Thursday, May 31, 2012

I Believe in a God of Wrath and Judgment

When you've been in ministry and theological studies long enough, you discover there are a number of common issues raised by Christians and non-Christians alike regarding Christianity, the Bible, and theology, in general. When people find out that I teach theology, one of the things that I hear often goes something like this: "You know, I don't believe in a God of wrath and judgment. I just can't bring myself to believe in a God like that." Having experienced this sort of statement numerous times, it seems clear to me that many people object strongly to a doctrine of God that involves God being angry or executing judgment on sinners.

On the one hand, I find myself very sympathetic to their objections. Many times (maybe even most of the time?), the rejection of a wrathful God arises from experiences of heavy-handed,"fire and brimstone" preaching by angry pastors and evangelists or the overzealous manipulation of children by adults who badly want to see conversions. Many times, these people have been threatened with God's wrath and hellfire due to their clothing, language, behavior, or other things. The persons hurling such threats tend to be legalistic and unloving themselves and they create a picture of God who (surprise!) looks very similar to them: hating what they hate and punishing what they want punished.

I've gone through these kinds of experiences myself. Among others I could share, I have a vivid memory of an evangelist visiting our church several years ago and describing in detail the scene of a bad accident where someone had the horrific misfortune of listening helplessly as a person was burned to death in their own truck. The preacher used this terrible story to frighten the audience into converting to Christianity, offering the prospect of an eternity of conscious torment in hell if they refused. I found this both repugnant and embarrassing to the Gospel of Christ (which is beautiful beyond compare and should not be reduced to such levels).

All that is to say, I think I get it. No one who experiences such things enough times can easily take pleasure in the notion of a wrathful God. When you've been overdosed with wrath and judgment, it makes sense that you'd seek to correct that with an overdose of mercy, love, and grace. (And, frankly, if I'm going to be accused of erring on a "side" in this discussion, whether in my writing or preaching, I'd much rather err on the side of mercy, love, and grace.)

But, even as I am sympathetic to the objections made against a wrathful and judgmental God, even as I reject evangelistic methods that use fear and manipulation to make converts, even as I try to major on the love of God in my own life and work, I still can't let go of the wrath and judgment of God. I do believe in a God of wrath and judgment. Not only is the justice of God a common theme throughout the Scriptures and the Great Tradition of Christianity, but I think it is also an essential Christian conviction in light of the ever-present reality of suffering and pain. Let me explain...

Put simply, I believe in a God of wrath and judgment because evil is real. And, I believe evil is real because I've seen it--in fact, I see it all around us every day. National governments conspire to kill off hundreds and thousands of their own people and then do so unopposed. Terrorists intentionally bomb civilian locations, taking out anyone who happens to be nearby. Children are kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Women are repeatedly terrorized in their own homes, beaten and berated into submission by men who believe their penis and fists make them Lord. GLBT adolescents are bullied until they can no longer bear the pain and take their own lives. Entire ecosystems are destroyed en masse by corporations, who are not held accountable for their actions. Soldiers go off to war with bravery and self-sacrifice only to return home with debilitating brain injuries and PTSD. Elections are bought. Land is stolen. Sex is forced. Conversion is coerced. Children are enslaved. And, the list goes on and on.

I believe evil is real and I believe God is real. I believe God is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. This being the case, then God must be the kind of God who sets all things right. The God revealed by Jesus is a God who reaches out to sinners, embraces prostitutes, includes the marginalized, rebukes the religiously self-righteous, drives out the money-changers, and exorcises the demonic. This loving God loves so fiercely and with such fury that wrath is the inevitable result when harm is done to one of his beloved children. In human experience, we are used to rage being the opposite of love. We cannot imagine that judgment and love can co-exist. But, I am compelled to assert that in God's nature, wrath is not the opposite of love, but a necessary expression of it. God is wrathful because God is love.

On my most irritable days, on the days when I'm overcome by the pain and suffering all around me, I tell my husband pointedly: "Only the most sheltered and over-privileged of people have the freedom to not believe in the judgment of God." What I mean by this is that, the rest of us--the ones who have suffered and have walked through the dark valley with others who suffer--believing in a God of wrath is a vital source of hope. Maybe not everyone who has suffered or witnessed suffering feels this way. But, as for me, I find that in light of suffering, I must believe in God's judgment. I just can't let it go. With this conviction, I know that there is an end to the injustice, pain, and suffering. There will come a day, after the resurrection of the dead, when God will set everything right.

The thing to keep in mind, of course, is that God's wrath is not like human wrath. God is not capricious, petty, petulant, and self-indulgent, as we often are. When I say God burns with anger at injustice, I do not mean that he is like your rage-aholic father or harsh, domineering grandmother. And, the wrath of God is not primarily destructive (as our human experience might imagine), but actually an active, redemptive force. Like the Spirit of God hovering over the chaotic "deep" in the beginning, so also God's Spirit works powerfully to renew the face of the earth today. Righting wrongs and judging sin is part of this work, as is rescuing hateful hearts from bondage and allowing the violent to reap what they have sown ("those who live by the sword will die by the sword").

Of course, there are other reasons for accepting the idea that God is wrathful and will come in judgment. The Bible speaks of this kind of God with regularity, in both the Old and New Testaments. If you take the Bible seriously as God's revelation, then you have to reckon with these portrayals. This is particularly the case, in my opinion, when Jesus speaks of God's wrath and the reality of the final judgment. When the "fullness of God" dwelling in bodily form (Col. 1:19) speaks of God as possessing attributes of wrath and judgment, we do well to listen up. (Still, the "God said, I believe it, that settles it," approach to biblical interpretation will not work here. More nuanced thinking about God's justice and mercy is needed. The thoughts provided above are obviously just a small contribution to that larger task.)

So, I do believe in a God of wrath and judgment. I believe that God hates sin, but has a particularly strong hatred for systemic evil and wrongdoing done against the weak, innocent, and defenseless. I believe that Jesus Christ, the firstborn from the dead, will raise us all to resurrection life at the end of time and finally set everything right--finally completing his work to make "all things new" (Rev. 21:5). And, the furious love of the Triune God that compelled the Son to rescue creation from bondage to sin, evil, and death through his own body will further compel the work of final judgment--the eternal righting of wrongs--as God comes at last to dwell with his people.

There is much more that could be said, of course. But, I'll stop now. What do you think? What are your hang-ups about the judgment of God? What have I missed or failed to say? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Significance of the Simple (2 Kings 5:1-14): Remix

I preached the following sermon yesterday, May 20, at Central Christian Church in Kettering, OH, at the invitation of a friend and colleague, who is also a member. They are a Disciples of Christ congregation and it was my first time to worship with them. Also, this was my very first time to preach in a Sunday morning worship service of any kind. I was very blessed to get to do so, even though I had a short time to prepare. What follows is a significantly re-worked version of the message I gave several weeks ago at Holy Trinity Parish in Dayton. The text and theme are the same, but I've shaved off several pages and, I think, made the main idea more pointed. Feel free to offer your comments and/or criticisms.

The Significance of the Simple: 2 Kings 5:1-14

There’s a commercial on TV right now that I’ve seen a few times for Rosetta Stone. You’ve probably heard of it. Rosetta Stone is a language instruction software that has, according to their website, helped millions of people all over the world learn another language. The Rosetta Stone commercial that’s running right now has one particular testimony that really gets to me. A twenty-something blonde man smiles at the camera and says: “I love it when I dream in French.” Now, I have nothing against Rosetta Stone. I’m sure it’s a great program. But, I highly doubt that computer software alone, used in the privacy of your home, can so immerse you in the French language that you actually dream in French. Maybe you can—I don’t know. But, the power of that selling point for Rosetta Stone is undeniable. People know if you are dreaming in French, then you think in French. To dream in French means that the language has literally transformed your mind: you now think and dream and see the world through French.

I would argue that becoming a part of the Christian faith is similar to learning a language. There are many things that have to be learned once you become a disciple of Jesus. And, it’s not enough just to learn the stories of the Bible, the words of our worship songs, or the Lord’s Prayer. Like when you’re learning French, you actually need a total transformation of the mind. When this happens, you will see the world in light of the Gospel, think according to the Gospel, and even dream in terms of the Gospel. Unfortunately, there’s no Rosetta Stone software for “putting on the mind of Christ.” This is something that takes a lifetime for a disciple to learn. But, my message this morning is meant to use the story of Naaman the Aramean to encourage us to view the world differently. By the time I’m done, I hope that we will all feel compelled to seek a transformation of our minds so that we will see everything in light of this truth: God is revealed through simple people and simple actions.

As we encounter the story of Naaman’s healing, the first thing I want us to observe is the way God uses simple people. At first it would seem that the most important people in the story are Naaman and Elisha. Naaman is the commander of Aram’s armies and his name means “delightful or gracious,” which shows that he was highly favored. In spite of this, he has a serious skin disorder, translated “leprosy.” This “leprosy” isn’t necessarily the same leprosy that we know of today, but apparently it was bad enough for him to travel all the way to Israel for help. Elisha is God’s prophet in Israel. Elisha is the disciple of Elijah, who took his master’s place as prophet to Israel after Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind. The book of 2 Kings is filled with the stories of Elisha’s mighty works.

Naaman and Elisha are the obvious major players in the story. But, I want to call attention to the fact that the people who are truly responsible for moving the action along, the people who are key to ensuring that God’s power is revealed in this particular moment are the three nameless servants: (1) the young girl from Israel who serves Naaman’s wife, (2) the messenger of Elisha, and (3) the servants of Naaman.

First, there is the “young girl from Israel,” who appears in verse 2. Apparently, she was taken captive when a band of Aramean raiders plundered an Israelite town on the border between the nations. And, now, she serves as the personal attendant for Naaman’s wife. It’s remarkable that this young girl, violently removed from her family and forced to serve her captor’s wife, then offers counsel that will provide healing for the man responsible for her situation. And, it is also remarkable that Naaman listens to her. The word of the “young girl from Israel” is what Naaman takes to his master, the King of Aram, and it is upon her testimony that both men plan for Naaman’s trip to Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom.

So, the King of Aram sends Naaman to the King of Israel so that he may seek healing. The text says that Naaman carries with him “ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing” (v. 5) as payment for the services of Israel’s prophet. For those of you who are interested, that is the equivalent of 755 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold, plus ten sets of ornate, hand-made clothing. He really wants this healing!

The King of Israel responds to Naaman’s gifts and request with great distress because he thinks that the King of Aram is looking for a pretext for war. Luckily, Elisha somehow gets word of the king’s despair and sends a message with an implicit rebuke in v. 8: “Why have you torn your clothes? Send Naaman to me. I’ll show him that there is a true prophet of God in Israel.”

This is where the second simple person in the story appears: the “messenger” of Elisha, who shows up in verse 10. Naaman approaches the home of Elisha in a way you might expect from a self-important, military leader at this time: with great pomp and circumstance. I can just imagine him assembling his “horses and chariots” (v. 9), primping and pruning, awaiting the arrival of God’s prophet who will “ooooh” and “aaaaah” dutifully over him and his entourage. But that’s not what happens. Elisha sends Naaman a “messenger,” instead, most likely a young apprentice. And, he delivers the directions for Naaman’s cure: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean” (v. 10).

Naaman isn’t pleased with this turn of events. He of all people should be able to get an audience with Israel’s world-renowned prophet! But, instead, he gets a little pipsqueak, messenger boy. The text tells us that Naaman “became angry and went away,” and in stark honesty he confesses: “I thought that for me he would surely come out…” Naaman admits that he thought his level of importance demanded an in-person demonstration of the prophet’s power. But, that’s not how it works this time. Elisha doesn’t even bother showing up. He just sends a simple boy to tell the army commander to go jump in a river. And, Naaman, thoroughly convinced of his own importance, turns away in “a rage.”

This is where nameless servants appear for a third time: in v. 13. In contrast to Naaman’s sputtering pride, his servants offer humble and wise counsel: “Father [which was a term of respect for a superior], if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” The wisdom of this counsel is so convincing that Naaman responds immediately: “So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” (v. 14). Notice that without the intervention of his servants, Naaman’s arrogance would have prevented him from receiving God’s healing.

So, what we have seen in this story is that God uses simple people to do his work: the young Israelite servant girl, the messenger of Elisha, and the servants of Naaman. Where one would expect, along with Naaman, that God’s prophet or even royalty to be the agents of change, what we have instead is the nameless servants moving the action along. It is their humble faithfulness that provides the opportunity for God’s power to be revealed.

I think a part of us knows this truth about the Gospel and the Christian life. It was a central message of Jesus, of course: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” “The greatest in the Kingdom of God is the servant of all.” Which of us is really going to deny this? But, even so, I don’t think many of us could say that this has really changed the way we view the world. With our mouths we say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but in our mind we think, “Blessed are the successful and important.” With our mouths we say, “The greatest in the Kingdom must be the servant of all,” but in our mind we think, “The greatest in the Kingdom are those that have the most, give the most, and do the most.” Our minds need a major transformation, so that we can see the people in God’s world in the same way God sees them: as persons capable of experiencing God’s Kingdom and revealing God’s ways.

The second thing I want us to observe in the story of Naaman’s healing is this: God calls us to simple actions. What Elisha’s messenger tells Naaman to do is a very simple thing. “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored” (v. 10). But, Naaman finds this instruction insulting. He responds: “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” His point is clear: “Did I really come all this way to be told to take a bath in your piddly little river?”

Now, if you think about it, Naaman’s expectation of an awe-inspiring work of God isn’t entirely misplaced. We know that the God of Israel is capable of jaw-dropping miracles, right? Moses met God in a burning bush and parted the Red Sea. The children of Israel were fed manna and quail from heaven in the wilderness. The walls of Jericho fell to the ground with the shouts of Joshua’s armies. So, why can’t Elisha produce a fantastic, show-stopping miracle for Naaman, when he is so important and has come such a long way?

Here, Naaman learns what we all must learn at one time or another: The miraculous is not within our control. God does not answer to us. As we seek to serve God faithfully, we must accept the fact that most of the time, in most circumstances, God calls us to simple actions. While the fantastic stories of God’s power are what we remember most vividly from the Scriptures, most of God’s people throughout most of history have exercised their faith in the midst of the mundane acts of everyday life: cooking breakfast, cleaning house, gardening, a walk to the store. God is present and revealed in all of these ordinary moments.

If you think about it, even the rituals of the Christian community are rather ordinary and unremarkable. God has chosen simple things to reveal his grace in the New Covenant. They are basic elements used in basic ways: immersion in water and consuming bits of bread and wine. We wash with water regularly (or most of us do!). And, we eat food regularly. But, in the New Covenant, Jesus told us to take these simple things and use them in simple ways, trusting that in these moments God’s presence is with us in a unique way.

So, as we have seen in Naaman’s story, God uses simple people and God calls us to simple actions. But, this emphasis on the simple, the marginalized, the nameless, and the outsider is not limited to this one story in the Old Testament. In fact, the whole of Scripture is filled with the evidence that God is revealed through simple people and simple actions.

Of course, the central place where we see this is in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the Christian faith and the reason why we are seeking a transformation of our minds today. When Jesus appeared on the stage of world history he proclaimed that the healing power of God’s Kingdom had now decisively broken into creation. The gospel announced that the power of God to renew the entire world was now present in Jesus by the Spirit. This liberating power was demonstrated in Jesus’ life and deeds, and explained by his words. By his death on the cross he battled the power of evil and gained the decisive victory. In his resurrection he entered as “the firstborn among many” into the resurrection life of the new creation. And, before his ascension, he commissioned his followers to continue his mission of making the Gospel known until he returned. He now reigns in power at the right hand of God over all creation and by his Spirit is making known his comprehensive rule through His people as they embody and proclaim the good news.

That’s us! We are the ones making known Christ’s rule through our bodies, our actions, and our words. We are the ones Paul spoke of in our New Testament reading for today: not many wise, not many influential, not many of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise and the weak things of this world to shame the strong. This is so that the one who boasts must boast in the Lord (1 Cor 1:26-31).

On the one hand, we can be comforted by this truth because many of us need assurance that we matter and what we do matters in the Kingdom of God. Although many people speak of life in terms of sacred things and secular things—holy things and worldly things—the Christian faith doesn’t allow for this kind of divide. The eternal wisdom of God has become incarnate in human flesh. The divine has been united with the earthly. This reality infuses all of life with the presence of God. Every good thing can now manifest God’s power. Simple people and simple things are now the places where God can be revealed and honored.

At the same time that we are comforted by this truth, we can also be confronted by it. Many of us may need rebuke for the ways that our approach to the world doesn’t match what God has said. Perhaps we despise the simple routines and humble works of daily life. Perhaps we overlook people we think are unimportant or unable to benefit us in a tangible way. We need to be reminded that because the whole world is alive with God’s presence, now everything and everyone matters. The boy who happily sacks your groceries, the woman at the dry cleaners who irons your shirts with a scowl, the teenage girl chattering on her cell phone in line behind you. These people are like Naaman’s servant girl and Elisha’s messenger boy. They are not only the recipients of God’s love but also all of them are capable of working in God’s story so that God is revealed and glorified.

Before we close, I think there is a way to vividly illustrate the kind of mental transformation that is required of us. Think with me for a few moments about the way we as American Christians tell our story. The events of September 11, 2001 changed the world, as we know it. We hear this all the time, don’t we? I don’t think there’s a person today, who wouldn’t agree with this in some way. The events of 9/11 are so powerful for our imaginations that many people now mark time as pre- and post-9/11. I don’t necessarily have a beef with this practice. Certainly, the world did change, especially for the U.S. But, as one Christian thinker has pointed out, what Christians—all Christians around the world—proclaim is that the world really changed in 33 AD—following the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we are going to mark time as Christians and frame our lives with an event, surely it must be THIS event—-Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh. Surely it is the incarnation of Christ, and not 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination or World War II or any other event in history that should be THE DEFINING STORY for our Christian minds. Just as most Americans today look back to 9/11 and say, “That’s why I see the world differently,” Christians should be looking back to 33 AD, saying: “No, THAT'S why I see the world differently.”

What does this have to do with the healing of Naaman the Aramean? If what we saw in 2 Kings is true and God is revealed through simple people and simple actions, especially in the person of Jesus Christ, then we need a radical change of mind—a transformation of our imagination—in light of this truth. Because, in the end, there really are no simple things. If God has been joined to the world in Christ and through him the Kingdom of God has come near, then what we call simple people and simple actions are really the tools of God’s work. The question is whether we have the eyes to see and ears to hear what is happening all around us. If the incarnation of Christ is the center point of our lives and the lens through which we view the world, then it will change our minds and alter our imaginations. To do this, we need to shed our prejudices and embrace the world as God says it is. Let us be a people defined by the story of God becoming human. Because, it is this story that elevates simple people like us—like Naaman’s servant and Elisha’s messenger—to participate in the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dexter, Theologically Considered: Part 2

It has been quite a while since I began this series of posts on the Showtime TV series, Dexter. I'm deeply sorry for my long hiatus! But, my semester of teaching, writing, and other responsibilities just got away from me. So, better late than never, I suppose. If you haven't read Part 1 yet, please do so before reading Part 2, below. 

For those who remain unfamiliar with the Dexter series, let's be reminded of the basic plot before I begin unpacking two more theological observations from the series. Here is what I said about the show in my first post on the subject: Dexter Morgan is the product of a terrible childhood experience that has left him sociopathic. He doesn't feel love, fear, joy, or any of the other things that normal human beings feel. Also, he has a compulsion to kill. His foster father, Harry, discovers his son's disposition early on and rather than abandon him, Harry teaches Dexter how to live with his compulsions and ensure his survival. Part of what he teaches Dexter is a "code," with two of the most important elements in the code being "Never get caught," and "Only kill those who deserve it" (i.e., those who have killed the innocent and will do so again). As a cop, Harry is able to teach Dexter all the tricks of the trade to fulfill both of these commands. Dexter grows up to be a blood spatter analyst in the Miami Metro Homicide Department, along with his adopted sister, Deb. The show revolves around Dexter's life as a brother, a boyfriend, a killer, and more. And, I would argue, the ultimate telos of the show is the journey of Dexter as he becomes fully human.

As I said in Part 1, I observe four things that speak theological truth in the Dexter series. I've already dealt with the human desire for and pursuit of, justice, as well as the inherent value of human life. Now, it is our task to think about the way Dexter illustrates the cyclical nature of violence and what it means to be a human being.

First, I think that Dexter is speaking truth regarding the cyclical nature of human violence. This may seem to be a self-evident and banal observation. It's a show about a serial killer, after all. Of course the cyclical nature of violence is revealed in a serial killer show! But, hear me out... Although the various forms of media entertainment in our American context are filled with violence--including film, TV, video games, music, and more--very often (though not always) the narrative underlying these media portrayals of human violence is that violence solves problems. That is to say, as long as violence is wielded by "the good guys," that violence is not only useful for doing good but also redemptive for those involved. The violent deaths of "bad guys" are often portrayed in slow motion as acts of righteous cleansing and the hero's willingness to "shoot em up" willy nilly to catch said "bad guys" is rarely questioned. The lethal use of force is almost always justified in the name of [fill in the blank with the newest righteous cause of the day].

The problem with this narrative, of course, is that it is a complete falsehood. Violence is not redemptive. Violence does not solve problems. Violence always begets more violence. Always. The Gospel testifies to this truth, which is itself evidenced in human history. A brief historical survey is all that is needed to see that violence is like a debilitating cancer that infects humankind, voraciously feeding on hearts, minds, and souls until entire peoples and nations are destroyed. The 20th Century alone serves as a tragic testimony to the downward spiral created by violent action, even when done in the name of justice. We see the cyclical nature of violence in the Old Testament, as well, whether in the narratives of Joseph, David, Solomon, or the various kings throughout the divided kingdom. The pattern always goes something like this: someone is killed or harmed, the person's kin responds with vengeance (usually disproportionately), the other person's kind retaliates too, and then others get drawn in, they suffer harm, and then the cycle repeats itself. Jesus Christ affirmed the ultimate dead end that is violence when he instructed Peter the hothead to sheath his sword, for "all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matt 26:52).

One of the most articulate and moving defenders of nonviolence was Martin Luther King, Jr, who famously denounced the use of violence for the cause of justice in this way: "The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. ... Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that" (Where Do We Go From Here?, 1967).

(So, maybe this is the problem with Dexter. Maybe our attraction to Dexter is the fact that we want to believe that violence can be virtuous. After all, Dexter is virtuous in his own way, right? He has a code of conduct passed down from his father that doesn't allow for killing out of passion or killing the innocent. He doesn't harm children or pose a threat to innocent families. He's a monster we can trust. He's a monster, but maybe he's "God's monster." I think we want to meld violence and virtue. We want to affirm that Dexter is in some way right for doing the dirty work of earthly justice when the ideal of justice can't or doesn't work out in the legal system. And, we want to think that his code makes his work virtuous in some way, protecting us from the necessary "descending spiral" that arises from this way of life. But, the truth is, he isn't virtuous and violence isn't redemptive.)

In my estimation, while the viewer of Dexter is invited to relish somewhat his use of lethal force in the cause of justice, it seems clear that the writers remain unwilling to romanticize or lessen the consequences of this way of life. Indeed, throughout the seasons, Dexter comes to suffer (often very deeply) as a result of his murderous existence. He reaps the cyclical spiral of pain, death, and destruction that comes to him and those around him as a result of his lifestyle. Certainly, the viewers are rooting for Dexter most of the time. But, when he experiences the consequences of his behavior, the viewer is also left to realize that there really is no other way to deal honestly with what happens when you live as he lives. "All who draw the sword will die by the sword." (I wish I could say more about this, but I fear that if I go into too many details I will "spoil" the show for those who haven't seen it or are watching it now.)

This is one of the major reasons that, as Christian, I am compelled to assert that Dexter cannot be a New Covenant hero. His brand of justice is entirely Old Covenant, in my estimation. (In Part 1, I compared Dexter to Ehud or Samson from the book of Judges.) He is a "lone ranger" vigilante, exercising justice by his own standards. Granted, they are good standards to have: kill only those who have killed the innocent and will do so again. If you're going to be a serial killer, this kind of boundary is helpful! But, even this standard remains outside the bounds of the New Covenant community, which was figuratively formed from the side of the (nonviolent) Messiah, who died on a Roman cross to stop the cycle of human sin, violence, and death with his own body. Dexter's life works against the grain of the Gospel. As a result, his brand of justice--while appealing for it's accuracy and expediency--cannot ultimately satisfy or work within the bounds of the Christian tradition. At the end of the day, Dexter is killing in order to satisfy the desires of his "dark passenger." While he uses his father's "code" that helps direct his killing in more just directions, he cannot bring true justice--let alone peace--in this way.

This makes me wonder if one of the other appeals of Dexter to Christian viewers (including myself) is the appeal of resurrection--the righting of wrongs--without crucifixion. Justice without sacrifice. In a sense, Dexter delivers us from evil without asking us to turn the other cheek. Ultimately, for Christians, he's working against the grain of the new creation in Christ. He's an Old Covenant hero and not a New Covenant one.

Now, I should add the caveat that there is a legitimate debate to be had in Christian circles about the legitimacy of Christian participation in violence when it is used by the State--the entity that the New Testament tells us has been given "the sword," in order to be an agent of wrath, "to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Rom 13:4). There are two dominant traditions within the Christian faith regarding State sponsored violence: the Just War tradition and the pacifist or nonviolent tradition. Both have deep and robust intellectual roots and have been represented by fine scholars and theologians throughout the centuries of church history. But, the Just War and nonviolent traditions come to drastically different conclusions about Christian participation in violence, particularly violence wielded by the State (always in the name of justice, of course).

These disparate approaches to Christians and warfare are interesting and important topics of discussion, but I do not think they are relevant in the discussion of Dexter's use of violence. In particular, Dexter is not a show about war, but a show about murder. There is a major difference. Furthermore, Dexter most certainly does not fulfill the requirements of what constitutes a Just War. He is an individual, acting alone, for his own purposes, even if the ones receiving his form of justice "deserve" what they get. (This could be a whole post in and of itself, but time constraints prevent me from pursuing this matter further. For the interested, the writings of Thomas Aquinas have been key in the Christian tradition for thinking about Just War. If you don't wish to wade into the Summa Theologiae [though you should if you have the time!], you can peruse this Wikipedia article, which sums things up in a satisfactory manner.)

The second thing I wanted to say about Dexter in this post zeroes in on what I think the show is ultimately all about: what it means to be human. I think it no exaggeration to say that Dexter's journey through the past seven seasons has been one of a monster becoming a man. While he began the series as an unfeeling, calculating, cold, and empty killer, he has ended season seven as someone who feels things--most importantly, love. He remains a killer, of course. Dexter cannot shake his "dark passenger," driving him to seek out candidates to execute on his table. But, he loves, he gives to others, he sacrifices, and through his relationships with others--especially his girlfriend, Rita, her children, and his sister, Deb--he comes alive as a human being.

I think this narrative progression says something important and true. Humans are created beings, just like ants, antelope, and alligators. What makes human beings special? Christians would likely start with the Imago Dei and the mandates of God to humankind to rule over the earth. These things are important, but they definitely aren't in Dexter. What is in Dexter, however, is the fact that humans are self-reflective and capable of loving, sacrificial relationships. (I know some primates are thought to have similar traits, but I'm not ready or knowledgeable enough to get into that discussion here.) As the show follows the life of Dexter, transitioning from an emotionless sociopath to a loving, feeling human being, the writers are impressing up the viewers that these things are at the core of what it means to be human.

Moreover, I see in Dexter a vivid admission that to be a human being is to be an organic web of community with other human beings. There is no such thing as a human being alone because it is in community that we discover who we are and what we are to do. Thus, to be human is love others and to deal with the consequences of that love. And, given that this is true, and all of us are in some sense connected, then everyone with whom we are connected bears the consequences of our actions. All of these things are visible in Dexter's journey from monster to man. He yearns to be alone in order to hide who he is and avoid the discomfort of others knowing him in any way. Yet, he needs others in order to learn from them how to live and act in the human world. In his daily interaction with others, he begins to feel, to care, and to love. And, as he continues to carry out his deadly work, those around him suffer--directly and indirectly--the consequences of his deeds. To sum it up, I see in Dexter the twin assertions that (1) to be a human being is to be in relationship with others, and (2) to be a human being means that we're all in this together.

Of course, the other aspect to human existence from the Christian point of view is that to be human is to be in some sense broken--damaged by the effects of sin. This was not God's intention, of course, but the biblical narrative testifies from early on (Gen 3) that things are no longer the way they are supposed to be. Humankind requires redemption because we have asserted our autonomy from God and we suffer exponentially because of this relational breach. In this way, we can also see in Dexter a graphic depiction of what the Reformed tradition calls the unregenerate human being, living apart from God. Dexter is an exaggerated version of each of us: born in blood, broken to the core, struggling with a "dark passenger," often blinded by selfishness and desires beyond our control, causing others to suffer because of our sins, and desperately in need of redemption.

In conclusion, I confess that I have more to say about the interplay between Dexter and theology, but it is time to bring this post to a close for today. Maybe, as time permits, I'll provide more reflections this summer. In the mean time, I hope my readers have enjoyed my short series on the subject. I'd love to read and interact with your thoughts.

Last but not least, I need to acknowledge my indebtedness to my husband, Ron McGowin, and my friend and colleague, Herbie Miller, for a number of fruitful conversations that led to this series of posts. I'm grateful to both of them for their critical insight and can't wait to experience Dexter, Season 8 together.