Richard Beck

Ephemera, 8/21/23

Yesterday’s lectionary included Matthew 15, featuring the infamous Canaanite woman and the dogs-eating-crumbs metaphor. It’s a cringe-inducing gospel that lately has been used by certain mainline preachers as a way to show Jesus experiencing a “teachable moment” about his own racism, which is really a bizarre sort of anti-Christian Christology.

In this fascinating essay, Ben Crosby reveals why so many clergy are falling into the trap of calling Jesus a sinner based on this passage, and it’s because they have apparently been taught to do so by seminary professors who insist that each book of the Bible should be read independently of all the others. In other words, if Matthew 15 reads like Jesus is committing the sin of racism, then that’s what it says and how you should learn from it, irrespective of all of the other Biblical passages pointing out that Jesus was God incarnate and thus did not sin.

I can see the appeal of this approach to preachers: if all you have to do is read a passage and think about it for a minute, you can quickly come up with a sermon that wraps up with a neat little moral at the end. But it’s a pretty useless approach for teaching your congregation an accurate theology for Christian living, which is what I think you should be doing.

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“The great hypocrisy of our skeptical age is that its greatest moral accomplishment — a moral vision founded upon universal human rights — depends on enchantment, a belief in the sacred character of human beings and life. No scientific equation or empirical test reveals this truth to us. The inviolate dignity of human persons doesn’t show up in petri dishes, brain scans, or Hubble space photographs. Our shared belief in the sacred value of human beings is not a factual, empirical, testable, observable, data-driven claim. Our dignity is an enchantment, the ghost of God still haunting the machine, and it’s the bit of supernaturalism that keeps the secular world from tipping into the moral abyss.”

— Richard Beck, Hunting Magic Eeels

Ephemera, 8/10/23

Maybe the real AI was the stupid things we made along the way.

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Richard Beck on the subversive nature of the Bible: It “denies the ultimacy” of any political system (we are not citizens of this world), the prophetic tradition opposes oppression and injustice, and the themes throughout the scripture are about emancipation, liberation.

Beck says that the entirety of “political theology” may rest on the simple statement that the Bible exists “to unsettle the nations.” This seems right; those who claim Biblical support (and thus God’s blessing) on their state, or their ideology or particular political beliefs, whether currently in power or only seeking to be, are missing the point entirely. God has no interest in your political debates, he is only interested in justice.

I think it’s important for everyone, no matter left or right or in-between, whether they are in positions of authority, or seeking an electoral victory, or fomenting a revolution, to ask themselves: Why has every human political system in history led to oppression and injustice of some sort? And what makes me think my preferred political outcome would wind up any different?

I can’t help but go back to Ellul: Our world’s will always leads toward suicide. “If Christians work with all their might for a human project, they are only human beings like others and their effort has no added value. But if they accept their specific function as Christians, which does not necessarily involve participating in the world in material or measurable ways, then this is decisive for human history.”

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Speaking of Ellul, through the end of this month Wipf and Stock is offering a 40% discount on his books; use code IJES40 to purchase from them directly.

Ephemera, 08/07/23

“Got a special celebration on your parish calendar? A.I. can compose a unique hymn for the occasion!” Is this satire?

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I’ve very recently started reading David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament as part of my morning routine, usually a chapter at a time. Reading the gospel as something both familiar and strange has really fired me up and improved my focus. I’ve been writing lengthy notes on each chapter in my own journal; don’t worry, I’m not subjecting the interwebs to my stream-of-consciousness Biblical babbling. But these readings may lead to some other posts here.

I mention all this just because Richard Beck had a great quote from DBH’s introduction to this translation (which makes a fascinating essay in its own right) which feels perfect for a Monday. Of the shocking and strange message of Christianity (which most of us forget is either shocking or strange, we are so immersed in, or bored by, it), DBH says, “I doubt any of us has ever understood it nearly as well as we imagine.”

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I still remember the first time I heard Sinead O’Connor. I was a college freshman, and my friend Chris played “The Lion and the Cobra” for me in his dorm room. “Mandinka” is what always gets mentioned, and it’s a great song on a great album, but it’s the very first track, “Jackie,” with its cold and plaintive opening, that haunts me to this day.

I’ve been washing the sand
With my salty tears
Searching the shore
For these long years
And I’ll walk the seas forever more

Ephemera, 07/03/23

Yesterday’s Old Testament reading turned out to be the Sacrifice of Isaac, and hearing it read aloud in church for the first time since my experience with Fear & Trembling earlier this year made me realize how much of an impact SK’s book had on me. Murderer, I thought.

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Six episodes, about fifteen minutes each — I’m not sure I could take much more than 90 minutes a year of Tim Robinson’s brilliantly unsettling I Think You Should Leave. (And I couldn’t possibly watch all 90 minutes at once.) He takes an unpredictable premise, populates it with “normal” people (read: unattractive on the screen, unremarkable in person), and then Just … Keeps … Pushing. The skits almost always last longer than you think they might, to an uncomfortable extent. It’s an existentialist exercise in sketch comedy. You can’t escape the absurdity; it just keeps unspooling.

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“The post-Christian world is characterized by supercharged morality within a vacuum of meaning.” (Richard Beck)