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Barth, Hell and the Kings of Leon

17 Oct

The other week in my first year Introduction to Theology class I was taking about Barth’s understanding of election. Jesus Christ is the elect One and all humanity is elect in him. This understanding of election leads many people to accuse Barth of “universalism” – the idea that, in the end, everyone will be “saved”.

My own understanding is that that Barth wasn’t a universalist. Yes, everyone IS reconciled in Jesus Christ, but that does not necessarily mean that everyone will know and experience that reconciliation. It would seem that it is somehow possible to choose to reject this reconciliation. It remains possible to disbelieve this reconciliation in Jesus Christ and to believe the ultimate lie.

In class, to back up this view I offered a quote (From “Memories of Karl Barth” by Eberhard Busch, in How Karl Barth Changed my Mind, ed. By Donald   McKim, pp.13-14) about Barth’s thoughts about hell:

“(Barth saw hell as)… an immense desert… (that was) unbearably cold, not hot. In this cold, forsaken desert there was sitting one person, very isolated and very lonely; so much so that Barth became depressed just observing the loneliness. Ending the narration of his dream, Barth said to his friend, ‘There are people who say I forgotten this region [hell]. I have not forgotten. I know more about it than others do. But because I know of this, therefore I must speak about Christ. I cannot speak enough about the Gospel of Christ.

For Barth hell is ultimately the loss of what makes us human… our relationality. It is the ultimate loneliness. It is the ultimate isolation. Hell is not merely some sort of legal punishment. It is the “natural” outworking of sin which is a deeply relational thing.

kings of leon shot for nme magazine, location elms lester painting roomsAfter the lecture one of my student’s sent me a link to a video of an interview of Caleb Followill, the lead singer of Kings of Leon, talking about how their song “Cold Dessert” was written. It’s pretty incredible how both Caleb’s experience and words parallel Barth’s vision of hell.

Caleb was so drunk he didn’t even remember recording the song. All was free-flow apart from the first verse. In his “drunken stupor”, however, he did remember saying “Jesus don’t love me” and he remembered it as the saddest thing he ever said. This line is sung in the third verse.

I’m on the corner waiting for a light to come on,
That’s when I know that you’re alone.
It’s cold in the desert, water never sees the ground,
Special unspoken without sound.
Told me you loved me, that I’d never die alone
Hand over your heart let’s go home.
Everyone noticed, everyone had seen the signs,
I’ve always been known to cross lines.
I never ever, cried when I was feeling down,
I’ve always been scared of the sound.
Jesus don’t love me, no-one ever carried my load,
I’m too young to feel this old.
Here’s to you, here’s to me, oh to us,
Nobody knows
Nobody sees
Nobody but me.

As Celeb mentions, when he listened to the recording of the song for the first time he was floored. It was spine-tingling – and not in a good way. At the time producer Jacquire King said “That verse – I felt that way my whole life.” Even though Caleb didn’t remember recording it, he knew that every bit of it was truth and so, even though the production is not great, it is a song that he will not re-record – a pure, natural, honest moment that could never be recaptured.

And then there is the story of his experience one night of the cold lonely desert. He admits that the desert has always had a hold of him. For him the cold of the desert not only means that it gets cold, it means that this is what he has chosen.

Here is the interview…

The Hunger Games and Scapegoating

6 Sep

This post originally appeared in the July edition of The Garden.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by The Hunger Games (which came out on DVD in mid August). Don’t most dystopian post-apocalyptic movies explore the deep issues that confront humanity?

The story takes place in a country called Penam, which is ruled by the Capitol with 12 surrounding districts. Every year the Hunger Games are organised by the Capitol. In each district two teenagers, one boy and one girl, are picked by lottery to represent their district as “tributes”. Originally organised in response to a rebellion by a now destroyed 13th district, the Games are meant to represent an act of atonement on the part of the remaining districts, as well as a means of control by the Capitol. However, all of this is now caught up in a media-driven frenzy with every piece of the action and death broadcast to the masses.

In an interview Suzanne Collins, the author of the original book, has told of how the inspiration for the story came to her one evening when she was channel surfing between reality TV programmes and actual war coverage. Feeling tired, the two started to blur in a very unsettling way. She also confirms that the story line is based on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which the King of Athens is obligated to the king of Crete to send in tribute each year seven young men and seven young women to Crete, where they were thrown into the labyrinth and devoured by the Minotaur.

There are also other resonances. For example, the famous American short story “The Lottery” in which one villager is chosen to die each year by stoning for the sake of a good harvest; the Aztec practice of choosing a handsome warrior from an enemy tribe, who is wined and dined for a year and then sacrificed to the Gods; and the Roman gladiators fighting in the Coliseum – being used by the political establishment to control the people through deathly entertainment. What all these “stories” have in common is the need for some kind of human sacrifice.

Rene Girard, the French literary critic and philosopher, talks about the scapegoat mechanism at work in many cultures. According to Girard, this mechanism is used to deal with certain tensions within society. In order to deal with these tensions the community chooses someone to blame, isolate and punish and thus discharge their fears and anxieties onto that person or group. In this way a certain peace is achieved and thus it is often sanctioned by the state or by religion.

For Girard, the mechanism can be seen in Christianity with Jesus being the scapegoat. However, rather than sanctioning the violence like the religious authorities do, God can be thought of as identifying with the victim. In this act, the real injustice and violence of the scapegoat mechanism is unveiled and disempowered and a new vision of life emerges.  Not one based on violence, but rather one based on love, forgiveness, compassion and identification with the victim. In other words – a way out of the cycle of violence.

Something similar happens at the end of the movie. The two main characters, who remain alive (both tributes from the same district), are not willing to kill one another and give the Capitol the satisfaction it wants. They challenge the system by both agreeing to take their own lives by eating poisonous berries, thus taking away the possibility of a successful Games. They are vindicated when at the last moment the rules are changed. Ironically, it is through the willingness to give up life, that the system that seeks to control through death, is subverted. A new vision of life emerges.

Life, Above All (Movie Review)

10 Jun

Life, Above All, a German-South African production, is moive (recently released on DVD) about suffering, shame, community and redemption.  The “hero” is a 12 year old girl, Chanda, who shows us what it means to be truly “pro-life” in the midst of suffering and shame. The movie opens with Chanda singing a song with the refrain “Open the Gates” – a reference to the gates of heaven and a yearning perhaps for some kind of salvation. We learn that her youngest sister has just died. Her mother is distraught. Her father has numbed his grief in drink and sex. Chanda left to take care of her other siblings and even make the funeral arrangements.

As the movie proceeds we find out that her little sister has most likely died of “the bug” – a euphemism for AIDS. In fact, both her mother (Lillian) and her step-father also have “the bug”. And in this rural South African context such a condition brings condemnation and shame, justified by both religious (pseudo-Christian) and spiritual (animist) belief. Lillian believes that her suffering has been brought on because she married against her parents’ advice and outside her own village. She has therefore brought a curse on her family.

The tragedy of the situation is compounded when Chanda’s step-father disappears – not being able to cope with the shame… and with what his wife has done to his daughter. He returns a few months later, clearly physically wrecked by the effects of AIDS. On his arrival back the village come out to show their condemnation (even his former sexual-partner). That night he once again disappears… but this time permanently. Later, his body is found down manhole – apparently pushed in by his fellow villagers.

The village is represented by a seemingly well-meaning neighbour – Mrs. Tafa whose own son has died – apparently killed by a gang. Mrs. Tafa acts of kindness, however, are ultimately motivated by her desire for Lillian to leave the village. This she eventually achieves with the help of a witch-doctor who tells Lillian she needs to return to her family and her home village so as to reverse the curse. And so Lillian, obviously ill and in much pain, leaves her other remaining younger children under the care of Chanda.

Meanwhile Chanda has befriended Esther, another 12 year old, whose own parents have died of AIDS. The result of this is that Esther has been abandoned by her extended family, living in isolation in a small corrugated iron hut. Esther has dropped out of school and has turned to prostitution. Chanda on the basis of her friendship tries to convince Esther not continue, but without any success. The friendship is not strong enough. One evening, however, Esther turns up at Chanda’s – having being severely beaten by one her “clients’. The police had found her in a ditch, but to them she was just a “whore”. She had been taken to the hospital, but, because of her “whore” status, she was not able even to see a doctor. And so a nurse had patched her up and then sent her on her way. In contrast to the rest of sciety, Chanda takes Esther in, not afraid of what her community, and Mrs Tafa, might say… and also despite the rupture of their friendship.

Chanda refuses to give up on Esther. She also refuses to give up on her own mother. And so she sets off on her own to bring her back. She eventually finds her Aunt and her own Grandmother who tell Chanda that her mother’s condition is the result of judgment. But, Chanda challenges them – Why is AIDS judgement and not her Aunt’s club foot. And who has the right to make statements about judgement? Chanda eventually finds Lillian alone in the ruins of an old village, close to death. “I am lost” her mother tells her. But now Chanda has found her and, in perhaps the most touching scene of the movie, moistens her mother’s parched lips with some water.

Chanda manages to arrange for an ambulance to bring her mother home. And there Chanda meets again the anger of the community who, reminiscent of the “woman caught in adult story” threaten to stone her. But it is here that perhaps the greatest redemption of the movie takes place. As Chanda returns with her dying mother Mrs. Tafa remembers her own son, who was not killed by a gang, but rather killed by AIDS. In turning her back on Lillian she has actually turned her back on her son. In this realization she comes out her house and stands with Chanda before the crowd with stones in their hands. Here is life in the midst of shame and suffering and condemnation. And as the movie comes to end, we here the same song, “Open the gates”. This time though, it is not Chanda who is singing… it is the crowd, transformed by the actions of this 12 year old girl and her once condemning neighbour.

The more I ponder Chanda, this brave 12 year old South African girl, the more I ponder Jesus – the one who did not come to condemn, but rather, the one who came to seek and to save the lost; the one who embraced sinners and whores; the one who travels to the far country in order to seek the lost; the one who enters into our shame and suffering; the one who bathes our wounds and gives living water to the thirsty the one who stands with us; the one who has come to share his life with is; the one who brings the open gates of heaven to us.

It is not surprising that when screened at the Cannes Film Festival the audience gave it a 10 minute standing ovation. Here is the recognition of the truth of the human condition, and the sense that this is the kind of life we need to experience – in the midst of shame, suffering and condemnation.

Clint Eastwood as Jesus

31 Oct

Just finished watching Gran Torino – moving and thoughtful and funny as well. I know… I’m a bit behind on my movie watching (as well as my blogging). If you haven’t seen it, Clint Eastwood directs, produces and also plays “Walt”, a recent widower living in a Michigan suburb now populated by poor Asian immigrants and blighted by gang violence. Through a series of events Walt’s prejudice turns into understanding and compassion for the Asian family who live next door. The family’s home is attacked by a gang and one of the daughters of the house is beaten and raped.

grantorinoposterI found the final main scene amazing. Walt lies on his back on the ground… in the shape of a cross. The camera focuses in on one of his hands and we see blood trickle onto the ground – flowing down his arms from having been shot numerous times in the chest. The way the movie works it seems as if Walt was going to deal with the wrong-doers by simply seeking revenge – the way of eye-for-an-eye justice. But then we are taken by surprise. Instead of revenge, Walt reaches for a lighter in his inside jacket pocket causing the gang members to think he reaching for a gun, and so they shoot him. With many witnesses looking on evil is exposed – brought into full sight, and as a result the gang members are sent to prison.

Walt lying in the form of the cross, with his blood dripping onto the ground, having given his life for his neighbours totally reminded me of Jesus. I’m not quite sure whether that was intended. But it is a very moving scene: Walt, in the same manner as Jesus, giving his life to expose evil and in doing so gaining victory over evil. Often the death of Jesus is thought of in terms of “paying for our sins” in our place, but there is a strong tradition, with a good biblical basis, which portrays Jesus’ death in terms of “victory over the powers” (Christus Victor). I thought Walt’s death was a great illustration of this kind of purposeful sacrificial death. (By the way, we see a similar kind of sacrificial death exposing evil to have victory over evil in the Robert Redford movie “The Last Castle“.)

I should say that there are important differences between Walt’s death and Jesus death. Perhaps the most significant is that Walt is seeking his own salvation in his sacrificial death. He feels he is somehow gaining his own redemption for some of the things he did during the Korean War. Oh… and the other thing is that Walt does not rise from the dead!

Anyways… well worth the watch.

The Gospel According to Alanis

12 May

For Ruth’s birthday I bought her two fairly recent albums by two highly talented Canadian female singers: Diana Krall’s samba influenced “Quite Nights” and Alanis Morissette’s  “Flavors of Entaglement”.

Okay… I must admit… the Alanis Morissette buy was a bit selfish. I actually wanted to listen to it myself, but knew that Ruth would probably like as well.

I’ve used Alanis Morissette songs when teaching adult Sunday classes. Yes, she’s a bit “new agey” (as they say) and her theological views can’t exactly be described as “orthodox”… at least from a Christian point of view. But I (and some of my friends) have found deep truths in her songs – truths which point to our need of God’s unconditional love which is to be found in Jesus.

Flavors of Entanglement” is a flavorfull album with a rich variety of songs. Yes… it does seem in many ways that she is singing lines from her personal journals (but what’s new) especially with regard to her split with fiance Ryan Reynolds.  But it is well worth the listen. The main theme that hits me is yearning (for heaven?)…  in the light of the reality of human existence (aka sin).

When we reflect on the state of the world – especially in relation to how human beings treat other human beings for the sake of power, or in midst of war and other acts of violence, we can easily point our finger and condemn (especially those of us in our nice western middle-class contexts). But for Alanis what happens “out there” is very similar to what happens in the “underneath” reality of our everyday existance  – in our kitchens, our bedrooms, our sandboxes, and our livingrooms.

Alanis sings on “Underneath“…

There is no difference in what we’re doing here – That doesn’t show up as bigger symptoms out there.

The Apostle Paul says in Romans 2 and 3…

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things…. For have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

Here is the song from youtube with the full lyrics below…

Look at us break our bonds in this kitchen
Look at us rallying all our defenses
Look at us waging war in our bedroom
Look at us jumping ship in our dialogues

There is no difference in what we’re doing in here
That doesn’t show up as big as it does out there
So why spend all our time undressing our bandages
When we’ve the ultimate key to the cause
right here all underneath.

Look at us form our cliques in our sandbox
Look at us being cruel kids with both our hearts blocked
Look at us turn away from all the rough spots
Look at dictatorship on my own block

There is no difference in what we’re doing in here
That doesn’t show up as big as it does out there
So why spend all our time undressing our bandages
When we’ve the ultimate key to the cause
right here all underneath.

How I’ve spun my wheels with carts before my horse
And shine on the outside springs from gloom
Spotlight on these seeds of simpler reasons
And score bourne into corn, stretching my limit

There is no difference in what we’re doing in here
That doesn’t show up as big as it does out there
So why spend all our time undressing our bandages
When we’ve the ultimate key to the cause
right here all underneath


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