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Cover of Solus Jesus - multi-colored cross behind the book title and sub-title

Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, A Review

Cover of Solus Jesus - multi-colored cross behind the book title and sub-titleA well-hosted dinner party is a work of diligence and artistry. Even leaving culinary gifts aside, strategy and insight go into cultivating the guest list, arranging seating, introducing new topics of conversation, drawing guests in and lifting up the commonalities and unique expertise around the table. By the end of the evening, all the guests feel well-fed, not just by the content of the meal but by the characters around the table.

In Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, authors Emily Swan and Ken Wilson invite the reader to a sumptuous 3-course feast around a table filled with friends both familiar and yet-to-be-made. First, let me introduce you to our hosts. Emily Swan and Ken Wilson co-pastor Blue Ocean congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their story of leaving the Vineyard (charismatic, evangelical denomination) congregation where they previously served (a church that Wilson himself planted) folds into the content of the book.

Swan’s approach is shaped, in part, by her experiences as a missionary in China, by her wide range of reading interests, particularly theological voices from the margins and by her own story of falling in love and coming out as a queer woman. Wilson’s contribution to the text is shaped by his interest in mystics and patristics, his own experience of bereavement in the loss of his wife and by his evolving conviction regarding the full-inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community within his native evangelical Christianity.

In this book, our hosts prepare a three-course meal. First is the premise from which the book derives its title: “It’s enough to say a living Jesus is the final authority in Christianity.” (15) Rather than the doctrine of “sola Scriptura,” what if the church were led — now and always — by Jesus as revealed in Scripture and experience, in other words: “solus Jesus?” To this end, the authors introduce readers to Jewish scholarship, early church and recent church history—especially some of the finest work within their own charismatic, Pentecostal tradition—to prove the validity of experience as a teacher. One wonders if Martin Luther himself might agree with the authors’ premise as he never intended Scripture to be interpreted outside the received and living tradition of the church.

The second, most filling, course offers up an opportunity to investigate more recent theological understandings of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Rather than penal substitutionary atonement, where the primary work of the cross is to satisfy the wrath of God in God’s own son, scapegoat theology teaches that to look to the cross is to see all those who have been cast aside, misunderstood and crucified by our world’s insatiable demand for defining who’s in and who’s out. In a uniquely Christian response to hate, understanding Rene Girard’s view of Christ as victim on the cross allows us to gain a new lens by which to value and to stand in solidarity with all those who are victimized in our world — and our churches — today and, in particular, those  LGBTQ+ members of the Christian family.

The third course is the richest option, in which our hosts ask us to act according to the theological convictions laid out in the previous two courses. Again, pulling from a wide range of sources, our hosts ask us to consider this question: “What if we could learn to step away from the magnetic pull of rivalry and learn to be with each other differently?” (321) In a startling last chapter, our hosts leave us to consider the implication of a “non-rivalrous Gospel” amid other world religions.

Throughout each course, our hosts draw out the other guests around the table: their own Pentecostal tradition, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Cone, Rene Girard, Jewish midrash, Tibetan Buddhism, Eastern Orthodoxy, inviting each to interact with the hosts’ and readers’ own stories of faith. In this way, the authors of the text model their own thesis—a wide welcome in solidarity with Christ who identifies himself on the cross with all those who have been excluded from invitation in the past.

If I could be afforded one quibble it would stem from my own Calvinist-Reformed theological conviction, of which the authors write, “It’s difficult to picture solus Jesus taking root in churches tied to sola Scriptura as their institutional narratives (the Calvinist-Reformed and Lutheran sectors, in particular.)”  (362) In fact, a notable exclusion from this book’s guest list is Karl Barth, the 20th century’s greatest Calvinist-Reformed thinker who wrote, precisely, in favor of the centrality of the Word-made-flesh rather than the word of holy writ.

This is why, in many Reformed congregations today, you will hear the reading of Scripture prefaced not by “Listen to the word of the Lord” but, rather, “Listen for the Word of the Lord.” Surely there is some collegiality between Barth and the authors of this text. I would have delighted to hear his voice afforded a greater hearing at the table.

It is probably safe to say that this book is not for straight-ticket theological voters. Each voice around the table deserves its own consideration and, whether you are coming from the hosts’ own evangelical charismatic background or not, you will have opportunity to re-evaluate your tradition’s certainties and to wonder about the wisdom just past the borders of your own theological construct.

I’m struck by both the patience and the impatience of this book — arguing their case with urgency but rarely brushing off those who disagree — struggling to make the circle wider in a way that does not attack but that comes alongside. In this way, it reminds me of another host at another table who invites us to come, to partake, to remember and to believe as part of a community that is not made by our own choosing.

So, Santa and John Calvin Walk into a Bar…

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Kinda looks like Santa, no?

It’s the time of year again, when we try to figure out what to do with Santa around here. And this year, I’ve reached some new clarity on the issue, with the help of Zora’s continually astute questions and a little assist from my dear John Calvin.

To review, we never really told Zora about Santa. She caught on when she got to preschool. Now in her third year of formal schooling, she asks if Santa is real. My stock answer is, “Well, what do you think?” (Good, huh? Feel free to steal that line. It’s definitely one of my finer parenting techniques.) I’m with my good friend Martha on this (well, truth be told I’m not quite as freaked out by the whole thing as she is, but I like her thoughts about gratitude.)

Around here, we do stockings. We also do shoes on the eve of St. Nicholas and give the kids one early toy (instead of a bunch of candy or crap they don’t need). We read the Demi book, The Legend of St. Nicholas. I recommended it to my friend John a couple years ago. And while he enjoyed it, he did point out that the stories about Nicholas from ancient Christian tradition are much much stranger and freakier than the creepy old guy who invades your house by chimney.

There are things, though, that bug me about the Santa tradition that I haven’t always been able to articulate.

But Zora, perceptive little being, helped me identify my  biggest issue with Santa this week. We were walking home from school and she was describing the class “trip” to Holland that day. (Her class is “travelling” to different countries to learn about holiday traditions this week.) Now, I don’t know exactly what was said in class, but, while there was no direct discussion of Zwarte Piet (aka Black Peter), there seems to have been some kid who brought up some version of the idea that someone travels with Sinterklaas and punishes the bad kids (curiously, it was also a different version than David Sedaris’s treatment of the subject in his hilarious description of Dutch holiday tradition).

So this gets Zora into discussing “the naughty list”.

And it hits me. I hate the naughty list. First off, it’s an empty threat. I mean what modern, with-it parent is going to actually act on the naughty list threat? This is basic parenting, folks. Don’t propose a consequence you have no intention of following through on.

But, I don’t believe in the naughty list.

Now, don’t get me wrong here: I don’t think kids should have “Santa” as their main model for how God is. But, at its best, the Santa tradition does embody something of the truth about God. Demi puts it well:

Throughout the world today, whether he goes by the name of St. Nicholas, Sinter Klaas, or Santa Claus, this figure who shows enormous generosity, a love of children, deep care for the poor and needy, and a completely selfless nature is considered to embody the spirit of Christmas and the true spirit of the Lord.

And I don’t completely agree with the argument that a kid whose parents lie about Santa will make the leap to an idea that the parents are lying about Jesus.

But, I do think that we get some of our image of what a benevolent higher power is like from the cultural version of Santa.

And I would prefer not to have a God who keeps a naughty list. We’re accountable, of course, for the awful stuff we do. But the naughty list comes without a hint of grace.

We don’t get gifts (or “graces”) because we’re good. We get gifts because we are loved.

These thoughts all coalesce in my brain in about a half block of walking. I have 2 blocks left before we get home. And I have to figure out how to explain it to Zora.

So, here’s what I say:

Me: “You know, Z, I don’t like the naughty list. I think that’s just something parents tell their kids to try to get them to be good.”

Zora: “So, is Santa real?”

Me: “What do you think?”

Zora: distracted by water in the gutter…water is a novelty here in California

Me: “And, here’s the thing: I think you should be good not to get on a list, or because you’ll get presents. You should do good things because you’re glad that there are people who love you.”

And that, friends, is Calvin’s Third Use of the Law (*see brief theological explanation below), right there, boiled down to first grade level (yes, it is more complicated than first grade level, but we have to start somewhere).

God doesn’t keep a naughty list that determines whether or not you are graced (gifted) with the presence of Jesus. God just loves you.

And being good isn’t about getting on the right list: you’re already on. You’re good because God loves you, and you’re thankful.

And that’s my biggest gripe about Santa. The naughty list. I can keep hedging a little on whether Santa is real or not, mostly for the sake of Zora’s classmates, because she doesn’t need to disillusion them quite yet. But there’s no way I’ll be propagating the myth of the naughty list. I just like the idea of grace way too much.

* Here’s an oversimplified tutorial just to get you up to speed theologically:

John Calvin, sixteenth century theologian who is one of my intellectual ancestors, had a way of thinking about the purpose of “the Law” (i.e. the stuff the Bible says we should or should not do) that has come to be called “Calvin’s Third Use of the Law”. Luther (who came before Calvin) said that the Law’s function was mainly two things: to remind us that we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing; and to keep us from doing even worse. Calvin added an additional use: it’s a guide for living thankfully because of what God has done for us. Different Protestant traditions used to fight about this a whole lot, but in my household (Presbyterian pastor married to a guy who was raised Lutheran; family currently attending the Lutheran church down the block) we mostly joke around about it. Because we are nerds about theology.