Epiphany, Liturgical Time, and the Islamic State

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We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
                                                                 – T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”

***

Like those three wise men, it’s possible for one to feel like he lives among “an alien people clutching their gods,” having learned to live in liturgical time.

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I can remember early on, as a child of about eleven or twelve, being disappointed with Christmas.  After the gift wrap lay at our feet, after the big Christmas Day lunch at my grandparents’ house, everything felt empty.  I remember hearing about the “post-holiday blues” (though I don’t think I would have called it that or remembered that string of words) and feeling like that resonated with me: people becoming “blue” as the holidays came to an end.  I wanted to keep it going – the anticipation of the event, that is.  The consummation of the thing – the unwrapping of gifts and the feasts and family – would let me down.  And as I got older, this experience recurred every Christmas season.

***

A few weeks ago, The Atlantic published a piece online by Graeme Wood about an American man named John Georgelas, now known as Yahya Abu Hassan, who from all accounts, has become second in command in the Islamic State.  It’s a fascinating and disturbing story about an intelligent young man who never quite found his way and according to his father, was always a follower.  Of course, the paradox now is that he is a leader, one of the top leaders, of the death gang that has ravaged parts of Syria and Iraq and now seem to be trying to make headway in other countries.

What was of special interest to me was where Yahya, as Wood refers to him throughout the piece, grew up.  Just up the road from me is Plano, Texas, the city where my wife grew up and where the parish I attend is located.  This suburb of high achievers is where Yahya spent most of his formative years and where his parents still live. What would cause someone like him to abandon family, faith, and culture in such a drastic way?

***

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Ethiopian Nativity icon

Earlier in this decade, my wife and I moved to Ethiopia to work with orphans and vulnerable children.  One of the things I loved about the culture there was how everything stopped for a major holiday, and the lack of commercialization of a holiday like Christmas in Ethiopia (or Gena) made it feel truly foreign, ancient, and other-worldly.  Even apart from the fact that Ethiopians use a different calendar (the Julian), there were not the usual signs that Christmas was coming – you know, the decorations and products changing hands in all the big box stores around Halloween. Refreshingly, instead of there being commercial signals that a new holiday was coming, you would instead see people walking goats through the streets that they would slaughter for the big feast or women outside crushing chilies into berbere powder – and all this just days before the actual holiday.  There was something organic about it all, something true.

***

In many ways, I can understand what would lead one to abandon a life in comfortable suburbia for a life roughing it with a jihadist cult.  I don’t know what led Yahya to leave his old life behind and join ISIS, of course, but I think I can imagine what it would be. I can identify with a certain ache for meaning, with the desire to find something for which I can live and die, as Kierkegaard once wrote.  After all, such restlessness is largely responsible for my moving to Ethiopia in the first place.

***

Without realizing it back then, the “holiday blues” I used to experience were an aching for deeper meaning.  Yes, I’m sure you can psychologize it and say I was just experiencing a let down after all the build up to, and enjoyment of, a long break away from the drudgery of routine, but the problem with this “secular” way of thinking is that it sees routine as an enemy and “vacation” as something that really matters, something that makes one feel alive.  As I’ve gotten older, what has rescued me from the meaninglessness of the North American “Holiday Season” is the church calendar, or liturgical time.  For one, the calendar is built on a kind of holy anticipation, a looking forward to the consummation of all things.  In a beautiful way, the beginning of every Advent looks forward to the end.  We begin the year contemplating last things (especially as it relates to our need for repentance), and doing so is a reminder that “here we have no lasting city.” And that let down I used to feel as a kid on Christmas Day is cut off at the knees by the realization that Christmas is actually a season, not just one morning of tearing open gift-wrapped boxes.

Learning to live in liturgical time also helps provide meaning beyond the daily grind of getting and spending.  Our society is built on an exchange economy and that economy so shapes our hearts and imaginations that we imagine if one puts in the work and the sweat equity, then he should get what he deserves.  Therefore, “free-time” is bestowed on you as a deserved reward for all the hard work: it’s *mine* and  I earned it. The church calendar, on the other hand, structures our time in such a way that we are put in a place to realize all is gift and nothing that is earned is really worth all that much in the end anyway.  What matters is belonging and the community we’re given to be members of, and the sacred time the church calendar situates us in allows us to experience that. The other calendars of our lives are mostly centered around goals, deadlines, and what needs to be achieved and earned, what *I* need to do to perform or succeed.  Liturgical time allows us to exist outside of that exchange economy (“you get what you’ve earned” thinking) and in a time and space driven only by grace and not the bottom line.

To live by this kind of sacred time is inherently subversive as it restructures our lives (our time) around givenness, something that, to our society, is not all that meaningful when often what’s most important is what *I’ve* achieved. We are given our very lives to be lived in holy community.  We are reminded every week at Eucharist that we’re all beggars and, with palms raised upward to receive the Host, we symbolize our need and position as receivers not acquirers.  And while we have to live according to more acquisitive ways of organizing our day-to-day lives to put food on the table, if we let liturgical time shape our hearts and imaginations, we will inevitably run counter to the trends and fads of our culture and desire something different too.

***

Today marks the end of the Christmas season as Epiphany begins and I’m still thinking about what would lead a man like John Georgelas to become a jihadist named Yahya Abu Hassan.  I don’t know the answer since the human heart is too complex and each person’s story so full of variables and nuance.  I am grateful, though, for having discovered that the church, though it may not always act like it, is its own alternative culture to the culture of death and materialism all around us.  We don’t have to go far to look for radical ways to think about money, politics, social issues, or how we think about time.  They’re there in the ancient ways of the Church and always have been. And it’s possible that, once you’ve learned to live according to them, your old life, organized as it was by other priorities and calendars, will feel alien, as part of a “dispensation” that has faded away. Just like it did for Eliot’s Magi.

 

 

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Advent and Disposable Society

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“Purity of heart is to will one thing…”

Against my better judgment, I was out last Saturday afternoon, three weeks before Christmas, looking for a pair of black shoes.  I was scheduled for my first Sunday as a chalice bearer the next day and, as I am wont to do, I had waited until the last minute to look for the black shoes I needed to blend in with the black cassock that would be hovering just above them.

I didn’t want anything too expensive because 1) I’m sort of a cheapskate 2) I wouldn’t wear these shoes any other time since black isn’t really a color I prefer.  As those were my only two guidelines for my shopping expedition, I visited those receptacles of all that our department stores have deemed disposable: Marshall’s and Ross.

I have mixed feelings about these sorts of stores.  I enjoy that occasionally I can find a good deal on something I need (one time, it was a belt, another, socks).  But while this may be the case on occasion, I generally stroll the aisles at these stores with a sense of gloom.  While you may be able to find some good deals from time to time, these stores, to me at least, are a reminder of our society’s addiction to consumption and waste.  As you search for the thing you’re looking for, you’re surrounded by items nobody wanted or could use – not only shirts and pants and size 14 shoes, but also things like electronic gadgets, cologne, and housewares.  A veritable Island of Misfit Toys here in the real world, and to me, all a bit depressing.

Last Saturday, as I moved out of the shoe section at Marshall’s, I ended up in the area with gadgets and cologne.  I wasn’t too interested in looking at the goods displayed there but something caught my eye as I glanced around.  Down low on a display case was this:

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Not a great photo but I think you can get the idea.  There on the low shelf  was some kind of cologne and perfume combo with the Khloe and Lamar brand on it. What made this piece arrest my attention was the image of Lamar Odom, and while I’m not a celebrity news follower and don’t really know anything about the Kardashians, I do follow the NBA, and if you’ve done so in recent years, you may know the sad story of Lamar Odom.  This isn’t the place to recount it but suffice it to say Lamar Odom almost died just over a year ago when he was found unresponsive in a Las Vegas area brothel.  An overdose of cocaine had caused him to have a stroke.  One of the sweetest persons to every play the game, some say, had players from all over the league, in the days following his collapse, rallying to wish him a quick recovery, which for a while seemed like it might not happen at all.

All I could think of as I glanced at this emblem of our disposal culture is how things seem to be produced in our society almost so they can be tossed aside to make room from something else – including people and in this case, athletes.  The liturgy, if you will, of consuming and throwing away influences our imaginations on a deep level – so much so that we often see this time of year as the time of malls, shopping bags, wrapped presents under the tree, sales at department stores or online.  James K.A. Smith’s “liturgy of the mall,” of course, has shaped many an evangelical’s imagination in recent years as he describes that whole consumeristic enterprise as a formational practice that steers our hearts toward one thing and not another – toward impure desires on the one hand and away from pure desires on the other.

51yr3tsnfhl-_sx330_bo1204203200_In his book The Truce of God, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes about pure and impure desire.  Impure desire, according to Williams, “desires to stop having to desire,” to stop needing and to be self-sufficient.  Pure desire, on the other hand, can live with an “unlimited horizon;” it’s at home with longing and anticipation.  Williams writes:

The ‘impure heart’ is a heart which never wants anything enough to be intolerant of substitutes.  Beneath its readiness to make do with less than reality is the fear of real desire.  For real desire means the candid acknowledgment that I am incomplete and need something in order to be real myself.  Impure desire, on the other hand, assumes that I am solid and important: I take things to myself as my fancies suggest…I consume things – to stop myself from being consumed by real desire.”

Dismissing a moralistic/simplistic understanding of purity, Williams reveals that what’s really wrong with the impure heart and what it desires is its spiritual sloth, or as the monastic tradition calls it, acedia.  It’s the noonday demon of making do with what is less than real by bouncing from one distraction to the next.  Because the impure heart cannot acknowledge that it is “incomplete and need[s] something in order to be real” itself, it fails to integrate the negative in itself, in others, or in the world.  To do so is too costly: it means to surrender to one’s frailty and spiritual lack.  As Williams is later quoted as saying, “Unreal desire stumbles from moment to moment trying to gratify an immediate hunger, without accepting that ‘hunger’ is part of being human and so cannot be dealt with or understood by an endless succession of leakplugging operations.”

For me, this is where Advent comes in.  Advent is a kind of resistance movement against the barrage of “unreal desire” being piped through the various devices we find ourselves staring at or plugged into on a daily basis. The marketing that surrounds us and that is the air we breathe is trying to get us to forget that “hunger is part of being human.”  All the disposable, throwaway “stuff” being pushed on us from all directions is seeking to persuade us to that the I is important and solid and complete in of itself.  You need nothing else (except what they’re trying to sell you, of course).

Advent, on the other hand, is about pure desire.  It’s about acknowledging and being mindful of our hunger, our incompleteness and our need, and any disposable thing that leads you to skip over the surface of those needs that make up the hunger of living is a lie.  Advent, as a season of repentance and expectation, reminds you it’s OK to be hungry and to feel the need you bump into in your daily life. Advent reminds you to embrace your full humanity and to be “intolerant of substitutes” that keep you from living wholeheartedly.

But it’s easy to forget we’re in need on a daily basis.  Not only do we live longer and (perhaps) suffer less due to advances in modern medicine but we live in a throwaway society where the temptation never to sit still long enough to feel ones need is always with us. We can easily move from one consumable distraction to the next without even tapping into our own spiritual poverty. Because of our smart phones, our music is always with us as well as instant TV and movie access.  And while there certainly have been movements in our society to buy less “stuff” and rid ourselves of waste or even to “unplug,” there has to be a more abiding reason to do these things than simply to have a cleaner home or no credit card debt or better sleep (even those are all important).  While those things are good, as Christians we should simplify our lives out of a desire to identify with the Other, especially the poor, the refugee, and the excluded. There should be no greater motivation to pursue such discipline than God’s identification with us in the person of Jesus.

And that’s exactly what Advent is about: identification.  God identified with us in our neediness and we, in turn, should seek to identify with those in need who are all around us.  Meditating on the mystery of the Incarnation and our own spiritual poverty and then letting that meditation move us toward action is what Advent is for.  To do so is to engage in a counter-cultural movement that moves us away from consumption and greed and toward mercy and kindness.  And when that happens, then maybe we will be a church shaped not by the desires of the market economy and our throwaway society but by the expectations and vision of God’s economy.

Love the Stranger as Yourself: An Exhortation Written to an Imagined American Christian Audience Uninterested in, or even Hostile to, the Refugee and the Migrant

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“The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” – Lev. 19.34

“…I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” – Matthew 25.35

Dear American Christian Uninterested in, or even Hostile to, Refugees and Migrants,

Did you hear that Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that the U.S. will increase the number of refugees it will take in over the next two years?  Currently we take in about 70,000 a year but by 2017, we will see 100,000 coming to the U.S. That’s a lot, right?

Well, on the other end of the spectrum, I heard on the radio not too long ago that Iceland’s government has agreed to take in fifty Syrian refugees (you read that correctly: fifty) as a way to help alleviate the burden of other European nations trying to help these migrants.  But what struck me as I listened to this story was not the small number of Syrians Iceland has decided to accept.  Instead, what caught my attention was the story of a group of private citizens of the small Scandanavian country that are offering their homes to refugees in order to do what the Icelandic government cannot, or will not, do, which, of course, is to provide hospitality to those who have been forcibly displaced.

I was moved and inspired as I listened to this story by the fact that, while governments may busy themselves with the business of governing and law making and debating policies, groups of people, outside the official channels of governance, regularly have to take it upon themselves to respond to the moral crises of the times and in this case, love these strangers as themselves. So while governments do what they do, ordinary people, without any official sanction, go about doing what governments are unable to do—in this case, give generously to those in need.

How much more should the church be involved in this kind of response to one of the great moral crises of our time? Of all the different communities in society, we are the ones who should “know the heart of the stranger” because we, of all people, should have the ability to empathize with others in their need.

When God was forming and shaping his people, the Israelites, he made it clear that they were not only to welcome the stranger but to treat him as though he were a “native.” But then, he took it a step further and told his people to “love him as yourself.” The stranger was not only to be considered “one of our kind.” God’s people were to treat him as they would want to be treated if they found themselves in the same position—a position, in fact, they once were in when they were “strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It should be no surprise then, that when God became man, at the core of Jesus’ message was the truth that with the measure one uses to judge others, that same measure will be used against him—that we were to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Jesus’ followers, God’s people, should be characterized by an ability to empathize and a courageous compassion that reaches out to the stranger because they have the ability to listen and be moved to action by the story of another in need. We have been loved much and out of the overflow, we are more than willing to love others—even when our politicians, and others around us, are worried they’ll be a drain on our resources or are clamoring for walls to be built or other drastic security measures to be taken.

In light of such political rhetoric, it’s important for Christians to consider that Jesus was once a refugee. In the first years of his life, Mary and Joseph had to flee their home with the Christ child to escape the wrath of Herod. They sojourned to Egypt where they lived for a time. This means that when God became man, he submitted himself to every experience imaginable in order to take on our humanity in all its fullness—even forced displacement. We’re familiar with his taking on sin and death, but how often do we think about his taking on our “less spiritual” conditions—such as being a refugee, in this case? What does this mean? That we worship a God who has made himself vulnerable to the full gamut of our experience? It means that we should follow suit by following Jesus in his identification with us.

In following Jesus, we adhere to the values and economics of God’s kingdom—a kingdom where the worthiness of those in need is not ours to judge. A kingdom where the concerns of the nation state—scarcity and plenty, threats and security–do not dictate our behavior. Why? Because there’s always enough in God’s economy (it’s the foundation of his economics) and the only threat to his kingdom is the threat of one’s love growing cold. When love’s potency becomes diluted by the cares of this world—the love of money, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life—then we can be sure we are acting not as the sojourning followers of the slaughtered lamb but rather as the conquered subjects of Caesar. We are to live as “resident aliens,” existing in the tension between “in and not of,” and resist the forces that seek to shape our hearts and imaginations to that of the will of this world.

But if talk of our status as “resident aliens” and being “in but not of” is too spiritual and abstract, then we should consider whether our inability to identify with the stranger is borne out of a drive to always make sure we’re an insider and rarely, if ever, an outsider. Perhaps we’ve never been in a position where we didn’t have control or privilege—where we didn’t really have to listen to the “other” because we still held a position of power. We’ve always moved easily from one community to the next because of the connections we had or because of who we knew. What if those connections were lost? What if we gave them up willingly? To let go of such privilege and power—and in this case, in a small way—is to practice the kind of kenosis (“emptying”) we see in Jesus as the Son of God, and to practice such self-emptying is to practice conversion—the conversion from following Jesus as business as usual (Jesus as the rubber-stamper of our ideological platform, for example) to following Jesus as exactly that: a follower—one who has given up control to another to go where the other leads. Such self-emptying, arguably, is the core of the gospel. Jesus lays aside his privileges and prerogatives and enters our experience and suffers every aspect of it. Such identifying with “the other,” then, is at the heart of God’s mission in the world and we are called to follow suit.

In the climactic scene of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the greedy, vengeful Shylock, when persisting in his demand for pay back, has no ears to hear Portia’s wise words directed at his desire for justice on his own terms: “We do pray for mercy and that same prayer doth teach us all to render to the deeds of mercy.” Shakespeare understood that we all want mercy—especially when we feel vulnerable or in need. But how often do we feel that need? How often do we find ourselves in a position to feel the need for someone’s unearned attention and help? Those who have suffered have felt this way, and that is why, while not good in and of itself, suffering is often one of the prerequisites for empathizing with those in need—especially when that person is someone from another country forcibly displaced by war or persecution.

But we are used to insulating our lives, insuring it against all manner of setbacks and potential disasters, and that version of the good life—the accumulation of wealth and property and the insuring its protection—has hardened our hearts to the way God’s kingdom operates. Sure, we all reap what we sow, but in the final analysis, love is what keeps this world going and love will have the final say. Not the kind of love conservative people imagine when liberals or progressives talk about love—not that idea. It’s the kind of deathly serious thing that led God to identify with the other (us) and to submit himself to our every experience, including death, so that he could fully love his creation. Yes, he could have loved the world without the incarnation, I suppose, but that god would be more like the god of the Deists than the God imaged in Jesus.

So if we are to follow this God, our hardened hearts must be broken and remade. And this remaking happens when we practice the conversion that comes by learning to die daily to what we think we need to be secure and in control of our lives and instead learning to follow the economics of God’s rule, best elucidated in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. As Jesus says there, if we only love those who love us how are we any different than the “tax collectors” and “Gentiles” (5:46-48)? Likewise, if the church in our time only welcomes those who can give us something in return (a sense of felt security because they don’t look different from us, for example), how are we any different from the Icelands of the world—or any other nation whose interests are ultimately ruled by Mammon? How are we any different from those who are concerned with storing up “treasures on earth,” as Jesus speaks of later in the Sermon?

The church, more than any other group, should have the courage to welcome the stranger because the church, more than any other group, should know how to hold on lightly to “treasures on earth.” When God called his people into being, he commanded them to love the stranger among them. When Jesus laid out what Stanley Hauerwas has called the “constitution” of Kingdom of God in the Sermon on the Mount, he reaffirmed this same kind of love for those different from ourselves (even enemies!).

Though we don’t see within our own borders the crisis Europe is currently experiencing with refugees pouring into its member states, each year, the U.S. takes in the most refugees of any country in the world. And that will probably not change any time in the near future. With that in mind, the church has a clear duty to seek out the refugee and migrant, not as a problem to be solved with our American ingenuity and know-how, but as strangers to be befriended, people to be loved as we would want to be loved if we were in the same position. We should go to those hidden corners of our cities and forgotten areas of town where refugees and migrants live and seek for opportunities to serve and volunteer with organizations that have been quietly living and working in those communities since well before refugees became the top story in the news cycle.

The refugee crisis that is happening in the world today is not a problem; it’s an opportunity. Governments may argue and debate about numbers and security issues, but God’s people have a clear chance to do what has always been part of their mission.  Let the politicians debate and argue, but may we Christians follow our God who suffers with us.

Peace of Christ,

Michael Funderburk

Brian Zahnd: Countering the Politicizing Proclivities of Fundamentalism with the Beauty of the Cruciform Life

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In the search for certitude and a penchant for Bible-Answer-Man explanation, the intrinsically artistic nature of the Christian mystery is turned into gift shop simulacra. Fundamentalism is to Christianity what paint-by-numbers is to art. 

So Brian Zahnd, pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri, states in a recent post on his lively and insightful blog. Zahnd, who is an interesting mix of mystic, pastor, scholar, and Bob Dylan, maintains an insightful blog laced with insights from the church universal.  It’s common to find him quoting anyone from Dostoevsky to St. Athanasius to Stanley Hauweras.  (I first discovered him through a friend who sent me this link)

If you give his blog posts a cursory glance, you’ll find that a main theme in his writing is the need to recognize mystery and not to rely too easily on “cheap certitude,” as he calls it in more than one post.

His most recent offering is no exception. In this post, he astutely notes something that I have long recognized: that Fundamentalism is just as enslaved to modern scientific explanations of the Bible (and the Christian’s experience of grace) as any modern skeptic (which is why, by the way, he prefers The X Files to, say, Sherlock Holmes. For The X Files, the answer is “out there”–there’s a mystery to explore–but for Sherlock Holmes, created as he was in the 19th century with its industrialized imagination, mysteries are only problems to be solved).  In this recent post, he writes:

In discovering a richer Christianity I have been able to identify an ache that had always been in my soul — it was the ache for mystery. Mystery is at the heart of reality. Ask any quantum physicist! Newtonian physics sought to explain everything, but post Einstein physics has learned to bow in chastened reverence before the altar of mystery. And Christians should have at least as much reverence for mystery as quantum physicists! Christianity is a sacred mystery. The Apostle Paul loves to speak of the mysterion — he uses that rich word twenty-one times in his letters. Christianity is a confession, not an explanation. We will attempt to explain what we legitimately can, but we will always confess more than we can explain. I fully confess God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even though I cannot fully explain the Trinity. I fully confess the resurrection of Jesus Christ, even though I cannot fully explain what it means that the Son of God has inaugurated a world beyond the realm of death. Room for mystery is necessary for orthodox theology. Mystery is good for theology. And mystery is good for the soul.

In addition to his understanding of the importance of mystery in the Christian life, I appreciate Zahnd because he recognizes that Christianity is meant to be a prophetic witness in society: it is a political, though not politicizing, faith.  The Kingdom of God challenges partisans on the Left and the Right.  In an interview that The Gospel Coalition’s Trevin Wax conducted with Zahnd, the pastor from “St. Joe” (who, by the way, was once a Word of Faith preacher.  Read Wax’s interview to find out more) replied to the question, “What are the dangers of a politicized faith? And does moving away from that lead us into quietism?” with the following:

Christianity is an intensely political faith and as such can never be compatible with quietism. The church should be a prophetic witness within the body politic—the church is to embody the politics of Jesus. But when the church settles for cheap partisanship, it forfeits its prophetic voice. Once the religious right became the de facto religious wing of the Republican Party, it ceased to be prophetic. To the Left, it was a partisan enemy, and to the Right, it was a partisan tool—but it was prophetic to neither.

Unfortunately, in our polarized partisan culture, if I pull away from a carte blanche endorsement of the Right, it is perceived as an endorsement of the Left—which is not the case at all! For example, as I allow my politics to be informed by Christ, I try to be consistently pro life—so I’m opposed to abortion and the death penalty. As you can see, that doesn’t make for a nice alignment with either the Left or the Right. It’s not political engagement that I’m opposed to but partisan allegiance. Ultimately, political parties are interested in power, but the church is called to transcend the politics of power and embody the politics of love set forth in the Sermon on the Mount.

Christianity is interested in public affairs because it is interested in the common good, but “partisan allegiance,” and ultimately the desire for power, short circuits this involvement and prevents the church from effectively engaging society. Christianity’s witness to the public, in order to be prophetic, must embrace an alternate approach of social engagement that is shaped by something other than the binary imagination of our politicized world.

Photo courtesy of the Fenland Hermitage

Ultimately, our engagement in the public sphere is shaped, according to Zahnd, by the beauty of the cross. Later on in the interview with Trevin Wax, Zahnd says,

In defending truth, the church has created Christian apologetics, and in defending the good, the church has created Christian ethics. But by and large, we have ignored the virtue of beauty, relegating it to the demoted status of mere adornment. Yet the recovery of beauty as a way of interpreting and expressing the Christian faith may be just what we need at this time.

Along with Christian apologetics and ethics, we need some Christian aesthetics. In a culture that is suspicious of our truth claims and less than impressed with our claim to a superior ethic, beauty may be a fresh way to communicate our message. Beauty has a way of sneaking past defenses.

But for us to adopt a presence of beauty, we need a form that we can look to as a guide. Whether it’s a painting or a poem, a sculpture or a song, it’s the form that gives a thing its inherent beauty.

So what is the form of Christian beauty? I think it has to be the cruciform—Christ upon the cross, arms outstretched in offered embrace, forgiving the sins of the world. What I’m suggesting is that the body of Christ should be in the world as the beauty of the cruciform. What we say, what we do, what we demonstrate should be in some way an expression of cruciform beauty.

We should ask ourselves, does this stance, this position, this project, this action, this attitude look like Jesus upon the cross? If not, maybe we should rethink it. This would be a helpful step in getting rid of some of the ugly ways we react to what we perceive as wrong with the world.

Zahnd’s thoughts about beauty here remind me of two things.  The first is in regards to beauty and the second, the cross, cruciformity, and weakness.

The first is Gregory Wolfe’s response to the politicization of Christianity (it’s no mistake, by the way, that both Zahnd and Wolfe have both written a book with the title Beauty Will Save the World).  According to Wolfe, societal transformation will not take place primarily through the go-to modes common in our day and age–politics and rhetoric–but instead will only come about because “of the imaginative visions of the artist and the mystic.” But this deference to the dreams of the artist and the saint is not a surrender, not a withdrawal into quietism, as Wolfe points out.  Instead, this retreat “involves the conviction that politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces, but are shaped by the pre-political roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as recorded by the artist and the saint.” Without articulating it quite this way, I think Zahnd promotes this vision of cultural engagement.  What is needed from the church is the more indirect approach of the visionary poet or the suffering saint.  This indirect approach has a way of working on the heart and imagination of the individual that the more straightforward approach of politics–and even apologetics–cannot. As Zahnd says in the quotation above: “In a culture that is suspicious of our truth claims and less than impressed with our claim to a superior ethic, beauty may be a fresh way to communicate our message. Beauty has a way of sneaking past defenses” (italics mine).

The beauty of the cross, of the cruciform, provides an alternative in our world of the culture wars.  In response to the bald desire for power that often undergirds a politicized faith, Christians should prophetically bear witness to the power of weakness, the power of emptying ourselves of our rights and privileges in order to serve and give.  Henri Nouwen called this “downward mobility,” the way of powerlessness:

It seems nearly impossible for us to believe that any good can come from powerlessness. In this country of pioneers and self-made people, in which ambition is praised from the first moment we enter school until we enter the competitive world of free enterprise, we cannot imagine that any good can come from giving up power or not even desiring it. The all-pervasive conviction in our society is that power is a good and that those possessing it can only desire more of it….

Surrounded by so much power, it is very difficult to avoid surrendering to the temptation to seek power like everyone else. But the mystery of our ministry is that we are called to serve not with our power but with our powerlessness. It is through powerlessness that we can enter into solidarity with our fellow human beings, form a community with the weak, and thus reveal the healing, guiding, and sustaining mercy of God….As followers of Christ, we are sent into the world naked, vulnerable, and weak, and thus we can reach our fellow human beings in their pain and agony and reveal to them the power of God’s love and empower them with the power of God’s Spirit.

Paradoxically, as Nouwen points out, it’s through surrendering our power that we will gain a hearing with others, with “them.” Why? Because such a surrendering allows us to sympathize with others, which of course, opens the lines of communication.  It opens the ears so we–so they–can hear. We sympathize because He first sympathized with us.

Elsewhere, Nouwen writes:

This is the way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus. It is the way toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless–toward all who ask for compassion. What do they have to offer? Not success, popularity, or power, but the joy and peace of the children of God.” (from Here and Now pp. 138-139)

I think it’s this joy and peace Zahnd is calling the church to–a joy and peace that can only be found, however, by surrendering to the mysterious beauty of the cruciform–a joy and peace that counters the concern, worry, and power-grabbing of a politicized faith–a faith that, lacking a substantial vision of the kingdom of God that can capture the collective imagination and move the collective heart of the public, overly relies on answers and morality–rather than holistic witness–to counter the decadence and decay of our society.  If the Gospel truly has an “intrinsically artistic nature,” as Zahnd says–by which he means that it is ultimately a mystery–then we need more witnesses who are willing to enter that mystery and live the mystery.  Doing so, may not produce immediate results, but slowly, over time, the beauty of bearing witness will have its way with those who have ears to hear.  It will sneak past their defenses and give them a picture of what could be and, indeed, what one day, shall be.