On Cultures

“All people are like all others, like some others, and like no other.”
– Clyde Kluckhohn, anthropologist  and social theorist.

One thing that was instilled in me from an early point in my undergraduate studies was the centrality of empathy, patience, and openness towards difference that is so endemic to the cross-cultural minister’s task.  I am grateful for having been taught that people groups are both inherently diverse and irreducibly connected; that cultures can be compared but must also be appreciated as the unique, one-of-a-kind tapestries that they are.  I stumbled upon this quote in the January 2012 edition of Missiology: An International Review and thought it worth sharing.


Jesus, Resistance, and The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games and Resistance

I am almost 2/3 of the way through Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.  My wife, Naomi, sped through the series in five days.  Between work, school and other distractions (such as a Kindle-stealing wife), I am plodding my way through a bit more slowly.  The slow pace gives me a chance to be more fully immersed in the story world – the narrative sticks with me, I think about it, and like all good stories, it impinges upon my life and colors my perspective for a while. For those who have not read the books, the plot revolves around a few central teenaged characters who are pitted against their peers, deathmatch-style, in a massively-televised competition called The Hunger Games.

On the largest scale, the novels take place in a future dystopian, post-“American” North America in which, after some great unnamed (?) event, all power is consolidated in the hands of the evil governmental authority called “The Capitol” – leaving the common folk of what used to be America to eek out a subsistence-level living in the shadow of the empire.  Years before the novel takes place, there was an uprising – a revolt – of the people against the Capitol.  The revolt was brutally quelled and, as a result, the Capitol instituted the yearly Hunger Games.  The Hunger Games are one part death match competition and another a mixture of reality TV, government propaganda, and institutionalized violence to further cow the people into submission to the Capitol.  Each year, two children (aged 12 and up) are chosen, one male and one female, from each of the twelve districts to act as “Tribute” to the Capitol – twenty-four children will go into the Capitol’s arena and one will come out.  This reminds the people that it is the Capitol who holds the reigns of power; in fact, it is the Capitol who owns their children’s lives.

It is against this backdrop that the novel unfolds.  The main character, Katniss, is called as Tribute along with her friend Peeta to go to the Capitol and fight in that year’s Hunger Games.  Unsurprisingly, a love story unfolds.  But don’t let that fool you: the story is not about children, puppy love, or even what takes place within the Arena.  The story is about resistance, and the main characters become emblems of the cause.  Take, for example, Peeta’s words that mix the hopelessness of the situation with the wishful thinking of resistance:

“…I want to die as myself.  I don’t want them to change me in there.  Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.  […] Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their games.”[1]

These words, which are repeated throughout the story and serve as paradigmatic for the message, strike a nerve within the reader.  We see heroism in them, hope and an unswerving conviction that, with back against the wall, even if they win, it is not “the bad guys” who define who a person is.

The Jesus Story and Faithful Resistance

As a student of the Bible, and with an interest in political readings of the New Testament in particular, I cannot help but allow a co-mingling of The Hunger Games and the story of Jesus.  To a certain extent, author Suzanne Collins won’t let me not draw those connections: her Capitol is clearly modeled after all of the most brutal, despicable elements of the ancient empires of the Near East.  Social elites within the Capitol are given such telling names as Octavia, Claudius, Darius, Flavius, Romulus, and so on – each one a pretty pointed reference to what the Capitol is modeled after.  Like Octavius at the end of the Second Triumvirate, President Snow retains his autocratic power over the Capitol and the Twelve (Thirteen?) Districts while paying cheap lip service to the long-dead idea of a people’s government.  As the story unfolds, Katniss and Peeta become banner images for a people’s resistance, somewhat akin to popular revolts led by various groups in first century Roman Palestine.

Though a long-silenced area of Biblical study, the story of Jesus is, similarly, a story of resistance.  The history of Israel, from ca. 586 BC/E down to the time of Jesus in the first century CE/AD, is one that is marked by imperial control from above.  With the exception of one brief period of independence in the 100’s BC/E, Israel was always and ever under the control of foreign powers, starting with Babylon and ending with Rome at the time of Christ.  Like Collins’ The Hunger Games, the New Testament story is one whose story unfolds across a context of imperial domination and oppression.  Take, for instance, these words from a Caledonian chieftain:

“[The Romans] rob, butcher, plunder, and call it ‘empire’; and where they make a desolation, they call it ‘peace.’”[2]

Or perhaps the words of Josephus, a Jewish historian whose writings date to the first few decades after Jesus, who records the fate of the poor who attempted to escape the besieged city of Jerusalem around 70 CE/AD:

“They were accordingly beaten and subjected to torture of every description…[Titus, the Roman General] hoped that the spectacle might induce the Judeans to surrender for fear that continued resistance would involve them in a similar fate.”[3]

It may sound silly (and under a certain amount of scrutiny, it is), but what Katniss and Peeta are for the common people of the Districts, Jesus was for first century Christians.  Katniss and Peeta present a counter-claim against the Capitol: where President Snow claims to hold the power over the lives of all within the Districts, the people are galvanized to claim otherwise, that they are not the property of the Capitol and that “the bad guys” do not get to define them.  When Jesus comes preaching the Kingdom of God[4], he is doing something remarkably similar.  For, if God’s Kingdom descends upon the small, backwater province of Judea and makes claims of imminence and universality, whose authority is being challenged and, consequently, who is now out of a job?  In proclaiming the coming of God’s Kingdom, Jesus pronounces a counterclaim that the powers of empire no longer hold sway — that the New Time of God’s Reign has begun and the people, at least those who align themselves with Jesus and the Kingdom, are liberated.

At this point the two narratives, The Hunger Games and the Gospel, diverge.  Collins’ story, wonderfully gripping though it is, is still built upon the myth of violent resistance and expects its readers to applaud the bloody fight against the powers that be until the end.  The Jesus story is much different.  It calls for resistance, to be sure, but never for violence.  Hear the striking words of Jesus, and compare them with Peeta’s:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will loves it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the good news [of the Kingdom of God], will save it.” (Mark 8:34b-35)

In other words, Jesus echoes Peeta (er, Peeta echoes Jesus) in making the counterclaim that the empire does not own you.  They may kill you for what you stand for, but they can never own you; you are more than a piece in their game.  But, again, the narratives are divergent: for what Jesus calls for is resolute, faithful resistance that would sooner take up a cross and die a martyr’s death than take up the sword in defiance.  For the message of the Good News writ large is that humanity and all of its brokenness, of which systemic, oppressive violence is but a symptom, can be restored; the message of stories like The Hunger Games, Braveheart, or various histories of The Revolutionary War is that, with enough resolve, the bad guys can be beaten with a weapon.

And so I commend both stories to you, The Hunger Games and the Gospel.  Be taken aback by the absurdity of the Capitol’s brutality, but also know that it mostly comes from ancient stock — and know that God has an answer for it.  Be moved by the characters as they begin to galvanize the people, fomenting revolution in the face of great evil.  But then open a Bible, flip over to the New Testament, and read about how the God of Israel and his Messiah Jesus confound the machinations of human power, dominion, and oppression in the people’s resistance movement par excellence.

[1] Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (New York: Scholastic, 2008), 142.

[2] Caledonian chieftain (in Tacitus), quoted in Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress,2003), 15.

[3] Josephus, War 5.449-51, quoted in Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress,2003), 29.

[4] Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43; etc.

Performance Criticism and Devotion to Scripture: Reflections on an Emerging Discipline

Performance criticism is an emerging discipline among biblical scholars that seeks to apply elements of related disciplines (historical criticism, narrative criticism, reader-response criticism, rhetorical criticism, etc.) to the Bible in such a way as to interpret the text via its original medium: oral performance and story-telling.[1]  The letters and stories that comprise our New Testament were originally delivered primarily as oral and aural events, meaning that even if a given NT document were a fixed text at the point of its original dissemination it was primarily performed to an audience of illiterates rather than read silently by individuals.  Performance criticism asks us to imagine the text not as a text at all but as a performed event — a moment, a story, a word made flesh.

In my short time studying performance criticism, and my even shorter time actually performing as a student and youth minister, I have come to believe performance criticism to be of true value for a deep, personal engagement with Scripture. As both an audience-member and performer, I find myself pulled into and arrested by the story in ways that had heretofore remained beyond the scope of my experience. The story becomes real in the telling, living and active and charged with potential. In performance we are not simply vocalizing old stories as much as we are allowing them to be incarnated in us; the Word becomes flesh and dwells amongst us once again. In performing the crucifixion narrative in Mark, the chasm of history is transcended. The performer and her audience stand not in a modern-day church building but are transported to a hill not so far away, to an old rugged cross — the emblem of suffering and shame. It is here at Golgotha, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, that a performer and audience can experience the story that serves as the very bedrock of their faith with their own senses; more importantly, they can become a part of it.

Though not a direct equivalent of performing the Markan story, a missioner to Indonesia has for over two years been using the approach of “bible sharing” amongst prisoners in a Maumere jail. Led by two facilitators, a group of fifteen prisoners (comprised of thirteen men and two women) have gathered around the Markan passion and resurrection narrative and read themselves into the text, with different groups of prisoners taking on the story from a different character perspective within the narrative. This creates an environment that not only engenders diversity, since each prisoner reads from a different perspective from both within and without the text, but also creates an “inter-pollination between biblical stories and everyday reality [which] has opened up an era of immense theological creativity” in the community.”[2] Prisoners who come from a religious, cultural, economic and political context “not so distant from that of first century Palestine” are finding themselves in the story of the Anointed One in ways that were once obscured by the “public transcript”[3] that has been preached by the pastor or teacher in the past.

In such an instance, is not theology “from below” and of the people given room to grow in ways typically not found in our own contexts of pew and classroom? And, if so, is not this kind of theology potentially similar to that which might have been borne by a first century performing community, struggling to remain faithful under the strictures of religious and political oppression of the Roman Empire?  If this is the case, then performance not only offers us tools for the interpretation of ancient texts but also connects us with the experiential heritage of the stories themselves.  We bridge the gap between our experience and that of the community for whom the echoes of Jesus’ dying cry could still be heard.  We submit ourselves to the story, to the God it reveals, and to one another as we each bring a unique voice and ear to the narrative that defines us.

[1] David Rhoads, “What is Performance Criticism?”, http://biblicalperformancecriticism.org/index.php/component/content/article?id=12:what-is-performance-criticism&catid=3 (accessed February 25, 2012).

[2] John M. Prior, SVD, “Reading with Your Soul: A Cross-Cultural Reading of Mark 14:26-16:8 and John 8:1-11,” East Asian Pastoral Review 46 no 2 (2009), http://eapi.admu.edu.ph/content/reading-your-soul-cross-cultural-reading-mark-1426-168-and-john-81-11 (accessed December 4, 2011).

[3] Ibid.

Review of The Spiritual Writings of John Howard Yoder

The Spiritual Writings of John Howard Yoder (Orbis, 2011)

Originally published at Englewood Review of Books.

When one thinks of “spiritual masters,” the first name that springs to mind is typicallynot John Howard Yoder.  There is a certain irony that Yoder would be included in Orbis Books’ Modern Spiritual Masters series.  Yoder’s work, sometimes understood as a dichotomy emphasizing the politics of Jesus rather than his spirituality, is not typically regarded as particularly devotional or “spiritual.”  Such an assessment is probably partly right.  Yoder’s work would never sit comfortably on a shelf next to popular-level devotional materials because it is political, but in its politics his work is uniquely spiritual.  Although there are points of overlap and agreement with thinkers and theologians such as Thomas Merton, Gandhi, or Mother Theresa – others included in this series – one would not usually put him in their ranks.  But it is precisely here, alongside others dubbed “modern spiritual masters,” that editors Paul Martens and Jenny Howell place Yoder.  In calling Yoder a spiritual master, Martens and Howell help readers to see that he never understood the politics of Jesus as something separate from the spirituality of Jesus.  In John Howard Yoder: Spiritual Writings, it is clear that, likewise, the politics and spirituality of Yoder were never far from one another in his work.

Culling from Yoder’s vast library, Martens and Howell help readers construct the basic framework of a Yoderian spirituality.  Working like most spiritual collections or devotionals – by piecemeal – Spiritual Writings begins with Yoder’s understanding of the meaning of Jesus as the bedrock for all Christian spirituality.  By starting with Jesus, the crucified Jewish messiah who inaugurated a new age in human history, Yoder’s thought is extended towards a spirituality of church and mission.  Yoder’s spirituality did not end with the church but instead flowed outward to include a universal vision for what the good news meant to the watching world outside the church.  Such a spirituality uniquely understands and is faithful at the intersection of church and world because it does not so casually separate the sacred and the profane. The church is meant to stand in the midst of the world, bearing faithful witness to the good news by being the “first fruits” of restored humanity, practically living out the call of “being the church” for the sake of the world.

Spiritual Writings shows Yoder’s spirituality to be Christological, experienced fully in the life and ministry of the church, cosmic in its implications, and practical in its day-to-day engagement of the call to pick up one’s cross and follow Jesus.  Though Yoder was not a systematic theologian, Martens and Howell show his thought to be cohesive, hanging together well on the confession that Jesus is lord and the belief that the church should therefore faithfully follow.  Spiritual Writings stands as a fine introduction for anyone who has ever wanted to understand Yoder’s theology but never knew where to start.  As a reader of Yoder for some five years and counting, I found this book to be helpful in reframing Yoder’s project as a particular vision of Christian spirituality; I would imagine that others who have enjoyed and been challenged by Yoder for much longer might find similar appreciation.  I would recommend this book for those who have read Yoder and those who have not, and for anyone seeking to cultivate a Christian life that is marked by both the politics and the spirituality of Jesus.