Editor’s IntroductionBy Paul Louis Metzger
Theology matters. But try telling that to most church small group members or many seminary students today, who find theology irrelevant or oppressive. Theology can be oppressive, but it is never irrelevant in that any theology orients us in particular ways toward action, whether we are cognizant of it or not. Thus, theology impacts our engagement of the whole of life, positively or negatively—from politics and economics to music, movies, and missions. As with talk of religion and politics over dinner, theology can be a risky business.
This issue of the journal begins with an essay that risks discussing theology’s bearing on politics. “Applying theology to concrete political judgments is a risky business, but nevertheless urgently needs to be done, and done well,” William Cavanaugh asserts. “Christians cannot countenance the idea that Christ’s coming should have no impact on the real world, the politics and economics of the mundane, as if God became incarnate in human history only to say, ‘Carry on as usual. Don’t mind me.’”
In the opening essay, Cavanaugh claims that Christians must bring their theology to bear on the presumed “empty shrine” (to borrow a phrase from Michael Novak), which implicitly validates America’s form of empire. Simply put, for Cavanaugh, America’s shrine is allegedly empty because America honors no particular god to which the government can appeal for sanction and which all citizens must worship. However, the emptiness at the heart of liberal capitalism tends to foster an ongoing expansionism characteristic of empire. America’s shrine is hardly empty, argues Cavanaugh. America’s political and economic ideals and military security capacities have fostered forms of transcendence that provide a functionally-divine validation schema for America’s political and economic foreign policy. “America claims to have unlocked the universal secret to freedom, prosperity, and peace,” writes Cavanaugh, “and feels obliged to share it with the world. But because we pursue a world without borders, potential enemies are everywhere, and so we fill the shrine again, with a national god who is capable of seeing all resistance to openness and raining down death upon it.”
Cavanaugh and his respondent, Stephen Webb, help our readership bring theology to bear on such matters as politics and economics, how the divine purposes in history are fulfilled, the role of the church, and what is deemed the secular sphere. Their exchange raises key questions for all who seek to follow Christ in the present day. For instance: Is America truly a reluctant superpower? Is capitalism benign, and when is a market free? Is the church a rival polity to the state, and is there a secular sphere? How do Christ, his cross, and his resurrection bear upon the church’s concrete engagement in every area of life? Such questions should give you plenty to talk about over coffee at your next church small group meeting or over lunch in your school’s cafe.
Well, if that were not enough, and you need some more conversation starters (or stoppers, as the case may be), read on and you will find treatments of Michael Moore and Martin Luther, Mozart, and Don Giovanni—not the most likely of bedfellows. Rodney Clapp chronicles the rising popularity of the documentary film, claiming that its success is due to a growing sense that all reality is perspectival and mediated. Unlike some who lament or deny outright mediation in the hypermediated age of Michael Moore, Clapp turns to Martin Luther and the Christian heritage’s profound regard for sacramental mediation at the center of faith and life. While acknowledging that not all documentaries seek to exploit the viewer, the sheer volume of documentaries available for a price leaves the consumer with the sense that the documentary exists for the viewer’s “whim” and “satisfaction.”
Sacramental mediation, by contrast, gives us proper faith perspective when life all around us is increasingly immersed in hypermediation. A sacramental perspective helps us see that at the center of life is not the consuming and commodified self, but the God who meets us through Israel and Jesus. Through partaking of the real though mediated divine presence in the Eucharist, we participate in the triune God’s communal presence in the community of faith in the world, and realize what is forever real.
Moving our attention from the mediation of the real through documentary film to mediation of Don Giovanni through Mozart’s music, Fred Sanders engages a long-standing puzzle about the ethical status of Mozart’s aesthetic genius. In his opera, Don Giovanni, Mozart presents the Don’s dreadful escapades within a ravishing musical score, creating a moral vagueness that has separated critics such as Beethoven and Kierkegaard. Fred Sanders weighs in on the debate, seeking to shed light on the discussion by drawing attention to Karl Barth’s perspective on absolutist humanism in the eighteenth century. From the standpoint of absolutism, human nature is “considered as something absolute, complete in itself, and thus free to be set in motion to develop its own potential, stamping all that is not yet human nature.” The Don embodies this self-assuredness and mastery in his exploits.
Does Mozart’s music make him complicit in the Don’s seductions, playing the role of the pied piper, seducing the audience in turn? Or does his music represent something entirely different, namely the long-suffering nature of God? Sanders argues that it is the latter. Long-suffering does not signify weakness in the face of absolute man, but rather God’s relentless and victorious will, which graciously offers foolish humans every opportunity to repent. Following Barth, Sanders contends that Mozart’s powerful and moving music reflects God’s absolute providential power to endure our sins, providing us the space and time to repent.
While Barth’s God may leave us time to repent, Barth leaves no room for worldview. According to Clifford Anderson, tensions between Neo-Calvinists and Dialectical Theologians are primarily about the relation of faith and worldview, not particular points of doctrine. Whereas Abraham Kuyper—the principal leader of Neo-Calvinism—maintains that the concept of worldview is socially progressive and theologically sound, Barth—the paradigmatic figure for Dialectial Theology—dismisses this concept as socially regressive and theologically unsound. While both figures desire nothing more than that Christ be seen as Lord in every area of life, they differ radically on how Christ manifests his lordship.
This debate is manifest in the area of faith’s relation to politics. Whereas Kuyper and his followers champion the creation of Christian political parties, Barth repudiates the idea. For Barth, there can be no fixed party platform because there can be no fixed perspective on how God speaks forth his Word. “There can be no definitive Christian worldview because God continues to speak the same Word to us today in different forms.” In contrast to Kuyper, Barth is inclined to partner with secular parties to promote political and economic justice. Kuyper maintains that differences in worldview “go to the root of our existence.” So too, differences over the relation of faith to worldview go to the heart of spiritual life. Anderson claims that such differences also have implications for how North American Christians in the twenty-first century engage “in the political, educational, and cultural spheres.”
One does not need to tell First Nations leader, Richard Twiss, that differences over worldview and the relation of faith to worldview matter greatly. Twiss is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Lakota/Sioux Tribe—a people who have experienced firsthand what difference Euro-American worldview perspectives make. As the title of his essay indicates, certain Western “worldview assumptions . . . brought social, economic, and spiritual devastation to Native American peoples.” Equally devastating has been the failure of many Christians, including Evangelicals, to realize that the way in which they communicate the Gospel is not free of cultural biases.
Twiss draws attention to several traditional native worldview values that must be “recognized and appreciated as a first step toward undoing both the cultural hegemony and the missiological ethnocentricity that has made Christianity seem merely to be the ‘white man’s religion’—one more tool of cultural assimilation.” For example, native worldviews include the perspective that religion is a way of life. This view stands in stark contrast to conceiving religion simply as a set of doctrines or special days, as is oftentimes the case for those from a Western vantage point. No doubt, such Western perceptual limits in the past impaired the Christian critique, blinding people to problems such as those entailed in the expansionist ideology of Manifest Destiny. While the North American church has made great advances in righting many wrongs and calling into question the “hegemonic tendencies” of its heritage, only time will tell if the indigenous Christian Gospel movement that Twiss envisions will be realized, spreading healing to wounded First Nations people across the land.
The awkward blindness in the Western church to the plight of many non-Western peoples has given rise to an awkward silence for one Palestinian–Costa-Rican–North-American–Evangelical Christian on the Israeli–Palestinian question. One of the aims of Cultural Encounters is to create space for those so often silenced in the church to speak in order to heal the dominant Christian culture of its blindness. The author of the “Cultural Reflections” piece, “Palcoria Jesusequitur,” claims that so many followers of Jesus remain silent about issues concerning the Jewish and Palestinian peoples because they know so little about theology and God’s ways with the world. The result is that “our unchallenged, awkward silence leaves our Middle Eastern brethren in their pain and Middle Eastern Muslims confused about Christians’ commitment to justice,” even for these Christians’ Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ, “who live under a relentless state of oppression, humiliation, and terror, amid the very ruins” that Christian tourists “trek to see.” “Palcoria Jesusequitur” is “not advocating an end to U.S. support for Israel,” a “rebuff” of “our Israeli friends,” or a blind acceptance of all Palestinian “demands and expectations.” Rather, the author calls for “the first steps of reconciliation”—for all concerned. The Jewish–Palestinian question concerns us all, and followers of Jesus should be concerned for all.
Why do so many Christians remain silent then, failing to call for and live out reconciliation between various peoples? One key reason the author notes is that many in the Evangelical church are fascinated with Israel’s “role in the end times.” Eschatology matters. So, too, do one’s presuppositions and cultural biases. My own reading of the book of Revelation tells me that God is concerned for all of us—including the Jewish, Palestinian, First Nations, and Euro-American peoples. God’s Son, who was a Jewish man, died and rose for us all in Jerusalem so as to reconcile us to God and one another. In the New Jerusalem, the nations will walk by the light of God and the Lamb, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory there (Rev. 21:23-26). We must seek after reconciliation now in light of the shalom that will one day be realized through the ultimate mediator—Jesus.
All this talk is risky business, especially when we try to put it into action. Regardless of our silence or speech on the issues before us, there will be no silencing of the Lamb. Jesus did not become incarnate in human history only to say, “Carry on as usual. Don’t mind me.” Jesus gives himself to us today in Word and sacrament, and calls on his church to participate in his ongoing life of long-suffering for reconciliation in the world. As Clapp reminds us, “Sacramental mediation does not leave us detached and voyeuristic, but enlists our participation. The Word is proclaimed and with the proclamation makes its claim on all we are. In the Eucharist we partake of and participate in the body and blood—the life and the suffering—of Christ. Here we are awakened to and trained to alleviate and co-bear the distress of our needy fellow disciples, our neighbors, and the enemy in our path.” Theology matters. The issues before us also matter. They are matters of life and death. Scripture exhorts us to take every thought—and worldview—captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). We cannot carry on as usual. We must live God’s Word anew today.
—Paul Louis Metzger, Editor