Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Public Domain, Wikipedia

Star Wars & Theology: Part 1: The Epiphany of a Great Adventure

On Wednesday, Star Wars: The Force Awakens achieved an historic feat at the box office. After just 20 days of its release date, The Force Awakens surpassed Avatar to become the highest grossing film in North America.

I helped the Force by seeing it three times. I love Star Wars. Even the prequels.

Coincidentally, or maybe as the Force would have it, Wednesday was also the first day of the Christian season called Epiphany, which means a “manifestation,” or “appearance.” There are important connections between Star Wars and Epiphany, beyond the coincidence of Wednesday’s events.

George Lucas stated in an interview with Bill Moyers that his vision for Star Wars was to inspire belief in God,

I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people – more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery.

As a former youth pastor, I can appreciate Lucas’ emphasis on young people. Of course, part of the enduring aspect of the Star Wars saga is that it speaks to people of all ages. The great mystery is a force that is bigger than ourselves, yet includes ourselves in it. As Obi Wan Kenobi explained to Luke, the Force “is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

Whenever a Jedi attempts to explain the Force, they don’t say very much. There’s great wisdom in using few words to describe the Force and Christianity could use some direction here. The Force isn’t primarily known through a theory. Rather, the Force is known by participating in a story that is bigger than ourselves. The same is true about God.

From a Christian point of view, it’s not that theories about God are bad. In their proper place, theories can lead us into the beauty of God. But theories can lead us to the dark side when *we* claim to have the right theory, which means *they* must have the wrong theory. When that happens, we lose sight of the adventure that is bigger than ourselves. The world gets smaller and smaller as we become consumed with being right, which means making sure that others know they are wrong.

Fortunately, the adventure that Epiphany calls us into is much bigger than a theory. It’s a mystery that leads us into divine life of God. Epiphany begins with the story of the Magi. The Magi were Gentiles who didn’t really have a theory about God, certainly not one that Christians would call “orthodox.” But they did have a premonition that a mysterious star would lead them on an adventure to a child who was born king of the Jews.

The Magi left their homes “from the East” to Jerusalem, which was controlled by the Roman Empire. My New Interpreter’s Study Bible states that the Magi likely came from Parthia, which was Rome’s enemy. The Magi were sent on an adventure into enemy territory by a force bigger than themselves. And their adventure involved great risk, as it put them in contact with King Herod, who was well known for killing anyone he thought was a threat to his crown. Herod was consumed by fear, which as Yoda tells us, “is the path to the dark side.” Because of his inability to manage his fear in a healthy way, he killed many people, including his wife and his children.

When we are consumed with fear, like Herod, we easily forget the bigger mystery in our lives. The Magi provide a different model. They likely had much to fear on their night journey through the dangers of the desert, but they weren’t caught up in their fear. Rather, they were caught up into an adventure that was bigger than anything they could fear.

The adventure led the Magi to a child who was the Chosen One. Alternatively in Star Wars, the Chosen One was Anakin Skywalker, who was chosen to bring balance to the Force. This may be controversial to some, but that’s exactly what he did. The Force is a mixture of light and dark, a balance of good and evil. As Han Solo explains in The Force Awakens, “The Force is a magical power, holding good and evil together, the light and the dark.” Before Anakin, the Force was completely out of balance. Good and evil, light and dark, weren’t held together in balance. The Jedi, the light, dominated the Force. The darkness of Star Wars is the fact that by killing the Jedi, Anakin did bring balance back to the Force.*

But the Chosen One in the Christian story didn’t bring balance to the Force that undergirds our world. Rather, Jesus brought something much more radical than a balance between good and evil. Christianity doesn’t call the mystery of our world “the Force.” It calls that mystery Love. “God is love,” states the letter First John. The love of God is the mystery that holds the universe together. As the apostle Paul claimed, it is in God that “we live and move and have our being.” The Magi found a symbol of that love in a star – a light that shines in the darkness of our world that led them on an adventure to Jesus. And that love was embodied by a seemingly insignificant child, born to seemingly insignificant parents.

The great mystery of Christianity leads us on a great adventure that is bigger than ourselves, bigger than our theories, bigger than our fears, and bigger than our need to be right. It leads us to the One who reveals that God is love. But Jesus taught his followers even more about God. The author of 1 John would also state that, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”

The darkness belongs to us. Violence belongs to humans. Not to God and not to the Force. We can no longer project our dark violence upon God. That means we must take responsibility for our own darkness. Fortunately, Luke Skywalker and Jesus Christ are perfect examples of how to do just that. We will explore that aspect of Star Wars and theology in the next part of this series.


*Of course, this is an interpretation. Many argue that Anakin actually brought balance to the Force by killing Emperor Darth Sidious. If Anakin’s mission was to bring the balance of good and evil to the Force, then both interpretations may be correct. We’ll explore that in a future part of this series.

**Image: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Public Domain, Wikipedia

***For more on Epiphany, see:
Let Us Know You Are Wheaton By Your Love, by Lindsey Paris-Lopez
Peace on Earth: Maria Montessori, the Wise Men, and King Herod, by Suzanne Ross
The RavenCast Ep 10: Epiphany, Fear, and the Journey to God, by Lindsey Paris-Lopez and Adam Ericksen

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ravencast 1 image final

Talk To Me Tuesday: The RavenCast: Episode 1 – Mimetic Theory, Cancer, and Jesus

Show Notes

Welcome to Talk To Me Tuesdays: The RavenCast. Each Tuesday we plan to post a video and mp3 discussing mimetic theory. Sometimes these videos will be an individual discussing mimetic theory and sometimes we will have interviews with people engaging mimetic theory.

In this video, Adam Ericksen introduces the RavenCast and mimetic theory by telling the story of his mother as a model of faith. Through her experience with cancer, she taught Adam how to live. When death is so close, we begin to discover what really matters in life. Our cultural models often tell us the things that matter are success, wealth, buying bigger house or more expensive car. Those are the ways we become good enough and lovable. But confronting death can teach us that what really matters is not our wealth, or even being good enough. What matters is receiving the love of God and sharing it with others. Adam’s mom ultimately learned that from Jesus, her model. And she passed that lesson to Adam.

bible 1

The Bible’s Authority in Its Proper Place

Since my family recently moved to the Portland area, we’ve been looking for churches to attend. Besides visiting a church, the best way to gain a feel for a church is to visit their website. Specifically, their About Us page.

Since examining church websites, I’ve noticed some pretty strange beliefs out there. Many churches have a list of beliefs that are important to them. What is the first belief on many church websites? The Bible.

On one church begins its list of beliefs like this:

  1. The Authority of Scripture
  2. The Nature of God
  3. Jesus, God’s Son
  4. The Holy Spirit
  5. Salvation
  6. Nature of Man (Sorry, women. You apparently don’t have nature … but if you read the description, you might decide that’s a good thing.)
  7. The Role of the Church

Now, those are all important aspects of Christianity, and I don’t mean to pick on fellow Christians, but the order tells us what’s wrong with American Christianity.

We have elevated the Bible above God. It’s time we stop that form of idolatry. Bibliolatry has no place in Christianity. But, unfortunately, the Bible has become another god, above the Trinity, above Jesus, above the Holy Spirit.

I appreciate the passion that many “Bible believing” churches have. That passion is a good thing, but it’s misdirected. Christians shouldn’t “believe” in the Bible. We are not Biblians. We are Christians.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Bible. It’s an important book and has authority in my life in that it points beyond itself to God. But the Bible is not a member of the Trinity. It deserves to be respected, but it shouldn’t be elevated above God.

“Bible believing churches” tend to think that “the Bible is the very Word of God – supernaturally inspired in every word and absolutely free from error in the original documents. God’s word is the final authority in all that it says. Therefore, it must be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.”

But the Bible doesn’t work that way. It contains within itself many disagreements about the nature of God and how events unfolded. For example, did Noah take two of every animal onboard his ship, as Genesis 6 claims, or did he take seven of every animal, as Genesis 7 claims? Does God require sacrifice, as Leviticus suggests, or does God require mercy and not sacrifice, as the prophet Hosea claims? Does God punish children for their parents’ mistakes, as Exodus claims, or is each generation responsible for itself, as the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah state? Did Jesus overturn the tables in the Temple at the end of his ministry, as the synoptic Gospels claim, or did he do it at the beginning of his ministry, as the Gospel of John claims?

Those who believe in the Bible’s inerrancy will do all kinds of interpretive gymnastics to put the round peg of the Bible into the square hole of inerrancy, but it just doesn’t fit. That’s because it’s not meant to fit.

The Bible is a document written by human beings who tried to recognize what God was doing in their lives. But it’s not inerrant. Interestingly, if the Bible were inerrant you would think it would tell us. It simply doesn’t use those terms. The Bible never says, “Hi! I’m the Bible. I’m the inerrant Word of God. Believe in me!”

There are disagreements that run throughout the Bible. Those disagreements are one of the things that I love about the Bible! The Bible models for us how to wrestle with God and ask questions about faith.

The Bible contains human testimony about how God works in the world, but it is not God’s inerrant Word. The Bible points beyond itself to God, and in the New Testament, to the God revealed in Jesus. The Bible even claims that Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible itself.

Jesus warned people about elevating the Bible above himself. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Jesus claimed that the scriptures are limited. You cannot have eternal life by believing in the Bible. In fact, when we elevate the Bible above God, it blocks us from our only access to eternal life.

The Bible is important, but we are not Biblians. We are Christians. We are not called to believe in the Bible. We are called to believe in Jesus.

Christians need to put the Bible’s authority back in its proper place. The Bible’s authority rests in the faith that it points beyond itself to the God revealed in Jesus.

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Photo: michaklootwijk / 123RF Stock Photo


Mimetic Theory and Eschatological Empathy

Mimetic theory teaches us that we learn by imitation—whether you have studied the work of René Girard or not, you have probably noticed this. For example, when we teach, we not only use words to explain how to ride a bicycle, throw a ball, or do a push-up. More importantly, we model. We actually get on our bicycle, pick up a baseball, and drop to the ground and “give ‘em twenty.” Because of our mimetic nature, we also tend to embrace the belief systems of our parents and/or dominant culture.

My personal background is no different.

My parents had an Arminian theology and as such, told me that I had the “free choice” to accept Jesus Christ as my “Lord and Savior” or not. Of course, given the eternal consequences of an incorrect choice, I “freely” chose to be a Christian. However, even as a kid, in the back of my mind was this sickening feeling that others’ choice did not seem as free as mine did. Why was I so fortunate to be born into a Christian family? What if I had been born into a Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu family? What would have been my eternal fate then? I would often think something similar to the following:

“Why am I afforded more detailed information about this eternal ultimatum than a Hindu or Muslim? How is this fair and how can people be held accountable for such a decision?”

Of course, all of this presupposes this “choice” actually being the correct one. Should those in the other faith traditions who believe in a similar “hell” be correct, why are they afforded more insight into the “choice” than I?

What seems even more unfair is that there are those who have been molested by those who claim to profess the love of God—whether Christian or otherwise. There are those who have put their faith in clergy, only to be violated in the most painful of ways. There are countless of individuals who have had to experience a version of Jesus that is actually anti-Christ. And this is the only Jesus they may ever meet! And yet, they are supposed to “freely choose” Jesus or face eternal condemnation?

When I meditate on these questions and those similar, I cannot help but have empathy. What if I were molested by a “follower” of Jesus? What if one of “God’s elect” raped me when I was younger? Would my eternal choice not, in some very large and distinct way, be affected by such a terrifying event?

Let’s see what Scripture can teach us.

Take a look at Genesis 4:9. After God asks Cain about his slain brother’s whereabouts, Cain sarcastically snaps back at God and rhetorically asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, Cain did not believe himself to be the keeper of Abel, but the implied answer from God, should the Lord have answered, would have been “yes.” There is an implied oneness in this passage between Cain and Abel.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes such oneness when he writes: “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9: 2 – 3)” For Paul, it makes no difference if another or himself is cut off from Christ. Both options would cause “unceasing grief” for him.

In Matthew 25:40, Jesus explains our interconnectedness when he says what we do to the least of our kind, we do to Jesus himself. Because all things come into being through Jesus (John 1:3) and he thus, “enlightens every person” (1:9), Jesus is truly saying that what we do to our brothers and sisters—even the least of our fellow human—we are doing to the one we claim to worship.

We are all responsible for each other, because all humans came to being through him!

All people. Not some. All.

When we look at our eschatology, we need to have some empathy. Jesus sure did! That is one reason he brought peace. That is a part of why he said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)” He recognized that we have no idea what are doing to each other. We had no idea what we were doing to Jesus.

This ignorance runs through each and every one of us. Because of this, God shows all of us mercy (Romans 11:32). I must take the stance that I am responsible for my brothers and sisters, which, according to how I interpret things, includes everyone. Should one lost sheep perish (apollumi), to follow Christ is to desire to save even one. To follow Christ is to rejoice over finding the last lost sheep—those sinners who repent of their ways and choose the path of the non-violent Christ. I believe once every lost sheep is found, then and only then can “every tear be wiped from our faces.” (Revelation 21:4) As interconnected interdividuals, I simply cannot foresee any other way.

Image: Photo by monsternest via Available via Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. 

Jihad For Peace

Amadiyya“What is ‘jihad?’” one of the Christian women asked.

We were gathered in the basement of the masjid, a handful of Christian women among more than a dozen Muslimas of all ages and nationalities. The sisters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Glen Ellyn, IL were hosting a women’s interfaith fellowship event centered around the topic “Keeping the Faith In the Face of Hate.” The atmosphere was warm and joyful despite the gravity of the topic, and from the moment I walked in, I was greeted by smiles from ladies soon to become friends.

When the question was asked, we were in the middle of the “question and answer” session on Islam that was meant to be a precursor to the main topic at hand. The woman, I thought, sounded slightly apologetic, presumably because she understood that the term “jihad” must have a different meaning to Muslims than the negative, terroristic connotations it has in the Western media. But the Muslim ladies were quick to assure her that she had asked an important and helpful question.

The term jihad, they were eager to explain, does not mean “holy war,” as it is so often portrayed. At its root, it means “struggle,” and most often it refers to an inner struggle against sins of selfishness and turning away from God. While it can refer to the kind of struggle that is involved in physical battle, the primary meaning is the moral and spiritual struggle that manifests itself in so many ways in all of our lives. Our faith journeys are daily jihads in which we strive for greater understanding of and closeness to God. In terms of mimetic theory, this means submitting our desires – the basis for our rivalries – to the will of God so that we transform the goals of our lives from serving and preserving ourselves to honoring the Creator of humankind and serving one another, especially the “least” among us. Jihad can also take a corporate meaning as well as a personal meaning, referring to a struggle for justice, education, equality, dignity, and so on. Even when it refers to a struggle against injustice, it is urged that the means of jihad be undertaken peacefully – by the pen rather than the sword – except in urgent cases to defend life from immanent threat.

After the Muslims in the group explained how the media’s portrayal of jihad unfortunately reinforces the ideas of extremists and violent factions rather than reflecting the peaceful desires of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, I raised my hand.

“I have often wanted to use the word “jihad” to talk about my own faith journey and my vocation,” I told them, “but I am afraid of being misunderstood.” I explained that, having grown up with Muslims, I have long been aware that the primary meaning of jihad is “struggle” rather than “war.” I went on to talk about the violent connotations of our own (English) language. “I find it disturbing the way the word ‘fight’ is so often used in a positive sense,” I said. I went on to muse about how, in American culture, we use the word “fight” to mean so many things, to strive for a goal or struggle against injustice. “When I want to explain the passion I have for reaching my goals, few words in the English language convey that passion like ‘fight,’ and as a pacifist, that bothers me. What am I going to say? I’m ‘fighting’ for nonviolence! That’s an oxymoron!” Laughter echoed through the room as I gazed at the smiling, nodding faces around me.

I would much rather use the word “jihad,” I continued, because I see it as a positive word at its core. The English word “struggle” does not convey all of the passion, long-suffering endurance, and faith-rootedness that “jihad” does. Jihad also implies a campaign, whether personal or corporate, that involves long-term patience and self-sacrifice that go beyond what “struggle” can express.

“So I often find that jihad is the best word to communicate the way I seek to strive for peace,” I concluded. “It frustrates me that the word is so associated with terrorism and violence that I am afraid to use it.”

Layers of irony went unmentioned but not unnoticed. The Western media portrays Islam as a violent, intolerant religion, with Muslims eager to wage “jihad” against any who do not proclaim its truth. But the violence of Western society is so deeply ingrained in our very language that we hardly even notice it. We use violent words like “fight” as metaphors for good struggles because we are hard-wired to see “fighting” as something positive. For the United States to use terms like “jihad” to paint Islam as a violent religion is the height of irony considering that we lead the world in warmaking and weapons production to secure resources and expand imperial control. All the while we invoke ideologies claiming to value freedom and human rights while rendering the rest of the world captive to the poverty, destruction and chaos we leave in the wake of our wars. While America “fights” for these ideologies with guns and bombs and drones, Islam encourages “jihad” on behalf of freedom and human rights through education and service. (This is not to say that everyone in America agrees with militaristic methods used to spread “freedom,” or that no Muslim uses violence. But the rhetoric of “civilized” America versus “violent” Islam is as backward as it is pervasive.) All of this ran through my mind, but I didn’t feel the need to voice it. I had a feeling that our presence in the room was testimony to likelihood that we knew it already.

Amidst expressions of agreement and appreciation for my understanding, one of the Muslim women challenged me: “Use it!” She went on to declare that we have the power to change language by the context in which we use it. She was emboldening me to engage in jihad on behalf of the word “jihad.”

But she was also urging me to do far more than help change the popular understanding of a single word. She was inspiring me to have faith in the ability of people to change hearts and minds by example. I could help the world come to understand the peaceful nature of Islam, she explained, by using an oft-misunderstood Islamic word, commonly thought to mean war, in the context of an endeavor for peace. The heart of the challenge she posed to me was the same posed to every Christian in the room, as we all expressed our desire to help Muslims counter the misunderstandings, slanders, and suspicion they so often receive. Speak up, they implored us. Dispel ignorance. Resist fear.

Of course, this call to humble ourselves to learn from each other and walk the path of peace together is incumbent upon us all, regardless of religion. It comes from the source that binds us all in our humanity, the one God who transcends our religions and speaks to us in many ways. Our eagerness to gather together, listen and dialogue, and come to know each other as friends reflected our desire to heed this call together, and we have only just begun.

We never actually did come to the main topic. Instead, the conversation that developed so naturally, punctuated by laughter as well as wisdom, took on a life of its own and refused to be reigned in. But that is the way real relationships begin – organically, spontaneously – and real relationships are the best way to keep the faith in the face of hate. There will be plenty of time to answer the central question of the event which was, (in perhaps slightly different words), Why do you think religion is so often used as a tool of hatred and violence? This is an essential question, one that I will soon explore in a future article. But the task of dismantling that hatred and instead using faith as a foundation to build bonds of trust, mutual service, and love, is already underway. It is a task that will involve patience and courage, the humility to discover our own prejudices and the strength to change them. It is a task to which we must commit with our whole selves, presenting challenges unique to each individual, and also a journey that we must make together. It is a mission we undertake through faith that makes our faith stronger. It is our jihad for peace.

My Brainiac Faith on the Resurrection

image from

image from

For a long time I thought I was too smart for the resurrection. My progressive UCC congregation made a comfortable home for my intellectual faith – I wasn’t letting anyone force me to leave my brain at the sanctuary door. If my head couldn’t come along for the ride, my faith wouldn’t go there. And so my rational, scientific brain did away with miracles of all kinds. They were too easy to explain as metaphors or written off to first century worldviews. Of course the loudest pillar to fall beneath the weight of my brainiac faith was the empty tomb. That it happened to be the central pillar of Christianity didn’t bother me at all. I still called myself a Christian, albeit in a whisper and with the self-satisfaction of knowing my brand of Christianity was the wave of the future.

But then my pastor, the one who had told me I didn’t have to leave my brain at the door, knocked me for a loop. Some unsuspecting newbie to our community asked him if he believed in the resurrection. I felt sorry for the poor questioner because I knew what my pastor was going to say – or so I thought! When he said, “Of course I believe in the resurrection,” my brain nearly exploded! My rational mind couldn’t figure out how a fellow rationalist could “believe” in something so unscientific and irrational. Seriously, the software that had been running my faith crashed and burned. I felt betrayed. Either my pastor meant what he said and I could bring my brain along, which meant the resurrection had to go, or the resurrection stayed and rationality took a vacation.

I was seriously at a loss, but that’s a good place to be, it turns out, if you want to follow Jesus into new life. I’ve learned so much in the intervening years about the power of violence and death that permeates each of us, vibrating undetected at the very core of our identities. All that I’ve learned about violence, scapegoating, and the anthropological earthquake that Jesus inaugurated I’ve learned from the mimetic theory community that my pastor, now of blessed memory, introduced me to. Sharing that knowledge is what motivates our blogging at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement on Patheos and here at the Raven Foundation. If you’d like to experience the kind of conversation around the resurrection that takes place among mimetic theorists, I urge you to join the Theology and Peace Discussion Group on Facebook so you can see how my question about the resurrection was answered with an inspiring combination of reason and faith.

After years of letting my brain work through the anthropological impact of Jesus life, death and resurrection on humanity, my heart began to see things more clearly. By denying the power of God to raise Jesus into new life, I had been engaging in a secret form of idolatry. My logic had been simple: if humans couldn’t do it, then neither could God. Not only was I limiting God’s power by forcing God to behave within human limits, I had become an atheist without realizing it. Because if no power existed that was greater than human power, then no God existed. It was logical. But it was sterile, too. My faith and my life were drying up, cut off as they were from the source of life that God had made available to me, to us all, on that first Easter morning. I encourage you to take your brain for a long stroll through our blog posts, to pick up a good book on the anthropology of the cross*, and allow yourself to dare to peer inside the empty tomb. See how your brainiac faith reacts when reason is seasoned with “terror and amazement”. Do not be afraid this Easter – the stone has been rolled away and he has gone ahead of you. He is waiting even now for us to arrive.

*My short list for books presenting an anthropology of the cross are The Jesus Driven Life, by Michael Hardin; Virtually Christian, by Anthony Bartlett; Compassion or Apocalypse, James Warren; and Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, by S. Mark Heim. A great online resource for interpreting biblical texts is Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary curated by Rev. Paul Nuechterlein.

Advent: The Faith to Scream “It’s Not Okay!”

Advent candles symbolizing John 1:5 - "The light shines in the darkness." (Copyright: martinan / 123RF Stock Photo

Advent candles symbolizing John 1:5 – “The light shines in the darkness.” (Copyright: martinan / 123RF Stock Photo)

She sat in total shock. Her head rested in her hands as her long hair hid her face. She was silent for forty-five minutes. And then the river of tears began to flow.

It was the most traumatic event I’ve experienced in ten years of ministry. The pain and distress of a murdered family member were unbearable.

As she wept uncontrollably, her sister stepped into the void to hold her. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” her sister gently encouraged.

“No! It’s not okay! It’s not okay! It’s not okay!”

Those were the words that struck me that night. In the face of horror, trauma, and evil, the most faithful thing to do is to protest, to scream, “It’s not okay!”

Christians are in the midst of the Advent season. The word advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “an arrival or coming, especially one which is awaited.”

During Advent, Christians anticipate celebrating the first coming of Jesus at Christmas and we await his second coming when Jesus will set the world right. Since “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches, we know that some ideas about the second coming are wrong. Jesus won’t come again with a heavenly military and guns blazing to kill the “bad guys.” No. Jesus will come again to set the world right in the same way he came the first time – with God’s unconditional, universal, and nonviolent love.

Until then, we need to have the bold and subversive faith to protest. Advent faith doesn’t ignore the darkness of the world. It claims the world’s violence is not okay. But Advent doesn’t just protest. The Advent wreath is a symbol that the light shines in the darkness. Advent faith shines a light in the darkness by working through God’s unconditional, universal, and nonviolent love to participate in helping to make the world right.

Unfortunately, many of us have come to accept violence. Another school shooting? Terrorists holding people hostage? Another “casualty of war”? Police officers abusing their power? Continued racism? “Ah,” we apathetically respond. “It’s horrible. But there’s nothing we can do. It’s just how the world works.”

Others have a different response. We want to get the bastards! Violence rules the day and spreads like a contagious disease. As Ren Girard states in his book The One By Whom Scandal Comes, “People everywhere today are exposed to a contagion of violence that perpetuates cycles of vengeance.” These are the rules of violence and we play by the rules. We respond to violence with vengeance, only to lead the world deeper into future of apocalyptic destruction.

But Advent protests. It says no to apathy and to vengeance. Advent awaits the One who changed the world forever because he wasn’t apathetic. He refused to believe that violence is just how the world works. Rather, he challenged violence at its core precisely because he didn’t play by its rules. He played by a different set of rules – the Kingdom of God. Advent faith takes seriously Jesus’ command to forgive one another and turn the other cheek, not because we’re weak doormats, but because we’re rebels who disobey the rules of violence with a completely different set of rules: The nonviolent love of the Kingdom of God.

Like a girl weeping in the midst of a traumatic experience, Advent looks at the violence in the world and refuses to accept it. Advent faith proclaims, “No! It’s not okay. The light shines in the darkness. A better world is possible.”

America’s Leading Historian on the First Thanksgiving and Faith

We recently had the great honor of talking with Dr. R. Tracy McKenzie about his book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History. Read my review of Tracy’s book here.

Tracy McKenzie

Tracy McKenzie

Tracy McKenzie is professor and chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. His book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History was released last year from Intervarsity Press. The book explores the Pilgrims’ celebration of the first Thanksgiving, which is a keystone of America’s national and spiritual identity. But is what we’ve been taught about them or their harvest feast what actually happened? And if not, what difference does it make?

Tracy is also the author of One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil War-Era Tennessee (Cambridge University Press) and Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War (Oxford University Press).  He is president of the Conference on Faith and History, a national association of Christian historians, and he blogs at Faith and History, where he engages the church in reflection about how to think Christianly about our national heritage.

Civil War buffs might be interested in McKenzie’s approach to Civil War reflection. Here’s a video recording of his keynote lecture at the Civil War and Sacred Ground Conference, sponsored by the Raven Foundation and the Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) at Wheaton.

Book Feature Friday: Pascale’s Wager by Anthony Bartlett


“I cannot know what darkness is, because it’s just darkness, but love can know it, and love always goes on regardless. Love is searching for endless love and it searches all the way around the empty universe until it meets itself coming back.”  — Pascale’s Wager

Some days I am tempted to despair.

As I write, massacres are taking place in various corners of the world, global warming is rapidly encroaching upon us threatening catastrophe, leaders are caught up in the throes of greed and pride, and it seems sometimes as if empathy is being drained from society. All of this weighing upon my heart and mind sometimes threatens to snuff out my hope, but for blessed glimpses of selfless compassion, rays of pure love that revive my spirit. For me, Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven is one such light in the darkness.

Anthony Bartlett, Girardian theologian, friend of the Raven Foundation and hope-timist extraordinaire, is the author of this eloquent, riveting story of rebellion against conformity, compassion in the face of cruelty and hope in the midst of despair. In a future world that has been brought to the brink of destruction by global warming, life is sustained in a technologically-engineered frozen wasteland by a system of rigid order. Religion is a control mechanism, and dissent is forbidden and deadly. In this stifling atmosphere, Poll, an inquisitive troublemaker, and Cal, a perspicacious seeker, dare to pierce through the façade of the cultural myth that holds their tenuous society together. Pulling back the veil of lies incurs the wrath of the powers that be, but also tests the courage, resolve, and creativity of our two heroes in astonishing ways. Inspired by one-another, Poll and Cal are each thrust  onto separate but parallel journeys of survival and self-discovery in which a kernel of faith is nourished and grows in accordance with their unique personalities. Amidst their perilous circumstances, each of our heroes push the limits of their potential, defying odds, encountering love in surprising places and people, and changing their worlds permanently and inexorably.

Readers will be caught up in the fascinating worlds that Tony has created, compelled by the fast-paced action of the plot and intrigued by the dynamic characters, all of which in themselves make for an extraordinary novel. But for seekers, doubters, and anyone looking for a reason to believe in the power of love, the layers of theological and anthropological depth and rich symbolism permeating the story combine to make the reading of Pascale’s Wager a poignant, joyful and inspiring experience.

Without mentioning Jesus or referencing Christian doctrine, Anthony Bartlett accomplishes in novel form what we at Raven strive to do with our articles: proclaim the good news through human stories. Although the story itself is saturated with Gospel and theological undertones, Tony acknowledged to me in an interview that “the identity of God (big-G!) is very vague in Pascale’s Wager.” It is so vague, in fact, that I believe this story could appeal as much to my atheist father as to my more conservative Christian friends. While some readers will see the hand of the divine at work in the survival and development of our heroes, others may attribute their growth to the indomitable human spirit. None, however, will be able to miss the profound love that catalyzes the changes that forever alter the worlds Pascale and Palmiro (Cal and Poll) touch.

As Tony explained to me,

I think because Christianity has always been so problematic in my life–I suppose I have a love/hate relationship with it almost–I needed almost to start over with the whole thing. 

I depicted the world in the way I feel it sometimes, as if Christianity never existed. As if it has had no impact. And yet of course it has. The book testifies to that. So there are two things going on, an absence and a profound presence.

This simultaneous absence and presence of Christian influence can be seen most clearly in the contrast depicted between religion and faith. From the beginning, religion is portrayed as a wall of deception meant to pacify the masses and prevent anarchy. Yet what makes religion stifling lies not merely in the surface trappings – laws, stories, promises of heaven and warnings of hell – but in the underlying attitude of certainty that leaves little room for questioning or searching… or empathy for those who would dare to do so. This unspoken contract among the citizens of the Homeland makes the people a silent mob against dissenters. Even when it appears that the protagonists have escaped the trappings of “religion,” they find that this attitude of intolerance against those who would dare question the status quo is pervasive, even in drastically different communities.

Faith, by contrast, is the courage to question and doubt, a courage sustained by love, a love that gives us the confidence to believe in our own potential and the potential of the world. A religion built on certainty, disparaging of questions, will insulate itself against the outside world and cast out anyone who dares to think freely, whereas faith will reach out to bless and be blessed by others.

The sense of religion as mob mentality comes through clearly in Pascale’s Wager, and yet even those whom we would never consider “religious” fall prey to this mentality. But faith, the audacity to think freely, the willingness to become a misfit and stand with the outcasts, the confidence to become vulnerable and share compassion with those in need, has the capacity to redeem even religion. When our unspoken codes shift from protecting our identity to the exclusion of others to embracing all in love, our religion will truly be good news. This is what I believe Jesus means when he says we must worship “in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24). Pascale’s embrace of truth sheds all her defenses and opens her up others in pain, to shoulder and share their suffering. Without even a certainty in the existence of God (at least not one that would pass muster in many churches today), Pascale’s embodiment of love is an act of worship of the God of Love.

This for me was one of the most important messages of Pascale’s Wager, that faith is not about blindly clinging to identity, whether in the form of religion or ideology, but rather about making space for questions and compassion.  It is only in the willingness to seek beyond the comforts of certainty that one can experience and exude empathy that creates healing ripples as it touches one life after another.

How often do we lock ourselves into an artificial world, thinking we have all the answers, unconscious fear shutting out questions we dare not ask or ideas or viewpoints we dare not consider because they fly in the face of our comfortable understanding of the “way things are?” If we are honest, we might admit that we have found ourselves doing this – we may even be doing it now. If not in the realm of religion, then perhaps in the realm of politics. Or we may take great pride in our ideologies of marriage or parenting. Whatever the case may be, we seem to be afraid of the vast, mysterious universe in which we are so small, so we shrink our world down to size, to something we can handle, and whether consciously or unconsciously, exclude those who do not fit. And beyond our own little worlds, we also live within the mythology of our culture – the powers that be that write the unwritten rules of society and create outcasts.

Cal and Poll dare to reach beyond the confines of their world and challenge us to do the same. The artificial worlds that they begin to change through their quest for truth resemble our own in many ways, and the dangers that they face in the midst of hostile environmental elements and societies almost devoid of compassion are eerily similar to what we face today, with global warming encroaching upon us and the divide between the rich and the poor growing ever wider. In the abysmal bleakness of this world, the power of redemption lies in radical compassion. Pascale’s Wager teaches this lesson in a profoundly moving story that challenges the reader to pick up where Pascale leaves off. It is the Christian message stripped of dogma down to the core of good news. It is the gospel… in other words.

Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Nadia Bolz-Weber



One odd way that we all keep up with the Kardashians is in the extraordinary effort we put into maintaining our own personal “brand.” The reaction of Khloe to recent allegations of drug addiction against her husband, NBA player Lamar Odom, is a Kardashian case in point. In reporting on this newsworthy event (sarcastic sigh), Huff Post speculated as to why Khloe was continuing with business as usual, posting “booty shots” and making no reference to her husband’s problems. They asked, “Is the 29-year-old trying to avoid the harsh reality that her husband is struggling with drug abuse, or is she simply trying to keep up the family’s brand?”

Posturing like a Kardashian

We can all appreciate that Khloe might need some privacy from prying and judgmental eyes because you don’t have to be a Kardashian to want privacy when things go wrong. Who wants to be judged for our mistakes by gleeful critics and gloating rivals? When we err, we tend to hide our errors from others and all too often, from ourselves. We are as desperate to maintain our “brand” – our self-identities as flawless, perfectly good, failure-free paragons of virtue – as if we were the public face of a multi-million dollar empire. OMG, I posture all the time! I pretend I know stuff when I’m talking to smart people when I don’t have any idea what they are talking about. I just nod knowingly and stay alert in case a joke comes that I’m supposed to be laughing at. I fret about the way my hair flips out in the back, the way my waist is thickening with age day by day, about what to wear to impress others. I’m always trying to project that perfect combination of stylish and fashion indifference. I can’t tell you how much I pretend I don’t care what people think when the truth is, I care desperately. I want more shares on my articles, more glowing comments, more FB likes, more, more, more affirmation but if you asked me about my social media stats I’d say with all sincerity, “Oh, I don’t really keep track of those things.” And the worst thing is, I half believe the lie myself more than half of the time! It’s so true that the best liars are those who believe their own fabrications. As I love to say, denial is not just a river in Egypt.

What’s terribly tragic about my constant brand-upkeep is that all I’m trying to protect is my own self-image as someone who is smart, young, stylish and popular. The truth I’m so afraid to face is that I’m only a little smart, no longer young, never was stylish, and about as popular as a hangnail. What if, like Khloe, I was hiding from the reality of a husband with an addiction and a marriage on the rocks? I’m afraid to imagine how insanely self-deceptive I would get.

Nadia Bolz-Weber: The Divine Heart Transplant

nadiaMy new favorite Christian author, Nadia Bolz-Weber, is on to the whole game of pretending to be better than we are. As she put it in a recent interview with Krista Tippett at the 2013 Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina, “Some sectors of Christianity think, well, you’re saved and then you’re good, right? And then you just lead a really nice life and you’re a good person and you’re redeemed.” But doesn’t that launch us into the brand-polishing business with a divine twist? Now we have to posture before God, too, working hard every day to prove our sincerity to God as well as ourselves.

Let’s face it, folks, this is a recipe for failure. Nadia admitted as much. “My experience is of disruption,” she explained, “over and over again, of going along and tripping upon something that I think I know or that I think I’m certain about, and realizing I’m wrong. Or maybe fighting to think I’m right about something over and over and over again until I experience what I call the sort of divine heart transplant… Like God reaching in and pulling out my heart of stone and replacing it with a heart of flesh, like something that was actually warm and beating again.” As she grew in her faith she discovered that she “was simultaneously sinner and saint,” never one or the other, which turned out to be a big relief! Only when we accept our failures can we stop trying to deceive others, God and ourselves and relax into what is much more true, that we are big, fat screw-ups who are doing our best but regularly fall short. Hey, we are human and God knows it and for some weird reason, keeps on loving and forgiving us.

James Alison: Relax…Christianity is About Being Loved      

Interestingly, Nadia mentioned James Alison in a recent sermon titled, “On the Parameters We Prefer for Jesus to Work Under.” James helps us understand that the Christian faith is not about striving to keep up with anyone, but rather it’s about relaxing. As Nadia articulates in her distinctive style, “Alison suggests that faith is trusting so much that God is fond of us that we just fricken relax.”

So, I’ll close with the wise words of James Alison found in the new DVD curriculum for adults produced with the Raven Foundation called Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. After explaining that God knows all about our attempts to hide from the unflattering truth that we are variously “liars, fantasists, thieves, self-publicists, manipulators, addicts to phony reputations, to emotional blackmail, deeply self-deceived, muddled and sometimes quite vicious” James says that God is “not concerned with how little good we are… For many of us this is a difficult thing to sink into, since… our self-identity as ‘good’ is one of our most sacred idols. It is one of the things that makes us most dangerous to ourselves and others. Which is why it is so difficult for us to be forgiven. Only those people who are not good in their own eyes can allow themselves to be forgiven.” Hopefully we can begin to discover that “being good or bad” is not what Christianity is about. “It’s about being loved.”

God loves us – and Khloe and Lamar – just the way we are. Can you believe it?