No gods – A retelling of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

I was asked to offer an ‘experimental re-telling’ of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 for Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization.  Nothing particularly insightful came to me, though it did help to clarify and confirm the truth of the phrase the foolishness of the world. I mean, the world is a place where growth is outstripping resources; wealth is produced to be concentrated; violence is enacted in the name of peace and order; mental and spiritual well-being is being eroded even among the most secure. We might as individuals and as small groups deviate or resist this wisdom from time to time but really it does not change the prevailing (dominating) wisdom and how it effects the earth and life on earth. It seems clear that the wisdom of the world is foolishness and I tried to make that clear in my retelling.

Is there good news in such a situation? What would that sound like? Or, who could hear it? I could not simply speak of the wisdom of God. We are 2000 years on from Jesus. The world has been shaped by what the church and her theology became. We can’t simply reassert or reassemble a true or original Gospel message from the words we have inherited. If there is hope for wisdom then the gods of this world must be named and denied. And that was my point in the piece. I did not feel that I had available to me constructive language of good news in the face of the world’s deadly foolishness.

I did not want to assume what is being referred to when people (or I) say ‘God’. A god is a concentration of the world. I think gods are inevitable for humans, that does not mean I think humans create them; that gives us too much credit. But the culmination of our value, attention, and energy forms part of a spirit that honours something. This is clear in overt nationalism. This clear, though seemingly less so for us, in our economic system. What else do you call a symbolic belief structure that demands our attention, determines our value, promises a future, and avenges disobedience? Neither modernity nor secularism nor even atheism has rid the world of gods.

Further I would argue that the church has been midwife if not mother to the gods of Capitalism and Western/White supremacy. Sure, a complicated history but one that the church cannot be extracted from without the history of the West becoming unintelligible.

So I did not think I could simply evoke ‘God’ in this re-telling; this would be to risk letting the gods of the world control the message of ‘good news’. After all Paul is clear that the preaching must be of Christ crucified. It should also be noted that there is a reason why early Christians were sometimes called atheists. The form of their belief in God was literally unintelligible to the wisdom of the world. Now this is not a case for contemporary atheism, in my understanding most atheism still honour gods; that is, they embrace the wisdom of the world (often in keeping with the supremacist legacy of the church but with new terms).

So something has to give for there to be an intervention of wisdom (a wisdom not of the world). And because my understanding of wisdom is the unintelligible (the things that are not according to Paul) then I could only offer a critical re-telling, though a liturgy of sorts. No gods. A refrain. This is not a refrain that is helpful or appropriate in all contexts but perhaps necessary in the face of everything in this world including the church’s role in the formation of present world. No gods. We can’t be too careful right now.

The Israelites were commanded to leave the space between cherubim in the holy of holies empty. They could rarely if ever manage this. Jesus was accused of blasphemy because of how he held out the possibility of embodied divinity, rejecting any complicity with images of the empire. We can’t be too careful. Begin, like Paul, with things that are not (to be sure there are other perhaps better interventions but this is still relevant). In this way let the prohibition of false gods be rigorous and thoroughgoing. And then wait. Listen. See if any others have taken up this refrain. Gather. Perhaps something will yet rise up from what seems like death. Perhaps something will pour down like fire and wind. But I could not move as quickly as Paul does to a positive message in this passage because we are not the community that Paul was addressing and if you are serious about seeing if there is something other than the wisdom of the world you can’t skip the initial and needed refrain. No godsChrist crucified.

That was all I was trying to say in my retelling.


Prophet to king: You have caused the people to sin

A while back I noticed a curious phrase in the Book of Kings. I remember it saying something to the effect of accusing the king of ‘causing Israel to sin’. Such a phrase feels pivotal at this point in our political/historical moment. We are increasingly comfortable naming things like ‘structural violence’ but still tend to collapse into very individualistic based responses. More and more attempts are being made highlight how these appeals to individual actions actually fall well within how the powers of our age organize and communicate. Such a system of placing the burden on the individual offloads any guilt or charge of responsibility from those places and people where power is concentrated. One of the places endorsing the responsibility of individual is the church. The church, broadly understood, heralds the virtue of the individual. This emphasis cuts across liberal/conservative divides as both look to the individual whether for personal, spiritual salvation or in discipleship responding to social injustices. [See Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World for how the church’s theological traditions have informed our current understanding of the individual].

Continue reading “Prophet to king: You have caused the people to sin”

The patriarchy . . . still: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 3)

In my last post I made clear that my theological outline is not based in an ‘liberal’ understanding of theology or society. If you are still following at this point I am guessing you know I won’t draw on many traditionally conservative resources. This is true. This does not mean it is not worth clarifying the ways in which patriarchy continues to exert itself forcefully within the church and its theology.

Continue reading “The patriarchy . . . still: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 3)”

That was a fine trick they discovered!

“Search Scripture, for you seem to think, you presume to imagine, that you will gain your salvation there” (Jn 5:39). Words cannot tell how cruelly this defrauds the poor and needy folk. For all their words and deeds ensure that the poor man is too worried about getting his food to have time to learn to read; moreover they have the nerve to preach that the poor man should let himself be flayed and fleeced by the tyrants. How on earth is he to learn to read the Scripture? Yes, yes, my dear Thomas, but you are getting too fanatical! The biblical scholars should read their fine books and the peasant should listen to them, for faith comes by listening. O yes, that was a fine trick they discovered! It would replace the priests and monks with worse rascals than have been since the very beginning of the world. . . . Christ speaks to these pious people, the biblical scholars: ‘My word will not remain with you’ (Jn 5:38).

– Thomas Müntzer, ‘A Manifest Exposé of False Faith

Suffering, violence, and the Word of God: First thoughts on Müntzer.

I am just supposed to let this all overwhelm me? – Thomas Müntzer

I don’t typically enjoy reading Reformation authors (not that I have read many). Unless I really want to spend the time tracking their logic I find the content has not aged well and reads like bad worn out pietism. Thomas Müntzer’s writings have largely evaded that experience. I really did not know much about him other than he is more or less shunned in mainstream Mennonite thought and history because of his involvement in violent revolts. In this post I just want to note a couple observations as I am about half finished his collected works (minus much of the liturgical pieces unfortunately).

Continue reading “Suffering, violence, and the Word of God: First thoughts on Müntzer.”

Yahweh stabbing your brain

After Salem has brushed his teeth and we have read him bedtime stories he gets a little bit of quiet time in his room to play before bed. Salem is a very active and talkative child but during this time he is settled and plays quietly. He also appears to be reflective during this time as he will occasionally shout out a question or comment that he has been pondering.

Last night from out of his room he says,

You know when you do something bad and haven’t told anyone and you feel like you need to tell someone? I call that ‘Yahweh stabbing your brain.’

Salem was looking at the Brick Bible at the time. We had started reading him stories from it until we realized very quickly that the stories skewed heavily towards the more violent images of the Hebrew Bible. The hook then is to see the child-like and nostalgic materials of Lego being taken up in some of the most horrific scenes in the Bible.

Concubine dismembered in Judges 19

And because Yahweh is an active agent in many biblical stories there is a depiction of Yahweh as an old bearded man in white. And when it says that Yahweh does something, well Yahweh does something.


Now of course on one level this is terrible and entirely inappropriate for Salem to be reading. But it gave me real pause to pay attention to tension I feel between this simply being blasphemous transgressing the prohibition of making an image of God on one hand and having to face and see the material imagery of stories that are intentionally sanitized and excluded from graphic representations of the Bible (i.e. children’s Bibles).

So when Salem tells me this experience is like Yahweh stabbing his brain I assume that he is somehow trying to articulate how our conscience (or super ego) can afflict us and perhaps in this way it actually becomes easier to talk about the limitations, changes, and need for revising how God has been understood over time and how that continues to affect us in the present. And in many ways the representation of Yahweh as an old white man is appropriate as it is many of these stories that have formed the patriarchal structure of our faith that need to be dismantled. Though the Brick Bible may actually contribute to a more textured and meaningful engagement with our faith tradition, for now I think I will slip into his room as the unseen all-knowing hand from above removing it from him.

The Bible and authority

In the first post of this series I claimed that the authority in the church is never a matter of a clear or simple line of expression and application. There are various crossing and conflicting lines that we must navigate in how we understand and express authority. A place where many of these lines cross is within and around the Bible. In the Confession we state, “We acknowledge the Scripture as the authoritative source and standard for preaching and teaching about faith and life, for distinguishing truth from error, for discerning between good and evil, and for guiding prayer and worship.” Here again, while the Confession does acknowledge the role of the church, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus in discerning the will of God there remains a commitment to, in some way, running these all through the Bible in order for them to validated. In a sense I agree with that. However, I am guessing my understanding of the Bible and its role as authority differs from many I encounter in the church.

The Bible emerged over time and the Bible we have today does not look the same or have all the same books depending on Christian denomination. The Bible owes its existence to experiences and decisions that occurred outside the Bible. So some form of torah was given and practiced by the Israelite people and then along came a prophet and said I hope you know that just following the commands is not really what God intended. This of course was only later intensified with the coming of Jesus and dramatic split it created among those who considered his life, death, and resurrection the revelation of God and those who did not. And then came the decision around which letters and texts should be read and kept among the churches. The Bible exists because people encountered something that did not fit the prescribed authorities of the time. Sometimes these expressions were accepted like supplements but other times they were accepted only after dispute and fracturing.

But you don’t need to study the history of the Bible’s formation to see how this at work within the Bible. There are the daughters of Zelophehad who stand up for the integrity of their cause and force the religious leaders to rethink their position (Numbers 27). There are the prophets who I already mentioned. There is Job who refused to accept the orthodoxy of his friends and would not rest until he was given a hearing with God. With Jesus there are instances where he uses scripture as a source of authority but when approached by John’s disciples about him being the messiah he says simply go and tell John what you see. When facing other religious leaders Jesus puts it more pointedly, “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” (John 5:48). In Acts Peter must decide if experience of the Holy Spirit’s movement is sufficient for him to move away from his biblical position on Gentiles. Paul asks the church to live with ‘the mind of Christ’ allowing him to theologically discern that the biblical precedent of circumcision is not decisive for faithfulness.[1]

In all this I began to see that to take the Bible seriously meant to understand how its formation and its content asks us again and again to be willing to put the Bible down and look into the world to see how the Spirit might be moving; to take responsibility and stand up for and alongside those expressions and individuals once rejected by church doctrine and practice. The Bible and our traditions of authority have never been settled they have always reflected a certain intensity of what was, what is, and what is to come. I hope to look at this image of authority as intensity in my next post.

[1] In fairness to the Being a Faithful Church documents (which I have often been critical of) these shifts occurring in the Bible are noted as part of the process of discernment. One of my concerns with the BFC has been the way later documents have limited or muted the implications of these observations for how we understand authority (hence this series).