Cynicism: Bonhoeffer on Disillusionment as a “Gift”

I will begin working on a couple of series of posts in the upcoming weeks, one focusing on cynicism (the topic addressed in Faith Without Illusions) and the other focusing on my impending move to England for PhD work.  This is the first post under the new series on cynicism.

Disillusionment thrusts us into cynicism.  When our tidy, idealistic impressions slowly erode away or suffer a violent explosion, then we find ourselves disillusioned, our feet jutting up heavenward by the ripping up of the carpet on which we once cheerily stood.  Disillusionment jars us, disorients us, and hurts us.  When these spiritual and emotional wounds fail to heal, they sour into bitterness.

Cynicism is a sickness.

And it is an epidemic.  Cynicism toward God and the church is rampant because the in-house wounds are so widespread.  Sadly, there is very little balm offered for healing.

But even though disillusionment hurts, it is also a gift.  “Dis-illusionment” is the dispersal of illusions.  Christians are called to embrace truth at all costs.  We are not permitted to enjoy the delights of empty illusions and false dreams.  In many Western contexts, we could use a good dose of disillusionment.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer would agree.  In my view, his Life Together is the best book out there on community. Early in the book he actually calls Christians to become disillusioned with each other (and themselves):

“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and with ourselves….  Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.  The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.” [i]

It seems to me that a great deal of energy is being spent on behalf of the church to maintain a lovely, presentable image fit for the fine, glossy paper of a fancy brochure.  The more we promote an unsustainable image of ourselves to the world and to one another the more we are promoting cynicism.  In a fallen world, the promotion of idealism will always lead to cynicism.  So the sooner we are disillusioned, the better.
But once again: disillusionment hurts.  The shock and disorientation of being undeceived leads to a great deal of initial misery.  I would contend, however, that though we may not be responsible for the wounds we have suffered, we are surely responsible for how we manage those wounds.  Patients tend to heal best when they are committed to their healing.
So what are we going to do with all our disillusionment?  Will we check into the cynics’ ward for spiritual rehab?  Or will we lie in the seething pain of our bitterness?   More anon….

[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (tr. John W. Doberstein; New York: HarperCollins, 1954), 26-27.  After citing this in Faith Without Illusions, I noticed that Dick Keyes cites from the same passage in Dick Keyes, Seeing Through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the Power of Suspicion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 203.

The Cover’s Designer chimes in…

In a recent post a wrote I presented an interpretation of the cover design in Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint.  I was so thrilled when I noticed that Cindy Kiple, the cover’s designer, actually offered a comment!  It kind of felt as though someone famous entered the cyber-stage unexpectedly.  Though you could read her comment under the earlier post, I wanted to give her words a little more of a spotlight:

You nailed it on the creative process with this cover design. When I found the guy in white moving down the road but looking back as if a bit reluctant I thought, “Bingo! That guy is a “cynic-saint”! I added the church building to the image for the very reasons you articulated and I played with the color and contrast in the whole picture to get that “grim but hopeful” feeling.

I’m so glad that you like the design! And though I do design a lot of covers, I don’t forget them! And I have my favorites, of which this is one. Blessings! Cindy

When you are a no-name, first-time author and folks give this kind of labor-intensive focus on your stuff, then it means a lot.  “Grim but hopeful.”  I like the sound—and look—of that.  Thanks, Cindy…..

A Russian formalist on what art does for us…

I picked up James Ressegui’s introduction to narrative criticism in the NT and found this quote about the purpose and power of art—

Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war….  Art exists that one may recover a sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony” [1].

Creative artistry can subtly guide or suddenly jolt us into recognizing the splendor in the mundane.  “Normal” may not actually be dull.  Maybe we are just dulled, dulled in the capacity to discern the extraordinary in the ordinary….

[1] Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, trans. Lee T Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 3-24; cited p. 33, n. 43 in James L. Resseguie, Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005).

New UCF CD… “Sing On”

UCF has a rich history of creating music.  The latest project is called “Sing On” which is a collection of original songs (and a reworked hymn) by students in the UCF community.  I knew the CD would be amazing because I know each of the artists and because I have so much respect for Jordan Holsombeck, the creative mind behind all the production.  But when I actually got to hear the tunes in my little truck, I was astonished beyond expectation.  This CD is incredible.  If you are in Birmingham, come to the CD Release Concert at the UCF House (see website for directions) this Thursday at 8:00.  The $8 admission fee will get you a CD at the concert’s end.  The funds will go to the UCF summer mission trip to Haiti.

The production of this CD and the upcoming release of my book has stirred afresh in me a swirling cloud of thoughts on the intersection of Art & Theology.  Theology yields art—it must, because responding to the richness of theological realities require higher forms of expression.  And art can produce theology—true beauty always derives from God.  I am moved by the fact that one of the songs on the new CD was written after a sermon my friend Joel Busby preached at UCF.  His sermon endures through the art to which it eventually contributed.

I love that.  So sing on….


(To check out Sing On at iTunes, click here).

The Gospel is Violent (but let me explain…)

“Gospel” is a violent term.  It is a term of salvation, yes… but also of destruction.  The Gospel announces the arrival of Jesus as Lord.  This arrival comes with the dual role of saving and destroying, for although “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Lk 19.10), He also came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8).

I am preaching on “The Kingdom of God: Signs, Wonders, & ‘Spiritual Warfare'” at UCF.  My approach is to address a host of sticky, controversial issues (usually confined to more charismatic/Pentecostal circles) and situate them in their proper biblical context of the coming of God’s Kingdom.  Unfortunately, much discourse in “pop-Christianity” on the dramatic, supernatural elements of the New Testament is premised on personal mystical experiences and a sleuth of Scriptural prooftexts.  It is also unfortunate that when non-charismatic Christians discern glimmers of biblical irresponsibility in these approaches, they often dismiss the supernatural and the numinous altogether.  I think a careful study of the coming of God’s Kingdom (or, dominion, or reign) would help clear the murky waters a bit.

While preaching on “cosmic conflict” (I prefer that phrase in order to avoid certain associations that come along with “spiritual warfare”), I emphasized the violence of the Gospel.  In the Synoptics, the “Gospel” is the royal pronouncement of God’s divine reign, with the accompanying connotations of what that means from Israel’s prophets.  Isaiah 40-66 is especially important for understanding “Gospel” and the in-breaking divine reign of YHWH, a reign associated with a Day—the Day, the Day of YHWH.

In the LXX (Septuagint) 52.7, the announcement of God’s reign is figuratively portrayed by way of a military image, an image with which Israel would have been familiar (see esp. the battle scenes throughout 2 Samuel).  This is the image of the runner sent from the field of battle to make the announcement to his people (surely through heaving breath and with a pounding heart) that their king had won and that their enemy had been defeated.  The Greek verb used in Isaiah 52.7 (cf. Isa 40.9) is a participial form of euangelizo, the verb from which we get the noun “evangel” and the adjective “evangelical.”  The Greek derivative noun is euangelion, the word we translate into English as “Gospel.”  All four Gospels ground their presentation of Jesus’ ministry in Isaiah 40-66 (“…prepare the way of the Lord…”—Isa 40.3).  So the Gospel, the royal pronouncement of God’s in-breaking reign through Jesus, is a violent term.

Our salvation is from more than just personal sins.  In Scripture, “sin” can refer to an act of disobedience (I like to use the word “treason” or “mutiny” to emphasize that sin is an offensive attack on God’s Kingship). But “Sin” can also refer to a sinister power or force.  Its colleagues in destruction throughout the Bible can be Death, Chaos, Disease, and the Devil.  So our salvation is from our personal sinfulness, but also from these draconian forces arrayed against God and the beauty and goodness of His Creation.  The Gospel is violent because it announces the coming of God’s reign, and the coming of God’s reign is an assault on other reigns.

I must be clear, however, that the Gospel does not promote physical violence!  Gospel-violence is directed toward cosmic forces of evil.  As we find in Ephesians 6:12, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  Jesus never takes up the sword.  He never hits anyone.  Instead, He engages in fierce combat with the supernatural forces that have promoted violence as a way of life among humankind. In his masterful commentary on Mark, Joel Marcus uses the phrase “holy war” to describe Jesus’ programmatic enactment of God’s dominion [1].

So the Gospel is the “power of God for salvation” (Rom 1.16).  But this salvation is both a salvation to, and a salvation from—we are saved to new creation life, but saved from old age powers.  And our final deliverance will come when death, the last enemy to be defeated, is crushed by the exalted Christ (1 Cor 15.26), the One who will also oversee from the divine throne the binding and eternal imprisonment of the evil one (Rev).  Praise God for the eschatological violence of the Gospel.

[1] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Bible, 27; Doubleday: New York, 2000), 72.

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The Book Cover

I have never met Cindy Kiple.  I had to go to Google Reader and scroll to the copyright page of my yet-to-be-released book to even figure out her name.  She is the designer of the book’s cover.  I would love to know about the creative process, the decision-making and artistic tweaks and revisions behind the scenes.  She may design so many books she would not even remember this one.

I am afraid I am about to do something that folks do in museums and galleries, something dangerous, exciting, and strangely permissible.  I am about to provide an interpretation of visual art without the insight of the artist.  Here is how I discern how her design presents the vision of Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint

The eye is drawn to the young man (I hope no one mistakes him for me—I am not hip enough to pull off the monochromatic thing with a hat).  The white is stark in the gray-black-earthy environs.  His clothing is bright, just ethereal enough with the contrasting surroundings to convey that he is a “saint” (in the New Testament sense, not in the sense of saint-veneration).  He is saintly by virtue of his bright clothing… and also by his direction.  He is walking toward a church.

But this is a “cynic-saint.”  Though he plods toward the church, his face is turned away.  There is reluctance, perhaps born out of disgust or suspicion.  Maybe disillusionment.  And if you can see the image clearly enough, you will notice that the church is stark and dark.  The architectural austerity and fixity make it an unavoidable and immovable destination along the road.  The windows of the church are dark.  No warm light oozing through translucent stained glass.  But this foreboding monolith is the destination.  This is where the road leads.  So the movement of the young man is a movement of internal friction and external uncertainty… but yet there is persistence, somehow, in that he nonetheless moves onward.  The hyphenation in “cynic-saint” implies movement.  It is the movement toward something good and hopeful in spite of grim realities.

The idea of time seems prevalent in the picture.  By the length of the shadow and the glint of the sunlight on the ground, it is clearly dusk.  Maybe there is a sense of urgency as night approaches.  Maybe there is eschatological warning or yearning.  Maybe the church building will offer refuge in the dark.  But maybe the church itself is too dark to be fitting shelter from any night.  Even so, the cynic-saint edges onward.

Cindy: amazing work.  I love it.