, into His story, into His purposes, this Advent season.