Christian Humanist Profiles 23: Theater of War

Nathan P. Gilmour

In another crossover with Craft Lit, Nathan P. Gilmour and Heather Ordover interview Bryan Doerries of the Theater of War project.  Theater of War brings Athenian tragedy to the stage for American military veterans, bringing together the arts and the military in ways reminiscent of ancient Athens and inviting conversations between the highest-ranked and the lowest as they behold and discuss the veterans of Trojan and Persian and Peloponnesian wars.

The Christian Feminist Podcast, Episode #16: Male Feminist Allies

Victoria Farmer
  • Introductions


  • Why this episode?
  • “Ally” as a term
  • A big moment for feminism in the zeitgeist
  • HeforShe


Passing On


I’m not Charlie, and I’m not Sure I Aspire to Be

Nathan P. Gilmour

I won’t rehearse the details of last Wednesday’s attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo, a Parisian satire magazine.  Those anyone can find with a Google search.  I do write, however, because I’m not sure how to think about many public figures’ reaction to the events, which have become a rallying cry for free speech, free press, and the legal rights to print whatever one sees fit.

First, I haven’t gone searching in every corner of the Internet, but so far, just casually browsing, I haven’t seen anyone supporting what happened Wednesday.  Just about everyone agrees that such an act of murder is nothing other than a crime, and the proper response for the public is to treat the act not as war but as murder.

But that’s not where some folks are stopping.  I’ve seen a fair number of folks identify this crime as a “natural” outworking of Islam, pitting secular “us” against theocratic “them.”  What I’ve not seen is much discussion about the fact that the cartoonists were publishing cartoons attacking revered religious figures of ethnic minorities.  My hunch is that even bringing up that reality would immediately brand the questioner as an enemy of free speech and liberalism.  (I understand that I’m in danger of the same.)

But this counter-factual occurred to me as I rolled these things over in my head: suppose a cartoonist, on Monday, when the United States is celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., published a cartoon depicting King in an orgy with four, visibly underage Chinese girls, while cracking wise that “I had me a dream about some Mushu Pork!”  Suppose the cartoon played up all of the worst visual tropes that racist cartoonists use to portray Black people as simian and otherwise bestial.  And suppose that a Black person went to the St. Louis office of that cartoonist on Tuesday and shot him.

In that scenario, would I regard the shooting as a murder?  Yes.  Would I think of the police’s actions to apprehend the shooter as justified?  Yes.  If the shooter resisted, would the police be justified in meeting armed resistance with armed force? Possibly.  If the police took the shooter alive, would I think that the District Attorney’s decision to prosecute the case as a murder justified?  Yes.

But would I join a march saying that I’m “with” that cartoonist?  No.  Would I hold a sign that says I “am” that cartoonist?  No.  Would I regard the cartoonist as a martyr?  No.  And would I consider the shooter representative of all those who regard MLK as an important figure in American Christianity?  No.

Ultimately I don’t think that violent retaliation against anti-minority humor is ever good, but I also can’t ignore the fact that the victims of the crime (and that’s all I can call these cartoonists, not martyrs or heroes) made their living by “punching down,” using humor to keep minorities marginal.  In the end, I regard Wednesday’s attacks as a violent crime and thus worth mourning but not much else: not a clash of civilizations and certainly not a proud moment when evil attacked good in some simple way.

Perhaps this means that I’m not a free-speech absolutist, and I think I’m alright with that.

Anyway, this is more of an inquiry than an argument at this point.  What do you make of the public reaction to Wednesday’s crimes, and where do you think I’m getting things wrong?

Christian Humanist Profiles 22: Reading Backwards

Nathan P. Gilmour

the-vision-after-the-sermon-jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel-1888.jpg!BlogTo be saved means to be in a story where the characters need saving.  That ground-floor reality motivated a generation of theologians and Bible scholars to think of Christianity in terms of the story it projects onto the world and discloses within the world, treating historical context as something within which Bible happens and something that Bible makes happen.  In his recent book Reading Backwards, Richard Hays, Dean of Duke Divinity School, explores the ways that the four canonical gospels re-cast the narratives and oracles and songs of the Old Testament in light of the Jesus movement, both finding meaning for Jesus in those texts and finding meaning in those texts because Jesus happens.

Jesus for a Certain Kind of Modern Mind: A Review of Christ Actually

Nathan P. Gilmour

Christ Actually: The Son of God for a Secular Age

By James Carroll

284 pp.  Viking Penguin.  $30.00

James Carroll tells a story of two wars against the Jews, two thousand years apart, that require an ethical response from twenty-first-century readers.  Any such response that does not wish to ignore the truth of history, Carroll insists, must have something to do with Jesus of Nazareth, the figure Christians worship as divine.  But Carroll argues that, if Jesus is the answer, Christians and others have been asking the wrong questions (124).

Carroll’s proposals for better questions have their strong points and their weak ones.  To his credit, he points at every turn to the Jewish reality that defines first-century Palestine, Jesus of Nazareth included.  However, his desire to play out an entirely Jewish Jesus, with no remainder, means that he often relies on arguments from silence, citations of scholars without any nod to the controversies in which they ply their trade, and other strange modes of demonstration.  If, for a given reader, good intentions forgive a multitude of sloppy rhetorical moves, this might be a good book.  However, since I’m interested in how one gets there as well as where one wants to get, I found the book less than satisfying.

History and Biography

Carroll begins with a meditation on the year 1945, two years after his own birth, as a sort of turning point in world history (3).  That year saw both the culmination of the German death camps’ work and some of the most brutal aerial bombing the human species had ever seen, most notably the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Carroll’s project, as he describes it, is to articulate a post-religious view of Jesus because, in the wake of those human disasters, the ethical difficulties of the Jesus of religion are too great for the modern thinker (19).  In other words, Carroll muses, if Jesus is in fact the answer, this book sets out to articulate a better question (24).

Before getting to the better questions Carroll tells his own story about the bad questions that people have asked, starting with his own Catholic-school education, neither fundamentalist nor secularist but the sort of via-media treatment of literature, philosophy, biology, and other such things that neither insisted on radical separation between “faith” and “science” nor regarded “faith” as something that people ought not to maintain any more (33).  Carroll’s own Jesus-question, the one that drove him back to the content of the Catholic faith over and again, was “How can I avoid the torments of Hell?” (35-36).  As part of that theological matrix, Carroll tells, he learned to despise Jews as the people who killed Jesus, a sentiment not actively promoted so much as atmospheric in the ways that he learned to read the canonical gospels (38-39).  He eventually studied for the priesthood and sought ordination, though later, because of the ethical crises mentioned above, he left that life, though he remains a Catholic parishioner.

Carroll’s autobiography at the beginning of the book was quite helpful for me, largely because I could see, as he put forth a vision of not only a Jewish Jesus but a Jewish Christ, that within his frame of experience, that sort of thing was an utterly revolutionary change.  In my own story, and in those of folks my age and from my background, Jesus has never been anything but Jewish, and since I encountered the work of (among others) N.T. Wright and Richard Hays quite early in my Christian experience, I have, since I can remember, thought of the apocalyptic preaching of Jesus as Jewish through and through, always aware that the Jewish message got Hellenized but also that the Hellenism into which the gospel travelled always got Judaized as well.  So I’m not as inclined to Carroll is to think of the relationship between the Jewish Y’Shua Son of Mary and the Christian Second Person of the Trinity as a pair of mutually-excluding possibilities that cannot both be real but as a mystery of providence to be rejoiced in and studied.

But enough about me.

Two Holocausts

For those who have read a fair bit of the literature of the Emergent movement, Carroll’s narrative provides a strange surprise: as he tells the story, St. Paul is the good guy, and the canonical gospels are the bad guys.  To explain why, Carroll asserts over and over that the canonical gospels are war-texts that deny being war-literature (67, 68, 77, 116, et. al.).  Because the gospel of Mark was likely composed around AD 70 (I do agree with this) and the other synoptics and John afterwards, Carroll tells a familiar story (with which I do not agree) about the genesis of Christianity as a movement separate from Rabbinic Judaism: in order to convince the Romans that they were no threat to the Empire, and that Jesus was in fact framed for sedition rather than guilty of revolution, the early Christians scapegoated THE JEWS in the characters of the Pharisees.

Such a narrative situates Paul in a strange place indeed.  The way that Carroll tells the story, Paul was in fact far more Jewish in his thought than folks want to make him.  Emphasizing Paul’s image of the Gentiles as grafted onto the tree that is Israel in Romans (201) and the fact that Paul’s Christ is divine in the crucifixion, not at the nativity or in some pre-existence narrative (199), Carroll states a case that Paul in fact imagined faith in Christ to be a continuation of, without much departure from, the Pharasaical tradition that also preached a final divine judgment and such things.  Because he did his writing and met his end before the Jewish Wars took off in AD 66, Carroll maintains, he remained basically at one with Judaism, writing much more harshly about those within the Jesus movement who insisted on circumcising Gentiles than ever he did Rabbinic Jews.

But when the Jewish War, what Carroll dubs the first Holocaust, begins, the Jesus-faction, now dominated by folks other than ethnic Jews, leave their brethren to burn in Palestine and in fact distance themselves from the Jewish identity of Jesus (67).  In Carroll’s telling of things, “The Jewish experience during the savage violence of what I presume to call the first Holocaust, in other words, could be expected, in the scales of narrative composition, to weigh as much as, if not more than, the remembered actualities of Jesus’ life four decades earlier” (68).  The gospel of Mark is a story of the Temple, not mainly a story about Jesus, one written to guide Christians, those who had forsaken their ties to Judaism and become a new religion, into a new existence relating to Rome as the “good guys” and the Jews as the “bad guys.”  In tracing out this story Carroll also makes some strange moves, claiming that Roman officials always treat Christians well in the Acts narratives of Paul (208) and that, behind the scenes of the gospels, the actual trial of Jesus never included, among other things, Pilate’s scheme to get the city’s religious leaders publicly to ostracize the revolutionary Jesus (207).  When Carroll does his historical work, he claims frequently that the gospels fabricate events that could not have taken place in actual Roman history but does not shy away from fabricating such scenarios himself, once again leading me, as a reader, to wonder whether silence in the absence of documentary evidence should be the rule of interpretation, according to Carroll, or whether inventing what is not patent in impartial texts is simply the stuff of historical writing.

For my money, I’m inclined to think that the Jewish War was indeed an influence on Mark (and I agree with most scholars I’ve read with a date of composition right around AD 70) but that the preponderance of Temple-sayings in the synoptics has as its root not the invention of conniving Jew-haters but the active memory of the community, which likely remembered a great body of Jesus-sayings but recorded, in those particular stories, remembered sayings that spoke to the historical moment.  The way I imagine it, such is not unlike the contest of remembered moments in American history when a sitting president decides to start a war: one side will inevitably warn against the hubris that took the American military into Vietnam, and others will no doubt cite the “appeasement” of Chamberlain in the face of Hitler’s aggression.  Such is not to say that these two moments are the only two in the history of the twentieth century, but they do exert a disproportionate weight on the ways we talk about ourselves when starting wars or not starting wars are the live options.

A Certain Kind of Modern Mind

So far, Carroll’s historical deconstructions and reconstructions are nothing new; I’ve communicated in my own reviews of Reza Aslan and Bart Ehrman my dissatisfaction with a version of Biblical history in which the executors of the apostolic tradition are at once brazen enough schemers to fabricate Jesus’s predictions of his own crucifixions yet not savvy enough to excise the bits in which Jesus says that the age will end while some standing in his presence are still alive.  (I’m inclined, with N.T. Wright, to think that he was referring to his own resurrection, not to the final consummation of things.)  One repeated move that does make this book particular (though not particularly satisfying) is Carroll’s saying, at several points, that the gospels point (against their own interests, if the conspiracy stories are right) to an inability rather than an unwillingness on Jesus’s part to be the Messiah that the Pharisees and the Zealots awaited.

Carroll insists not merely that Jesus’s sayings about the Temple were pointed at his present moment but that later writers must have invented them, decades after Jesus was dead, not because Jesus was not concerned with the Temple but because Jesus did not have the ability to “predict” the fall of the Temple (57).  I’ve read some accounts of Mark 13’s apocalyptic discourse that Jesus is speaking in political terms, warning his disciples that Jerusalem’s collusion with the Zealots will eventually lead to Jerusalem’s doom, but Carroll will not be satisfied with that.  For Carroll, Jesus could not have predicted,  because human beings cannot predict.  Likewise, when narrating the execution of John the Baptizer (yes, I know he’s John the Baptist in Matthew, but I prefer Mark’s formulation), Carroll narrates Jesus’s encounter with the disciples of John as a moment when Jesus himself realized that he was incapable of real displays of power: “If Jesus could have rescued John, he would have done it.  But he could not do it” (172).  Now once again, my own mind, not prone to conspiracy theories, wonders why the architects of the “high Christology” would have left that in there, but that’s not the point here.  More important is that, for Carroll, the project of making Jesus relevant to “the modern mind” (277–he does nod to the fact that what he calls “fundamentalist” religion is on the rise in the early twenty-first century but still proceeds, in some parts, as if there were only one way to be a “modern mind”) is to reassure the reader, more than once, that what we think we know as the immutable laws of nature in fact never have bent and never will bend.

The result, theologically, is that to follow Jesus is to realize, as an individual, that we have access to a divine consciousness, and that Jesus is a supreme exemplar of living in connection to divine reality, something that each of us, as individuals, should strive for (282).  We must take that which is best about Jesus–and Jesus’s followers, like Dorothy Day (252-256)–and learn to transcend human finitude not by arranging systems of propositions about Jesus but about approaching the divine, as ineffable as that might be, as Jesus did (267).  If to you, O reader, that sounds like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s address to Harvard Divinity students to you, then I’m not alone in thinking that Carroll has not so much carried the reader forward from 1945 as he has left the reader back in 1838.

That, ultimately, is what left me cold at the end of this book.  If indeed there are genuinely new ways to think about and to follow Jesus (I’m not optimistic), Carroll has not offered us readers any of those new ways, only rehashed American individualism, the sort of ideology that purports to overcome superstition but leaves us not with a better alternative but an inward-turned “belief in self.”  For my money, I’d just as soon follow Jesus along with the Body of Christ, with those grafted onto the tree of Israel.

What Is Liberal?: A Response from Donald Lazere

Nathan P. Gilmour

[Correction notice: When Donald sent me this response, he asked that I change “Kenneth Burke” to “Edmund Burke.”  I forgot to do so initially,  but I have done so as of 12/20/14.  I still think that Kenneth Burke is as good an example of a conservative-minded rhetorician as is Edmund Burke, but that’s another unfolding of the contested notion of “conservative.” NPG]

Last week, I published a review of Donald Lazere’s book Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias (Leftist Bias hereafter).  Because, in the text of more than one chapter, Lazere invites readers to share with him critiques and commentary on the book, I emailed him the night before the review went live to let him know that I wanted him to be aware of the review.  He and I have exchanged a few emails since then, and he has been involved in the post’s comments section.

Lazere requested of me that I post a response to the review here rather than as a comment, and I have opted to do so.  My reply to his letter will come afterwards.

Thank you, Nathan, for your generous review.

First, I was furious at Palgrave Macmillan for the outrageous price of the hardcover and not publishing a paperback, though they say one is forthcoming this year (some nudging of them from readers would help) If your readers write me at, I will be glad to send attachments of Word files of key chapters, e.g., Ch 4: “The Conservative Attack Machine: ‘Admit Nothing, Deny Everything, Launch Counterattack.’”

Bless your heart for centrally addressing the mind-boggling ambiguities of political labels, which is a central topic throughout my writing, most extensively in my textbook Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric, where I review the history of, and try to revive, the work of the International Society for General Semantics.

You chide me for painting with too broad a brush in cataloguing all the divergent meanings and varieties of conservatism as though they were “a massive entity.” No, my subject is the semantic equivocations of many conservatives themselves who shift ground, deliberately or not, among these different definitions and varieties, selecting the ones most advantageous to their arguments, suppressing those most disadvantageous. Consider charges against academic leftists that we discriminate against serious conservative thinkers at the level of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and Richard Weaver. I argue that this confuses things because our primary object of criticism is not such thinkers but the vulgar, or demagogic variety of conservatives on the level of Rush Limbaugh or Michelle Bachman. For me, I insist on teaching those like Burke, Kirk and Weaver (a great champion of General Semantics)—partly because they would be disgusted at the current Republican Party’s false pretense to conservatism. Weaver was a member of the Southern Agrarians, who were fiercely opposed to capitalism, which I define as the foremost force of conservatism in today’s world. In these ways, my book appeals for intellectual conservatives and leftists to make common cause against the vulgarity of capitalism, mass politics and culture, whether purportedly conservative or liberal. (There is hardly any vulgar left in America any more, since the demise of Communist party-liners in the forties and fifties.)

Now, Nathan, you make some very stimulating arguments about the ambiguities of capitalism in regard to the political left and right. One of my main points in this and my other works is that there should be some kind of national commission on political semantics that would insist that political opponents agree on the same definitions and aspects of terms like “left” and “right” in all their multiplicity and complexities, such as differences on political economy versus social issues. As you approach it, capitalism has liberal dimensions as well as conservative ones—sure, but that’s almost exclusively on social issues. You cite “Victoria’s Secret,” but does it serve any socioeconomic interest but the conservative one of commodification of self-identity to maximize corporate profits? I would just argue that capitalism’s and corporations’ conservative aspects ultimately outweigh the liberal ones, especially by the particular definition of them in political economy as the opposite of socialism and labor.

Of course, many of us are liberals or socialists on some issues, conservative on others. All I’m calling for is clarity about the precise sense in which these terms are being used at any given time.

And of course, there are relatively liberal (even socialist or marxist) as well as conservative churches, theologians, and believers. In a list of “What Leftists and Rightists Tend to Support” in my textbook, under “Religion,” I suggest a diversity on the left from atheism to ecumenism to liberation theology, while rightists tend to support “religious orthodoxy.” You’re welcome to improve on that dichotomy. (My list is available on request.)

Finally, a resounding “You said it!” to Nathan’s critique of “progressive” identity politics, which is the main target of another forthcoming book of mine, split off from the last one for reasons of length.

Please also see my earlier response to Charles H.

To be continued?



First, I thank Dr. Lazere for interacting with us here at the Christian Humanist.  His emails have been civil and all shared in the spirit of ongoing conversation, and I appreciate that.  Rather than respond point-by-point to his email, I’m going to write a bit about some of the big ideas therein and where my own interpretations of things differ.

I do want to articulate again why the term “conservative,” as this book uses it, is so troubling to me.  My own theological and philosophical backgrounds have made me quite suspicious of Capitalism precisely because it has such a power to co-opt other ideologies and render them incapable of a radical critique of Capitalism itself.  It’s not for nothing that Karl Marx, when he does write about the post-Capitalist revolution, tends to couch it in almost apocalyptic terms, sensing that any attempt to articulate such a vision runs the risk of giving the nascent advertising industry something else to sell to eager consumers.  For that reason, my sense is that Capitalism is going to appear “liberal” to conservatives and “conservative” to liberals precisely where its power of co-optation is at its height.  (As one wit put it, misquoting Lord Acton, “Power tends to co-opt, and absolute power co-opts absolutely.”)

I don’t think that such a caution is “mere” semantics but a means to explain why the same phenomenon–I’m going to go back to the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, and I understand that some of our readers are going to start suspecting my levels of morality and taste for doing so–can strike conservatives as an outplaying of “liberal” forces, elevating consumer choice over notions of received sexual morals and common cultural standards while appearing to leftists as “conservative,” pursuing only the “commodification of self-identity to maximize corporate profits” (Lazere, email, 10 December).  One interpretive impulse here might be to regard one story of the catalog as disclosing the truth and the other as a sort of cynical disclaiming of an objective ally, but my own sense is that both the liberal and the conservative are right, that the forces of consumer Capital are in fact both anti-liberal and anti-conservative.

I’m not sure that we agree on what makes for more clarity in language either.  I’ll admit here that I’ve not read Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy (though it is on my wish list now), but my sense, at certain points of Leftist Bias and in the email above, that Lazere would want to rule out as invalid more uses of “left” and “right” than I prefer.  I’m more inclined (and this is probably my nineties postmodern background showing) to prefer approaches that situate political language in explanatory narratives rather than saying that some are nonsense categorically.  As an example, I would want to say that, in an account of liberalism informed by Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, the advertising industry is liberal in character because, in his story, “liberal” indicates the triumph of the individual consumer’s will over against intelligible shared notions of highest goods.  On the other hand, when Donald Lazere writes about advertising, his concern is for the tendency of the industry to shift power relations away from the decision-making public and towards psychologically manipulative economic elites, making the whole project “conservative.”

Now I realize that such an approach sacrifices some degree of precision and certainly a good hunk of brevity.  But ultimately, I’m the sort of reader who likes having Eliphaz and Bildad on the page there with Job, and I wouldn’t ever want to have a Republic of Plato without Thrasymachus arguing for his Athenian version of the Will to Power against Socrates’s moral absolutism in book one.  (I write this, of course, knowing full well that later in the same dialogue, Socrates calls for educators to excise the bits of Homer that present bad ideas.  I maintain that Plato was smart enough and had enough of a sense of irony to know full well what he was doing there.)  Letting ideas play their contests out in the open empowers readers to choose among them, so although I agree with many of Lazere’s critiques of GOP propaganda techniques, I’d rather have a world with more Lazere-style criticisms than a world with fewer instances to critique.  Such an open contest is good for morals, despite the objections of the character Socrates but in full agreement with the dialogue called Republic.

With regards to orthodoxy and ecumenism, I’m not sure that “liberation theology” and “religious orthodoxy” line up neatly as antonyms.  I could cite a good number of instances in which self-appointed liberation theologians have been quite eager to tell those who disagree publicly to “check your privilege” or otherwise not to pipe up, but that’s for another conversation and another blog post.  For now I’ll just say that I’d be glad to see that list, and perhaps we can have a longer conversation about it via email.

That’s going to be the extent of my response now.  To Dr. Lazere I offer my thanks again for rolling along with this conversation, and to our readers I invite you to chime in on this conversation.  I’m a rhetorician by training, as is Dr. Lazere, and this sort of discourse is my bread and butter.

Christian Humanist Profiles 21: Making Sense of It All

Todd Pedlar


“To be utterly lost in the woods is unfortunate. To be absolutely unconcerned about it is unreasonable. Yet so many people who spend weeks mastering a new video game, months learning a tennis serve, or years perfecting a golf swing will not invest a few days, or even a matter of hours, in the effort to understand better some of the deeper questions about life. In Pascal’s day, there were some intelligent and otherwise well-informed people who seemed totally apathetic about ultimate issues. In our day, there are a great many.”

So begins chapter two of the 1992 book, Making Sense of it all: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, by Dr. Thomas V. Morris. It is our pleasure at Christian Humanist Profiles to welcome Dr. Morris to our program. Tom served for 15 years as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and is founder and currently the chairman of the Morris Institute for Human Values in Wilmington, North Carolina. He holds a BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Ph.D. from Yale University. He is the author of numerous books, including Philosophy and the Christian Faith, The Stoic Art of Living, and God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason, among many others.  Today, we will be speaking with Dr. Morris about his book on Pascal, and the issues he addresses therein.

A People Ruled by a King: A Review of Kingdom Conspiracy for Brazos Bloggers

Nathan P. Gilmour

Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church

By Scot McKnight

255 pp.  Brazos Press.  $21.99.

If the Kingdom is everything, the Kingdom is nothing.

That’s the thought that gets Kingdom Conspiracy going, and on the way to demonstrating the truth of the claim, Scot McKnight both examines Biblical texts (lots of Biblical texts!) for the contours of what “kingdom” means in the Old and New Testaments and some examination of academic and popular theology to arrive at a well-reasoned position on why reticence (on the parts of conservative evangelicals and liberals) to use “kingdom” and “church” synonymously might be ill-founded.

For the Evangelicals: A Different Story

McKnight’s approach to what he calls the “pleated pants” and the “skinny jeans” (1) uses of “kingdom” theologically are not identical because the core error of each approach is a different kind of misuse.  McKnight begins with the problem of grand narrative in the conservative evangelical (“pleated pants”) version before moving on to the Social Gospel/Liberation approach (“skinny jeans”).  (I will not be using the pants-related terms from this point forward.)

McKnight is among the theologians who, like myself, insist upon narrative as a core category for theology.  Using the same basic characters, a theology could tell the story of a world full of isolated individuals, each seeking escape from private guilt or the story of a chosen people, undergoing trials and restoration and even existential changes, and within either of those stories one could cite Bible verses.  McKnight’s plea to the conservative reader is to pay closer to “the story that Jesus himself and the apostles told” (22).  To that end, McKnight schematizes a common evangelical reading of the Bible as a CFRC reading:

  • Creation: YHWH makes Heaven and Earth, including human beings.
  • Fall: Human rebellion drives created order into a diminished and condemned state.
  • Redemption: Christ dies on the cross for our sins, and Christ rises again.  Human beings’ sins are forgiven.
  • Consummation: Christ will come again to bring salvation to its completion. (24)

Such a schema won’t strike too many as unfamiliar; after all, these four elements are the stuff of catechisms and sermons and praise songs in a hundred churches, and for many folks, such is simply the content of the Bible.  The problem, McKnight suggests is that such a schema ignores most of what happens between Genesis 3 and (in canonical order) Matthew 27.  Furthermore, this version of “kingdom” tends to focus so thoroughly on extra-historical realities (the afterlife and the end of the age) that there’s little room for “kingdom” to have any reality for those who still walk around in history’s current moment.

As a more robust alternative, one which encompasses CFRC but accounts for more of the Bible story, McKnight proposes ABA‘ (a thousand pardons to the typesetting purists, who will no doubt note that A prime should take a different symbol.)  The three elements of that schema are thus:

  • Plan A: YHWH rules over the faithful as king, sustaining and protecting and forgiving sins.
  • Plan B: Because Israel wants a king, YHWH allows as much, but the monarchy leads Israel into exile which persists even after the geographic return to the land.
  • Plan A prime: YHWH brings the monarchy to its fullness in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who radically redefines kingship and, while the people await the full arrival of the Kingdom, remains present in localized iterations of the Kingdom called Church. (28-35)

As mentioned before, the latter schema encompasses the former, but as McKnight relates things, the ABA‘ narrative, because its focus is not on atomized individuals but on Israel, the chosen people of God who become the focus of the Biblical witness in Genesis and remain so in Paul’s letters and the gospels.  In this model, salvation is inclusion into Israel, which is always more than the Old Testament imagines but never less than the Old Testament imagines.  Israel, like the Torah, is never abolished, being an eternal gift of God, but expands to encompass folks from all nations when Jesus of Nazareth brings to fullness the suffering mission of Israel.  Although McKnight doesn’t use this phrase, I read his strong emphasis on Israel as the core of the Biblical message as an affirmation of open and acknowledged mediation.  In other words, the Bible does not pretend (as do many “relationship not religion” sorts) that God comes to the individual human being without also bringing along Temple, Torah, sages, scribes, and a dozen other vehicles that generate as well as transmit meaning.

For the Liberals: A More Rigorous Vocabulary

McKnight spends more time countering liberals than conservatives, and his rationale appears in an appendix (which he labels as an alternative introduction to the book, for more academically-experienced readers).  Because so many young evangelicals have begun to use “kingdom” in ways influenced by (among others) Walter Rauschenbusch and Gustavo Gutierrez, McKnight argues, the separation between “church” and “kingdom” is one that many young evangelicals assume rather than examine, and his section on the history of “kingdom” as a concept is aimed not at stopping the young for doing good works alongside and in behalf of the poor but rather to re-situate those practices in a more Biblical theological framework (239-54).

Kingdom, as McKnight writes over and over, is “a people governed by a king” (69 et. al.).  McKnight produces texts from across the Old and New Testaments to demonstrate that the Bible seldom uses the term to mean anything but a complex entity including both the sovereign and the people currently being governed by that sovereign (73-74).  It’s one of around 100 metaphors for the people-whose-allegiance-is-with-God (75), and when the New Testament uses “kingdom,” it’s just as likely to refer to a current, present-tense reality as it is to refer to a to-come reality (86-87).  The implications are hard to dodge, and McKnight goes ahead and states the claim plainly: “there is no kingdom now outside the church” (87).

The claim is audacious and, after a lifetime of hearing the contrary, counter-intuitive, but the evidence, on the verse level and on the big-narrative level, is there, and McKnight does not shy away from the implications.  In fact, McKnight spends the second half of the book tracing out how Christians ought to imagine acts of benevolence, the relationships between democratic/representative political power and “kingdom work,” and other theological results if in fact the kingdom, in this time between the times, is coextensive with Church.  And much to my pleasure, the second half of his book reads like a commentary on Resident Aliens for a new generation.

Conceiving of ourselves as a polis, as an instantiation of the Kingdom on earth (but, as McKnight insists, not to be confused with the kingdom-to-come, which will do what Kingdom does, but perfectly), McKnight suggests a politics that always names Jesus as its sovereign.  Such a kingdom, in the moment and always awaiting what’s to come, insists upon witness and of hospitality, living as a community that welcomes the stranger, provides for those who need, forgives sins, and does everything that a good king in a good kingdom does, and all in the name of King Jesus.  Such does not make every act of benevolence “kingdom work,” McKnight suggests, but does oblige all who are saved to do such acts of goodness, not because God likes us more when we do so but because we’re free from the fears that keep other folks from so helping.

With regards to the more partisan sorts of “kingdom work,” McKnight suggests that Christians consider carefully the coercive nature of voting, an institution that claims to be the “will of the people” but often represents the worst impulses of the majority and imposes ways of life on the minority that fall far short of “do unto others.”  Whether Christians are trying to impose God’s vision of sexuality or God’s vision of economics on those who have not received God’s invitation, Kingdom Conspiracy suggests, that sort of “lording over” strategy is likely to do more damage to the name of God in the world than good.  McKnight’s vision is for the Church always to practice self-criticism first, in light of the big narratives of the Bible, so that we can present to a watching world a way of life that only makes sense under the rule of the true king.  The aim, in other words, is not to make the world the Kingdom but to be the Kingdom and to invite the world to join in on the fun.

Ultimately McKnight regards Liberation Theology as not much more than a reiteration of the GOP-evangelical axis, both tendencies sharing the assumption that the true site of salvation in the world is not an invitation to live in a parallel community that waits for the fullness of Israel’s promise but a will to impose a version of order on people who have no opportunity to receive or reject that invitation (207). Against that vision of how Christians are to relate to world, McKnight plumbs the Bible for a better notion of Kingdom and ultimately a renewed self-examination of why we do good for our neighbors.

It’s a powerful vision, a church-centered and a Christ-centered vision,and one that I’m going to recommend to a friend of mine who currently assigns Resident Aliens to his Christian Ethics class.

The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #153: A Christmas Story

Michial Farmer

Our fall 2014 semester concludes with Danny Anderson leading Michial Farmer and Nathan ACSCDSDTRKGilmour in a discussion of the 1983 holiday classic A Christmas Story.