A Markan Mystery

“Mark wants to insist on two things: Jesus does not want to be known in his true identity until it will be clear that suffering rather than power lies at the core of that identity, but Jesus’ charismatic accomplishments are so great that they cannot be hidden. There is an inevitable tension between those two claims, and it is Mark’s style just to say both, lay them beside each other, and not worry very much about explanations. Karl Barth says that this is often a good way to do theology; it is what he calls theology’s inevitable brokenness. If we know X and we know Y, but X and Y seem inconsistent, better to say them both and leave a mystery than to try to make a coherent system and in the process lose sight of one of the things we knew in the first place. The ‘ultimate word, however is not a further thesis, not a synthesis, but just the name Jesus Christ'” (W. Placher, Mark, p. 108, quoting Barth).

Mark’s Offensive Messiah

Clifton Black on Mark’s subversive presentation of Jesus:

The deeper question with which Mark’s readers must come to terms is whether she or he can follow a Christ so offensive as to die by crucifixion (15:22-41). An inescapable dimension of this Evangelist’s Christology is the Messiah’s repulsiveness. Jesus flummoxes everyone who boxes him into conventional expectations: the pious (2:1-3:6; 7:1-23), his family (3:19b-21), his disciples (8:33), and even some petitioners (7:24-30). If Mark’s reader is not also abashed, it is a safe bet that its Jesus has been domesticated and his gospel as been neutered (Black, Mark, 181).

Pastors & the Cross

While the cross is the freest possible place from which to minister, there are endless reasons to avoid cruciform pastoral ministry.

William Congdon, "Crucifixion #2" (1960)

William Congdon, “Crucifixion #2” (1960)

It feels so terrifyingly vulnerable, so threatening and precarious, so foolish and irresponsible, so unproductive and inefficient, so pointless and inconvenient. The cross is not manipulable, it demands death, calls for complete surrender, is immune to demands for rights or even bargaining. You can’t leverage it, negotiate it, hedge it, dress it up with lighting. It is blunt and ugly. It will give you splinters. It’s not romantic or sentimental, and there’s no silver lining.

The cross is the power of God, the location of resurrection life, and yet we try by all means to stay away from it.

Evangelicals & the Republican Party

In American Apocalypse, Matthew Avery Sutton gives an account of the gradual alliance of American evangelical Christians with the Republican Party. An excerpt:

As fundamentalists reacted to labor unrest and the communist menace, they evolved from occasional critics of monopolistic corporations into apologists for free market capitalism. For Billy Sunday, securing the nation’s Christian foundations meant a return to small government and laissez-faire economics. “There are two schools of thought in our land,” he preached. “One is that each individual man and woman shall have his or her right to determine what shall be your happiness. . . . There is the other school where the individual effort, my friends, and initiative is controlled by the State or by force.” He made clear that Jesus was no parlor pink. “No man, he preached, “who thinks as Jesus thought can ever be a socialist. No man who thinks as Karl Marx thought can ever be a Christian.”

Sunday’s perspective mirrored that of the majority of fundamentalists in the 1920’s. While earlier generations of premillennialists had little interest in defending the rich and powerful, the Red Scare put the fear of a communist revolution into the souls of fundamentalists. They no longer stood apart from labor-capital conflicts as neutral voices calling for workplace justice but instead became mouthpieces for the wealthy. Amid the shifting social mores that left few traditional customs untouched, fundamentalists sought less conflict, more stability, fewer questions, and more certainty. Nor were they the only Americans to move to the right in the post-World War I years. Their political evolution represented widespread changes under way in the United States as Progressivism died a slow death, changes the Republican Party began to masterfully exploit (pp. 189-90).

It seems to me that the church is a political entity that is loyal to the Lord Christ alone and stands apart from all other political entities. How might the political evolution of evangelicals be understood in biblical and theological terms? What are the dangers of an uncritical alliance of the church with any earthly cause?

Smartphone Addiction

Yesterday’s NY Times carried this very interesting article, “Addicted to Your Phone? There’s Help for That” (“Put Down The Phone” in the print edition) pondering smartphone addiction and attempts to overcome it.

By Matthew Bourel


I don’t have a smartphone (and didn’t realize it was one word until yesterday), and my family think it’s because I’m somehow anti-technology. I’m not, actually. I just prefer to think through whether or not I actually need a certain tool or need to make use of a technology before I get one. And, more importantly, I’d like to think critically about the sorts of dynamics that any technology initiates. There’s much to be said about all of that, but I found this article interesting, especially this paragraph:

But smartphones are a potent delivery mechanism for two fundamental human impulses, according to Paul Atchley, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas: our quest to find new and interesting distractions, and our desire to feel that we have checked off a task.

The Racist Roots of Evangelicalism*

I’m currently finding it difficult to put down Matthew Avery Sutton’s excellent work, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. Among other things, he traces the movement’s strong anti-Semitism and racism in the early 20th century. Shockingly, fundamentalists had an ambivalent relationship with the Ku Klux Klan, which Sutton documents through debates and discussions in the editorial pages of Moody Monthly magazine.


Fundamentalist leaders did not hide the reality that they were forging a segregated movement. They did not merely marginalize African-American Christians, but purposefully excluded them. Black church leaders, of course, recognized the systemic evils at work.

These dynamics are reflected in the practices of fundamentalist revivalists:

Segregation was so prevalent in churches around the country that it rarely provoked comment. Short-term revivals featuring celebrity evangelists, however, often forced the issue. People of all races and colors flocked to see famous preachers. In most cases in the South the nation’s leading revivalists offered segregated meetings. During a revival in wartime Atlanta, for example, Billy Sunday had held a special service for “Negroes” since they could not attend the regular services. At that meeting he acknowledged “his lack of familiarity with the colored race,” but that did not keep him from offering what the Atlanta Constitution praised as “some of the finest advice that was ever given to a crowd of colored people by any man from the north or from the south.” What was Sunday’s advice? He told his black audience that “southern whites are Negroes’ best friends” and that they should not migrate north, and he admonished the North to keep its “hands off” the South. The white southern press saw his self-serving counsel as a breakthrough and called the evangelist a “promoter of interracial harmony.” When he followed up the meeting by inviting a thousand African-American singers to serve as the choir for the next white service, Current Opinion concluded that nothing like it had ever been attempted before. “Both races felt that an important step had been made in the right direction.” That journalists interpreted the appearance of a black choir at a Sunday meeting as a novelty illustrates the customary nature of strictly segregated revivals.

While Sunday’s efforts may have delighted some white southerners, they did not impress African Americans. After a long Washington, D.C., campaign a local minister noted that Sunday “was brought here by the whites for the benefit of the whites.” Over the course of a multiweek revival, Sunday denounced dozens of different kinds of sins, yet he ignored “the devil of race prejudice, rotten, stinking, hell-born race prejudice,” which would “be just as strongly entrenched in the white churches and in the community as it was before he came.” Sunday, the minister concluded, “at times, seems to be a little courageous judged by his vigorous denunciation of many sins; but when it comes to the big devil of race prejudice, the craven in him comes out; he cowers before it; he is afraid to speak out; at heart he is seen to be a moral coward in spite of his bluster and pretense of being brave. What are you afraid of Mr. Sunday . . . ?” The National Baptist Union Review leveled a similar charge. “It will not suffice for Mr. Sunday to invade the Southland,” the paper editorialized, “and denounce adultery, fornication, liars, hypocrites, bums, hobos, rascals, scoundrels, crap shooters, tramps and loafers, and leave untouched the lynchers, the ballot box thief, the segregator, the discriminator, the Negro hater, the promoter of racial strife and the mob leader, who burns human beings at the stake because they are black.” White fundamentalists simply proved unable to recognize race prejudice as a real problem. For them, inequality most often reflected God’s order rather than the sins of humanity. For African Americans the equality of all people represented an essential component of the fundamental gospel (pp. 131-32, emphasis added).

These sorts of dynamics, perhaps in subtler form, persist in many evangelical institutions. Sutton’s work can bear fruit, it seems to me, if it sheds light on the historical roots of the contemporary shape of American evangelical culture and how far short it comes from faithfully embodying the kingdom of God. Such exposure can lead to the creation of new and life-giving practices and postures toward one another.

*Update: In Sutton’s work, fundamentalism in the early 20th century is in continuity with evangelicalism in the decades following the second world war. I’m updating the title of this post to reflect the reality that the roots of contemporary evangelicalism’s racial issues lie in fundamentalism’s intentional racist ideology and strategies.

“The Wanderer” by U2

I saw U2 twice in Chicago a few weeks back and one of my favorite features was the intermission halfway through the show. They played “The Wanderer,” and on the video screen showed the face of Johnny Cash singing the song. As it progressed, Cash’s face aged, reflecting the tour’s name, “Innocence and Experience.”


I’ve had this song on my mind constantly as I work on my Mark commentary. I think Mark’s portrait of Jesus resonates strongly with the wanderer’s discovery of those who “say they want the kingdom, but they don’t want God in it.”

Here’s a repost of a reflection on the song from a few years ago:

U2’s “The Wanderer” & Grace in Ministry

One of my favorite U2 songs is “The Wanderer.”  It’s not too well-known outside of U2 fan-dom, but it’s brilliant in so many ways and on so many levels.  It is the final song on the Zooropa album, released in the midst of U2’s highly experimental phase during which, according to Christian Scharen, the band was exploring a number of themes from biblical wisdom literature.

The song blends a collection of characters into one.  There are resonances of Qoheleth from Ecclesiastes and his probing the mysteries of the world, including all sorts of pleasures.  There are also notes of self-reflection on the part of Bono that turn into something like confession.  Another character in view is someone like “Sonny” played by Robert Duvall in “The Apostle,” a self-appointed minister whose gifts and calling are somehow undeniable but whose personal failings and flaws do some pretty serious damage and make him a tragic figure.

What makes the song particularly powerful is that it is sung by Johnny Cash, who embodies these characters (or, these aspects of a singular character) and brings them to life.  The song is at the same time haunting, carnivalesque, and completely catchy.

U2 have rarely played “The Wanderer” in concert, though they performed it for a tribute to Cash.

The song begins with the wanderer noting some of the things he’s seen on his journeying:

I went out walking through streets paved with gold
Lifted some stones, saw the skin and bones
Of a city without a soul
I went out walking under an atomic sky
Where the ground won’t turn and the rain it burns
Like the tears when I said goodbye.

Yeah, I went with nothing, nothing but the thought of you.
I went wandering.

He’s seen cities whose beauty is skin-deep, places like Las Vegas—superficial and soulless.  He’s also seen the devastation done by apocalyptic Chernobyl-like tragedies.  His pondering the burning rain recalls the pain he’s caused to his loved ones, probably a woman whose heart he’s broken.  The only reason, however, that he’s embarked on this journey is because of a sense of divine calling—“nothing but the thought of you” (i.e., God).

The wanderer considers the two dominant empires of the Cold War era—America and the Soviet Union.

I went drifting through the capitals of tin
Where men can’t walk or freely talk
And sons turn their fathers in.
I stopped outside a church house
Where the citizens like to sit.
They say they want the kingdom
But they don’t want God in it.

But just as this prophetic role comes to the fore, the wanderer’s flaws do, too.  His sense of his own prophetic calling is caught up with and perverted by his craving for celebrity and praise.

I went out riding down that old eight-lane
I passed a thousand signs looking for my own name.
I went with nothing but the thought you’d be there too,
Looking for you.

The song’s conclusion is particularly powerful and especially relevant for contemporary ministry.  It seems that Bono gets confessional here, meditating on his overly pious behavior throughout the 1980’s.  U2 had gotten really preachy in those days, and looking back, they see the hypocrisy and corruption of that posture and prophetic mode.  They were trying to do God’s work for him, and anyone doing that perverts the work of God and somehow becomes perverted, too.  That person doesn’t truly understand God and his grace nor his own brokenness and need of that very same grace.

Here’s the final section of the song:

I went out searching, looking for one good man
A spirit who would not bend or break
Who would sit at his father’s right hand.
I went out walking with a bible and a gun
The word of God lay heavy on my heart
I was sure I was the one.

Now Jesus, don’t you wait up, Jesus I’ll be home soon.
Yeah, I went out for the papers, told her I’d be back by noon.
Yeah, I left with nothing but the thought you’d be there too
Looking for you.

Yeah, I went with nothing, nothing but the thought of you.
I went wandering.

Again, the wanderer had gone out to do God’s will.  He was out there because of this sense of divine calling.  But he went out with a Bible and a gun, ready to do God’s will with violence and coercion.  He had an unshakable faith in his own superiority and the righteousness of his cause—“I was sure I was the one.”

The penultimate section is just brilliant—“Don’t you worry, Jesus, I got this one.”  It’s profoundly striking how U2 portrays this sort of figure who seeks to do God’s work for him but totally misses it.

The temptation of this sort of ministry posture is so powerful.  We want to change others, coerce others, make them take our side and convert them to our movement.  This was Paul’s mode of doing God’s work before his conversion.

But this ministry mode is anything but pleasing to God.  Jesus condemns the Pharisees for going to great lengths to make disciples.  They don’t realize that they’re turning people into twice the sons of hell that they are (Matt. 23:15).  Imagine the Pharisees’ horror at hearing this—what are you talking about!?  We’re doing God’s will!

This may be the very sort of behavior that John has in mind in 2 John 9, speaking of those who run ahead of God.  Sometimes passionate zeal can seem like godliness, but it often carries a person beyond and outside of what God intends.

A ministry partner mentioned to me a few months ago that he found himself trying to turn our church into what he thought it should be.  I was struck because his comments revealed my own attitudes and strategies.  The end of this way, however, is frustration and anger, which do not bring about God’s righteousness (James 1:20).

A variety of pressures force us into modes of coercion that marginalize God’s grace in relationships and ministry.  They must be resisted, however, so that we never coerce or become relationally manipulative or rhetorically violent.

God’s grace only flows through cruciform servants who radiate freedom to others and joyfully love with abandon.

Jesus, the Marketplace, and the Kingdom

Throughout Mark, Jesus behaves in an offensively inclusive manner, pointing to the reality of an offensively inclusive kingdom. His eating with sinners and tax collectors (Mark 2:13-17) shocks the Pharisees, and Mark arrests his readers by noting that Jesus touches just about every ritually unclean character he encounters.

This narrative dynamic is made explicit in Mark 7:1-23. The episode opens with a powerful contrast with the previous summary account that reveals how Jesus and the Pharisees regard the kingdom of God.

When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed. The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) (Mark 6:53-7:4).

Because he is the agent of God’s kingdom presence, Jesus radiates healing. When he touches the unclean he radiates purity. Jesus goes through the marketplaces fearlessly, bringing the restoring and renewing reign of God.

When the Pharisees go through the marketplace, they fear impurity, so they wash themselves upon returning.

These are two alternative conceptions of how to approach “common people,” and they constitute two different visions of the kingdom of God. One approach arranges a social hierarchy of purity that operates under the illusion of God’s approval. The other is radically inclusive with no social hierarchy and operates with the confidence that God’s embrace is wider than human conception.

Pastors and Image Maintenance

I’m working on a project related to Paul’s pastoral aims and strategies. In a few places, he has some things to say about the dynamics of image-maintenance (e.g., 2 Cor. 12:5-6). I’ve been reflecting a bit lately on the pressures of image-maintenance and how they affect pastors.

I’m thinking of dynamics like the following:

  • An (over-)sensitivity to controlling how one is perceived, or how others think about oneself.
  • Attempts and efforts to manage others’ perception.
  • The pressure to display no uncertainty at all about the rightness of one’s cause, one’s course of action, or certain decisions.
  • Pastors feeling that they can’t be vulnerable. They can’t show any weakness.
  • Authenticity is not an option, or perhaps one’s “authenticity” is one that is conjured up when performing for an audience – an inauthentic authenticity.
  • The fear of disappointing people who have expectations about the sort of experience they’re expecting at church.

The source of these pressures is the need to keep people happy. And, if we’re honest, the pressure to keep money rolling in, and to keep people attending – to keep the numbers up. And in a consumer culture, the consumer / customer demands can be overwhelming and yet their desires for experiences are paramount. All of these work together to put pressure on pastors to be certain kinds of people.

Now, it’s easy to see these dynamics in celebrity pastors – pastors of mega-churches, or those who lead large para-church ministries or organizations. But I’m more interested in how these pressures and dynamics affect average pastors.

In what ways do pressures distort and corrupt your motivations in ministry? Do they distort your home life? Is there a radical disconnect between the person others perceive at church and the person your spouse and children encounter at home? Do you feel that vulnerability and openness is a threat?

Pastors, what other pressures do you face? I’m thinking especially of pressures that relate to maintaining an image. And what sort of image do you feel pressure to project?



On Not Advancing the Kingdom

John Goldingay has some very interesting things to say in his book, Do We Need the New Testament? In several places he repeats the notion that neither Israel nor the church were called to advance or bring in or implement the kingdom of God.

There is no direct link between seeking to restrain injustice in society and the implementing of God’s reign. Implementing God’s reign is fortunately God’s business. We have noted that the New Testament does not talk about human beings furthering or spreading or building up or working for God’s reign (p. 47).

An uncomfortable truth about the Holy Spirit is that we cannot control its coming and operation, as we cannot bring in or further or work for God’s reign. . . Our relationship with God is not contractual, so that we could fulfill the right conditions and it would have the desired results, as if our relationship with God resembled putting coins in a vending machine (p. 60).

Unfortunately, Goldingay doesn’t elaborate much on this notion, for it surely runs against the grain of much Christian rhetoric about advancing the kingdom or working for a kingdom agenda.

In our Gospel of Mark course from a weeks ago, we lingered over Jesus’ words about receiving the kingdom.

Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them (10:15-16).

We were struck since most of us are used to language of advancing or furthering or even entering. But Jesus speaks of receiving it.

What sort of language do you most associate with the kingdom of God – receiving or advancing? And what is intended by each of these? What do we typically mean by advancing it, and what might Jesus mean by receiving it?