Chattanooga, The Question of Evil , and NT Wright’s Vibrant Gospel-centered Theodicy

As a new resident of Chattanooga I have been doing a lot of talking with the natives, a lot of driving around, and a lot of exploration. Most of this has been good, and fun- the occasional act of getting myself utterly confused as to where I am or discord when my expecations have not meant the measure of food served at a promising place not withstanding. Unfortunatley on Thursday of last week I added two new locations to my memory but not in a good way or even in a “this food is not as good as the internet promised” kind of way. My fair city came under fire. Now granted since my arrival in April, there have been multiple shooting in the areas around me; but none that captured the imagination and fear quite like an active shooter driving around town taking shots at US Navy facilities.

This was not how one hopes to learn about an area of town, and lead to a weekend’s worth of discussion, prayer, and angst. It even led to a testy exchange on the internet with a friend who was seeming a little flippant about our situation.

So imagine my surprise as I picked up the book I have been reading on my lunch break and found myself immersed in a discussion of evil and what it means for the modern or postmodern person. Since I cannot hope to replicate the tight logic of the essay, please allow me to quote at length with a few thoughts thrown in for good measure:

“So, first, we ignore evil except when it hits us in the face. Second, we are surprised by evil when it does…. We like to fool ourselves that the world is basically all right, now that so many countries are either democratic or moving that way and globalization has in theory enabled us to do so much more, to profit so much, to know so much. Then we are puzzled and shocked by the human tsunami, the great wave of refugees and those seeking asylum. Terrorism takes us by surprise, since we are used to imagining that all serious questions should be settled around a discussion table and are puzzled that some people still think they need to use more drastic methods of getting their point across. And ultimately, we are shocked again and again by death….”<bold is mine>

There does seem to be a sense that with each new tragedy we seem shocked that it has happened again (unless you are a Fox News correspondant and the shooter is Muslim- then you told us so; or you’re a Fox News correspondant and the shooter is white and the victim a minority; then nothing to see here). We seemed discombobulated. With hushed voices we say that could never happen here.

“As a result, we react in immature and dangerous ways. The reaction in America and Britain to the events of September 11, 2001, was a knee-jerk, unthinking, immature lashing out. Don’t misunderstand me. The terrorist actions of Al-Qaeda were and are umitigatedly evil. But the astonishing naiveté which decreed that America was as a whole a pure, innocent victim, so that the world could be neatly divided up into evil people (particularly Arabs) and good people (particularly Americans and Israelis), with the latter having a responsibility to punish the former. Thus justifying the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is a large scale example of what I am talking about- just as it is immature and naïve to suggest the mirror image of this view, namely that the Western world is guilty in all respects and that all protestors and terrorists are therefore completely justified in what they do.”

It is amazing how this sense of either America’s rightness and wrongness has stuck even through the 14 years since the attack. Seems like a large majority of people from Franklin Graham to multiple friends on social media to countless people on the streets and politicians immediately lunged for the Islam is a religion of terror (and only terror). Graham stated that we ought to kick the Muslims out and not let any others in. Of course my circle of people is mostly Southern and Evangelical so perhaps the tables would be turned in a less Evangelical atmosphere; but still.

The Western world, then, has not been able to cope with evil from within its modernistic beliefs. Post modernity doesn’t help here, because it remorselessly highlights the problem of evil, while avoiding any return to a classic doctrine of original sin by denying that there is really anybody there in the first place. Humans themselves deconstruct; you can’t escape evil in postmodernity, but there is no one to blame. There is no moral dignity left. To shoulder responsibility is the last virtue left open to those who have foresworn all other kinds; to have even that disallowed is to reduce humans to mere ciphers. Most of us, not least genuine victims of crime and abuse, find that both counterintuitive and disgusting. Furthermore, postmodernity’s analysis of evil allows for no redemption. There is no way out, no chance of repentance, and restoration, no way back to the solid ground of truth from the quicksand of deconstruction.”[i] <bold is mine>

Two pionts to pull out here. First, I had to stop on the human cipher quote because is this not the main issue with everyone of these shootings we have occuring (on what seems a daily basis). For all the bandwith used, TV channels blaring 24-7, and ink spilled on daily papers, does it ever seem that we come to a conclusion about these shooters- other than the reflexive: “well, crazy is as crazy does.” We no longer seem to have the vocabulary or ability to discern and develop these people; which is nerve-wracking, so in order for all to sleep without OD’ing on Ambien, we resort to saying “Whelp dude was crazy;” even though we rarely get reports that peoplke thought this beforehand.

Second, this quote coming after the above discussion really ties in the week as whole. As we watched both the tragedy and several prominent social media lynching occuring. In Jon Ronson’s book on Social Media, he interviewed multiple people who felt (rightly or wrongly) the burn of the internet’s lynch mob and each mentioned this concept: that in the new world of social media there is no redemption. This utterly maddening.

And so what is the fine, upstanding Christian boy like myself to do. I can, as many of my neighbors and friends do, turn to platitudes, HBO, beer, and pizza to make it until that time when another pressing issue (like what the Kanye and Kim just did- hint- you won’t believe it if I told you) takes the edge off.

Yet, NT Wright proceeds to do what many of us should but don’t or can’t. He turns to Scripture and in this story he brings us to suffering servant of Isaiah in the Jewish scriptures and the fulfillment of this prophecy in the Gospels of the New Testament. Once again a quote from him:

“God chose the appropriate and necessarily deeply ambiguous route of acting from within his creation, from within his chosen people, to take the full force of evil upon himself and so exhaust it. And the result is that the covenant is renewed. Sins are forgiven; the long night of sorrow, exile, and death is over and the new day has dawned. New creation has begun….

“The Gospels tell a story unique in the world’s great literature, religious theories and philosophies: the story of the creator God taking responsibility for what’s happened to creation, bearing the weight of its problems on his own shoulders. As Sydney Carter put it in one of his finest songs, “It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me.”…. The tidal wave of evil has crashed over the head of God himself. The spear went into his side like a plane crashing into a great building. God has been there. He has taken the weight of the world’s evil on his own shoulders. This is not an explanation. This is not a philosophical conclusion. It is an event in which we gaze on in horror, and may perhaps glimpse God’s presence in the deepest darkness of our world, God’s strange unlooked-for victory over the evil of our world; then, and only then, we may glimpse God’s vocation for us to work with him on a solution to the new problem of evil.”[ii] <bold is mine>

It was just here that I found myself staring at the wall of our breakroom in awe. Many years ago I heard for the first time, a professor of religion charge that original sin was wrong; because it was God who created the world and that tree and therefore God who should ulitmately be blamed. Since that time, I have shook my head in disgust as others have taken that track; but suddenly in the telling of Wright what looked like a weakness in our story becomes the focal point and strength of the metanarrative we as Christians have to offer the world. Whether my old professor was right or wrong about that tree and its guilt is moot- because God has taken the blame from that situation and placed it on his shoulders. Where is God when evil strikes, he is on the cross suffering and dying to take the pain from us.

And it is from this place of suffering and death that a new thing is started and is beginning in our midst. Wright goes on to link this idea with a new understanding of the church and what we are called to be. He says:

“The call of the Gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world. The cross is not just an example to be followed; it is an achievement to be worked out, put into practice. But it is an example nonetheless, because it is the exemplar, the template, the model, for what God now wants to do, by his spirit, in the world, through his people. It is the start of the process of redemption, in which suffering and martyrdom are the paradoxical means by which victory is won. The suffering love of God, lived out again by the spirit in the lives of God’s people, is the God-given answer to the evils of the world.”[iii]

Seen from this vantage point the world looks different. In fact those five (at time of this writing) soldiers become not victims of a senseless tragedy but a beacon and example for us all. On that they gave their lives for us as a nation; and in some way reflect something of the life we as Christians have been failing to live. It is we the church that should be dying. Yet here we are living in comfort and splendor, and angered when that comfort is damaged. Perhaps it is time for us to put aside our immatiurity; to stop being childish, and easily discomforted. Perhaps it is time that we step back into the harsh light of the world and take our places in the shooter’s sights.

[i] The preceeding three quotes from: NT Wright. “9/11, Tsunamis, and the New Problem of Evil.” Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues. Harper Collins: San Francisco; 2015, 113-114.

[ii] Ibid, 123.

[iii] Ibid, 124.


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Notes from the 7 1/2 Floor (things I think I know)

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