glorifying God

Judging from many a recently heard prayer, Christians seem to want to bless and praise and glorify God a lot; or to sanctify and make famous God’s name; etc. Even sometimes to “boast in God” [sic]! But what are we even talking about?

I don’t know for sure. I am aware (vaguely) that each of these verbs traces back to a biblical antecedent. Lots of psalms urge their readers to bless the Lord; or promise to bless the Lord “in the congregation” if and when the Lord comes through on the deliverance for which the psalmist pleads. E.g., “I will keep the promises I made to the Lord in the presence of all God’s people, in the courtyards of the Lord’s house” (Psalm 116:18, CEB).

Paul talks a lot about blessing God, too. Arguably it’s a central theme for his writings. He seems to think in Romans, for example, that the basic human problem is that we do not “honor God as God or thank him” (1:21). A signature sign of trusting in God is “giving glory to God” (4:20), like Abraham our forefather. Paul even summarizes Christ’s mission like this: “Christ welcomed you, for God’s glory” (15:7). In longer form: “Christ became a servant of those who are circumcised for the sake of God’s truth, in order to confirm the promises given to the ancestors, and so that the Gentiles could glorify God for his mercy” (15:8).

But if it’s such a big deal, what is it, this glorifying God? Does it mean Christ “became a servant” (with all that entailed!) so that humans could have a powerful devotional experience?

Not to belittle this possibility (after all, perhaps God is most glorified when humans are most [devotionally] satisfied…). But it seems to me a balefully limited outcome for the death of God’s own Son; and a piss-poor reply to the devastation of this world. As if a supercharged devotional bonanza is enough of an achievement to ascribe to the blood of Christ; or as if a seraphic worship experience could compensate for, say, hundreds of years of racial violence (even the saints beneath the altar still cried out, “how long,  o Lord, before you require justice?” Rev 6:10). It’s also discomfiting to remember that, historically, those theologians for whom this interpretation of glorifying God was most important were some of the least concerned about making this-worldly reparations; their sequestered vision of glorifying God paralleled their sequestered understanding of discipleship.

No. Glorifying God cannot mean looking away from the bloodiness of our national and world history, shifting attention to a more exalted plane (“And the things of earth will grow strangely dim / In the light of His glory and grace”). Nor can it be a practice for interiority and privacy only. For the psalmists, blessing God was a public occasion: pointing to God’s rescuing power before the great congregation. For Paul, this glorifying of God is not a goal that looked away from impossibility. As for Abraham our forefather in faith, Paul claims that for us also, glorifying God is facing down raw impossibility, without qualification or caveat. Sarah could not have children. And the hellhole of American racial history cannot be sutured. And we cannot be made whole.

Except: except: except: for hope against hope, in “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence” (Rom 4:17).

Glorifying God is holding onto the promise of God in the face of truly depthless impossibility. And holding on, out loud, in public. Trusting in God to save, even when – especially when – what salvation would even mean lies beyond comprehension and beyond imagining, on the other side of human incapacity. Glorifying God is stirring up our shared memory of God’s creating and resurrecting work so that we may hope afresh.

theological taproots

In such times as these, my thoughts have circled around the words of the following three (anti-[?]) theologians.

For this post, I will leave the dots unconnected and uncurated — though I think for all their differences of time and circumstance, these three block quotes read rather well together.

1. Paul the Apostle

God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life — what is considered to be nothing — to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. So no human can brag in God’s presence. It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us. This is consistent with what was written: The one who brags should brag in the Lord! (1 Corinthians 1:27-31, CEB)

2. Friedrich Nietzsche

Of all that has been done on earth against “the noble,” “the mighty,” “the lords,” “the power-holders,” nothing is worthy of mention in comparison with that which the Jews have done against them: the Jews, that priestly people who in the end were only able to obtain satisfaction from their enemies and conquerors through a radical revaluation of their values, that is, through an act of spiritual revenge […] It was the Jews who in opposition to the aristocratic value equation (good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy = beloved of God) dared its inversion, with fear-inspiring consistency, and held it fast with teeth of the most unfathomable hate (the hate of the powerless), namely: “the miserable alone are the good; the poor, powerless, lowly alone are the good […] the only blessed by God, for them alone is there blessedness, — whereas for you, you noble and powerful ones, you are in all eternity the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless, you will eternally be wretched, accursed, and damned!” We know who inherited this Jewish revaluation […]

This Jesus of Nazareth, as the embodied Gospel of Love, this “Redeemer” bringing blessedness and victory to the poor, the sick, the sinners —was he not precisely seduction in its most uncanny and irresistible form, the seduction and detour to precisely those Jewish values and reshapings of the ideal? Has not Israel reached the final goal of its sublime desire for revenge precisely via the detour of this “Redeemer,” this apparent adversary and dissolver of Israel? Does it not belong to the secret black art of a truly great politics of revenge, of a far-seeing, subterranean, slow-working and pre-calculating revenge, that Israel itself, before all the world, should deny as its mortal enemy and nail to the cross the actual tool of its revenge, so that “all the world,” namely all the opponents of Israel, could take precisely this bait without thinking twice? And, out of all sophistication of the spirit, could one think up any more dangerous bait? Something that in its enticing, intoxicating, anesthetizing, destructive power might equal that symbol of the “holy cross,” that gruesome paradox of a “god on the cross,” that mystery of an inconceivable, final, extreme cruelty and self-crucifixion of God for the salvation of man? (On the Genealogy of Morality, First Treatise, § 7, 8).

3. James Cone

The history of white American theology illustrates the concept of the social a priori asserted by Werner Stark and other sociologists of knowledge whom we discussed earlier. The social environment functions as a “mental grid,” deciding what will be considered as relevant data in a given inquiry. For example, because white theologians are not the sons and daughters of black slaves but the descendants of white slave masters, their theological grid automatically excludes from the field of perception the data of Richard Allen, Henry H. Garnet, Nathaniel Paul, David Walker, and Henry M. Turner […] Again it is obvious that because white theologians were not enslaved and lynched and are not ghettoized because of color, they do not think that color is an important point of departure for theological discourse. Color is not universal they say, moving on to what they regard as the more important problems of theological scholarship […] They must be challenged to take seriously another value system. That is, instead of studying only Jonathan Edwards, they must also examine the reality of David Walker (God of the Oppressed, 48-9).

God of home

A liturgy on the occasion of moving out from an apartment:

One: God of home: thank you for your dream of making a home with us (Exod 29:45; 2 Cor 6:16).

Unison: We pray you would fulfill that dream, and haste the day when you will dwell in our midst (Rev 21:3).

One: Thank you for your promise to make your people “live in a peaceful dwelling, in secure homes, in carefree resting places” (Isa 32:18, CEB).

Unison: We thank you for this space that has been our home this year. You gave it to us, for a time, in answer to prayer.

One: Thank you for the times of joy we have known here: embracing and laughter and good, ordinary life together.

Unison: We pray that you would consecrate such times to our memory: may we never forget your gifts given to us here (Ps 103:2); but let the Spirit remind us of your generosity (1 Cor 2:12). And we pray you would be so gracious to those who come after us.

One: We remember also the times of hardship: all the tears and strife and worry.

Unison: We pray that you would leaven these memories with your own compassion: help us to see Christ by us, even then. Make the valley of trouble into a doorway of hope (Hos 2:15), and make the desert into pools of water (Ps 107:35). And we pray that you would shelter those who come after us, and give them peace.

One: We remember Christ, who had no place to lay his head (Lk 9:58).

Unison: We thank you that he became poor so that we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9); homeless, that we might belong to God’s household (Eph 2:19). We pray that you would help those who have no place now to lay their heads. Answer your promise, to settle the lonely in homes (Ps 68:6).

One: Go before us, now, Lord.

Unison: Go before us, and be true to your name in the next place that we live: let us find you there also, compassionate and merciful, patient and loyal, forgiving and just (Exod 34:6-7).

Sunday morning thoughts

1. A much-publicized Oxford study from September 2013 found that 47% of total US employment stands at risk of automation in the next several decades. In the words of one commentator from the Atlantic, “imagine a robot that costs $5 to manufacture and can do everything you do, only better. You would be as obsolete as a horse.”

2. If the machines don’t take your job, it might well become part-time or less compensated. In addition to automation, the rise of part-time and the rollback of benefits are also changing the shape of global employment. Guy Standing, a British economist, coined the term “precariat” to describe the emerging class of people worldwide characterized by insecure, “precarious” work. According to the Irish Times

this precariat is becoming more characteristic of 21st century capitalism based on flexible, periodic and insecure employment, transiency, lack of control over time, over-qualification and uncertainty. It is recruited from the traditional working class, from denizens – migrants, asylum seekers and ethnic minorities – and especially from the new youthful well-educated who cannot find stable work.

3. The Canadian scholar and cultural critic, Henry Giroux, amongst others, has written much about the “politics of disposability”:

As the 21st century tumbles forward, ever more individuals and groups are now considered “excess” by the onslaught of global forces that no longer offer the possibility of alternative futures. This politics of “disposability” can be seen in the rising numbers of homeless, the growing army of debt-ridden students, those lacking basic necessities amid widening income disparities, the surveillance of immigrants, the school-to-prison pipeline and the destruction of the middle class.

4. In sum, many of us who are now relevant, gainfully employed, and secure, may soon find ourselves obsolete, underemployed, and disposable.

This is, understandably, cause for alarm.

But it may also present an opportunity: to reenvision our humanness quite apart from productivity. Who are we, once abstracted from work? What would be left to us, as cosmic loiterers and moochers, as use-less and worth-less humans?

I don’t know. But I heard a podcast recently that made me think the witness of communities like L’Arche could be vital for answering these questions. Jean Vanier founded this organization to care for people with disabilities. But instead of only servicing the needs of such individuals, Vanier found himself deeply instructed by them. Shorn of many “capabilities” that give status and meaning to able persons’ lives, Vanier discovered that the disabled persons for whom he cared pose “a mystery of the human reality.” The human remainder, after subtracting all the paraphernalia of productivity, is “a cry for relationship.” Tenderness and touch endure, and suffice! even where jobs and usefulness and even words are impossible. “We love people,” says Vanier, “not because they’re beautiful or clever, [but] because they’re a person.” Because they belong in relationship, however simple.

There is a Christian wisdom there. Perhaps many of us who worship Jesus have become too enamored of success and productivity, as if these were the earmarks of godliness. We ought to remember that the man whom we confess as God was himself unemployed, ineffectual, and disposable (in fact, disposed of): “rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him” (1 Pet 2:4, NIV). A man who was not powerful and did not produce much, but who was remembered for lending his presence to unlikely people around him. So Jean Vanier:

I think the mystery of Christianity is just living with Jesus the way Jesus lived in Nazareth with Mary, his mother, and with Joseph. A relationship. John the Baptist was strong, he was powerful […] He was prophetic. Jesus was quiet. And he ate with people who are caught up in prostitution, with tax collectors, with lepers and all that. I mean, there’s something so simple about Jesus that he is disarming. We don’t quite know what to do with it. Because frequently, we would want a powerful Jesus who will put everything straight, who will cure everybody, who will do everything that we tell him to do. And it’s not like that.

disappointing glory

Asaph was a man in ancient Israel who saw that some people in this world have smooth, easy lives. Their bodies are capable and free of pain. They live without anxiety about run-ins with the law or paying the bills or managing family trouble. They eat well.

I observed how the wicked are well off:

They suffer no pain;

their bodies are fit and strong.

They are never in trouble;

they aren’t weighed down like other people…

Their eyes bulge out from eating so well. (Ps 73:3b-5, 7a, CEB)

All this surplus and freedom has a numbing effect on these people. Because they don’t have to toil against the grain of the world, they feel invincible. Because they do not share the struggle of other humans, other humans who do struggle become less real to them. Hardship is, for them, far off and fantastical; little wonder these people cannot empathize with others for whom hardship is asphyxiating. They speak harshly of those about whose lives they know nothing. These people are, in a genial, passive way, violent. Not violent like two men in a bar lashing out. The violence of the wealthy is quieter and more pervasive. Asaph describes it with the metaphor of clothing; something worn day in and day out, and so customary as to cause no surprise.

That’s why they wear arrogance like a necklace,

why violence covers them like clothes…

They scoff and talk so cruel;

from their privileged positions

they plan oppression. (Ps 73:6, 8, CEB)

These people do not fear any power greater than their own. They have command of all resources, economic and legal and military and so forth. The thought of an invisible superpower that could topple them is – ridiculous. The luxury of their lives persists unbroken; if there is a God, whatever that God may be is singularly unthreatening. Asaph writes:

And what they say is this: “How could God possibly know!

Does the Most High know anything at all!”

Look at these wicked ones,

always relaxed, piling up the wealth! (Ps 73:11-12, CEB)

Asaph envies these people. In fact, he almost admits to himself that his belief in God is a waste of time. God seems powerless and ineffective. The rich get richer and the poor suffer on and on.

Asaph came close to this edge. But then he had an experience that reined  him in.

when I tried to understand these things,

it just seemed like hard work

until I entered God’s sanctuary

and understood what would happen to the wicked. (Ps 73:16-17, CEB)

Asaph entered God’s sanctuary, and, apparently, saw something there that completely rejuvenated his faith: his faith that God would rise up from God’s profound, age-long inaction; that God would burn through all the numbness and wealth and violence of the wicked and that they would be “utterly destroyed by terrors” (Ps 73:19b).

What was it that Asaph saw, that gave him such a new vision of God’s terrifying, satisfying vengeance on the wicked?

I don’t know. But other psalms also speak about entering God’s sanctuary, the Jerusalem temple, and experiencing something transformative there. They speak of seeing God: Psalm 63 says to God: “I’ve seen you in the sanctuary; I’ve seen your power and your glory” (63:2). The glory of the Lord that would appear in the Jerusalem temple was indeed overwhelming. Think of the temple’s dedication, when the glory filled the temple with such an ominous thick cloud that the priests could not carry out their duties. Or think of the tumult and horror of God’s glory making landfall on Sinai. Perhaps like these times, God encountered Asaph in glory: with a display of raw superhuman power and alien darkness. This would certainly reassure: that God was yet older, more powerful, and more fearsome than the oldest and most entrenched human powers.

I see the same things as Asaph. The smooth lives at the top of the human food chain, and the increasing misery along its descending rungs. And sometimes, like Asaph, I think that God does nothing to interrupt this regime.

But unlike Asaph, I do not have a temple to enter and a lowering glory to behold, to bolster my faith that God will rise up and set things right. Far from it. The New Testament seems to indicate that God didn’t rise up and set things right, but lay down and left them wrong. The New Testament tells me that my temple is a single human body, and one that was mauled and punctured and drained of its life (“the temple Jesus was talking about was his body” John 2:21). The glory of God that I am to behold is “the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6): a sad face, a marred face, and then a dead face.

Jesus died at the hands of the world’s powers. The Roman authorities. The Jewish authorities. By killing him, the top of the food chain triumphed once more. If they ever feared losing their power and ease, murdering Jesus proved they had nothing to worry about, at least from him. So far as we know, Pilate and the Sanhedrin lived happily ever after: “always relaxed, piling up the wealth!” And since then, to crib the words of 2 Peter, “nothing has changed” (3:4).

This is very disappointing and disturbing.

And, as far as I am concerned, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t so much cancel out this disappointment as amplify it. By raising Jesus from the dead, God didn’t say, “just kidding! actually, I am still really powerful and terrifying. Don’t let that whole Good Friday thing get you down.” Rather, by the resurrection, God said: “I love Jesus and his way of being human so much that I cannot stand to let him stay in the ground.” God loved Jesus’s obedience more than any other human’s, ever: how Jesus willingly stuck his body in the way of the powerful, and was crushed. God exalted him because he did that.

And that is God’s victory – the foolishness of one human standing out of love wholly against the powers of this world. And that is God’s glory – the annihilation of Jesus.

I am not comforted like Asaph was. Nor should we be, who believe this message.

gospel thoughts

Jesus once sat in the temple, people-watching. He saw a widow come up to the donation box and drop in two small coins worth a penny. He commended her to his disciples as an example for them: unlike the rich who give out of their spare change, she “from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on” (Mark 12:44, CEB).

A haunting phrase: she gave everything she had, even what she needed to live on.

Her children or grandchildren should have stopped her! We would call them negligent today, if they let their old widowed grandmother – with her compromised judgment and her wingnut piety – put her Social Security check wholesale into the offering plate.

Yet this foolish old woman is an icon, a making concrete of Jesus’s teaching from earlier in the same chapter of Mark’s gospel: to love God with all the heart. Holding nothing back, even that which is dearest; even that which ensures survival.

As such, she reminds of Abraham, who made the long, terrible trek to Mount Moriah with his son, Isaac. Folly, horror, enigma – but also iconic: also an extreme and enduring picture, of a human holding nothing back from God, even that which is dearest. This widow is his descendant in faith.

Even more importantly, she is an icon of God.

Bad judgment and magic thinking run amok in Mark – even in the case of God. In Jesus’s parable from earlier in the chapter, a landowner planted a vineyard, and rented it out to tenant farmers. But labor relations even in the world of a parable aren’t that great; when the (divine) manager sent a servant to collect the fruit of the vineyard, the tenant farmers beat him up. Then the manager sent another servant – and this one the tenant farmers killed.

Based on this record, the divine manager should have wised up, hired some mediation, agreed to collective bargaining. Instead, “the landowner had one son whom he loved dearly. He sent him last, thinking, They will respect my son” (12:6, CEB). But – unsurprisingly, given the parable to that point, and given all Mark’s hints about the death of God’s dearly loved Son – the laborers killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.

The parable is odd in several ways. It makes a targeted point and doesn’t map well onto any systematic theological grid – Jesus’s death, for example, is figured in this parable as an unforeseen tragedy and not (as elsewhere in Mark) a divinely purposed calling. There is also the parable’s violent ending and its (potential) supercessionism.

But another of the parable’s oddities is the poor judgment of the landowner, who thinks far too highly of the tenant farmers. He should have held back that which was dearest to him. But instead, somehow – foolishly – he looked past the laborers’ aggressions and trusted them. He is an irresponsible dotard, headed for hurting – like the old woman. And they both are pictures of a foolish God: who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all (Romans 8:32).

This same God had long before jeopardized the divine self for Abraham in Genesis 15: when God commanded Abra(ha)m to take animals and split them in half and lay out the halves facing each other. Then “when the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split open animals” (15:17, CEB). In effect, God made a blood oath. The smoking vessel and fiery flame of God’s presence passed through the split animals, as if to say: to keep my promise, I am willing to risk myself being split in half. Like the widow, holding nothing back, even (in the case of Gen 15) the corporeal integrity that ensures survival.

How different this God of foolish and complete self-commitment is from the gods we – I – tend to imagine.

Gods who hold back.

Gods who are prudent.

Gods who lack commitment.

Gods more concerned with godness than with love.

Zacchaeus comes to America

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He also collaborated with the occupying imperial forces to extort money from his own compatriots. He saw who had the guns — Roman legions, in his day — and he aligned himself with them to make an unjust profit. No wonder the people who saw Jesus invite himself over to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner were disappointed and disgusted. Notorious man of the people consents to intimate meeting with noted counter-revolutionary and predatory little shit.

In Luke’s story, Zacchaeus tells Jesus, “if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much” (19:8, CEB). I assume this was the case; otherwise, why bring it up? Jesus says, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham” (19:9).

And that concludes the story.

As with all the gospel stories, it is curt, and tidy. It evokes just enough of a character and a problem to launch a story. Then the main action is the character’s encounter with Jesus. Then the ending, a snapshot of restoration. Leper, Jesus, rejoicing. Woman caught in adultery, Jesus, go and sin no more. Mourning mother and dead boy, Jesus, rejoicing. Extortive tax collector, Jesus, salvation has come.

The intensity and simpleness of the stories gives them their power. They aren’t like modern novels, where the characters are convoluted and fissiparous and self-contradictory; where they go on and on through multiple sequential scenarios; where there is irresolution and gray. The stories in the gospels are silhouettes, light and darkness. They stick sharply in the memory and linger in the soul. For that reason, they’re more like a rock you can build your house on. But they also lack the give and complexity of real, sandy life, which does not usually consist in episodes of lightning encounter and radical transformation.

For example, the direction of the Zacchaeus story is clear enough. If you have stolen money from others, Jesus still welcomes you. Jesus reaches out to dine with the despised opportunist and collaborator. This is a word that warms my heart; it opens a hope of grace for those like me who stand with Zacchaeus on the benefitting side of imperial firepower. Furthermore, gratitude for Jesus’s gracious welcome moves its recipients to give back their unjust gains to the victims.

But what if it is not so simple? What if I personally did not make the theft like Zacchaeus — but a theft was made hundreds of years ago, and ever since, the stolen capital has grown and amassed, continuing to benefit the racial descendants of the original despoilers? What if the robbery is not an isolated case as with Zacchaeus, but a whole society, organized to protect the interests of the thieves and their progeny, and to ensure the plunder remains inaccessible to the plundered? What if the theft was not only an easily quantifiable asset like money, as with Zacchaeus —but included properties that cannot be commodified, like land and labor and freedom and tradition and credibility and basic human dignity? What if those robbed are not, as in the story of Zacchaeus, merely the passive objects of Zacchaeus’s actions, but their own irreducible and active subjects, who have striven for centuries to reestablish what was forcibly taken from their ancestors?

What does restitution look like in such a case, Lord?

What does God pray?

In the Talmud, God prays only once.

“What does God pray?” It asks.

Rabbi Zutra ben Tobi gives the answer. He taught that when God prays, he says:

“May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” (Berakhot 7a)

Chaos

We all experience incursions of chaos: when raw disorder surges through the surface of our routine.

Sometimes this occurs in relatively small ways. Locking keys in the car turns a predictable morning into an unexpected, exasperating hassle. Bickering disrupts the easy-going enjoyment of an outing.

Sometimes forces of chaos interrupt life more profoundly. Unexpected bad news about family breaks in, clouding the normal order of life like ink falling in water. Chronic sickness makes customary routines a struggle, or impossible. Incarceration rips up the natural sequence of a life. Untimely death leaves a crater that memory must always ever after trace carefully through.

As I understand it, biblical authors, like their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, took individual instances of painful disorder such as these, and thought them out into a huge, terrifying concept. They made its dimensions as fathomless and unpredictable as the Sea. They pictured it as a many-headed Dragon, so vast as to blot out the stars. They imagined it back to the very start of the cosmos. Before the orderly world of our day-to-day experience with its regular rhythms of seasons and crops and meals and births and marriages – there was only the deep: an unrelieved, lightless, nightmare ocean.

Many societies near to Israel and Judah told of how their chief deity fought a titanic battle with the powers of chaos, and by defeating them, inaugurated the world order. But always the powers of chaos threatened to make a renewed assault, and remained a restless, demonic presence at the periphery of consciousness. For many of these societies, this story of the god wrestling chaos to submission functioned as a political myth. Just like modern western governments justify their massive authority by keeping terrorists at bay, so these ancient kingdoms justified their dominance by re-upping national security against the chaos monster.

Biblical authors likewise knew the fragility of our routines. That our day-to-day rhythms hang suspended over the protological Sea. A regular commute could suffer a car crash. A loved one could succumb quickly to terminal illness. In one conversation, a relationship could go out of joint and never recover.

Biblical writers point to God as the only one who sustains the very vulnerable order. Their sense of jeopardy – and the sheer gratuity of God’s preservation – caused them to feel an immense gratitude. Life in its established patterns is not guaranteed, nor owed to us: but handcrafted by God from the midst of a watery depth.

Of course, the Bible elsewhere knows the ways in which order calcifies: and far from representing a gift of God to humans, becomes itself a source of oppression and violence. The regime of security against chaos becomes an agent of the beast. At such a juncture, the prophets inveigh against the symbiosis of temple and nation. Job protests the thick fabric of coherence between sin and suffering.

It is a larger question for biblical theology whether, at the end of the day, God stands as sponsor to (any) systems of order, or represents their prime antagonist: the proud creator of Leviathan, per Job, and the one, per the gospels, who exalted the muckraking prophet, Jesus.

Most likely there is wisdom in in recognizing both: that God detonates the world order that strangles the poor, introducing a dynamic, free new world in the resurrection of Jesus. At the same time, at the micro-level, in the midst of our lives that hang precariously over the flood, God provides safety. God makes a refuge of regularity.

This latter, I take it, is at least some of the meaning of the psalm I read this morning. God’s gift of a dependable world evokes deep gratitude, and a sense of belonging.

The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,

the world and its inhabitants too.

Because God is the one who established it on the seas;

God set it firmly on the waters. (Ps 24:1, 2)

Shepherds in Atlanta

The other day I was talking with a theologian friend. She was telling me about a recent church experience, where the local worship band sounded just like Hillsong. Despite hailing from Atlanta, they even adopted a quasi-Australian accent, distinctively drawling the pronunciation of “God.” The experience was jarring for her. Out of place, by definition.

This was one example of a widespread phenomenon: cut-and-paste Christianity. On this model, a particularly successful cultivar from one place (usually coinciding with a center of empire) is transplanted wholesale onto alien soil. Bands in Atlanta sound like Hillsong. Pastors sound like Tim Keller, or Francis Chan, or whoever. An aesthetic, a theological emphasis, a lingo, an institution like Sunday school or small groups proliferates virally like a box store franchise.

It’s easy to spot the errors in this mode of operation. Cutting and pasting expresses a lack of confidence in God’s presence in every place. It makes God favor one place or people (again, usually coinciding rather suspiciously with political and cultural centers of power). It disempowers God’s people, because it shortchanges their local faith and ingenuity for someone else’s.

What is harder to articulate is the alternative to this model. That is what my friend and I talked about: what a truly indigenous and not imported theology would look like. What would a theology – or range of theologies – look like that took the places, people, and problems of Atlanta as their basic material for reflection?

A few caveats. First, obviously, this line of thinking wouldn’t discard scripture or the patrimony of Christian theological terms. We must still exegete. We must still fill out the meaning of God, Christ, humanity, sin. But instead of bringing all the important past performances of these wholesale into our Atlantan practice of discipleship – like a Hillsong cover band – we would make sure each exegesis or each theological concept was keyed to our place and our moment. God would be the God of Atlanta – what does that even mean? Christ would be the Christ of Atlanta. Humanity the humanity, sin the sin of Atlanta.

Second, I am the wrong person for such an enterprise. I’m not a native. And more crucially, I am not directly impacted by the city’s major struggles. I do not have an insider’s view of Atlanta’s long and barbaric history of racism against black Americans. I am not amongst the impoverished. I speak the dominant language of commerce and education rather than the numerous languages of recent immigrant communities. My personal religious commitments dovetail with southern civil religion (evangelical Protestantism), rather than belonging to an occasionally suspect minority religion in Atlanta like Islam or Sikhism. I have a second-hand understanding of the city’s LGBTQ community. A truly Atlantan theology would speak from firsthand wrestling with and hoping in God from within these histories and these struggles. I can only learn from and amplify such voices.

Third, maybe the question about a genuinely indigenous theology is still misguided. “Atlanta” may still too generic, encompassing an irreducible diversity of communal histories and languages. There may be no good way to stand back from, say, Passion City Church (majority white evangelical church) and Ebenezer Baptist (historic black congregation) and Bethany UMC (first and largest Korean church) and try to say something integrative about following Jesus in Atlanta. Perhaps the thought experiment itself is already too much a product of an imperial subjectivity that aspires to encyclopedia: taking proprietorship of everyone else’s history and organizing it for display like a 19th c. museum.

But I still think the question is interesting, and theologically instructive. What would it mean to think hard about the good news that God raised Jesus – with an eye to Atlanta’s specificities? its wild commercialism or its status as a powerhouse of black education and politics? its rising Asian population? its influx of young white professionals? its iron walls of racial segregation? its gentrification or its incoherent construction projects? its endemic commuter culture or famous traffic congestion? its excellent eateries or its profusion of strip clubs?

To dream of such an indigenous theology is to believe in the translatability of the good news: to affirm that Christ is as much at home here and now as in Galilee there and then. One metric for success in translation is its unintelligibility elsewhere. In other words, a theology of Atlanta would be truly indigenous when its features wouldn’t make sense in another locale. I’ve been reading Zechariah lately, and I took odd comfort from a passage in chapter 11. The text is full of shepherds – three shepherds, a foolish shepherd, the chapter’s author as shepherd. The study notes in my Bible admitted that no one really knows what all these shepherds are referring to. But in a way, the very inarticulacy – the untranslatability – of the passage attests the seriousness of God’s engagement with the context these words first addressed. The text spoke so uniquely to its moment that it doesn’t make sense elsewhere. I dream of belonging so thoroughly – both to God’s good news and to my own time.