Monday, September 5, 2016

Making Satan Real



This review first appeared on the Englewood Review of Books.

Christians view and interpret Christ rather diversely. However, there seem to be even wider discrepancies between understandings of Satan. Is he real or a metaphoric personification? Is he a fallen angel or playing a designated role in God's court? Does he have real power or not? Do Christians need to worry about Satan, or should we have no fear because we live in Christ? Many modern Christians in developed countries seem to avoid the issue, perhaps reading CS Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, but not having much more conscious experience with the Devil beyond that.

In Reviving Old Scratch, Richard Beck's intended audience is the group of Christians who, as he says, are "doubters and the disenchanted." He taps into sociological frameworks with the latter term, referring to the opposite of enchanted worlds, where we see overt supernatural influence all around us. Disenchanted means stripping the magical quality of things, largely via scientific explanation. A good example of this comes from a missionary living in Africa, where a woman had an emergency delivery. When she returned to her village with her newborn, her health quickly declined. The local Christian seminary students were convinced the neighboring village had put a spell on her and started threatening them to release her. Just then, the village received a physician, who quickly identified an infection and medically treated her. The villagers were skeptical, but trusted the physician. A few days later, she was just fine. Those villagers live in an enchanted world. Few Americans would even have a similar thought cross through their minds in the same situation--we have a scientific explanation and solution. Beck cleverly and aptly summarizes our disenchantment process as "Scooby-Dooification," referring to the classic Scooby-Doo plot line of a supernatural threat that eventually gets unveiled as a common person creating fear in the guise of false supernatural forces. The disenchantment process of the supernatural is part of the solution of solving a crime.

This disenchanted world makes belief in anything supernatural, including God, difficult. The idea of Satan is even more challenging to many Christians in the developed world. Yet references to Satan and demons are pervasive through Scripture, and many people talk about the demonic as part of the influence of the world and their lives. People like Elaine Pagels have provided detailed explanations on how Satan is more metaphor and personification (a lecture transcript provides a nice summary of her analysis). However, Beck's foundational thesis is that this isn't a good enough response to Satan. Rather, there is actually something quite useful, powerful, and important about talking about Satan and demons as real. This is summarized nicely when he stated, "I turned the corner in my faith when I adopted a theology of revolt, a vision of spiritual warfare, a posture of action over theological rumination. I got disgusted with how much time and energy I was wasting on my doubts. It was time to get off my theological ass and into the game" (p. 82-83).

The biggest struggle I have with this text is how to categorize it. While categorizing isn't always necessary, it can be helpful to clearly know what the book's purpose is and how to set expectations. While the back of the tome labels Reviving Old Scratch as "Religion/Theology," Beck doesn't actually make any traditional theological arguments. He doesn't try to convince anyone about their theology of Satan. There's a basic assumption that Satan as a conscious force does not exist, which goes back to the disenchanted audience to whom he is writing. Rather, he seems more to provide many examples of how disenchanted Christians can still find value, meaning, and depth in Scriptural and everyday references to Satan and demons. He basically creates a hermeneutic for modern American Christians. That is fundamentally theological. However, it often feels like the book lives more on the Christian Living than Theology shelf. At times, it feels like a devotional, especially in part because while generally logically organized, the book seems more like a series of semi-related stories than building a logical, linear argument. In the midst of all of this, Beck deserves kudos for being able to reason in an academic environment, but write a book that is accessible and bridges both theology and Christian living.

There were two primary areas where the text made helpful theological insights for me:
  1. Early on, Beck introduces and seems to support the atonement theory of Christus Victor, which refers to Christ's death as a ransom. Satan holds humanity hostage, and God ransoms us through Christ's sacrifice. One of the biggest theological problems with this atonement theory is that it almost gives Satan more power than God--God is required to pay Satan. That gives many people pause. I found it odd that Beck talked about this theory, particularly from a disenchanted view. If Satan isn't a being, how does Christus Victor apply? Beck ultimately argues that demonic power is real, but he never really closes the theological loop on this point. However, his book triggered other connections in my mind. I've become a fan of Girardian scapegoat atonement theory, which asserts that it is humans who need a sacrifice--a scapegoat--to feel reconciled. It is the absurdity of Christ's sacrifice that breaks this cycle. What if Christus Victor and scapegoat theory could actually be describing the same thing, but Christus Victor from a more a enchanted worldview, while scapegoat is more disenchanted and psychological? If Beck is correct about the reality of demonic power over us, but due to the reality of the human condition, not because of a supernatural conscious force, what if God is actually trying to ransom us from ourselves?
  2. From a disenchanted worldview, many Christians struggle with ideas of worship. I've heard people say, "Is God really that insecure that he needs us to worship him every week?" I've also recently struggled with the purpose of singing and music--what is it really supposed to do? Beck provides some excellent examples about how the purpose of worship isn't to stroke God's ego, but it helps us reorient ourselves to refocus our actions. He states, "When life is hard, we must constantly exorcise the demons of despair. And worship, praise, and testimony are how we combat the despair and reach toward hope" (p. 131-132). That fundamentally impacted my experience of worship in the weeks that followed.
Beck's text is a nice addition to the conversation about Satan and the demonic. It won't be terribly helpful for those looking for more traditional exegesis. However, his stories bring Scriptural and theological principles to life in a powerful way. He makes abstract, removed ideas, especially for the disenchanted, real, immediate, and relevant. His framings provide good reminders and ways to consider and approach life. I dog-eared a couple dozen pages because of the many good ways he discusses important, timely topics. While some could think a book about Satan could be depressing, this is a quite uplifting, inspiring text. In fact, I ended the book with tears in my eyes from a touching concluding story.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. 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.”

Monday, August 22, 2016

What Jobs Are Important?

As many around the nation saw, there has been a massive wildfire in Southern California. It seriously threatened my hometown, where my parents still live, so I watched it closely. Growing up in a mountain town, we had threatening fires almost annually. Although some were worse than others, this one was probably the worst (as many friends noted: never did we see the whole town evacuated).

During each of the fires, including this one, there was an outpouring of well-deserved appreciation for the fire fighters who saved the town. Their tireless efforts continue to impress us.

At the same time, working the public sector and having been involved in two national-headline-making disasters in the past year, I've also seen that there are MANY more people involved in disaster response than fire, police, and medical. There are a variety of departments, professions, and workers who are deployed 24/7 (often without the overtime and other well-deserved benefits of fire, police, and emergency medical personnel). These other individuals tirelessly help people put their lives back together, provide comfort and resources to those who need it, and help navigate bureaucracies. If you've never been in a disaster, these things may seem superfluous, but the aftermath of a disaster can actually be more traumatic than the disaster itself.

In some ways, I think we place importance on professions and work based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, as those who support the basic things are most critical. Is that really fair or accurate? Frankly, losses in some of the higher levels lead people to suicide, so I wouldn't minimize things beyond basic life needs. Those who support disasters in traditional first responder roles are often recognized because of placing their safety on the line. This is not to be minimized. However, the implication is that psychological safety and other parts of life from other first responders are minimized. Being on call actively 24/7 for months on end to survivors of traumas is dangerous work and changes lives forever. It's quiet work, though, and rarely acknowledged.

So let's generalize this. We have a hierarchy for careers. I went into psychology for the meaning. I do believe it is meaningful, and therefore important, work. But how many jobs do we dismiss as "menial," fundamentally limiting their sense of importance and then the workers' sense of meaning? A classic example is a trash truck driver, a job few people would want. What would happen if this profession disappeared? We'd suddenly consider it important. What about amusement park ride operators or ticket takers? Sure, entertainment isn't important in a traditional view of Maslow's hierarchy. However, what would life be without any entertainment? I think it helps us bring meaning, order, and balance to our lives. And without workers to support these things, our lives would be significantly affected.

So do some people really have more important jobs? If so, what should we base importance on?

Monday, August 8, 2016

Stop Calling Presidential Candidates Mentally Ill

Election season can be downright crazy. And it's not infrequent that policies, parties, and candidates also get labelled as "crazy." This may be the first year that at least one candidate is explicitly being called mentally ill as an argument against him.

Trump's behavior has been appalling to many, including within the GOP, who have withdrawn support because of his antics. I've seen at least one petition that asks for him to be explicitly diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. I've seen others more casually call him mentally ill as a way to dismiss him. All of this is used in a derogatory way and to argue for someone in the GOP to deem him unfit for office and candidacy.

For those of us in the behavioral health field, a major part of reforming systems and improving access to care is reducing stigma. Deeming someone unfit for office due to mental illness fundamentally reverses decades of work.

Mental illness does not necessarily mean someone is unstable.

Mental illness does not necessarily mean someone cannot work in highly complex and responsible jobs.

Mental illness does not necessarily mean someone cannot have a "normal" life.

Mental illness simply means someone has a health concern. We all have health concerns at some points in our lives. Oh, and by the way, half of all people will meet criteria for a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives.

No diagnosis or mental disorder alone disqualifies someone from office, in my opinion (Trump's biggest problems aren't due to mental illness). In fact, some research indicates that about half of all Presidents have had mental illness. Others have already noted that narcissism isn't a death sentence for politics. In fact, any level of politics, especially rising to the level of President probably requires some level of narcissism--one has to have some level of grandiosity to seek what is commonly considered the most powerful position on the planet.

However, effective use of narcissism or other symptoms of mental illness can lead an individual to great success. Consider the classic phrase that our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses. People with any struggle can turn it into something effective. That's called resilience and recovery. And it's what gives hope to those with mental illness.

Politico published a good analysis of asking whether Americans would even elect someone with mental illness, clearly addressing the on-going stigma attached with this label. In short, politicians are generally forced to hide any sense of mental illness even though plenty of them have it. How sad is that?

In a time when we're talking about glass ceilings being broken, please don't strengthen the glass ceiling related to mental illness.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Accepting the Democratic Process

I've been on two juries. The first time was a drug possession and selling case. One of the most serious charges (related to illegal weapons, I believe) was determined to be too high and the lower charge that we believed he was guilty of was not an option because of some legal reason (I don't recall). A few people were ready to convict him of the higher charge so he wouldn't "get off." I fought strongly against that, as while our system is imperfect, the thing that unifies us is the process. Our legal system is far from perfect, but there are barriers to wrongly convict people because that's such a major problem. That means some people will "get off." And despite those checks, people still get falsely convicted at a scarily high rate.

A similar process applies to democracy. There is a foundational belief underlying democracy that overall, the People will make the right choice. There's plenty of evidence we can find to the contrary over the centuries of democracy, but overall, things are hopefully moving in the right direction.

We don't like all the results of these processes, but we unify around the process, not the outcome. We accept disappointing results because of this and then perhaps try again later.

I remember how frequently during Presidential Inaugurations, news anchors comment on how peaceful and respectful transitions of power in the US are. However, this year's Presidential election feels different. I've been wondering what Inauguration Day will look like, regardless of the candidate. It seems others have thought the same thing, as a recent Associated Press article explores the same idea about whether a peaceful transition is possible.

Politicians and parties always use hyperbole and strong language to make their case. It's much like what happens between lawyers in a court room (not surprising since many politicians are former lawyers). And yet having seen both the legal process and political process (I interned in the California Assembly), people on opposing sides usually genuinely like and respect each other, even if they genuinely and passionately disagree. Letters from outgoing Presidents to incoming Presidents is very telling of this, as well.

In January, will we be able to continue to demonstrate a strong American tradition of exemplary peaceful transitions of power if our candidate loses?

This professional respect increasingly seems to be getting lost. Hillary is a criminal, and Donald is a dictator. The opposite sides agree with one statement, but not the other. When one gets elected, will the other side accept the Will of the People that is so core to our democracy? What if the claims of the successful candidate are true? When do we accept the democratic process, and when do we need to condemn the results?

It's a slippery slope either way. We know from history what happens when people stay silent too long. We also can see (very recently in Turkey) what happens when a sub-group tries to circumvent the democratic process. Neither option is pleasant, so what's the balance?

I take heart that we have a Separation of Powers. Congress has a huge amount of the actual power. They're the ones who make the laws, not the President. We need policymakers who agree with us there. The President has the most significant bully pulpit in the world and has more power as a representative of this country to the world, so interpersonal skills and wisdom in forging relationships are more central than policy here, in my opinion.

Our County will be tested in the next months. How we respond will be critical on so many levels. I hope we rise to the challenge, and I hope our Constitutionally-created Separation of Powers will not be needed, but will help ease people's angst and mitigate any short-term and long-term problems by the choice we make and have to live with.

At the end of the day, we must remember that a central part of being American is unifying around the Democratic process. And we have to determine how to deal with the consequences of when we don't appreciate the results.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Trumped Christianity

Earlier in the month, there was an op-ed in the New York Times entitled The Theology of Donald Trump, exploring Trump's faith and especially evangelical Christianity's response to him. It's interesting how we interpret behavior, which is obviously a complex process and rarely done objectively.

Another article came to my attention asserting how a covert video of Trump during a prayer session shows how faithful he is. Except his eyes are open the whole time, looking around, and to me, looking quite uncomfortable and appearing to want to know what's going on rather than really being present and moved by the Spirit. I don't know Trump personally, so I don't know what he's like personally or anything beyond his bombastic public appearance. So who knows...

Two months ago, I reviewed a book exploring the importance of evaluating presidential candidates' faith, broadly defined. The author, Stephen Mansfield, argues for asking questions about core values and where they derive from, seeing how those seem to match with the candidates' behavior. That seems to match the biblical verse about looking at the fruit of the Spirit.

Do we see the fruit of the Spirit demonstrated by Trump? A recent anti-Trump ad attempts to answer that question poignantly.

Oftentimes, it seems we tend to evaluate candidates' faith by their political position. In reality, faith can work its way through lives in many diverse ways. Christians can honestly and authentically come to completely different positions based on deep faith. That's one of the reasons I appreciate the Baptist core value of Soul Liberty.

Interestingly, I've heard very little debate about the faith of Hillary Clinton. Mansfield spends an entire chapter on her faith journey, which sounds quite authentic and applied, not superficial. But her faith and process is far more private than many.

Do we really know what to do with and how to even evaluate the faith of candidates? Should we? Is it possible?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Review: Following Paul

One of my fondest memories of living with my grandpa was going to monthly biblical archaeology meetings together. While I haven't had the opportunity to visit biblical locations, I find presentations on the topic quite interesting. FishFlix, a vendor of Christian DVDs, asked me to review a DVD entitled, Apostle Paul and The Earliest Churches, described on the cover as "Ephesus, Antioch, Tarsus, Galatia--an illuminating visit to the places where key New Testament events took place."

Indeed, this documentary provides visuals for many sites Paul visited in the course of his ministry. However, the sites weren't well-described. Various images and details were shown on screen, but often for only a second. I found myself frequently wanting to examine the details longer and find out more of the history and information about the location.

Ultimately, the documentary seems to have two related, but distinct purposes: (1) reenact Paul's missionary journeys, and (2) explore the historical, religious, and archaeological history of the sites Paul visited. Unfortunately, in 48 minutes, this is too much to try to accomplish, and the DVD did not seem to effectively capture either purpose, both being cut short by the other. I frequently kept wondering what the intent of the film was.

There is a lot of great potential, but it just feels like it is trying to be too many things to be effective. Production quality was modest and dated, and extra attention to detail and consistency would have been beneficial (for instance, captions would be helpful, and text on screen always said "Antioch in Psidia" while the narrator always said "Psidian Antioch," which sounds like Psidia in Antioch).

It's not a bad film, but it's really a very basic introduction. The study guide actually seems stronger than the documentary itself, but even that is pretty basic.

Readers can get a $5 coupon to FishFlix.com if you join the email list or texting 5-GIFT to 44222.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. 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.”

Monday, July 11, 2016

Black Lives Matter and the Good Samaritan

Yesterday, our pastor, Rev. Dr. Shawn Zambrows, preached a powerful and timely sermon on the Good Samaritan. I highly recommend listening to it, if you're so inclined. In it, she cites Martin Luther King, Jr's I've Been to the Mountaintop sermon, where he states:
And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
During the sermon, I reflected on the many debates and memes I've seen on social media, the blogosphere, etc. on Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, and so on. Some have argued the historical and systemic problems that require an emphasis on the lives of African-Americans, without diminishing the importance of all lives. Others say that singling out any group fundamentally diminishes the values of others.

What if we're asking the wrong question in this debate? Could King's hypotheses about the underlying questions of the priest, Levite, and Samaritan be at work again?

I understand the All Lives Matter argument quite well. In it, there's a bit of, "What about me? Doesn't my life matter?" That's a fair and valid reaction. But it's also a little bit of the "What will happen to me?" side.

At the moment, the people in need of particular systemic assistance and change are African-Americans. We should be not be asking in response, "what will happen to me if I help individually and/or systemically." We should ask, "What will happen to them if I don't help?" And part of that help is acknowledging that Black Lives Matter in the face of a myriad of experiences that indicate otherwise.

What will happen to them if we just continue to generically say All Lives Matter? What will happen to them if we say Black Lives Matter? What harm would come by calling out a constantly invalidated group by agreeing that Black Lives Matter? We have to put ourselves aside a bit for that to happen.

Questions?

Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).