Reading The Slavery of Death (Part 7: The Sign of the Cross)

In the previous chapter, Beck discussed the concept of the eccentric identity, and how our embracing this identity that centers outside ourselves can help us overcome our death anxiety.  It’s good stuff.

This next chapter introduces multiple interrelated concepts all interpreted through the vision of the cross.  Though I recognize that the discussion of identity in the previous chapter is important, and that it’s even framed with reference to the example Jesus sets in his life, it feels like it doesn’t quite reach any sort of conclusion that explains the significance of Christianity in general and the crucifixion in particular.

I suspect these feelings are largely personal and relate to my experiences as an evangelical Christian.  For all of my criticisms leveled at that branch of the Church, I learned from it that the crucifixion matters, and I still believe that.  Jesus lived as an example for Christians, but it’s also important to remember how he died and wrestle with the meaning of that act.  This is the chapter where Beck really explores that facet of the faith.

Now, I’ve written about theories of atonement before, but it’s been mostly in critique of the implications that come from theories centering on the satisfaction of God’s wrath through a method of scapegoating (I think the connection between this practice discussed in Leviticus 16 and the crucifixion is usually overlooked because it’s not as clean a metaphor as the Lamb of God, and the scapegoat isn’t slaughtered but turned loose to die in the wild).  I’m not a big fan of God’s wrath, so typically atonement theories that include that characteristic are nonstarters for me when considering theological models.  Anyway, the explanation that Beck promotes here is devoid of wrath and considers instead how the crucifixion demonstrates to the utmost degree what we’re called to do in following Christ.

It begins with a consideration of martyrdom and what that role actually means.  The Greek word from which martyr is derived simply means “witness.”  It’s largely because of the ultimate fate of many martyrs in the early Church’s history that the label carries connotations of dying for one’s beliefs.  As martyrs, we’re supposed to be witnesses; the literal dying part is a possibility in certain extreme situations, but it’s not the entirety of the role.  At the same time, Beck makes a case that martyrdom does involve submitting to death in small ways through the renunciation of our possessive identities.  By refusing to place value in the hero systems that prop up our death delusion, we become martyrs both in the original and contemporary meanings.  As Beck says, “there is no qualitative distinction between the martyr and the Christian in everyday life.  The distinction is only quantitative, a difference not of kind but of degree.”

The way that we grow into this martyr role involves committing to a kind of asceticism in our practice as Christians.  Typically, ascetics in the Christian imagination resemble John the Baptist or the prophet Zechariah, people who deny themselves all kinds of physical comforts as a way of demonstrating their message or heightening their own experience of God.  It seems like very extreme behavior to be an ascetic, especially in modern industrialized settings where comfort for the privileged is so easily acquired.  We think of this behavior as possibly virtuous, but not for everyone.

One issue that I’ve wrestled with recently is the problem of Christian identity (particularly in the more liberal vein that I find myself in) with relation to the world.  Evangelicalism is a highly problematic system, largely because of its emphasis on setting members of the community apart from the rest of the world through strict doctrinal regulation, but Christians within that branch of the Church tend to have a much easier time maintaining their spiritual identity (if they’re not on the outs or heading towards farewell territory).  As I’ve pushed more into liberal territory and considered theological systems that emphasize universal love and redemption, it’s definitely felt like the lines between my spiritual identity and those of non-Christians have blurred.  On the one hand, this isn’t such a bad thing because it’s a breaking down of barriers to communication and mutual empathy.  On the other, it does sometimes leave me wondering what makes identifying as a Christian so special (for anyone following along at home, yes, this line of thinking does feed into a recursive loop with the problem of buying into worldly systems by wanting to belong to an in-group that I think is “special”; I’ve not yet figured out how to resolve that tension).

In Beck’s proposed system, the Christian identity, besides being eccentric through its focus on divinely received identity, is important because of its emphasis on asceticism (which Beck defines as an acquiescence to small instances of death through self-expenditure for the sake of others).  Most people are familiar with the Christian preoccupation with renouncing the ways of the world, and this is how Beck suggests that we do it.  We reject the values of principalities and powers in favor of a life devoted to undermining our own self-preservation instincts.  We try to empty ourselves of the striving to survive (Beck says that this doesn’t mean adopting an attitude of death seeking, so much as an indifference to our own survival).  We’re supposed to follow the example of kenosis Jesus sets and Paul describes in Philippians:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:6-8

I’ve mentioned kenosis before as a useful concept for considering the problem of theodicy in a cosmological model that incorporates evolution, and also as a helpful idea for considering how God might combat the principalities and powers using people in the world (old posts can on those topics can be found here and here; perhaps unsurprisingly, the second one is a response I wrote back when I was first engaging with Beck’s ideas).  Here, kenosis serves as a metaphor for the ascetic attitude Christians would try to adopt in the Christus Victor model that Beck’s discussing.  “Self emptying” effectively describes how we symbolically allow ourselves to die as part of the indifference to death that comes with rejecting the death delusion and our idolatry to it.

The next obvious step, if we’re following Jesus’ example, is resurrection.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty (4/27/14)

We have fifteen days of school left at work, and everyone’s starting to get kind of antsy.  This next week’s going to be the most stressful because the high school’s doing our End of Course testing (two days, four 2.5 hour testing blocks, a mess of very tired and frustrated students).  On the bright side, after that’s over we’re going to do fun educational things like watch the Baz Luhrman version of Romeo & Juliet (the kids expressed interest when I mentioned that it features gang warfare, though they were disappointed that there are no fully automatic weapons).


1. This article involves a pretty good breakdown of the instances where Jesus discusses hell in the Gospels.  It’s a small number.  Then it goes on to breakdown where Jesus discusses heaven.  In Matthew alone, the number of instances where heaven is mentioned is nearly quadruple the total mentions of hell in all the Gospels.  I think that’s a pretty strong sign that Jesus had more interest in a justice of reconciliation rather than a justice of retribution.

2. Zack Hunt reposted a video from Time about a couple in California who believe God instructed them to open up a marijuana dispensary.  It’s a charming story, and does raise some interesting questions about how Americans in the Church are going to deal with the eventual legalization of pot in our country.  Check it out, if for no other reason than to see the guy in the story offer a Girl Scout cookie to the camera operator in the middle of the interview.

3. Dan Haseltine (of Jars of Clay) asked what the big deal was about gay marriage on Twitter this week.  As in, “Is there a non-speculative or non “slippery slope” reason why gays shouldn’t marry?”  It turned into a huge conversation that spans tons of tweets from Dan where things really blew up, and there were many harsh words.  I’m not adept with Twitter at all, so it’s kind of difficult for me to follow everything that was said, but the responses were generally infuriating, particularly from people who claimed that Dan was no longer a Christian because he was asking questions about gay marriage.  I think my regulars know how I feel about that kind of talk.  Anyhow, Dan eventually posted a more complete explanation of what sparked the conversation in the first place on his blog, so that will be shared as well.  For what it’s worth, I’m glad that he’s asking these sorts of questions.  It’s a good place to start in examining our assumptions about issues of faith.

4. Richard Beck’s been writing recently about the influence participating in a charismatic church community has had on his meditations about faith.  It’s very interesting and serves as a helpful dose of fairness for someone like me who’s grown into a more subdued and intellectual form of spiritual practice.  But instead of linking to that, I’m going to link you to his post about how Scooby-Doo is an allegory for the transformation of our understanding of evil from literal demonic powers to an expression of the worst impulses in human nature like greed and deception.


0. This is a late addition to the roundup because I just saw this story last night, but it seems that a large group of students were kidnapped in Nigeria by an extremist group who did not want the girls receiving an education.  According to the article, the Nigerian government hasn’t done anything to assist in searching for the missing students, leaving the families to pay for vehicles and searchers out of their own pockets.  There’s a link to a petition in the article where you can sign to try to put pressure on the Nigerian government to do something about this situation.  Personally, I don’t know how effective that petition will be, but as someone who’s living halfway around the world, passing on the information feels like the best thing I can do to help.

1. Gender wage gaps exist in children’s allowances.  The image this article conjured for me was of a household with multiple children, a mix of boys and girls, where the parents give their sons more money than their daughters and don’t think about the disparity or dismiss it with odd rationales.  That’s probably extreme, and I doubt there are actually families who operate in such a way, but it’s a strange image nonetheless.  Remind me, if I have children, to give them all the same allowance: one crisp dollar a week.  That way they can learn about income inequality instead.

2. Samantha Field does a nice job of taking apart a recent diatribe from a blogger I really wish I weren’t familiar with.  Also, she points out that Do Not Links are the best thing ever for pointing people to things you want to criticize without contributing to their internet traffic.


1. An old video clip from The Daily Show featuring a mock debate between Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.  The topic: Islam vs. Christianity.

2. Everyone on the internet does a cover of the Super Mario Bros. theme.  This guy did it with his fingers.

3. This bug is not having an existential crisis.  We’re just anthropomorphizing a glitch in the creature’s biology that prevents it from realizing that it’s not actually mobile.  Doesn’t change the fact that I watched this video to the end, fascinated by the anthropomorphic navel-gazing.

4. When I was a teenager, I loved Dragon Ball Z.  It’s a fun show with a simple concept: burly guys who train really hard can fly, destroy planets, and instantly grow and highlight their hair through sheer willpower.  Also, it’s an excellent illustration of time dilation as events depicted in the show tend to happen at relativistic speeds, but somehow in real time they take years to play out.  Anyway, the best thing about this show is that it has a mob of internet fans who like to argue about who is the best character.  So when someone posts a character ranking list without any kind of context, it’s like putting blood in a pool of sharks.  Enjoy the comments on this thread, which range from good-humored snark to angry rants about why the list is wrong on every level.  Warning: as with any fandom discussion, this could be a little esoteric.


1. Though I’m not really versed in any programming languages, I do think that programming logic is really interesting.  This is a collection of simple game mechanic simulators that show the code involved in each example so that you can see the moving parts of various aspects of a cohesive video game.


1. I remember doing this experiment in high school physics, but we used small model cars and glass bubbles with a little bit of water in them.  The video’s a good illustration of a fluid dynamics problem, and the guy who made the video is pretty engaging to watch.  He has a whole channel where he produces science-related videos.  There was some interesting debate on the original article where I found this video about the fact that the host, Destin, has trained his children to refer to him as “Sir.”  Anyone who’s from the American South would just shrug and note that many Southerners teach their children that using honorifics like Sir and Ma’am is just part of good manners.  For people who weren’t familiar with the practice, there was a lot of bristling.

For my part, I was more concerned with the fact that Destin appears to be an evangelical Christian.  It’s fantastic that he’s so interested in science education, and his videos really are very engaging, but I’m left with questions about his mindset.  There are a few moments in the balloon video where Destin takes a patronizing tone with his kids, or he dismisses their genuine curiosity about a scientific phenomenon (like the helium trick at the end of the video) with a flip non-explanation.  Also, and this is a concern that may be irrelevant since we’re talking about pretty basic educational videos, what is Destin’s attitude towards evolutionary explanations for biological phenomena?  From what I’ve gathered looking at a few of his videos, he seems to have a background in aeronautics, which may explain why he focuses on topics related primarily to physics.

2. Vaccines are good.  Get them.


1. I’m not going to link you to TV Tropes, because that’s a despicable thing to do to readers who may have a lot they need to get done.  Instead, I’m going to link you to the Periodic Table of Storytelling.  Just don’t click on anything.


1. There’s an interesting article at the Atlantic this week arguing that Disney has been offering ongoing support to the LGBTQ community for decades as an explanation for the apparently pro-gay reading that many people have had of FrozenI only saw the film once, and I honestly didn’t even make a connection between the plot and the struggles of an LGBTQ person (although in hindsight I suppose it should have been more obvious; I made some jokes about superheroes, and that genre is rife with allegory and metaphor about oppressed minorities).  It’s a good article, and I can see the case that the writer’s making.  On the flip side of that though, there was also a post at the io9 sub-blog (is that a thing?  I’m declaring it a thing) Animation questioning whether Disney is really pro-gay, or if, being a corporate entity with the goal of making as much money as possible, it’s simply casting a very wide net in terms of its messaging in order to appeal to the largest demographic.  Given the history of the company and Walt Disney’s own vision of creating a culture that was so pristinely inoffensive that everyone would aspire to join it, I’m inclined to go with the latter reading (although being pro-acceptance is still a laudable message).

2. As a public educator, I don’t want any more firearms inside school buildings (or in most public places for that matter).  My ultimate boss in the Georgia state government, Nathan Deal, disagrees.  I think my boss is a moron.

So I Just Saw Disney’s Hercules (2)

So Hercules is Superman is Jesus.

It’s an interesting bit of parallelism that’s going on there, since in all three cases we’re dealing with men who find themselves in a place alien to their innate nature looking to do right by their fathers.  Oh, and they all, while being alien to their environment, are simultaneously native to it.  The native part relates to their sense of humanity, and I think that reflects a pretty cool feature of our own relationship to divinity (or, if you aren’t religious, things which are greater than us).  For all the division we strive to create amongst ourselves so that we can put everything into comprehensible boxes, our largest cultural heroes embody a sense of unity with those things that are different from ourselves.


Anyway, drawing the discussion back down to consider just parallels between Hercules and Superman, we have the narrative of the hero being separated from his birth parents through fate, adopted by humble farmers who represent the simple, salt-of-the-earth human culture that will help temper any innate inclinations towards greatness, and the hero’s slow realization of his potential which blossoms into acceptance and celebration by the masses that fostered him.

It occurs to me at this point that this heroic archetype is kind of a sausage fest.  I’m wondering if there are any female versions that we might consider as well.  If anyone has any suggestions, let me know in the comments below; I’ll ponder this question myself in the meantime (also, if we can’t think of any examples, then why is this not an avenue that’s been better explored?).

The parallels aren’t limited only to Hercules and Superman, though.  Like I mentioned last time, I see some similarities between Hercules and Superman’s supporting cast.  Megara and Lois Lane share the rather dubious distinction of being the hero’s intrepid love interest who finds herself stuck being a damsel when everything about her character says that this is not the role she should be playing (we’re introduced to Megara when she’s in the middle of negotiations gone wrong with Nessus the river guardian; she insists she can handle things herself when Hercules shows up, but he rather ham-handedly takes it upon himself to save her anyway; as for Lois, just look at any depiction where her nose for a good story leads her to get captured by the villain).  On the flip side, Hades and Lex Luthor are villainous foils who are jealous of the birthright of their opponents (Hades wants to rule Olympus where Hercules rightfully belongs as a son of Zeus, and Luthor has a pathological envy for Superman’s innate power; both villains are also immensely powerful in their own right; Hades rules the underworld and eventually holds dominion over all mortals, including Hercules, and Luthor, in his more gonzo depictions, has so much power, influence, and raw talent that he can manipulate events on a global scale in his favor).

So Hercules is a movie that cribs extensively from the Superman narrative as it explores the question of what makes a legitimate hero.  A lot of the movie’s second half deals in a parody of contemporary pop culture where celebrity is synonymous with heroism, which isn’t necessarily a poor critique, though it’s not terribly well developed (drawing parallels between Hercules’s popularity and the cult of personality surrounding famous athletes isn’t bad, but the fact that Hercules really does go around helping people in concrete ways kind of underscores the absurdity of the comparison).  There’s also a bit of subtle commentary on the fact that Hercules becomes a hero because Hades keeps trying to kill him (in this version of events, it’s Hades who instigates all the challenges that represent Hercules’s famous labors).  It reminds me of Unbreakable, but much more lighthearted and with a less plodding pace.

Of course, this is a Disney movie, so we have to take that parody of pop culture and turn it into some kind of wholesome moral (for the kids), so eventually Hercules learns that the characteristic of a true hero is not just helping people, but selfless sacrifice as expressed in his willingness to die in order to save Megara from being dead (an act that parallels how Megara ended up in Hades’s service in the first place, which leaves me wondering why Hercules gets immortality for doing it, but Megara gets eternal servitude and an ingrate ex-boyfriend; double standard much?).

Ultimately, I think this adaptation suffers quite a bit from stylistic overload.  Heracles as a subject has a lot of material associated with him (the stuff that gets referenced in Hercules is honestly just skimming the top) that could make for some really interesting storytelling opportunities.  Instead, what we get with Disney’s take is something that heavily borrows its themes and structure from contemporary pop culture (the connections between Superman and Hercules strike me as too intentional on the part of the directors to simply be a product of archetypal storytelling) while using the source material as a sort of window dressing.  The aesthetics of the film do some interesting things in referencing Greek art and drawing on a more contemporary musical tradition, but in the end it feels like mostly flash with little substance.

Walk Humbly: Your Interpretation is Not My Interpretation (And That’s Okay)

All posts in this series refer to the conversation found here.

“Is there any reason the Bible -cannot- be literally true (where it claims to be) and the infallible message of the Creator to His creation?”

I think Damon gets back to the heart of the conversation here, and helps to refocus what we’re talking about (I’ve gone over the whole conversation multiple times now, and if there’s a common flaw in both of our arguments, it’s that we allow ourselves to get sidetracked by tangents really easily).  My answer to the above question is a rather firm “Yes.”  Earlier in the correspondence, I mentioned the fact that Genesis contains two accounts of creation which contradict each other chronologically.  The first has plant life created before the man, while the second has it created after him.  This is not a minor detail like the discrepancies in the synoptic gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ ministry that can be handwaved away as different recollections of the same events (though that’s not really a strong point in favor of literalism either), but a significant difference in how God went about making the world.  Further, both accounts ostensibly come from the same author under a literalist hermeneutic, so it doesn’t make sense to have that kind of contradiction if we’re intended to read them as accurate history.

Moving along in the conversation, there comes a point where I tell Damon that I disagree with the literalist hermeneutic because the way it’s exercised in America today stems from opposition to the abolitionist movement prior to our Civil War (an excellent, if anecdotal, illustration of this point can be found in the film Twelve Years a Slave where a slave owner quotes from a parable Jesus tells in Luke 12 as justification for beating disobedient slaves).  My understanding on this topic comes from what I’ve read from Fred Clark at Slacktivist (he leans heavily on the book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll, which I haven’t read, but do intend to read soon).

I was really disappointed that Damon didn’t address either of these points as the conversation proceeded.  I think they’re worth exploring.  What Damon did respond to was my point about the contradiction between the accounts in Samuel and Chronicles where one writer attributes David’s decision to hold a census to God, while the other writer attributes that same decision to Satan.  I argued much earlier that both accounts couldn’t simultaneously be true and likely reflect the historians’ differing opinions about the census.  Damon’s response to this assertion isn’t a bad one, but it’s worth analyzing because it demonstrates how we’re interpreting the passages differently based on our own theological assumptions.

Here’s Damon’s response in full:

I really don’t have time to go through everything you’ve said and respond to it, but I did want to respond to your proposed contradiction between Samuel and Chronicles. I refer you to the book of Job. If one is describing the events that happened to Job, who is responsible? Who did those things to him? God, or Satan? God, as the sovereign Ruler, is ultimately responsible for everything that happens ever. That does not mean that He literally, directly -does- them, but He allows them. I have heard a quote that, “Even the devil is God’s devil.” “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Damon uses the story of Job as his cosmological model where Satan is subordinate to God and conducts evil in accordance with God’s ultimately good will (we know his will is good because of the proof text that Damon concludes with).  Under this model, an event may be attributed to both God and Satan simultaneously without contradiction.

There are several assumptions implicit in this model with which I disagree, and which need to be examined.  The text of Job is fundamentally an exercise in exploring theodicy, the problem of suffering in a divinely ordered world.  Large portions of it are parodies of contemporary wisdom regarding the responsibility of the victim in any sort of calamity (come to think, Job is an excellent text on how asinine victim-blaming is).  Job is innocent of any wrongdoing, but God allows Satan to torture him.  The only explanation God offers for this is that he’s beyond our understanding, so shut up and deal with it.

Personally, I think that Job ends in a rather unsatisfying way, but I don’t take the fact that God comes off as a jerk in that text to mean that God is actually a jerk (I belong to the school of thought that Job is not a historical book, but a work of fiction that was intended to serve an instructional purpose).  Further, I don’t believe that Satan actually exists, but that he’s a fictional personification of the evil forces at work in the world that drive people to sin.  Under that understanding, it becomes nonsense to say that God authorizes sin in the world when the work of Jesus shows rather clearly (in my mind) that he’s looking to eradicate it.

The point I’m driving at is that Damon and I spend a lot of time talking past each other here, because our interpretations of certain things differ and have rather far reaching effects on how our theology is shaped.  I’m still very firmly convinced that Damon’s literalist reading of the Bible is flawed, but I don’t believe that because his theology contradicts my own he’s somehow outside the realm of God’s grace.  I’ll get more into that problem next time.

Walk Humbly

About a month ago, I posted my thoughts on the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.  It was an exciting event, because it provided an opportunity for dialogue with many of my good friends about the intersection between science and faith.  There was a conversation that popped up on Facebook following the debate where a friend of mine shared her thoughts on the debate, and several of her friends (myself included) responded.  One friend of hers, someone I don’t know personally, presented a case for the creationist viewpoint, and I pushed back rather hard against the apparent evangelical spin on Christianity that was being offered.

I might have compared the Calvinist version of God to a Lovecraftian horror.

There was some back and forth on the topic between us while the agnostics and atheists participating in the thread looked on, apparently bemused (I might be projecting my own thoughts about the exchange on others here), until finally this person just decided to send me a private message to continue the conversation.  I thought it was an odd decision, since I’m all in favor of public discourse over private correspondence, especially on a topic such as theology where I think it’s healthy for people to see that Christianity doesn’t have a single unified front.  In that interest, I’d like to present the transcript of our conversation here, with a few edits to maintain privacy.  All last names except my own have been removed.  Otherwise, the conversation is unchanged and presented in full.

I encourage anyone who has an opinion to offer it, and by all means feel free to criticize my responses if you think criticism is warranted.  In concluding our discussion, when I asked for permission to use his name, Damon expressed reservations because he felt that I would be unfair in my presentation of him, although he did say I needn’t give him a pseudonym.  There will be subsequent posts where I will be examining the content of our dialogue (with my own biases intact, of course), but this initial one is done to give the account as plainly as possible and without me imposing an unfair interpretation on his words.  This conversation has been very emotionally draining, and I expect my own contributions to it have been inadequate in places.

Because of the length of the conversation, I’ve put it in a Google Doc (found here) for easier viewing.  Embedded within it are links to various articles and videos that Damon and I shared with each other in our dialogue that readers may wish to peruse to better understand some of the ideas we discuss.

The Saga of My Mass Effect 3 Playthrough (4 of 4)

I’ll be discussing spoilers for Mass Effect 3 in this post. (Part 3 here)

I mentioned back in part 2 of this series (it wasn’t originally supposed to be a series, but when I realized I was approaching three thousand words writing up my first post, I thought it might be better to break this up) that my Shepard ended up basically acting like Jesus, because he was always giving people second chances, making peace, and doing impossible things.

It’s not a perfect analogy, since Shepard doesn’t have the whole divinity thing, but I think it more or less holds true.  I think this was intentional on the part of the developers (not that I think Mass Effect as a series is specifically Christian, but it clearly has a lot of tropes in common with the gospel), especially after seeing the synthesis ending.  With this ending you have Shepard choosing to die in order to usher in a new kind of life intended for everyone.  His death literally enables an innate change in every being in the galaxy as his essence is disseminated among all of them (the synthesis is apparently possible because Shepard is both organic and synthetic after he was resurrected using cutting edge technology).  Setting aside the weird assertion the Catalyst makes that an integration of synthetic and organic life is the final stage in evolution (I’m not sure where that comes from, but it sounds like gibberish to me), this whole scenario has Jesus written all over it.

I wrote before that I never intended for my Shepard to take on the whole Christ role, and I really wanted him to walk away from the Reaper war with that happy ending for everyone.  Of course, that’s not what happened, and it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to look at the story and say how it should have ended.  That’s certainly a fun exercise, but it’s still wish fulfillment, and wish fulfillment doesn’t do very much at all when it comes to exploring how a story reflects the human condition.

So let’s look at the story we got.

I played Shepard as a person with principals and ideals, and he upheld those ideals to the very end, even though it took a heavy toll on him personally.  There’s a point just before the endgame of Mass Effect 3 begins where Shepard’s forced to deal with a very serious loss in terms of the war.  It’s a major blow to the galactic defense, and it serves as a wake up call that for all the amazing things Shepard’s done before, he simply can’t save everyone.  In hindsight, I suppose the point of that mission was to remind the player that things wouldn’t necessarily work out to be totally satisfying in a “you saved everyone and got out alive!” sort of way, but there are so many moments in the series overall where Shepard’s slim chances of success are emphasized that you kind of get numb to it.  Anyway, metanarrative aside, following this mission Shepard has a conversation with his ship’s pilot, Joker, where it becomes apparent that Shepard is cracking at the seams from all the stress of organizing the war.  Despite the cool demeanor that he puts forward, Shepard is really worried about what’s going to happen, and this segment serves to remind us that our hero is human, no matter what we may have deluded ourselves into thinking about them up to this point.

I was thinking about that moment after I finished the game, and it occurred to me that a lot of my dissatisfaction with the ending stemmed from the fact that Shepard had to play Jesus after the story made such a big deal about the fact that he wasn’t holding up well under the stress.  I kept thinking, “That’s not fair to dump so much responsibility on a single person, especially when it costs him his chance at happiness.”

Then I had an epiphany (ignore the fact that I finished the game on January 7).  My Shepard had ended up being a type of Christ, and he did so unwillingly, at least in my mind.  He desperately wanted the peaceful life, but he couldn’t bring himself to wipe out an entire race in order to do it (the way the game’s original ending scenario presents it, Shepard may die even if you choose to destroy the Catalyst, since the effects will be to wipe out all synthetic life in the universe, and the Catalyst makes a point of saying that Shepard is part synthetic) especially with no guarantee that he’d even survive.  He was tempted, but he chose the selfless path.

I wondered if that sort of scenario is similar to what Jesus actually had to deal with during his life.  It’s a funny thing, trying to hold in mind the paradox of Christ being simultaneously divine and human, because so much of what contemporary culture focuses on with Jesus is his divinity.  We’re told he performed miracles, and forgave relentlessly, and went to die for us without hesitation.  His birth was heralded as the coming of Immanuel, God with us.

It’s easy to forget (if you believe in Jesus’ divinity) that he inhabited a human body, and he struggled with human wants and needs.  Before he was arrested in Gethsemane, he prayed that God wouldn’t burden him with the responsibility of dying for the world.

Jesus the human being wanted to live.

The fact that he chose not to says to me he thought the cost for backing down from the responsibility was too great.  It probably hurt a lot to make that decision, and I mean that in more than just physical terms.  We generally understand how agonizing and humiliating a death by crucifixion was, but I don’t think we consider very often the kind of emotional pain that accompanies choosing to forgo your life as it is for a greater good.  Perhaps the Resurrection signaled the synthesis of a new kind of life for people, integrating the stuff of their mundane existences with something alien and transcendent and ultimately good.

It still must have hurt to leave all those people behind.

And that’s how I feel about the ending of Mass Effect 3 that I got.

Reading A Demon’s Nightmare

It should come as no surprise by this point that a major theme in Chick’s tracts is that the devil is out to derail as many people as possible from looking into the whole Jesus thing.  More specifically, in Chick world it’s not just the devil who’s out to keep everyone away from Christ, but his entire army of demon servants who have nothing better to do than spend their time following an individual around invisibly all the time, speaking things into people’s ears to try to keep them from thinking about God.  The motivation for this seems to run along the lines of “Misery loves company.”

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Satan’s minions convince the kid’s parents that they’re socially ruined because of their son’s personal decision. (Image credit:

In A Demon’s Nightmare we get to see a pair of rather incompetent demons working frantically to try to keep the kid they’re assigned to from first becoming a Christian, and then becoming an effective evangelist (because in Chick world, it is a Christian’s ability to rake in souls that makes them valuable).  They don’t succeed, despite numerous attempts to distract the kid from first hearing the gospel and then to keep him from getting connected with people in a “Bible-believing church” (Chick’s code for a church belonging to the white evangelical subculture).  The demon’s fail at every turn, but their ultimate failure comes about because they decide to take a night off (if only they had known better than to take a Wednesday night off, which evangelicals know is actually Second Sunday).  The kid goes on to become a missionary in south Asia, and thousands of people convert because of him, which means our two protagonists, as their punishment for being lazy and, y’know, evil, have to dig new deeper levels of hell to accommodate where Satan has sent them.

As a tract, it’s not terribly exciting.  You get the usual jabs at modern American culture apparently being so hostile to Christianity that the kid’s parents are horrified that he’s developed a form of faith, and his friends think he’s a total square because he’s a Christian now (and getting initiated into the club completely changes your personality in a single afternoon), and then he finds a community of like-minded individuals and lives happily ever after.  From the very start, there’s no real tension that the demons will succeed here, which is unusual because Chick typically likes to mix it up to show that even you could go to hell because of something really stupid.  Honestly, this tract’s worst offense is just being kind of boring.

Now, the idea that underlies this story is one that I’ve criticized before in other tracts, and that’s the idea that Satan is a real supernatural entity who is out to destroy our chances at going to heaven.  I don’t believe that the devil is real (instead, he’s the creation of a couple thousand years of mixing and matching some figures who are discussed in the Bible with some medieval cosmological ideas and John Milton’s Paradise Lost), and I think he’s a very insidious idea that evangelical subculture has used to create a certain ideological paranoia in members of the club.

Satan as a concept is a difficult one to grasp, because the central point of his mythology is that he rebelled against God, failed, and is now being punished eternally for his rebellion.  Despite that punishment, he still has power and agency within the world to turn people away from God (or tempt them away, depending on how Calvinist your particular theological framework is).  Satan has a multitude of tools at his disposal, including all the aspects of the fallen world.  Despite being in hell, he’s also the prince of our world.  Satan’s favorite tactic is deception (Prince of Lies and all that), which he employs subtly and imperceptibly to ensnare anyone who isn’t constantly vigilant of the corrupting influence of the world.

It’s kind of head spinny with the contradictions you have to hold in your mind about the character of Satan in order for him to make sense.  At one point back when I was still steeped in evangelicalism, I explained to a friend that I thought of Satan as a force that was so powerful that he nearly succeeded in overthrowing God, even though God has infinite power.  We’ll ignore the fact that if you construct God as being infinitely powerful, then any opposition, no matter how powerful, if it’s still finite, has no chance of succeeding.  The finite and the infinite just can’t be compared except to say that one ends and the other doesn’t.

I was spouting nonsense.

Of course, I’ve reconstructed my theology since then to incorporate the idea that God probably isn’t omnipotent, simply because the exercise of force contradicts God’s central characteristic of love.  With that idea in mind, it becomes less problematic to suggest that Satan is powerful and works within the world, but I still don’t buy that he’s real.

Think for a second what it means to believe in something that can never be proven, to think there is an invisible aggressor always looking over you, trying to push you away from goodness, and you are completely and utterly helpless to detect his influence on you.  You have to be afraid of this bogeyman all the time.  Everyone you meet might be working for him and not even realize they’ve been compromised.  You might be helping him and not even know it.

There is no way to know for sure.

So what does a person do when they live under that assumption?  As ludicrous as it sounds to an outsider, it’s not a hypothetical for many people within evangelical subculture.  Within the subculture, the only answer that’s offered for avoiding Satan’s deceptions is an adamant adherence to what the Bible teaches.  The Word of God can show us the straight and narrow path to freedom from this hidden oppressor, and all we have to do is cling to it with everything we have.

The only problem, and this is one that’s hard to see when you’re on the inside of this system, is that we don’t know for certain what the Bible teaches.  Parts of it contradict other parts.  God comes off as a bully sometimes, even though we’re supposed to believe his central aspect is love.  Paul’s writings about issues within the early church is inconsistent sometimes, with him giving contradictory advice to two different groups.  What do we do with that stuff?

My answer is you find a hermeneutic that doesn’t result in total theological breakdown when you inevitably see the contradictions.

“But then you’ll be deceived!” evangelicals say when this solution is proposed.  It was said to me when I broke from the anti-gay position of evangelicalism (the first issue that I really couldn’t stomach in good conscience).  I was told that my decision to affirm marriage equality and argue that homosexuality isn’t categorically condemned in the Bible had come about because I’d been deceived by Satan.  I had let the world influence me in ways that were not holy, and I was putting myself in a spiritually perilous position.

That hurt.

The idea of the devil hurts.

If there’s an invisible enemy always out to get us, and our only option is to accept a set of beliefs that don’t fully make sense and engender animosity between us and others who don’t hold those same beliefs, then the God who lies at the center of that system is a cruel monster with a cruel pet who can pick us off anytime he likes, because we can’t know what he’s doing.  It’s a universe more in line with Lovecraft than Christ.

I prefer Christ, thank you very much.  And that’s why I don’t believe in the devil.

Reading It’s Not Your Fault

I always feel conflicted when I come across a Chick tract that includes some ideas that I agree with.  On the one hand, I feel like I need to re-examine these ideas to make sure they’re not the sort that I’ve held on to simply because I haven’t yet taken the time to consider the implications of those positions within my larger theological framework.  On the other hand, Jesus loves everyone, and even though I find a lot that’s objectionable in Chick’s oeuvre I have to remember that the people who publish this stuff profess to love Jesus; there is common ground between us, and it should be sought out.

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These are Ralph’s old foster parents. Clearly they’re not fit to raise children with faces like those. Also, do some foster homes really have names? (Image credit:

So when I read through It’s Not Your Fault, I thought, “This is actually a pretty compassionate tract.”  Yeah, it resolves things in a way that’s kind of absurd, but generally I can agree with the message about Jesus wanting to heal all wounds, especially those left by abusers.

So the basic plot is that a young boy, Ralph, is removed from the foster home where he lives by Child Protective Services after his roommate turns up dead of an apparent suicide and the police enact an investigation of the home.  Ralph shows signs of being abused, and his new foster mother tries to help him deal with the trauma by telling him about her own experiences as a missionary during the Rwandan Genocide.

As a side note, Chick can’t resist this opportunity to jab at the United Nations for their poor response to that incident, although I think the messages are a little confused when you criticize an agency that you fear will one day take over the world for refraining from interfering in a sovereign country’s internal politics.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Carpenter, the foster mother, explains how she was so angry at the men who killed her husband and friends, tortured her, and raped her that she spent months having nightmares about the experience.  She fantasized about torturing and killing them, which is an entirely reasonable response following that kind of trauma.  Then Mrs. Carpenter explains that her nightmares stopped after she realized that she was supposed to forgive her abusers, and that this is what Ralph needs to do in order to heal from his trauma as well.

Okay, let’s break this down a little bit, since there are parts of this that I agree with, and parts that I don’t.

Forgiving your abusers is definitely something that I believe Christ encourages us to do.  Even wishing them well in a capacity that doesn’t enable them to commit further abuses strikes me as loving above and beyond what the typical human response would be.  But Mrs. Carpenter ignores one very major distinction between her own story and her exhortations to Ralph to forgive the judge who’s been raping him: Ralph is still threatened by his abuser.

Mrs. Carpenter’s story is a sad one, and I’ll say that I think Chick handles it with a delicacy that I’ve come not to expect in these tracts.  But she should be aware that it’s unhelpful to suggest that a child who’s still a ward of the state and therefore vulnerable to further harm by this judge be willing to forgive him.  Healing doesn’t happen on a set timetable, but it is callous to talk about forgiveness when further harm is still a possibility.  Until Ralph is safely out of the judge’s reach, this kind of talk won’t be helpful.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Carpenter throws in the obligatory Chick tract coda about going to hell if you don’t believe in Jesus, and explains that abusers go to hell if they don’t accept Jesus too, which I think means she’s implying that even though God wants us to forgive those who hurt us, they’ll still get punished in the end because they probably aren’t Christians anyway.

And that’s exactly what happens with Ralph and the judge; he accepts Christ, and then the next morning he gets a phone call from a friend saying that the judge suddenly died of a heart attack the previous night.  Chick even includes a little proof text about those who trouble you being judged to stick home the implication that Jesus did Ralph a solid and killed the judge for him.

Okay, so maybe there’s more troublesome stuff in this tract than I realized, but it’s not the worst one that I’ve ever read.  Chick does give abuse victims some dignity, although I wonder if the story would have played out the same if the scenario involved a battered wife and her abusive husband.  I’ll have to dig through the archives and see if there’s a story in that vein sometime.

Reading Flight 144

I’ve talked a little bit about evangelism in a couple of the previous entries in this series.  Regular readers know that I subscribe to the idea of evangelism as hospitality, and I find sales pitches like the ones that are packaged in Chick tracts to be repugnant, if for no reason other than their relentless use of scare tactics.

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No, I didn’t know that missionaries could be such big celebrities either. (Image credit:

Trying to scare your audience into Heaven is not a hospitable act, and therefore it’s not good evangelism.

That’s a point that I’ve probably belabored enough in the past, but I just wanted to bring it up again because the tract I’m looking at today has something to say about the connection between salvation and evangelism, although I don’t think it’s what Chick intended.

In Flight 144 we meet the Davidsons, an elderly couple who have been missionaries in Africa for 50 years who are now returning to the US in order to raise funds for their fifth hospital.  They’ve also kickstarted five schools in addition to that, so in the parlance of the evangelical community, I’d say they’re doing Kingdom work.  Those kinds of projects are phenomenally good for helping to improve the lives of people, and they exemplify how we might feed, clothe, and care for Christ through loving each other.  If the parable of the sheep and the goats is to be believed, God would welcome the Davidsons as faithful servants who acknowledged Christ in all they did.

Unfortunately for the Davidsons, Chick doesn’t agree with my assessment of their character.  The plane that they’re flying home on crashes over the Atlantic, and everyone aboard dies.  The cheerful young believer whom the Davidsons sit next to gets whisked off to Heaven immediately, while they’re taken by their angel to stand in judgment.  God gives them the cold shoulder because they never focused on evangelism in any of their ministry throughout their lives, and so the Davidsons are cast into hell.

I get that the point of this tract is to emphasize the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith.  Chick hammers that home very well.


The setup here is one big contradiction, because while the tract is so busy making the point that we can’t be saved by our works, it sets up the work of evangelism as a necessary component of salvation.  Because the Davidsons never explicitly proselytized anyone during their lives, God’s not happy with them.  Conversely, the young believer they sit next to on the plane says the only person he ever evangelized to was his cellmate in prison.  That’s a very modest bit of work, but it’s still something worth celebrating within the Church, and I don’t want to detract from the illustration.

Nonetheless, this is the only distinction we’re offered between the Davidsons and their single serving friend.  They’re all Christians (though the Davidsons do not explicitly name Christ, what we read about their actions suggests that they have a deep love of him), so according to the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, there shouldn’t be an issue.  Instead, God lays a smackdown on the Davidsons because they relied on their works.

Now, while there may not have been any explicit proselytizing going on in the Davidsons’ schools and hospitals, there most certainly had to have been a great deal of evangelizing.  You don’t care for people in need without demonstrating the love of Christ (actually, let me amend that to ‘you can’t care for people without demonstrating the love of Christ’).  Chick’s God doesn’t care about that though.

What Chick’s God cares about is whether or not you explicitly say to people, “Hey, listen!  Hey, listen!  You have to follow Jesus or you’re going to hell!  Hey, listen!”  That’s why the young believer gets a pass; even though it was meager, he did the one work that Chick’s God does, in fact, give a damn about.

That’s not salvation by grace through faith, folks.  That’s salvation by grace through faith plus this one other thing.  The fact that one other thing is the same thing that Chick tracts are designed to do (and make you feel guilty for not doing) must be entirely coincidental, I’m sure.  Of course, with this tract’s story, it’s apparently not enough that you’re made to feel guilty about not proselytizing; you’re also supposed to be scared if you aren’t doing it too.

Reading The Contract

The great thing about naming this series “Reading…” means that every entry I get to enjoy a little pun of some sort (though obviously some titles produce better puns than others).

That’s a tangent though.

The tract of the week is called The Contract! (coincidentally, the root for both words is tract, which means ‘to draw towards’; I’ll give Chick this: I’m definitely drawn to these little pamphlets), and it’s about two men who are in danger of hell (I know, what a shocker).  The first is John Freeman, a down-on-his-luck farmer who makes a deal with the devil in order to turn his fortunes around after an Act of God (hailstones) destroys his crops and leaves him ruinously in debt.  The second man is his cousin Bob Goode, who doesn’t truck with all that satanic nonsense.

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And so the wretched banker Elmer Boggs walks out of the story, his life shattered forevermore as far as we know. (Image credit:

To make a long story short, John repents on his deathbed and is saved from his Faustian contract, while Bob ends up in hell for eternity because he relied on his works instead of relying on Jesus.  There’s a pretty pat lesson about the distinction between works-righteousness and faith-righteousness with John and Bob showing that it’s only too late to repent when you’re dead.

What’s confounding about this story is that it seems to go out of its way to show that works are so unimportant to the kingdom of heaven that John’s life significantly improves after he makes his deal with Mr. B. Fox.  He gets his fortune without working for it, the horrible banker who kicked him out when he went looking for a second loan to stay afloat gets fired because of his new money, and he gets a luxurious ten years of life after this moment which by all appearances seems to give him no sense of suffering.

Now, I should say that I have no complaints about the demonstration of grace that’s on display here for John.  He makes a bad mistake, and even though he doesn’t suffer for it, God forgives him without any qualms.

I wish I could be that loving.

Nonetheless, the amount of callous disregard for the injustices that are visited upon the surrounding people in this story kind of gets to me.  I think it’s telling that the banker gets his comeuppance as part of John’s contract, but it’s not a just situation.  Where’s the forgiveness for that jerk whose life is ruined when he loses his job?  From his perspective, that’s just as much an Act of God as the hail that ruins John’s crops.  Confusing the issue further is the fact that Chick makes it clear the banker’s punishment is a direct consequence of John’s deal with the devil while at the same time indulging in it.  Are we supposed to take it that retribution is preferable and just in the absence of grace (since it’s the devil’s justice being done)?

Besides the plight of the wretched banker, we have the case of Bob, who seems to have no major shortcomings other than the fact that his theology centers on works-righteousness, as encapsulated by his adherence to the Ten Commandments.  I’m not opposed to the Ten Commandments generally; I think they’re a pretty good set of basic rules.  However, I have to question what kind of spiritual education Bob’s received that he’s only gotten as far as the premise of the Law.  Does his church only talk about Exodus and Deuteronomy?  Moreover, doesn’t this seem to undermine the point that many conservative Christians like to make about the foundational legal nature of the Ten Commandments?  Harping on the legalism of your faith strikes me as the wrong way to go about telling people about its grace.

Anyhow, that about wraps up this week’s installment of Chick tracts.  I think that the essential point this story makes about grace through faith is a good one, but it feels confounded with so many other messages about the different kinds of suffering that are acceptable depending on the context.