It was 15 years ago that I first began to seriously interact with the theology of Greg Boyd. My brother and sister-in-law attended his church in St. Paul, Minnesota, then meeting at Harding High, before they had kids; I had heard him speak and preach a number of times, but was far too young to engage his ideas and material. Boyd was a guest speaker for a week in the gulag’s chapel services, and that’s when I was hooked. About the same time, InterVarsity Press published one of his landmark works, God at War, in paperback, and I picked up a copy. Having too much coursework to do, and being more concerned with cutting as many corners as possible as an underachiever, the book sat on my shelf for two or three years.
When I finally started reading it, I could only really get glimpses of his overall proposition with a few skyrockets here and there that challenged my presuppositions and invigorated my mind. I used it as inspiration in a template for community in a class that tried, um, teaching us how to have informal church services in parachurch environs. (Yeah, I know.) Where everyone else aimed for mediocrity and drilled the target, I, along with a skeptical-of-my-machinations partner, took us through the Minneapolis skyways and instructed the group to not say anything, just to watch people and get a sense of the reality of the world we were supposed to be engaging with the gospel. It was well-received that day, didn’t grade out particularly well and no more than a week later got swallowed up by the entrenched mediocrity as we went right back to acoustic guitars and Bible studies de rigueur to collegiate evangelical ministry liturgy.
A few weeks ago, I got the itch to pick God at War up once again and reread it. This time, with more exposure to theological ideas, a thorough education in philosophy and generally being more mature intellectually and, well, as a person overall, I couldn’t get more than a few pages in before it started catching my mind’s gears. I may turn this into a multi-post series, I might not, but I strongly recommend Boyd if you have any interest in either the theological or philosophical problem of evil, theories in church and culture or generally enjoy provocative and engaging reading material from one of the more underappreciated first-rate minds in America today. Anyways.
“Radical evil … cannot be captured in abstract definitions. … The essence of evil transcends words, for word are always one step removed from a concrete reality. Evil cannot be adequately grasped in detached, neutral, abstract theorems. All approaches to the problem of evil that do not go beyond these will be in danger of offering cheap and trite solutions. Radical evil can be known only when incarnated and experienced concretely.
“The modern experience of evil is the reek of burning children. Every honest view of reality must confront the immediate, personal, physical reality of the burning child.” — Boyd, God at War, ‘Hearing Zosia’, p. 34
Most people will have a hard time setting scenes like this to music, and rightfully so. Such atrocities ought not be dignified with score and lyrics. Indeed, it is easier to write and sing songs about love and happiness and fun and even heartbreak and loss; these things run the gamut of human emotion and experience. The ups and downs of life’s clichéd rollercoaster tend to refrain from imagining the corkscrew ahead was connected to nothing.
Evil is not nothing, more to the point, it is the actualization of the rollercoaster’s track having been built without an end, someone/something having removed or sabotaged the track that was previously there, cars flying off the end of the track, the wreckage and injury of those in the cars and thinking such events, when realized, are laughable.
Church and culture alike have taken great lengths to ignore Zosia, preferring our own conceptions of evil which are, in actuality, akin to social problems: hunger, homelessness, poverty, villages in third-world countries without water, things that are all truly unfortunate and need resolution but are not inherently or necessarily evil.
At this point, I freely admit I expose myself to detractors who will stop at the end of the previous sentence and take my strawman down. I ask for the benefit of the doubt, as I in no way am dismissing the aforementioned as mere trivialities. I feel it necessary and instructive here to point out the difference between tragedy and atrocity with relation to evil: what is atrocious is tragic, but what is tragic is not necessarily atrocious. In this respect, what philosophy and theology classes toss around as natural evils: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and the like, are tragedies but not atrocities. The inappropriate conflation of natural evil into the scope of, um evil-evil, creates a particular problem for the theist or Christian: how can this system created to be in stasis be evil? A hurricane in one part of the world is tranquility in another, no one created Katrina and aimed it at the Gulf Coast.
Atrocity–evil-evil, as I perhaps too cheekily put it–is the destructive act which is willed or intended, 9/11, Columbine, Dachau, Siberia, the Trail of Tears, the Killing Fields, Zosia, the Assemblies of God blacklist. (Make no mistake, there may be no greater acts of evil than those which are perpetrated by those who would commit them in the name of the greater good for a respective religious affiliation.) These things are tragic in that they are really and truly unpleasant, decidedly unhappy events, and in that someone intended them to happen. To address evil as merely hunger and homelessness is to selfishly and self-righteously ignore the atrocities that manifested from the depths of man (or, spirit.)
The tragic ought to be responded to with grief and compassion, the atrocious with both and a measure of outrage, as well the willingness to confront and seek its obliteration. If a village needs clean water, it is to build a well. If it is a government which deprives said village of clean water, it is to provide the well and seek whatever reforms necessary to a power structure which would deprive its citizens or subjects of life.
The Church is really quite good with responding to tragedy. What we aren’t so good at is responding to atrocity, because we are unwilling to be frank about the reality of evil in our world, or the reality of the actual existence of opposition to God. Instead, we talk a big game about going to the mythical downtown, witnessing to prostitutes and the homeless and the drug addicts, failing to address the home a block from the church where there is abuse, worse yet, failing to address the prominent church member who abuses his wife and children. We trumpet our willingness to throw thousands of dollars at missions efforts across the globe, much of which is going to places thoroughly missioned and Christianized, while maintaining a status quo in our churches and neighborhoods.
Atrocity is also the will to sideline ourselves where we are. Ask Bonhoeffer or Niemoller about that.
Atrocity then necessarily includes singing songs about how wonderful God is, while refusing to stand against destructive forces and those who would will them here in our midst. That kind of happy fluffy bunny existence is neither Christ-like nor in any way fulfilling God’s perpetual mandate to be a blessing to the world. It’s just singing without any purpose but making ourselves feel good about ourselves. Some people get high, some do the Thirsty Thursday (…and Friday…and Saturday…) thing, others masturbate.
We sing flowery songs about a flowery relationship with Jesus, how happy we are, how good God is and how happy we’re going to be when we’re dead or raptured, how happy we are, how good God is, how happy we’re going to be when we’re dead or raptured, so on and so forth. Lather, rinse, repeat. What’s the difference, to God or to a world we leave exposed to evil?
It is understandable to prefer the passivity of singing to the trenches of action, the status quo to the exposure which comes with placing one’s self in front of a tank. One would hope we would have made the connection between these preferences for familiarity and comfort and Paul’s lamentation about the ongoing battle between flesh and spirit, but we either do not or cannot. Is it really possible that no one sees these things as, in the truest sense of the term, self-serving? We embark on capital campaigns which would take us further away from the unpleasantness of the world and repeat the chorus again, this time a step up for more goosebumps.
Meanwhile, Zosia screams out in horror endlessly into the night. Let’s sing it again, this time a capella!
The song curses, the service divorces. The further we detach from the world is the farther we are from God. To be indifferent to the reality of evil in our world, unwilling to confront it with the full power of the resurrection at our disposal, is the most obscene atrocity.
And to do so in the name of our ‘worship’ activities reproaches the God we claim to honor with our songs and services.