All Things Made New

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

-Matthew 5:4

“Still, I repeat, a man in sorrow is in general far nearer God than a man in joy.”

-George MacDonald, The Hope of the Gospel p. 37

Manchester by the Sea, the latest film by Kenneth Lonergan, for me was the best film of 2016. Quite possibly my favorite film I’ve ever seen. The main focus is on the character Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) who we first meet as a quiet, emotionally hardened janitor. As the movie begins to unfold what has happened in Lee’s life, you are hit with a ton of bricks and it becomes obvious that what Lee has suffered in his life is unbearable. He is a deeply broken man, one who has attempted to run away from his guilt and suffering. The death of his brother Joe causes a chain of events that draws him back to the place where he lost everything and putting Lee in charge of not only Joe’s financial stuff, but in charge of his son Patrick. Much can be said in light of what the film communicates about brokenness, loss and guilt among other things. There is a specific sequence of events that spoke deep volumes to my heart and is a cause for reflection.

Grief

Half way through the film Lee is at a police station answering questions about what had transpired the previous night. He confesses a mistake he made that lead to the event, and after he shares this information the detectives let him know they will contact him if anything else comes up. Lee is stunned, and seemingly upset they are letting him go without punishment. As he is leaving the interrogation room, he quickly reaches and grabs a gun from the holster of a police officer holds it to his head and as the other officers grab him and hold him down you hear him yell “Please!” in a panicked tone. He couldn’t bear living in the wake of what just transpired, and not being punished for it. His sorrow and guilt become his new identity, and this weight is unbearable.

Identity

We often root our identities in our past whether it is past sorrows or joys, accomplishments or failures. Whatever it may be, we are embedded in the past. Lee is ultimately defined eschatologically by this single event, which is understandable given the nature and gravity of it. It consumes his every waking moment. I thought to myself, “Where is God in this situation?” Even though it is a fictional situation, it still gives me pause about the nature of God’s work in our lives, especially in midst of our sufferings that are often due to mistakes we have made. As cliche as this question is but: where is God in the midst of tragedy?

I’ve heard it put that God allows bad things to happen because He knew something greater would arise out of them. The problem with this line of thinking makes God out to be some utilitarian deistic demi-god; not the God of Scripture. Paul himself tells us about God’s action in our afflictions:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

God identifies Himself with our sufferings. Paul continues:

“For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (v. 5)

Our eschatological event which gives us our identity as Christians is the resurrection of Christ. This is the event in which we hope, and are marked as a people.

Evil

However we want to understand why evil is allowed, it is ultimately not something we can attain in our finiteness. All attempts at theodicies end up falling far short of any reasonable conclusion or response to the overwhelming suffering seen throughout history and our present day. Some might say “free will” is the reason why evil exists. Some even go as far to say God has ordained it for ultimately for our good. It concerns me how fundamental evil becomes to God’s act in creation in both positions, and I won’t stand for this conclusion. Both fall into the trap set forth by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange:

“God determining or determined: there is no other alternative.”

Categorically, God transcends finite categories of existence and non-existence, and thus determining or determined. To use David Bentley Hart’s language:

“God’s being is necessary, that is, not simply because it is inextinguishable  or eternally immune to nothingness, but because it transcends the dialectic of existence and nonexistence altogether; it is simple and infinite actuality, utterly pure of ontic determination, the “is” both of “it is” and of the “it is not”.” (Impassibility as Transcendence)

Fundamentally, evil has no part in God:

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)

I’m inclined towards the historic position that views evil as a privation of the good. To say evil has an existence of its own is to assert a metaphysical structure of reality where evil competes with the good ontologically. Augustine writes:

“Nothing evil exists in itself, but only as an evil aspect of some actual entity. Therefore, there can be nothing evil except something good.” (Augustine, Enchiridion)

The point here is not a thorough going explication on the nature of evil, but to abandon any proposition or argument that necessitates God needing evil or suffering to accomplish His eternal plan within creation.

The response of Beauty

God responds to suffering and evil in the concrete form of His Son, Jesus Christ. “In Him the fulness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1.19) and therefore the fullness of beauty is displayed in the person of Jesus Christ who is God’s eternal Word and response to suffering. R. Jared Staudt, in his article here, ends with what contemplating the suffering of Christ means:

“In contemplating the suffering of Christ, in particular, we see a beauty which took on our infirmities and overcame their darkness. It is a challenging beauty, but a powerful one—with power to transform our own suffering and lack of beauty. It is a beauty that shakes us to the core, which illuminates us, and ultimately is the beauty that will save the world.”

Ultimately we may find the best response (or theodicy) might be a work of theological aesthetics, not rational arguments. This is because beauty penetrates us at our deepest levels, and beauty communicates who God is, however incomplete it is in our senses and knowledge. Pope Benedict XVI articulates this perfectly in his “Meeting with Artists”:

“Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence.”

Beauty will save the world; it already began 2000 years ago. To end on powerful words from David Bentley Hart in his concluding remarks in “The Doors of the Sea”:

“Now we are able to rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes –– and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain… he that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold I make all things new.” (p. 104)

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The Death of God & Transcendence

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

“The true God is the hidden God”

-Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1, 193

In reflecting about the death of God we want to read a certain kind of atheism back into the haunting words of Nietzsche. We want to view him the same way we view guys like Dawkins and Hitchens, but this is ultimately a mistake. If we put him in the same category we do to the New Atheists, we would miss the weight of his words. The death of God for Nietzsche is a cultural event. This poses an opportunity and a catastrophe, wherein the belief in transcendence has come to an end and when the culture wakes up to this reality, nihilism (infinite meaninglessness) will come creeping in. Nihilism, for Nietzsche, must be overcome. This is where his Übermench rises and overcomes.

Tomáš Halík, in his wonderful book ‘I Want You to Be’, argues that Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead” can be seen maybe “not as only a sentence about God and against God but also one containing something of God’s message to us.” (p. 20) In this chapter Halík is writing about God speaking to us, and how often we only stop at God’s first word to us. Halík says this is a mistake. Like Abraham, who ‘at the moment God was hidden from him in incomprehensibility’ waited to hear God speak to him for a second time. Hope, no matter how small or incomprehensible, says Halík, is the chink in the armor through which the “still small voice” of God’s message can reach us. (p. 21)

We live in the shadow of Nietzsche’s Madman’s proclamation to the death of transcendence, Halík argues that this should be viewed as only the first sentence to us, which like Good Friday (the death of Christ), must be followed by a second sentence. Good Friday is an important message to us from God, but it certainly was not the final one. Here Halík offers his most lucid analysis:

“‘God is dead!’ That sentence uttered at the end of the nineteenth century continued to fascinate for the next hundred years. Maybe it was not only a sentence about God and against God but also one containing something of God’s message to us. A God who has not endured death is not truly Living. A faith that does not undergo Good Friday cannot attain the fullness of Easter. Crises of faith –– both personal and in histories of culture –– are an important part of the history of faith, of our communication with God, who is concealed and returns again to those who do not stop waiting for the unique and eternal Word to speak to them once more.” (p. 20)

The author of the book of Hebrews tells us much the same:

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:15)

David Bentley Hart thinks the time we live in the death of God, which is the death of a god that did not exist in the first place, is an opportunity to reclaim the true transcendence of God. For Hart the death of God was the death of the God of modernity and nihilism. In his essay “Impassibility as Transcendence”, Hart takes on both Thomists and modern fundamentalists alike. For him the language within the Thomist scheme of transcendence does not actually speak to God’s utter difference and transcendence, but falls short and looks as modern as any theology does today. The statement Hart seeks to give an answer to comes from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange:

“God determining or determined: there is no other alternative.”

God, under both the Thomist  and the modern fundamentalists scheme, cannot avoid the problem that Lagrange puts forth, because He is simply another being among beings and is thus caught in the scheme of finite existence and causes. This is a grave mistake because God properly defined within the classical theistic metaphysical tradition is that God is the ground and source of all being. Hart expounds (at length) on the definition of God’s transcendence:

“God’s being is necessary, that is, not simply because it is inextinguishable  or eternally immune to nothingness, but because it transcends the dialectic of existence and nonexistence altogether; it is simple and infinite actuality, utterly pure of ontic determination, the “is” both of “it is” and of the “it is not”. It transcends, that is to say, even the distinction between finite act and finite potency, since both exist by virtue of their participation in God’s infinite actuality, in which might be always supereminently is. God is absolute, that is to say, in the most proper sense: he is eternally “absolved” of finite causality, so much so that he need not––in any simple univocal sense––determine in order to avoid being determined. His transcendence is not something achieved by the negation of its “opposite””.

He ends his scathing essay calling for Christians to see to it that this god remains dead:

“It is principally the god of modernity––the god of pure sovereignty––who has died for modern humanity, and perhaps theology has no nobler calling for now than to see that he remains dead, and that every attempt to revive him is thwarted: in the hope that, in becoming willing accomplices in his death, Christians may help to prepare their world for the return of the true God revealed in Christ, in all the mystery of his transcendent and impassible love.”

For Halík and Hart alike, the death of God is something to be seen as a hopeful event, because the death of this particular god is not the transcendent Triune God revealed in Christ, but a god who has never existed in the first place. Let us see it as an opportunity, not a catastrophe, that the true God revealed in Christ will once again speak His eternal Word to those of us who wait patiently in the midst of His seeming hiddenness and silence.

Beauty

“Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”

-Hans Urs von Balthasar, THE GLORY OF THE LORD: A THEOLOGICAL AESTHETICS, VOL. 1 -SEEING THE FORM

Sacrifice & Obedience

And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

-Hebrews 10:10, NRSV

“And take up their cross.” That cross is already there, ready, from the very beginning; we need only take it up. But to keep us from believing that we must simply choose any arbitrary cross, or simply pick out our suffering as we will, Jesus emphasizes that each of us has his or her own cross, ready, appointed, and appropriately measured by God.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

This year as part of my Lenten reading schedule, one of the books I am going through is Rowan William’s “The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection”. William’s has some wonderful reflections on the Cross and what it means for us today. In the second chapter “The Sacrifice” Williams seeks to reflect on the Cross as a “sacrifice”. He explores first what sacrifice means in the Old Testament, which for many may come as a surprise that sacrifice was a pretty diverse in its meaning. It wasn’t just sacrificing animals to keep God happy, it was much more nuanced and context specific than that. At length Williams writes about what is the common thread between the different meanings and purposes for sacrifices:

“But in the middle of it all is one great governing idea: a sacrifice is something given over into the hands of God, most dramatically when it is a life given over with the shedding of blood. That gift of life or blood somehow casts a veil over the sin or sickness or disorder of an individual or of a whole people. It removes the consequences of sin; it offers the possibility of a relationship unclouded by guilt with God; it is a gift that stands between God and the failures or disorders of the world. The gift is given – and it’s a costly gift because it’s about life and blood – so that peace and communication may be re-established between heaven and earth. And this was always symbolized by the fact that a sacrificed animal would be cooked and cut up and shared in the meal, which expressed not only fellowship with one another, but restored fellowship with God.” (Kindle Locations 290-296)

It is something given to God to restore fellowship. Sacrifice is done out of obedience, and Williams links Christ’s obedience at every moment of his life as a sacrifice to God for us. “Obedience”, Williams writes, “is not springing to attention and hastily doing what you’re ordered. Obedience is a harmony of response to God so that God sees in the world a reflection of his own life. Our actions in obedience reflect his.” (Kindle Locations 375-376) This a helpful frame for what it means to be obedient to God. He is not just an arbitrary rule giver shouting at us to stand at attention like mindless drones. No, obedience to God is us participating in the work of God. In our action we reflect God’s action towards us back to Him. This is what Christ did. The obedience of Christ “is a loving gift which directly and uninterruptedly and perfectly reflects God’s own loving gift. It’s the Son watching what the Father does and ‘playing it back’ to him. (John 5.19)”(Kindle Locations 382-383)

In Jesus, Williams continues, “we see all of that vast infinite eternal reality happening in a human life, happening in a weary, dusty-footed unkempt man completing a long journey, sitting down with his friends at the end of the day, breaking bread and pouring wine.”(Kindle Locations 391-393)

For He is the Word of God (John 1) and “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1.3) When we think of sacrifice let us reflect on the obedience of Christ that His whole life, at every moment, was a sacrifice to His Father. When we think of the cross “as sacrifice, however complex the ideas around it, what the language is trying to get us to see is that this new possibility is something objectively done for us, done on our behalf for us.”(Kindle Locations 410-412) Moreover, because of Christ it is possible for us to be human again, “to grow as we move along that living pathway to reconciliation with God and each other.” (Kindle Locations 421-422)

I have quoted Williams at quite some length, but let me cite him once more to drive home the fundamental truth which we should daily meditate on:

“Priests make atonement by performing sacrifices. But in the New Testament the subject is God. God makes peace with us, working through us, acting for us. It is God’s act, outside us, not up to us; something that God has accomplished.” (Kindle Locations 434-435)

God in Christ has done what we never could have. He reconciled us to Himself, not because of any foreseen faith or obedience on our part, but on the faith and obedience of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Lenten Reflections on Restlessness and the Gospel

“Properly speaking it is Gospel when it preaches Christ; but when it rebukes and reproves and gives commands, it does nothing else than destroy those who are presumptuous concerning their own righteousness to make room for grace, that they may know the Law is fulfilled not by their own powers but only through Christ, who pours out the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

They who interpret the term ‘Gospel’ as something else than ‘the good news’ do not understand the Gospel, as those people do who have turned the Gospel into a law rather than grace and have made Christ a Moses for us.”

-Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans

An Anthropology of Restlessness

The Lenten season calls us to reflection in our hearts and bodies about what we cling to and rely on for our day to day existence. These things often look different than we otherwise would like to believe. It is not so much “you are what you believe” rather it is you are what you love. The rhythm of our days seek to shape us into certain kinds of people for specific kingdoms. This is based in the fundamental truth as human beings, we are first and foremost desiring beings. As James K.A. Smith observes:

“We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends.” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 40)

Liturgical practices, for Smith, is the various habits embedded in our daily existence. “Habits (precognitive dispositions) are formed by practices: routines and rituals that inscribe particular ongoing habits into our character, such that they become second nature to us.” (Ibid, p. 80) Moreover “the way we inhabit the world is not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it.” (Ibid, p. 47) If we understand ourselves first as primarily “lovers” before we are “thinkers” we will have to re-evaluate what it means for us to be influenced since we often believe that ideas are the way in which we are most heavily influenced. Take an example from Perelandra, the second novel in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy:

“As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle to the good and find that it also is dreadful? …Here at last was a bit of that world from beyond the world, which I always supposed that I loved and desired, breaking through and appearing to my sense: and I didn’t like it, I wanted it to go away.” (Perelandra, p. 19)

We suppose we love God and ultimately claim to desire Him, but what if a small amount of God and His holiness appears before us (whatever that looks like I’m not sure) and we shrink in horror that it is not at all what we had supposed? I will contend that the Lenten season gives us the space to reflect on the habits and rhythms that shape our days, and ultimately our hearts. If we continually participate in the consumerist narrative of work, consume, sleep and repeat we will be in a continual state of restlessness. The Gospel is good news for us, the Gospel is the good news of rest in a restless age.

Rest for the Restless

For Martin Luther, everything depends on a merciful God and not on someone’s will. The debates about freedom of the will are endless, and at times verge on out living their usefulness as it pertains to reflections on faith, but we must be cautious when we speak about the conversion of someone from a non-Christian to a Christian. Much of the language used, especially when we talk about the nature of free will, often becomes contentious because we tend to give into the modern notion of certainty about the things we believe. We over conceptualize, place the emphasis on one thing (human choice) or the other (God’s choice) and when we reduce the issue to either tends to distract us from the truth of God’s unconditional action towards the human race.

Karl Barth, in his second volume of his Church Dogmatics, writes about God’s love as love that is ‘concerned with seeking and creating fellowship for its own sake.’ (II.2, p. 276) This love is an outpouring of God’s abundant goodness He is in Himself. Perfect Triune loving fellowship and in ‘loving us, God does not give us something, but Himself; and giving us Himself, giving us His only Son, He gives everything. The love of God has only to be His love to be everything for us.’ (Ibid) Barth further elaborates that ‘God’s love is not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved, by any existing capacity for union or fellowship on his side…the object of the love of God as such is another which in itself is not, or is not yet, worthy of this His pleasure.’ (Ibid, p. 278) Here Barth is getting at the point I want to make: God’s love is unmerited and unconditional towards us, and we find it fully realized in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is the action of God that saves us, not anything we have done on our own part. Our salvation is truly secure not in our cognitive recognition of it, nor is our belief in our belief what secures us, but the objective work of Christ fulfilling the promises of God secure our salvation and reconciliation.

Peter Leithart in his book ‘Delivered from the Elements of the World’ has a chapter titled “Justified by the Faith of Jesus”. In it he explores Paul’s use of the term justification. He writes ‘in contrast to some standard Protestant soteriologies, though, Paul treats this judgement not as a mere verdict of “righteous” that is the basis for liberation, but as itself an act of deliverance… sinners have the righteous status of Jesus himself by faith, by trusting in Christ and entrusting themselves to the Father, by self-abandonment and loyalty to their Savior.’ (Delivered, p. 181) Leithart here wants us to grasp that justification is not merely a legal status change, it is not ‘merely a matter of ordo salutis or application of redemption; it is also, and most fundamentally, an event in the historia salutis. “Justification” occurred two thousand years ago.’ (Ibid, p. 183)

In this season of Lent as we seek to abandon the habits and rhythms that are forming us for another kingdom, and abstaining from eating or drinking certain kinds of meat or alcohol, let us reflect on the goodness of God coming in Christ out of the abundance of the Triune communion seeking us out to give us Himself, which is to give us everything.

Caesar or Christ: Worship as Resistance and Rejection of the Empire.

In May of this year I had attended a lecture given by R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, in which he discussed how we are now living in a “dissolving age”. He first began attempting to diagnose the problems he sees that are affecting our current political cycle, mostly the issue of Donal Trump and his popularity. Reno sees a fundamental problem of “homelessness” as a pervasive, deeply rooted issue in our current context. Personhood and nation state historically have been linked together, and he senses that the dissolution of the nation state has created this feeling of homelessness amongst a wide group of people. He attempts to argue for the return to a stronger nation state to curb a lot of the problems brought on by the liberalization of the 19th and 20th centuries. He also spoke to the tension found in Christianity in the push for human unity on the one hand, and the respect for grounding of humans in a diversity of cultures. This was the most interesting point brought up in the whole discussion, but alas the talk was extremely disjointed, and his frustrations with the Church (both Catholic and Protestant) leads him to think a strengthening of a nation state can bring a sense of belonging to a culture void of a home, and that the Church is not up for that task.

From the outset I think his solution is profoundly problematic with respect to going back to a strong nation state as the answer to the problems we see in our culture. The reaction against strong nation states is a justified one, given the blood bath of the 20th century by supremely strong nation states. These governments can be diagnosed with being driven by a dogmatic materialist metaphysics in which the human person is just a by product of accidental material processes and nothing more, and in that they can be shaped a molded into something better and this is the job of the State to control and influence the future for the better. I think this very same materialist metaphysics is still in the drivers seat in respect to the culture. Even within our current modern American Christian community we find not so much an actual classical trinitarian Christian faith, but one of the worship of a  desitic-demigod, along with sacrifices at the altar of consumerism and moralism. In this I think Reno statements about the Church are partially correct, it is not currently up to the task. What strikes me as  odd was his persistence on the importance of a strong nation state, and somewhat abandoning (though not entirely he claims) the place of the Church in giving a home for the homeless.

My concern, and critique of his project, is that we are still culturally driven by a materialist/naturalist metaphysics. For as much as we want to argue that we live in a post-modern context, I would argue we are still very much steeped in modernity.

“The state does not take a merely temporal regulatory role and leave salvation in the hands of the church; rather, the modern state seeks to replace the church by itself becoming a soteriological institution. It is in this sense, then, that the modern state is a parody of the church: “The body of the state is a simulacrum, a false copy, of the Body of Christ” (RONT, 182). As a result, while political rhetoric may suggest that the state is confined to a “public” sphere or that the reign of the secular is circumscribed, in fact the modern state demands complete allegiance, and the reign of the secular does not tolerate territories of resistance. The state is happy to absorb all kinds of private pursuits under the umbrella of civil society, but it cannot tolerate a religious community that claims to be the only authentic polis and proclaims a king who is a rival to both Caesar and Leviathan. In such a case, this community’s allegiance to its king ultimately trumps its allegiance to the state or empire, and its understanding of the nature of human persons does not fit the normative picture of liberalism. This the state cannot tolerate. It is in this sense that “every worship service is a challenge to Caesar.”

-James K.A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy

Redemption & Freedom in “Stranger Things” (SPOILERS)

“Thus into our house of bondage, Jesus brought the freedom of God’s sons and daughters through living a life that broke through the bondage and slavery of our sin into the liberty of a sinless humanity rejoicing in the love and faithfulness of God the Father” 

-T.F. Torrance, Incarnation, p. 121,122

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”

-1 John 4:18,19 ESV

If you have not watched the Netflix Original ‘Stranger Things’, I highly recommend doing so. It is a wonderful story about a small town in Indiana in 1983 that is plunged into mystery surrounding a young boy named Will Byers who vanishes and is no where to be found. This event brings people together in a way that they never could have anticipated. Spoilers from here on out!

Chief Hopper (Redemption)

We meet the Chief (played by David Harbour) waking in the morning. He had been passed out on his couch with the television on, disheveled and his house is a mess. From the moment you fall upon the scene, there is immediately a sense of brokenness within Hopper. As the story moves forward, we discover that he has suffered a devastating loss in his life, and has haunted him ever since. Throughout the episodes we discover a little more of what happened to him, and towards the end of the season we discover he had a daughter who fell ill with cancer. In the finale, as Hopper and Joyce Beyers discover Will in the upside down, and a gripping moment ensues. We witness the death of Hoppers daughter as he stands by unable to do anything for her. Will has been held captive by the Demogorgon, and as they free him they discover Will is not breathing. Chief tells Joyce to breathe in Will’s mouth for three seconds in between Chief pumping into Will’s chest. This scene is playing out as the death of Hoppers daughter is coming in and out, and you hear the sound of the beeping as Will begins to breathe again.

Truly a gripping and emotional scene, we discover that Hopper is so invested in finding Will that he is willing to give his life to save him. He is unwilling to allow Joyce Beyers to go through the pain and suffering of losing a child as he did. In the end we discover that Hopper offers himself as a deal in some way with the company that essentially released the Demogorgon, which we will learn more in the second season of the show.

The story for Hopper is one of redemption. He is stuck in his own despair, and the case of Will Beyers brings him into a greater narrative that shows him a way out of his own suffering in the means of giving himself for someone else. Giving up his own life for the life of another. He participates in a greater event than what he is fully aware of. In the gospel of John, the Lord Jesus speaks to his disciples on the greatest love of all; “…that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) In the narrative Chief finds himself called into a greater story than his own, and in this he finds the freedom and power to move forward in action. Karl Barth reflects in CD VI.1 on what it means when we say “God with Us”, and he talks about what ‘God with Us’ describes;

“It means Jesus Christ again when it describes the event of ‘God with Us’ as a redemptive event; as the fulfillment of man’s being by participation of the divine being which comes to him by the grace of God”. (CD VI.1, p. 18)

It is in the person of Christ that we find ourselves reconciled to God, and thus thrusted into a greater narrative of God’ action in the world as one of reconciliation. Our neighbor, as John Webster puts it;

“…my neighbor is no longer a threat or an obstacle, nor a function of my self-interest. My neighbor is the presence to me of a truth which obliges me to act in his or her regard… Love is a counter-movement to our runious pride.” (Holiness, p. 96)

Eleven “El” (Freedom)

The story of Eleven is a heart breaking one. We discover that her mother had been tested on for months, and was told that she had miscarried the baby. Eleven is then held captive by Dr. Martin Brenner because of her abilities. She only knows existence as a prisoner with a number. Dr. Brenner puts on the act of caring for her, but as we come to discover he only cares about her powers for his own gain and prestige. Eleven  is the one who opens up the gate to the upside down and releases the Demogorgon that captures Will. We see various testing that is done on her, and she refuses to comply at certain times, and is thrown into a dark and confined room for punishment for not listening.

Eleven escapes from her prison, and is on the run as she runs into our main heroes of the story (Mike, Lucas and Dustin). Mike takes her into his home, and hides her from the rest of his family. Their relationship begins to grow, and she slowly starts to learn what it means to be in a mutual loving relationship with another human being for the first time. Mike earns her trust by showing her unconditional love and gentleness. He even lovingly gives her the nick name “El”, by that giving her a name that is in effect far more humanizing than just a number.

As the season continues, we begin to see El begin to trust Mike and in the series finale use her powers out of love for her friends rather than fear of punishment. In here lies a wonderful and beautiful truth that echoes the apostle John; “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) In loving El with gentleness and trust, El learns how to love them in return, and out of that love moves in action to rescue them from the Demogorgon who she had such an overwhelming and paralyzing fear. Even more we can hear the apostle John; “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) El had her fears cast out by the love of Mike, and in this we see her set free from the slavery which had gripped her the whole story up until that point.

Stranger Things is a story of redemption. It is a story of being set free from fear through the love of others. It is a story we all know far to well, it is our story.