Another Week Ends

1. Mere Orthodoxy has published an excerpt from an excellent book, Christ and Calamity: Grace […]

Todd Brewer / 6.5.20

1. Mere Orthodoxy has published an excerpt from an excellent book, Christ and Calamity: Grace and Gratitude in the Darkest Valley, by Harold Senkbeil. I’ve noted some highlights below and if you like what you read, the e-book is free this month:

Just what does it mean to deny yourself and take up your cross? Some have turned their back on riches and fame and taken up serving the poor and destitute in Jesus’ name. Others have given up promising careers in impressive fields and gone to seminary to learn to preach the gospel and pastor churches. Still others contend with physical disability or chronic illness every day of their lives. Some are mocked regularly and ridiculed as bigots or haters because they uphold biblical truth instead of cultural fads. Each of these instances fits into a larger pattern: the Christian life is upside down. It follows the pattern of Jesus’ cross. As he won by losing, so we live by dying. In his cross and by his death he won life for us all. So upon his invitation we follow Jesus even though it may bring us suffering, misery, and loss. […]

In winning, you lose—but in losing for Jesus’ sake, you win. You’ll be humbled—but Jesus lifts up the lowly. In giving you receive; in pardoning you are pardoned. And in dying you are born to eternal life.

So don’t be surprised to discover that when you’re down and out, you can see what really matters more clearly. If you’re looking for an anchor in the storms of life, look to Christ Jesus, who bought you with his blood and cross. You’ll get to know him better when you experience what it means to deny yourself, then take up your cross to follow the path he sets before you. You will discover, as I have, that the way of the cross—though frequently frightening—leads home.

2. This one from a couple weeks ago somehow escaped our newsfeed, but Ron Rittgers wrote a fascinating thought-experiment at Christianity Today that asks what Martin Luther would say about the current Coronavirus pandemic: “Martin Luther Helps Us See Divine Love in Pandemic Suffering.” He suggests that the suffering of the pandemic fits what Luther called the “alien work of God.” The term probably feels more harsh than it really is; it was Luther’s way to deny that God caused suffering, while still affirming the goodness of God who can be paradoxically known through suffering. While that may sound like a distinction without a difference, for Luther it was of utmost pastoral importance:

The phrase “alien work of God” was Luther’s pastoral response, putting all of these beliefs and concerns together and offering some comfort in the midst of overwhelming suffering. The term expresses Luther’s desire to assure Christians that God is for them, never against them, despite appearances to the contrary.

This means that in the midst of suffering, faithful Christians shouldn’t read their lives for signs of God’s attitude toward them. Rather, they should trust what Scripture says about God—that he is good—not what fallen reason concludes—that he is not. Luther thought that if people relied on their own unaided efforts to find and understand God in the midst of the reality of suffering, they would wind up concluding that God is absent or that God doesn’t love humans. But by faith, Luther believed, we can see through suffering to the true nature of God. […]

Luther, the father of evangelical Protestantism, would want the faithful Christian to know that COVID-19 is not the proper work of God. Rather, it is the alien work of God that summons us to know the true intentions of his heart by the art of faith, even as it is working to conform us to the image of Christ and his self-sacrificial love. Luther would want to console us with these words, especially those of us who are inclined to doubt and despair.

The current pandemic is dark and menacing for many of us, and it is easy to wonder whether there is a good and sovereign God in heaven or not. Luther would welcome and even encourage such honest questions. But he would finally want to teach us how to glimpse our loving yet hidden God as he beholds us in grace through the window he has placed in this wall of suffering. This window is faith, “dim faith,” which clings passionately yet always imperfectly to the Word and its promises that God loves us in all things, including suffering.

Dim faith may be all we can muster in these difficult days. It’s frequently all I can muster. But it can suffice to assure us of what we most need to know: Our God is with us and for us in this crisis; he does not forsake us but eagerly seeks to help us, for this is his true heart. All of this may seem strange to us, but such is the alien work of God.

3. St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York City was spray-painted amid the protests this week, an act which some deemed a desecration. Tara Isabella Burton sees it quite differently and instead calls attention to Christianity’s profoundly upside-down view of the world through the lens of Pentecost. So while political liberation and Christian liberty are not necessarily the same things, that doesn’t imply a total apathy toward liberation movements–quite the opposite:

[Pentecost] is one of so many reminders in the New Testament of what Christianity not only is, but must be: a faith that at its best transcends divisions of race, of class, of gender, even as it preserves our understanding of one another as fully embodied, irreducible and earthly persons: people whose experiences, embedded in those of the whole world, are mediated by the interconnected lattice of their identities. […]

The life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ together tell a story of profound reversal, of political transgression, of necessary upheaval. The last shall be first. The mountains are made low. The promised king comes into Jerusalem on an ass. The Messiah is crucified. God becomes man. […]

The vision of a new heaven and a new earth is also, after all, a distinctly political vision: the eschatology of the New Jerusalem, not as earthly empire, to be sure, nor as political party, but nevertheless as a vision of a shared, common life; of people as a body: which is at its heart what politics should be.

To understand Christian life as anything but liberatory—anything but transgressive against the prevailing injustices of the social order of Jesus’ day, and our own—is to denature it of its strangeness.

4. It’s one thing to note that racism is a sin (an act by an individual); it’s another thing to recognize it as something that exceeds the sum of individual actions (a systemic problem). If you’ve talked with anyone about racism this week, you’ll know that confusion between the two gives rise to numerous accusations and defensive misunderstandings. A recent post by Stephen Freeman sees the Bible’s language of “generational sin” as a helpful paradigm that parallels sociological language of systemic racism. It’s also yet another way to illustrate the depths of a “low-anthropology”. Or as PZ has written, how “our archaeology is our teleology“:

[T]he truth is, none of us stands alone. No one stands free of the actions of others. Our lives are deeply connected. We are ourselves the offspring of many generations, and we carry within us ever so much that was not of our own choosing. Our inheritance is tainted—both for good and for ill.

Fr. Thomas Hopko describes some of this as “generational” sin. To understand this requires that we remember that sin is not a legal problem. It is not about what is fair or unfair. It is about a mystical burden that we experience as debt, hindrance, oppositional weight, weakness, brokenness and corruption, or just the starting place of our lives. Virtually everything in our lives is gifted to us, and there are many “gifts” that we would prefer never to have received. It is part of our incarnational existence. We are the offspring of others. To have an embodied existence in space and time is to have a body burdened with the DNA of eons and a family and culture that is both the product and carrier of history. Our own existence is a consequence of everything that has come before us. We cannot rightly suggest that such a contingent existence comes free.

Of course, many historical burdens become the targets of political attention. No human being, no ethnic or national group is without sin. Some sins are more recent and obvious than others. But our accusers can never plead innocence. Acknowledging this does nothing to remove our burdens. […]

It has rightly been noted that “history is written by the victors.” It is therefore the case that we more easily repent for the sins of history’s vanquished and leave the writing to the victorious. But the burden of sin as historical reality remains. Unaddressed, the sins of the past become the problems of the present. Many of the most enduring conflicts in the modern world represent centuries of unresolved issues and the inherited burden of our ancestral legacy.

5. Over at Commonweal, Costica Bradatan wrote a constructive review of Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers book that’s worth highlighting. He notes how Ryrie overturns the death-by-philosophy narrative used by so many to discredit Christian faith, but the implications he sees from the book are perhaps just as interesting. If faith and doubt coexisted within Christianity itself, then perhaps the nature of faith is less a static possession, but a disposition amid one’s own emotional fluctuations (see also CJ’s post on the book!):

Ryrie’s “emotional history” of atheism is clustered around two emotions that, he finds, affect our belief and unbelief in a particularly strong manner: anger (under which he places the various “grudges nurtured against an all-embracing Christian society, against the Church in particular and often also against the God who oversaw it all”) and anxiety (“the unsettling, reluctant inability to keep a firm grip on doctrines that people were convinced, with their conscious minds, were true”). There are times when “the unbelief of anger” is dominant, and times when “the unbelief of anxiety” will prevail, just as it is possible for the two “emotional streams” to converge and coexist in some form or another. The book covers quite a bit of historical ground, but it doesn’t claim exhaustivity. Once Ryrie has formulated his main argument, he focuses on a few Protestant places, with most of the case studies coming from England, even though he dedicates many insightful pages to important continental figures such as Montaigne, Pascal, and Spinoza.

One of this book’s finest accomplishments is the subtle phenomenology of faith that Ryrie undertakes here. Faith is never simple or easy. It is, in itself, a momentous event (“It’s a Great Matter to Believe there is a God,” exclaims one of his characters), and, as an experience, it claims us holistically. Faith is a tyrannical and whimsical master. It can throw us not just off the horse on the Damascus road, but off any sense of balance. In no time, it can become its opposite—unless, that is, faith and doubt are meant to coexist, in various degrees of uneasiness, within the confines of the same self. William Perkins, the major theologian of Elizabethan England with whom Ryrie repeatedly engages in his book, shows how “these two thoughts, There is a God, and there is no God, may be, and are both in one and the same heart.” Indeed, a “man cannot always discern what be the thoughts of his own heart,” concludes Perkins, some centuries before Freud.

6. In humor, if low-anthropology jokes are your kind of thing, then this Hard Times‘ satire is for you: “Racism Somehow Makes Comeback After Defeat on Blackout Tuesday.” Also, at the New Yorker, “Jake’s parent” has issued him “A Homeschool Report Card in the COVID-19 Era” and I particularly recommend it to anyone at their wits’ end trying to keep teach your kids algebra:

History [D]
I’ve been rewatching old Super Bowl broadcasts because I miss my sports, but Jake says that it’s “boring.” It’s not boring, Jake. You’re boring. I love you, buddy, but it’s a slog seeing your face all day, every day. I feel horrible admitting it, but there hasn’t been a night since this started when I haven’t thought about just packing a bag and rolling the dice out there in the world.

Science [N/A]
Straight up not teaching it. That’s right—I can’t understand material designed for children. The coronavirus has exposed me as a functional idiot. Jake loses more respect for me with each lesson. He rolled his eyes when I said volume is “like mass, but wet.” When I taught that photosynthesis is how cameras work, he had me repeat it to his friend on Zoom. Timmy’s cackle cut me to the quick.


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6 responses to “Another Week Ends: Martin Luther on COVID-19, Tara Isabella Burton, Christ and Calamity, Generational Sin, and Faithful Doubt”

  1. Josh Retterer says:


  2. Dan E. says:

    Has The New Yorker become the new McSweeney’s?

    As for the faith/doubt conversation, I wish we today had as much fascination with faith as we seem to reserve for doubt. We make doubt into the ”cool kid” in the pairing, and we rarely go on to show that ”he” later robbed his mother, beat her into a coma that left her brain-damaged, and is now doing 20 years in the state pen.

    • Pierre says:

      …what? Is that seriously what you think doubt is?

      • Alison Mary White says:

        Flummoxed here, too: The outcome of doubt mentioned by Dan E. is brutal and violent. This outcome of violence makes more sense to me in a love/hate conversation, yet I know doubt, despair, and fear may be understood as hate in their display…maybe I see the point..?

        I agree with Dan E. that it is not “cool” to fluctuate within a state of doubt which may be the truth of many a Christians’ current state. God knows. What IS “cool” is that we are known by God within this truth and helped despite our lack of faith and/or state of doubt…as The Holy Spirit is at work within us for our conformation to Christ for God, who is for us…and nothing can separate us…as explained within Romans 8.

        Without the grace of God who first loved us (1 John 3 & 4) and the gifts (He gives) of great desire (i.e. faith, hope, and love) understood within 1 Corinthians 13, we “groan within ourselves” as we await” the adoption/redemption of our body…we hope…” Romans 8:23-24.

        Is this agreeable?

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