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Archive for March, 2016

Crouch“When institutions are broken, three characteristic patterns of failed image bearing almost always occur together.  The first is the broken image of the poor.  The ‘poor’ in a broken institution are those whose roles are so constricted by the institution’s rules that they are unable to exercise their creative and cultivating power.  This loss of power is always multidimensional and, in the worst situations, total…

The second failure of image bearing is the exaggerated image of those we might call the ‘overlords,’ a name that captures both what they do–‘lord it over’ others, exploiting the poor in the quest for idolatrous godlikeness–and what they are.  Overlords are overly lordly, distorted by their hoarding and misuse of power into an inflated caricature of the true lordship originally granted to image bearers and exemplified by history’s one true Image Bearer.  And their power is overly dedicated to their own lordship, not to comprehensive flourishing but private benefit that comes at the expense of the image-bearing capacity of the poor.

But wherever overlords reign, you will almost always find another failure of image bearing, characteristic of neither overlords nor the poor: the neglected image of the powerful but passive.  We might coin a name for these neglectful image bearers and call them the ‘underlords.’  They do not lack power–sometimes they may have a great deal–and they do not use it conspicuously in the service of their own self-aggrandizement.  Rather, they simply, passively fail to play the role that they are meant to play; they are unfaithful not by abusing their power but by not using it at all.  They are like a slothful referee in soccer, who can spoil a game by neglecting his duties to rein in the unfair power-grabbing of ‘overlords’ on the field who seek to win by mere strength or stealth.  It is not the referee’s calls that matter, and it is not that the referee seeks excessive glory or victories for himself.  It is the calls he does not make that make all the difference.

Most failures of image bearing have vastly greater consequences than a game won or lost.  The scandalous truths about the Roman Catholic Church that burst into the open in the 2000s were not just about ‘overlord’ priests idolatrously abusing young people, robbing them of their image bearing dignity while playing a hideously exploitative parody of the God they were sworn to serve.  There was also the role of ‘underlords’ in the church hierarchy who passively enabled the abuse by inaction or inadequate action…They were certainly greater in number than the abusers.  But they failed to use their power to curb idolatry and to protect the vulnerable.  The outrage was not just what some did, but what many others did not do.

So we find that in any failing institution, as common as the abuse of power is the neglect of power.  In fact, the abuse of power may be quite concentrated among relatively few actors.  What is widely spread whenever institutions fail is the failure to exercise power.  The neglect of power, not the willful abuse of power, is what makes the difference between flourishing and failure in almost every institution.” (Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, pp. 213-14)

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Allison“John Donne famously wrote: ‘Any man’s death diminishes me.’  Speaking for myself, anyone’s death diminishes God–unless, that is, there’s something more than this vale of tears.  If the brooding grave is everyone’s finale, if existence runs out into pitiless nothing, if nihility is everyone’s telos, then the forgotten and marginalized will remain marginalized and forgotten for all time.  What good is God to them?

I at least need a God whose love and rule don’t leave us alone with our greatest existential evil, a God who descends into hell to rescue the dead.  I need a God who places heavenly crowns on the heads of the slaughtered infants of Bethlehem.  I need the God of the old Roman catacombs, which are full of scenes representing delivery from death–Noah’s ark, the sacrifice of Isaac, Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, the three youths in the furnace, the raising of Lazarus.

Maybe some, for whom life hasn’t been solitary, nasty, brutish, and short but rather enjoyable, happy, wonderful, and long, don’t need such a God.  Maybe they’ve reached their goals and can rest content.  But the fortunate few don’t represent the less fortunate many; and that some of us, like the Sadducees of old, are happy to live and die, doesn’t entail that everyone else should buck up and feel the same way.  Shouldn’t it distress us, if we’re not self-contained, that most haven’t been as lucky as Hume [who died content, having accomplished all of his goals in life], while countless others haven’t even had the chance to set goals, or have seemingly done little more than suffer a thousand plagues of pain, with death their only escape?  Do their circumstances make any difference to God, and will God make any difference to them?  Is God the everlasting bystander, so that deism is forever true?  Are we all like the prophets of Baal, who called on the name of their god again and again, but there was no answer?

After Gollum and the great ring of power fall into the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo and Sam sit on a little ashen hill.  As lava rises around them, Frodo speaks the obvious: ‘The end comes.  We have only a little time to wait now.  We’re lost in ruin and downfall, and there is no escape.’  The two friends slip into unconsciousness.  But that’s not the end.  The eagles come, and the hobbits are borne away to safety.  Later, when Sam awakens and sees Gandalf, he gasps: ‘I thought you were dead!  But then I thought I was dead myself.  Is everything sad going to come untrue?’There must be some analogue to this scene in the universal human story.  If not, then the cosmos is finally apathetic, and death can separate us from the love of God; and if that’s so, then love doesn’t endure all things but finally fails.  Which cannot be.” (Dale Allison, Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things, pp. 17-18)

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Check out this theological seminar I gave at Harvard earlier this semester:

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