Paris: A Theological Response

I’ve mostly been responding to Paris as a human. Within my spirit, that is, there has been a mixture of outrage, sadness, eye-rolling resignation, and (frankly) a half-willed ignoring–getting on with my life with a Friday dinner party and a weekend flag football tournament with my nine year old. But I am a follower of Jesus, and a pastor, and a theologian. Theology is the study of God. How might the best theology–theology that is rooted in Scripture, that is based in a Trinitarian understanding of the divine, that is for the church and for the world in which the church exists–respond to this crisis? I here posit a few suggestions.

No Deus Ex Machina

In ancient Greek tragedy, actors playing the gods were lifted onto the stage by a large crane; their entrance often precipitated a quick resolution to the conflict. The “god from the machine” would bring about the denouement that the audience was hoping for, but which up until that point was unimaginable. Deus ex machina now refers to any plot device in literature, drama, or cinema, in which the conflict is resolved in a surprising, convenient, and mag(ROTK) The Eaglesical way. Think of the eagles at the end of The Lord of the Rings, snatching Sam and Frodo out of a certain fiery demise;
or the Ewok attack on the Imperial troops in Return of the Jedi, whereupon Han escapes from the Storm Troopers, takes out the shield generator, allowing for the Death Star to be destroyed and, well, the universe saved. Deus ex machina. 

But the God of the Christian tradition, the God of Jesus Christ, does not operate in this way, our desires for peace and the end of terrorism notwithstanding. There are no eagles, no Ewoks. For God has willed to save the world  from within, becoming enfleshed in a particular man named Jesus from a town called Nazareth. God, the Playwright, has entered the drama of the human experience, but has not done so in a convenient, magical, plot-resolving way. God’s mode of being is intrinsic to creation, not extrinsic. There is no Deus ex machina, nor could there be, for evil, violence, injustice, and abuse are too deeply woven into the fabric of human existence. No “device” can alter the situation; there can be no snapping of the divine fingers. Along these lines, Karl Barth suggests that God’s saving work in Christ is

an event which takes place not only to the world but in the world, which not only touches the world from without but affects it from within to convert it to God . . . . According to the witness of the New Testament, the world is not abandoned and left to its own devices. God takes it to Himself, entering into the sphere of it as the true God, causing His kingdom to come to earth as in heaven, becoming Himself truly ours, man, flesh, in order to overcome sin where it has its dominion, in the flesh, to take away in His own person the ensuing curse where it is operative, in the creaturely world, in the reality distinct from Himself (Church Dogmatics IV/1, 198).

God is transcendent and wholly distinct from the world that is his creation; but to save the world God had to enter into it, to live a human life, to step into the mire of violent history, to die an unjust, terror-ful death, to live through that death and then, only then, be raised. This is the exact, and necessary, opposite of Deus ex machina, as explained by theologian Colin Gunton:

[In God’s saving work there is] no suggestion of recreation by fiat, by the mere exercise of omnipotence, because the means of victory is the humble Son of God’s recapitulation of the human progress from birth, through death and beyond, in a conquest of the power of the demonic by faithfulness and truth. It is a victory that only God can win, but he wins it from within human reality (The Actuality of Atonement, 160-61).

Christian theology posits that the thread of violence within the world order is being unwound, that a narrative reversal has been enacted, that the beauty of the Triune God’s self-giving love has been woven into the warp and woof of the violence of this world. God has been lifted onto the stage, not through a machine-like crane, but through a cross-shaped death, willing to restore the beauty, peace, and order of creation from within.

When is God?

When hundreds are dead in Paris (and Beirut, and . . . ), the question foremost on our lips is “Where is God?” A different, and more theologically fruitful question, though, is to ask when is God? That is, what time is it in the narrative of God’s saving action in the world?

According to the New Testament, there is a significant gap between Jesus’ death and his resurrection from the dead. This gap is called Holy Saturday. After Jesus dies on the cross he is not immediately alive again. He is in the tomb, among the dead. Although we may spend the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday engaged in egg hunts, God is decidedly not engaged, for the enfleshed beauty of God, Jesus, lies in the tomb, his body decomposing.

not empty cThe most profound recent exposition of Holy Saturday comes from Alan Lewis, who wrote his Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday while dying from cancer. It is a difficult and significant theological treatise, a pronounced cry in the theological conversation, insisting that there is not only Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but that there is also Saturday. There is a pause, a hiatus, a day in between.

It is this day that we are still living. Ours is a Holy Saturday world. Although Jesus has been raised, the victory that Sunday has wrought is not yet complete. When is God? God, the God of Jesus Christ, the God of the risen Christ, is still with us in the rotting tomb. Lewis writes,

A creator who imperiously and coercively forbade or impeded such damage to creation, humanity, and deity would no longer be the God embodied and revealed in the weakness of the cross of Jesus Christ or in the self-imperiling of his tomb. Rather, in the Friday sacrifice of the Son to destruction and his Saturday surrender to hell and the demonic, all the unrighteousness and crookedness of human history, past and future, of every place and context, is embraced, compacted, and allowed for–given space to increase, to be and do its worst–and only thus transcended and redeemed. The hope which may sustain us in the aftermath of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Chernobyl is hope grounded in the harsh and harrowing knowledge that the only love able to triumph over those excrescences of wickedness and folly is the love that bows to their occurrence and makes itself their victim (Between Cross and Resurrection, 298).

This is a nuanced theology, and is susceptible to misinterpretation. Lewis’ argument does not mean that God is not sovereign, that God’s hands are tied, or that God is somehow at the mercy of the process, or lack thereof, of world history. God is sovereign, but has chosen to exercise the divine power and control in weakness, the weakness of a man who lived, and died, and who was dead. The empty tomb would be empty of power if it had not, for a moment, been filled with the dead Jesus. God’s victory would be impotent if God’s defeat, on Saturday, had not been so ostensibly sure. Our response to Paris should not and cannot be a vacuous optimism, but must be an abiding hope, the hope of resurrection in the midst of a Holy Saturday world.

Light in the Darkness

One of the more encouraging things that has been coming up on my streams the past few days is this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

This thought is indeed timely, and is of course 6a00d83454f2ec69e2016767db7aa0970b-800wipotent because of King’s own life and impact. King knew that God’s light, in Jesus, is “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1.5).

There is light, but there is also darkness. It is for darkness that light is made; it is by darkness that light is revealed. This is a salient theme from theologian Douglas John Hall. He explains,

. . . the true light will itself lead us into our darkness, unlike the false lights of religions and world views. For it is known that only as we become accustomed to the night, the deepening gloom, are we able to see the light that is specifically light for this darkness. Otherwise we are simply deluding ourselves with artificial light (Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross, 203).

As a follower of Jesus, I must not think of the light of God as some kind of shield from evil, terror, and injustice. Jesus’ light is not a nightlight, plugged into the wall of my own personal world, guarding my dinner-party-and-flag-football-filled life against nightmares. It is a light for the darkness, a light to be shown, a light which gives hope but which is somehow wedded to the reality of despair. Again, Hall:

The mission of the people of ‘the Way’ today is to go with nations into the darkness. They do so not as superior guides; not as experts at maneuvering in shadowy places. Certainly not as the possessors of some inextinguishable light! But, let us say, as those who are at least not surprised by the darkness, as if it were something strange (I Peter 4:12) (Hall, 221).

The light of God is made for the darkness of this world; the love of Jesus is for the hate of this world. Where, how, does God want me to shine the light? Who does God want me to love? God’s light does not make us safe, but it does give us courage.


Indeed, the above 1600 words feel like a stumbling in the dark. They feel insufficient and precarious, like a wick too deeply buried in wax, producing a flame which is anything but certain. And yet. I do have hope, because:

the Playwright is on the stage;

it may be Saturday, but Sunday has come before so it could come again;

there is not only darkness, there is also light.

And so I pray, and wait, and hope, and act, and trust. Thanks be to God.

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  1. Tom Lindholtz says

    I greatly appreciate the tone and the general direction of your article. I want to comment by way of extending the conversation, if you so choose. So, please, do not consider this as a negative comment so much as, I hope, and iron sharpening iron comment in which small bits are shaved away leaving the whole sharper.

    I like the thrust of the first section. We should not expect a deus ex machina (DEM) resolution of Paris. You are correct that God doesn’t work that way. But the DEM argument is, I think, a bit of a problematic approach because, in fact, the resurrection, both Christ’s and ours ultimately, at least in popular understanding, ARE a DEM resolution of Christ’s absolute death and our world’s absolute decay. Before and after Christ absolute death was a period, not an ellipsis. It is only by faith that we accept the ellipsis for either. And that is what gives us the hope you refer to later.

    I am with you that “Where is God?” Is surely one of the least useful questions a person may ask in times of trial. But we must remember that even Jesus asked it from the cross. Still, I very much like your approach, When is God? I think the reminder of living in a “Saturday world” is something too easy to forget. But the flaw, if flaw there be, is that according to scripture, Jesus wasn’t just rotting on Saturday. He was, in some undetailed manner, ministering in Hades — to saints gone before? leading captivity captive? the picture of the Roman-style victor leading a victory parade. And just as, on Saturday, Jesus was at work, so we, too, are to be at work on the tasks He sets before us. If there is to be any reconciliation of THIS world to His plans and purposes, it must be done by us, with His Spirit’s guidance, or it will not get done at all. So, important as the recognition of this as a Saturday world is, it is a challenge and a call, not something over which to sigh and be resigned.

    Finally, again, I agree with your section on light. Jesus is the light of the world. But now, so are we. And we must all be encouraged to BE the light to the world around us; to work to give people hope and to point them to Christ who is the ultimate wellspring of hope. The thing is, the way in which you shine your light will not be the way in which I shine my light or that Bob or Mary or Suzie or Joe shine their lights, because the Master has gifted and placed each of us differently. And it is vitally important to our own understanding as we’ll as to the Body’s understanding, that the fact that the Master has placed one person in this field to plow and another person in that field to weed and still another person in a different field to harvest does not lessen the importance of each of our tasks. One person may shed that hope by sponsoring a refugee to live in their home. Another person may shed that hope by piloting a fighter that seeks to destroy the evildoer. If God has set the mission we dare not second guess His plan or purpose, and Romans 13 makes it clear that God cares about and is involved in the happenings of our world.

    Overall, great article, Jeff. Thanks for giving me, and all of us, something worthy to reflect upon.

    Tom Lindholtz
    Sacramento, CA

  2. Jeff Hoffmeyer says

    Thanks for your thoughtful, and insightful, response. I’ll respond briefly to your points:
    1) In many ways I agree that the resurrection is the definitive DEM (thanks for that helpful abbreviation). Who would have thought that Jesus could have been raised to new life? Certainly the disciples had a hard time getting their heads around this, even after the fact. Pure DEM’s, though, do not fit the narrative trajectory. The most egregious ones are so divorced from the plot that it seems as if the author simply did not know how to bring the story to some sort of (happy) ending, so introduces something quite foreign to the story, resolving the conflict. (And as I think about it now, perhaps my examples of eagles and Ewoks do not fit under “egregious” DEM’s). With this in mind I would say that the res. is not a DEM. It actually DOES fit the narrative trajectory: the narrative of who God is as Father, Son, and Spirit, for the Son cannot be separated from the Father, and so returns to the Father, is raised from the dead. It also fits the narrative of creation, in that God intends for life to endure. Like Jesus’ miracles, the resurrection is not so much “supernatural,” but rather God’s intention for the natural. Anyway, a lot more could be said about that, and in a longer conversation, I would probably concede much to the resurrection is DEM argument, but …
    2) Holy Saturday. Theologians are on murky ground here, given the paucity of source material in the NT. It’s a precarious thing to make much of this day, particularly in a brief blog entry–this I do not deny. Much of my understanding of HS comes from Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose view on that day is not without controversy and problems. Yes, there is the event of Christ’s preaching to those who are among the dead, but HS “proper,” I would say, with Balthasar, is about Christ’s being dead, inactive. It is the extended experience of the cry of dereliction, “Why have you forsaken me?” Lewis’ book is wonderful in navigating all of these questions. Balthasar’s position can be found most briefly in his Mysterium Paschale; his position is thoroughly criticized by Pitstick in her Light in the Darkness. All of that being said, I really like your comment that if we are in a Holy Saturday world, this does not mean we are to be inactive and resigned, ourselves “rotting.” To the contrary. The one in the tomb is there no longer; he has been raised. We live in a HS world with the hope of resurrection, and this hope, as I tried to make clear, should lead to action.
    3) I agree with all of your comments in this section regarding the diversity of how each person is to shine the light in the darkness. Well said, and these comments augment my own.

    Thanks for your response. Peace, Jeff

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