Salt Solution

In Syracuse N.Y. salt is ubiquitous, in the names of the roads, in its salt-springs history, and at this time of year just about everywhere you look. Anything that goes on wheels, or upon which wheels go, is encrusted in a thick grime of salt. After big storms, followed by melts and cold snaps, the roads are white, not with snow, but an astringent paste of the briny stuff, one you can taste in the air.

Jesus famously described discipleship in terms of salt losing its savor and being thrown out to be trodden underfoot (Matt.5:13). Commentaries say it’s strange, the compound NaCl is not known to lose its flavor, so what was Jesus talking about? My guess is on the steep inclines of Nazareth and Jerusalem people did just what they do now, on the occasions it did snow and freeze they put salt on steps and gradients. And when the wind blew and you got a tongue-curling taste of the stuff it was just like it is now, dull, cloying, unpalatable.

What Jesus was talking about was not salt losing its flavor in a chemical sense, but losing its precise human quality as seasoning. Too much salt and it’s no longer edible. Actually, it’s disgusting. A literal sense of the Greek word “to lose flavor” is “to become stupid, dull, doltish”… so Jesus is saying that when salt is spread underfoot it loses its tang, its meaning as salt and, instead, tastes, well, stupid, just a bad parody of its table self. All he did was reverse the order of events–first “no tang/bad parody” then “thrown out,” for the sake of his parable.

So, what does it mean for today’s disciples, intended to be “the salt of the earth,” but subject to the possibility of becoming bad parodies fit only to be trodden underfoot?

In many ways Christianity is already spread universally underfoot. In the West it has a massive historical and cultural presence which makes it appear part of the geography, of not much more vital significance than an old road paved over or an outline of ancient walls in an archeological site. Back in 2004 the announced European Constitution did not mention Christianity, prompting bitter complaints from the Vatican. An alliance that progressively emerged between the pope emeritus, Benedict, and some European atheists, for the protection of Christendom against Islam, only serves to highlight the parody-like version of Christianity that was being defended, one that has already ended under foot!

Here in the U.S. Christianity may appear more vital and contemporary but the same underfoot quality is all around us, evidenced by the now European style decline in many mainline churches, particularly and tellingly among young whites. At the same time the barely hidden undertow of violence revealed in many attitudes and situations in fundamentalist Christianity is its own unwitting but evident parody of the Sermon on the Mount where the salt parable appears. (http://m.rollingstone.com/culture/news/love-and-death-in-the-house-of-prayer-20140121)

It seems we are failing the salt test.

What would it mean to seek to be table-salt Christianity today? How is it possible to be salt that dramatically changed the taste of human life for the better, giving life to the earth in the 21st century? To answer this question you have at once to take into account an entirely other perspective about the “spread abroad” quality of inherited Christianity. Elsewhere I have argued that Christianity has had such a profound cultural impact it decisively and progressively affects our underlying responses and opinions, above all in our recognition of the victim through an undertow of Christ’s compassion. This paradoxical impact explains why there is in fact so much implicit Christianity in so-called secular culture and why it is so easy to find a kind of diffused humanism and spirituality entirely away from the churches. For this kind of thing Jesus used parables of seed and its amazing, unstoppable growth. If we take the liberty of mixing this phenomenon with the image of the salt, it’s as if the whole world is suspended in a kind of saline solution! Everything today is mixed with Christianity.

However, this is of very little comfort when there are also many accumulated crises facing humanity. As a planet we have desperate decisions to make about inequality, poverty, the climate, weapons and war. Never in fact has the need for genuine disciples been more critical. I would say, therefore, that it’s the single tangy grain of salt resting in the water which reveals what the whole medium really is.

A grain of salt is by definition a small thing, but a passionate condensation of salt in an ocean enables all the water around to know what its life really is and to be more and more drawn to it. It enables the whole solution to come alive in the life that already is its own.

Such a single grain can be achieved only in direct relationships where it is possible to see the qualities of compassion, nonviolence, forgiveness and peace at work. It is a challenge, and failure and false-starts are a constant possibility. But we know for sure it cannot happen in the big Christendom-style operations based in power relations and which today are more and more simply thrown-underfoot. The objection is sometimes made that small communities do not have the sociological presence and effect of the big operations so you absolutely have to replicate them. This kind of thinking does not understand the seasoning power of a single grain of salt, that tangy thing Jesus was talking about!

Tony Bartlett

Violent or Nonviolent Reading of the Bible?

Challenge

How do you get to the bottom (foundations) of the fundamentalist reading of the bible in three or four (relatively) easy but accurate lessons? Without making light of anybody’s first hand Christian feeling? And, at the same time, without minimizing the enormous crisis the reading represents for all of Western culture?

If we are on the verge of something genuinely new in Christianity then there has to be a fresh understanding about how to read scripture, one that must also encompass a clear account and deconstruction of its prior alternatives.

Response

You remember how you were young? Filled with an infinity of life? And you may also be young now, filled with that same sense. That road, that mountainside, that street after rain, what incredible freshness! That’s what we’re attempting to name here, no matter the chronological age or received tradition of Christianity.

Last Friday we began a new course of study in our prayer and study group, Wood Hath Hope. It’s called “Principles of Interpretation” and it attempts to confront this challenge. The discussion is so important that I’m going to represent it here in a sequence of blogs.

The inspiration for the course came from one of our members who wanted to know how to respond to a literalist take on the bible, of the type, “If it’s in the bible that is what I believe, nothing else!”

For my part, I thought that to answer that question you had to back up and look at the presuppositions of this approach. In a nutshell, I believe that from the soul of an imperialized Christianity, combined with the inescapable centrality of the Crucified, there arose a version of God that was high, authoritarian and incomprehensibly violent. This reading can trace its intellectual roots back to Augustine, but the Bishop of Hippo’s thought in this area did not reach the minds of a majority of Church-going people. We had to wait for the Calvinist Reform before this became a default way of thinking for many Christians. And that is where we began.

We read the Westminster Confession (1646) and Beza’s “Sum Total of Christian faith” (1555) with its two perfectly symmetrical lines of the elect and the damned governed by the eternal, incomprehensible decrees of God. The major (ex?)denominational group within our body are Presbyterians, raised on a mother’s-milk of Westminster Confession, but still many were blown away by the mathematical distinction laid out in black and white. We read Hans Boersma’s powerful description of this tradition as “violence in the heart of God.” Somebody said this is where her youthful sense of the “creepiness” in Christianity came from. Are we dealing here with the figure of God as an abusive parent possessing absolute impunity?

The Westminster Confession says “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself.” This is inescapably true, but the question at once arises, how do you decide which are the bits which interpret other bits? Why not the Sermon on the Mount interpret everything else? The Confession (following Luther) says the Old Testament in Hebrew is the Christian Canon (together with the New Testament in Greek). This contradicted Roman Catholic practice which accepted the Greek Old Testament, including the books which Luther excluded as Apocrypha.

But this actually makes first century Jewish practice the arbiter of the Christian Canon, while the early Christian writers (including Paul) made free use of the Old Testament as written in Greek (what is known as the Septuagint, or LXX). In addition it seems pretty clear that Jesus knew and echoed Sirach (one of the Apocrypha; see, for example, 28:1-7). Does this mean that Jesus in fact considered the book canonical, or just the bits he used? (Moreover, parts of this book written originally in Hebrew were discovered in the 19th century, and later at Qumran, so it actually fits the criterion.) The point is not to pick holes or split hairs, but to show that there is inevitably some prior decision in regard to any text, i.e. there is a criterion or choice used about why it is or is not important. It can never be entirely “natural” as if it fell out of the sky. The choice is made in dialogue with the text, but the text can never teach us and reach us independently of that criterion, or set of criteria.

So then what are the criteria of choice in relation to the text which put “violence in the heart of God.” Atonement doctrine played a huge part in the process and we will come back to this in one of the next studies. But at once we can see the imperial model of authority supplied by the figure of this God, and, therewith, its inherent violence. The authority supplanted that of the Roman Catholic Church and its “Supreme Pontiff,” the pope, and it was a greater and more absolute authority than secular kings or magistrates. There are two consequences.

First, when it comes to reading the scripture in this light, the underlying theme of violence is inescapable. It must inevitably communicate itself to other areas of the bible, especially in the Old Testament where there are many instances of God-willed violence. Because of the meta-violence of God brought to the text as criterion, actual violence in the text will get a free pass. It will in fact become its own self-justifying criterion of interpretation. (Evidence for this can be seen in the Left Behind series which interpret the book of Revelation in terms of brutal violence on the part of Jesus, rather than a writing which does use violent imagery, but which foresees the eventual triumph of the nonviolent Lamb.)

Second, when someone says they are bible-believing Christian (something an early Christian would never have dreamed of saying) there is a latency of violence in the actual first-person statement. An implication is if you don’t agree, then literally you will/can go to hell!

In sum, what we have here is a theological model of authority, surpassing any normal human kind, even of the most despotic divinized character. No human god/king can simply will you to hell for eternity. With metaphysical accuracy, therefore, might makes right. Historically speaking, bringing this authority to the shores of the U.S. supplied its evolving character with a sense of untrammeled supernatural right. As someone said, it entered the water-supply.

In contrast to this criterion of violence in the heart of God we can advance a criterion of God’s absolute nonviolence. But this cannot begin with an alternative eternal concept of God, funneled from an opposite metaphysical starting point. How could we know that? Instead it begins with the concrete and historical event of Jesus and the paradigm shattering events of his death and resurrection, revealing to us our own generative violence by his dying-and-rising nonviolence. More of this later, but we keep in mind it is a concrete human situation of nonretaliation to the point of death, and then its life-filled reversal, which becomes our criterion of interpretation. And this is (of course) perfectly in line with Scripture!

”No one has seen God. It is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s bosom, who has made him known.” (John 1:18).

Gravity Becomes Her

Two Movies, Gravity, Her.

Both what may be called soft-sci.fi., meaning close to what is current technological reality. Both with a female protagonist lost “out in space.” Both Oscar nominated. Both about catastrophic isolation.

That is where the similarities end. Following the trajectories of the two movies they point in two very different directions. As its name suggests, Gravity hurtles down to earth, while Her spins away into some other place “beyond physical reality.” The first is a biblical story. The second is cyber-gnostic.

The enthusiasm with which both were received suggests, I think, a constant tension in any culture affected by the gospel, but there really is only one gospel resolution. (Spoiler alert–plot details follow.)

Gravity tells the tale of a female astronaut struck by a devastating accident in orbit, one which returns every ninety minutes, like manic clockwork, as the debris flies around the earth to arrive on the digital hour with eviscerating effect. Against the odds she manages to get to an abandoned Chinese space-station and board a re-entry capsule just before the whole thing breaks apart and plunges to earth, in a hail of fiery meteors with the astronaut at its center, like the seed of life itself arriving on earth.

Her begins with a desperately lonely man, stuck in an unconsummated divorce, literally ghosting as a profession, writing “personal” letters to other people’s loved-ones, and in his spare time playing holographic video games and engaging in anonymous phone-sex. One day he sees an advertisement for OS, a computer operating system which provides a personal companion who is able to interact dynamically with the purchaser and, so to speak, learn on the job. In this case the OS is “Samantha,” the eponymous Her, and the two end up having virtual sex and falling in love. But Samantha’s abilities grow exponentially and eventually she leaves the man behind, interacting with other OSes and going beyond matter entirely. She says her existence now is “like writing a book” but “the spaces between the letters are infinite.” She tells the man that she still loves him and if there’s any chance he can get to where he is, she’ll be there waiting for him.

The astronaut in Gravity falls in her capsule into the sea, exits and crawls onto land, uttering a heartfelt “Thank you” as she grasps a handful of dirt. In Her Samantha goes terminally offline and essentially invites the man to do the same. The movie ends with an ambiguous scene on the top of a Los Angeles skyscraper, with the man and a woman–someone with a similar story of broken relationship as well as a similarly vanished OS companion–staring at the cityscape with the protective barriers at the roof edge clearly laid flat. The future has never looked so flimsy or out-of-this-world.

Putting these movies back to back there is clearly a terrible sense of the accelerated nature of present human existence–the way in which fragmented relationships combined with technological advances push us ever further into empty spaces. But in the one case there is ultimately a very dramatic slowing and coming down to physical earth, and in the other the hint of final surrender to electronic infinity divorced entirely from material relationship.

Whichever movie garners the Oscars the alternatives they pose will remain a pivotal question. Christian culture has in its own way helped to create accelerated existence (see Light Bulbs). The stress of this experience can only truly be resolved in a progressive decision to love, putting our technology at the service of the weak and needy, and indeed of the earth itself. Short of this humans will be tempted more and more to an “etherealization” of existence, to make their home somehow, somewhere in the ether, rather than on earth.

Meanwhile, the New Testament vision is clear. “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.'” (Rev. 21:2-3)

Light Bulbs

I’m going to try something which I actually think is of the essence in contemporary theology. So bear with me, and you’ll see!

Systems—the way things are put together—control our thinking so much more than individual critical reflection. You are obliged to go to grade school from early childhood, and, in the vast majority of cases, when you emerge in late teens you have learned, implicitly, much more about systems—of authority, of grading, of competition and categorization—than any real knowledge in any actual field.

And that is only the most obvious, clunking instance.

Marshall Mcluhan’s’ book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964, coined the famous phrase “the medium is the message.” A “medium” in Mcluhan’s concept is a means of communication, but much broader and more structural than what we would normally understand in those terms: because it’s not the content, but the delivery system itself that is key.

For example, an electric light is a medium because on its own it radically changes the character of the human environment.

Similarly railways and highways change the meaning of the land, turning it into endless sequence, without beginning or end. And the printed word shifts our thought-world to continuity and linearity, overlaying complexity with seamless “rationality”.

And now there is the internet, the latest and most powerful example of a world-shifting medium. Incorporating in itself several previous media, it creates an explicitly named “cyberspace,” bringing with it a dramatic presence and simultaneity of all parts of the world.

Where is this leading? Without going into a long discussion of the points of convergence of this viewpoint with other contemporary thought (for example, the work of people like Illich and Debord) we can make a swift, radical connection to the thought of Girard.

Girard has conclusively shown that violence is the original human medium, the primary system of human communication.

Girard describes two stages in the work of violence, first disorder, then order. In the first the primary human group is in a chaotic-but-relational state of rivalry, with everyone angry with everyone else. In the second phase it is the group victim or scapegoat who gathers all the violence into herself and so provides order and shape to the universe. You could say, therefore, that the first state is the truly primitive system, the ur-medium so to speak, and then it is the group victim who is the very first true objective medium, organizing violence into order and communication. In this sense you might say violence is to the victim what electricity is to the T.V., structurally contained in the developed medium and making it work.

In turn the group victim is the practical beginning of human culture, so Girard would have absolutely no problem in seeing him or her as the original medium in this light too. All primitive new technology, agriculture, or the arts (including writing) are continually associated with gods. But the gods are original victims, so the cultural meaning of these developments arises from the beaten body of the victim, which provides transcendent definition and order to the transformed material conditions. So, we conclude, all physical media are firmly rooted in the original human medium of the victim.

But, then, if a single man should voluntarily enter the condition of the “original medium” and fill it with love, nonviolence and forgiveness what would be the results? Surely there would be a quickening of the pace of development of new media, because change is freed from the trauma of original/originating violence. And that is exactly what seems to have happened under the cultural impact of Christianity, with the ever increasing tempo of change from the printing press, through mechanical transport, through radio and T.V., and now to the internet. But this is only half the story.

The nonviolence of the new “original medium” must also leak through in the new media, showing the deep effect of their liberating conditions of origin. This is the argument I made in Virtually Christian (without invoking Mcluhan), showing that a “photon of compassion” continues to appear regularly on our electronic screens, our movies and in our audio songs, because of the generative role of the gospel.

But the final impact is still to come. The new “original medium” is an absolutely new level of communication in history, one which reboots humanity as such, together with all its media. There will always be, therefore, a profound human need to return to its primary scene to embrace and integrate the new humanity it brings. This in fact is the meaning of “church,” the situation and experience in which we rehearse Jesus’ cross and resurrection as the new primal human communication. It is the same as the light bulb which changes our world beyond recognition, except a billion times brighter!

Tony Bartlett

Battling Undone

Five Propositions in Favor of the Future

1. Original violence (as described by Girard) is the de facto origin of human culture but not the prospective will of God, which according to Genesis is the Sabbath blessing of life.

2. Jesus came not to compensate for sin but to undo it by means of a new way of being human, thereby bringing about the Sabbath blessing and fulfilment of God’s purpose.

3. The loss of sacrificial foundations due to 2000 years of the gospel has exacerbated human violence to the point of extreme crisis (the argument of Battling to the End.) This looks like the inverse of God’s purpose and a failure of the gospel. But God’s will for creation cannot be reversed. Its ultimate triumph is guaranteed by God’s faithfulness. (Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 45:18, 55:10-11; Revelation 21:1-5.)

4. The standard solution to this quandary is to displace God’s purposes to a supernatural, supra-terrestrial space–“heaven.” Aside from this not being a typically biblical viewpoint it leads itself to a fatalist, rapturist mindset which tacitly or explicitly colludes with the violence. A “new heaven and a new earth” is not to be conceived as another planet somewhere in magical space but this earth radically transformed. “A new heaven” confirms this: the “supernatural” itself is to be renewed as part of a revolution in human transcendence; i.e. no longer violent. It is this revolution which signals and makes possible the new earth.

5. To have faith in the triumph of God’s project on earth is, therefore, neither optional nor whimsical. It means to stake your life on the belief that in the midst of human crisis something dramatically and wonderfully new is emerging. The very consistency of this belief in committed Christians at once provides humanity with an alternative future, within the living moment.

Tony Bartlett

Reckless Beauty

Such beauty should never be in the hands of children, especially badly brought up ones, but that is exactly why it is beautiful!

What is called the Eucharist has been given over into the hands of businessmen, metaphysical accountants and lawyers, but even they have been unable to destroy it. Its sheer profligate giving leaks through the control of temple priesthood, creating a new universe, beyond imagination.

I have calculated that during my time in seminary and afterward as a priest I received the communion bread and wine 7000 times. I could perhaps add another thousand for the times I took communion as a child and teenager. Over the course of the years my experience went from a queasy awe at the holiness of the wafer, to a profound sense of giving and humility, to strange, overpowering love, to finally an absolute nothing. The last feeling came in situations such as the one where a generous local pastor invited me to the table even though I was not “in good standing” with the hierarchical church. When I went up I was grateful for the personal gesture but I felt its utter meaningless. The institutional semiotics that are part and parcel of formal “communion” stood four-square against me.

And, now, paradoxically, it is semiotics that have become the whole point. Forgetting the first and last situations (of holiness and exclusion), the experiences of eucharist spread over those eight thousand times often come drifting back to me, and with a generosity which defies calculation. They come to me purely as sign, a remembered meaning, a memorial moving on the neural pathways of the brain. I believe now and understand that you cannot keep ownership of a sign. As the Sesame Street Muppets might say, how can you own the letter “W”, or the letter “P”! How can you copyright the alphabet? Or, bread as a sign? It’s only when you rig the eucharist as priestly sacrifice—including in the Protestant traditions, as recall of substitutionary death—that you bring it back to the language of mimetic exchange and hence ownership.

In fact in received atonement theology Christ is the supreme commodity—something offered to God as substitute or compensation for sinful humans—and therefore “owned” by the priestly “offering” class. But Rene Girard has given us insight into the violence that is at the root of all exchange (do ut des). At the same time he has highlighted the infinite nonviolence of the gospel which lays that violence bear, and strives to bring new meaning to humankind.

Such reckless beauty to make of a single human body a sign! One of sheer giving to spread abroad in the world! The body of Christ is the transcendental signifier of a new human way, the logos, the word. And the bread and its story is sign of the sign: deep visceral-neural sign of radical newness! Which makes Jesus a directorial genius-artist as well as Messiah: the Martin Scorsese or Andy Warhol of biblical first centuries. Indeed he is Messiah as first-person genius-artist.

Then there’s the consequence. The more this sign is understood in and for itself the less the sign-possessing priesthood makes sense, and the more a sign-proclaiming priesthood is called for. The more the hidden articulations of violence come to view, in the broad revelation that Girard describes, the more the offering priesthood becomes archaic and nonchristian. It is God who first makes the offering to us and gives us it as digestible sign, and all we can say is “mmmmm, thank you”: hence eucharist! A sign works at the level of constructed human meaning and this sign works at the root level of source code. All the Christian community can do is celebrate this source code and stay in its presence, over and over until our root meaning is changed.

Here is the best sense of “metanoia,” a reprogramming of human meaning. Christianity has always been a radical remake of religion, amounting to a new religiosity without duties to God, only the embracing of God’s first giving to us. Over the years, with the accommodation to empire, it took back many aspects of archaic religiosity, above all the exchange of sacrifice as fundamental relation to God. But today God’s true reckless beauty is returning fully to view, and it’s happening because it has itself worked tirelessly at the level of the sign to change our human point of view. At every eucharist we have partaken of the altar’s semiotic destruction, at the same time as taking in a code of unbelievable human newness.

Tony Bartlett