Direct Dialogue

As a Bible and theology majors at a small Christian college, I’ve been able to be part of a tight-knit group of folks dedicated to finding and applying the relevance of Jesus to our present American, Midwestern, middle-to-upper-middle class context, as well as searching to know the self revealing God through community and theological exploration. As a student, I’ve also been able to form deeper relationships with certain faculty members, serving as a TA in various capacities for 4 professors in my years at Bethel University. This being the case, I have various sources of information regarding the goings on in the classroom. Occasionally fringe opinions prove to be points of heated dialogue sometimes triggering the opinions belonging to the center of the theology of some of my colleagues. In theory, the conversation (if it can be called that) centers on the Noahide covenant and laws and their relevance today; in practice, it is focused on the issue of abortion in America. Some context may be helpful before I dive into my rant.

The stated stance of Bethel University is traditional and conservative, and is in line with much of Evangelicalism. However, this by no means is to imply that diversity does not exist amongst the Bethel faculty and student body. The majority of the departments with a focus on the Humanities are marked with a certain degree of social and theological progressivism. As a member of the Biblical and Theological Studies department, I belong to a more or less minority perspective when it comes to thinking about issues facing culture and Christianity. But, as is to be expected, Bethel is an institution comprised of real people who are far more complex than any broad overview is capable of articulating. It is to these multifaceted people and situations to which we now turn.

I just enjoyed dinner with a friend with whom I have not conversed in a while. We discussed one of the more popular classes offered by Bethel: Christian Social Ethics. One student has been making waves -- something theology thrives on and requires. This student has been setting themself as the sole possessor of Gospel truth, to which all need to listen, accept, and follow -- one thing theology certainly needs less of. This colleague is of the opinion that, in addition to the new reality inaugurated by the coming of Christ, humanity is still under the covenant God made with Noah following the flood in the Genesis narrative. This fellow student believes, in particular, that murder ought to be completely anathema (good), that there ought to be legislation to enforce such prohibitions (a sticky topic in its own right, but go on…), that abortion constitutes such a violation to the command to not murder (again, contested, but I can respect that opinion, to an extent), and finally that we are therefore required to put to death any and every woman who has had an abortion (hold the f***ing phone). Since that day in class earlier this week, a conversation has been sparked among many of my fellow theology students.

Naturally, many of us are heated, and will remain so. This being said, I hope to provide a treatise for why a continuing conversation is of the utmost importance. I have found myself wishing to shake the dust off of my feet and leaving my silence as a testimony against them. I have found more than a few students who have forced themselves to take a step back so as to prevent a physical outlash. But such options are not viable. When one thinks that God has called them into ministry, whether that be as a ministry leader, an academic, or some other vocation, one must be prepared to engage with voices which dissent from their own. When one knows that such dissenting voices are a blatant call to violence and rejection of the ethics of Jesus, they must speak out. Without such reactions to “Gospels” of hate, those who hold to said “Gospels” gain a larger platform behind the pulpit, and a taller soap-box on the street corner. Assertions from both sides must cease to talk past one another in the same room. Dialogue is the most vital necessity when two opposing parties interact. When a consensus is not reached, champions of the message of Jesus need to ensure their side is heard. Those who believe that to love one’s enemies and to turn the other cheek means to resist those who claim otherwise. In such an instance as this, our preaching must be so loud, so pervasive, and so constant that those in the other camp cannot enjoy a moment of influence.

***

Now that I have had a moment to calm down, I would like to offer some more sober exegesis as an alternative to what many of my Bethel colleagues have been hearing. I will try to keep things short and to the point, so as to clearly articulate my position, while not getting bogged down in technical jargon.

Saying that the Noahide covenant needs to be applied to the American religio-political context is nothing is not problematic. For one, we have to make legislation analogous to a theocracy (which are always religious oligarchies masquerading as something other than a self-justifying oppressive regime) of an Ancient Near Eastern kind. I am of the opinion that Christians do right to seek to influence society from the bottom down, as our track record of pursuing a “Christian nation” is the biggest shame to the Kingdom of God. Another thing, the government would likewise have to enforce procreation of all persons without exception (Gen. 9.7), countering what the New Testament says regarding singleness for the sake of serving God better. Following the hermeneutical principles laid out by the colleague I am responding to leads us further back than the Dark Ages. This fellow students is indefensible, and requires them by necessity to pick and choose what parts of the passage, which is being taken out of context to begin with, have continuing relevance.

I can understand that this student wishes to be pro-life, but in practice they are this way in a very limited sense. Being pro-life ought to entail being active in serving one’s fellow humans, seeking to harken social justice and to end the needless loss of human life. If one wishes to be consistently pro-life, one must be more than anti-abortion; one must do something (anything!) other than protest Planned Parenthood every weekend; one must not spew hate at people struggling with what is likely the hardest decision a person can face.

Now, for the continuing relevance of the laws Genesis tells us was given to Noah from God: it isn’t (this is more sass than sober exegesis). While the New Testament is certainly capable of demonstrating the continuity which exists between the covenants God has made with God’s people, this does not lead one to conclude that the Christian is required to kill people based on their actions in order to “defend the Gospel.” This is the pseudo-Gospel of hate and works, ironically coming from a largely Reformed camp. Saying one must do or not do x, y, or z in order to live is the most severe affront to the Gospel and the peace ethic of Jesus. Jesus tells us that to believe in him is to inherit life eternal. Nowhere in the New Testament can we be justified in concluding that God would want us to bring harm to those who (we merely think) displease God. What has been advocated for in the Christian Social Ethics classroom is murder in the most plain sense.

Towards a Theology of Proximity

*This post contains an inexcusable amount of spoilers*

As a senior in high school, I was assigned to read Stephen King’s novella “Apt Pupil,” from King’s highly successful compilation, Different Seasons ("The Shawshank Redemption" and "Stand By Me" were inspired by two others novellas found in this work). I became enchanted with King, and he — with the possible exception of H.P. Lovecraft — has grown to be my favorite horror writer, and one contemporary write who I hold in the highest esteem. The project which came along with the short story was to examine the various thematic strands which I could come across. Having recently become a Christian, I was drawn to the insights this work could provide Christian living.

The story focuses on the relationship between a young American boy growing up in the fictional Californian suburb of Santo Donato and a former Nazi doctor and Death Camp director. Todd Bowden, the teenager on whom most of the plot focuses, came from a good family, and from an early age grew to be fascinated by the history of the Second World War. Learning about the Holocaust lead him to discover the aged, lonely German immigrant who lived down the road is a wanted war criminal. Kurt Dussander, dubbed the “Blood Fiend of Patin,” has been living in isolation in California for approximately a decade, after spending many post war years on the run in Cuba, Berlin, and unknown locales in South America. It is in the summer of ‘74 that Dussander hears the knock of a caller on his front door, the first one in months. The young boy at his door talks his way into the house, and reveals he has certain, compromising knowledge about the man who has been masquerading as Arthur Denker. Mr. Denker, Todd claims, is no widower who emigrated after retiring from a German automobile plant, but is none other than the “efficiency man” of Himmler himself.

Where the most experienced Israeli agents have failed, a thirteen-year-old with a paper route has succeeded: Dussander has been found out, and the following minutes, he believes, will hold his fate. The demands of Todd are simple, yet unexpected. Not money, not recognition, but information is what he desires. Dussander’s response, “You little monster!” proves to be prophetic. Despite this, in some strange way, Dussander grows fond of his new companion with time. As the two embark on their increasingly dark journey, we see their descent is mutually harmful. Todd’s grades begin to slip and his “gosh-darn” diction quickly turns crass and vulgar. Dussander, having awakened long-slumbering memories, is plagued by nightmares inspired by his days in the Death Camps. As time progresses, their physical and mental healths and habits continue to deteriorate.

Dussander and Todd find that the only way to cope with their symptoms is to feed their respective diseases. Dussander turns to the drink (more than usual) and harming animals, while Todd forges his report cards and contemplates harming those he encounters on the streets. Eventually, both begin reach the telos their actions had been pointing towards: the taking of life. The nightmares cease, grades begin to be commendable once more, and both even see dramatic health improvements. But under the surface, King wants us to see, hate begins to fester. Dussander wishes cashiers and people at the bus station find themselves at the mercy of wild beasts, and Todd finds himself struggling to hide his malicious thoughts towards his parents and teachers. But most significantly, the two harbor enmity towards each other. As time progresses, the reader will notice that our main characters evidence more and more behavior which seeks to foreshadow the novella’s ending (one part of the story I am not willing to spoil!).

When I was a senior in high school, I saw some truth in those pages. The assignment I did to accompany the reading was to explore the theme of proximity to evil, and what that meant for Todd and Dussander. I noted how the hate of one would feed of the other's, and vice versa. Todd had a promising childhood, having come from a kind family with the means to put him through college. Dussander would likely have lived out his days in silence. Instead of continuing down those respective paths, theirs crossed by pursuing one another. By opening up doors either best left closed or peered into with the utmost caution, they were drawn farther and farther down the hallways which were presented.

Three years later, I find myself reading the story again, and thought I’d take a stab at offering a theological reflection on “Apt Pupil.” Jesus tells us that what goes into a person does not defile, but that what comes out are the things which have the potential to alienate us from God and our communities. While we could make the argument that Todd and Dussander are not separating themselves at first from human flourishing because they are only taking things in, and only later begin to put bad things out, this is obviously not the case. I believe that is because the two are choosing to place their identities in malevolence. Instead of seeing habits and ways of thinking as the things which we put in (like “unclean” foods), in certain circumstances perhaps we ought to view them as who we are becoming. My personal takeaway from this story will be to examine my thoughts, and prayerfully seeking to make sure most of them are geared more towards the things of the Kingdom, such as the "setting free of captives", care for the marginalized, and comfort and hope for all.