The Good News vs. Crazy Love

Francis Chan at Catalyst West 2009

Image via Wikipedia

Thanks to the overwhelming criticism from my friends Maggie, Matt, and Mike, I decided to actually read the book Crazy Love by Francis Chan and Danae Yankoski. Last night, I sat down and read the foreword, preface, and first three chapters which Chan calls “old truths” communicated in a “fresh way”. My purpose with this post is to question these “old truths” as “truth”. I plan to point out the inconsistency of traditional Christian beliefs. I will then put forth a new way of believing. In the end, I believe Chan and I ask the same questions. We answer them in profoundly different ways. My answers derive out of a Socratic-style questioning of classical theology. I reveal my incredulity at all stages. I attempt to live in a constant state of self-critique that will allow me to grow. These are my answers.

First, I want to fully identify Danae Yankoski as an author of this book. Chan is the celebrity, but he probably did less actual “writing” of this book than he did “inspiring” of this book (I cannot know for sure but take Jim Wallis for example who does not write any of his own books). From now on, I will refer to the authors as “they” in order to avoid granting Chan the celebrity status he enjoys through the book’s production.

Second, I want to affirm their statement on pp. 21-2. They state, “We need to stop giving people excuses not to believe in G-d.” I fully agree. Still, their solution to this issue looks extremely different from mine. According to Chan and Yankoski, Christians’ lack of charity causes disbelief in G-d. They claim that if the Church really lived how it was called to live, people would exclaim, “’I can’t deny what the church does, but I don’t believe in their G-d’” (22). Let me challenge this outright. The notion that people are using the Church as a scapegoat for atheism is preposterous. Atheism derives from finding a different answer to the question of theodicy than what is presented by Christian theology. The sins of the Church may drive people to question G-d, but eventually, the answer to the question of G-d must be fulfilled by something other than G-d, something people find more satisfactory. For us to be fully honest, we need to recognize the cacophony of theodic answers available today. In Crazy Love, no different theodicies are given; instead, the lives of Christians bear the sole blame for driving people from G-d. What is worse, these activities by Atheist-creating Christians never receive discussion. Instead, the readers have to imagine what they could possibly be. What do they have in mind? We can only guess.

I want to make a quick trek against patriarchy. I firmly believe that one of the reasons people lose faith in G-d is because most Christians worship idols. One of these idols is patriarchy. Part and parcel to patriarchy is the elevation of male leaders over females. As a result, male pastors become superstars in a society that worships them as spiritual authorities. Crazy Love indulges such a sin by never once implicating that Chan had any help creating the book. Instead, the implied “I” of the book belongs to Francis Chan, the stories are about Francis Chan, and the woman giving authorial advice becomes simply a conduit through which Chan expresses himself. Whether Chan is an egalitarian or not (I am not sure where he stands on this), he expresses patriarchal language at every turn. It comes in a story about how his friends at his high school reunion ogled his wife, and worse, it comes through the consistent gendered pronouns “He”, “His”, and “Him” to reference G-d. Language carries immense power. In a society deeply touched by feminism, the Church’s outdated grasp of G-d as male probably does more to create non-believers than any lack of compassion on the behalf of Christians. Our refusal to either use gender equitable language (referring to G-d as “She” as well as “He”) or my preference which is non-gendered phraseology, continues to drive people away who want a faith that fully incorporates women as full human beings. This book through the third chapter does nothing to address Christian language; it merely reinforces old guard patriarchal roles.

I want to point out several inconsistencies in the book’s message as well as presentation. They write a great counter-cultural paragraph on p. 25, “We are a culture that relies on technology over community, a society in which spoken and written words are cheap, easy to come by, and excessive. Our culture says anything goes; fear of G-d is almost unheard of. We are slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to become angry.” The book implicitly promotes nearly all these things. It repeatedly directs the reader toward the website where video appendices can be viewed. Its whole premise is predicated on G-d’s love not G-d’s fear-inspiration. And though the words are certainly not excessive (it is double-spaced!), they carry an easy, simple readability that carry homiletic accessibility without intellectual candor or challenge. In a sense, their words are cheap. Such a simple critique that I have offered only shows the general theme of the first three chapters in which the authors propose several stripped-down versions of classical theology that I wish to counter.

The authors put forth several ideas about G-d. The entire book is predicated on the notion that people have an “inaccurate view of G-d and, consequently, of ourselves.” They ironically seek to correct our views in the first couple chapters with “old truths”. One of these corrections involves affirming G-d’s holiness. To begin their discourse on G-d’s holiness, they write, “A lot of people say that whatever you believe about G-d is fine, so long as you are sincere. But that is comparable to describing your friend in one instance as a three-hundred-pound sumo wrestler and in another as a five-foot-two, ninety pound gymnast. No matter how sincere you are in your explanation, both descriptions of your friend simply cannot be true” (31). Initially, this seems like a fair statement. To use another metaphor, ice cannot be liquid therefore, G-d cannot be everything. They almost immediately follow their statement about objective knowledge about G-d being possible with this statement, “And because of [G-d’s] set apart-ness, there is no way we can ever fathom all of who [G-d] is.” A little further down the page, they state, “Not being able to fully understand G-d is frustrating, but it is ridiculous for us to think we have the right to limit G-d to something we are capable of comprehending” (31-2). At this juncture, it becomes confusing. The reason it becomes confusing is because they try their hardest to hold together two theological ideas like a person trying to hold up a completed puzzle. First, they maintain that G-d is either/or. Either G-d is X, Y, and Z or G-d is not. They continue by affirming G-d as incomprehensible. We will never know if G-d is actually X, Y, and Z. These statements protect the authors from making any real theological claims. Furthermore, it protects them from criticism. When one claims a theological viewpoint in contrast to theirs, they can reply, “That is saying stone is liquid.” If someone proves them wrong, they can respond, “G-d is a mystery, and we cannot possibly know the fullness of G-d. Therefore, we’re both right.” This way of thinking is something I have been consistently dissatisfied with throughout my life. Later, I will address how I think we can get around it.

I want to approach Crazy Love‘s affirmation of a long-accepted theological appropriation concerning sin, punishment, and salvation by faith. In their discourse on creating good theology, the authors write, “G-d never excuses sin. And [G-d] is always consistent with that ethic… No question about it: G-d hates and must punish sin. And [G-d] is totally just and fair in doing so” (34, emphasis added). The authors put forth an unavoidable absolute. G-d punishes sin. Period. Additionally, we should not question G-d’s execution of punishment; it is “just and fair”. Chan and Yankoski find a loophole. The loophole belongs to Luther. Essentially, G-d always punishes sin, but people who believe in Jesus receive a get out of jail free card. Why do they get it? The authors ask the same question: “[W]hy, when we constantly offend [G-d] and are so unlovable and unloving, does G-d persist in loving us?” (60, emphasis original). The love of G-d is their answer. They hold that even in the midst of humanity’s most depraved, sinful state G-d loves us. They proceed to affirm that some folks will go to hell and some folks will be forgiven. They state, “G-d’s mercy is a free, yet costly, gift. It cannot be earned. Our righteous acts…certainly don’t help us deserve it.” Here their argument deteriorates fast. The book begins by making a call for increased morality from the Christians of the world. They continue by claiming that G-d will never excuse sin. They move on by totally contradicting themselves saying that Christians will get their sins excused. They indicate that folks should fear G-d and that G-d loves everyone. Let me clarify.

What happens in this type of thinking is the creation of in-groups and out-groups. Predicated on their hypothesis, one group of people receives forgiveness and another does not. The group that does not receive forgiveness will go to hell due to their sin. Nevertheless, the problem being faced by Christians is their unrighteousness. Therefore, either the authors are claiming that a bunch (maybe a majority) of Christians are running around as covert damned-souls, or they are saying what it actually sounds like: the only way to know true Christians is by their works but you don’t have to do good works to be forgiven of your sins you only need to believe in the free gift of Jesus but if you truly believe in Jesus you will do good works even though you do not actually have to do them but you totally should if you are actually a Christian. Quite honestly, I take this kind of circular logic to be absolutely unbelievable. I cannot endure it. What is more, I believe it too is a cause of disbelief. One cannot demand the highest moral standards of people then turn around and say there is no reason for them to live into these moral standards. Furthermore, it appears hypocritical for someone to excuse the sins of one group but not another based solely on the pardoned group’s affirmation of one person’s death and resurrection. Jesus’ death and resurrection is supposed to be the ultimate soteriological event of history. People’s belief in it cannot alter its truth. All people live under the Gospel whether they like it or not. This type of theology put forth by the authors makes little sense to any observant reader, and it is related to my next critique.

In the second chapter, the authors discuss a youth who lived an exuberant, evangelistic lifestyle. They quote an essay she wrote then reveal the tragic news of her death at the age of 14. 1500 people arrived at her funeral that was officiated by Francis. Through his voice, the authors write, “I shared the gospel and invited those who wanted to know Jesus to come up and give their lives to [G-d]. There must have been at least two hundred students on their knees at the front of the church praying for salvation” (49). I think the ethics of using someone’s death to inspire fear of hell in 1500 people are questionable, but more importantly, I want to unpack this phrase, “I shared the gospel”.

The word “gospel” has several meanings in our context. Gospel is a literary genre of books in the New Testament. It also carries the connotation of its original meaning of “good news”. In this, there can be lots of different “gospels”. It is not uncommon for people to refer to small cultural shifts as “gospel” (i.e. new styles of football offenses or some new musician’s great music). Primarily, gospel refers to Christian religious contexts. The Greek word in the New Testament for “gospel” is euangelion. The word was used in a couple different ways, all involving the Roman Empire. Euangelion (lit. “good news”) came from a euangelu (evangelist) concerning something incredible accomplished by the emperor. When the Roman military won an important battle, the “good news” would be spread to the rest of the Roman world. If a Caesar died and a new Caesar took power, the euangelion of the new soter (savior) of the world would be spread throughout the whole empire. For all the “good news” in the Roman empire, the disparity between the rich and poor was astronomical. Despite all the technological advances, millions in the empire suffered while the wealthy lived in extreme opulence. Much of the “good news” in the empire rarely meant anything good for the oppressed and brought much more power for the powerful. When a group of poor peasants and a reformed pharisee in the backwater region of Palestine began preaching the euangelion of a different soter, it could be construed as nothing less than a direct challenge of Caesar. The “good news” brought by Jesus involved the deliverance of the poor out from under the marginalizing Roman rulers who claimed to bring peace in the midst of war and mass authoritarian oppression.

When the Roman empire became Christian in the 4th century, they needed to excuse oppressive behavior while maintaining their faith in a man who led a movement against Roman domination. As a result, they altered the emphasis of Jesus. Instead of salvation from a repressive regime, deliverance was from eternal hellfire; salvation was for becoming immortal; and the euangelion lost its prophetic, political message. If we separate the gospel from its counter-imperial center, we marry the Church to the empire that killed Jesus. Thus, I refute people when they claim they “shared the gospel”. In today’s climate, not many do share the good news of Jesus. They prefer to share the good news of the in-group who gets to go to heaven over and against the out-group who must go to hell. Accordingly, a new wealthy elite of Christians is made by this politically indifferent gospel.

What is the gospel of Jesus? The answer to this question will make sense of my other two critiques of Crazy Love. Typically, Roman euangelion involved a victory in battle. We consider Jesus’ resurrection as the definitive victory of Jesus over the Roman empire that held the power to put him to death. Jesus’ resurrection spread the good news to all people that the Romans no longer held power of their lives and deaths. This conquering of the Roman power over the lives of others envisioned a new life in opposition to the Roman hegemony. The Roman empire was founded on rigid hierarchies between the people who had and the people who had not. Jesus’ gospel embraced the poor, bringing them together in egalitarian community for the sake of care for one another. The foundational ethic in this community resided in love of G-d and love for one another. It involved forgiveness, deep intimacy, and belief in direction from the Spirit of G-d. The expression of these beliefs came out in many cultural contexts, but the truth of Jesus’ victory could not be negated.

Nothing can change Jesus’ victory. The point of evangelism was not to convert people to believe in Jesus; it was to inform people of the victory of G-d over Roman control. When Romans believed in this victory, they risked everything. Many refused to believe in Jesus’ victory (it is difficult to believe it after all), but the people who looked to benefit the most, those with nothing to lose, embraced it. Everyone lives under Jesus’ victory over the powers. Those who embrace it, who have faith in it, live out its obvious logic which is to no longer recognize the Romans as the authorities and live in a way counter and subversive to the Romans. In this new life, they lived how G-d desired. They lived with G-d as the one in charge.

The salvation experienced by people was present reality along with the promise of sharing in Jesus’ resurrection. An in-group and an out-group was still formed, but the in-group was one of oppressed peoples who hoped for the finality of G-d’s rule. It makes no sense to create an in-group of people who, after death, will become like the people who oppressed them in life. Rather, the good news envisioned reconciliation between peoples in the resurrection.

Finally, those of us who believe in the resurrection are required to live with its important implications. We must live counter to the dominant ways of living. We must subvert the empire who holds a monopoly on life and death. The language of salvation by faith must take on this connotation to avoid the extremely confusing didactic between works and faith. When revivalists call for repentance, it will be repentance from being imperial when we should be resurrected.

In conversations about this book and my approach to it, I have been critiqued for being very polemical and angry. I admit my anger, but I want to place it properly. People in the roles of teaching others about Jesus the Messiah have a responsibility. Their responsibility is to lead us through the wilderness of counter-imperial practices. Post-Constantinian theology caused these leaders to become spiritual gurus more akin to pagan priests. This inheritance represents what I am angry at. When it receives explicit endorsement, I seek to refute it on all levels.

Francis Chan and Danae Yankoski put forward a revival style argument based on safe, old theology. They piece together bible verses to support their theology that is both confusing and status quo. Eventually, they hope to inspire a radical Christian life. I cannot exclude the possibility of this happening, but I can denounce their assertion of salvation by faith, their belief in hell for non-believers, their patriarchy, and their lack of understanding of biblical context. I tried to put forth a different way of believing by implicating that Jesus’ death and resurrection run counter to imperial ways of living. The truth of his life cannot be denied; it can only be avoided. In the end, at the resurrection, all people will know this truth. May all glory be to G-d, and I hope you continue to think critically about faith and G-d. Peace!

-ben adam

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About ben adam

The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and we might miss Armageddon because we're too busy watching MTV and CNN. Please, read a book, throw a ball, bake some bread, and for goodness sake, turn the TV off.
This entry was posted in Anti-imperialism, Atheism, Bible, Books, Christianity, Critique, G-d, Jesus, Patriarchy, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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