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Posts from the ‘Christian Living’ Category

Encounters with the Unknown Christ

Spring Break allowed me time to read Eleanor McLaughlin’s book Unconscious Christianity in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Late Theology (2020, Lexington Books/Fortress Academic), a revision of her 2015 Oxford dissertation. It is prohibitively expensive, at $95 hardcover, but my library was willing to buy the book and loan it first to me. Interested readers who lack access could consider the $45 ebook version.

McLaughlin’s book is the first complete study of the concept of “unconscious Christianity” in Bonhoeffer’s theology, in particular in the final few years of his life (1940-45). What does this term mean? McLaughlin labors to construct a definition from the scant material references to the term (Unbewußtes Christentum), and by page 95 the definition arrives:

Unconscious Christianity refers to the whole body of good people who have encountered Christ without being aware of it and do not self-identify as Christians. In addition, they may fulfill any of these six criteria: (1) to have faith without knowing it, (2) to be selfless and participate in Jesus’s being-for-others, (3) to not seek to be other than what they are, (4) to value the penultimate [i.e., this world, as opposed to the world-to-come], (5) to perform acts of faith without reflecting on them, (6) to be a member of the Bürgertum... [I]t seems that as he further develops his ideas on unconscious Christianity Bonhoeffer suggests that unconscious Christians are recognized as righteous by God.

McLaughlin arrives at this definition by placing Bonhoeffer in context, in four ways. First, theologians Richard Rothe and Martin Rade had used the term before him, and Karl Rahner used the similar “anonymous Christian” in the same era (though he meant something else). Second, Bonhoeffer belongs in the context of the German Bürgertum [upper-middle] social class. Third, he was a member of a barely religious family, whose work against the Nazis later funded his fiction writing and this thoughts about unconscious Christianity. Fourth and finally, McLaughlin situates Bonhoeffer in his late theology, which in general is neither in clean continuity with his earlier thoughts nor radical change from them, but is a “fluid” “movement” (citing Hanfried Muller), “developing” the earlier ideas into the later (146). Additionally, McLaughlin situates Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity on the back end in the context of mid-twentieth century “death of God” theology, naming William Hamilton and J. A. T. Robinson (144-146).

In other words, this book is a formal study and an exercise in historical theological exegesis, more so than a positive or constructive theological argument. I was surprised and impressed by the great lengths to which McLaughlin went to articulate Bonhoeffer’s exact view and the limits of what we can reconstruct. I can imagine a reader seeking a constructive theological argument reading the introduction, chapters 1 and 5, and the conclusion, and benefiting greatly. Meanwhile readers interested in the historical Bonhoeffer, in Bonhoeffer Studies proper, or in theological method (especially on extracting theology from fiction writing) would benefit from the whole book.

Quickly, I want to sketch the four references to unconscious Christianity in Bonhoeffer’s corpus.

First, in his essay “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” a chapter from Ethics written in 1940 at Ettal, Bonhoeffer made a marginal comment on the manuscript (which did not enter the printed text.) The essay in general is about not sacrificing the life to come for the life of this world, and vice versa. Christians should live in both the ultimate, and the penultimate, at the same time. Towards the end of the essay he describes people who “no longer dare to call themselves Christians,” who we must then claim as Christians. We should do this because the human and good work that these people do in the world unites the penultimate with the ultimate. Then comes the note. He writes, “Unbewußtes Christentum. Balzac. Leute des Antichristus.” This note turns out to be a convoluted reference to the play Les Comediens sans le savior by Honore de Balzac (1846). The characters in the play each stand for something in French society, though they are unaware of it. Bonhoeffer is presumably then saying that unconscious Christians are playing a part in Kingdom of God without knowing it either. The reference to the Antichrist, writes McLaughlin, is more or less inexplicable (65-66).

Second, in his novel Novel, written in late 1943 from Tegel, Bonhoeffer wrote the term unconscious Christianity into the dialogue. Two boys, one from a working class and the other an upper-middle class [Bürgertum] family, are talking about trust and social class and the ways that the underclass have been so mistreated that they cannot trust anyone. (This would be Bonhoeffer’s view of the underclass, of course). Talking about his family, the Bürgertum boy says,

“But now I’m thinking about Papa and Mama. You can’t really say they’re Christians, at least not in the customary sense of the word. They don’t go to church. They only say grace before meals because of Little Brothers. And yet they’re as little affected by the spirit of false ambition, careerism, titles, and medals as your [the working class boy’s] mother is. They prefer a good laborer or craftsman a hundred times over some puffed-up ‘Excellency.’ Why is that?”

Ulrich thought for a moment. “That’s because without knowing it and certainly without talking about it, in truth they still base their lives on Christianity, an unconscious Christianity.”

This is the clearest use of unconscious Christianity in Bonhoeffer’s surviving writings. The family is probably based on his own family’s quasi-irreligious nature. The thing that distinguishes them is that they are unaffected by titles, etc., which corresponds well to Bonhoeffer’s theology of self-forgetfulness and kenosis in Christ, the self-for-others.

Third, in his letter to Bethge postmarked July 27, 1944, Bonhoeffer used the term in a theological context. This was just one week after the failed July 20 assassination attempt on Hitler, which would later lead to the order to execute Bonhoeffer. Here is the quote:

Your [Bethge’s] formulation of our theological theme is very clear and simple. The question how there can be a “natural” piety is at the same time the question about “unconscious Christianity” that preoccupies me more and more. The Lutheran dogmatists distinguished a fides directa from a fides reflexa. They related that to the so-called faith of the infant at baptism. I wonder if we are not here addressing a very wide-reaching problem. More about that, hopefully, soon.

Unfortunately Bonhoeffer did not return to this point in his surviving letters. (Bethge burned the September 1944 letters when his own arrest was ordered, so perhaps it was there, but alas). McLaughlin writes that Bonhoeffer’s example of infant baptism teases out another distinction, between faith that would be “by reflection within the individual” and faith that “simply indicate[s] the manner of being of that individual.” Unconscious Christianity, then, would be the latter type. It is not inward “faith” (i.e., how most evangelicals understand the word) but a fact about the person’s manner of being. Bonhoeffer’s statement that this could be a very wide-reaching problem intrigues me. He is including the unconscious Christian in the fides directa along with baptized infants, but I can only wonder how much further Bonhoeffer would have pressed this logic had he survived the war.

Fourth, in his notes in preparation for his new book (of which only the outline was ever written), Bonhoeffer makes several scattered comments on a chapter on unconscious Christianity. He writes:

Unconscious Christianity: Left hand doesn’t know / what the right hand is doing / Matt. 25. / Not knowing what to pray. Motto: Jesus said to him: “What do you want me to do for you?”

These cryptic comments need explaining. The first refers to Matthew 6:3, “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” The reference to Matthew 25 is to the parable of the goats and sheep. The motto comes from Mark 10:51, Jesus’s question to the blind man (who replies, “Rabbi, I want to see!”). I don’t think McLaughlin explains the comment, “Not knowing what to pray,” or at least she does not address it in the two textual analyses on 70-72 and 87-89. However it must come from Romans 8:26 where Paul writes that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.” The basic picture that emerges from these scattered references is someone ignorant (right/left hands) of their good deeds (sheep) and yet by their deeds they are encountering Jesus (Matthew 25:40/45). It takes more theological creativity to fit the “motto” and the reference to Romans 8 into this vision of unconscious Christianity, which may explain why McLaughlin shies from them.

In my own words, here is what I would say. Bonhoeffer seems to radicalize the parable of the Sheep and Goats so that it is more than an exhortation to care for the poor. Instead, caring for the poor (and etc. selfless good deeds) are an encounter with Jesus, whether people realize this or not. Bonhoeffer was driven to this view by his own situation. His co-churchmen had caved almost immediately to the Nazi regime in 1933 and were helplessly compromised in the fight against evil. Conversely, many of his co-conspirators were not religious, but they were fighting evil at great risk to themselves for the sake of the weakest in society. Bonhoeffer has this visceral understanding that the ones he expected to do right and wrong, had done wrong and right. This forced him to develop theology to explain this real phenomenon. Because his a Lutheran, he pulls on the fides directa and thinks that his co-conspirators “have faith” just as baptized infants “have faith” but do not realize it. They are playing Christian roles, like the unconscious French characters from the Balzac play, but more than this (as his thought develops from 1940 to 1944), they are participating in Christ, which is faith. The connection to Romans 8 is more obscure, but I can imagine ways to develop it which would look like Sarah Coakley’s argument in “Praying the Trinity” (chapter three of God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’). This is too abstract, I need to return to it later. But there is some connection between the Spirit placing us in the position of the Son before the Father during prayer, which corresponds well to Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity. Unconscious Christians, if they really are participating in Christ as faith by their self-denying love and service, are not only participating in Christ but necessarily also participating in the Divine Life of the Triune God in total. Maybe this could extend the concept of unconscious Christianity to address a “very far-reaching problem.”

McLaughlin’s conclusion makes several valuable points.

First, calling someone a Christian when they are not, “as a tool to reveal to people who they really are, as though they are not competent enough to decide their identity for themselves,” is not pastorally wise (189). Bonhoeffer always has a pastoral heart in his discussions of this topic, which we should emulate. Many Muslims for example, and almost all Jews, would bristle at being named Christians without their say. I would add that it flies directly in the face of what Charles Taylor calls “the politics of recognition,” and so is uniquely problematic today.

Second, McLaughlin points to Tom Gregg’s book Theology against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth. There he has addressed contemporary sociology and ecclesiology and secularism and so on, and uses Bonhoeffer to do so. McLaughlin suggests his analysis could be supplemented by including unconscious Christianity. I agree, I assume, but also would like to point the arrow the other direction. Bonhoeffer’s “world come of age” came mostly through his reading of Wilhelm Dilthey, whose sociology has come under extraordinary fire. His secularization thesis has more or less been killed by Charles Taylor and others. My question is not just how Gregg’s analysis could grow by including Bonhoeffer’s insights, but how Bonhoeffer’s analysis could grow by including Gregg’s, Taylor’s, and others contemporary insights about secularism. The “world come of age” Bonhoeffer prophesied has come in some ways but not others, and the world it promised to replace still haunts us.

Third, McLaughlin points out that people today can be unconscious Christians, not just people in Nazi Germany. She does not use the term, but the social justice movement comes immediately to mind. There are many grifters and snake oil sellers in the social justice movement, I am aware, but someone who engages in social justice activism with the intent to love and serve the most marginalized may be encountering the unknown Christ.

McLaughlin’s book is judicious and compelling, and theologians will now have to debate the merits and usefulness of Bonhoeffer’s concept. I am not wholly convinced by Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity, and am more likely to limit the concept to “encounters with” (rather than “participation in”) the unknown Christ. As I have struggled with deconstructing and reconstructing my faith the past two years, I have wondered where Jesus went. Many of my friends ask the same question. Could it be that I have had unconscious encounters with Jesus? “Could it be that you have been praying, unconsciously, all along?” suggested a kind professor of mine. I am less interested in what unconscious Christianity would mean for soteriology and more for discipleship and daily Christian living. Maybe my thoughts, my actions, my lamentations and loves, have been more faithful than ever before, because to my conscious mind they were alms given in secret.

The Flight from the Cross

Excerpt from Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, 95-98. Originally written in 1934 in Romanian, translated in 1992 by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. This is a challenging and complex text. I am not sure what to make of it yet. His points fit nicely with the last point of my last post, that Jesus models doubt and alienation from God.

“I do not like prophets any more than I like fanatics who have never doubted their mission. I measure prophets’ value by their ability to doubt, the frequency of their moments of lucidity. Doubt makes them truly human, but their doubt is more impressive than that of ordinary people. Everything else in them is nothing but absolutism, preaching, moral didacticism. They want to teach others, bring them salvation, show them the truth, change their destinies, as if their truths were better than those of the others. Only doubt can distinguish prophets from maniacs. But isn’t it too late for them to doubt? The one who thought he was the son of God only doubted at the last moment. Christ really doubted not on the mountain but on the cross. I am convinced that on the cross Jesus envied the destiny of anonymous men and, had he been able to, would have retreated to the most obscure corner of the world, where no one would have begged him for hope or salvation. I can imagine him alone with the Roman soldiers, imploring them to take him off the cross, pull out the nails, and let him escape to where the echo of human suffering would no longer reach him. Not because he would suddenly have ceased to believe in his mission—he was too enlightened to be a skeptic—but because death for others is harder to bear than one’s own death. Jesus suffered crucifixion because he knew that his ideas could triumph only through his own sacrifice.

“People say: for us to believe in you, you must renounce everything that is yours and also yourself. They want your death as a warranty for the authenticity of your beliefs. Why do they admire works written in blood? Because such works spare them any suffering while at the same time preserving the illusion of suffering. They want to see the blood and tears behind your lines. The crowd’s admiration is sadistic.

“Had Jesus not died on the cross, Christianity would not have triumphed. Mortals doubt everything except death. Christ’s death was for them the ultimate proof of the validity of Christian principles. Jesus could have easily escaped crucifixion or could have given in to the Devil! He who has not made a pact with the Devil should not live, because the Devil symbolizes life better than God. If I have any regrets, it is that the Devil has rarely tempted me . . . but then neither has God loved me. Christians have not yet understood that God is farther removed from them than they are from Him. I can very well imagine God being bored with men who only know how to beg, exasperated by the triviality of his creation, equally disgusted with both heaven and earth. And I see him taking flight into nothingness, like Jesus escaping from the cross. . . . What would have happened if the Roman soldiers had listened to Jesus’ plea, had taken him off the cross and let him escape? He would certainly not have gone to some other part of the world to preach but only to die, alone, without people’s sympathy and tears. And even supposing that, because of his pride, he did not beg for freedom, I find it difficult to believe that this thought did not obsess him. He must have truly believed that he was the son of God. His belief notwithstanding, he could not have helped doubting or being gripped by the fear of death at the moment of his supreme sacrifice. On the cross, Jesus had moments when, if he did not doubt that he was the son of God, he regretted it. He accepted death uniquely so that his ideas would triumph.

“It may very well be that Jesus was simpler than I imagine him, that he had fewer doubts and fewer regrets, for he doubted his divine origin only at his death. We, on the other hand, have so many doubts and regrets that not one among us would dare dream that he is the son of a god. I hate Jesus for his preachings, his morality, his ideas, and his faith. I love him for his moments of doubt and regret, the only truly tragic ones in his life, though neither the most interesting nor the most painful, for if we had to judge from their suffering, how many before him would also be entitled to call themselves sons of God!”

Photo by Craig Tidball on Unsplash

Discipleship in Mark

For my class on the Gospels and Acts, I was asked to reflect on Mark’s vision of discipleship. Follow along in your Bible as you read, because this post is loaded with Scripture.

What is discipleship?

Discipleship is the Imitation of Christ. First, we see early on (1:16-18) Jesus call Simon and Andrew with words that reflect what Jesus is doing in issuing the call: “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus is fishing, and in doing so, making further fishers. The call is self-referential like Mark as a whole: Mark’s Gospel is a narrative of Jesus’s life, and at the same time functions to make disciples out of those who read it. Second, at the Gospel’s midway point, the seam between its first (1-8) and second (9-16) movements, Jesus tells the crowd what discipleship requires: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34-9:1). Jesus calls the crowd to be open to martyrdom immediately after he has first predicted his own death (8:31-33). Hence taking up the cross is synonymous with the call to “follow me,” the imitation of Christ. Third, when James and John request authority and glory from Jesus (10:35-45), Jesus responds by acknowledging they will suffer his same fate. He concludes his remarks about servant leadership with another comparison to his own example: “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus centers his example in his responses to James and John and to the other disciples. Therefore, discipleship is the imitation of Christ.

How do disciples imitate Jesus?

Fight Death. Disciples of Jesus are engaged, first and foremost, in a spiritual battle against the powers of Death that wreak havoc in the world. First, at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist characterizes Jesus’s ministry this way: “one more powerful than I… will baptize with holy spirit.” Mark uses the unique word “powerful” (ischuroteros) again later when Jesus is describing his own ministry (3:20-35, Class Notes). How is Jesus’s ministry different from Satan’s work? In a parable, Jesus talks about “binding up the strong man,” who is Satan. So, Jesus’s ministry is the exact opposite of Satan’s work, it is a war against the spiritual forces of darkness and death. Second, Mark depicts Jesus casting out demons (1:21-28 (parallel 5:1-20) (Thiessen, 141-148). He casts out demons from holy places (in the former passage, from the synagogue on the Sabbath) and into unholy places (in the latter passage, into nearby unclean pigs). Jesus’s demon exorcism is not just to heal the possessed, or they would simply be called “healings.” Rather, they are part of a larger fight against “powers and principalities, spiritual forces, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12) as another author later writes. Third, Jesus commissions the disciples to cast out demons as well. (Mark 3:14-15 / 6:7-13) (See Witmer 132-142, 153-201 for more). Now, this command is repeated in 16:17, but it does not matter for Mark, because 16:17 is not authentic, it was added later. But this addition indicates that the early church (up to the late 4th century when 16:9-20 was added) continued to practice exorcism, as Jesus originally commanded. Therefore, disciples of Jesus fight Death and the spiritual battle it wages against God.

Live in Constructed Community. Mark depicts discipleship as shared life. First, Jesus constructs a community which, when anything else conflicts with it, must supersede all other forms of community. Jesus says, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive 100-fold in the age to come” (10:29-30). Second, Jesus gives a specific discourse about living in and leading community in 10:35-45 in response to bickering and infighting (10:41) among his disciples. It is in this context that Jesus makes a key statement about discipleship, drawing from his own example: “not to be served… but to serve.” Disciples are to imitate Jesus’s example in our own communities of shared discipleship. Third, there are clues in the text (direct references to crowds, rhetorical use of “we”) which indicate that “Jesus is one who is almost constantly surrounded by a circle of disciples; he does not exist primarily as a solitary individual but as a being-in-community, and living the Christian life means “being with him.” This portrayal of the life of discipleship as a communion with Jesus would undoubtedly resonate with the experience of Mark’s community” (Joel Marcus 267). Therefore, disciples of Jesus live in constructed communities.

Discernment. Discipleship means seeing and knowing things as they truly are, and this includes events, people, and Jesus’s own mission. First, Mark repeatedly goes out of his way to mention that Jesus “sees” people. The most significant example is 6:34: “When Jesus landed, he looked at the large crowd, and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” (Joel Marcus (182) also lists these passages: 1:18-20, 2:14, 3:34, 6:34, 8:33, 9:25, 10:21, 23, 27, 12:34. Several of these are about the disciples’ calling). Second, Jesus heals the blind man (8:22-26), and then another blind man (Bartimaeus, 10:46ff). In the former case, the blind man gives an example of not being able to see: he “sees men like trees.” Not animals, not objects, but humans, an unclear perspective of the people around him. Jesus restores vision to the blind to make them like him, as he is so often described as seeing others in Mark’s Gospel. Since Jesus can see, those he disciples are given sight as well, that they may imitate him. Third, disciples of Jesus are to see people and see the world as they truly are. Jesus commands disciples to watch the signs of the time (chapter 13 in its entirety) and to be watchful at Gethsemane, though they keep falling asleep (14:32-42). God is at work in the world. God restores the nation of Israel, symbolically expressed in Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River (1:5 = Jordan river crossing), the commissioning of 12 disciples from a mountain (3:13-19 = 12 tribes & Sinai), and the twelve baskets of bread and seven baskets of bread (8:17-21 = Israel & fullness, restoration). The disciples needed eyes to see this work of God in their time. Therefore, disciples of Jesus must be watchful for the work of God in the world.

Open to the Inner Self. Disciples of Jesus are called to imitate their master by living with an openness to their inner selves. First, in his humanity Jesus sets an example for his disciples as one with a rich emotional life. He is angry (1:41 and 3:5) and sad (14:33). He shows signs of frustration (8:12) and exhaustion (4:38). He feels indignancy (10:14) and love (10:21). These emotions express his true humanity. Second, Luke’s Gospel transfers these emotions onto the disciples or omits them altogether, and Matthew’s Gospel retains them but switches the terms to lesser emotions (like “annoyed” instead of “enraged”) or gives reasons to justify Jesus’s emotions (Asikainen 134-155). Mark does not. His portrayal of Jesus is raw and unfiltered. Third, Jesus’s openness to the inner self would have conflicted with the Greco-Roman ideal of self-mastery over the emotions. Mark’s portrayal is thus particularly sharp, as it subverts contemporary expectations for masculinity. Jesus sets this example for his disciples to follow. Therefore, disciples of Jesus live with an openness to their inner selves.

Divine Silence. Disciples of Jesus have a relationship with Our Father that is not clean, tidy, or convenient. First, Jesus had a rich connection with the Father throughout Mark. The Father literally spoke to him out of heaven (twice: 1:11, 9:7) and Jesus is often withdrawing to solitary places for prayer (1:35, 6:30-32, 46). Second, Mark’s ascent narrative (ch 9-16) follows Jesus ascending from Galilee to Jerusalem. This ascent evokes at once the Mountain of God image from various places in the OT, including both Sinai (Marcus 423) and Zion, along with the narrative substructure of the book of Leviticus (See Morales 257-304), the rhetorical question from the Psalmist “Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD?” (24:3), and the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), all in one large conflated image. Yet the opposite end comes than one would expect. Jesus will not enter the presence and the glory of the LORD in the temple. He must die (8:31-33 / 9:30-32 / 10:32-34). From Gethsemane to the end, Jesus does not pray and the Father is silent. Third, Bonhoeffer, confined to prison in Tegel and perhaps viewing the whole world through the lens of that space, cites Mark 15:34 (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”). He felt the hollow sting of protracted abandonment by God which Jesus also felt in his final hours. “The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us,” Bonhoeffer wrote (July 16th, 1944, italic original). Jesus’s cry on the cross amounts to a functional atheism. There ends our portrait of Jesus in Mark. Even as word of his resurrection leaks out, our extant text ends before we see him alive, victorious. Fourth, the Word of God is hidden, so that those without the spirit of discernment cannot find it (4:11-12). Jesus’s life is itself a parable, as are the spiritual journeys of his faithful disciples. When we seek and do not find the voice of God, then we know that we are following the true Christ.

Bibliography

Asikainen, Susanna. Jesus and Other Men: Ideal Masculinities in the Synoptic Gospels. Boston, MA: Brill, 2018.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. by Eberhard Bethge. New York, NY: The Macamillan Company, 1959 edition.

Marcus, Joel. Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2000.

Morales, L. Michael. “Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the LORD?” A Biblical Theology of Leviticus. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2015.

Thiessen, Matthew. Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020.

Witmer, Amanda. Jesus, The Galilean Exorcist: His Exorcisms in Social and Political Context. London, UK: T&T Clark International, 2012.

The photos are some shots of mine from the past two weeks on campus. Filtered with +0.5 exposure, -1.0 saturation, +1.0 fade. Trinity’s native falcon appears in one of the photos, for those with eyes to see.

Pastoral Prayer for September 13th, 2020

Today I gave the pastoral prayer at my church. Here is the text:

Pray with me, selections from the Book of Common Prayer.

Almighty God, who has placed us in this country for its betterment:

Bless our land with honorable and abundant work, sound and safe learning, and peace. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought here out of many nations and languages. Fill with the spirit of wisdom those entrusted with the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace.

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Yet we live in days of trouble, division, and injustice. Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; so that we may live in justice and peace.

We give thanks for Pastor Mike’s recovery from Covid and pray you give him full health. To medical researchers working to create a vaccine, give ingenuity and patience. To victims of wildfire in California, Oregon, and Colorado, give protection and provision. We remember now the 412 first responders nineteen years ago who laid down their lives for the lives of others. May they remain for us a parable of your Son’s own life. Comfort as well the families of the victims of the attack, God of all comfort.

All of this we ask through the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Gay for the world

Sketching a theological use for Christian Sexuality in the world today.

I

Lunch with my former pastor from high school. He eats a soup. I eat cheese fries. He is on a diet. I am not. We talk about my experience coming out and about his attempts to lead his church into a more compassionate tone on sexuality. In that conversation he backs up and makes a larger point than I expected.

He brings up James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World. We had read this together back when I lived in town. Hunter sorts out four ways that Christians engage culture. Well, three, and the fourth is a proposal.

First, there is the ‘defense against’ strategy. Think Jerry Falwell, Jr. or Sr., or the Religious Right as a political strategy. The goal is to defend the church from a hostile society seeking to destroy the church and everything it stands for. We wage war, cultural war, to keep Christian values established at the national level. Non-Christians and non-Christian institutions are either potential converts, or enemies.

Second, there is the ‘purity from’ strategy. Think the Amish, or to a lesser extent, homeschooling. Since you can’t win the culture war against public schools, you retreat and homeschool, or private Christian school. Rod Dreher has come forward as the leading proponent of this tendency. Instead of trying to win back society, his book The Benedict Option argues we need to begin building institutions for a parallel society which is distinctly Christian. Non-Christian people and institutions are potential contaminants to be avoided.

Third, beyond fight and flight is another option, the ‘relevance to’ strategy. This tendency is to blend in by shedding pieces of Christian faith and practice. Many on the Christian Left attempt this approach. It works for a time but the common logic holds that eventually people stop being recognizably Christian at all. Non-Christian people and institutions are seen as not that different from Christians.

Fight, flight, assimilate. Hunter proposes a fourth route, ‘faithful presence within,’ which he defines with two theological statements:

The first is that incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it. From this follows the second: it is the way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ and the purposes to which the incarnation was directed that are the only adequate reply to challenge of difference. For the Christian, if there is a possibility for human flourishing in a world such as ours, it begins when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, is embodied in us, is enacted through us and in doing so, a trust is forged between the word spoken and the reality to which it speaks; to the words we speak and the realities to which we, the church, point. In all, presence and place matter decisively. (241)

Also helpful for understanding his point is the quote a few pages later:

Faithful presence in our spheres of influence does not imply passive conformity to the established structures. Rather, within the dialectic between affirmation and antithesis, faithful presence means a constructive resistance that seeks new patterns of social organization that challenge, undermine, and otherwise diminish oppression, injustice, enmity, and corruption and, in turn, encourage harmony, fruitfulness and abundance, wholeness, beauty, joy, security, and well-being. In the normal course of social life, the challenge and alternative that faithful presence entails is not so much a direct opposition through a contest of power but, as Miraslov Volf puts it, a “bursting out” of an alternative within the proper space of the old. (247-248)

Here our pose towards the world is not defensive (defense against), distancing (purity from), or naively and uncritically positive (relevance to). Rather, we remain distinctly Christian while living in and for the sake of the world, loving and serving others like Jesus did.

My pastor slurped soup from his spoon. My cheesy fries were long gone. They stood no chance.

That was all background from our conversations over the years. In this meal, my pastor made this point: Far too many Christian leaders view sexuality in church-political categories rather than in pastoral-theological categories.

“Church-political” roughly lines up with defense against and purity from, and “pastoral-theological” could mean in a weaker form a relevance to approach or in a stronger form a faithful presence within approach. That stronger form is the goal.

I’ll give an example. Most conservative churches have done a poor job at pastoral care for gay people who are non-affirming. Even though such a person agrees with the church on how to live the Christian life, just being gay is made more difficult than it needs to be. Different things cause this. Silence. Taboo. Homophobic comments. Homophobic pastors. Unrealistic expectations. Singling out that sin instead of treating it as an equal to other sins. These are bad things, and we could end them without sacrificing our doctrinal stance.

But we can’t have those conversations. For those who view the topic through church-political lenses, straight pastors and ministry leaders should not be criticized. Gay people are the ones who are ‘other’ in a political sense, so they are the ones to be critiqued. Gay people (the distinction between celibate and sexually active gets ignored) are inherently opposed to the social and cultural goals of our church politics. To capitulate is to lose points in the game of church politics. If you acknowledge that there could be reasons why gay people are against the conservative church which were biblically unnecessary all along, you’ve lost the war. Nobody admits any of this, but it defines the underlying logic at work, the deep structure of the conversation. In its worst forms this thinking leads to the explicit denial that gay people “can be” Christians. In lighter form it leads to consistent privileging of institutional and organizational interests against those of gay people. Neither form recognizes the God-given dignity inherent in gay people, and both make the Christian life harder for no good reason.

Such is life when Christian leaders see the world through church-political frames. By contrast, my soup-eating pastor pointed to Wesley Hill as someone whose framing of the topic comes primarily from a pastoral-theological mindset. I would add Preston Sprinkle’s book People to be Loved, which is all about seeing gay people as people and not as ideas, or worse, as enemies.

II

The Amazon pages for Nancy Pearcy’s book Love Thy Body in print and on audiobook have different descriptions.

The print editions have this description:

Why the Call to Love Thy Body? 
To counter the hostility toward the human body and biological facts of life driving many of today’s headline stories. Many people absorb pre-packaged media mantras on watershed moral issues without being aware of their hurtful real-world implications. Consider:

Transgenderism: Activists detach gender from biology. Kids down to kindergarten are being taught their body is irrelevant to their authentic self. Is this affirming–or does it demean the body?

Homosexuality: Advocates disconnect sexuality from being biologically male or female. Is this liberating–or does it denigrate who we really are?

Abortion: Supporters admit that pre-born babies are human, but deny that they are persons worthy of legal protection. Does this lead to equality for women–or does it threaten the intrinsic dignity of all humans?

Hookup Culture: On campus, in Hollywood, and in the boardroom, the sexual revolution was supposed to liberate us for recreational sex. But has it really led to schizoid sex and bodies without meaning?

In Love Thy Body, best-selling author Nancy Pearcey goes beyond politically correct talking points to offer a riveting exposé of the dehumanizing secularist ethos that shapes critical moral and socio-political issues of our day.

Formerly an agnostic, Pearcey was hailed in The Economist as”America’s preeminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual.” Fearlessly and with compassion, she makes the case that secularism denigrates the body and destroys the basis for human rights.

Throughout, Pearcey sets forth a holistic and humane alternative available to all–one that offers realityoriented solutions that embrace the dignity of the human body and provide a sustainable basis for inalienable human rights.

Now, more than ever, we need to learn to “love thy body.”

Then, there are endorsements by Robert George, Sam Allberry, Rosaria Butterfield, and Glenn Stanton, of the names I recognize.

But now look at the description from the audiobook edition:

Are transgender people discovering their authentic self? Is the hookup culture really liberating? Does abortion lead to equality for women? Does homosexuality contradict our biological sex?

In Love Thy Body, best-selling and award-winning author Nancy Pearcey takes on the hard questions about life and sexuality. She offers a respectful but riveting exposé of the secular worldview that lies behind trendy slogans and political talking points. A former agnostic, Pearcey is a sensitive guide to the secular ideas that shape current debates. She empowers listeners to intelligently and compassionately engage today’s most controversial moral and social challenges.

In a surprise shattering of stereotypes, Pearcey demonstrates that while secularism promises much, in reality it delivers little. She turns the tables on stereotypes that portray Christianity as harsh and bigoted, and invites a fresh look at its holistic, life-affirming principles: It is a worldview that matches the real world and fits with human experience.

All along, Pearcey keeps listeners entranced with gripping stories of real people wrestling with hard questions in their own lives – sharing their pain, their struggles, and their triumphs.

This description is not followed by endorsements.

Where the second description is warm and friendly (“a sensitive guide” “fresh look at holistic, life-affirming principles” “sharing their pain”), the first description is hostile and adversarial (“to counter” “beyond politically correct talking points” “Fearlessly” is fronted in the pair with “compassion”). Where the second frames its rhetorical questions as benign, detached ideas, the first pre-loads its rhetorical questions with declarative statements (“Activists detach gender from biology” “Advocates disconnect sexuality from being biologically male or female” “Supporters admit that pre-born babies are human, but deny that they are persons worthy of legal protection” “On campus, in Hollywood, and in the boardroom, the sexual revolution was supposed to liberate us for recreational sex”). Notice the difference. Now we aren’t arguing against ideas, or proposing our own constructive ideas. We are arguing against “Activists” “Advocates” “Supporters [of abortion]” and “Hollywood, the boardroom [or those who this applies to], and the sexual revolution.” Suddenly things seem less compassionate. The stakes are raised. We have an enemy in this fight. Even the tailing endorsements on the print editions scream Tribal Affiliation, but no such endorsements are to be found on the audiobook.

I don’t know whether this is Pearcey’s own doing, or the publisher’s work. My understanding is that authors have control over their body-text and title, and that’s about it. Nor do I fault the publishers for resorting to this type of politcking. It sells. What I notice, though, is that the rah rah lets fight spirit in one description comes at the expense of the calm, wise, compassionate spirit in the other. A “church-political,” defense against and purity from mindset bleeds off the page.

Can we do better?

III

As I try to sketch out the contours of a Christian Sexuality that is faithfully present in the world, I am reminded of this post from a friend last year. (I share this with his permission).

“Cold water! Stay hydrated! Be safe!”
“Oh, thank goodness. How much?”
“Nothing, it’s free.”
“Wait, it’s free?”
“Yep. You need more than one?”
“Uhh, sure. Thanks. Y’all are doing a really, really good thing… Who are you with?”
“We’re just a group of Christians from different local churches, here to make sure folks have some water.”

This conversation happened hundreds of times today. Let it be a parable of free grace for your Sunday. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55)

Had a great time at my first-ever Pride!

@ Downtown St. Louis

I don’t know if you remember that day, but it was nearly 100 degrees and humid. There was talk about cancelling the parades outright because of the heat risk. So this is not mere political posturing — it has real substance. It also declines to antagonize. This small act of grace does not defend against the parade and all it represents, or seek purity from the potentially ‘infectious’ effects of being too close to sinful (gay) people. Nor does it seek relevance to Pride by sacrificing or eliding critical differences between Christian and non-Christian practice. It exemplifies, even typifies, faithful presence within. Loving and serving others to whom we especially owe that love and service. Not recoiling at or restraining from the ‘other.’ Unlike the first description of Pearcy’s book, it does not center our obvious disagreements and reduce gay people to enemy status to score points in our cliques. This small act can teach us what it means to be gay for the world.

When there is no bread

Elijah called for a battle between the Lord and the rival nation’s god Ba’al in 1 Kings 18. The Lord showed in dramatic fashion that he is the real God of Israel. This would normally be good, but the king and queen of Israel had adopted Ba’al as one of their gods, so Elijah had committed treason. The wicked queen raged. She sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “O may the gods do to me also, and even more, if I do not kill you by this time tomorrow!” Elijah takes the hint and flees the country.

Elijah flees to the southern desert. His life seems over. He feels alone. Isolated. Think ‘social distancing.’ He sits beneath a thin tree and asks God to kill him. He passes out.

After this point it is unclear whether the narrative occurs in “the real world” or in a surreal dreamscape. Narrated time will begin to move faster, 40 days and 40 nights will pass in a breath, past and present co-mingling into one timeline, miraculous signs will happen at sacred locations, and Elijah ultimately receives a prophetic Word from the Lord. But before that journey, sleeping under the thin tree, an angel comes to wake Elijah. He looks and sees a flask (sappahat) of water and baked bread on coals by his head. “Arise and eat,” says the angel. Elijah does. He goes back to sleep. The angel wakes him up again. “No, you really don’t get it. Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” Elijah eats and drinks again. With strength from the meal, he travels through the desert to Sinai.

From verses 3-17, the text of 1 Kings 19 enters into so many allusions and echoes of earlier texts that I can only describe it as textual recycling. Think of how Revelation alludes to the Old Testament in every single verse. Ignore the allusions and you end up with a bad Left Behind style interpretation. You miss the point unless you can distinguish what is recycled from what is new, or what is old but used in a new way. Same here.

What few notice in this scene is the textual connection to 1 Samuel 26. There, Saul and his men are put into a deep slumber by God, enabling David to sneak through the camp and steal Saul’s spear. Like before, David is showing off that he could kill Saul, but has decided to obey God instead. We see this connection in three ways.

  • First, the scenes happen in or near the same place: a day’s journey from Beersheeba into the wilderness and the Wilderness of Ziph line up. Because Elijah is from the north, his unfamiliarity with southern place-names makes sense.
  • Second, the word flask (sappahat) is an extremely uncommon word. It occurs in these two passages, and in the Widow of Zarephath, and that is all. Rare words can imply direct borrowing.
  • Third, the placement of the flask. While David sneaks by Saul to get his spear, he grabs Saul’s flask which was “at his head” (m’ra’ashot). Similarly, the sleeping Elijah had a flask “at his head,” (m’ra’ashot) the narrator specifies. At five unique occurrences this phrase is not extremely rare, but infrequent enough to suggest direct borrowing.

The textual connection is clear.

So what? When I encountered this passage in a class last semester, I was unsure where to go. Authors allude to older texts for a reason, not just because. These scenes are completely different. What’s the point of sprinkling details from the 1 Samuel passage into the narrative in 1 Kings? Then I realized that the Elijah story adds a key detail: the bread, baked on coals. Saul has his flask, but Elijah his flask and bread. The author uses textual recycling to frame the story but the key is where the new text breaks from the old one.

Sinai. 40. Wandering. Wilderness. Idolatry of the nation. Righteous prophet who destroys the idolaters. Now, bread. These pieces come together in an even broader textual recycling to evoke Moses’s encounter with God (which Elijah is about to have in verse 10) and the Exodus generation. Together they recall an important lesson from those days: God will provide. God will sustain. God gave the wilderness generation manna in the desert, ‘our daily bread,’ which could not be stored yet would appear fresh every day. God provided exactly what they needed in the barrenness and desolation of those days. Not more or less. Not early or late. God provided Elijah with water and bread, manna, for his journey, and he was nourished. God also provided ‘socially,’ so to speak, by correcting Elijah: he is not alone. There are 6000 in Israel who have not worshiped Ba’al.

Tell me if any of this feels familiar. Elijah felt isolated and lonely. The coming 40 days seemed unbearable. Death threatens the near future. Everything that his country should be was falling apart before his eyes. He resented the inept leadership running his people into the ground. He felt not just physical need but also social need. The parallels to today are clear.

The extreme circumstances that drove Elijah into solitude in the desert caused him to feel these things. But behind those circumstances remained the challenge to trust God. Elijah failed this challenge, calling out “better to die than to live. O Lord, take away my life.” Trusting God was easy when God destroyed the enemy in an outrageous battle and then Elijah got to slaughter all the enemy priests in triumph. That was an easy time to trust God. When Elijah was exiled from his homeland and running for his life, stumbling through the desert, starving, a day out from seeing another soul? That’s hard. Those are times that try a man’s soul.

If you thought you trusted God when everything went well, but fail to trust him now that things look bad, you may be surprised to realize that you have never trusted God at all. You enjoyed the material and social comfort provided by God, and called that enjoyment “trust.”

The recycling of old texts and themes in 1 Kings 19 has a double effect: it brings the main ideas of those older texts into the mix of ideas in the new text, and more generally it causes the reader to remember. Look what God has done in the past. His faithfulness lasts through all generations. See his provision in yesteryear and know that he will provide again. Deuteronomy 8 makes the point, on which we will close:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Myth, legend, dust

I have tried to hold back and even now will keep holding back. Half of what demands to be said is too hard to say well, for the emotions but no less for the sake of precision. I’m writing about the secret motivations of others, and about my own interior life, and about these big abstract entities called “evangelicalism” and “homophobia.” The margin of error is wider than the target. But something needs to be written so that this time can be known after my memory fades. Put shortly: my life has bled fire and I don’t recognize the person I was a year ago.

Winter and Spring

January, February, and March were spent working up the nerve to come out publicly. I wrote an essay and edited it for months. In conversation after conversation I came out early to those who deserved to know. These months held a sense of rising action, my life animated by plot, suspense. But I was unprepared for the mix of reactions I would receive. I had found an article saying everything would go great. That, along with many conversations with (straight) professors and pastors left me clueless about what would come.

My former employer denied me a job because I came out, and then offered me another, lesser job on specious conditions that amounted to workplace harassment on the basis of sexual orientation. (Of course, I turned that down, as it was not a legitimate offer at all). It was unfair and it burned. I spent hours of those days screaming in my room. I would rant what I wish I had said. Whenever my mind went quiet, the rage would return. One time I remembered it while alone in the car. I beat the steering wheel until my right hand bruised. This lasted for months. At the same time, I had to bottle these emotions because of the reactions I kept getting from others across my Christian life. I couldn’t handle everything at once.

April and May. The anger I felt about losing my job continued. A roommate didn’t talk to me for 3 weeks after coming out. Some people at church said things. [Redacted so that I don’t get another angry message from them for talking about them online]. Another person said another thing, but worse. Most people said exactly nothing ever. I was failing Hebrew, the hardest class I had ever taken. I would open Quizlet to study vocab and start to shake, my blood pressure surging. I would cry myself to sleep the nights before that class. The stress of grad school (for which my undergrad was no help) grew along with questions about whether any church would ever take me as a pastor. If not, why bother with Hebrew? I scraped rock bottom between this class and the rejection I felt from work and alienation from church and school…

Meanwhile, something worse happened. A camper from my cabin in 2016, 17, and 18, who I loved deeply, committed suicide. I have never grieved someone’s death so hard. I felt survivor’s guilt. He had looked up to me. Could I have done more? Said something? My last words to him were that I wouldn’t see him that summer because I wasn’t on staff anymore. His loss gnawed at me, and I became empty and hopeless. I listened to sad songs on repeat and thought about death, immobile on the Lower Waybright couch for hours. I wrote him letters and tore them up, because none worked. While this wound was still raw, every additional perceived slight related to my sexuality was 10x harder. The worst timed example was the day before his visitation, when I was brought into a trick meeting about sexuality [redacted to avoid angry emails etc]. It broke my trust in a few key people.

Summer and Fall

The school year ended, and I lived as a hermit on campus for the summer. Alone, isolated, desolate. Any church conflict froze because we went on summer schedule. My feelings of ostracization and exclusion cemented. But there was a single beacon of hope: the Revoice Conference. Finally, a place where I felt no need to defend or justify myself. Or even explain myself. They already got it. Everything was very warm, very gay, very celibate. I have never felt more at home. But that week ended, and my isolation on campus resumed. I would go half-weeks without seeing another person.

A professor at school recruited me into a high school leadership program for two weeks. I instantly said yes — people! After I decided to join and only logistics remained, I was told to be closeted for the two weeks. Delete social media posts, etc. This was hard for me, but worse, it impacted someone else more than myself. The program slowly became a living hell that I regretted joining. Then, the summer continued. The job that rejected me took me for one week, no conditions, because they were short staffed. This was incredible (and hypocritical). It became a week of joy, healing, and growth. It also compounded my anger. I have a vivid memory of scream-weeping on the floor when I found out that an LGBT student had decided to follow Jesus because of a conversation we had. Why was I there for 6 days instead of 10 weeks? The bitter truth: the gospel does not matter. Keeping the status quo does.

It became impossible to separate the voices. One person’s stray remark over lunch blended into another’s haphazard Facebook screed. The friend “just trying to wrap his mind around the whole thing” and the stranger arguing that gay people are inherently pedophilic were not the same person, but they might as well have been. Those who gave me an awkward cold shoulder for months, those who talked to me with false enthusiasm to make sure I felt “welcomed,” and those who accused me of living in sin behind my back but would never confront me — all different people, all one person. The friend so behind on this topic that his only analysis was that “some people are just behind on this topic.” Everyone became one voice, each guilty of what all the others had said and done.

August. New semester. I got an email that changed everything. [Redacted to avoid angry responses]. My whiplash reaction was a pathetic attempt to hold it together, but everything was falling apart regardless. [Redacted an entire paragraph]. After that experience, it became clear that things needed to change. October. I left my church for good, trying to find a place that would do more than tolerate my existence as a celibate gay man. [Redacted]. I eventually found one. Things have inched towards improving since then. I made it through the fall and early winter. There were episodes of week-long blues, laying around for days doing nothing, unable to make myself try. Gazing out my window, lifeless, watching dry leaves fall, also lifeless. I kept up counseling and have tried to process what has happened, especially [redacted] and the loss from that. The semester ended and I somehow passed all my classes.

In short. I took a huge risk, unaware it was a risk at all, and it worked against me. Then, the various aspects of my life each went up in flames. Other unrelated bad things that happened (Hebrew issues and my camper dying) were accelerants for the fire. The resulting blaze killed the me I used to know. My experience of God, my theology, my most important relationships, my career direction, even my personality have been caused to change. In November and December I have been rebuilding something of myself from the bare foundations: the Resurrection of Jesus, the people who supported me, and my testimony. I don’t have much else.

Memory

I turned 22 but aged to 30 at least. Everything looks different now. The world is bigger, more interconnected, more threatening, and more fragile but more worth saving. I overcame my irony poisoning and became more earnest, sincere, and direct. I am less sarcastic, because less things seem funny. I am softer and quieter. My cynicism is deeper. I act like I have a constant headache. When things got really hard, I didn’t have the capacity to care about my skincare routine or exercising or cleaning my dorm. I let myself go in these and other ways. I didn’t and don’t care. It became hard to do my school work even though it felt like it mattered for the first time. Anything unnecessary about my exegetical method melted. What remained was concentrated and serious. Unflinching. My way of interacting with others changed. Little pet peeves became irrelevant. Tap your pencil against the table, leave your coffee grounds in the sink, fake-laugh at my jokes, I don’t care. Just don’t tell me that my faith requires me to “chemically castrate” myself, and we’re good.

I have lost hope that evangelicalism can be a welcoming or even hospitable place for gay people. Burn it to the ground and start over. I don’t know whether I will apply for pastoral jobs when I graduate, but if so, it will not be in the kind of churches I have always called home. If no pastoral routes work, I could continue to nerd away at a PhD program. I hate that the only reason I would do a doctorate would be because virulent homophobia has killed my other options, where my real passions lie (i.e., student ministry). Also unfortunately, my grades have been bad enough this year that I would need to do a successful ThM first. I want to avoid this path if at all possible.

Things will get better. Or who knows, maybe 2019 was tame compared to what 2020 holds. I am not a prophet. But I know that this year has been bitter, and I shouldn’t sweeten it with the conclusion that I have become a better person for enduring it. No. I would be a more faithful follower of Jesus today if it wasn’t for all this. I wouldn’t be filled with rage. I wouldn’t have half-seriously considered leaving Christianity altogether. I wouldn’t have repeatedly lost my will to live. Sure, I gain “having a great testimony,” but everybody just wants the bragging rights that comes with that, not the traumatic experience itself. Everything has hurt. Everything has died. Where did I go? The Ross who lived before will live on only as memory:

They are gone now. Fled, banished in death or exile, lost, undone. Over the land sun and wind still move to burn and sway the trees, the grasses. No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains. On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust.

Cormac McCarthy, The Orchard Keeper

Best Films of the Decade

Thirteen days early, I present to you my picks for the best films of the decade. Some notes before we start:

Uncut Gems, Little Women, A Hidden Life or Star Wars IX could conceivably make the cut, but they get snubbed for releasing in the final week of the decade.

• I haven’t seen everything, obviously, so I can only pull from the 273 feature-length films of the 2010’s I have seen.

• Zero of these films are family-friendly. Do not watch them with kids. (Honorable Mention Faces Places would be the sole exception).

• I also include info on how to rent/buy/stream each film.

Honorable Mentions: Faces Places (2017), We the Animals (2018), The Master (2012) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), Arrival (2016), Mad Max: Fury Road (2014), The Favourite (2018).

10. Moonlight (2016)

Barry Jenkins directs this adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” The film explores the life of Chiron Harris, a gay black man raised in poverty in Miami. Moonlight depicts his coming-of-age with an abusive family, his sexuality, and his struggle to find belonging in the black community. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes portray Chiron as a child, teen, and adult, each performance flawless. Moonlight is a film of pure visual poetry, always showing, never telling, never pausing to explain or justify itself. The simple beauty of the film is in its visual style and its narrow focus on one highly intersectional experience. It won Best Picture after the famous La La Land gaffe, as well as winning Best Adapted Screenplay and the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Drama.

Available on: Netflix (subscription), Amazon Prime ($2.99), or YouTube ($0.99).

9. Leviathan (2014)

Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, this Russian film follows a man’s eviction from his home, divorce from his wife, and battle with the town’s corrupt mayor, all at once. Leviathan doubles as a cipher for the Biblical character Job, and the everyman of Putin’s Russia, trying to survive in a system of pure power. One critic writes, Leviathan “deals with some of the most important social issues of contemporary Russia while never becoming an artist’s sermon or a public statement; it is a story of love and tragedy experienced by ordinary people.”

Available on: Youtube ($0.99) and Amazon Prime ($2.99).

8. Lean on Pete (2018)

Andrew Haigh’s latest film follows Charley Thompson (played to perfection by Charlie Plummer) as his already decrepit life completely falls apart. He has nothing but a trusty horse named Pete. Charley’s journey interacts with issues of fatherlessness, teen homelessness, and life in “flyover country” America. Haigh’s visual style is perfect for this coming-of-age character study, which he filmed with maximum compassion and humanism. To be honest, I may be the only person putting Lean on Pete in my best of the decade list, half because it connected with me in a unique way and half because it went criminally under the radar. Critic Austin Dale listed it his favorite of last year, calling it “both the most American film of the year and the year’s toughest sell.”

Available on: Amazon Prime (subscription) and YouTube ($0.99).

7. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Based on the pre-civil war slave memoir of the same name, 12 Years a Slave follows Solomon Northup’s kidnapping into slavery and years of toil on the plantation. Steve McQueen directs a rockstar cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Luita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and even Brad Pitt for a moment. Guys, this movie is so brutal. Don’t watch it lightly. It is jarring and should make you very, very angry. It also withstood historical scrutiny better than most period pieces: Emily West, a historian who specializes in this period, commented that she had “never seen a film represent slavery so accurately.” Which is to say, so horrifically.

Available on: YouTube ($0.99), iTunes ($3.99) and Amazon ($3.99).

6. Boyhood (2014)

Filmed scene-by-scene over 14 years with the same child actor as he grew into adulthood, Boyhood is Richard Linklater’s masterpiece. The plot structure is unique: per Wikipedia, Boyhood “began without a completed script, with only basic plot points and the ending written initially. Linklater developed the script throughout production, writing the next year’s portion of the film after rewatching the previous year’s footage. He incorporated changes he saw in each actor into the script, while also allowing all major actors to participate in the writing process by incorporating their life experiences into their characters’ stories.” What emerged from this process resembles life itself, with its ongoing aimlessness punctuated by briefly meaningful moments. Boyhood is the ultimate coming-of-age movie. I am not convinced that a better one could be conceived even in theory.

Available on: Amazon Prime ($2.99) or The Criterion Channel (subscription).

5. Parasite (2019)

How do you make a movie twice as good as that year’s second place? Bong Joon-ho knows, apparently, and everyone else has been put to shame as Parasite enjoys its perch atop the Letterboxd Top 250 films list. Literally, it sits at the #1 highest rated film of all time, above both Godfathers. The film follows a poor Korean family as they… fold pizza boxes. (Hahahahahahaha). That is all I was told going into the movie, and honestly, the less you know, the better. Likely winner of this year’s Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film.

Available on: there is currently no legal way to view Parasite. It will release on Amazon Prime on January 14, 2020 for $14.99. Around the same time it will probably also reappear in theaters as Oscars season heats up.

4. First Reformed (2018)

Ethan Hawke stars in this instant-classic as a country pastor in a dwindling congregation. First Reformed offers a provocative commentary on the relationship between capitalism and religion, a commentary as enlightening as it is horrifying, mystifying, and electric. The ending is intentionally incomprehensible. It doesn’t make any sense and it isn’t supposed to make any sense. I have come to love viewing this movie against its precursors (Wise Blood, Winter Light, and Diary of a Country Priest), because Schrader is not generating his own narrative as much as he is parodying and inverting these existing narratives into something new. In that sense, First Reformed is at once completely unoriginal, and highly, highly original. You probably won’t like it, but First Reformed plays like lightning.

Available on: Amazon Prime (subscription) and YouTube ($0.99).

3. A Separation (2011)

This Iranian drama won a billion awards including Best Foreign Language Film and a nomination for Best Original Screenplay (rare for a non-English movie). Its subjects, a married couple seeking divorce and the husband’s senile father, become enmeshed in a web of spin and half-truths that by the end create a disaster threatening to ruin lives. The dialogue comes fast and heavy and disorients your sense of objectivity. I recommend you drink a full cup of coffee before pressing play.

Available on: Netflix (subscription), Amazon Prime ($2.99) and YouTube ($0.99).

2. Burning (2018)

An erotic philosophical thriller, and perhaps the only film to receive all three of those adjectives, Burning was my #1 of last year — by far. Set in South Korea and following a devolving love triangle between the protagonist (Yoo Ah-in), the antagonist (Steven Yeun) and the girl (Jun Jong-seo), the film slowly descends into a purgatory of confusion and disbelief before pivoting and diving into absolute hellfire. Burning explores male sexuality in an honor-shame culture, leading to a very different analysis than Western audiences would expect. It also threatens to destroy you, the viewer. When the film finished I sat immobilized in raw shock for what felt like an hour. I have never seen anything like Burning.

Available on: Netflix (subscription), YouTube ($0.99), and Amazon Prime ($2.99).

1. The Tree of Life (2011)

“Is it hyperbole,” asks my friend and fellow reviewer Travis Kyker, “to call this cinema’s Sistine Chapel?” No, Travis. No it is not. The Tree of Life is the Magnum Opus not only of Terrence Malick’s career but also of Christian filmmaking in general. The non-linearity, the abstract plot structure, the twenty un-interrupted minutes of footage of life’s evolution on Earth, this one’s got ’em all, baby. Understanding The Tree of Life on first watch is as likely as understanding the Bible on first read, or maybe less likely. It is a film so simple in structure and execution that it ends up meaning everything. What makes The Tree of Life so unique, in addition to the plot, cinematography, acting, scripting, pacing, special fx, framing, themes, and overall concept, is that this movie emanates from the heart of Malick’s own religious experience. Nobody else could have directed this film, for the technical reasons above but also because it would never mean anything coming from someone else. This film exists in the narrow space between impressionism and expressionism: Malick expressing himself in a way that only impress its meaning upon the viewer insofar as the viewer already shares Malick’s expression in themselves. The Tree of Life speaks a double code language, indecipherable to those outside the world of art cinema, but more importantly, indecipherable to those outside the transcendent religious experience Malick explores.

Available on: Hulu (but only with Cinemax add-on for $9.99/month), Amazon Prime ($3.99), or YouTube ($3.99).

That’s all!

Thanks for reading. I will be posting my Best of 2019 list soon.

Doors and Windows

My true personality will be fulfilled in the Mystical Christ in this one way above all, that through me, Christ and His Spirit will be able to love you and all men of God the Father in a way that would be possible in no one else.

Love comes out of God and gathers us to God in order to pour itself back into God through all of us and bring us all back to Him on the tide of His own infinite mercy.

So we all become doors and windows through which God shines back into His own house.

When the Love of God is in me, God is able to love you through me and you are able to love God through me. If my soul were closed to that love, God’s love for you and your love for God and God’s love for Himself in you and in me, would be denied the particular expression which it finds through me and through no other.

Because God’s love is in me, it can come to you from a different and special direction that would be closed if He did not live in me, and because His love is in you, it can come to me from a quarter which it would not otherwise come. And because it is in both of us, God has greater glory. His love is expressed in two more ways in which it would not otherwise be expressed; that is, in two more joys that could not exist without Him.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 67.

My morning Resurrection liturgy

I have felt lately that my morning devotional time could benefit from structure. So I wrote an outline. It takes about 45 minutes to follow. This liturgy isn’t entirely about but still centers on the Resurrection. Here it is:

I. Opening Prayer
Father God, thank you for today and the daily gift of life. Grant me this morning your holy presence. Allow me to focus in the fog of early morning hours. Help me to see Jesus, resurrected and embodied, in all of today. Be with me in this time. I pray these things in the authority of Jesus’s name. Amen.

II. The Resurrection of Jesus
(Read these passages aloud, in this order, without stopping)
– Mark 16:1-8
– Matthew 28
– Luke 24
– Acts 1:1-11
– John 20, 21
– 1 Corinthians 15:1-8

Thank you, God, for your Word this morning, both written in the text and living in the resurrected and embodied Jesus.

III. Confession of Sin
Father God, against you alone have I sinned. Hear my wrongdoing, remind me of the forgiveness given to me at the Cross and confirmed at the Resurrection, and give me courage to seek reconciliation wherever needed.

(Confess particular sin, why it was wrong, and whether I need to right the wrong, then repeat with next sin)

If we confess our sins, you, Lord, are faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Because I am forgiven by you, empower me by the Holy Spirit to go and sin no more.

IV. Prayers of Invocation
Father God, hear today my prayers and intervene. In Christ you are reconciling all things to yourself, even these friends and situations and problems for which I am praying.

(Have a pre-written list. Pray for the first request. Short sentences, short prayers. Then, go on to the next prayer request)

Hear these prayers and do them as you will, Lord. As Elijah prayed and it did not rain for three years, and then prayed again and it rained, so you hear my prayers.

V. Reading from Barth, CD V/1
(This volume is the index to Church Dogmatics. The editors have compiled a year of weekly liturgies, from which I read one section every day. Each section is a Bible passage, seemingly at random, followed by a paragraph of Barth’s commentary on that passage. The Bible readings take me out of my comfort-zone passages (yesterday was in Leviticus!), and the commentary introduces some ideas to continue to think about throughout the day)

VI. Closing Prayer
Father God, lead me, accompany me, and enable me to Walk the Way of Jesus today. All of these things I pray in the authority of Jesus’s name. Amen.