Archive for category: The Gospel

Preaching Fools: A Conversation with Chuck Campbell on Preaching, Folly, and the Arts (Part 2)

15 Oct Chris Breslin
October 15, 2012

When I took a preaching class in seminary, I never expected it to be such a creative launching pad for me.  We listened and watched all kinds of preaching and preachers and focused on different, and sometimes novel, ways of communicating both clearly and compellingly.  I went on to take another course, with professor Chuck Campbell, on Preaching, the Powers, and Principalities.  It was here that my imagination was further sparked to see and speak to the captivities and spiritual powers at play in our daily lives and in our congregations.  One thing I particularly enjoyed was Chuck’s playfulness; in the midst of incredibly serious material he never seemed to take himself too seriously. 

Preaching FoolsWhen Baylor University Press sent me a copy of Chuck’s (along with co-author Johan Cilliers) newest preaching book, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, I took the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss. Throughout the book there is a notable chorus, “The gospel is foolishness.  Preaching is folly.  Preachers are fools.”  This is a fairly unusual, possibly threatening, but certainly scriptural, statement for the average pastor.  An odd line in our job descriptions.  The book certainly struck a chord in regards to preparing and delivering sermons, but also, because of its surprisingly multimedia nature, it struck a chord in regards to the arts and their ability to embody and communicate this “gospel foolishness.”

In Friday’s post, Chuck spoke about preaching’s ability to unsettle us, put us in a middle ground, and change our perception.  At one point he mentioned the book’s very title changing before his eyes: from a noun to a verb, being the fool to being fooled.

This second post explores some of the similarities and engagements the book has with the arts.  We wind up talking about everything from the music of Derek Webb to Stephen Colbert to the upcoming American presidential election.


Hopeful Realism:  So as preachers, it is an interesting position we’re in.  Most people don’t want to hear that settling is a bad thing.  In fact, most of the time becoming settled, is “arriving.”

I think there’s a good analogy with pop music.  Is there any chance for pop music?  To hatch a message that counters the dominant culture and ideology in a form that is so dictated by tastes and wants.  We know what we want to hear and we know when we hear it.  It’s a closed loop.  How do you break in to that loop to speak in a language that is acceptable and interesting but say things that are potentially inflammatory or unsettling.

Chuck Campbell:  Unsettling doesn’t necessarily mean inflammatory.

HR:  Well, not necessarily inflammatory, but unsafe.  Pop music is the safest of genres.  It doesn’t change fast or much.  It doesn’t cut very hard against what is dominant.  How do you feed people the Bread of Life when they love a steady diet of junk food?

CC:  Love?  Well they’re used to it.  We think we know what we want to hear.

That’s a huge question, let me try to throw a few things at it: We try to say fairly clearly in the book that this is not the only image of the preacher.  We don’t want to claim that.  There are clearly times in people’s lives where a different kind of word may be necessary.  Though, I’m even wondering if in a situation of grief or loss, where life is quite liminal, if being unsettled is not a totally negative thing there.  But I haven’t sorted that out pastorally.

The other side is, I think we have the tendency to automatically assume this kind of preaching is troubling; whereas I would like to think of it as inviting into a kind of adventure.  Something that is much more interesting than simply being secure.  I’d like to frame it in a positive, graceful way.  Sure, there is going to have to be interruption, but a lot of times that is  similar to the kind of interruption to our captivity to the powers; which is killing us!  And a lot of people know it’s killing them.  I think there are a lot of Christians out there ready for the Christian faith to be something a little more interesting than we make it sometimes.  Maybe people might be more open to a vision of the faith that is a little more unsettled, that is moving, that is on the way…

And this is also a way to counteract the sort of Christianity today that lives in a sort of reactionary fear.  We talk in the book about “circling the wagons” and “iron theologies.”  There’s a lot of that going on in places and not just Fundamentalist places.  Liberals can be just as rigid and draw those lines just as hard.  It’s where these kind of ideologies happen that it does call for a sort of disturbing interruption.  I don’t think those [ideologies] are what we’re about as Christians.

HR:  I began to wonder about art as a medium, not just “high art” like Picasso, in the book there are political cartoons…

CC:  …Banksy…

Image courtesy of Banksy.

HR:  How did he not show up at the Olympics? [CORRECTION: He did!]

CC:  Or in the book?!  How did that slip by us?

HR:  It’s really interesting that you mentioned reading Dostoyevsky as a fuel for this sort of imagination.  Rowan Williams, who talks wonderfully about Dostoyevsky, writes about the “gratuity of fiction,” which I think applies to art more generally, in ways like the unsettling effects of foolishness and parody. 

“The gratuity of fiction arises from the conviction that no kind of truth can be told if we speak or act if history is over.”[1] 

There’s so much in the book about the form of the fool.  I think there’s a great analogy for the arts’ ability to incarnate, in some sense, the form of something while injecting surprise and challenge, especially alongside the sermon.

CC:  When I was inaugurated into a chair at my former school, one of my very first lectures was on this material.  That was ten years ago that I began work on this stuff.  I did this thing on naked street preachers and for that occasion Brian Wren, who is a hymn writer, wrote a hymn on the fool for that.  It is quite playful and very interesting in that regard.

Some other times we’ve tried to do services with jazz musicians, the perfect art form for this kind of liminality and movement and improvisation.  I love to work with musicians that can come up with the kind of art that can unsettle things.  For instance, just playing very different music while you’re celebrating Communion can completely change the expectations that we sometimes have at that table.

HR:  There’s a Christian musician, Derek Webb, who seems like a particularly apt contemporary example of this.  He has this song titled “Freddie, Please.”  I’ve heard him describe his process as trying to write what he might say if he had an encounter with Westboro Baptist pastor Fred Phelps.  After he realized that that wouldn’t be a very good song, he changed courses and wrote it as an encounter between Jesus and Phelps.  What’s most interesting and surprising is that he sets it to a 50’s Doo-wop love song.

CC:  The thing I really like about that and the thing that I’m really wrestling with, one of the dangers that can happen with the powers themselves, is that you can become so reactionary to them.  Your life can become a kind of resistance that begins to be shaped by them, because you are always only reacting to them.  So they’re setting the agenda.  Even if you resist, you can inadvertently be caught up in them.

The thing that a song like this does, and what humor more generally does, is it breaks down the binary.  It does something so creative and surprising that it opens up a very different kind of space than just “me against you.”  And it’s interesting that Jesus is the one who’s singing.  Jesus is the one who does that.

One of the books that we refer to over and over in the book, Trickster Makes the World by Lewis Hyde, actually says that contemporary artists, musicians, and visual artists are the tricksters of our time that do this sort of interrupting.  It seems to me, that while our book is a book about preaching, it is definitely applicable to people doing liturgy, music, and art.

HR:  Speaking of contemporary jesters, I’d love your take on Stephen Colbert.

CC:  We mentioned him in a footnote in the book.

What he did with Congress, that’s what fools do…they wind up speaking the truth.  They have people off-balance and unsettled in a way that they can be heard.  One of the things I like about him on his show is that he’s an amazing example of “bivocal rhetoric.”  Everything he says has two meanings.  It’s all basically irony in a sense.  While he’s saying one thing, he wants you to hear something else.  In that way, he’s much more complex than John Stewart.  Stewart, in his humor comes at it directly, whereas Colbert has this double-voiced piece going on.  This is why the book has a long chapter on carnivals, saying that we need to learn from these characters and how they work.  These characters are here.  They are around.  We need to pay attention.

In terms of Christians, Will Campbell is one of the real interesting people doing this.  And actually, I just got this article on P_ssy Riot in the Chronicle for Higher Education as “holy fools.”  These women’s closing statements are brilliant and incredibly theological.  I was shocked at how theologically engaged they were and how they knew pretty much exactly what they were trying to do.  Even though the dance itself is silly, there really is a lot going on.  Characters like that are all around.

HR:  A last bit of encouragement and advice for us foolish preachers in the thick of a highly contentious American election season?

CC:  You talk about an environment where we have two walled-off sides, how do you disrupt that?

As I usually say, the Powers are never just individuals.  I think that the best preaching we do on these political things is not endorsing a particular candidate, but rather speaking to the powers that are holding us all captive.   That might be deeper than even an issue.  It’s going to be difficult, because there are economic powers, there are environmental powers, all related to these really huge issues.  Pastors are going to have to be the fools to help congregations perceive things in some wholly new ways, because right now nothing’s happening.

[1] Williams, Rowan. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008. 46.

Preaching Fools: A Conversation with Chuck Campbell on Preaching, Folly, and the Arts (Part 1)

12 Oct Chris Breslin
October 12, 2012

When I took a preaching class in seminary, I never expected it to be such a creative launching pad for me.  We listened and watched all kinds of preaching and preachers and focused on different, and sometimes novel, ways of communicating both clearly and compellingly.  I went on to take another course, with professor Chuck Campbell, on Preaching, the Powers, and Principalities.  It was here that my imagination was further sparked to see and speak to the captivities and spiritual powers at play in our daily lives and in our congregations.  One thing I particularly enjoyed was Chuck’s playfulness; in the midst of incredibly serious material he never seemed to take himself too seriously. 

Preaching FoolsWhen Baylor University Press sent me a copy of Chuck’s (along with co-author Johan Cilliers) newest preaching book, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, I took the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss. Throughout the book there is a notable chorus, “The gospel is foolishness.  Preaching is folly.  Preachers are fools.”  This is a fairly unusual, possibly threatening, but certainly scriptural, statement for the average pastor.  An odd line in our job descriptions.  The book certainly struck a chord in regards to preparing and delivering sermons, but also, because of its surprisingly multimedia nature, it struck a chord in regards to the arts and their ability to embody and communicate this “gospel foolishness.”

In today’s post, Chuck speaks about preaching’s ability to unsettle us, put us in a middle ground, and change our perception.  At one point he mentioned the book’s very title changing before his eyes: from a noun to a verb, being the fool to being fooled.

The second post explores some of the similarities and engagements the book has with the arts.  We wind up talking about everything from the music of Derek Webb to Stephen Colbert to the upcoming American presidential election.

Hopeful Realism: Some of your interest and expertise lies in what Scripture calls the “principalities and powers.”  How have those interests developed in your work over the years?

Chuck Campbell:  The work with the powers began when I was doing a lot of ministry with homeless people in Atlanta.  I heard them use this language.  I was, a full day to a day-and-a-half, overnight sometimes, on the streets with homeless people.  I got to know some of the people and they would use this language.  This material began to make sense of what I was seeing…nobody wants there to be homelessness, but it just kept getting worse.

Secondly, it started making sense “of me,” in addition to “to me.”  It helped me understand my own sinfulness in a different way, in a kind of complicity and captivity rather than just getting up in the morning and saying, “I’m gonna go do something evil.”  People in our churches don’t say that.  They never leave and say, “Thanks for the sermon, now I’m gonna go do something evil.”

So it pushed me to explore that material as a way of thinking both theologically and ethically about my own understanding of sin, what I was seeing in my work with homeless people, and to a little lesser extent in ministry on Death Row.  It was never theoretical to start with.  As I kept reading and working it really became a focus in my preaching work.  The new book is still dealing with it, but in some different ways.

HR: Where did this new angle, foolishness and folly, come from?

CC:  Even in the Word Before the Powers there is a section on lampooning.  Someone mentioned that I should look at jesters because that’s really what I was talking about in many ways.  Then three things happened.  I had a sabbatical and I read Dostoyevsky, who does a whole lot with “holy fools” in his novels.  I started reading material on the history of jesters, tricksters, and holy fools.  And I came across some material on the famous First Corinthians text on the foolishness of preaching [1 Corinthians 1:18-31].  These things started to come together.  So this really did grow out of the powers material, one way of dealing with the powers being a sort of jester-like, lampooning fashion.  And also there was a sense that potentially that was what Paul was doing when he was interrupting the work of the powers in First Corinthians.

HR: I was surprised how multimedia and especially how visual this book felt considering it is a preaching book.  Right out of the gates, the beautiful cover, Picasso’s Crucifixion featuring Don Quixote, seems to set a sort of vision for the book.  Then we’re introduced to a phrase like “bifocal vision.”

CC:  I need to give credit to my co-author Johan, who is responsible for much of the visual arts in the book.  He is an extraordinary artist himself.  He always writes with some sort of visual art.  I contributed some of the political cartoons.  I’m excited it turned out this way.  We wanted it to be a very interdisciplinary book with visual art, literature, cartoons and everything else in it, because that’s what preaching is.  That’s what we have to do.  We are always drawing on all these different pieces, even when we’re not Shakespeare scholars or experts.

The “bifocal vision” is a term from New Testament scholar J. Louis Martyn.  It’s been a very helpful term for me and as you see in the book, it begins to shape the way that we look at the rhetoric of preaching as a kind of “bivocal” rhetoric that is trying to do orally what this bifocal vision does visually.  Martyn uses it as an apocalyptic understanding of the gospel, especially in Paul, where the New Age breaks in, interrupts, invades, the old age.  And yet of course the Old Age has not died and the New Age has not yet fully come.  So the challenge is to be able to see both things at once.

Sometimes people might use the bifocal vision to be like glasses where you see close up and then you look with a longer vision for the fulfillment.  As you may or may not have noticed in the book, we don’t take that route.  We’re looking at both at once, here and now.  In my mind, this is a more apocalyptic way, where the New Creation is already here; you can’t always see it but you can’t ignore it in the Old Age when you are seeing the pieces of it already here.

It is certainly a growing edge in the book: the rhetoric of preaching being “bivocal.”  Having to say two things at once, both the Old Age and the New, without letting go of either one in a real sense.  As I’ve thought about the sorts of stories and example that have been most powerful to me, they tend to be those kind.  Another aspect of the bivocal rhetoric is simply to keep things from being settled.  Where things are clear, rigid, and tied down.  Some of the forms like metaphor keep things open, which is characteristic of this life between the Ages.  This space between the Ages.

HR: Space seems to be another major motif of the book; this middle ground of “liminality.”

I underlined while reading, “there is no separating the folly from the wisdom or the scandal from the gospel.  Jesus too keeps us unsettled; he invites us on the Way, he calls us to discipleship at the threshold between the ages and bids us to follow -and preach – one whom we can never master or control, but who ever remains elusive and disruptive.”[1]

CC: This is a huge growing edge for me.  And I’m still trying to live into it and figure out what it means for preaching.  I preached on Tuesday in chapel and these sermons are still sweating blood trying to figure out how to do it.  One of the things that has happened as a result of this book and might be an important word for a lot of us in the church today, is beginning to think of the gospel not as something that gives us a solid security or clarity or ties things down, but really as the gospel itself keeping us unsettled and “on the way.”

We live in a culture and a time where things are quite unsettled.  So many cultures, and the church itself, is going through a kind of liminal phase.  We’re not sure where things are headed.  The danger there is to really want to assert and reassert a kind of reactionary clarity that grows out of fear.  So I think one of the subtexts that surfaces is that Christians don’t have to be afraid of these times.  We can live into them.  It’s really our space, this sort of unsettled space.  And we’re following the One who we can trust and we can see even in this tumult, the New Age breaking in.

This may not be new to anyone else.  It strikes me that it’s often assumed that Christianity provides the security, clarity, finality, solidity…but I’m beginning to think it may be something different.  Which might be some of the best, good news to free us from our fears that we can have as a Church.

HR: Along these lines, fragmentation is another dominant theme in the book.  There’s a sense that our view of fragmentation should not just lie in something being broken, but as some sort of artifact of the future.  That “faith means not to be in tact.”[2]  This is really challenging to me, but also sort of threatening.

CC:  It’s unsettling.  Another facet to fragmentation is being part of the Church where we’re not ever whole apart from these other fragments.  That’s where some of my colleague’s writing in the book on ubuntu keeps that kind of dynamic between the individual and community going in some interesting ways.

[1] Campbell, Charles L., and Johan Cilliers. Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2012.  104.

[2] Ibid 46.

Panicky Self-Preservation, Being a Dad, etc.

15 Sep Joel Busby
September 15, 2012

Mandy and I have a 6-month old son. He’s our first child. It’s been an amazing experience.

It’s certainly cliché, but we are learning a lot about our God, ourselves, and the Gospel in the process.

Things changed when our little Henry began to recognize his bottle. When he is hungry, he panics a bit. He whines, coos, cries, charms — anything to get roughly six ounces of milk.

It’s even worse when the liquid is within his field of vision. The attempts to fend for himself, to seek his own self-preservation become more intense. He freaks. He’s panicky. Strangely, if we are in process of giving him the milk, he only gets more nervous.

That’s understandable. It’s on him, right? He’s the one that has to seek his own sustenance, right?


I’m his dad and I’ll never deny him anything that’s good for him. Ever. I mean, if he asks me for a fish, will I give him a snake?

Of course not, and I’m a sub-par dad.

The simple truth is that he can relax, I’m his dad. It’s okay. He really doesn’t have to do the panicky self-preservation bit.

Neither do I.

Deuteronomy, the Devil, Jesus and my Kids

12 Sep Andrew Byers
September 12, 2012

[Note: The following is taken from the draft of my forthcoming book 'TheoMedia'...]


Jesus quoted Deuteronomy more than any other Old Testament book. I was recently reading to my two oldest kids from Jesus’ temptation scene in Luke’s Gospel and decided I would inspire them with this: “when Jesus was assaulted by evil, he quoted Deuteronomy.”

For children who regularly fight imaginary bad guys and fairy tale beasts with toy swords and homemade archery kits, they did not seem very inspired. An old book they can hardly pronounce and probably cannot spell seemed like shoddy weaponry should a dragon draw nigh.

My wife and I have explained to our children that there are dark spiritual forces out there tempting us to do wrong. But the confrontation between Jesus and Satan in Luke 4 seemed a bit absurd in their ears: “Dad, if Jesus had not eaten in forty days, then why would it have been a sin to turn the stone into bread?”

The second temptation caused less consternation. Gaining the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping the devil was perceived as clearly wrong. But along with the conviction that worshiping anyone but God is bad, my oldest son was just as disturbed by the fact that Satan may have been guilty of false advertising. He knows the serpent of old to be a renown trickster.  Maybe he did not control all those kingdoms like he made out. My son smelled something suspicious, like when a friend promises a candy bar she does not actually have on her person.

The final temptation as Luke has it (Matthew follows a slightly different order) made no sense whatsoever to my kids. They could not quite figure out why jumping off the Temple heights would be a temptation. Surely Jesus would not fall for something that ridiculous. Only a fool would purposely hurl oneself off a bike or out of a tree, much less off a building onto stone pavement. As far as they were concerned, there was nothing heroic in Jesus’ valiant refusal . He was just using the sort of common sense they had learned from toddlerhood. Even their 4-yr old little brother knew not to jump off high places.

I almost explained that Jesus was actually resisting the temptation to pull off a spectacular stunt in the most public and religiously significant place in Palestine, and in so doing producing a grandstand media-event that would have resulted in a supernatural display of angelic powers (as Satan put it) which would instantly guarantee Jesus celebrity status.

I just stuck with a simple summary of what is arguably scene’s main point: Though Israel forgot Deuteronomy, Jesus did not.

Don’t forget Deuteronomy. It doesn’t sound like the typical lesson from a devotional or sermon. But actually, forgetting Deuteronomy, setting aside the media of God’s words, is why Israel and eventually Judah fell into rot and ruin.

The good news (“Gospel”) is this: though we forget the words of God, though we forsake him and fail to heed his commands, Jesus does not.  Jesus remembers Deuteronomy.



Fact vs. Fiction

08 Jul Andrew Byers
July 8, 2012

“Fact vs Fiction” had apparently been a teaching topic for my two oldest little kids at school. They were telling me about it…

“Fact is, like, real.  But fiction is not real.  Fiction is stuff that’s not true.”

I took offense.

“You mean,” I asked, “fiction is not true at all?”

“No, Dad, of course not.  That’s what ‘fiction’ means—not true.”  This intellectual pair of a 7- and 9-yr old were apparently having to interact with an ill-educated buffoon.  “And fact is much better than fiction,” they continued, “since fiction is just made-up… like make-believe.”  They sounded so sophisticated.

“But just because fiction doesn’t describe what actually happened, does that really make it bad or untrue?” I was prodding at their air-tight assurance of fiction’s inferiority to fact.  My question was parried with this from my daughter,

“Dad, if someone wrote a history about me, your own daughter, or a book about fairies and silly things that are just fiction, then which book would be more important?”

Ooooh… she’s good.

I attempted a response: “Look, I would of course prefer to read a book about you than one about fairies.  I admit it.  But even though fiction may not record exactly what happened once, fiction can be powerfully true.”

They did not understand.  So I gave them a factual report.

“Okay, what about this….”  I took my 7-yr old son in my arms.  “There was a young boy once, with red hair and a wonderful personality.  He moved to England for a few years and lived there with his family while his father did doctoral work.  He made many friends, played lots of football, and hiked lovely footpaths.”

Fact.  True.  But then a story….

“What about this…,” I began.  “Once upon a time there was a boy who lived in a faraway kingdom, and his father was the great and mighty king.  Both his mother and father loved him very much.  But every day on his walk home from his lessons, a group of mean bullies grabbed him, beat him up, and threw him in the muck down the same hill.  They did not know that he was the crown-prince.  And those mean guys did this to him every day.  When he got home, his mother always scolded him for having soiled his fine clothes.  But he never told his mother about the bullies.  He always apologized for being clumsy on the hill and never said a word.  You see, he wanted to protect those cruel boys.  He wanted to save them….”

Fiction.  But untrue…?

Now, I just made up that story on the spot for the kids.  What I was hoping to do was to show them what they already knew to be true just before they were so enlightened by the Western educational system.  As kids, the lines are actually quite blurred between certain categories we adults turn into dichotomies.

Fact and fiction are both conduits for truth. But sometimes, truth is too capacious for the bare facts.  Sometimes, a mystifying story can do better justice to truth than a hunk of data. 

So, I know there is no Middle Earth.  I know the wardrobe in my room will take me nowhere.  I know that no actual boardings take place at King Cross’ Platform 9 3/4. But in many ways, the respective stories just referred to are true.

I just finished reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  I know it is fiction.

I also know it is true….



Roman Soldiers, Jesus, & Heroic Little Boys

05 Jul Andrew Byers
July 5, 2012

My 4-yr old son was playing with a forbidden set of toys this morning before I left the house.  They are forbidden by his big brother because they are his personal property, his collection of toy Roman soldiers.  There are figurines of Augustus Caesar—august and fierce with sword drawn—and a couple of centurions, armed to the teeth.  Living in the North of England, we hear about Romans.  The kids have hiked atop this big old wall Hadrian had his troops build some 1800 years ago to keep out those pesky Scots.

The little boy was at work crafting a battle scene.  He is a scrappy fella, and nothing thrills him more than a rough wrestling match with Daddy.  Though as sweet as he can be, there is violence in his bloodstream.  Little boys are taught to be violent by various influences (like maybe the father-son wrestling matches), but the raw matter is already there, crying out of their veins and genes like Abel’s blood from East Eden ground.

While grabbing something from my wardrobe (not as cool as the one from Lewis-lore), I casually mentioned to my little boy, “You know, those guys are like the soldiers who beat up Jesus.”

(This is what happens when you get a dad who wrestles all the time with ethical and theological complexities too big for his head.  He interrupts your play with loaded comments.)

He held the soldier in his hand.  A flash of realization appeared in his enormous brown eyes, as if the thing in his hand was suddenly discovered to be dirty or contaminated.  Then flashed a sense of justice.

“Well I would get those guys and kill them.”

It is always disturbing to hear a little kid speak with such rough words.  But he was operating out of a sense of just indignation.  He was like Peter in Gethsemane, hapless and confused, swinging a sword at someone’s ear.

“What’s crazy though,” I continued, “is that Jesus Himself could have killed those guys but he didn’t.”  This struck harder than the earlier announcement that his toy was an embodiment of someone who may have beat up Jesus.

Alien.  Incomprehensible.  Jesus didn’t do anything?  He didn’t wield His heaven light saber and take those bullies out?

My son was being confronted with one of the most perplexing wonders of history, that God Incarnate permitted men to have their way with Him.  And echoing over the whole moment is the Lukan record of this prayer: “Father, forgive them…”.

“Did those guys become nice, then?”he asked, perhaps apprehending that kindness and mercy can actually wield as powerful effects as swords and light sabers.

“At least one of them did.” I told him about the centurion Mark mentions who confessed Jesus to be “Son of God” after seeing how He died.


I’m not sure what happened  in his playtime after this brief father-son interaction.  After the ritual little farewells, I left for a day of study.

Yeah, I just left.  I left him there with the toy solider in His hand and one of the greatest mysteries of the universe banging around in his little head.

It was banging around in my head, too.  Still not sure how to take in the restraint of the Son of God on Golgotha.

Who knows how that 4-yr old little soul will process the divine restraint at the Cross as he heads to preschool.  But as far as his imagination goes, I guess he can now reenact battle scenes with at least one saved centurion when he gets home.  If, that is, his brother doesn’t fight with him over his toys….


When Salvation Hurts

19 Mar Andy
March 19, 2012

[For the IVP Authors' Lenten Blog Tour]

God’s rescue operations can feel like assault operations. At times, it is hard to distinguish between salvation and affliction.

Mark Chagall: "Exodus"

A sea was parted for my family about a year and half ago. After ten years of collecting airline mileage points in hopes of me doing a PhD program in England, my wife was finally on the phone with a ticketing agent. While accumulating mileage points, though, we were also accumulating children. Four of them. We only had half the necessary mileage points, and no real funds to make up the difference. The ticketing agent then mentioned that for the first time in its history, the airline was accepting points for one-way tickets, not just round-trip. “Would one-way work?”

We had 165,768 points. The amount required was 165,000. “Oh, yes, one-way will work.”

The evidence of providence was surely in the close figures. We stepped forward for the exciting trek ahead.

Then came the most distressing season of our adult lives—months of juggling insane schedules while plodding on toward wider, stormier seas left unparted. We were not sure we would board that flight until three weeks before departure. But we did. Another sea was crossed—literally. Thank You, Lord….

….And then an even more difficult season ensued.

All these partings seemed to be leading not to deliverance but to disaster. I complain a lot. I pelt desperate prayers skyward. I just want to follow God’s lead. Why must he complicate and obscure the path at every turn?

I find myself echoing a rather unheroic voice in Scripture: the voice of Israel in the wilderness.

The Exodus out of Egypt is the Old Testament prototype of God’s salvation. It must have seemed an odd way “to save” for the Israelites. In many respects, it was a botched rescue op from the beginning that felt more like oppression. Moses to Pharaoh: Let them go. Pharaoh to Israel: Make more bricks… and get your own straw. Israel to Moses: “You have put a sword in [Egypt's] hand to kill us” (Ex 5:21).

This was a deliverance marked by a river swollen with blood, by heaps of rotting frog-flesh, by eerie nighttime wails in the homes of unbloodied lintels—

What kind of rescue plan is this? You call this “salvation”?

To be sure, when the sea parted, there was singing and dancing. Worship. Finally, amidst nightmarish plagues, there was the taste of freedom.

But not the taste of food. Or water.

Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full… (Ex 16:3).

Egypt’s oppression seemed better than God’s deliverance. Divine rescue felt like divine attack. This “salvation” seemed too painful, too risky, too costly. What kind of salvation is this?

And what kind of Savior is this?

The hope of Canaan seemed pathetic consolation. God advertised the place as flowing with milk and honey… and also with Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites and Amorites. This is a salvation that lands you in a desert, that thrusts you before the spears of unknown enemies.

And yet the Exodus is the paradigmatic portrayal in Israel’s Scriptures of the salvation of God and of God as Savior.

How does that affect our soteriology?

God’s salvation requires intense acculturation. To be extracted from Egypt and acclimated to life before YHWH, intense seasons of painful re-orientation must follow the dramatic ripping of seas. We must be wary of rosy depictions of salvation as the Christianized “good life.” Salvation sometimes hurts.

Lent, however, reminds us that salvation ultimately hurts the Savior more than the saved.

When Jesus talked on the Transfiguration Mount with Moses and Elijah about his upcoming “departure” in Jerusalem, the Greek word used is “exodus” (Lk 9:31).

What kind of salvation is this? One that requires a lot of ripping. The ripping of a sea, of the sky, of a curtain veil. One that requires the death of a lamb… and of a King’s Son. Not Pharaoh’s son this time. The Son of the Saving God. What kind of Savior is this? One who gives blood and water better than milk and honey. It’s not the Nile that turns to blood this time. It’s the wine. This is a Savior who may lead us into barren wastelands… but one who has endured himself the full brunt of salvation’s pain. The wider sea left unparted now has an inaugural gash. The open hole of Jesus’ tomb is a puncture-wound in the sea of Death.

I am not sure what sort of salvation this is. But it is the only kind strongest enough for me. And for you.

[Past installments in this series are written by Rachel Stone, Margot Starbuck, J. Brent Bill, and Logan Mehl-Laituri. The next posts will be from Valerie Hess, Beth Booram, and Chad Young.]

Captivated and Captured by Gospel Theology

26 Feb Andy
February 26, 2012

I cannot get enough of it.  Theology.  I am willingly drowning in it.  I lose sleep over it.  I am sacrificing a great deal of money to learn more of it.  The “tolle lege” that rang in Augustine’s ear echoes in mine.  And the more I take up and read, the more intrigued, mystified, entranced I become.

This is not, as best as I can tell, pious boasting.  I am not intrigued with fanciful, populist platitudes easily emblazoned on mugs displayed among Christian bookshop trinkets (or easily chanted to signify piety amidst the pews).  The theology that has caught my eye and held it, that has seized me and to which I am now captive, is far from user-friendly.  The pleasure is more like the thrill from standing dangerously close to a precipice than the delight from a warm cup of tea on a cold day.  The  fascination is inspired not so much by some touching, sentimental scene but by the sight of of some swirling maelstrom tearing at the sea.

My captor is a theology of tender beauty but not without grim brutality.  Gospel Theology.  Theology that comprises the nailing of a naked Jew to a timber beam.  Theology that refuses to silence a raucous death-howl that—for St. Mark, at least—sounded like a demon in flight (Mk 15:37).  This theology also sings about holes exploded in sky and in stone, one a gash in the cosmic veil and the other a tomb now vacant.  Theologia Gloriae… et Crucis.

I am more textual than aural, but I listened to two audio clips this weekend: an excerpt from a lecture by Karl Barth on “Evangelical [read Gospel] Theology” and an interview of Lauren Winner about her new book Still.  The former a 20th c. theologian known for his incomparable sophistication in writing about the Cross and Empty Tomb, the latter a young 21st c. theologian writing about clutching onto something divine and holy in the midst of divorce and spiritual disillusionment.  Dogmatics and the daily grind of faith are inseparable.  Theology that cannot deal with the dull blankness of depression or the very real horrors of the night is a theology alien to Christian Scripture.  I write about this in my book:

[If the Gospel we preach] “cannot speak to Auschwitz, if it cannot speak to marauded villages in the eastern Congo, if it cannot speak in the ears of abducted children, if it cannot make sense to mothers digging for children in earthquake rubble, then it ought not send forth from polished pulpits in carpeted suburban sanctuaries” [1].

I am not trying to link Barth and Winner (and myself) together, necessarily.  I am just thinking about those sound clips along with my theological reading, thinking, praying, writing… and struggling.  Gospel Theology is theology that clings to the gasping breath of Christ Crucified (Mk 15:39) as well as to the recreating breath of Christ Resurrected (Jn 20:22).

This is the theology in which I am drowning.  Its mystery and strength intimidate and haunt me.  But only a theology so mysterious and strong encompasses ex-Eden reality and pre-Parousia hope.  The “Theos” of Gospel Theology is the only God who suffices for maelstroms at sea as well as those warm cups of tea.  Gospel Theology is about the “Theos” who hurled himself toward Death’s throat and then climbed out of the hole he exploded in Death’s bloated gut.


Tolle Lege.  Take up and read….



[1] Faith Without Illusions (Downs Grove, IL: IVP, 2011), 39.

Halloween… and the Cosmic Violence of the Gospel

31 Oct Andy
October 31, 2011

This is the day that Evil gets festive press.  Halloween caricatures Evil, dressing it up rather innocuously in ghostly face paint, plastic masks, fake fangs.  This is the day when it is okay to play-act as the terrifying mythical entities that, as we rationally explain to our kids, do not actually haunt the closet space.  This is the day when the numinous darkness takes a celebrated position on the pop-cultural stage.

I am not a Christian crusader against Halloween.  I do not endorse judgment houses as an alternative way to spend the evening.  I take my kids trick-or-treating and I have a blast doing it.  But my Halloween began with a distraught 6-year coming into my bedroom at 3:50 am—”Daddy, I had a bad dream.” I can comfort him with this: “The Gospel is violent.”

The Gospel is violent.

The Gospel is about salvation… but it is also about destruction.  It is the royal pronouncement in the dank, seething dark of a totalitarian state that an unexpected King from distant shores has just appeared in full force at the city gates.  Ring the bells, bang the drums, blast the trumpets: a new Lord has arrived on the scene of supernatural tyranny.  The Gospel is the siren-blaring, bell-clanging announcement that Jesus is here to shake his fist in the face of draconian forces feasting on the living corpses of humanity.  With his divine arrival comes not only saving but also 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).

The Gospel’s etymology derives from military imagery.  Two armies are waging fierce battle over the hillside while the citizens wring their hands and pray for deliverance from the invading force.  And then, there on the horizon, someone makes out a moving shape, the shape of a man running from the scene of war.  This is the runner, the one come to announce the awaiting fate of those who have sent their husbands, fathers and sons bearing swords and clubs in service of their embattled king.  “Gospel” is the news through heaving breaths and trembling lips that their king has triumphed and that the enemies have been defeated.

The Gospel of Jesus is not about 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.”  So wrestle not with other humans, but we do wrestle… and we do so violently.

The Gospel announces God’s gracious reign.  But this Kingdom is not coming into a vacuum.  The Gospel is violent because the reign of God is an assault on other reigns, the reigns of Disease, Death, Darkness and the Death.  When Jesus cries out at his death in a loud voice in Mark’s Gospel, readers will recall some sense of familiarity with other scenes earlier in the narrative.  This raucous death-howl was the pattern by which the demons fled.  Like Jesus, their departure was with the crying out of a loud voice.  Something terrible and mysterious—something cosmic and violent—is at work when Jesus dies on the cross beneath swirling darkness.

But whatever is going on behind the celestial curtain at the cross, we know that a closed up hole in the ground was burst open on the third day.  This is from my book Faith Without Illusions on the (violent!) Resurrection of Jesus—

When the Messiah vacates his tomb, something is stirring.  Something new and wild.  Something against the establishment.  Death‘s establishment.  At the voice of the resurrected Lord, the cosmic superstructure of evil detects a virus in the system.  A wrench has been tossed into sin’s machinery.  The foundations start to pop with fissures.  It’s time to plug up the leak, to contain the fire, to reseal any open tombs.  Time for chaos to panic.  Time for Satan to go beserk.  Resurrection is God shaking his clenched fist in death’s face. Resurrection is God whispering death threats in death’s ears.

The open tomb of Jesus is a hole in the system that cannot be patched.  The re-creating King has climbed up out of his grave.  He is out there, loose, at large, roaming free—and returning at dawn.  [1]

Halloween can serve as a reminder to my 6-year old that the images of Evil and death that he sees in storefronts or on other kids’ face—however plastic and silly and caricatured—are the images of a fading empire.  Jesus has come to de-fang the secretive, beastly dragon whose breath stinks with human carnage.  And one day, from the seat of a Throne, he will oversee that monster’s binding and eternal imprisonment as the everlasting King.

[1] Andrew Byers, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 210-22.


Barth: The Shock of the Cosmos at the Cross of Jesus

22 Oct Andy
October 22, 2011

Karl Barth on the “reversing of roles” between us and Jesus on the cross that was such an unimaginable, inconceivable feat.  Read this slowly… soberly… yet also joyfully…

“…we may think of the darkness which we are told later came down at the hour of Jesus’ death (Mk 15.33), the rending of the veil of the temple (Mk 15.37), the earthquake which shook the rocks and opened the graves (Mt 27.51), as though—in anticipation of its own end—the cosmos had to register the strangeness of this event: the transformation of the accuser into the accused and the judge into the judged, the naming and handling of the Holy God  as one who is godless.” [1]

[1]  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics; ed. G.W. Bromiley, T.F. Torrance (vol IV.1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation; tr. George W. Bromiley; London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 238-39.

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