Monday, June 9, 2008
That Guy's a Jerk
Every year around the middle of May I attend to a stack of books that has been waiting in the wings for all of the papers and tests to be evaluated, all the grades to be recorded, and all the students to be shuttled away from campus for their summer break. At the top of my list this year was a book by an author named Shalom Auslander, entitled Foreskin's Lament. From what I had read and heard of this young man I thought I was going to be in for a treat. Just based on a brief interview and a few short stories, he struck me as a cross between Philip Roth and Woody Allen, two of my favorites. Now, however, after having finished the book, I'm not sure exactly how I feel about it. I laughed, I cried, I nearly renounced my faith.
Auslander recounts his early years growing up as an Orthodox Jew – his struggle to remain kosher, for example, in a world where Slim Jims screamed for his gastronomic attention; the allure of the local mall teeming with teenaged girls and consumer sacraments, forbidden to a faithful Jew on the Sabbath; his obsession with pornography, with the burning in his loins countered by his ritual burnings of Penthouse and Oui magazines. He very adeptly demonstrates just how oppressive and confusing the strict observance of Torah can be for a child who is only given rules and regulations with no coherent explanations as to their meaning or practicability. His home life is a study in dysfunction. Most disturbing perhaps is Auslander's gradual realization that the God he is required to worship looks and acts a lot like his alcoholic father whose Sabbath indulgence in Manischewitz wine usually culminated in the physical and verbal abuse of his two sons. This, Auslander comes to believe, must be how the God above enjoys his Sabbath as well, dreaming up threats and collecting lightning bolts to hurl down on his children for every minor infraction imaginable.
By the end of the book, the author has pretty much abandoned his faith, though he still remains God-haunted. "I believe in God," he says, setting the tone of his memoir in his introduction. "It's been a real problem for me." Elsewhere he establishes his resolute disgust at the kind of God who upbraids a woman for laughing just once, or prevents Moses from entering the Promised Land, or commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son. (Psych!) His personal theology can be summarized – though I will admit to editing his more florid language here – in a few simple words: "The God of my father? That guy's a [jerk]."
I know Shalom Auslander – not personally, of course, but I am familiar with so many young men and women like him who occupy my classrooms on a regular basis. In many ways they are a lot of fun to have around, but they are not ones simply to buy into the familiar affirmations of the church, the explanations that are so eminently reasonable to most of the faithful in the pews. Only occasionally will a professor have the luxury of preaching to the choir, of proclaiming the word to a congregation of believers who affirm wholeheartedly – and often uncritically – that that they have been "reconciled to God through the death of his Son" (Rom. 5:10), or "justified by his blood' (Rom. 5:9). The young men and women of Auslander's generation, for better or for worse, are theologians who are able and willing to do the math. They want to ask all the difficult questions that could so easily be dismissed or shouted down in the religious settings of their childhood. They hunger for the truth. The old trump card of ages past, the threat of eternal damnation in the fires of hell, just doesn't seem to have the umph it used to. These young people know that if their spiritual equations don't balance at the end of the day, there's always the possibility of finding a new faith at the mall just down the street. It's always open, especially on the Sabbath.
Last week I suggested in my essay, "Blood and Money," that the community tradition from which the author of Matthew was drawing tended to see Jesus not so much as the founder of an entirely new religious movement but as a radical reformer working creatively within his Jewish tradition. Indeed, if we read the "M" material in this Gospel we get the distinct impression that in the early years of the church there was at least one community of believers in Palestine and Syria who interpreted Jesus' teachings along the lines of a prophetic tradition that had been developing since at least the seventh century BCE. It is significant that in Matthew's Gospel Jesus insists on a new understanding of God: "Go and learn what this means," he tells a group of Pharisees, "'I require mercy, not sacrifice'" (Matt. 9:13). What I did not make entirely clear in my reflections on this text is something I want to touch on here: we often give Paul credit for the transformational insight that believers are justified not by their works but by faith in Christ. Having acknowledged this, the law becomes the guide by which we perform our sanctifying acts, a way of saying "thank you," as it were, for God's unmerited gift. As Matthew's Jesus sees it, we are called to be merciful, as God is merciful, on account of God's grace. The assumption that our observance of the law will somehow justify us leaves us ultimately to contend with a God whose wrath cannot possibly be appeased. It leaves us, in other words, with a God who is a jerk.
But what I want to know – and the question that many of my brighter students will inevitably raise in class – is why we insist on attributing this insight to Paul? Could this truth – we are justified by God's grace – be what Jesus was trying to get across in his teachings with the scribes and the Pharisees, though in a much less systematic fashion? Wasn't this the perspective that the prophets, and those who were writing in the Wisdom tradition, were arriving at gradually through their experience of God's acts in history, that God was doing a "new thing" (Isa. 47:11)? That God was making a "new covenant" (Jer. 31:31-34)? That the law on Sinai is actually prefaced with an act of God's grace: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt (justification); you shall have no other gods before me (sanctification)"? If we read Jesus carefully, and as a rabbi working within the prophetic tradition of the likes of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, do we really need Paul to expound for us what was already present in the teachings of the Messiah?
The reason I ask this is because the means by which God's grace is effected in the world presents a host of problems for the skeptical students who often sit in the back of my classroom with a thinly veiled smirk on their face. What appears as eminently reasonable to the faithful in the pews – perhaps because it is "folly to the Greeks," or perhaps because they haven't thought much about it – is perceived as little more than outdated, prehistoric, mumbo-jumbo to those among the "Millennial Generation" who see their faith as a consumer choice, to the young man or woman whose final commitment will go to the highest bidder. Under the present circumstances, this means to the tradition that seems most likely to end the violence and disintegration (both social and ecological) that they see happening in every corner of the world, usually in the name of religion.
So, imagine that some of my brightest Shalom Auslanders are sitting in your congregation this Sunday morning, reflecting on what you might have to say about Paul's Epistle to the Romans. This is could be what is going through their minds:
OK, so last Sunday you were telling us that, according to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, God demands mercy and not sacrifice, that God's grace is abundant enough to accept those who not only keep the law but also those who are victimized by it, like the tax collector and the woman with the issue of blood.
Now, this week you’re telling us that, as Paul makes clear, Jesus died for our sins. Back in the eleventh century St. Anselm explained this as a sacrifice that at once appeased God's anger and demonstrated God's mercy. So what happened to "I require mercy, not sacrifice"? If God's grace is so abundant, then why is a death on a cross required? Why do we need to be justified in blood? And what kind of God is going to put his son through an excruciating death on the cross? If we, as sinners, are supposed to forgive our neighbors – not just seven times, but seventy times seven times – then why can't your God do that too? That guy's a jerk.
Oh! And please don’t waste my time with "the divine mystery" of it all. That's a cop out!
And from the woman in the back wearing the "Save Darfur" t-shirt:
Yeah, I'll tell you why this sucks – because if that's how God redeems the whole world, through violence, then that just tells every man, woman, and child out there that good can actually come from evil. If God saves humanity through the heinous death of his very own son on the cross, then we can just as easily justify every religiously sanctioned war, and every other form of abuse, that has been carried out in God's name over the last two millennia. If God can redeem creation through violence, then so can we, the ones who are called to imitate the "goodness" of God in all things. Like father, like sons. Take Iraq – it looks pretty bad now, with innocent people being murdered on a daily basis, but it's all for a greater good. It will all be better in the end, after the dust has settled. Is that what your theology is telling me? If so, then I agree: that God's a jerk.
And from a young man who has never uttered a word in class (or, in this case, in response to a sermon):
You know what? I think Paul got it wrong. I can believe in Jesus' God, the one who is merciful apart from sacrifice and requires the same of us. It doesn't seem like this God would insist on the death of a single human being, let alone his son, to appease his wrath. But Paul's God – the one who demands blood and justice – that just doesn’t cut it. I can't love a God who redeems the world through violence in that way.
Needless to say, this is a group of students familiar with Rene Girard, filtered so elegantly through the insights of Walter Wink in The Powers That Be. Very simply stated, Girard understands Jesus' death on the cross not as a sacrifice to a vengeful God but as an extraordinary means of exposing the fallacy of the myth of redemptive violence – the belief that a scapegoat sacrificed at the hands of "the powers that be" will somehow set the world aright again. For Girard, the ultimate truth revealed in Jesus' murder is that, in the end, violence only perpetuates violence, and usually the first to feel its cruel sting are its most innocent victims. This new perspective, and not the tradition of substitutionary atonement that has soothed the souls of the masses for over nine centuries, is what seems to appeal most to the brightest and best these days who are reading the Bible and Christian theology through twenty-first-century eyes. These are the young men and women who will be occupying the pews of our churches in the years ahead… if we are lucky.
I guess the easy way out of this predicament is to blame me: "Damn you, Deffenbaugh! Why are you teaching Girard and Wink in the first place?" To this I can only offer a simple response: I teach these authors because their words are like an invigorating breath filling the empty spaces of so many lifeless bodies in my classroom, especially the ones who can recite the old mantra about being justified by Jesus' blood. To those whose earliest childhood memories include the infernal destruction of the World Trade Centers at the hands of religious fanatics, and the equally zealous response fueled by the religious rhetoric of the White House, exposing the myth of redemptive violence – founded on the assumption of a God who can spin gold out of the straw of a crucified Son – offers new hope to a generation whose search for truth is perhaps more earnest than any in the last one hundred years.
The easy answers and quick doctrinal responses of ages past do not appease these men and women – this is painfully evident as their numbers in our congregations dwindle year after year. Some observers choose to be glib in the face of the decline, suggesting that this age group has always been a hard sell for the church and that we shouldn't waste too much energy on the problem. Others, however – and I would include myself here – are sensing something unique in this emerging cohort of young people: a willingness – indeed, a preference – for not wasting time on traditions that are perceived as ineffectual and destructive. To many of them, a God who requires the excruciating death of a son in order to redeem an ungodly world sounds pretty ungodly himself. They yearn for something new, something real, for the faith of their founders is in fact foundering.
And this brings us to perhaps the most pressing questions to be addressed by those who are witnessing the advent of a new way of being church in the twenty-first century. What response will we have for the Shalom Auslanders who can't find the rhythm or feel the beat in the tried and true atonement hymns of our past? How much of the established, orthodox tradition will we be willing faithfully to reconstruct in order to meet the spiritual needs of this emerging group of seekers? And finally, will we listen when we eventually hear proclaimed the principal creed of a new generation? "The God of my father – yeah, that guy's a jerk."