For me, the Christian faith is the single most radical, humanistic, and revolutionary claim ever. While the events of the passion and resurrection are the central meaningful events of the Christian faith, when we remember the birth of Jesus, we make a startling claim: We’re saying that all of God came to live among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
This is not only a claim that a specific tribal god has acted in a specific way for the benefit of that particular group of people – it is most assuredly this, and the starting point for the declaration of Christmas – but the proclamation that this very specific, very real, very human event involves the God who makes and sustains us. At Christmas, we’re not just sharing the blessings of family and gifts, of sentiment and comfort. At Christmas we’re proclaiming that the God who has made everything cares enough about this one little group of persons suffering under foreign domination and oppression to come down to earth to effectuate their freedom; in so doing, this same God sees fit to free all humanity – indeed, all creation – from the one enemy nothing escapes: death.
We human beings are schizo about religion. We like it to be comforting. Why else do so many turn to it when the going gets rough? We do so, at least titular or former Christians at any rate, because the proclamation of the Incarnation is indeed one of radical comfort and care, rooted in an understanding of the human condition that has become divine, holy, and eternal. God comforts because God has grieved. God consoles because God has suffered. God provides solidarity because God has experienced oppression. All the sorrows and sufferings of human existence have been taken up into the Divine Life. They are made holy, provide the source of human confidence in the faithfulness of God in the midst of all our trials.
At the same time, we don’t like it when people turn religion into a weapon to wield against others. We tend to be put off by the exclusionary ideas inherent in the proclamation of the Incarnation. The truth is, though, God takes sides. If the Incarnation teaches us anything, it’s that God’s fullness dwelt among a specific people at a specific time and place, reaching out to specific groups of people, working with outcasts of all kinds to create something that, while transcending the politics of the moment nevertheless speaks to that moment in the most radical way possible: Divine favor rests with those the world casts out. The Divine Presence is with those we call blasphemers and sinners. Divine power is evident not in the biggest battalions or billions of dollars but in the beloved community of the excluded who experience human life in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. No, there are no particular partisan political conclusions one can draw from these events. There are, however, very certain and sure ways of living that impact how we are to live toward one another that are given real life and meaning in and through the Incarnation.
Divine grace, that overwhelming, overflowing love that takes this sad and broken reality, says “Yes” to it even as it says “No” to it, is summed up in the events of Holy Week. These moments give meaning, not a meaning we find but rather a meaning that finds us, as we realize God has been here with us all along, in this broken corpse now missing from the tomb. We live in a Universe unimaginable in its breadth and potential both for beauty and violence. That Universe is the product of completely free Divine love and care. A love so free that God chose to become flesh and dwell among us folks, right here on this one damp rock circling a forgettable star on the fringes of a galaxy that probably has bigger concerns.
In the midst of the horrors of our historical moment, I read something this morning that shocked me far more than I imagined. It was a gut punch in a way even concentration camps, our crumbling civic infrastructure, and our horrible man-boy President have yet to hit me. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of the violation. I’m not sure. The headline above is from the IncelTears subreddit, and describes the event in question succinctly. I first saw the story, however, at We Hunted The Mammoth, and at first I refused to believe what I was reading.
Sunday morning, a young man named Brandon Clark allegedly murdered 17-year-old Instagram “e-girl” Bianca Devins, apparently a friend of his, brutally slashing her throat and then slashing his own in an attempt to kill himself. Sometime between the murder and the attempted suicide, he took a photo of her bloody body and uploaded it to 4chan.
The photo quickly spread across social media, including the Incels.co forum, where it was evidently found by a commenter calling himself canino1997, who reacted to the horrific tragedy by masturbating to the picture of Devins’ lifeless body and sending a picture of the resulting “cum tribute” to the girl’s mother (or perhaps her stepmother) as a sort of ‘”lesson” for her.
David Futrelle, ” Incel jerks off to a grisly photo of a murdered girl, claims he sent the resulting “cum tribute” to the girl’s mother”, July 15, 2019
Canino1997 was helpful enough to include a screenshot of the messages he sent to Bianca’s mother along with the photo.
If possible, let us set to one side what is obvious: Bianca’s murderer is a disturbed, entitled individual who, after playing a few online games with a young woman thought he was betrayed because Bianca was living her life. So he killed her, because that seems to be the thing one does. Such entitlement we call male privilege. It is endorsed and supported by men across the political spectrum. It consists of the very simple idea that men, believing themselves the bearers of the work of western society, deserve any woman they so choose to be theirs. No human agency is ascribed to women; they are nothing more than the passive recipients of men’s attention, that thing that drives all women’s behavior. Whether it’s Joe Biden getting a bit too touchy-feely with women without once realizing it is inappropriate, Brett Kavanaugh raping a young woman at a party then bragging about it in his HS yearbook, or our current President assaulting women left and right without any sense of remorse, male privilege is a very real thing, both insidious and dangerous.
When men believing themselves to be so privileged, feel themselves ignored or otherwise scorned by women who should by rights submit to them simply because they’re men, they seethe with bitterness, rage, and a hatred that has been and continues to be murderous. These men call themselves “Incels”, a term originally coined by advocates for the physically disabled to talk describe the “involuntary celibacy” far too many such persons live with. Like all good things, this term has been hijacked by a group of angry, spiteful garbage-people and it has reached something of a nadir with this latest event.
As most people are normal, we are disgusted and enraged by this particular bit of “Incel” action. As if something could be worse than the murder, or the act of the man sending Bianca’s mother those words and photo, there are people who applaud the act and the person who committed it.
What, we wonder, is happening?
As we normal folks look on in horror, it is not at all surprising that a few folks wonder where God is in the midst of all this. After all, God’s supposed to be all powerful, benevolent, yadda-yadda. People all over the place claim God’s blessing for all sorts of good things that happen in their lives. It would seem that if God is willing to bless some few folks with material and social wealth and power, the least God could also do is protect 17-year-old girls from murderous psychopaths. Barring that, perhaps God could prevent sick individuals from continuing to victimize the girl’s family, particularly in this horrible way. Thus the quoted epigram. It is, I think, given so much blather about blessings and such, a fair question to ask.
One would think that our collective history over the past 105 years, from the roughly the beginning of the First World War, might give us pause in our discussions about Divine blessing; might offer us a more sober and realistic view of Divine and human justice, and a tempered understanding of human capacity for radical evil. Whether it is collective or individual, the past century has opened our eyes to the fact that, despite the many vaunted and very real steps we humans have made in making society and our interpersonal relationships more decent, there lies within each of us and all of us the potential to commit acts of violence and hatred that horrify us when we see them played out by others. The only thing more horrible than canino1997 actions is the deep understanding that he is, at heart, no different than any of us.
Except we have built far too many walls – psychological, historical, political – around our century of radical evil to be able to grasp this simple reality. The horrors we see and hear and read about offend us in their cruelty. We call those who commit such acts “monsters”, denying to them the one thing we must never release: these are men and women no different than we. The only difference is such persons grasp the essential reality of the modern age: We are truly free, and that freedom includes the freedom to allow our most basic instincts to run wild. While the rest of us cling to ideas of morality and law, our sense of the need for our common life to be decent and safe, there are those who rightly understand these things to be nothing more than human constructs and habits of mind of recent vintage. Violating them does no violence to some immutable human or divine order; it is the expression of the extent of human freedom.
Such radical evil isn’t only the provenance of our era of mass death. In the late Renaissance, Christian ministers and theologians justified the mass enslavement of subject populations in the Americas and Africa with as little thought to these people’s humanity as they did the slaughter of animals for food. In North America, ministers like Increase and Cotton Mather justified the deliberate murder of surrounding native tribes through a kind of biological warfare by the simple (to them) notion that as the local Indian peoples existed outside Christendom, they weren’t to be of any concern to the colonists whose survival these same Indians has helped sustain.
Around the time of the French Revolution, the Marquis de Sade wrote a series of novels in which he spelled out in gruesome detail his belief, bolstered by a rigorously rational series of arguments that other people exist solely for our use and pleasure. Men, women, and children only exist to satisfy us. The powerful are entitled to do whatever they would wish to do, up to and including murdering them once their usefulness has been exhausted. We sentimental moderns flinch and blanch at such things, yet not only from disgust; we also understand that such events and their justifications are not at all inhuman. They are, to use Nietzsche’s felicitous and ironic phrase, “Human. All Too Human”.
Which brings me to the whole matter of the role of God in all this. The so-called cri de coeur, the keen to the heavens for an answer in the midst of human suffering, is often noted to be followed by silence. Thus do many reject a God who would claim both Divine forbearance for human beings, and a species of justice meted out in time and history toward those deserving it. The repeated failure of God at the most crucial – that is to say, most painful – moments of our individual and collective lives seems in and for itself enough reason to state what seems obvious: God doesn’t exist.
Except, of course, this ignores the one elephant in the room we choose to refuse to acknowledge: Ourselves. We think far too highly of ourselves, both as individuals and as a species, to acknowledge that the depths of depravity we too often see and hear and read about are not only very real, but very real human possibilities. You want to blame God? Blame God for allowing us the freedom to act even upon the most base thoughts that lie deep inside. Blame God for loving us enough to offer us responsibility for our own actions. Blame God for our ability to study and analyze and consider the depths of evil without ever once seeing it as fully human, in no need of outside instigation or influence. Whether it’s the slaughter bench of history, as Hegel called it, the daily assault of human indignities we see around us, or the increasingly visible acts of human depravity available to the human gaze through the Internet, we see and hear and read these things with our only reaction being, “this isn’t human.”
It is, though. It was human beings who believed the old woman living in the falling down house was somehow an agent of a supernatural evil, deserving of torture, strangulation, and burning. It was human beings who thought nothing of executing hundreds of other human beings, placing their twisted bodies on cross-trees along the sides of well-traveled roads as a message regarding the fate of political rebels. It was human beings who thought it a Christian duty to poison whole populations with disease to clear the land for its possession by the righteous. It was human beings who considered the simple act of the existence of human difference an affront to human society, deserving of death on an industrial scale never seen before.
It was a human being who thought it was justified to sexualize the death of a young girl, taunting that girl’s family with words and deeds to further their pain and suffering.
Where was God in all this, we ask?
God was right there. allowing human beings to act on their freedom, including the freedom for depravity. It was and continues to be human beings who allow these things to happen. We claim we know better. We claim we understand the lessons of history, that “never again” will we allow the dehumanization of others lead to mass death. We claim we understand the capacity for evil such that we seek to prevent it before it claims others. These comforting lies we tell ourselves, proved false again and again by things that actually happen, show that it is not God who stands not only accused but convicted of complicity for such things.
It’s us. All of us. Each of us. We allow these things to happen. We excuse ourselves through claims of powerlessness, through a kind of just-desserts appeal that some victims of human evil receive whatever is their due. We appeal to some made-up “right” to speech and expression, as if we even understood what any of those words might mean in the real world. We purposely blind ourselves to our complicity in events far too shocking to accept as the simple expression of human freedom over and against all restraints we claim exist to prevent them. When the restraints are shed, which they are each and every day, turning and blaming God is a bit like yelling at the river for flooding after too much rain. We could prevent such flooding, of course, but we don’t. So, too, we could prevent much of the monstrous evil we encounter each day, but we don’t do so precisely because we’ve rationalized that such evil is actually outside the possibility of human action; thus responsibility for such evil lies outside human agency. It is either the result of some supernatural being whose existence is evil; or it is the responsibility of a negligent God who has surrendered Divine responsibility for the creation that wails in agony.
Why is it necessary to drag God into discussions of evil? We human being, really, are all that’s needed for evil to exist and, occasionally, triumph.
Moving from Hannah Arendt’s Men In Dark Times to Jack Forstman’s Christian Faith In Dark Times was easy. For one thing, both Arendt and Forstman offer insight into how different people of amazing intellectual force and moral power struggled with and either lost or won their battles with particular “dark times”. Unlike Arendt, however, Forstman offers us a view of six of the most creative theological minds in Germany in the aftermath of the First World War as they faced the twin krises of their times: the emergence of Dialectical Theology in the 1920’s and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism in Germany. Unlike Arendt, who seems willing to give some failures a pass (read her essay on Brecht), Forstman is unsparing in making it clear that theologians (under discussion here are Friedrich Gogarten, Paul Althaus, and Emmanuel Hirsch) who sided first with the German Christian Church and the National Socialist Party and its leader failed the most crucial test any Christian must face.*
Serving as an excellent introduction to the early years and controversies of Dialectical Theology and its opponents, supporters and hangers-on (this last would include Paul Tillich and, after a fashion, Rudolf Bultmann who considered himself a part of the movement in the mid-20’s but distanced himself over time from Barth’s stridency), Forstman offers readers a bird’s-eye view of an important historical moment in the life of Christian theology in the West. Born in the disillusionment that flowed from the collapse of the West in the First World War, its initial proponents, Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen, sought to reaffirm that most basic proclamation of the Christian faith – that God is God, not a predicate of any human construct nor the subject of human activity and inquiry. While shifting his emphasis over the decades of his long career, Barth never lost this most basic point: God is. Everything else is not God. That distinction, what Barth called after Kierkegaard an “infinite qualitative distinction” should humble our statements regarding theological possibilities. For Barth, the far-too-enthusiastic participation of the German churches and theological faculty in prosecuting the war** showed the emptiness at the heart of then-regnant Liberal Theology.
Over the ensuing years, Dialectical Theology served much the same function as, in a different context, punk music served in Great Britain in the 1970’s. While punk was a living, vibrant, edgy scene that offered to those who understood it a way out of the morass of the over-corporatized megagroup music then in favor, the truth is it was a commercial failure and was, as even Elvis Costello would say, an “elitist” approach to musical revolution. So, too, with Dialectical Theology; while from our perspective a century after the publication of Barth’s Romerbrief it’s easy enough to see the change it and subsequent publications in much the same vein brought to European and later American theology, at the time it was loud only because Barth was his own best publicist and had a very loud, one might say strident, voice.
As the times changed, however, attention shifted to the growing power and influence of a political movement few intellectuals took very seriously. Philosopher Hans Georg-Gadamer, in an anecdote Forstman includes in a footnote, was at the time (the early 1930’s) a student at Marburg and one of a circle of young disciples of Rudolf Bultmann. Gadamer knew nothing about the National Socialists other than their outrageous views, criminal activities and thought it nonsense that such a thing might one day become powerful enough to rule Germany. Intellectually and practically, Hitler and National Socialism up to the moment it seized power, was an improbable joke.
Only when the National Socialists became the second largest party in the Reichstag in elections in 1931 did people suddenly realize that if Hitler were a joke, no one was laughing anymore. Due to the volatility and ineptitude of Weimar Republic German politics and politicians, Hitler was reluctantly appointed Chancellor of a coalition government by President von Hindenburg. After an attempted arson on the Reichstag building, the Nazis moved swiftly to consolidate power through the passage of what was unceremoniously called “Enabling Legislation” granting to the Chancellor a series of emergency powers that resulted in the destruction of rival parties, the jailing of opposition leadership in hastily-built concentration camps, and the emergence of an enforced Cult of Personality that included requisite loyalty oaths to the National Socialist State and the person of Adolf Hitler.
Not long after the enabling legislation was passed, Tillich lost his teaching position but was offered a soft landing at Union Seminary in New York City, thanks in part to the intervention of Richard Niebuhr and his brother Reinhold. Others – Gogarten, Hirsch, and Althaus – not only signed the oath but Hirsch and Althaus wrote offering an enthusiastic “Yes” to the person of Hitler and the work of the Nazi Part in the State. Karl Barth would only sign an oath if a qualifying sentence would be added; after much back-and-forth, the state accepted, Barth signed, then a week later was dismissed from the theological faculty in Gottingen. Like Tillich, Barth had a soft landing in his hometown of Basel on the Swiss/French/German border.
The unlikeliest of heroes, Rudolf Bultmann emerges from Forstman’s text as the most courageous of the men investigated. He refused to sign the oath but never lost his teaching position. He continued to be critical both of Nazism and the German Christian movement throughout the war years, preaching often at local churches and never shying away from speaking the Gospel in a demon-haunted land. He always faced opposition, even protest, but he kept his position, continued to teach, and after the War became known in the English-speaking world for his exegetical work on New Testament texts.
The question Forstman asks at the beginning of the book – “[A]re there in Christian faith understandings of God, self, and the world that can help one recognize the demonic before it shows itself boldly?” – has become ever more relevant. I first purchased and read this book in 1992. At the time, there were certainly troubles and frustrations, both within the churches in the United States and in our political life. In the ensuing quarter century, however, what was only nascent if at all has become our own kairos. We Christians living in America have faced over recent history moments of choice; by and large, the majority of American Christians have chosen poorly. This has harmed both the churches in America as well as our common life as American citizens. I know there are some, perhaps many, who wouldn’t abide the idea that our politics has become demonic; that this fiendish infiltration took root first in the churches before spreading itself out, allowing for the election of our very own clownish, ridiculous leader, Donald Trump.
Here we are, however. I think that the best Christian theology offers tools for those willing to use them to be able to stand in critical distance from our own moment and shout a “No!” that would make Karl Barth proud. Alas, I think too few people use these tools. Thus it is we find ourselves in our current state of affairs. Forstman’s book, then, is hardly at all dated; like Arendt before him, Forstman challenges his readers to recognize the fallen angels of our time, to wrestle with them honestly and fearlessly, and be able to call them by name even as they continue to ravage our churches and world.
*The exception seems to be his rather more tentative statements regarding Hirsch. Considering Hirsch never repudiated his membership in the Nazi Party, held fast to the virulent anti-Semitism of the Party, and accepted exile from academic life rather than deny his adherence to Nazi ideas, this hesitancy seems more than a little misplaced. Yes, Hirsch was brilliant, as those things can be understood, in the depth and breadth of his intellect. To call an unrepentant Nazi “extremely ethical”, as Forstman does, does violence to the word.
** I do not know if Barth ever knew this, but the infamous speech Kaiser Wilhelm gave in defense of his declaration of war – infamous both because of the content of the speech as well as a photograph of the event shows very clearly a young Austrian immigrant, Adolf Hitler, looking on in rapture as Wilhelm spoke – was written in large part by Barth’s teacher, one of the greatest historians of Christian teachings, Adolf von Harnack.
Soon, you will gather in St. Louis, MO to determine the fate and future of our denomination. So many of us wait, holding our breath, wondering what the events in St. Louis mean for our futures as individuals, as congregation, as clergy, as an international institution that even still works hard to bring the Gospel to life in communities across the globe.
I guess I would start by saying, not for the first time, that you don’t serve your own interests, or the interests of the Annual and Central Conferences who elected you. You do not serve doctrine or social justice. You do not serve to preserve power or tradition. You do not serve to exclude anyone. You serve the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. We are members of that part of the Body of Christ called United Methodist. For all our faults and failings, ours is a tradition of personal and social piety; of faithful living; of personal devotion and communal worship; of great learning and the simplicity of a faith expressed as, “God is love.” Our history, fraught and messy as it is, remains a living testimony to the pursuit of perfection in love in this lifetime. Not just for each of us. For all of us, up to and including the denomination as a whole.
We face ultimatums over questions of human sexuality. Once upon a time, the Church of Jesus Christ faced ultimatums over the matter of uncircumcised converts to Judaism. We lived schism over interpretations of the internal life of the Divine Trinity. We lived schism over matters of secular authority and its relationship to the Church. We lived schism over the very humanity of persons of African descent. We as human beings have divided the Body of Christ quite enough over the millennia. It seems to me far past time to stop.
Some say the matter is one of faithfulness to Scripture, to tradition, and to doctrine. As Wesleyan Christians, however, we must always read and live Scripture, tradition, and doctrine through lenses focuses upon God’s grace, a grace that is prodigal, overflowing into our ministries in and for the world. We have embraced the full humanity of our African-American brothers and sisters. We have embraced the call and ordination of women. Once upon a time these, too, were opposed on matters of faithfulness. Now, however, we see them for what they were: the expression of human sin dressed in Sunday best rather than some divine once-for-all statement on who is and is not fit to be embraced in communion with one another before the Lord.
So much of what will happen and what will flow from events in St. Louis depends upon you, delegates to General Conference, remembering that we, the people called United Methodist, still have a story to tell to the nations. It’s a story of Divine love and mercy. It’s a story of the power of the Holy Spirit expanding the possibilities for true human communion and community in ministry to the world. It’s a story of the struggle for sanctification, and how that is lived out both individually and institutionally. It is a story best summed up in the title of the mission document presented to the 1988 General Conference: It is a story of Grace Upon Grace.
This is my prayer for each of you and all of you: Remember the stream of faith which gives us life. Remember our history, broken and fully human as it is. Remember the Scriptures that always testify to our awareness of an ever-growing wideness in God’s mercy. Remember, most of all, that we have a story to tell to the nations. It’s a story only we can tell, because it is our story. Let us continue to tell our story by rising above our pride and our prejudices, our anger and sadness and be who we are called to be by the Lord who gives us life.
For those of you not United Methodist, in a couple weeks our denomination will be holding a Special Session of General Conference in order, we all hope, to put to rest the controversy over the place of sexual minorities within the life of the church.
Whether you’re a United Methodist or not, you have to wonder why in the world we keep doing this. The simple reason is this: power. It’s as base and disgusting as that.
There are currently four “plans” before the delegates. They range from eliminating the discriminatory language from our Book Of Discipline, and fully embracing sexual minorities into the full life and ministry of the church to the punitive enforcement of a kind of discrimination that’s non-Christian. I support the “Simple Plan”, as the first one above is called. It’s a position I’ve publicly advocated for close to 30 years now. It is hardly “radical”, as many have characterized it. At least in the North American churches, it’s the favored position.
My wife is a supporter of what’s called “The One Church” plan. Essentially, it removes the discriminatory language from the Discipline, while still allowing individual churches to decide just how far they will open themselves to sexual minorities: whether they will welcome a gay/lesbian pastor; whether they will allow their buildings to host a same-sex marriage; whether they will endorse candidates for ministry who are sexual minorities. It has the virtue of being open. It has the vice of not pledging the Body of Christ called United Methodist to justice for all persons.
For a while, I was sure the One Church plan would pass, an opportunity, if nothing else, for everyone to take a breath and realize that we can now move forward together in ministry together with the de facto elimination, once and for all, of any practice of discrimination at a denominational level. Some clergy and congregations might seek to end relationships with the denomination, although I think that number is far fewer than many fear. The process of doing so would tax resources beyond the breaking point. The optics of individual clergy and congregations wishing to leave in order to discriminate against sexual minorities could seriously injure local ministries far more than these congregations might realize. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it is a solution.
A couple weeks ago, my wife confided a fear to me: That nothing happens at Special Session. With none of the plans on offer achieving majority support, the can will be kicked, yet again, down the road. At first I was skeptical, but as I’ve thought about it, this outcome seems more and more possible. After all, the delegates to this Special Session are the same as those at the 2016 General Conference who presided over a royal fuck-up. All sides managed to embarrass themselves, sometimes egregiously.
We have two possible scenarios. The One Church plan passes, which doesn’t exactly settle the matter, allows the most vocal to continue to complain one way or another, but at least offers a way forward. Far worse, however, is a scenario in which nothing is achieved, everyone is frustrated, and we are left yet again wondering if this business can ever be settled. My personal hope and prayer is the latter scenario not come about. My fear, however, is this might well be the outcome, one that injures the church far more than the adoption either of the punitive “Traditionalist Plan” or the “Simple Plan”.
N.B.: A long time ago, I had an idea I might try to write something useful about the intersection of music and faith. Lots of other people have gone there and done that, far better than I ever could, so I’m just going to offer some thoughts, here and in what follows, without pretending to be anything like comprehensive.
There’s a channel on YouTube run by a youth pastor, Robert Houghton, that features “Pastor Rob” reacting to contemporary music. One of the more interesting choices is “Judith” by A Perfect Circle. The song features Billy Howerdel screaming, “Fuck your God,” followed by vocalist Maynard James Keenan adding, “Your Lord, your Christ.” Not pleasant stuff upon a first hearing. Even understanding the source of the song’s anger can do little to assuage the offense such language could cause in many hearers. In his reaction video, Rob stops the playback after the first verse and says, “I don’t even know what to say.”
Even with the advent of what’s been called “praise bands” and “contemporary Christian music”, the relationship between the contemporary American churches and contemporary music is fraught, at best, and actively hostile at worst. While therehavebeenserioustheologicalworks regarding the place of music in the life of faith, with the exception of Jeremy Begbie’s many works on theology and the arts, very little has been written on why such engagement is a necessary part of theological reflection. Far too often, the church has dismissed most contemporary music as either irrelevant or actively hostile to a life of faith.
Nothing human being foreign to God, however, with the event of the Incarnation, it would seem we have neglected opportunities for engaging theological reflection even as dogmatic and doctrinal theologies continue to pile up in our institutions’ libraries. In order to do this thing called theological reflection, we need to be clear that our reflections take music, as it does other art forms, seriously as a human activity. Whether it is the sublime power of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the exuberance of The Beatles’ version of “Twist And Shout”, or the rage and blasphemy of Watain’s “Satan’s Hunger”, theology must engage the music at its heart – the attempt to convey particular emotional states. There’s the sexiness of Barry White’s “I Wanna Lay Down With You.” There’s the uplifting love of Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up”. There’s the bitterness and anger of Vertical Horizon’s “You’re A God.” That we allow ourselves to wrestle with the angels (and occasionally demons) offered to us in music of all kinds is a necessary part of the life of faith. All has been redeemed in the Christ-event. How that happens even in the most anti-Christian art is the challenge we face as people of faith.
Doing theology is the task facing all people of faith. It is how we as a people make sense of what it is we believe and how those beliefs shape our lives in the world. It is the church’s work, new each day. We should approach the task with deep humility. We should do this work, which Karl Barth called an “impossible possibility” as if we could very well be wrong, but believe nevertheless that, in making sense of the variety of ways our God reaches out to us even in the secular worlds of entertainment and art, we are being faithful to God’s charge upon us. We should never dismiss out of hand anything we as human beings have produced in order to make sense of our world. All art is just that. While certainly not a necessity in life (human necessities are water, food, shelter, and community) art is as old as the species. We have always attempted to communicate our sense of the world through the plastic and musical arts. This deeply human thing calls us to theological engagement precisely because it seems peripheral yet is universal in its sheer variety.
Christian faith is very specific. It says one thing, and only one thing. Summed up in the first Epistle of John, it says, “God is love.” So, too, individual pieces of music convey specific emotional moments: love, hurt, loneliness, confusion, rage, lust, emotional exhaustion. In the meeting, then, of these specific things we have the opportunity for each to listen to the other, to speak to the other, and to discover within each other something about this God who is sacrificial, prodigal love. Precisely in this specific thing we may encounter the possibility for something that speaks to all of us. At the end of the day, that is the goal both of theology and music: to take something specific and reach as many people as possible, creating communities of understanding. This, I think, is the very beginning of an encounter between theology and music.