A Review of Hunger of Memory

It is strange and a wonder to stumble on a book that tells your story. A friend recommended Hunger of Memory to me and when I first started reading it, I had to put it down because my skin crawled with the feeling that someone had gotten inside my head and written my thoughts out. The book was published three years before I was born. And yet its pages startle me into recognition like a misplaced mirror. If you want to understand me, this book is a kind of key into my inner world. I don’t like everything in it, but then again, I don’t like everything in me, either.

Richard Rodriguez’s story is so very much my story. He is a Mexican-American man who has mostly lost his Mexican identity and has a weird obsession with English literature. (I know right!? There are two of us!?) Like Rodriguez, I am on a quest to dig deep into cultural treasures that sometimes feel like they are mine to share and sometimes feel like they will always be someone else’s. He also mentions the “sin of betrayal” of learning English, and I know that “sin” deeply. Other Latinos have coldly rejected me when they learn that I can’t speak Spanish.

But to be more truthful, his story is my father’s story and my story rolled into one. What happened more slowly over three generations in our family happened in his life in two. It is a story of growing up poor, of Mexican parents who transplanted their children into white spaces so that they would gain access to education, wealth, power, and success, and the children losing their cultural heritage along the way. This is the American Dream: assimilation, self-determination, success, no matter what the cost.

Like Richard Rodriguez, I am keenly aware of the tremendous strides our family has made in the span of three generations. My grandfather, a migrant worker, became a school janitor so that my father could go to a state college and become an engineer, so that his son could go to an upper class private liberal arts college and go on even further to get a master’s degree so that now I can pick at the Bible in Hebrew, Julian in Middle English, Barth in German. And yet, like Richard Rodriguez, my life took a left turn. I have been given so much as a third generation minority: wealth, education, whiteness, but it’s not what I long for.

On paper, it’s the American Dream in three acts. Rags to riches, or if not riches, at least middle class lattes, minivans, and Amazon Prime. But what was truly gained, and what was lost? This looks and sounds like profound ungratefulness, but it’s not. I have been given so much, more than any other generation in human history. My grandparents and parents worked hard, very hard, to give me opportunities. I am deeply grateful. But it’s a recognition that the gifts are not the Giver and to settle for the gifts in themselves is idolatry. Remember that we have a deeper hunger.

Richard Rodriguez’s politics are scrambled, like mine. By critiquing liberal orthodoxies, he is despised by other minorities. But by exposing the utter meaninglessness of the American Dream, he cannot sit easily with white conservatives, either. He calls himself “a comic victim of two cultures,” and something in me says “Yes, that’s me. I, too, am a shapeshifting tragicomic.”

Rodriguez has written other books where he delves deeper into religious questions, so I’m not going to speak for him on that, but it is at this juncture of double estrangement that the Gospel comes alive for me. Jesus, for me, is the only solution to estrangement. Jesus is the one who made the promises of God come true on the cross, promises of peace, reconciliation, and a home. It is Jesus who is at work in me to reach out, beyond my own shame and guilt and alienation, to truly love and even know others. It is Jesus who is at work in me to reach out in both directions – toward brown and white, toward Republican and Democrat, toward Pharisee and tax collector – in search of community, in search of a home, together.

There are many reasons why I am drawn to Augustine, but one of the biggest is that he was, like me, a person of mixed ethnicity who further lost his already vanishing ethnic identity when he went and got educated. As Justo González points out in his book The Mestizo Augustine, Augustine was both North African and Latin, both conquered and conquerer, a mestizo. This double estrangement – not quite North African, not fully Latin – is familiar to me. And yet it was this same double estrangement that gifted him the unique vantage point from which to write the City of God. His double estrangement opened him up to see that in scripture, Israel and the Church are a pilgrim people, estranged from the world on their way to their heavenly home. His double estrangement gave him the necessary distance to see Rome for what it was, “a second Babylon,” as he called it. I imagine some of the old Pagan aristocracy and not a few proud Roman Christians were very upset when he wrote that. But most importantly, it was in his double estrangement that he experienced the reconciling grace of God, a grace that satisfied his deepest hungers and opened him up to share the feast of God with other living, breathing, broken and beautiful human beings.

Mexican heritage, the American Dream, mestizaje, these are all good gifts of creation. And yet, when worshipped they become what the Hebrew Bible calls hevel: vanity, evanescence. The beautiful paradox of the Gospel is that it is only when we empty ourselves of everything else but Jesus, everything but the cross of Christ, that we can receive the world back, even our cultures and identities, a hundredfold, resurrected, transfigured.

Dead Kings and the Living God

I’ve always been struck by the introduction to Isaiah’s famous “Holy, Holy, Holy” vision of God in Isaiah 6. It begins with the words, “In the year that King Uzziah died.” These opening words anchor the vision in history, so we remember that Isaiah sees this vision of God’s glory in a time of great upheaval and political uncertainty. But teaching high school great books for our homeschool co-op this year has helped me see something else in this passage. Actually, it’s helped me see something that *isn’t* in this passage. For great books this year we are reading the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and selections from Dante’s Divine Comedy. In each of these pagan works [sorry, Dante!], the main characters –– Odysseus, Aeneas, Dante –– go into the afterlife, and encounter many mighty men and heroes of old. This is what a pantheon really is: a projection of the best and greatest of human potential. And this is what is so strikingly different about heavenly visions in the Bible. They are not parades and triumphs of mighty men and heroes. They are revelatory visions of God, which eclipse all human potential and pride. “In the year that King Uzziah died…” If Isaiah were Odysseus or Aeneas, he would have seen Uzziah, freshly divinized, in his vision, but nope, he sees God’s glory. For biblical writers, kings and emperors and presidents are transient, they die and fade from the story. But the glory of God endures. John the Revelator picks up this theme of Isaiah in Revelation. In contrast with the emperors of Rome, who boast of their accomplishments and immortality and divine status, John sees a vision of the throne of God, where the best and brightest of creation cast their crowns before God. King Uzziah died. Aeneas died. Empires come and go. The glory of God is everlasting. 

Aeneas and Abraham

Reading the Aeneid this morning, I can’t help but contrast Aeneas and Abraham. Aeneas is the founder of Rome, Abraham the founder of Israel, except in a deeper way Abraham is not the founder of Israel at all, the LORD is. Whereas Aeneas claims divine ancestry (he is the son of Venus), Abraham has no such claim. Instead, he himself is claimed by God, elected and called by the LORD. The first claim is ontological –– Aeneas is “nate dea,” “Goddess’ son” (Aeneid I.582). The second claim is relational –– Abraham was “called a friend of God.” (James 2.23). Whereas the gods in the Aeneid are essentially props to support Aeneas’ national and cultural identity, the LORD makes a much more radical claim on Abraham, a claim that calls him out from his nation and culture and opens the boundaries of who exactly his descendants will one day be. It is prophesied that through Aeneas’ descendants “all destined wars will one day cease,” (Aeneid 9.643) and it is prophesied that through Abraham “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12.3)

Whether or not Luke was directly familiar with the Aeneid, it seems that he was familiar with the popular imperial Roman propaganda derived from sources like the Aeneid, because his birth narrative in Luke 1-2 appears to be deliberately crafted as both a fulfillment of the Abrahamic prophecy and a subversive critique of Virgil’s prophecies about Roman imperial power. Let the reader understand: We must reject the Virgil option and cling to the Abraham option.

The Psalms Are Our Work Songs.

The superscript of Psalm 8 reads, “according to the Gittith.” No one’s quite sure what that means, but some people thought it meant “for the wine press,” because one of the closest words to “Gittith” was “gat,” or wine press. Now, if it does mean “for the winepress,” then the tune of Psalm 8 could have been a tune that people sang while doing the long, tedious work of treading grapes. In other words, it was a work song.

We don’t often think of the Psalms as work songs. If anything, we might be tempted to think of them as “churchy” songs, songs for Sunday, robes and organs or guitars and light shows. But I like to imagine the people of God singing the Psalms not just in the temple but on the way to the temple, not just in “church” but during the work week.

Alan Lomax, a man who spent his life crisscrossing America and recording its folk music, once went to a prison in Mississippi and recorded the songs the prisoners sang there. Lomax asked Bama, one of the prisoners, why they sang work songs in the prison. He said,
“When you singin’, you forgit, you see, and the time just pass on ‘way; but if you just get your mind devoted on one something, it look like it will be hard for you to make it, see, make a day. The day be longer, look like. So to keep his mind from being devoted on just one thing, why he’ll practically take up singin’, see.”

As Christians, the Psalms are our “work songs,” and now so more than ever, as many of us are more confined than before. What’s your winepress that you are treading, waiting for the day that the grapes have turned to wine, and drudgery turns to party? Could the Psalms be your work songs, carrying you through the day?










Did Mary Really Give Birth to Jesus? (Or, Do Women’s Bodies Matter to God?)

Even though I’ve been looking for years, I can’t seem to find a Reformed theologian who makes a clear choice between the virgin birth of Jesus and the virginal conception of Jesus. When most Christians talk about “the virgin birth,” they are actually talking about the virginal conception –– the idea that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, without a human father. The virgin birth, on the other hand, if I understand it correctly, is the idea that Jesus was not born in the “normal” way, but that he somehow teleported out of Mary, leaving her birth canal untouched. Besides being extremely difficult to believe, I don’t think this has any basis in scripture. But while the virginal conception is extremely important for our whole theology of the Incarnation, our Christology, and even our understanding of divine/human agency, I don’t see anything important gained by insisting on a virgin birth. In fact, I think some things are lost. First, many women experience giving birth as an intensely spiritual experience. By denying that Mary really gave birth to Jesus, we cut off a vital connection between Mary, the paradigmatic new creation woman in scripture, and the ordinary experience of any woman who has given birth. Worse, by insisting that Mary somehow avoided the pain and earthiness of birthing, we disparage a central function of the female body, a body which Jesus came to redeem and one day resurrect. There are even scriptural reasons, I think, to affirm that Mary gave birth the “normal” way. Just as Jesus’ first coming points to his second coming, so Mary’s groaning and pain of delivery is a figure of how “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Mary’s act of birthing is a sign of how every part of our bodies –– not just our minds or “souls” –– is a part of God’s salvation story.

I heartily affirm with the creeds that Jesus was “born of the virgin Mary,” that is, that Mary was sexually chaste before she underwent the female experience of giving birth. But I also want to believe that Mary really gave birth, and that this is a sign of how our whole embodied selves –– indeed, “the whole creation” –– will be brought through our present pain into a greater glory.

… But, like I said, I can’t find any Reformed theologians writing on this. (I’m probably just looking in the wrong places.) What do you think? Or have you read anyone on this?

PS Speaking of “embodied earthiness,” I apologize if this mini-essay feels a bit rushed: I wrote it in the middle of wiping my toddler’s poopy butt.

a review of Adele Berlin’s Zephaniah commentary

An excellent commentary about a stunningly beautiful prophetic book. Zephaniah is a poet of wondrous complexity and emotive power, and Adele Berlin brings just the right literary sensibilities to draw out the poetic dimensions of this prophet.

Four good things about the commentary:

1. Berlin does a great job showing Zephaniah’s dizzying, multidimensional wordplay. Zephaniah messes with words with the same reckless abandon as Shakespeare or MF Doom, and Berlin delights with her catches. Best of all, Berlin shows the aural power of the words, how the sounds themselves convey multiple layers of meaning. This is a prophecy meant to be heard to be believed.

2. Zephaniah, like all Hebrew poetry, is a dense forest of intertextual vines, connecting the poem to the rest of the Biblical canon. Berlin helpfully traces the ways that Zephaniah links to creation, the flood, Babel, Deutero-Isaiah, and the Psalms, just to name a few. Having learned from Berlin, I am now “hearing” Zephaniah in surprising places in the New Testament, too.

3. As a Christian, it is really good for me to read commentaries from a Jewish perspective. Berlin cites a wide range of historical Jewish sources, which wonderfully broadened my understanding.

4. Most importantly, again and again Berlin opts to preserve the strangeness of the text over against emendation and harmonization. She does this because of her commitment to literary interests over text-critical interests, and I am grateful for it, because it keeps Zephaniah’s poetry vivid, bizarre, and unfinalizable.

And, three not-so-good things about the commentary:

1. Berlin follows modern historical-critical consensus in ascribing a late date to the work, so that all of the prophecies are after-the-fact. This robs the book of a certain level of revelatory power, and at certain points even seems to militate against the meaning of the text itself. Can God, the LORD “in your midst,” speak in history?

2. A book as raw and daring as Zephaniah invites (demands?) reflection on the character and doctrine of God, but Berlin leaves this issue out of her comments, focusing only on textual and literary concerns. At times it feels as if the commentary, for all its richness, is avoiding the most critical existential questions posed by the prophet.

3. On a related note: From my particular perspective as a Christian preacher, this commentary is necessarily incomplete, since it leaves the questions of New Testament fulfillment entirely unanswered. Interestingly, the early church fathers did not write much about Zephaniah, either, leaving the book open and in need of more Christological and figural reflection. But that is a book for another person to write…

Church Discipline as Liturgical Act

I’m thinking out loud here, so bear with me…

“When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”
– I Corinthians 5

I Corinthians 5 is wild, disturbing, and radical. It seems like Paul is saying that the church’s judicial actions are to be wholly integrated with the church’s liturgical actions. If this is correct, then the modern tendency to separate the church’s judicial proceedings from its worship life has confused Paul’s categories. It is to compartmentalize something that Paul sees as a unified whole.

Furthermore, the invocation of the Lord’s Supper in verse 7 indicates that the sacrament is at the center of Paul’s liturgical understanding of church discipline. Where we might see the Lord’s Supper as an opportunity to “boast” in radical inclusion, Paul is not afraid to see it as the very site where God’s judgement is enacted. (This is entirely consistent with what Paul says later in I Corinthians 10, where baptism and the Lord’s Supper are explicitly ruled out as free passes for sexual immorality.)

This is something I have witnessed more than once in our denominational gatherings within the Reformed Church in America. We fight and duke it out in historically contingent, modern forms of discourse (two minute speeches in front of a microphone), and then we come together around the Lord’s Supper, the place where the judgement and grace of God is actually being enacted. If we were following Paul and his radical presuppositions, the Lord’s Supper would be the place at which the drama of church discipline would be enacted, not just through some curious cultural artifact governed by Robert’s Rules of Order.

But there’s more. In I Corinthians 5, the man is handed over to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” There is a word here for both conservatives and progressives. For conservatives, it is important to remember that the disciplined man “may” be saved on the last day. And Paul says this without explicitly stating what will happen to the disciplined man after the liturgy of handing him over to Satan. In other words, following what Paul has said earlier in I Corinthians 4:5, the jury is out, and will not reconvene until the eschaton. This should give our church discipline a humble, provisional, and willing-to-be-surprised disposition. The parable of the weeds and the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30) makes this point even stronger. The overarching hope for the man is for healing, restoration, and reconciliation. The reference to “Satan,” so jarring to our modern ears, is actually a helpful and important distinction. Satan is the recipient of the expelled person, not the expelled person himself. Never demonize those subject to church discipline.

But there is a word here for progressives, too: Paul is working with a radically different theological anthropology than the LGBTQ inclusion movement. He has absolutely no problem separating the fate of the man’s “flesh” from the fate of the man’s “spirit.” So many arguments for full inclusion of LGBTQ people who are sexually active assume that the horizon of salvation can be collapsed onto the body. Calls for traditional sexual morality are blasted as violent and oppressive because they hurt the bodily existence of LGBTQ people. There is no consideration of the possibility that our bodies are not the self-contained, self-referential boundary of God’s saving action. In contrast, Paul is perfectly willing to say that the judgement of God may entail the destruction of the flesh for the salvation of the spirit. For us modern physicalists, this is anathema. But to Paul, it makes perfect pastoral sense. We have collapsed our eschatology into something obsessively physical, making it little more than a projection of our modern ideas of economic equality and bodily fulfillment into a hereafter of our own making. (I believe this charge can apply equally to quietist bourgeois eschatologies on the right and redistributive activist eschatologies on the left.) Paul is not afraid to pit present bodily suffering against future spiritual salvation and expect us to sit with him in the eschatological tension between the two. This is not to denigrate, oppress, or abuse the body. It is to adhere to the offensive-to-us claim that the body is not the self-contained, self-referential boundary of God’s salvific action.

It is this same careful distinction between body and spirit that empowers Paul to make the crazy claim that his apostolic authority can be exerted upon the Corinthian church in absentia. (I Corinthians 5:3) All of this suggests that our historically contingent models of polity that we construct on top of the New Testament are not the deepest electrical currents of the Spirit’s activity in church discipline. Legislative and judicial proceedings in the church, including those modeled on liberal democratic governing institutions, can be used by the Spirit in God’s freedom for the furtherance of God’s purposes. But it is in the proclamation of the word and the administration of the sacraments that the “most real” church discipline is enacted. This discipline is not limited by the horizons of space, time, and embodiment. In fact, if, as we say in our communion prayer, the church is united with creation and all the company of heaven, then I believe that Paul’s judgement pronounced in I Corinthians 5 is still working out its apostolic effectiveness today. When we gather around the Lord’s Table today, Paul’s judgement is present in our churches “in Spirit.”

Of course, this is not to claim that church polity is possible in a cultural vacuum. Our churches will assume the cultural norms of our surroundings. (So early Reformed polity reflects developments in early modern political thought, just as the rise of “network Christianity” today reflects disturbing changes in authority structures for the digital age.) But it does require us to maintain a vigorously skeptical posture toward any polity which assumes more than a highly provisional quality. Power structures come and go. The marriage supper of the Lamb will be forever.

There’s a lot I’m wrestling with here, but the core of what I’m saying is that our arbitrary modern bifurcation of judicial and liturgical proceedings might not reflect Paul’s original intention in I Corinthians 5. But that does not make the way forward any easier to discern or less scary.

Shakespeare, Psalm 88, and the Erosion of Meaning

Reading Shakespeare makes me a better reader of scripture. There are places in Shakespeare’s plays, especially throughout The Winter’s Tale, and in key places in Hamlet, where the language breaks down and meaning is obscured. Editors have tried to emend the text, trying to make it make sense. But I think that Shakespeare was intentional in letting the language decay and break down. The same is true in Hebrew poetry. There are places where the language breaks down, and biblical scholars have tried to emend the text to make it make sense. I think this is a mistake. One of the powers of poetry is the power to break language for the sake of truth. Example: in the final line of Psalm 88, the Hebrew breaks down. As best as I can tell, the literal Hebrew is “My companions––darkness.” Scholars and translators try to “fix” the Hebrew by inserting verbs and prepositions: “My companions *are in* darkness.” But I think the original Hebrew is intentional. The psalmist is so consumed by grief that her language itself breaks down, bordering meaninglessness and the void. Language doesn’t have to work properly in order to work effectively. And this itself is something that Psalm 88 teaches us about a life of prayer: God doesn’t want our perfect polished prayers. God hears our broken, grammatically incorrect, incoherent prayers.

Three Kinds of Suffering

The ideas in this essay are very much works-in-progress. I welcome your thoughts and corrections as I wrestle with suffering. Because it is a work in progress, the essay will change over time to reflect the input of others and my own conversions.

There are three kinds of suffering: suffering for bad choices, redemptive suffering, and suffering that is beyond our understanding.

The first kind of suffering happens when we make bad choices. If you stick your hand in the fire, you get burned. If you steal a car, you go to jail. In the Bible, this kind of suffering shows up in places like Deuteronomy and Proverbs. It is rigid, orderly, tit-for-tat. Of the three kinds of suffering, this kind makes the most sense to us.

The second kind of suffering is redemptive suffering, or suffering for a higher purpose. People sacrifice themselves for higher purposes all the time. They might suffer so that their families can have a better life, or they might die for a country in military service.

For Christians, the ultimate example of redemptive suffering is displayed on the cross. Jesus Christ willingly suffers so that we might be saved. Christ’s suffering is the reason why I Peter can call his readers to suffer for their faith. This kind of suffering is part of a bigger story. Peter (and also Paul) call us to suffer for Christ, because of “an eternal weight of glory” that is coming. Because in the end all shall be well, we can endure a little suffering now. This suffering still kind of makes sense, because this kind of suffering now is leading to glory later. It is not pointless.

But there is a third kind of suffering, the suffering that defies reason and explanation. It’s possible to suffer for doing something stupid, it’s possible to suffer for following Jesus, but it’s also possible to suffer for no reason at all. There is some suffering that will never make sense in this life. This is the suffering of Job, and some of the lament Psalms. As Job finds out at the end of the book of Job, the reason for this kind of suffering is a mystery. It lies beyond us, in the dark, majestic, beautiful and terrifying holiness of God. As Job’s friends discovered, if we try to explain this kind of suffering, we make things much, much worse.

Did you notice that all three kinds of suffering are in scripture? That’s because all three kinds of suffering are valid human experiences before God. If you are suffering, God may be calling you to discern, in conversation with pastors, friends, and family, what kind of suffering you are experiencing. But there is always a chance that the reason for your suffering will elude you. If you are a pastor, or in a position of spiritual authority, it is worth remembering that there is more than one kind of suffering. This should increase our compassion, and cause us to pause and listen before we diagnose other people’s problems.

Also, people are complicated. It’s possible that someone is experiencing more than one kind of suffering at the same time. We should never be too quick to tell someone why they are suffering. As sufferers and spiritual caregivers, a posture of humility, patience, and discretion goes a long way toward Christian love.

Nonetheless, as a pastor, if someone explicitly comes to me for counsel about their suffering, I do have to make choices about how best to counsel them, and those choices are heavily dependent on which kind of suffering they are experiencing. So, in a real way, wrestling with this typology has concrete and important consequences for offering spiritual wisdom to people who are suffering.

I think that these three kinds of suffering form a helpful typology for helping people to walk through their suffering with God. But, like any typology, it is reductionistic and overly simplifies the complexity of people.

There is a deep paradox to the cross that cannot be simply explained by human models of redemptive suffering. The suffering of Jesus on the cross is not exactly like someone jumping on a grenade for someone else. It doesn’t have the same simple formula of “I suffer so that you don’t.” If God truly took his own wrath upon himself on the cross, and if God invites us to take up our own crosses and enter into suffering with Christ, then the redemptive suffering of the Christian life is much more mysterious than simply suffering for a higher cause. It is nothing less than an entryway into the dark, majestic, beautiful and terrifying holiness of God. So the typology breaks down at the foot of the cross. As the earliest readers of the Bible knew, the suffering of Job and the suffering of Jesus are mysteriously, figurally linked. There is a kind of suffering that is beyond our understanding, but it is not beyond God.

And this is why the Psalms of lament are the place for us to go in our suffering. The Psalms remind us that all of our suffering –– whether from stupidity or the cross or for no reason at all –– happens in the presence of a Holy God. Suffering is beyond us, but it is not beyond God. Suffering finds its end in the heart of the Trinity, as the Lamb stands slaughtered before the throne.

By the Holy Spirit we are joined to Christ and enter into the life of God. In this age, our life includes suffering. Even though that suffering sometimes makes no sense, we still follow Christ into the mystery of the holiness of God.

What Do We Do With I Peter’s Ethics?

The ethics of I Peter in its household code is driven by a desire to remove offense within its cultural context, for the sake of witness. But today, I Peter’s ethical code would be considered offensive in a contemporary American context. What do we do with this? If Peter’s intention was to establish absolute ethical norms, then we are bound to follow him, even if it is noxiously countercultural. But if his intention was to remove offenses that would obscure the message of the gospel within a particular cultural context, then we might react to his list of ethical injunctions very differently. We might approach the same things (class, gender, suffering, and inequality) with an eye toward removing cultural offense. Peter writes: “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds.” What would “honorable deeds” look like, not in patriarchal Rome, but in egalitarian America? Peter writes, “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution.” If we are called to truly accept the authority of *every* human institution, then does that include not only the authoritarianism of an emperor, but also the egalitarianism of a consumer capitalist democracy? And how do we reconcile this stance of cultural accommodation with Peter’s other impulse to be spiritual migrants and refugees, staying different, called out, holy?