Tag Archives: theology

Epistle of Marian to the Followers of this Blog

Marian, servant of God,[i] by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ[ii] and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,[iii]

to Constant Readers:[iv]

Peace out.

I have heard of your faithfulness, good looks, feats of strength, and general thingness.[v]  So…good job and keep circulating those tapes.

It’s been several months since you heard from me.  If this was first century Palestine, you’d attribute the hiatus to slow postal service or me getting eaten by lions somewhere, but thankfully, we’re two thousand years beyond all that, except, possibly, for slow postal service.  Lo, these last many weeks, I’ve been immersed in deep and significant higher learning about Presbyterian polity,[vi] creeds, and confessions,[vii] Biblical Greek,[viii] and Paul’s seminal epistle to the Romans.  It is in regards to Romans that I write you today.

The book of Romans has been freaking people out for centuries.  A madcap hybrid fund-raising letter/theological treatise written in characteristically incomprehensible Pauline Greek,[ix] the book of Romans kept Augustine up nights, inspired Luther to pound his historic list of grievances to the Wittenberg door, gave Calvin the idea of dressing up as a doubly predestined sinner for Halloween – a totally depraved act which, as we all know, led him to invent the Protestant Reformation[x] – and gave Barth something to read in his free time when he wasn’t pissing off the Third Reich.

After two months of dogged study, I am now fully qualified to stand shoulder to shoulder with these theological grandmasters and share my view of what, clearly, is the principal take-home message of this famous letter:

Grace, baby, grace.

kitten

I couldn’t come up with a meaningful picture of grace, so I opted for this kitten that looks like a marshmallow.

Oozing through this letter is the theme of God’s grace, which Paul presents alternately as a) God’s faithfulness to Israel and b) God’s justification of Christ-followers’ through forgiveness of sins.  N.T. Wright, an epicure and soldier on the front lines of the new-perspective-on-Paul, doesn’t see much of a difference between the two:  “Dealing with sin, saving humans from it, giving them grace, forgiveness, justification, glorification – all this was the purpose of the single covenant from the beginning, now fulfilled in Jesus Christ.”[xi]  Pretty much this means that God had it all figured out for all of us a long time ago and we can just get over our damn selves.

Now, I know that some of you are thinking, “Yeah, but what predestination?”  As a good Calvinist, I turn to Barth.[xii]  He said that humanity’s love for God originates in God, who exists outside chronological time, so a temporal human life can’t predicate predestined outcomes because in the mind of God, whatever we’re hurtling toward is already reality, so we can just get over our damn selves.  And anyway, God gets to pick no matter what and because God’s faithfulness and love surpass human belief or unbelief, we can stop worrying and just get over our damn selves.

Yes, yes, some of you are going to the dark side.  What about double predestination you say?  Paul sums it up best:

Nothing, you name it, separates us from God’s love.  Not even twerking.[xiii]

So, rejoice.  Let’s get over our damn selves and enjoy God’s grace, peace, and general thingness.  Amen.

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[i] Stop laughing.  I’m doing homage to a classic literary form here.

[ii] Please don’t hold this post against Jesus.  He’s been held against enough posts.

[iii] In the cunning guise of Rail Yard Red Ale and Frito pie.

[iv] Or Re-Readers, to which you’ve been reduced to since this blog hasn’t seen two microseconds worth of action in six frickin’ months.

[v] I also heard something about the Guinness people, a deacon clearly operating without adequate adult supervision, and a hot dog eating contest, but since you didn’t break the current record of six hot dogs consumed in under three minutes, I really don’t think that’s something we should broadly advertise.

[vi] Because, loosey goosey as our theology may be, by God, all Presbyterian pastors know how to run a decent and orderly meeting.

[vii] These are kind of like Presbyterian fight songs.  For example:  “Rah, rah, ree!  Total depravity!  Rah, rah, rent!  Limited atonement!  Rah, rah, race!  Irresistible grace!”  We have pompons and everything.

[viii] One of the peculiar hazing rituals to which Presbyterian candidates for ordination are subjected.

[ix] Through an aneurysm-inducing cocktail of participles, serial clauses, and run-on sentences, Paul makes his point in Koine Greek at least as well as I make mine in English with liberal applications of footnotes and semicolons.

[x] And Protestants have been protesting ever since.

[xi] From N.T. Wright’s latest New York Times bestseller, Justification: Twenty Centuries of Low-Fat Cooking on the Road to Damascus, p. 95.

[xii] While avoiding Calvin himself and his five centuries of bad press.

[xiii] Romans 8:38-39, slightly abbreviated and nominally paraphrased.

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(c) Marian the Seminarian, 2014

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Immanuel…Bat Man?

Last summer, late one evening, I was ironing a shirt.  And suddenly my vision kind of fluttered and went dark for a second.  So, I look up from my shirt and kind of blink my eyes.  And nothing happens.  So, I go back to ironing and a few seconds later, it happens again.  This time, I’m shaking my head and rubbing my eyes, thinking – oh, my, this is the stroke my doctor warned me about.  And I’m standing there like this and suddenly, I see it.  A bat.  A bat circling frantically around my ceiling.

I scream and run downstairs, scaring the cat half to death.  And the bat is flying and diving and I’m totally freaked out.  So, I’m thinking, how do I get this bat out of my house?  And it comes to me!  I turn off all the lights in the house, open up the back door and turn on the porch light, thinking the bat will follow the light.  It probably took a good five minutes for it to occur to me that a) bats aren’t moths and b) bats are blind.

So, I start knocking around in the dark trying to find my cell phone.  Then I remember again that the bat is blind, so I turn on a light, find my phone and call my husband.  Where’s the bat, he says.  It’s everywhere, I say.  What are you doing, he says.  I’m trying to avoid the bat, I say.  He says, How?  I say, By running around waving my arms.  He says, Sit.  Down.  You are interfering with the bat’s sonar.

So, I huddle on the sofa, watching this albatross-sized bat flying all over.  And I’m equally scared of two things.  One, getting rabies.  Two, guano.

And then, all of a sudden, the bat lands on the curtain rod over our living room window.  And now that I can actually see him, I see that he’s just this tiny little gray thing.  Tiny, no bigger than a sparrow.  And suddenly, I feel really bad for this poor little bat who has been stuck in my house for who knows how long and obviously wants nothing more than to get back outside.  Suddenly, I just wanted to help the bat, to do something to lead it out of my house and outside where it wanted to be.

And then I remembered a story I once heard describing the miracle of the incarnation.  That’s the miracle we’re really celebrating at Christmas –  the dreams of Joseph, the virgin birth, the angelic host singing praises before shepherds – these are all secondary to incarnation of God in Jesus Christ – God made flesh.

And lo, she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger...or something to that effect.t

And lo, she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger…or something…

It’s an unlikely combination, humanity and divinity, and theologians have been trying to explain it for at least 1700 years.  How did the incarnation happen?  How did it really work?  What did it accomplish?

Our lack of genuinely satisfying answers to these questions has been a stumbling block for many people, even for some of us who have been Christians most or all of our lives.  It’s just such a far-fetched idea – the divine taking on human flesh and then suffering, terribly, in that flesh.  No wonder we try to make rational sense of it.

But, my friends, this is something we can’t think our way through.  The miracle of the incarnation is something that the heart receives.  Because what really matters is not the how and the what of Jesus’ birth and life on earth, but why.  Why did God bother?  Why didn’t God just part the Red Sea again, send some fire down from heaven, make another donkey talk?  (That’s in Numbers 22, if you want to look that one up.)

I’d like to share with you Lauren F. Winner’s understanding of the incarnation.  Winner is the child of a lapsed Baptist and non-practicing Jew who, in her early twenties, converted, fully, to Orthodox Judaism.  But during that process, she became intrigued by the Christian understanding of Immanuel – God with us – and eventually, she abandoned Judaism, lured by the incarnation like a moth to flame (and unlike a bat to a porch light.)

In her memoir, Girl Meets God, she writes:

Here is the thing about God.  He is so big and so perfect that we can’t really understand Him.  We can’t possess Him, or apprehend Him.  Moses learned this when he climbed up Mount Sinai and saw that the radiance of God’s face would burn him up should he gaze upon it directly.  But God so wants to be in relationship with us that He makes himself small, smaller than He really is, smaller and more humble than his infinite, perfect self, so that we might be able to get to Him, a little bit.

Being born a human was not the first time God made Himself small so that we could have access to Him.  First He shrunk Himself when He revealed the Torah at Mount Sinai.  He shrunk Himself into tiny Hebrew words, man’s finite language, so that we might get to Him that way.  Then He shrunk Himself again, down to the size of a baby, down into manger finiteness.

Jane Vonnegut Yarmolinky wrote, “The whole concept of God taking on human shape, and all the liturgy and ritual around that, had simply never made any sense to me.  That was because, I realized one wonderful day, it was so simple.  For people with bodies, important things like love have to be embodied.  That’s all.  God had to be embodied, or else people with bodies would never in a trillion years understand about love.”

Never, in a trillion years.

So, the story that the bat reminded me of goes like this.  A man owns a barn and one day a bird flies into his barn and can’t figure out how to get out.  So, the guy opens up the barn doors and waits to see if the bird can navigate its way out.  Nope, next day, the bird’s still there.  So, he gets a broom and tries to shoo the bird in the right direction, but the bird just gets scared and hides.  So the guy is thinking and thinking about how to free this little bird and he thinks to himself, “If I were a bird, I could lead this bird out of this dark old barn and into the sunlight.”

And friends, that’s what Immanuel – God with us – means.  When Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” I suspect he was talking about getting small, meeting us at eye level, showing us the way himself, sharing in the life we live.  Joining us right where we are, just as God created us – beloved beings crafted in God’s image and “in the flesh.”

As for the bat, after I stopped running around like a maniac, it eventually found its way out of our house and into the night, where it belongs.  We, however, are meant to live in light.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.   Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

This Christmas, may God bless you and keep you.  May the grace of Jesus Christ shine upon you.  And may the Holy Spirit give you peace.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2013


Fun with Calvinism: Total Depravity

I recently preached a five-week sermon series on what I figured was a generally safe subject for Christian consideration:  sin.  Most specifically, sinful temptations that are, in many ways, life- and faith-limiting.  Things like pride and avoiding risk and applying Meyer-Briggs analyses to Biblical characters.  Okay, so, that last one only applies to me, but in my defense, I didn’t realize the full gravity of the temptation until I mentioned the idea to a couple of retired pastors and one of them laughed so hard, he spewed beer out his nose.

Two things occurred to me that evening.  First, there are some topics that no one, not even a seasoned second-year seminarian with 18 whole sermons under her belt, should tackle from the pulpit.  (Judas Iscariot’s Meyer-Briggs type being at the top of that particular list.[i])  Second, I seriously need to bone up on my party-line theology.

So, as a service to my readers and in an effort to avoid more tragicomic self-humiliation, Marian will begin periodically posting robust theological reflections on some of the most compelling points of Calvinism.  All are welcome to bring your most pressing theological concerns to Marian by replying to this post.  Rest assured, Marian will address your questions before the End Times (unto itself, a theological topic deserving attention.)

To kick off this sporadic series, then, we shall begin at the beginning.

TOTAL DEPRAVITY

Picture the scene.  Twilight descends like a lover upon a verdant land replete with trees of every type.  The river of life winds through the tall grasses and birds and animals abound…okay, okay, what we’re really looking at here is a benignly neglected suburban lawn with a couple of flaccid Chinese elms and a garden hose that someone forgot to wind up.  But it’s the closest thing to Eden most of us can aspire to, so stick with me.

A couple, who we’ll call Adam and Eve, tends the garden (meaning, they just bought the house and a new lawnmower).  And lo!  Behold their friend from out of town, who we’ll call Sophia, emerging from the house, having just put her toddler, who we’ll call Lilith[ii], to bed.  The three friends gather in the purpling nightfall, feeling the brush of soft cool wind on their faces, savoring a quiet moment of mutual affection before retiring to the house to watch “Reservoir Dogs” on Comcast On-Demand.

And that’s when the snake enters the garden.

Eternal temptation of the reptilian brain stem...

Eternal temptation of the reptilian brain stem…

Having been informed of Mommy’s intention to spend the evening with her grown-up friends, a plan predicated on Lilith’s going to sleep now, Lilith goes berserk.  She screams bloody murder that makes Quentin Tarantino look like Nora Ephron.  Adam, Eve, and Sophia are helpless in the wake of Lilith’s total body meltdown.  Lilith’s shrieks continue until she’s too hoarse to shriek anymore, whereupon the sobs start.  This goes on for forty-five minutes.  Finally, Lilith collapses in a soggy heap in her bedroom where she basically sleeps it off for the next six hours.

The End…or is it Only the Beginning???

This tragic object lesson illustrates where Calvin’s idea of total depravity must have come from. Children come into this world with a hyena-like mentality, although, based on what I’ve witnessed in the cereal aisle, that analogy is rather unfair to hyenas.  Face it.  The reason kids raised by wolves do so well[iii] is because, like wolves, if given the chance, kids would prefer to run around naked, pee on everything, and eat raw voles.  THAT, my friends, is how we know total depravity is rooted in the human condition.  It comes into the world full-formed and expresses itself in tantrums, stealing cookies, not sharing toys, and diaper-escape artistry.

Now, my theory actually has nothing to do with whether or not, spiritually speaking, human beings come into the world stained by the original sin of Adam and Eve (the Genesis ones, not the ones in today’s story).  Rather, I think the reason Calvin came up with the idea of total depravity is because it’s just so frickin’ obvious when you watch little kids.  They’re savages, for crap’s sake.  And the fact that kids are like this only reinforces the old idea that the sin of Adam and Eve must have had something to do with sex:

So, although I realize I’ve shed far less light on whether or not Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity is correct than on the obvious fact that I have no children of my own (and it’s probably best that I don’t), now you know why the idea actually makes a lot of practical sense.  It’s a social coping mechanism.  So parents don’t feel so alone in the cereal aisle.


[i]  Although I’m sure you’re just dying to know what type he is.

[ii]  One of religious history’s more complicated characters.  Check her out here.

[iii]  Plenty of kids with wild animals for parents have turned out just fine.  For example: Mowgli, Romulus and Remus, and Moon Unit Zappa.

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© Marian the Seminarian, 2013


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