Tuesday, April 16, 2013

God and Hell on Earth: Flogging Molly, the Incarnation, and the Cross of Christ

(image@floggingmolly.com)




















I have often said, only partly in jest, that no one should be placed in a position of spiritual leadership in the church until they are at least 40 years of age (the same applies, mutatis mutandis, to exercising academic leadership positions at Christian colleges or seminaries). Part of the reason, as St. Paul wisely said to his protege Timothy when he disqualified a new convert (neophyton) from the role/office of "overseer" (episkopē, i.e., an elder or, later, a "bishop"), was to avoid the pitfall of arrogance or conceit (hina mē typhōtheis) to which such such youngsters (spiritual or otherwise) are prone (1 Tim 3:6). To this I would add another reason: most younger people have simply not experienced enough of life's inescapable vicissitudes. Or, to put it more bluntly, most of them have not been worn down or refined sufficiently by the suffering and misery—the living hell on earth, as it were—that life in a fallen world brings as its ineluctable companion. Younger ministers and scholars may have achieved "success" in ministry or academia, some at the expense of personal integrity, others imperceptibly assimilating the American (i.e., the "world's") understanding of what "success" entails, but almost all failing to develop genuine empathy and sympathy for those who have suffered disappointment and loss.

I write as an academician. As such I have grappled for decades with the issue of theodicy, particularly theodicy of a distinctively Western variety: how can a holy, loving, and all-powerful God allow both moral (sin) and "natural" (earthquakes, fires, etc.) evil? Or, to put the matter less theologically, why do bad things often happen to "good" people? I will not bore you with an academic treatise on this issue. Suffice it to say that the position which I hold, known as "compatibilism," may satisfy the tests of exegetical and theological rigor, but can, at times, be presented in a way that is less compelling emotionally. This is particularly the case if such a view of God's sovereignty is wed to a picture of the divine "impassibility" that portrays God as, for all practical purposes, a metaphysical iceberg. I understand and sympathize with the theological and Christological concerns that led to the development of this doctrine in the ancient Greek church (for an up-to-date collection of essays, cf. the recent volume, Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, edited by James F. Keating and Thomas Joseph White). Nevertheless, unless one is careful, one easily falls right into the trap set by scoffers and the impious who castigate a supposed God "up in the sky" for, at best, inability to deal with evil and, at worst, a lack of concern and unwillingness to "get his hands dirty" in doing anything to alleviate it or mitigate its effects.

A case in point is Dubliner Dave King, the leader and frontman of the brilliant Irish/American punk band Flogging Molly. As with Irishmen of all sorts, the church is an omnipresent fact of the cultural landscape which nourished him. Indeed, in the liner notes to one of the band's albums, King thanked the Catholic Church "for years of Heavenly Material." He is no believer, however, as may be gleaned from one of the quieter but no less riveting numbers of Flogging Molly's 2008 album, Float. The song in question is "Us of Lesser Gods," the lyrics of which read as follows:



There's a breeze that's blowin' in from the land
Instead of salt air all we breathe in is sand
Crippled the cloud that once brought the rain
Good job now we'll never see our coasts again


But those of us, those of us
Us of Lesser Gods
Won't eat till we're hungry
Won't drink till we're parched
But those of us, those of us
Who forget where we're from
Create now the Hell where no devil could spawn
Take me back, take me back
To the way life used to be



A whisper's now sayin'
What words used to speak
Starve must the child, hungry sex on T.V.
For no act of contrition
Will pardon the soul
The damage now glistens
See how it glows



But those of us, those of us
Us of Lesser Gods
Won't eat till we're hungry
Won't drink till we're parched
But those of us, those of us
Who forget where we're from
Create now the Hell where no devil could spawn
Take me back, take me back
To the way Life used to be



Yesterday is better than it is today
And today will be better than tomorrow they say
We don't want what you know
But we know what we want
That's 'Live and Let Live'
We're all different that counts



But those of us, those of us
Us of Lesser Gods
Won't eat till we're hungry
Won't drink till we're parched
But those of us, those of us
Who forget where we're from
Create now the Hell where no devil could spawn
Take me back, take me back
To the way life used to be



Dark is the shallow man
Proud without pride
Worn out comes the welcome
From a truth that never lies
Weep now for the tear
Cold on the face
So come down from your Heaven, Lord
Let me show you Hell on Earth
Take me back
To the way Life's never been


This is a brilliant song, and one whose refrain resonates with countless people in the postmodern West. And, no doubt, many purported followers of Jesus think and act as if God were safely at home "up" in heaven, only to be disturbed on Sundays, when convenient or when his help is desired. But is this the portrait of God found in Scripture?

The answer, of course, is "no." And the answer, not surprisingly, is found in New Testament Christology. The Nicene Creed faithfully interprets the New Testament when it confesses Christ to be "very God of very God." Often people act as if the "known" element in the confession is "God," and thus understand the incarnate Christ in ways that stand in more than a little tension with the parallel confession of Christ's genuine humanity. I have often thought it better to proceed the other way around, viz., to learn about what God is like by looking to Christ. The place to start is with St. Paul's famous "Christ hymn" in Philippians 2:6-11, which he writes (or cites, if he is adapting a preexisting tradition) in order to commend humility and other-directedness within the church community (Phil 2:1-4). Verses 5-11 read thus (RSV):

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


The Philippian church, as evidenced by the squabble between Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2), apparently was a fissiparous bunch, which Paul diagnosed as being due to "selfishness" (eritheia) and "empty conceit" (kenodoxia) (Phil 2:3). Accordingly, they needed a fundamental reorientation of their "way of thinking" (phroneite [2:5]) so as to manifest genuine concern for one another. Such concern, however, ought not to be motivated by a bare altruism, but rather by the example of Christ himself (2:6-11), whose "career" provides the template for proper Christian relationships within the community. Not only this, it provides insight into the character of the God Christians worship.

Christ, according to Paul, existed "in the form of God" (en morphē theou). The meaning of the term morphē  here has proved somewhat elusive. Lexically, it denotes a "form" or "shape," not in terms of the external features by which a given thing is recognized (for that, the term schēma would have been more appropriate), but rather of its essential or intrinsic attributes. In the present context, Paul's intent is clarified both by the resumptive expression "(this) equality with God" (to einai isa theō; Greek students will recognize the presence of the anaphoric article with the infinitive einai, signifying a reference back to en morphē theou) and the explicit contrast with "the form of a slave" (morphē doulou) which Christ took in the act of "emptying himself." The preexistent Christ, in other words, possessed the very nature of God and, accordingly, exercised the prerogatives commensurate with his divine nature. 

Despite this, however, Christ acted in a way no petty oriental despot would ever have imagined. The clause ouch harpagmon hēgēsato in verse 6 has occasioned no little discussion (indeed, in the first piece I ever read from his pen, N. T. Wright, in a 1986 article in the Journal of Theological Studies, discusses 17 (!) distinct interpretations). Nevertheless, I believe R. W. Hoover cracked the nut in his unpublished 1968 Harvard Th.D. thesis on "The Term 'ΑΡΠΑΓΜΟΣ in Philippians 2.6." Hoover demonstrated that the expression is an idiom referring to taking advantage of or exploiting a given situation. Hence, in context, divine equality is not something to which Christ either determined not to grasp (res rapienda) or to retain in his grasp (res retinenda). Rather, it is something which Christ intrinsically had but failed to regard as something to use for his own advantage. The consequences of this stance are then elaborated by Paul in terms of a two-stage "emptying" process. First, by incarnation he "took the form of a slave" by "being born in the likeness of human beings." Second, "having been found in human form" (schēmati heuretheis hōs anthrōpos), he took the added step of humbling himself (etapeinōsen heauton) by becoming obedient to his commission to die (genomenos hypēkoos mechri thanatou)and not just any death, but the most humiliating death in the Roman arsenal, death on a cross (thanatou de staurou). This is the character of the God and Lord that Christians worship, not some distant, uncaring God comfortably living in the lap of luxurious entitlement!

Back in verse 6, the foundational statement of Christ's preexistent status is expressed in a circumstantial participial clause, en morphē theou hyparchōn, literally translated "being in the form of God." Circumstantial participles relate to the main verbs in a sentence in various adverbial ways, depending on the context. Traditionally, at least as far back as the classic 19th century commentary on Philippians by Joseph Barber Lightfoot, and represented by any number of contemporary translations (NIV, NRSV, NET Bible, ESV), the participle hyparchōn has been understood as concessive in sense. That is, even though Christ existed in the form of God, he didn't use that status as something to use for his own advantage. Such an interpretation makes good sense. But I wonder whether Charlie Moule, in a penetrating essay in the 1970 F. F. Bruce Festschrift, was on to something when he suggested that the participle should rather be understood in a causal sense. In Moule's understanding, it is precisely because Christ existed in the form of God that he did consider equality with God as consisting in snatching. In other words, Jesus' equality in nature and status with God makes his subsequent self-abasement entirely appropriate. God is as he has revealed himself to be in Christ, his incarnate Word.

This brings us inexorably to the cross itself. I often point to John Stott's most significant work, simply entitled The Cross of Christ. In my well-worn autographed copy of this book, one passage has stuck in my head and heart ever since I first read it in the summer of 1986:

I would never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross'. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from those thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He endured our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering. [quoting P. T. Forsyth] 'The cross of Christ ... is God's only self-justification in such a world' as ours. (335-36)

That is genuine Christianity, not the triumphalist, imperial Christianities that have reared their ugly heads from the days of the Roman Empire in the 4th century to the days of the British and American Empires of the 19th to the 21st centuries. Imperial Christianity, with its picture of a warrior God and his victorious people, is turned upside down by the biblical portrait of the incarnate God-man who identifies with sinful humanity to the point of self-substitution in judgment for the sins of which they were the perpetrators. The God I believe in and worship is best understood via his human face, the incarnate Jesus of Nazareth. This is a God who is not aloof to humanity's pain and the hell we have brought upon ourselves. God forbid that I or any other putative follower of Christ ever let anyone imagine otherwise. Soli Deo Gloria!


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