- 2019Oct 22
Years ago, a brutal stomach virus crept through the seminary community where I was serving as dean. One day, knowing that most of the students in my classroom were on the upswing from this sickness, I posed the question, “Did Jesus ever have a stomach virus?”
On a more typical day–a day in which the question of such illness would have been a more abstract reality–I doubt there would have been anything less than consensus. Of course, these future pastors would have asserted, Jesus assumed everything about human nature, except for sin.
But this wasn’t an abstract question. These students were still reeling not just from the discomfort of the stomach flu, but also from its indignity. They had been wracked with vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and chills. They still smarted from the sense of having no control over the most disgusting of bodily functions.
Did Jesus suffer painful indignities, too?
So when I asked this question, these ministers of the gospel hesitated. The stomach virus wasn’t just awful; it was undignified. And thinking of Jesus in relation to the most foul and embarrassing aspects of bodily existence seemed to them to be just on the verge of disrespectful, if not blasphemous.
Why is it so hard for us to imagine Jesus vomiting?
The answer to this question has to do, first of all, with the one-dimensional picture of Jesus so many of us have been taught, or have assumed. Many of us see Jesus either as the ghostly friend in the corner of our hearts, promising us heaven and guiding us through difficulty, or we see him simply in terms of his sovereignty and power, in terms of his distance from us. No matter how orthodox our doctrine, we all tend to think of Jesus as a strange and ghostly figure.
The very heart of Jesus shares our humanity.
The bridging of this distance is precisely at the heart of the scandal of the gospel itself. It just doesn’t seem right to us to imagine Jesus feverish or vomiting or crying in a feeding trough or studying to learn his Hebrew.
From the very beginning of the Christian era, those who sought to redefine the gospel argued that it doesn’t seem right to think of Jesus as really flesh and bone, filled with blood and intestines and urine. It doesn’t seem right to think of Jesus as growing in wisdom and knowledge, as Luke tells us he did.
Somehow such things seem to us to detract from his deity, from his dignity.
But that’s just the point.
Christ joins us in the humiliations of life.
The very beginning of the Christ story itself tells us that part of the sign of the Messiah is that he is wrapped in cloths (Lk. 2:12). Why do you wrap cloths around a baby? For the same reason you might diaper your infant, or wrap her up in a blanket. The point is to keep the baby warm, and to keep him dry from waste.
From the very beginning Jesus is one of us, sharing with us a human nervous system, a human digestive system, and as we’ll see every aspect of human nature.
It didn’t seem right to the world to imagine the only begotten of the Father twisting in pain on a crucifixion stake, screaming as he drowned in his own blood. This was humiliating, undignified. That’s just the point. Jesus joined us in our humiliation, our indignity.
In this Jesus is, Scripture tells us, not ashamed to call us brothers (Heb. 2:11).
I thought intensely about this as I was asked to read, and write a foreword, for my friend Patrick Henry Reardon’s new book on the humanity of the Lord Christ, The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth about the Humanity of Christ (Thomas Nelson). This is the best contemporary treatment of this subject I’ve ever seen.
This book prompted me to think and to ponder. But, more than that, this book prompted me to pray and to worship, to see the Jesus it is so easy for me to forget: the Jesus who was really and truly one of us, so that we might be, with him, the heirs of the Father and the children of God.
The one who took on every aspect of our flesh and blood in order to redeem us from the power of the devil (Heb. 2:14-15).
Christ shows us we can overcome.
Reflecting on the humanity of Jesus always drives me to see what I’ve missed in my own humanity. Too often, we’re tempted to excuse our own bitterness, our rage, our lust, our envy, our factiousness as “only human.”
The mystery of Christ shows us that such things aren’t human at all, but satanic. We define humanity in light of our brother, in light of the alpha and omega point of humanity: Jesus of Nazareth.
Reflecting on our Lord’s humanity can drive you to the Jesus you might have forgotten or, might never have seen.
It can also propel you with longing: for the day spike-scabbed hands wipe away your tears as you hear a northern Galilean accent introduce himself as your Lord, as your King, but also as your brother.
Photo Credit: ©Pexels/Rodolfo-Clix
- 2019Oct 16
Several people, knowing that I am a DC Comics fan, asked if I had seen the new film, Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix. The answer is no, for lots of reasons.
For one thing, any review or an IMDb search reveals rather quickly that the sort of graphic violence in this film is less like the sort of violence seen in appropriate film and literature—and more akin to the ancient gladiator games, rightly rejected by Christians (perhaps I will write more on this later).
But, secondarily, I didn’t see the film because I’m not a fan of the anti-hero turn in some genres of this medium.
The Rise and Fall of the Anti-Hero
Joker is, of course, in line with the “darker” turn in the comic realm rooted in 1990s deconstructions of the superhero idea such as Alan Moore’s brilliant Watchmen and The Killing Joke alongside Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
The grittiness and realism of these works were a necessary corrective to the lingering effects of the silliness of some of the Silver Age’s heroes—especially the 1960s television series Batman. People familiar with the Batman mythos rightly saw that the character was not a wisecracking comedic figure, but a tortured orphan who dressed as a bat precisely because such would strike terror into the “superstitious and cowardly lot” that are criminals.
Media critic James Poniewozik traces the rise of the “grim, morally challenged” anti-hero to the post September 11 era in which heroes such as Batman and Superman often were modeled more after Jack Bauer than their previous iterations.
As Poniewozik puts it, “Superman, Batman, and company have escaped countless scrapes over the decades; they have been imprisoned, tortured, dipped in acid, killed, and resurrected. But they have never been conquered so thoroughly as they were by the anti-hero ethos.”
The Mystery of Iniquity
I tend to agree. Joker, of course, goes a step beyond anti-hero, to a film built around the villain, in the absence of his nemesis altogether, tracing the origins of the character’s madness. In the DC universe, though, Joker is one character who has famously resisted an origin story, with several contradictory explanations as to the roots of his villainy.
Such is the background of the forthcoming Three Jokers series by Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok. The ambiguity behind the Joker’s ultimate origins and motivations is, I think, quite appropriate given the way the character represents the ultimate irrationality and self-destructiveness of evil. Indeed, the Bible speaks in precisely such terms, of “the mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess. 2:7).
For the Christian, evil is not something explained with a simple syllogism, but instead provokes the question repeatedly, “How long, O Lord?” along with the ongoing imperative to oppose it. And, as with the character of the Joker, the more we see evil for what it is, the more we see how irrational and self-defeating it is. The devil is the one who “rages all the more because he knows his time is short” (Rev. 12:12).
Our Deepest Intution: Evil is Not Without a Nemesis
For me, the problem with unmitigated darkness in superhero stories is the mirror image of the problem with saccharine lightness in earlier versions of such stories. Neither rings true to our deepest intuitions.
We live in a cosmos that is both enlightened by grace and fallen into horror, that both groans at the reign of death and is amazed by the presence of grace. When stories present both of those realities we see something of what is already familiar, but unexpressed, within each of us. We see, as Flannery O’Connor put it about her own work: “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.”
That’s why I think the Watchmen deconstruction of superhero utopianism was necessary but cannot be the last word. That’s the reason, I suppose, that I enjoy Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s unofficial Watchmen sequel, Doomsday Clock, in which the nihilistic Dr. Manhattan comes face-to-face with Superman as the symbol of hope. Throughout the pages of Doomsday Clock is an unrelenting critique of the darkening turn in superhero stories. That critique is welcome, and the story is riveting.
Pure Villainy is Void of Hope
Hope without obstacles is a boring story, as storytellers as far back as Homer have shown. But villainy without hope is just as boring, or maybe even more so. In the Oxford University Press work What Is a Superhero, Frank Verano looks at Alan Moore’s Killing Joke Joker origin, especially when the villain says to Batman, “You had a bad day once, am I right? Why else would you dress up like a flying rat?”
Verano notes that, of course, Bruce Wayne did indeed have a bad day, the murder of his parents in Crime Alley, and that the difference between the hero and the villain is not the presence of trauma; they both have that.
The difference is how they processed the trauma.
The Morally Sound, Like Alfred, are Significant
“Batman’s greatest social advantage over the Joker is likely Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family butler, whose morality, compassion, and presence as a strong role model in those highly formative years following his childhood trauma gave young Bruce a strong foundation through which to channel his reaction to his parents’ death,” Verano notes.
“In contrast, the Joker—who had no such social supports—‘snapped’ after his series of traumatic events and was reborn as an agent of chaos, terror, and fear who sought to inflict his skewed vision of the world as an irrational, absurd joke upon Gotham City,” Verano adds.
Who knows if Alfred is the decisive factor here? Who knows if anyone could ever know? But Alfred is not nothing.
What Joker is Missing
What’s important to the story is the trauma, honestly seen, but what’s also important is the morality, the compassion, the presence, the grace. That’s what movies like Joker miss. And that’s why they don’t fully live up to the stories from which they come.
In the darkest night, we want stories that are honest about that darkness. But we also long to see a bat signal in that dark night, too, and to know that on the other end of that signal is hope.
Photo Credit: ©Warner Brothers and DC Comics
- 2019Sep 13
This week I received the news that Jarrid Wilson, a beloved and talented young pastor, had died by suicide. In his ministry, Jarrid was deeply committed to the cause of suicide prevention and to ministering to those suffering from depression.
Upon learning of his death, I was deeply grieved, and my heart continues to ache for Jarrid’s family. Friends have set up an account to help support Juli, Jarrid’s wife, and their two young children, which you can find at this link.
It’s a growing crisis that needs attention.
In thinking about Jarrid’s death, I’m also reminded of a growing crisis of suicide and self-harm among pastors and those serving in ministry. The Gospel Coalition has published a very helpful article on this subject that I recommend.
Finally, if you are personally struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, I want to encourage you to talk to someone immediately. Here is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.
As Jarrid so often reminded us, the fact that a person is a Christian does not mean that they will not struggle with these things. But because of Jesus, death never has the final word. This is a time for the body of Christ to do all we can to care for those who are hurting or suffering around us.
I want to encourage you to be proactive in reaching out to those you know who might be struggling right now.
Editor’s Note: the following is a transcript of Russell Moore’s ‘One Thing You Missed’ video commentary, so the text may not read like an edited article would.
“I’m really sad today. Last week I got an email message from Jarrid Wilson, Pastor. He and I corresponded back and forth a lot over the years and he was asking to get together some time; he was going to be in Nashville and wanted to get together and talk about how maybe we could partner together on suicide prevention. And, I said, yeah, that sounds great; I’d love to talk about that. That’s an issue that I’m concerned about, I know he was concerned about.
And then yesterday, when I was in meetings, I got the word that Jarrid himself had died by suicide.
People approached it... all sorts of images of kind of his final list of social media posts which were about things like, saying “Just because we love Jesus doesn’t mean suicidal thoughts go away,” those sorts of things.
So, thinking about his wife, about his kids, and also just thinking about the fact that this keeps happening. And it keeps happening in terms of ministry.
I was in a community, maybe a couple months ago, where there had been a pastor several years ago...a church planter, I’d heard from him every once in a while encouragement. We never met. And I said to someone, hey, how’s that church doing; mentioned the church. And they said, “the pastor went back to his home town; he died by suicide. Said he felt as though he was a failure.” I know he wasn’t. But he felt that way.
And then, there was a scholar that I would read a lot. And he had reviewed one of my books, for Books and Culture magazine years ago, and everything he wrote I would read. And I hadn’t seen anything from him in a while.
So I Googled it and it said that he had died by suicide. There’s a great article at The Gospel Coalition talking about why we have this issue: pastors and suicide. And not just with pastors but with all sorts of people, that I think maybe especially in ministry because as that article points out, there is such on the one hand a pressure to feel as though you’re succeeding or failing on the basis of what people think about you, on the basis of these external things that are there.
And because so often in ministry there can be a tendency to when you’re going through a difficult time, to think that if I tell anybody about this, then they’re gonna conclude that I’m not qualified for ministry. When in reality, if you look at the people that God has used over the centuries, how many of them have been people who have faced depression, anxiety...sometimes really deep depression and anxiety.
That doesn’t mean that you’re not qualified for ministry. That doesn’t mean that you’re ‘broken.’ It means you’re a human being.
And I think that we need to do a better job communicating to one another: it’s okay to be going through a time of difficulty. And we need to bear on another’s burdens. There’s not one thing shameful about that at all.
I don’t know all the story with Jarrid, but I just know he was in a lot of pain, a lot of agony apparently. And there are a lot of people who are. And so, what I want to say to some of you who may watch this who are going through a time of maybe really, really deep depression or other sorts of issues...that doesn’t mean there’s anything ‘wrong’ with you.
And there are people who can minister to you. And I think for all of us, we really need to do a better job, and I’m speaking to myself. I wish now that rather than just getting that email from Jarrid and saying, ‘yeah, let’s talk when the time comes.” The time never came.
I didn’t know that he was personally grappling with this at the moment, but I wish I had. And I wish that I had stopped what I was doing and talked to him ‘right now’ because now we can’t have that conversation about working together on suicide prevention. That was ‘One Thing I Missed.’
And so I’m thinking about the people maybe in your life that need to hear a word of encouragement: I love you, I’m with you, we can get through this.”
Photo Credit: ©Pixabay