Thursday, December 26, 2013

All You Want to Know About Hell by Steve Gregg

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I got this book mostly out of morbid curiosity. I've spent a lot of time studying the scripture and the afterlife, especially hell. Steve Gregg is a conservative bible teacher (and anyone who uses the term "bible teacher" is more conservative than conservative) and christian radio host. I suspected All You Want to Know About Hell would at least be amusing if nothing else.

It's a solid book. Gregg delves deeply into the scriptural and cultural background of hell in the Bible. He does so unabashedly and honestly. In a brave and rare move for conservative circles, Gregg acknowledges the scriptural validity not just of the traditional hell of eternal torment, but also for annihilationist perspective (that unrepentant souls will cease to exist) and even to evangelical universalism (that ultimately all people will be redeemed).

The first third of the book is the strongest section, providing historical and cultural explanations for the development of the concept of hell, providing the reader with all the information they need to begin an exploration. The second two thirds of the book are in depth representations and rebuttals of each theory. Gregg claims to be undecided and writes responsibly about each one. Perhaps the traditional view gets a tougher treatment than the others, but based on the force of history, probably deservedly so.

The book is well organized, but the writing is a bit difficult. There is a lot of fallback to Calvinist logicisms that frankly bore the heck out of me and will be difficult for less-experienced readers to work through. Still, I will recommend at least the first section to anyone struggling with how to explain and understand hell. It's a valuable resource for the Church, especially for evangelicalism.

It is very basic. The book lacks in-depth treatments of immortality, wrath, and punishment, all necessary for a complete dialogue about hell. The three theories are a bit too concrete and I really did not see my personal perspective represented in any of them, still it is an immanently worthy primer for embarking on the study beyond the traditional definitions of afterlife.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Reza Aslan's "Zealot" and the Search for Jesus

I finished Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth this week.* It's been a challenging read. Aslan is not just some hack with an agenda. He does have an agenda, but he's no hack; Aslan knows his stuff and he spent a lot of time researching this book, which has gained no small measure of notoriety.

Aslan comes from a family of Iranian-Americans who fled after the overthrow of the Shah. His family blamed Islam for the ruin of their country; he does not come from an antagonistic perspective. In fact, he was converted to evangelical Christianity as a teenager and only slowly moved away from this tradition in his further studies. The book's stated aim is to recast Jesus, though intense cultural and historical study, from Jesus the Christ, the ethereal, disconnected savior Aslan encountered in evangelical Christianity, to Jesus of Nazareth, a radical Jewish revolutionary.

Zealot argues that Jesus is not divine, mostly because it's highly unlikely. Obviously, those who disagree do so by faith, and Aslan readily admits there is no argument for or against - it is simply a matter of faith, mostly centered around the fact or fiction of resurrection. This is an assumption underlying the book, but not an essential part of his attempts to understand Jesus.

Something I'd never considered before was the likely fiction of the birth narratives. With the gospels having been written so long after the life of Christ, the details therein are theological in nature and not necessarily historical (or even real in some cases). It's a disconcerting thought, especially this time of year, but his arguments make a lot of sense; I don't find them particular helpful or harmful to an understanding of Jesus.

Aslan's notation system is more narrative than technical, lacking footnotes, but including a lengthy section for each chapter, which helps communicate his frame of reference. There is a strong attempt to be inclusionary of diverse opinions there, even if not in the prose itself. At the same time, "I agree with Richard Horsley" is an oft used phrase and it's clear many of his more controversial conclusions rely on the work of one man (albeit a strong scholar).

The book provides powerful, vivid descriptions of life in 1st century Palestine, along with an important summary of intertestamental history and a gripping narrative of the Jewish revolt and subsequent annihilation of Jerusalem in AD 70. I can't recall any element of his historical and cultural research that I questioned to any great degree. Zealot can be an important resource for anyone, Christian or otherwise, to better understand the context of Jesus' life and ministry.

The main problem, however, is the more we uncover the more difficult it is to define and understand both Jesus himself and the faith his life spawned. Aslan does indeed poke holes in the colloquial understanding of Jesus' life, something relatively easy to do now that the Church doesn't have a monopoly on information and authority. At the same time, he resides in an almost extreme opposite position, giving almost no credence to any element of the traditional Christian narrative that might speak to reality.

This is no more clear than in Aslan's characterization of Jesus' aims and intentions. Jesus of Nazareth is rightly placed into the mold of messiah, a common Jewish archetype of the period, usually a radical revolutionary bent on overthrowing the spiritual monopoly of the temple or the political domination of Rome (or both). Aslan lumps Jesus wholesale into the tradition, including its dedication to violence almost entirely on the authority of one verse - "I come not to bring peace, but a sword." For someone so willing to take liberties with the text, to parse them for redaction, sarcasm, and the like, he takes this one verse, upon which a main tenet of his argument hangs, with no critical engagement. The idea is to challenge the notion that Jesus' Kingdom was intended to be celestial. I personally have no problem challenging that notion; I do think there is plenty of room to affirm Jesus as a political and religious revolutionary bent on establishing an earthly Kingdom, I just suspect there's more nuance and possibility than Aslan ever seems willing to entertain.

More difficult, but important is Aslan's narrative of how the life of Jesus was communicated to subsequent generations. He sees the church quickly devolving into two competing bodies - a Jewish core, made up of the Apostles and Jesus' brother James, centered in Jerusalem, adhering to Jewish law and customs, and committed to the notion of Christ's immanent return and the arrival of the promised Kingdom. The other group, comprised of wealthy, educated Hellenized Jews - those who traveled from the farther reaches of the Empire for Passover, those more inclined to disconnect this new faith from its Jewish roots, the group led by Paul.

It is really Paul who becomes the villain of Aslan's story, a power-hungry egotist who hijacks the story of Jesus, transforms him into the literal Son of God, rejects the Torah, and makes the faith acceptable to the Roman world.

These claims are not entirely far-fetched, even within the corpus of scripture itself. Certainly there is a measure of real tension between the message of James' epistle and most of Paul's teaching. While some might consider these two important streams of Christianity necessarily held in tension, Aslan considers one valid and other false, despite Paul's clear victory in the long run.

There are a number of dichotomies that Aslan highlights in Zealot. He tends to make them either/or decisions, which is perfectly in line with traditional Christianity, which does the same thing from the opposite side of each debate. I am not convinced that any one "side" is going to (or needs to) "win." This book brings to light important realities and troubling contentions that are easier for the Church to simply forget, ignore or deny. We do ourselves a disservice to give in to those temptations.

There are a lot of doctrines the official "orthodox" church has established in stone that have always seemed less than crystal clear to me. Aslan succeeds in highlighting many of them - the largest being how Jesus relates to God. Many traditions, some existing through to the present day, refuse to affirm the absolute equality of Jesus with Yahweh. While I have no problem affirming the divinity of Christ, I suspect we do ourselves and the mystery of God a disservice to exclude those traditions outright. Ultimately, I don't see the Nicene Creed as the unifying faith statement of Christianity, but the early and simple declaration that "Jesus Christ is Lord." That can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, but I believe our gracious willingness to work those out together is the best possible testament to the truth of our faith.

Zealot is not an easy read - and certainly has the potential to be earth-shattering for the unprepared. I'd love to have more time to investigate many of the sources he cites and the history he so deftly wields. There are some clear theological holes in his argument, but none of them strong enough to justify entirely writing off Aslan or his position.

Aslan ends the book with an interesting conclusion:

Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul's creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal in that Jesus of Nazareth - Jesus the man - is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.

I don't believe we need to choose between Jesus the man and Jesus the Christ. I agree that there is a narrative of Jesus in the Christian tradition that fails to take into account the reality of Jesus' life and times. I think we too often fall back on traditional interpretations, failing to analyze the gospel as a theological document from a specific period in history. There are a lot of challenges to faith inherent in the rediscovery of Jesus the man. At the same time, I see this rediscovery happening with great strength inside the Church. My seminary experience was filled with a rooted foundation of Jesus in Judaism, both culturally and religiously. It has made a profound impact on my faith - and quite honestly, if I had to make the choice between Jesus the Christ and Jesus the man as Aslan describes them, I'd make the same choice he does. I just don't think it's an either or.

The radical, revolutionary Jesus is a great critique of the traditional, ethereal, heavenly Christ narrative which has formed the backbone of much of Christianity, I just don't think one should, or can, ever subsume the other.

*This is not one of the books I've reviewed as part of the Booksneeze project. I chose this one myself and got it from the library. I'll probably have another one of those later in the week.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sara Bareilles - The Blessed Unrest

I like awards shows. It's part of my unhealthy affection for competition. If someone can win it, I'll watch it. I do also, from time to time, like music. Since Spotify came around, I've been trying to listen to all the Best Album Grammy nominees, so I can make an informed decision. This year I decided to post my thoughts about each one.

First up is the surprise dark horse, Sara Bareilles. She released her album, "The Blessed Unrest" almost a year ago, to middling reviews and semi-decent sales for someone who's had a few hits before. Steven Hyden from Grantland thinks she's got a legitimate shot at winning, mostly because her nomination was so unlikely; the voters must actually like the album.

Called The Blessed Unrest, the album certainly feels like it. There's not as much variety in the style and tone as I might have expected from such an inventive songwriter, but in the end it makes sense given the title. There is enough creativity in the midst of the mood to really spark an interest.

Halfway through I would have said it was "good, not great," but she does the idea of "concept" album proud. Some of the songs are very good - "I Choose You" is a fantastic little love song, albeit too short - those that are a bit short on lyrics have strong production and musicality, those with less than stellar melodies have strong writing. Everybody probably knows "Brave" by its cultural immersion, but the album ends on perhaps its best track. "December" is a song about life after tragedy or disappointment, encapsulated the idea of blessed unrest. It's really well done.

If The Blessed Unrest wins Best Album, I can see why. It's still a long shot, but I'm glad I took the time to give it a listen.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Year Later

The shooting deaths of a classroom full of elementary students in Connecticut happened a year ago this week. I wrote some about it last year when it happened. This week I've been reflecting some more on exactly what it means and how (and especially why) we react the way we do.

Intellectually we know most people don't deserve to die - certainly no children do. But an intellectual commitment to the value of human life doesn't engage our emotions when hundreds of thousands of children die everyday of hunger, malnutrition, and preventable diseases. Those deaths are tragedies, we know it, but we don't react the same way.

I've been trying to figure out the connection between our visceral reaction to such traumatic events and my hesitancy to intrude on the pain and grief of the people who actually knew and loved these kids.

In the end, I think, we connect to these tragedies because we know children like them. We see their faces on TV and we know children who look like them. We know children in first grade or fifth grade. We know children we substitute for the deceased in our heads and it creates an emotional reaction.

We care about these kids who are complete strangers to us because we think about losing kids who aren't strangers. We empathize.

Instead, however, of inserting ourselves into the tragedy of others, spending the day on the couch watching coverage, and whatever else we do, I think we should spend that effort engaging with the kids we're actually upset about, the ones we think about losing, the ones that connect us emotionally to the unknowns who've actually died.

I've been thinking about that this week and then I came across this article from my old stomping grounds. Sister Berta is a hero - an inspiration to many of us who spent time working with kids in Kansas City. I think she gets it. We need to react to terrible tragedies, yes with empathy, but also with a renewed conviction to engage with the kids around us.

It seems strangely appropriate this time of year to think and talk (and do) some good in the lives of our kids, the kids around us, and the kids who should be around us more.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lost Work

I'm not much for demons and angels. As odd as it may be, I tend to skew pretty far to the side of empiricism when it comes to belief. That being said, I absolutely see poverty as a demonic force. I've probably mentioned this a time or two before, but I don't mean demonic in the sense of sentient. I don't think there's an insidious force out there willfully pulling strings to impoverish people; I just don't. I do believe, however, that there are forces we've (human beings) have constructed which have grown beyond our ability to control. Poverty is one of those things.

Our modern solution to poverty - the Welfare State - is likely another. We've battled one demon with another and it's left us with a different, albeit similar mess. We now can guarantee most people (at least most people in the West) bare minimums for food, clothing, shelter, even some health care, certainly at a level to which a large part of the world's population can only aspire. Poverty in the US is just not the same as poverty in Thailand or Malawi.

Of course, we've also created a more or less permanent underclass. As crass an unseemly as Mitt Romney's deathknell quote might be, there is some part of that 47% which really is entitled and dependent and irresponsible. It may be a small part; it may be large. You all can fight about those numbers somewhere else. The truth is, a Welfare State teaches people to be dependent and entitled because it treats them that way. Work ethic, education, self-reliance all break down over time - certainly not universally among the poor, but as an inevitable cultural shift among some.

It's an unfortunate cyclical pattern. Those who tout the benefits of a Welfare State are just as correct as those who caution against its drawbacks. Change is inevitable. This solution to poverty will be followed by a solution of its own. I apologize for being negative, but I don't expect whatever comes next to be much better - different, for sure, but with similar problems - a new demon.

It's inevitable because the same refusal to sacrifice that gave us our societal demons in the first place will equally prevent us fully addressing them. As the Welfare State was the easy way out of poverty, so whatever comes next will be the easy way out again. The path of progress is the path of least resistance. I won't deny it's progress of a sort, but it's only progress from the starting point, not progress towards a solution - more like walking around in circles than anything else.

Writ large this problem stems from sacrifice, or the lack of it (we're not going to solve big problems until we're willing to put the comfort, benefit, and even survival or others, perhaps undeserving others, ahead of our own). However, in microcosm, I think our direct problem comes from disconnecting work from wealth. That's not just an indictment of the Welfare State, but of private welfare states known as families. We give money to the poor whether they work or not (we often make it easier to get help without work), but we also give money to the rich without work (it's called inheritance, and sometimes it's just called letting your deadbeat 29 year old live in the basement).*

You hear this notion of reconnecting welfare and work a lot from the conservative side of the table. I think there's real value there (so long as we recognize the genuine pain such a transition will cause for those who've been taught to operate in a culture of dependence over the course of generations, and make proper, gracious preparations to work through it). What those advocates sometimes forget is that the same notion behind connecting wealth and work for the poor is the notion that led to things like inheritance tax or the 90% tax bracket (things that group is generally against). The idea is that no one should unduly benefit from someone else's work. I'm not saying I agree with those principles and practices exactly, just pointing out they come from the same place.

There is a real racial argument to be made, at least in the US. There are some who say welfare, which goes disproportionately to African Americans, is the least the country can do for a people who've been so badly abused over time. "Our mothers and fathers have already worked for this money. We're just getting it now on their behalf." It's a similar argument to that of inheritors: "My parents worked hard to make this money, it should stay in the family (if they so desire)."

Both of those claims may be true. I will readily admit that self-determination is an important right for all individuals, however, I don't believe society has the responsibility to always make it easy. I don't have the right to determine right and wrong for you, but we as a group can decide what's right and wrong for us as a group. You don't have to like it and we can't force you to follow it (or we shouldn't, at least), but we also don't have to make it easy for you to step out on your own.

We fail as a society because we don't recognize work as a human right. It's more than just making sure people are accountable for the thing they're given, there is a basic human need to work. When we incentivize not working - in whatever ways we do, rich or poor - we dehumanize each other.

As a Christian, I take scripture seriously (or I try hard to). Genesis chapter 2 say pretty clearly humans were made to work. That doesn't equate to painful, unending, backbreaking toil, but there's something to be said for getting one's hands dirty on a regular basis (even if it's just proverbial dirt). We're designed to be actively engaged in caring for the world (and that's not just environmental claptrap, we're all a part of the world. Work is an integral part of what it means to be human. I think that if we can reclaim work for the good it is - and not just as an economic necessity, we can begin to tackle our demons, or at least avoid creating any more.

*I've got nothing against charity or generosity, in fact I think we need more of both. Beyond that, I believe we need to give to undeserving, disrespectful, irresponsible, and uncooperative people simply because they're people. I'm fairly confident we can provide for people without enabling them; I think most of us have experienced exactly that at some point in our lives. The big problem is that such provision requires a relational investment - we put ourselves, our lives on the line. That's generally seen as above and beyond the call of duty. It's a shame.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


So, Advent is my favorite time of the year. I grew up in a typical evangelical congregation, we light candles in the wreath each week, but Advent was basically a countdown to Christmas. There were carols in worship and it was, essentially, a sanctified version of the busyness most people engage in between Thanksgiving and December 25th. That may not be what was really happening, but it was certainly my perception.

Later on, in Seminary, as I began to explore the broader tradition of the Church, I came to understand Advent in its uniqueness. It has always been my favorite time of the year (not least because it almost always includes my birthday). I like the anticipation of it. I'm an anticipation guy. I'm usually much more excited for the build up than the event - and that doesn't just apply to Christmas, but to almost anything. I'm far more excited about the road trip than the destination.

Advent is a time of anticipation.

Part of that is recognizing the world around us. I often preach from the Old Testament passages during Advent because I like being reminded that the world is imperfect, that we're waiting for something. The problem is, often these sermons can be a bit of a let down. Too much focus on hope and fulfillment and it feels like I'm shortchanging the unsettledness, the anticipation of the season.

I think I've been missing a step. To those who've sat through those often conflicted sermons of Advents past, I apologize. I will get it better next time.

You see, I've always tried to make Advent special, to set it apart from Christmas - and that's important - but what I've failed to do is place that special, separate season within the context of the larger Christian narrative. We have a "Church Year" for a reason - because the individual seasons are a part of a larger story. I've often missed that.

Advent is about digging deep into the well of sorrow, about recognizing the pain and confusion and hurting and wrongness that exists in our world. That's absolutely true. But it is also, absolutely, about taking that depth of pain and from it painting a glorious picture of hope. We all have an idea, even if it's vague and shadowy, of what the world should be.* Advent is a time to immerse ourselves in the yawning gap between reality and possibility. We're intended to use this season to create a vision of hope, peace, and love so impossible large it overwhelms the senses.

This is a season for dreaming big - about all the things we're too scared to dream of the rest of the year. This is when we dream of families reunited, of wounds healed, diseases cured, hunger satisfied, and abuses reconciled. Advent is the season of impossible dreams, dreams we believe possible only by the thinnest, most outrageous strings of hope and faith.

We do this in preparation for Christmas. So that when we encounter a crying baby, in a cold crib, in a forgotten house, among lowly animals, we are bowled over by the juxtaposition.

We need a grandiose Advent to prepare ourselves properly for the shocking revelation of Christmas - that this giant, impossible dream of everything set right, hopes fulfilled becomes possible because of an impoverished infant, born in a lowly manger, two thousand years ago.

The contrast is jarring, especially in a world where power gets things done. To think that God's plan for bringing earth-shattering (literally) transformation is the weakest, most impossible little baby. It's such a confusing reality that we spend the rest of the year attempting to wrap our heads around this apparent paradox.

Advent is already half over this year - but fortunately it keeps coming back around. Remember, as you struggle to slow down, relax, and wait at a time when everyone is rushing to Christmas, that love really does beat power, weakness tops strength, that beauty really does save the world.

Be present this Advent and don't forget to dream big!

*My friend Justin McRoberts wrote a great piece about Advent Hope this week - check it out.

Friday, December 06, 2013


Nelson Mandela died last night. He was well into his 90's and had lived more life than just about any human being who's ever lived. There is no tragedy in his death; only celebration. From various Facebook postings, I came to realize that we have a large segment of young people with no real understanding of who this great man was.

A lot of good things have been written - I found this eulogy particularly moving - so I'll not recap the history here.

Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994, about the time I was really becoming conscious of the world around me. I missed Apartheid. I have no memories of the boycotts or the stories; it still seems unfathomable to me that such official, systematic, overt racial oppression could be taking place during my lifetime. It's surreal.

I remember Nelson Mandela more for the novelty - a man who was imprisoned for nearly thirty years is freed and then elected President. In my youthful naivete I couldn't imagine good people being in prison or former prisoners being elected to anything. Those ideas didn't compute.

As I learned more of the story, the transformation of South Africa was mind-blowing. White oppressors turning over the government to those they'd oppressed - and even black and white Presidents serving together. I don't recall the fear of reprisal even entering my mind - just the sheer uniqueness of the situation itself wowed me.

I continued to learn more and the powerful example of the Truth and Reconciliation process boggled my mind. That people, that a people, a nation, could be so forgiving did not compute. I was a fourteen year old kid whose slights in life were beyond minor, but I knew forgiveness was hard. This kind of story seemed too good to be true.

Then, I came upon more details of Nelson Mandela's life and I learned, perhaps my most valuable lesson. He was human.

I was raised in a very conservative, evangelical, religious environment. I certainly had the impression that good things were done by good people - and good was often defined by adherence to a strict moral code of lifestyle and belief. What's more, amazing things, miraculous things, could only be done by Christian people, because without God's help, great things didn't happen. At some point I discovered that Nelson Mandela had been married three times. He wasn't always the best husband or father. He'd violated some of the bedrock moral principles I'd been raised to use as judgments of good and bad.*

Obviously I'm a bit older now. I've faced the world in many different ways and I'm much more comfortable with both ambiguity and diversity. I'm still an evangelical and my life is pretty religious, but my idealism has also been tempered with realism and with grace. I continue to be blown away with the out-sized representation of the Gospel that South Africa represents. It's certainly not perfect - Mandela didn't create a utopia - but it's history is testament to a profound love of enemy. Mandela led the nation in valuing all people for their humanity, even if they chose actions which dehumanized themselves and their neighbors. There is no getting around the outrageous, miraculous nature of this reality.

Now, what makes it more impressive to me, is not that great things were done through the leadership of a great man, but that great things were done through the leadership of a man.

Yes, it takes more perseverance than most to endure backbreaking labor for three decades. It takes an unusual resolve to move, during that torture, from a position of violent anger to one of peaceful forgiveness. It takes wisdom beyond measure to lead a nation from the pits of ugliness without bloodshed. But at the end of the day, that perseverance, resolve, and wisdom were cultivated and accepted by and in one human being, no different from you and me. What's more, millions of ordinary human beings saw the value in his words and example, and followed him in extraordinary reconciliation.

I suspect the true gospel lesson of Nelson Mandela is not the profound power of love and forgiveness, but that this power resides within each of us and it's expression is not only possible, but realistic, for each and every one of us.

Great things come not from great people, but from ordinary (read: flawed) people willing to open themselves to great love.

*I always need to make a note here that my parents are not entirely to blame. I don't recall much overt teaching in this direction - and that which I do recall didn't come from them. My understanding and perceptions had much more to do with my environment generally than my parents specifically - and also with my own immature assumptions in attempting to make sense of a world I wasn't quite capable of understanding.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Patriotism and Paradise

I preached this past Sunday about Shalom. It's a Hebrew word often translated "peace," but with a whole lot more depth of meaning. It's describing a state of "right-ness," a place/time/atmosphere/reality where things work "right" for everyone. A place where everyone is welcomed and cared for and content. Some people call it heaven, some people call it the Kingdom of God, some call it paradise, others call it utopia. It's been the vision of everyone from Buddha to Thomas Jefferson to Karl Marx. I suspect we all want a place that feels like home (in the best sense).

This notion easily gets merged with Nationalism in unique ways. I've seen in play out in the US, but I haven't really been exposed to other countries - it may be the same there or manifest in different ways.

The US is pretty divided these days between conservatives and progressives - people who want to "get back to when things were right" and people who want to "get on to when things can be right." They might not agree this describes the opposing position, but both are examples of Patriotism in their own right. I think they're both examples of this search for Paradise as well.

Our nostalgia of the 1950's is very strong in this country. The place where Mom kept the home in order and Dad came home on time everyday from a fulfilling job that provided well for the family. Throw in two, mostly well-behaved children and you've got a Normal Rockwell painting. It's an idealized paradise we create in the past. Others go further back, to the founding of the US and all the democratic, capitalist ideals those Founding Fathers planned for this great nation. In either case, the "conservative" patriotic paradise tends to be in the past - something we must reclaim.

Others recognize the very real injustice that has always existed, whether in the US or some other idealized state earlier on (Christians are fond of treating the "early Church" the same way), and they reckon that the true destiny of this country lies ahead and they strive to create the idealization they see in their heads. This, too, is Patriotism - a patriotism of the progressive variety, but one, again, based in this search for Paradise.

Part of this is the Nationalist mechanism through which we see the world. The powers that be recognized at some point that keeping people in competition with each other was better for the powers that be and worked hard - and quite successfully - to limit our understanding of public life to government and rule of law, shutting out other avenues of public discourse (like the economic unity envisioned by Marx - and obscured by Lenin).

These alternative views - which recognize, at their core, that no political entity can every be the foundation of Paradise, can ever provide the Shalom which we all seek - simply do not fit into the tight little box contemporary society has constructed.

The idea being that humanity itself is at the center of our ideals. Marxism, at its core, is one of human egalitarianism - the people, if given the right conditions, can create Paradise. I'm not sure anyone's really give that a fair attempt, but I also suspect a fair attempt won't work out too well.

I am more and more enamored with what is known, for better or for worse, as the Anabaptist tradition - one in which the Body of Christ, Christians, exist as an alternative political entity - not an alternative government or an economic class, but simply as a companion to the other formations of society.

This is also a humanist philosophy - but humanism through the lens of Jesus Christ, the infusion of deity with humanity that embodies Paradise in a person. Figuring out how we relate to and then live in response to that person is a whole separate adventure in itself, but one that makes more sense to me than the well-meaning, but ultimately fruitless versions of Patriotic Paradise we see played out around us everyday.

This difference is that Patriotism tends to be shaped by our own ideals. We imagine the past or the future in ways that make sense to us. In essence, we build our own Paradise and become offended and defensive when others don't share our vision. This is why Patriotism itself can be both a powerful motivator (when it brings unity) and a deadly diversion (when it causes dissension).

Now I am not so naive to think our Christian conceptions of life and society are free from our own inclinations, ideals, and preferences; we can't ever escape our biases. I do hope, however, that there is some measure of selflessness in building an ideal around the life and teaching of someone else, in this case a someone else who was all about selflessness.

Even amongst us Christian alternative politic folks, it's real easy to allow our conceptions of Paradise to creep in - to accentuate the history and scripture with which we resonate and to marginalize those we find untidy or inconvenient - much the same way the Constitution is held up only insomuch as it reflects our Paradise.

The answer, and it's not much of one, I suspect - for both Church and State - is to be constantly incorporating the competing vision into our own. If conservatives are actively seeking to include progressive visions of the future into their own conception and progressives recognizing the value if history and tradition in shaping the future, we become less likely to see ourselves on different teams, as opponents.

If the Fundamentalists and the post-Christian dreamers would stop trying to eradicate each other and attempt to live together, we're going to find more space for everyone. It may not be pretty - in fact it will likely be real messy - but I suspect we'll be a lot closer to Paradise than we could ever imagine (and it probably won't look like any Paradise we've ever seen).