Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What Our Stories Tell Us-- The 2007 Holiness Lectures

Dr. Joseph Dongell my colleague here at Asbury gave two superb lectures last week for our annual holiness lectures, and he has graciously allowed me to publish them here on this blog. What follows here is the first of the two lectures. In a subsequent blog we will make available its sequel, but it will be interesting to see your reactions to these fine lectures, which produced a considerable response here. These lectures do what all good lectures ought to do-- tease the mind into active thought about important matters. BW3

Holiness Conference 2007

How Bad Is It, Doc?

•We have just emerged, over the last few years, from the bloodiest century in the history of the human race. We human beings have been killing each other off at an alarming rate. We might begin with the well-rehearsed figure of 6 million Jews exterminated by the Third Reich. But what numbers would we offer beyond that? I was surprised to learn, several years ago, that the total number of dead, attributable to the carnage of WWII, is right at 50 million: nearly equally divided between 25 million dead combatants, and 25 million dead civilians.

•Were we to add the total dead from WWI, we should add around 12 million. Then we might toss in the commonly agreed upon death count from Stalin’s crusade of murder among his own people: a cool 20 million. And the numbers keep growing…. from the killing fields of Cambodia, to the tribal genocides in Africa; from the constant slaughter in American cities, to the massive starvations that stem directly from political oppression; from the running conflict in the Middle East, to the running conflict in Southeastern Europe…the number soars. Zbigniew Brzeninski, former Security Council chairman, in a 1993 book has calculated that as many as 175,000,000 lives were “deliberately extinguished through politically motivated carnage.” Matthew White in the Historical Atlas of the 20th Century pegs it slightly higher, at 188,000,000. Earth is not the “pale blue dot,” as the late scientist Carl Sagan sentimentally described it, but it is a bright red dot that has been dripping with our own hatred and blood since the very beginning, when Cain killed his brother Abel.

Miroslav Volk, Christian theologian and native Croatian, in his book entitled Exclusion and Embrace describes the endless cycles of violence that have been rolling forward through the centuries and worsening. One group of people comes to believe their identity, their culture, and even their very existence, have come under threat from another group of people. The besieged ones, naturally then, divide the world into two camps: “us’ and “them,” and then begin redefining these “Others” in the most extreme forms possible: They are “the enemy.” They are wildly wicked, unspeakably ugly, and totally twisted. “We,” on the other hand, are as close to perfectly innocent as human beings can possibly be!

Then armed with the certainty of their own perfect innocence and powered by the fear of their own extinction, each side sets out to exclude the Other, the Enemy. How does exclusion work? Volf lays out the three ways in which we human beings have been practicing exclusion for millenia:

First… most simply and directly, we exclude our enemies through Violence. We announce, “We will destroy you. Then you will no longer threaten us.”

Or second, we exclude our enemies by Assimilation. We announce, “We will swallow you. Yes, come live among us, but, we will absorb you into ourselves, so that you will lose every distinctive feature of your identity. You will become who we are.”

Or Third, we exclude our enemies by Self-Insulation. We put up thick walls around ourselves to protect ourselves within our own territory. We declare, “Stay outside these walls, and we will grant you the full right to live or die, or do whatever you please in the rest of the universe.”

Here’s what is fascinating to me: All three forms of exclusion are powered by one and the same underlying conviction: “We are now at risk of extinction, and we must now do whatever it takes to keep ourselves from being erased by those Other.”

All of this has its roots, no doubt, at the very beginning or our history in Adam’s sin in the garden. Among other things, that rebellion involved much more than simple disobedience to a simple command. It included an “unplugging” from the Living God, and that ‘unplugging’ had disastrous consequences. Since God alone is truly alive in God’s own being, then God alone is the source of life for the whole creation and every creature in it. And so if we turn and unplug from the Living God, we are unplugging from the life itself. Picture an astronaut floating on a space walk just outside the shuttle, who at some point says to himself, “hmm, I think I’d like a little more freedom…I’ll just cut this cord right here so I can drift wherever I want…

Well, having unplugged ourselves from the source of all life, there has been a loud hissing sound, as now we are gasping for air to breathe, gasping for life, battling to secure our own survival. Somehow each one of us in the long parade of humanity has now become inwardly curved. Lacking the life-giving presence of God within us, each one of us has had to reorganize the whole universe around him or herself, making oneself the center of one’s reality. Now I am tilting everything and everybody towards myself I order to fuel my existence, in order to underwrite my very being. Here is the point I want to press: Ego-centrism, or self-centeredness, is not simply a minor moral fault that shows up in a few immature people. No, it is the hallmark of our whole race, and it is an absolute necessity for our survival in the godless world of limited life resources we have now made for ourselves.

I have a certain admiration for the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche…not because I agree with his program, but because he actually dares to say what most people believe but won’t admit. (I have paraphrased some of his tortured grammar to make him easier to understand.) Nietzsche writes:

If we were to refrain from injuring, abusing, or exploiting one another, we might actually succeed in developing what some call “good behavior” between individuals. But if we were to make “good behavior” the cornerstone of society, we would soon discover what “good behavior” really is: it is the denial of life, and will inevitably result in dissolution and decline. We must think through the reasons for this, and resist all sappy, sentimental analysis: life itself in its essence requires appropriating, injuring, and overpowering those who are foreign and weaker. Life requires oppression, harshness, forcing ourselves on others, and at the very least, exploitation. If a group of people is lively and not dead, then they must do to other groups of people everything that individuals within the group would refrain from doing to each other. Those who are truly alive will want to grow, to reach out around themselves, to pull towards themselves, to gain the upper hand over others…not out of some moral reasoning, but because they are truly alive, and because life simply is the will to power. Exploiting others is not the mark of a decadent, imperfect, or primitive society. No, it is part of the fundamental nature of living things. Exploitation is a consequence of the true will to power, and that is simply the will to be fully alive. (Beyond Good and Evil, pp. 152-3)

I hope you saw it: Apart from a living connection with the Living God, our only way of staying alive is to center in on ourselves and suck the life out of others. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

I discovered an interesting confirmation of this vision of human life from a book that captured my interest over the summer. I was sitting in one of those overstuffed leather chairs in the Joseph Beth bookstore when the title of a book across the aisle caught my attention: The Seven Basic Plots. Now my personality type and learning style make me hunger for any book that promises an overview of anything. And that’s just what the author, Christopher Booker provides. He has analyzed a huge swath of stories found in every imaginable form of fiction, from many cultures, and across the centuries. Just scanning his index of about 500 stories is interesting, with titles such as Cinderella, Catcher in the Rye, Brave New World, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, King Kong, Madame Bovary, Beowulf, Oliver Twist, Treasure Island, Schindler’s List, Psycho, …even the Three Little Pigs…and on and on. Booker has concluded that nearly any story we tell will fall into one of 7 basic plot types: he calls these Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth.

He claims that the underlying commonality within our storytelling has not happened by chance, or because of limited human imagination. Rather, it flows out of deep archetypal patterns somehow written into the code of humanity itself, in almost a Jungian sense.

But what interests me even more is his classification of character types that show up in our stories. It is almost as if the human mind has pre-set expectations for how people will act in our stories, and that we tell all of our stories using a fairly limited cast of stock characters.

Booker goes on to describe one particular character appearing in most of the 7 plot types: a character he calls “the Monster.” He claims that the one supreme characteristic of every Monster that has ever been portrayed in a story is this: he or she is egocentric. This ego-centrism makes the Monster (in his inner soul) heartless and unable to feel for others, although this may sometimes be disguised beneath a deceptively charming, kind or solicitous exterior. The Monster’s real concern is to look after its own interests, at the expense of everyone else in the world. The Monster sees the world through the tunnel vision of its egocentric desires, meaning that most of the time, the monster is blind to its own perversion and blind to true reality. So fixated is the Monster upon itself, that it has difficulty belonging to anything greater than itself.

Though I have gathered that Booker himself is a thoroughly secular man, he almost becomes a gospel preacher when he declares that monsters do not represent a few ghastly individuals running loose here and there among us, but rather, monsters represent the common disease infecting all of us. Booker puts it this way: “the Monster in storytelling represents everything in human nature which is somehow twisted and less than perfect.” It is through the single character of the Monster that storytellers for millennia have, knowingly or not, been exposing the deep moral sickness of all humanity. Written deeply into the internal coding of every one of us is a suffocating self-centeredness which propels us into the self-protecting behavior which then leeks out into the many varied forms of violence we inflict upon each other.

I think it comes together this way: When we human beings unplugged ourselves from the living God, we took it upon ourselves to supply ourselves with life, somehow to become the ultimate guaranteers and underwriters of our existence. But since we have no life in ourselves, we have, of necessity, transformed ourselves into blood-sucking predators, revengeful hoarders of the means of life. We must either destroy or hold at arms length all others who would draw down our precious supplies of life.

Now we come to the Scripture of the morning, Matthew 5:43-48…and the shocking call of Jesus to “love your enemies,” and to “pray for those who persecute you.” In light of all that we have been considering, the command to love our enemies isn’t just difficult, or inconvenient, or costly, or unpleasant. It is downright irrational. It sounds like a call to self-erasure: It sounds like a death wish. It contradicts our deep instinct for survival, by calling us to give our love and prayer for those who are bent on our harm, or on our pain, or even our extinction.

I want to offer five reflections on this passage:

First, Jesus seems to assume the constant reality of enemies. He doesn’t say, “if” you have an enemy, love him, but “love your enemies.” Enemies apparently are a normal and undeniable part of a fallen world.

Second, Jesus doesn’t precisely identify who our enemies are. This I judge to be an intentional ambiguity, forcing us to consider the many different levels at which people threaten our well-being: all the way from those who would threaten our very lives, or our jobs, or our reputations, or our self esteem, or our peace of mind.. whether they do so intentionally or not.

Third, Jesus does not settle for the non-hatred of our enemies. He does not settle for benign isolation or detachment from those would cause us pain, but calls for positive love and active prayer for these persons. A disciplined neutrality or coolness toward those who threaten us is not yet the way of Jesus.

Fourth, Jesus is not terribly impressed by the way we human beings can pour out our love on those who love us, or on those who will appreciate our generosity. As Jesus points out, even the most morally corrupt people on the planet can do this. The real test of love is how we react to those who threaten us and the things we hold dear.

Fifth, in calling us to love our enemies, Jesus calls us to imitate God’s own ways. God lavishes his cooling, refreshing, enlivening, invigorating, thirst-quenching rain even upon people who hate him, who abuse his name, who slander his character, who deny his existence, who spurn his truth, who reject his Christ, and even who actively campaign against his Gospel. Upon these very ones who so deeply grieve his heart the good rain falls, and the gentle sunlight glows. Jesus calls us to be like that to our own enemies.

But so high is this calling, so unnatural, so irrational from a human point of view, that even we Christians seem unable to walk very far down this road. Even among ourselves, when we feel wounded or threatened or attacked by another brother or sister we too often choose to keep our distance and hold a grudge, or even launch counter attacks. I find it interesting that Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, was utterly pessimistic about this very matter. Paul Althaus summarizes Luther’s conclusions:

What Jesus demands [in loving our enemies] exceeds our powers and is contrary to our nature. We cannot give orders to our heart. Anger against our enemy is ineradicable. In spite of every appearance of friendliness, deep down inside himself a man seeks his own advantage and therefore he is inwardly closed up against his brother…[and in this Luther was describing Christians] [The Theology of Martin Luther, pp. 150-153].

Clearly Luther believed that God can and does forgives our sins, that God can and does dissolve the guilt of all our evil behavior in the blood of Christ, that God pours out upon us the Holy Spirit…that God grants us new birth and life through the living and abiding Word. Yes, all of this is true, but it is also true that every Christian theological tradition, and every lineage of spiritual wisdom agree that as wonderful and remarkable and beautiful as is the New Birth is, it generally does not reverse the inner distortion of our hearts; Our deepest parts we are still curved inward, still harboring the Monster mentality that seeks to enlist everyone around us in servicing our needs, and that authorizes us (of course only in extreme circumstances) to demean or belittle or reject others, or conversely to insulate and hold ourselves off from others…all for the sake of preserving our own fragile existence or the rightness of the causes we champion.

The Monster mentality of self-focused living can thrive particularly well among us who are devoted to Christian ministry, even in a seminary. It peers our from the box into which we think we have locked it, but its odor seeps out in a thousand ways, with a thousand curious twists. Perhaps it is Monster mentality when just a minor word of correction absolutely floors us, and we think life is now not worth living at all; or when we constantly require delicate, tip-toeing treatment from others and need exceptions to the rules others are expected to follow; or when we have trouble imagining that ideas we ourselves have not generated could possibly be valid; or when we gauge our worth by comparing ourselves with others... and end up feeling secretly relieved when certain others fail, or slightly sick when certain others succeed; or when we presume that our own motives are absolutely pure, but then ferociously dissect the possible motives of others with cynical imagination; or when we find ourselves obsessing about “fairness”, and are driven to distraction in campaigning to right every single against ourselves; or when we are quite delighted in our spectacular demonstrations of love and sacrifice for the poor and helpless, but are deeply hurt when we are not publicly recognized for these; or when we demand forgiveness from others for our faults, but grant forgiveness to others in tiny slivers tipped with poison; or when we advocate tirelessly for justice and mercy, or solid theology, or refined exegesis, or cultural sensitivity while leaving a trail of broken relationship in our wake; or (and please forgive me in advance for this!) when in hearing a list like this, we immediately think of all the other people who needed to hear this list, without even considering that I might be the man, I might be the woman.

But what are the prospects for us as we sit here this morning?

There are many Christians who have concluded, along with Luther, that there can be no release from this deep distortion and its power over us until we slip into the grave. God’s grace, in this view, is limited to the business of forgiving sin. What does the Gospel offer to fallen humanity? Essentially it offers us amnesty for our horrid behavior. We’ll call this option A.

Others are slightly more optimistic. We’ll call this option B. Yes, we remain inwardly distorted, but through the help of the Holy Spirit we can learn, little by little, how to edit our speech and actions so that we might become incrementally more pleasing to God. The deep inner disease of self-centeredness will always remain, but God’s grace can bring some meaningful (thought limited) success in restricting just how far our monster mentality acts itself out. So according to Option B, the Gospel offers to fallen humanity amnesty for our horrid behavior, along with some hope of managing the Monster Mentality.

But is there an Option C?

I live out in the country about four miles south of here on a hill down towards the river. One of my hobbies is working on the land, and trying to garden. In the process I often collect large piles of brush tree limbs to be burned. I have to admit that there is special joy in setting off really big bonfires. (It’s amazing what a cup or two of well-placed diesel fuel will do to get things going!) Well about two years ago I set off a particularly large blaze. It was summer, and it was fairly dry, so I’m pretty careful about this stuff: I have a spot about 200 feet from the house, and about 100 feet from the nearest tree. I even pulled the garden hose down to the pile and soaked the grass all around it to prevent the fire from creeping out into the field. So I set off the blaze…and it was glorious! Flames leaping straight up 20 feet or so, snapping and crackling…with quite a roar. And then a problem I hadn’t anticipated. A wheelbarrow load of dry leaves I had buried deep in the pile had begun to burn. And because of the powerful updraft, these burning leaves were now being sent high into the air, and were drifting out in many directions, and were beginning to settle downward, still burning. There I was, holding my little garden hose, frozen in my tracks. Then I began running around, dragging that hose with me, trying to douse the falling leaves wherever they landed: here and there, and everywhere.

Spiritually speaking, I believe we can chase around and succeed, even quite well at times, in extinguishing here and there the burning leaves of self-centeredness as they fall. We can indeed, with the Spirit’s help, edit (to some extent) our words and deeds, and limit the behaviors that our monster mentality wishes to sponsor.

But, you know, at one point as I was staring at the inferno there in my front yard, seeing that those burning leaves were spewing out than I could chase them down, the thought struck me…shouldn’t I run to the source of the problem? What if I could hose down that clump of leaves and stop the problem there? Is there an option C?

And this is the question I want to leave with all of us this morning: Is there an Option C? Can God’s grace go further than forgiving our sins? Does the Good News of the Gospel offer more than the hope of merely managing our self-centeredness? Could it be that the saving work of God and can run deep enough to reach right on down into the core of our character, down into our dispositions themselves, …. to lay hold of that inward self-obsessed curvature and reverse it, transforming us into outward-flowing people, now liberated to live in love, and to live for others?

What about Option C?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.


Unknown said...

There surely is no option C. Great post. Tremendous lucture.

Unknown said...

Thanks for passing along this lecture. The image of the burning leaves was powerful and presents the issues very memorably.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Shirley:

Ah, but there is an option C, as you will see in the second of these lectures.


Anonymous said...

I hope there is an "Option C". That would be of great inspiration and hope to me. Without real change in people's heart what hope of God's Kingdom do we have here on earth? FOr that matter what hope do I have in living a God-centered when I am so far off from missing the mark? No, a little wash & wax won't do it for me. I need a complete overhaul. If I knew that God could truly change my heart, I think I would be far happier in life. (And I don't mean a change in a material sense, but from a moral/emotional/spiritual sense.

Ben Witherington said...

Hang in their Dave, Option C is a comin' soon.


CP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I have been grappling with this issue for some time, but I cannot help but think about Isaiah 53, "the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed." Does being 'born again' carry the same idea? If we are a new creation, it would seem to me that creation implies a process? If the Son sets us free we must at some point must become free.

phred said...

GREAT post. Selfishly, I see a thousand sermon illustrations and quotes in this, so that's always a good thing ;).

I have 3 teenagers... Linkin' Park's Minutes to Midnight speaks of the struggle to want to erase our actions, to deal with "what I've done".

In this farewell
there is no blood, there's no alibi
cause I've drawn regret
from the truth of a 1000 lies
so let mercy come and wash away
what i've done

What I've done
I face myself
to cross out what I've become
Erase myself, let go of what I've done

but to ask, what you thought of me
well I clean the slate
with the hands of uncertainty
so let mercy come, and wash away
what i've done

I face myself
to cross out what I've become
erase myself, and let go of what I've done

For what I've done,
I start again, and whatever pain may come
today this ends, I'm forgiving what I've done

Ignobleone said...

Option C is what we are called to as Christians, a life of holiness wherein we are moved; at times just for a moment, sometimes for weeks at a time, and always incrementally closer to being "plugged in" to God. Option C requires a belief in the afterlife.

I would like to offer that the lecturer does overlook the millions of incidents wherein individuals in those muderous struggles he mentions have sacrificed their lives or attempted to on behalf of their fellows. There are many ways people find themselves caught up in these calamities, and millions of instances where (regardless of their theology or religious practice) those involved have laid down their lives for their fellows - acts which tend to diminish the negative picture of the human heart painted in the lecture.

Yours in Christ

Falantedios said...

I believe the Good News of the Gospel stands the metaphor on its head, something like this...

What if Option C is what really happens?

What if the evil within us, the Monster, is the clump of leaves that the Holy Spirit sets aflame?

What if those burning remnants are God's power being made perfect in our weakness?

What if the wind of the Spirit is pushing those flaming, floating leaves around to scatter the power of God's kingdom, spreading his transforming and purifying love throughout the cosmos?

What if the guy with the hose is also reality... us... afraid of the Spirit's power, trying to defend the status quo because we think the fire is the monster?

in HIS love,