The Priest, the Dog, and the Silent God: Selections from Shūsaku Endō’s Silence

I watched Martin Scorsese’s take on Shūsaku Endō’s Silence a few weeks ago, and I immediately checked the book out from the library to read the source material. It’s as moving as the cinematic version. This was my first exposure to Endō. His is certainly an expressive style of writing–terse, action-oriented but deep in the narrator’s psyche, overwhelmingly religious (unsurprising, considering the narrator).

The following are a few selections from the book. I won’t waste many words contextualizing the scenes. They speak for themselves.

First, Rodrigues has been imprisoned but has come face to face again with his thorn in the flesh. Kichijirō, who helped ferry Rodrigues and Garrpe from Macao to Japan, had apostatized in the past, when the persecution broke out in earnest, only to return and to repent and then to apostatize again, betraying Rodrigues to the magistrate, who has imprisoned Rodrigues:

When the man looked toward the priest, their eyes met. It was Kichijirō. For a moment a spasm of fear cross that face and Kichijirō retreated backwards a few steps.

‘Father!’ His voice was like the whining of a dog. ‘Father! Listen to me!’

The priest withdrew his face from the window and tried to block his ears against the sound of that voice. How could he ever forget the dried fish, the burning thirst in his throat. Even if he tried to forgive the fellow, he could not drive from his memory the hatred and anger that lurked there.

‘Father! father!’ The entreating voice continued like that of a child pleading with its mother.

‘Won’t you listen to me, father! I’ve kept deceiving you. Since you rebuked me I began to hate you and all the Christians. Yes, it is true that I trod on the holy image. Mokichi and Ichizo were strong. I can’t be strong like them.’

… The priest closed his eyes and began to recite the Credo. He felt a sense of joy in being able to abandon this whimpering fellow in the rain. Even though Christ prayed, Judas hanged himself in the field of blood–and had Christ prayed for Judas? There was nothing about that in the Scriptures; and even if there was, he could not put himself into such a frame of mind as to be able to do likewise. In any case, to what extent could the fellow be trusted? He was looking for pardon; but this perhaps was no more than a passing moment of excitement.

… ‘Father, father!’ Seeing that the priest had come to the prison, Kichijirō was again pleading in the darkness. ‘Let me confess my sins and repent!’

The priest had no right to refuse the sacrament of penance to anyone. If a person asked for the sacrament, it was not for him to concede or refuse according to his own feelings. He raised his hand in blessing, uttered dutifully the prescribed prayer and put his ear close to the other. As the foul breath was wafted into his face, there in the darkness the vision of the yellow teeth and the crafty look floated before his eyes.

‘Listen to me, father,’ Kichijirō whimpered in a voice that the other Christians could hear. ‘I am an apostate, but if I had died ten years ago I might have gone to paradise as a good Christian, not despised as an apostate. Merely because I live in a time of persecution . . . I am sorry.’

‘But do you still believe?’, asked the priest, doing his best to put up with the foul stench of the other’s breath. ‘I will give you absolution, but I cannot trust you. I cannot understand why you have come here.’

Heaving a deep sigh and searching for words of explanation, Kichijirō shifted and shuffled. The stench of his filth and sweat was wafted toward the priest. Could it be possible that Christ loved and searched after this dirtiest of men? In evil there remained that strength and beauty of evil; but this Kichijirō was not even worthy to be called evil. He was thin and dirty like the tattered rags he wore. Suppressing his disgust, the priest recited the final words of absolution, and then, following the established custom, he whispered, ‘Go in peace.’ With all possible speed getting away from the stench of that mouth and that body, he returned to where the Christians were.

No, no. Our Lord had searched out the ragged and the dirty. Thus he reflected as he lay in bed. Among the people who appeared in the pages of the Scripture, those whom Christ had searched after in love were the woman of Capharnaum with the issue of blood, the woman taken in adultery whom men had wanted to stone–people with no attraction, no beauty. Anyone could be attracted by the beautiful and the charming. But could such attraction be called love? True love was to accept humanity when wasted like rags and tatters. Theoretically the priest knew all this; but still he could not forgive Kichijirō. Once again near his face came the face of Christ, wet with tears. When the gentle eyes looked straight into his, the priest was filled with shame.[1]

Second, in the immediate wake of Kichijirō again apostatizing and the martyrdom of a Christian prisoner. Rodrigues is stunned by the silent stillness of god after these events:

The white rays of the sun beat down dazzlingly on the open courtyard. Beneath its merciless rays there lay on the ground the black dye which was the blood from the body of the one-eyed man.

Just as before, the cicadas kept on singing their song, dry and hoarse. There was not a breath of wind. Just as before, a fly kept buzzing around the priest’s face. In the world outside there was no change. A man had died; but there was no change.

‘So it has come to this. . . .’ He shivered as he clutched the bars. ‘So it has come to this. . . .’

Yet his perplexity did not come from the event that had happened so suddenly. What he could not understand was the stillness of the courtyard, the voice of the cicadas, the whirling wings of the flies. A man had died. Yet the outside world went on as if nothing had happened. Could anything be more crazy? Was this martyrdom? Why are you silent? Here this one-eyed man has died–and for you. You ought to know. Why does this stillness continue? This noonday stillness. The sound of the flies–this crazy thing, this cruel business. And you avert your face as though indifferent. This . . . this I cannot bear.

Kyrie Eleison! Lord, have mercy! His trembling lips moved a while in prayer, but the words faded from his lips. Lord, do not abandon me anymore! Do not abandon me in this mysterious way. Is this prayer? For a long time I have believed that prayer is uttered to praise and glorify you; but when I speak to you it seems as though I only blaspheme. On the day of my death, too, will the world go relentlessly on its way, indifferent just as now? After I am murdered, will the cicadas sing and the flies whirl their wings inducing sleep? Do I want to be as heroic as that? And yet, am I looking for the true, hidden martyrdom or just for a glorious death? Is it that I want to be honored, to be prayed to, to be called a saint?

Third, Rodrigues has now found the apostate priest whom he went to Japan in search of. Ferreira convinces Rodrigues to commit the “formality” of apostasy, to step on the fumie, in order to show mercy and love to the suffering prisoners near them. On their way to the fumie,

‘You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed,’ said Ferreira, taking the priest gently by the shoulder.

Swaying as he walked, the priest dragged his feet along the corridor. Step by step he made his way forward, as if his legs were bound by heavy leaden chains–and Ferreira guided him along. In the gentle light of the morning, the corridor seemed endless; but there at the end stood the interpreter and two guards, looking just like three black dolls.

‘Sawano, is it over? Shall we get out the fumie?’ As he spoke the interpreter put on the ground the box he was carrying and, opening it, he took out a large wooden plaque.

‘Now you are going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed.’ Ferreira repeated his former words gently. ‘Your brethren in the Church will judge you as they have judged me. But there is something more important than the Church, more important than missionary work: what you are now about to do.’

The fumie is now at his feet.

A simple copper medal is fixed on to a grey plank of dirty wood on which the grains run like little waves. Before him is the ugly face of Christ, crowned with thorns and the thin, outstretched arms. Eyes dimmed and confused the priest silently looks down at the face which he now meets for the first time since coming to this country.

‘Ah,’ says Ferreira. ‘Courage!’

‘Lord, since long, long ago, innumerable times I have thought of your face. Especially since coming to this country have I done so tens of times. When I was in hiding in the mountains of Tomogi; when I crossed over in the little ship; when I wandered in the mountains; when I lay in prison at night . . . Whenever I prayed your face appeared before me; when I was alone I thought of your face imparting a blessing; when I was captured your face as it appeared when you carried your cross gave me life. This face is deeply ingrained in my soul–the most beautiful, the most precious thing in the world has been living in my heart. And now with this foot I am going to trample on it.’

The first rays of the dawn appear. The light shines on his long neck stretched out like a chicken and upon the bony shoulders. The priest grasps the fumie with both hands bringing it close to his eyes. He would like to press to his own face that face trampled on by so many feet. With saddened glance he stares intently at the man in the center of the fumie, worn down and hollow with the constant trampling. A tear is about to fall from his eye. ‘Ah,’ he says trembling, ‘the pain!’

‘It is only a formality. What do formalities matter?’ The interpreter urges him on excitedly. ‘Only go through with the exterior form of trampling.’

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.[3]

Finally, Rodrigues has been remanded to a house away from the people in Kobinatacho, to live as husband to a widowed woman. His thorn in the flesh appears yet again:

‘Father, I betrayed you. I trampled on the picture of Christ,’ said Kichijirō with tears. ‘In this world are the strong and the weak. The strong never yield to torture, and they go to Paradise; but what about those, like myself, who are born weak, those who, when tortured and ordered to trample on the sacred image . . .’

I, too, stood on the sacred image. For a moment this foot was on his face. It was on the face of the man who has been ever in my thoughts, on the face that was before me on the mountains, in my wanderings, in prison, on the best and most beautiful face that any man can ever know, on the face of him whom I have always longed to love. Even now that face is looking at me with eyes of pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet. ‘Trample!’ said those compassionate eyes. ‘Trample! Your foot suffers in plain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.’

‘Lord, I resented your silence.’

‘I was not silent. I suffered beside you.’

‘But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly. What happened to Judas?’

‘I did not say that. Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you now are.’

He had lowered his foot on to the plaque, sticky with dirt and blood. His five toes had pressed upon the face of one he loved. Yet he could not understand the tremendous onrush of joy that came over him at that moment.

‘There are neither the strong nor the weak. Can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?’ The priest spoke rapidly, facing the entrance. ‘Since in this country there is now no one else to hear your confession, I will do it. . . . Say the prayers after confession. . . . Go in peace!’[4]

Both book and film are unnerving experiences. There’s a lot to think about here.

[1] Endō, Shūsaku. Silence. Trans. William Johnston (New York: Picador Modern Classics, 1969), 122-4.

[2] Ibid, 127-8.

[3] Ibid, 182-3.

[4] Ibid, 202-3.


Babel to Babylon: Tracing a Theme

From beginning to end, an important substratum of the biblical narrative is the kingdom of god. There are hints of this theme as early as Genesis 1, in which god is said to give the sun and the moon “to rule” the day and night, respectively (1.16-18). This “ruling” feature is baked into the cosmos, and its highest creaturely instantiation is the man and the woman, both of whom are created imago dei (1.27) and are created to “fill,” “subdue,” and “have dominion” (1.28) over the rest of creation–functioning particularly as the imago in these roles.

Revelation,[1] concluding the canon, echoes much of what precedes it, but it even goes so far as to mark a perfect fulfillment of what was begun in Eden. Now, perfect communion between humanity and god will never be lost, the sun and the moon will lose their function because of the refulgence of god, and the tree of life will stand and be partaken of (Rev. 21.22-22.5). In other words, what was the intention from the foundation will be brought to fruition at the end. And we see a greater unveiling: what awaits at the end of time is the kingdom of god in its fullness.

What one sees as you read through Scripture, however, is not that the kingdom of god advances unassailed but rather that it progresses through the cosmos at the expense of an alternative kingdom. At the very beginning, before creation commences in earnest, “the earth was without form and void,” tohu va bohuTohu, used throughout the Hebrew Bible to designate an emptiness, frequently if not exclusively connotes a condemnable lack; it’s not a neutral emptiness but a growthless wilderness (e.g., Deut. 32.10). More so, tohu is used in Is. 34.11 to describe the just deserts of the nations that rage against Israel. “Emptiness” as that upon which god begins his kingdom, “emptiness” as that which the pagan nations have earned–tohu is the kingdom of darkness over against which the kingdom of god advances. The association between this emptiness and the contrary kingdoms of the world is strong enough to note here. It is further strengthened in Jeremiah 51, the oracle against Babylon, in which the prophet explicitly recalls Yahweh’s creative work in the beginning (vs. 15ff) as he prophesies concerning Babylon’s imminent destruction into a perpetual waste (v. 26). We’ll return to this.

In the beginning, we are privy to a succinct history of the beginning. At the end of this primeval history, after the deluge, the author makes note of the peoples descended from the sons of Noah (Gen. 10). Ham, Noah’s youngest and most-shamed son, fathered a laundry list of Israel’s enemies, including Egypt and all of Canaan’s children: the Jebusites, Hivites, Sodom, Gomorrah, etc.[2]

800px-pieter_bruegel_the_elder_-_the_tower_of_babel_28vienna29_-_google_art_project_-_editedSignificantly, however, one of Ham’s grandchildren, through Cush, is Nimrod, the mythic warrior, through whose loins came “Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh…” (10.10, 11). Nimrod fathers babel and, at the very least, draws ashur into greater strength by building Nineveh. In what is either incredible prophetic foretelling or incredible literary foreshadowing, the shamed son becomes responsible for the two greatest threats to the kingdom of god: Babylon and Assyria.

“Wait,” you say, “Babel isn’t Babylon.” We’ll come to this in a moment. For now, recall the story of Babel (Gen. 11); it concludes the primeval history of Genesis, with the very next piece of the narrative being Abram’s call. We could understand Genesis 1-11 as a paradigmatic history of the world in its aversion to god.[3] Whereas in Eden god had created the man and the woman to flourish within, spread across, and subdue the earth, at Babel men and women decided to congregate together “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4), and there built a ziggurat (Etemenanki, possibly) to challenge the god of heaven. Yahweh then “comes down” (v. 5) to Babel, apparently walking through the city as he did Eden, and “confuses” their language so that this kind of project could not again be attempted. Babel, then, functions as an antagonistic kingdom, one which contradicts the divine vision of expansion and fulfillment. Eden, created by god to expand past its initial boundaries and infuse all of creation with the divine presence and glory, is subverted by Babel with its desire to congregate and to “make a name” for itself.

babylon-fallenhdBabel is the primeval prototype of the anti-kingdom, the kingdom of darkness. This prototype finds a temporary realization in the literal kingdom of Babylon, however. Babylon is the existential threat to Israel. The people whom god chose for himself are crushed initially by the Assyrians (cp. Gen. 10.11, 2 Kings 15) and are nearly obliterated by the Babylonian horde a century or so later. The Babylonian invasion was the defining moment of Israel’s history for generations; Jeremiah 52 describes Babylon sacking Jerusalem and torching the Temple, thereby snuffing out the covenant, as it were. Whereas Babel closes out the primeval history, Babylon essentially closes out the kingdom history; from that point, Hebrew authors would write from exile.

The literary relationship between Babel and Babylon is quite strong. The exact same Hebrew term is used to speak of both kingdoms: בָּבֶל, babel. One reading the pertinent passages in the prophets will see babel, just as they would were they reading Genesis 10 and 11. It’s as though the ancient foe of god’s kingdom had been reinvigorated, finding new life by demonic power (Bel/Marduk, perhaps, cf. Jer. 51.44). And we have reason to believe that the reader ought to make this connection. The Babylonian empire has another name–the Chaldeans–and it is frequently referred to as such, but as often authors refer to them simply as babel. The explicit connection to the early anti-kingdom (rather than referring to them as “the Chaldeans”) draws the reader’s attention to the primeval history, to the paradigmatic antithesis, such that one should not confuse the Chaldeans as “just another empire” but as one which echoes the (end of the) beginning.

To further reinforce this relationship, note Babel’s location at the close of the primeval history, which itself is opened by the creative work of god. As Jeremiah conveys the oracle of god against Babylon, Israel is reminded again of god’s initial creative work in the beginning. In declaiming his own faithfulness to Israel, god “has sworn by himself” that Babylon will be overthrown (51.14). And in buttressing that oath, Yahweh points to the beginning: “It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. … Not like [worthless idols] is he who is the portion of Jacob, for he is the one who formed all things, and Israel is the tribe of his inheritance; the Lord of hosts is his name” (51.15, 19). Remembering their god’s initial work over against “formlessness” and “Babel” allows Israel to hope in their current predicament, in the face of destruction and Babylon. He promises: “I will repay Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea before your very eyes for all the evil that they have done in Zion, declares the Lord” (51.24). You can detect even a subtle hint in what follows of the anti-kingdom’s contradiction to the divine kingdom. Whereas god created all things in order that life would blossom, Babylon is called the “destroying mountain, declares the Lord, which destroys the whole earth” (51.25). The language of the early chapters of Genesis is borrowed again and again. More, Jeremiah 51 is alluded to extensively throughout Revelation, even insofar as the chapter references Genesis. We’ll look at this again shortly.

The people of Israel, taken captive by Babylon and living within Babel’s realm (under their political influence, within the reach of their gods), are then living shadows of the coming reality, wherein those belonging to the kingdom of Christ dwell as exiles (cf. 1 Peter 1.2 et al.) within a foreign kingdom. Exilic Israel even echoes Abram, who was called “from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you” (Gen. 12.1); he was drawn out of, coincidentally, “Ur of the Chaldeans” (11.28, 31). Chaldea and Babel and Babylon litter the pages of the Hebrew scriptures in unexpected places.

Such is, in any event, the thrust of the theme in the Old Testament. Babel, the primeval prototype, reëmerges in the contemporary foe, babel, Babylon. Were this the extent of the theme and there no continuation or intensification in the New Testament, it would be incredible enough. Amazingly, the Babel/Babylon thread is picked up again, particularly in the book of Revelation.

herrad_von_landsberg_whore_babylonIt’s far too easy to be distracted by the extravagant imagery of the Revelation, losing sight of the crux of the book; the culmination of history is the reinstitution, consummation, and perfection of what was lost in Eden: god dwelling with his people as their god, and the realm of god encompassing the universe. The climax of the Revelation is the triune godhead with the New Jerusalem descending to earth and the boundaries of this temple-city expanding to an unbelievable size. With that in mind, understanding that the New Jerusalem is the protagonist (or, the emblem of the protagonist), we do well to recall that the kingdom of god does not conquer a blank canvas. The antagonist (or its emblem) is “Babylon the Great” (Rev. 14.8), which kingdom the author associates with “the Beast” of Revelation (Rev. 14.8,9; cp. Rev. 16.10) and with the “prostitute” (Rev. 17.3, 18).

The reference in Revelation 17.18, in which “Babylon” is associated with “dominion over the kings of the earth,” makes those anabaptist strings in my heart hum. Regardless, it’s enlightening, because it indicates that the Babylon of Revelation cannot neatly be associated with a single kingdom or empire; it rather stands for some extraneous force, some spiritual power, which stands behind political maneuvering. This represents, to be sure, a significant expansion of the Babylonian idea in Scripture. Whereas it could be questioned from the prophetic literature whether Babylon was motivated by some demonic force (e.g., Jer. 51.44), the questioned is firmly resolved in the Revelation by virtue of Babylon’s association with the Beast (Rev. 14).

Recall again the association between babel and the creation epoch, acting as a bookend to that period, and between babel and the “creating god’s” judgment (Jer. 51.15ff). This theme is continued into Revelation. In Revelation 14.6-13, we read a number of angels or messengers of god proclaiming “an eternal gospel” (v. 6) to people on the earth, and this gospel begins, “Fear God and give him glory …, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (v. 7). The “creating god” has been referenced once again. Once again, on its heels is a reference to Babylon: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great,” a phrase which will be repeated in Revelation 18. Tying Babylon’s judgment to the creative judge from the beginning is a consistent feature of Babylon’s appearance in the text. It’s as though the only adequate persona for the judgement of this antagonist must be the one who has existed from the beginning. Whether that is because the invigorating force has existed from the beginning or that is because the danger’s so great is unclear. Regardless, the hope proffered to Israel in the Hebrew scripture and to the church in the New Testament is that the god who was there before there was is the selfsame god who will cast down Bel, Marduk, the Dragon, HaSatan.

The Revelation echoes the Isaian oracle (Is. 21.9), exulting twice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (14.7, 18.2) Revelation 18 has a lot of interesting facets, but I want to draw your attention to just a few for the time being.

First, Babylon is identified with “all nations” and “the kings of the earth” (v. 3), both of whom represent traditional modes of power: fielding an army, exercising authority, enforcing law, etc. However, Babylon is also associated with “the merchants of the earth,” who “have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living” (v. 3). This is significant, as it demonstrates an understanding of babel which is limited not to de jure empires but also to de facto mechanisms of control. Wealth exerts power, and Babylon has corrupted empire and conglomerate alike.

Second, borrowing from Jeremiah 51 (yet again), the author urges the audience to “come out of her, my people” (v. 4), which assumes they live within the reach of Babylon–just as exiled Israel and Judah did. Consistent with the Pauline conception of the dark kingdom’s present existence (cf. 2 Tim. 4.18, in which full salvation/healing-from still awaits), the audience of the Revelation are still under the rule and reign of Babylon, despite belonging to another kingdom. All the more troubling, considering how much more intensive is this expanded kingdom.

Finally, the end of this kingdom mirrors the prophesied end of Old Testament Babylon: utter devastation, ruin, a return to the wasteland (cp. Rev. 18.17, 19; Jer. 51.26, 29, 37, 55). At least two of the reasons for Babylon’s destruction is carried from Jeremiah 51 to Revelation 18: revenge or vindication “for the slain of Israel” (Jer. 51.49) and “the blood of prophets and of saints” (Rev. 18.24), as well recompense for all evil Babylon committed (cp. Jer. 51.49 and Rev. 18.6). The image of utter devastation (wasteland-ing, as it were) recalls Jeremiah 51 but also Genesis 1’s and Isaiah 34’s tohu. The Greek term of Revelation 18.17 and 19 translated “laid waste” comes from ερεμος, which in at least one place in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX) is used to render tohu (Deut. 34.11). Babylon’s wasteland will be overcome by the kingdom of god, rejiggered to be filled with fruit and the glory of god rather than death and godlessness.

The Scripture begins with god creating against a backdrop of formlessness and void, a wilderness. In the wilderness, he made form and structure, even cultivating an especial garden wherein god dwelt with the man and the woman. Although the original horticultural goal was put on hold, the ultimate aim for creation was always to expand the kingdom into the wilderness, creating life and form where there was only death and disarray. Babel and Babylon have been the principal instantiations of this wilderness throughout Scripture, whether they were invigorated by Bel, the Dragon, or the Satan. At the conclusion of this age, these enemies and their kingdom will be vanquished, and all that will remain is the perfection of the heavenly kingdom throughout the cosmos.

[1] Really, the book should either be referred to as “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” or, ideally, “The Unveiling of Jesus Christ.” Both are a bit unwieldy. And while I do prefer “the Unveiling,” there’s not a person reading this who would intuitively understand that reference. Maybe I’ll make a formal argument for translating apokalypsis “unveiling” rather than “revelation,” but that will wait for another day. In the meantime, prudence demands “revelation.”

Regardless, the longer titles of the books of Scripture are more helpful than the shorthand variants that the tradition of the church have brought. “The Gospel according to Matthew” reveals much more of the book’s purpose than “Matthew,” and “The Unveiling of Jesus Christ” is much, much more useful than “Revelation/s.” Nevertheless, prudence again wins this round.

[2] One thing that should be noted about Genesis 10 especially is the degree to which it reads as a kind of metaphorical history, in the sense that the sons listed are all names of locations and areas, which would become in later generations enemies of the people of Israel. It raises questions concerning not only the compositional history of the Pentateuch but also how one should read the text: are these intended to be the names of children, or are these to be understood more broadly as a kind of figurative history? I do not believe that either answer necessarily maligns an understanding of Scripture as god-breathed; it’s a matter of getting to a proper (i.e. defensible) read of the text. Only a naïve literalism eliminates from the outset the second reading. These ambiguities will not be addressed in this post. While I recognize that my list of possible future posts is adding up with every footnote, I must again push further consideration to another time.

[3] I will look more into this. The structure of Gen. 1-11 is curious, insofar as it is functionally distinct from the rest of Torah (“The Primeval History”) and insofar as it has a discernible arc from beginning to end (Eden to Babel).

Review: Made for Friendship (2018)

36746758Drew Hunter published Made for Friendship: the Relationships that Halve Our Sorrows and Double our Joys through Crossway in 2018. Hunter insists on “raising our esteem for friendship” (14), and he succeeds by enhancing our conception of it. Distinguishing his view from the normal usage of “friendship,” Hunter goes so far as to define salvation as friendship with god (23) and to exclaim that “friendship is the ultimate end of our existence and our highest source of happiness” (19). No small part of our lives, then.

Hunter does well establishing friendship as an essential feature of our world, noting that god had to fill a lack in the prelapsarian cosmos when he created the woman, because it was “not good” for the man to be alone (41). This was certainly the most interesting argument of the book, as far as I’m concerned–and one which I will pursue further in my own studies; it suggests something a bit strange about god’s creative process, which, if true, means we’ve ignored important parts of the creation narrative.

Another interesting facet of the book is Hunter’s appropriation of Vanhoozer’s argument (123) that the Trinity created all things in order to further perfect its already perfect communion; the entrance of men and women into the perichoretic friendship of the godhead does not detract from the essential perfection of the godhead but adds to it. Again, if this is the case, it suggests a few things about divine simplicity and the nature of god.

These somewhat abstract concerns aside, Hunter offers a variety of solid reasons for embracing friendship and seeking out opportunities to grow in our ability to befriend. (Hunter disavows friendliness as mere courtesy, a point well-taken.) Friendship enhances our own lives and the lives of those around us, and we do well to become better friends.

At its core, Made for Friendship is pastoral. Hunter wants his readers to become more like the people god created them to be, particularly insofar as their “friendship” with Jesus is concerned. At times, especially toward the end as Hunter explicitly addresses friendship with god, the book felt trite. This is a shame, because to be called a “friend of god” is a high honor (Is. 41.8) and marks a kind of restoration of the Edenic communion (cf. Gen. 3.8, in its anticipation of the forthcoming break in fellowship).

Nevertheless, Made for Friendship succeeds where Hunter seeks to promote friendship as the particularization of that broad idea of “community.” He offers winsome and practical exhortations for those that desire to increase their aptitude for friendship. In that respect, Made for Friendship is worth the read.

I received a complimentary edition of this work from Crossway in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Practicing the King’s Economy (2018)

075740Rhodes and Holt penned Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give in 2018 through Baker Books. It’s a delight. (And I’m not just saying that because Rhodes ministers in the Memphis community!) The two authors make extensive use of the Old Testament as a well from which one can draw socio-ethical norms rather than merely as a place from which one learns one’s depravity in the face of god. In addition to their deft use of Torah and Nevi’im, the authors intersperse real-life examples of their principles in action and continually push the reader to make use of what they learn in the book. Practicing the King’s Economy would be a valuable contribution to the library of any church that is seeking to use their resources in a Christ-honoring manner.

The book moves through six principles or “keys,” each of which are likely to set off a series of alarms in certain readers’ minds. The authors begin with the Worship Key, the Community Key, and the Work Key, and they close with the Equity Key, the Creation Care Key, and the Rest Key. Before anyone assumes that this is just a bunch of lefty propaganda masquerading as biblical exegesis, one would do well to read the book for themselves. The authors firmly plant their feet in the biblical narrative and “draw out” their application from a solid read of the biblical text and of the contemporary culture.

They do not speak in generalities. Further, their forthright application of the text may cause some readers’ hackles to rise. Perhaps its indicative of somebody’s own unwillingness to take the Old Testament seriously as a normative text. Yahweh the King makes radical demands of those who would claim to belong to the kingdom; and yet, at the same time, the yoke is easy, the burden is light, and “it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut. 30.14).

It is precisely at the point where the biblical command and prohibition appears to us as unreasonable, foolish even, that god is addressing us as ones brought into this kingdom from without. The unnatural strangeness of this kingdom over time becomes typical; the abnormal becomes normal–though not necessarily. It frequently grates against the kingdom out of which we were brought. And like a car that grinds its way to starting, we often find ourselves through kicks and spurts believing what is said of reality over against this anti-real world in which we abide. The hippie-lite, liberal-leaning ethos of Practicing the Kingdom and similar works will, I believe, be vindicated as a degree of faithful Christian ethics in late capitalism, naysayers notwithstanding.

Practicing the Kingdom forces us to reconcile the socio-ethical vision of god’s kingdom in the scriptures with the inherited kingdom of our world. One or the other will succeed in our hearts. Holt and Rhodes give a compelling case for the former.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

The Polarity of Freedom and Destiny

I’ve noted before the appeal of existential philosophy on the basis of the seriousness with which it treats human decision. Our decisions and our choices are really our decisions and our choices. There is no externality, to which we can point, that can absolve us. We have chosen to act in one manner or the other, and we must own the consequences of that decision. De Beauvoir rightly points out that this predicament is exacerbated–not mitigated–if we were to assume the “death of god.” In such a scenario, we are radically “abandoned” to our own lives; “if God does not exist, man’s faults are inexpiable.”

Of course, this existential position tends to undercut another tradition within which I grew up. I was raised in a Christian tradition which was, while not explicitly Calvinistic, certainly assumed prominent features of Calvinist theology, particularly the hypotheses of god’s foreknowledge and active predestination. These assumptions were more so drawn out as I transitioned to high school and college, as one would expect, and they were reinforced by the upsurge of the “young, restless, and reformed” movement, which was marked by a new fascination with Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards on the basis of recommendations from people like Piper, Driscoll, and Chandler.

These two different threads ran together in my atmosphere and collided toward the end of my collegiate career, leaving me a bit confused. I wanted to hold on to our radical responsibility (a radical responsibility now, in some measure, mitigated) while at the same time maintaining a quote-unquote orthodox Calvinism. You don’t try to balance antinomies for long before one of them gives.

Tillich was likely the first serious attempt I came across to incorporate the existential structures of our being into a Christian conception of the world. Although I had read some Kierkegaard and some Dostoevsky, neither of these were afforded the privilege of writing downstream from existential philosophy; they were forebears.  Tillich, on the other hand, arose in the height of the existential movement and was thus able to incorporate its insights into “Dasein”.

In his Systematic Theology, Tillich described the human condition as one consisting of a number of “polarities,” features of “being” which pull us in opposite directions, as it were–a nod to the basic dialectical structure of reality. These polarities are understood as contrasting pairs of forces:  subjectivity vs. objectivity, form vs. dynamics, and freedom vs. destiny.

The polarity of freedom and destiny speaks most directly to the entanglement of existential philosophy and a robust conception of god’s will. If god wills that history unfold in a certain manner, how can the means through which this was accomplished be held ethically responsible? People amount to puppets. On the other hand, if we are radically responsible for our actions, there is no recourse, no external force upon which we can shift the blame of our actions; there can have been no god who forced our hand.

For Tillich, what is basic to humanity is living under the structures of the polarities he mentioned, including the polarity of freedom and destiny. That is to say, to be human is to live by means of freedom mitigated by destiny and to live by means of destiny mitigated by freedom. Humans are a kind of in-between creature–with a true subjectivity but still objectified, lacking the perfection of freedom that belongs to god himself but not utterly destined like a mere thing:

Our destiny is that out of which our decisions arise; it is the indefinitely broad basis of our centered selfhood; it is the concreteness of our being which makes all our decisions our decisions. When I make a decision, it is the concrete totality of everything that constitutes my being which decides, not an epistemological subject. This refers to body structure, psychic strivings, spiritual character. It includes the communities to which I belong, the past unremembered and remembered, the environment which has shaped me, the world which has made an impact on me. It refers to all my former decisions. Destiny is not a strange power which determines what shall happen to me. It is myself as given, formed by nature, history, and myself. My destiny is the basis of my freedom; my freedom participates in shaping my destiny.

Only he who has freedom has a destiny. Things have no destiny because they have no freedom. God has no destiny because he is freedom. The word ‘destiny’ points to something which is going to happen to someone; it has an eschatological connotation. This makes it qualified to stand in polarity with freedom. It points not to the opposite of freedom but rather to its conditions and limits. Fatum (‘that which is foreseen’) or Schicksal (‘that which is sent’), and their English correlate ‘fate,’ designate a simple contradiction to freedom rather than a polar correlation, and therefore they hardly can be used in connection with the ontological polarity under discussion. But even the deterministic use of these words usually leaves a place for freedom; one has the possibility of accepting his fate or of revolting against it. Strictly speaking, this means that only he who has this alternative has a fate. And to have this alternative means to be free.

Since freedom and destiny constitute an ontological polarity, everything that participates in being must participate in this polarity. But man, who has a complete self and a world, is the only being who is free in the sense of deliberation, decision, and responsibility. Therefore, freedom and destiny can be applied to subhuman nature only by way of analogy; this parallels the situation with respect to the basic ontological structure and the other ontological polarities.[1]

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but I’ll save some of those thoughts for a later date. I keep returning and returning to Tillich. We’ll get back to these themes eventually.

[1] Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), 184-5.

Review: Textual Silence (2017)

9780813589916Jessica Lang offers us an interesting phenomenology of reading and writing, specifically in reference to works related to the Holocaust, in her work Textual Silence: Unreadability and the Holocaust (Rutgers University Press, 2017). I’ve been attempting to get a handle on what actually occurs when we read and when we write–how is it that we assimilate a book, a movie, a poem into our lives, despite the obvious separation between an author and her work or between an audience and the same? Although Lang specifically targets the body of material pertaining to the Holocaust, she touches on significant features of reading, writing, and experience as such.

The Holocaust is the indescribable experience par excellence. It is in this sense different from other significant events in history; the depth of suffering and the ruthlessness of industrial slaughter are both difficult to stomach, much less distill into another medium. The nature of the Holocaust does not permit the reader to understand fully what transpired; this derives, more basically, from the fact that the author is able neither to transcribe fully the events. Unwritability engenders unreadability. The reader attempts to jump back into the event through the author’s words, just as the author attempts to jump back into the event itself; however, the air gap between reader, author, and event prevents, or frustrates, this move.

Lang moves through three “generations” of Holocaust literature–those who experienced it as cognizant sufferers, those who can’t remember living through or are only related to somebody who did, and those who don’t have a substantial connection to the event–and each generation grapples with the unreadability of the Holocaust in a largely unique manner. Whether by relegating it to the backdrop of a novel about “other things” (3rd generation) or by struggling to understand it as one who walked through the camps (1st generation), Holocaust authors recognize the inherent unsuitability of words and grammar to convey the event. The logos-conflict rises most closely to the surface of works in the immediate wake of the Holocaust, but it’s omnipresent as far as the genre is concerned.

An important consideration is whether the Holocaust is wholly unique in its unwritable and unreadable quality, or whether this aspect belongs to our experience of the world as such. It seems clear, as far as I’m concerned, that the Holocaust stands on one end of a spectrum of unknowability but is not itself the only member of this spectrum; it’s extreme in kind but not in type. The Holocaust, by virtue of its extremity, is particularly unknowable, but human experience in general is not reducible to language. We are more than words can express. The Holocaust is not as such unknowable; inherent limitations of language and inherent aspects of human experience are mutually inexchangable. The gravity and particular absurdities of the Holocaust make intelligently expressing it more difficult, but difficulty as such is already baked into the project of expression.

By focusing her energy on the Holocaust, Lang clarifies features common to the relationship of expression to existence because the Holocaust so clearly demonstrates the inadequacies of language to facilitate wholly an understanding of experience. We can have faithful representations insofar as language is stretched to accomplish the task, but the inherent limitations of language begin to shine more brightly the closer one comes to entirely inexplicable moments or persons. This same difficulty is what gives legs to the apophatic movement in theology–although apophaticism (at least, in its naïve manifestations) fails to recognize the responsibility to use those tools at our disposal to speak positively of god. In like manner, we are responsible to speak and to write and to read faithfully of an event described, knowing that the unobstructed and the objective, all-seeing perspective are unattainable.

Textual Silence helps propel the conversation forward on this problem of reading and writing, albeit through the particular lens of Holocaust literature.

The Scylla and Charybdis of Bourgeois Theology: Charting a Course

Intelligence Squared: US is a debate-style podcast that centers around one motion under investigation. Typically, IQ2US (their preferred shorthand referent) doesn’t put out content that’s particularly interesting. There are a lot of episodes on economics and global politics which, while important, are boring as far as I’m concerned.

A few weeks ago, however, I finally listened to the debate surrounding the motion “The More We Evolve, the Less We Need God.” Two pairs debated each other, one side arguing for the motion and the other against. In favor of the motion were neuroscientist Heather Berlin and “public intellectual” Michael Shermer. Against the motion were Deepak Chopra, well-known in part because of his spiritual relationship to Oprah, and physician Anoop Kumar.

This debate was an enlightening exchange for a number of reasons, but the reason I want to key in on relies not so much on the minutiae of argumentation but on the general spheres that the two sides represent. IQ2US will typically put a question to task and assign respondents who, in large measure, represent widely held beliefs in respect to the motion under review. That is to say, you can rely on IQ2US to put people on stage to represent the majority-held “horns” of the argument; rare is the radical. Of course, the accepted field of debate for IQ2US’s audience will be different than for the general American audience, but we will look at that more in a moment.

Their tendency to use mainstream spokespersons is what made this particular debate so interesting. On the one side, you have a pair of strict materialists. The neuroscientist and the skeptic both argue that there can be no god–and no use thereof–because there is no immateriality. Consciousness, even–that intending-toward which demarcates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom–is the result of the bio-neurological processes of the brain. One will eventually explain all things through the rigorous analyses of the sciences, and to revert to god-talk is merely to make use of a “god of the gaps,” an unacceptable acquiescence to ignorance. All fairly mundane, as far as scientism is concerned, and representative of a growing cultural trend.

On the other side, you had Deepak Chopra, famous “new age”[1] doctor and occasional dabbler in metaphysics. (Kumar’s contributions to the structure of the debate were relatively minor, and they can safely be subsumed under Chopra’s larger project.) Chopra defines from the beginning what is meant by the word “god” when he and Kumar speak of god. “God” is “the consciousness in which all experience occurs.” Consciousness/god is the potentiality and actuality of every and all experience. There is no external being who stands beyond experience; “god” is, to abuse Tillichian terms, “the ground of experience.” There can only be god qua consciousness, potential and actual. Succinctly:  “God is our highest instinct to know ourselves.” Through consciousness and through it alone, we know ourselves.

Now, to explain the title. There’s a point in The Odyssey wherein Odysseus must make a choice:  be willing give up six men to death or risk losing his entire ship. He’s to pass through the Strait of Messina, and on one side is the six-headed monster Scylla, who will snatch six sailors at will–and if you tarry, she’ll snatch six more. On the other side of the strait, a sea monster named Charybdis would appear three times a day, destroying everything within her reach at these points. There would be no escape were you to be caught in Charybdis’s terror. Odysseus chooses the guaranteed loss of six versus the potential loss of his ship and crew in toto.

Along the lines of our phrase “between a rock and a hard place” or “on the horns of a dilemma,” the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” has come to represent choosing the less-worse of two awful options. Treading a middle ground would not do; you’re as likely to wreck on both accounts simultaneously than to avoid either. As far as IQ2US is concerned, the horns of this dilemma (what is god, and what is its use?) are simple:  god is either a wholly irrelevant myth or merely the sum total of all consciousness.

With reference to Christian orthodoxy, neither one of these options are appealing. Fortunately, I would wager that the popular understandings of god have not yet devolved there. The ideas articulated by Chopra and Berlin are still too radical for most. Elements of strict materialism or vacuous new age mysticism may be incorporated into popular thought, but they won’t be assimilated wholesale for some time.

Nevertheless, history seems to demonstrate that the ideas fermented in the upper echelons of culture tend to trickle down. For the moment, Berlin and Chopra’s projects are limited broadly to the bourgeois strata of our society:  well-educated, self-satisfied, little experience with material poverty. Such an environment breeds a view of god which strips the divine either of substance or of existence. Who needs a god in the comforts of wealth? The American upper classes have determined either that god does not exist or that god’s existence derives solely from our experience of consciousness; making your way through the middle of the strait merely invites an attack from both sides.

These are the Scylla and Charybdis of bourgeois theology. These are the relative positions of debate. Because this is the case, we need to consider developing an articulation of theology that broaches one or the other construction in order to speak intelligibly to the culture. It’s no secret that the nation’s Christian heritage[2] is withering, which means that the cultural cache of Christian thought can no longer be relied on to create common ground. To borrow again from Tillich, we must develop an apologetic theology that takes seriously the location and direction of our culture’s theology.

In hopes of not stretching the metaphor too far, we should wonder which bourgeois position corresponds to the Scylla and which to the Charybdis. That is to say, which threatens the destruction of Christian doctrine wholesale, and which merely threatens certain aspects? It may be the case that both positions are so threatening that we have no other choice but to remain aloof, in a certain sense, to the dangers that loom on either side. However, that would have to be a last-case scenario, having exhausted all other options. Such a posture bespeaks the fundamentalist impulse of any theology worth considering; it’s Balin’s Tomb.

Grant that we have an obligation to consider one side or the other. Which side risks a total loss? Which risks less? For my money, I’m far more wary of Chopra than Berlin. As much as Dawkins- and Harris-inspired ideologues drive me insane (which is what Shermer seems to represent), Chopra’s project would do far more lasting damage to future attempts at theologizing and evangelism. By Chopra’s radical redefinition of god as the ground of experience, he maintains a spiritual flair to “god” while at the same time utterly stripping “god” of anything transcendent. I have found myself closer to Berlin in certain respects,[3] and I’m fairly certain that we can articulate a post-materialist theology more easily than a post-rudderless-mysticism theology. We can’t forget, however, that whichever route we choose will be fraught with hazards. Obviously, neither position are ideal carriers of Christian theology, but I do not believe that we are at the point where we must revert (a la Dreher) to strictly Christian communities and raise the drawbridge. Because these positions are still largely restricted to the higher classes, the church has some time to prepare adequate responses for whatever form materialism and new age mysticism may take in popular culture.

[1] Whenever you read “new age,” whether here or elsewhere, you can substitute “bastardized concepts of Buddhism and Hinduism in a Western context,” and you won’t be far off.

[2] Don’t read more into the phrase than intended. The predominant religious and cultural influence in this nation has been some version of Christianity, and only an ideologue would bother denying this. This historical foundation has been eroding for generations, and the erosion has accelerated of late. That is our “new normal,” and it is not necessarily good or bad.

[3] This proximity is most clearly seen in this piece on Aaron Hernandez.