Friday, December 30, 2011

Favorite Albums of 2011

10. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Quite similar to their first album (self-titled), Helplessness Blues is full of those washy vocals, catchy melodies, and quick-pickin' classical guitars. The four-part harmonies echo all over this album as if it was recorded at the top of a mountain. I think this album is more "mature" than the first in the sense that it isn't as childlike and happy-go-lucky; but rather the songs are complex and dynamic, ranging from somber solo vocals to giant, harmonious choruses. If this is your first visit with Fleet Foxes, try out Lorelai.

Favorite Tracks: Bedouin Dress, Helplessness Blues, Lorelai

9. Junior Boys - It's All True

The Hamilton duo released yet another fun album back in June, just in time for summer dance parties and cruisin' - and let me tell you, I did a lot of both. If you have a guilty pleasure for cheesy synth pop then Junior Boys is a must. It's All True is chalk full of they Boys' standard beat-chopping and synth loops. They have an incredible knack for cutting tempo into half-time and then speeding up in double time. This album is also one of the Boys' best produced records; if you listen you ought to do so on high quality speakers so you can notice the panning and layering. I think the Boys' strength is up-beat dance tracks rather than slow ballads and I wish this album had a few more of the former. If this is your first visit with J.B. then I recommend you begin with the first track, Itchy Fingers.

Favorite Tracks: Banana Ripple, Itchy Fingers, You'll Improve Me

8. Holy Ghost! - Holy Ghost!

Finally this summer the remix superstars put out a full-length album. For the most part everything that Holy Ghost! touches turns to gold (just YoutTube "Holy Ghost! remix"). And the same made be said about almost every song on this 10-track album. From the no-nonsense opener, Do It Again, to the instant dance classics like Jam for Jerry and Wait and See, this album was in heavy rotation in my home, car, and on the dance floor. The album contains some of the catchiest chord progressions and melody lines; if these songs were stripped down to their core you would find well written structure underneath (e.g. Wait and See, Jam for Jerry). If this is your first visit with Holy Ghost! then check out Wait and See.

Favorite Tracks: Jam for Jerry, Hold My Breath, Wait and See

7. Black Keys - El Camino

Where has rock n' roll gone? The Black Keys, that's where. And it didn't take long for this December 6th release to make my top ten favorites. In a cacophony of pop crap, the Keys are keeping rock n' roll alive. Their consistent guitar riffage and straight-beat drummin' is the heart and soul of the Akron-based duo. Though this album is a bit more poppy and produced than their older stuff, it is still grungy and raw. Not only are the guitar tones dirty but the vox are, as usual, distorted and punchy. As a follow up to Brothers, El Camino is a welcomed continuation of the stylings that we heard on Brothers. Ultimately, this is the kind of music that makes you want to buy an El Camino and cruise around. If this is your first visit to the Black Keys then check out the initial track on El Camino called Lonely Boy.

Favorite Tracks: Lonely Boy, Dead Gone, Stop Stop

6. Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire

For a guy who puts out an album a year Ryan Adams isn't cutting back on quality. I'd like to know which god he stuck a deal with because this southern songwriter can't seem to write a bad song. Ashes & Fire is the closest that Adams has come to his debut album Heartbreaker. The songs are (for the most part) solo - just Adams and his guitar and they range from bluesy (Dirty Rain) to Dylan-esque country (Ashes & Fire) to light, adult-contemporary (Come Home). I have to admit that I didn't like the album at first but after a couple listens I was hooked. The album is subtle and simple but that is its charm and beauty. The lyrics on "Lucky Now" are phenomenal as Adams reflects on growing older. If this is your first visit with Ryan Adams then try out Lucky Now and see if you want a second taste.

Favorite Tracks: Come Home, Lucky Now, Chains of Love

5. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong

If Smashing Pumpkins and The Killers had a baby it would be The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. It's about time that a band recovered some of the 90's bass-driven sound that fueled that alt-grunge scene for years. But The Pains are a contemporary spinoff, implementing synth and electronic drums over top the grungy guitar and bass. If you ask me, their sound is a welcome reflection on my 90's era favorites. The vocals are eerily Corgan-esque, as are the guitar tones (remember the Q-tron effect, all you guitar nerds?). The third track "Belong" is a blatant Pumpkins rip-off but, if it means more of that 90's sound, rip away. This is really just a solid rock-pop album. Every song is accessible and full of energy. If this is your first visit to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart then have a listen to Heart in Your Heartbreak.

Favorite Tracks: Heart in Your Heartbreak, The Body, Anne with an E

4. The Good Lovelies - Let the Rain Fall

I first encountered this female trio at an intimate house show in Philadelphia and I have been smitten ever since. The Good Lovelies are good all-around songwriters and Let It Rain contains a variety of solid folk songs, ranging from upbeat bluegrass to slow love songs. But what stands out above anything else is the indescribable sound of their voices. When I hear these three women sing together I hear something more, something clearer and more real that touches deep down in my soul. They each have distinct voices that are beautiful when they take turns at solo vocals. But when they blend together in harmony I swear something phenomenal happens. Songs like "Best I Know" and "Mrs. T" will have you melting. If this is your first visit with the Lovelies I recommend listening to Old Highway.

Favorite Tracks: Mrs. T, Home, Every Little Thing

3. Bon Iver - Bon Iver

This album is simply incredible. Bon Iver blends together acoustic and electric instruments as good as anyone I've heard since Radiohead. Take, for example, the second song "Minnesota, WI" - underneath the entire song is an acoustic guitar/banjo picking and distant saxophones; but layered atop are synths and altered vocals. The sounds on this album are just simply beautiful. It's been a while since I've heard an album with the diversity of instruments as this. The album flows together into one masterpiece and I highly recommend listening from beginning to end in one session. The attention to detail is masterful as every song has tiny, minute sounds entering in for seconds-long cameos. This is an album that demands some attention but it is hard not to enjoy. If this is your first visit with Bon Iver, try Holocene.

Favorite Tracks: Calgary, Towers, Holocene

2. M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming

I have already written a bit about this magnificent album. But it deserves repeating that m83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is one of my favorite albums of 2011. Like Bon Iver, it deserves to be listened to in one take. Like most of M83's stuff, it is a concept album and it therefore contains songs that are purposeful movements to carry the story along. Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is a nostalgic reflection on what it was like to be a child: dreaming, playing, imagining - especially in the 80's. The songs capture much of what it felt like to be a child and I find it difficult not to exhibit a cheerful smile as I listen. This album also utilizes an incredibly vast array of instruments; so much so that you might find yourself thinking 'Did I just hear what I think I heard?' on certain songs. The album's first single, "Midnight City," quickly became one of the hottest songs of 2011. If this is your fist visit with M83, try out Ok Pal or Midnight City.

Favorite Tracks: Intro/Midnight City, Wait, Steve McQueen

1. Feist - Metals

This is my favorite album of 2011. Leslie Feist is an incredibly gifted songwriter and this album only further demonstrates her gift. Unlike her previous albums, Metals has a bold edge that tells me Feist was pushing the boundaries on this one. The songs have unpredictable structures and incredibly complex arrangements sometimes played by strings and sometimes brass. Some songs like 'How Come You Never Go There' even explore unconventional time signatures. The guitar work, which is simple as usual, is perfectly placed with just the right amount of clarity and dirty tones. The album has an array of noise and extra sounds sneaking around: things like digital drum pulses, rattling metal, and random human-made noises (footsteps, handclaps, and breathing). Lyrically this, in my opinion, Feist's best work as she ventures into more obscure and poetic lyrics (e.g. Caught a Long Wind) rather than singing about obvious love experiences and personal relationships. While the album has a bit of an awkward flow, each song stands alone as simply a great song. If this is your first visit with Feist, please do yourself a favor and listen to Comfort Me.

Favorite Tracks: How Come You Never Go There, Caught a Long Wind, The Circle Married the Line

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

American Exceptionalism: An Idol Worth Discarding

Apparently if you want to run for president in America you must proclaim that America is the most superior nation on earth. (And apparently if you want to comment on sporting events you must wear an American flag lapel pin; oh nationalism!) As Jerome Karabel notes in his Huffington Post article, the language of "American exceptionalism" has increased exponentially since 2005 and it stems from both Republicans and Democrats.

In a country where the majority of people (60-76%) self-identify as Christian, this is a big problem. Not just because it produces horrendous Christmas music. And not just because the claim that America is the apple of God's eye is polarizing and unattractive. It is a big problem because it is totally contrary to the will of God revealed in their own sacred Scriptures. The entire trend of "American Exceptionalism" is proof not of God's blessing America but rather the dire biblical illiteracy among American Christians. To keep this brief, I will cite only a few examples.

First and foremost, the heart of Christian (and Jewish) Scripture is the claim that God is One. This is found explicitly in Deuteronomy 6:4: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one." (This is often referred to as "The Shema," as "shema" is the first word of the verse in Hebrew). The significance of this is captured well by Yale theologian, Juroslav Pelikan:

"The God of Israel was not a tribal deity but the God of all the nations, the One and Only True God, which implied that there was a will of God for all the nations, not only the people of Israel" - or, in this case, America.

A second example is found in Amos 9:7. "The Lord says, 'Israel, you are no different to me than the people of Cush. I brought Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Crete, and the Arameans from Kir.'" Once again, the biblical prophet Amos reminds us that God is the God of the world, not just "one nation under God." This concept resonates with the Psalmist's words: "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world and all who live in it," (Ps. 24:1).

A fourth and last example comes from the mouth of Jesus, the Christ who ought to rule the life and behavior of so-called Christians. Jesus' most intense condemnation of his people came during a visit to the Jerusalem Temple. In the 11th chapter of Mark's Gospel Jesus is quoted as reciting two passages from the Hebrew Prophets. Jesus first declares, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations," (Isaiah 56:7). This is not only a condemnation of "Israeli Exceptionalism," but also a revelation of God's true will for the world:

"This passage belongs, clearly enough, with those that predict, as one aspect of Israel's eventual blessing, the ingathering of the Gentiles into the one people of YHWH. ...Gentiles are to be welcomed in, but the present people of Israel, especially their supposed leaders and guardians (56:10f.) are under judgment." [N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 418]

Jesus' condemnation of the Temple is not simply an economic concern but a national one. It has to do with Israel's self-proclaimed exceptionalism. In effect, Jesus' condemnation says, "God does not play favorites; God is radically inclusive."

Allow me to conclude by stating that American society has many wonderful features: freedom of speech/press, many civil liberties, socialized water, plumbing, and transportation systems, and many more. But I must also warn of the dangers of viewing America "the nation" as superior to and more important than any part of the rest of the world in the eyes of God. After all, a nation is simply a conglomerate of people and people are made in the image of God no matter their global locale.

To be Christian - to follow the One in whom the nations put their hope (Matt. 12:21), this Jesus who so loved the world (John 3:16) - then American Christians must discard the idol of "American Exceptionalism" and catch the vision of the God Who is Lord of All.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Advent Reflection: Mary Our Model for Joining the Story

Luke 1:26-38

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b]the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

When did you stop anticipating adventure, dear reader? When did you cease hoping for surprise? How is it that you came to expect only that which has been before? When did you stop trusting the Supreme Storyteller?

The storytellers of our world tells us what to expect: the same old. You know, death, taxes, and a lot of entertainment in between. The storytellers who would prefer to make profit off of us this Christmas season tell us not to expect surprise or anything New, but rather to expect the same old shopping experience, the same old politics, and the same old dreams.

It is no wonder we stop listening for a different story.

Mary, too, could not dream of any New Story. Her first and natural response is reasonable: How can this be!? Mary's natural response is guided by the status quo. She knows all too well the old story of the pax Romana: Roman client kings and pseudo-priests in the Jerusalem Temple trying to push their own agendas. She knows the plight of her exiled and scattered people. "How long, O Lord, before something different?" Hence her natural response: But how?

Perhaps the messenger doesn't reveal how the Story will work because the Story doesn't operate within the laws of the status quo. Could Mary even understand it if it was explained? The messenger does not offer a logical strategy; instead he offers hope: Your formerly-barren relative, Elizabeth, is in her sixth month with child! New things are possible!

Mary's ultimate response is our model: "Let it happen to me according to your word." Her words Let it happen to me demonstrate that Mary is going to join in on something that God is already doing; not that she's going to go and carry out something on her own volition. The Greek word translated "Let it happen" is γένοιτό. It comes from the Greek word γίνομαι, which essentially means "to come into being" or "to become." Hence, Mary is finally understanding the way God's Story unfolds: it is radically New. It does not come from past events or out of the status quo; it is that which has never been that comes into being.

God's Story is S U R P R I S E . Do not look for it in the fabric of the "same old." It comes to us in the invitation to the New.

Mary qualifies her response by stating, "... according to your word." This, too, is exemplar for us because Mary demonstrates that responding to God's Story requires believing in it. Mary illustrates that in order to respond to God's invitation we must dare to hold God to God's promises. "Let it happen to me according to your word." The offer to join the Story demands precisely that we hope in it.

Again, I remind you, reader, that Advent means "Coming." Kind of like that word γίνομαι, which means "to come into being." What is coming? A New Story. Something different than the same old. A Story that never ends. Who is coming? The One who brings the New. The One whose reign shall have no end.

What's this? A surprise? A better story? Let it happen to me according to your word.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Advent Reflection: Mary the "Favored" One

Luke 1:26-30

In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendent of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you!"

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God."

This is one of my favorite paintings of the Annunciation. It was painted by Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1898. Even though I don't think angels are celestial beings, I love the way that the angel's radiance overwhelms the young Mary as she seems to tremble in the corner (the word "angel" is literally just "messenger" in Greek; but Hallmark doesn't want you to know that). The painting is a beautiful display of God's message as light to a darkened world. It conveys the warmth of that message as the sun kisses your face on a cold winter day; and it also displays the frightful surprise of that message. Warmth and surprise. This is what happens when God's grace finds us.

"Greetings, you who are highly favored!" As I mentioned in the previous reflection, we haughty modernists are often inclined to read this as if Mary is somehow deserving of an angel visit. Mary, we think, must be special; she must have done something right to be chosen by God.

But Luke reveals something different in his original Greek writing. Our English translations have butchered the original Greek's emphasis on grace. When we read in verse 30 that Mary "has found favor with God," the Greek reads much differently. The Greek word translated "favor" is actually the word χάριν, which means "grace." Hence, the clause altogether could be read: "You have found the grace of God" or "the grace of God has found you." The same word for "favored" in verse 28 is also a form of charis (grace). The point, then, is Mary's encounter with the messenger of God is an act of God's grace.

As the painting portrays, these are some of the most difficult words to hear. Luke confirms this by telling us that Mary was troubled "at his words." It is not the celestial glow of the messenger that troubles Mary, it is the message of God's grace.

How does it feel to hear the words, "You _____, have found the grace of God"? It is quite an unsettling greeting to receive, is it not? It is what C.S. Lewis often called the "intolerable compliment."

But perhaps it is a greeting that we need to hear during Advent. After all, the news that comes to both Zechariah and Mary is not just news of grace for them alone. It is news of grace to the world.

Advent Reflection: The Prayers of God's People

Luke 1:5-17

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendent of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Once when Zechariah was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, a multitude of the people was praying outside.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

Where does the Advent story begin? Does it begin with Mary and Joseph? Or perhaps with Zechariah and Elizabeth? No. The story begins with God's people; the ones praying to God for liberation; the ones crying, "How long, O Lord?"

Luke's opening scene reveals a Levite priest named Zechariah carrying out his duty in the Jerusalem Temple. This was a special moment for Zechariah. Why? Because there were probably over 20,000 active priests in his day, all awaiting their turn to serve God and God's people. He had spent the majority of his life away from the temple but the day had finally come for Zechariah! And not only did Zechariah get to serve, but he had now received the unique privilege to burn incense inside on the temple altar. This minor detail is where the Advent story truly begins.

Ever since the return from exile in 538 B.C.E. Zechariah's people - Israel - longed for liberation and justice. It was a dismal time as Israel strived to live faithfully despite foreign subjugation. This discomfort led many Jews to look forward to a future when God would bring an end to exile and restore the community of Israel. Just how this might happen no one knew; but they longed for it with a deep hope.

The Advent story (which both Matthew and Luke rightly present as beginning ultimately with Abraham) begins in this dismal period, in "the days of Herod." This refers to the days when Herod the Great ruled over Judea. After almost 200 years of disorder, Herod had besieged Jerusalem in 37 B.C.E. and appointed a new high priest in the Jerusalem Temple. Judea had become like a police state and Herod the Great was the Roman "client king." The despair of God's people at this time was matched only by their hope in a new future. And much of Israel's hope revolved around the Jerusalem Temple and its culture. This is why the story begins not with Zechariah but with the people of God.

Though Zechariah is certainly unique, he is one of thousands of priests! This could have happened on any other day to any other priest. We too often view the biblical characters as especially deserving of their roles in the Great Story - as if they are chosen because of their abilities. But Zechariah's encounter with the messenger is a grace event; an event that is sown by the prayers of God's people. In that intimate room of the temple, Zechariah burns incense - a symbol of the people's prayers rising to God (Psalm 141:2). And outside a multitude of people are praying, longing, hoping - "How long, O Lord, until you make things right?" It is at this moment that the messenger of God appears with good news:

And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

This is not news for Zechariah only. It is news for all the people who have been waiting and praying for God's justice. It is not an answer to prayer for only Zechariah; it is an answer to the prayers of God's people.

And who knows who is among that multitude of people praying? Or whose prayers were rising to God in the symbol of that incense? Perhaps the sons and daughters of Israel. Perhaps also some Gentiles for whom the pax Romana was not so favorable. Perhaps a few widows who had been estranged by their families. And maybe some lonely tax collectors. Who really knows? It may just be that the people of God includes all of those who hope and pray for God's justice (Isaiah 56:7).

What is clear, however, is that the sweet story does not begin with one righteous priest. Rather, it begins with an oppressed people, crying out to the God of Justice. The story begins with the prayers of God's people.

Spend ten minutes listening to a song and thinking about the things you long for. Imagine a better world and ask yourself, "What are my sisters and brothers longing for as well?"

Monday, December 19, 2011

Farewell Rob Bell, For Real

Here are some quotes from Rob Bell's last address to his Mars Hill Church in Michigan. You can read the full, 5,000-word letter here.

if you want to focus in on

astounding claims he made about himself,

how about the mind-bendingly revolutionary claim of the

divine being human?


spitting in mud,


drinking so much he's accused of being a drunk,

letting people clean his feet with oils,

inviting people to touch his wounded sides.

humanity, now that's interesting.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Jesus invites us into the full spectrum of human experience,

from lament to exhilaration and everything in between.

from basking in the presence of God,

to cursing at the top of your lunges from the rooftops

because God is nowhere to be found,

shrieking till you're hoarse 'my God, my God, why have

you screwed me'

now that's life.

that's real.

- - - - - - - - -

here's the twist: the church is not an inanimate, impersonal

product. there is no 'mars hill' in theory. there is no abstract, disembodied entity mars hill apart from the people in this room

who ARE mars hill.

so when people say what's going to happen to mars hill?

they're asking what's going to happen to you. what are you

going to do. how are you going to respond?

you are the answer,

because you are the church.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

God Wills to Be Ours: The Eros of God and Our Needed Response

“For God so loved the world…” This is perhaps the most common phrase of contemporary Christianity, and rightfully so. For these words suggest not only the extent to which God loves the world but also in what manner God does so: in the Christ event. Yet most of Christian tradition has resigned God’s love to pure gift-love (agape) and has overlooked the desire (eros) of God that is evidenced in the Christ event and throughout the Bible. To our own detriment, this neglect has resulted in a deficient understanding of “the One who seeks and creates fellowship with us.”[1]

In the following essay I aim to explain that God’s love is best characterized by romantic eros and not by agape. Though the latter is essential to God’s love, it is the former that best expresses the ineffable love of God revealed in Christ. Only when we understand God as Lover are we afforded a view of the God-world relation that elicits the response of humankind to become the beloved bride of Christ.

Agape and the Classical God-World Relationship

God, we say, is love. But what is love? Our understanding of love is burdened by preconceptions (often unbiblical). Chief among Western preconceptions are the relics of Greek philosophy. For Plato, love was characterized by need: one only loves when s/he is not utterly self-sufficient.[2] Accordingly, God cannot love because God is complete and without need. Greek philosophy made little room for a personal God who loved with any sort of desire. Classical Theism, which was influenced greatly by Greek philosophy, thought of God as an “unmoved mover,” immutable and totally unaffected by the world.[3] In order to fit this God-world paradigm, God’s love has long been characterized by agape – total gift-love. Out of pure grace (or “overflow”) God loves the world but does not need nor receive anything in return. God does not truly feel for the world, God simply wills good for the world. Ultimately, as Paul Fiddes puts it, “Love can be ascribed to God as a purely intellectual appetite.”[4] This was the view of St. Augustine[5] and it has been defended by many, perhaps most strongly by Anders Nygren.[6] Though there is merit to this view, there are also many flaws.

First, the biblical narrative does not portray God as impassible; instead God is intimately connected to creation and “relates sympathetically to the world”[7] (e.g. Ezek. 16; Isa. 5:1-7; Hos. 1-3; Acts 17:28). Second, limiting God’s love to a charitable form of agape trivializes the value of humankind. Badcock puts it simply: “God loves but somehow does not love us.[8] Third, God’s love as agape is unilateral and does not require a response from us. The lack of desire in God’s love produces a lack of desire for human beings to respond. Further, God’s unilateral love renders humans as the objects of God’s love rather than mutual subjects. Fourth, God’s love as agape overemphasizes the cross as sacrificial gift, while the resurrection is consigned to the margins. Lastly, the Classical view fails to take seriously the suffering and passion of God in Christ. As Moltmann potently states, a God who does not suffer is “a loveless being.”[9] If the Christ event is indeed the manner by which “God so loved,” then it behooves us to reconsider Classical Theism’s view of an impassible, gift-loving God. We must examine the Christ event afresh.

The Eros of God Revealed in the Christ Event

Barth rightly asserts that we cannot bring our own concept(s) of love to the revelation of God, but instead must let the revelation itself determine love.[10] Accordingly, we must allow the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to determine the nature of God’s love. For Barth, the Christ event reveals that God is the “One who seeks and creates fellowship with us.”[11] This is quite different than the God who loves out of charity. The God revealed in Christ is the God who seeks and desires – indeed craves – to be with humanity. The Christ event invites us to imagine God’s love as eros. What is revealed in the Cross is not simply a sacrificial love, but also God’s desire to be with creation no matter the cost. As a lover yearns for her beloved, so too does God yearn for fellowship with creation.

It is imperative to remember that Jesus is not only the revelation of God, but also reveals the exemplar God-world relationship.[12] As such, Jesus discloses a love that may, in fact, resemble eros more than agape. Jesus brings into focus the intimacy that God desires and humankind’s necessary response. For example, the Incarnation itself makes clear that God’s love entails a kenotic, dare I say, romantic, relationship with creation (Phil. 2:7). In the Incarnation God comes near and is vulnerable to the rejection of humanity. Moreover, in multiple places God designates Jesus ho agapetos (“My Beloved”), while Jesus himself explains his mutual love with God (John 17:26). These elements point beyond agape to a deep, romantic eros between God and world. Ultimately, I believe the Christ event leads to a very different picture of the God-world relationship than Classical Theism. It is a picture that Sallie McFague captures in the metaphor of God as Lover.

God the Lover and the God-World Relation

In Models of God, McFague inquires why the model of romantic love, which is so central to human existence, has not been more seriously explored as a metaphor for the God-world relationship: “As the most intimate of all human relationships… does it not contain enormous potential?”[13] Building on this observation, McFague begins with the human experience of romantic love and explores its veracity as a theological metaphor. Here I have begun instead with the Christ event (following Barth), but have drawn a similar conclusion as McFague: that God loves the world with a romantic love (eros).

Before moving further it will benefit to clarify what is meant by this term eros. Here I adopt Lewis’ simple definition of eros as the state of “being in love.”[14] This is the state of being-in-relation that is characterized by desire for the other, the beloved. It is not simply sexual love, but a deep expression of desire and intimacy. Eros desires the beloved simply because s/he is who s/he is. “Eros,” as Lewis describes, “makes a man really want, not a woman, but one particular woman. In some mysterious but quite undisputable fashion the lover desires the Beloved herself, not the pleasure she can give.”[15] The desire of eros is so strong that it becomes, in some very real sense, a need to be with the Beloved. It is this understanding of eros that I shall apply to the metaphor of God as Lover. This has many implications for the God-world relation.

First and foremost, God as Lover intensifies the God-world relation. Rather than the distant, impassible God of Classical Theism, God as Lover is intimately connected to and affected by creation. This relationship may be seen throughout Scripture and I will note a few examples here. The creation narrative in Genesis reveals that creation itself may be seen as God’s “seeking and creating fellowship.”[16] Further, the creation of humankind in God’s image seems to imply God’s desire for intimacy (Gen. 3:8).[17]

The prophets describe God’s love for Israel as covenant love (hesed). This is not the language of agape but eros (though this does not discount agape). A covenant is not made out of compassion, but out of desire to fellowship. The initiation of the Abrahamic covenant evidences God’s desire to be with humankind. Grogan notes that this covenant first took the form of a treaty but then evolved into the form of a marriage covenant.[18] Throughout the life of Israel God is faithful to the covenant even when Israel is not (e.g. Hos. 11). Is this simply God’s grace? Or is it evidence of God’s romantic desire to be with the beloved? I am compelled to believe the latter. What is more, Scripture describes the telos of history in the language of romantic love. That the relationship between God and God’s people evolves toward a more romantic model (cf. Rev. 21:9) furthers the view of God as Lover and an intimate God-world relation.

Secondly, God’s love as eros affirms creation as inherently lovable. Whereas agape emphasizes God’s love in spite of our nature, eros suggests that God loves simply because we are. In this way, romantic love is the most precious of loves because it is bestows value to the beloved: “It says, I love you just because you are you.”[19] This is different – and I suggest better – than traditional understanding of God’s love as agape. In the traditional view, recipients of God’s agapic love are moved to love God for what God does (the “agapic act”); recipients are liable to love God only because of what God does for them. In the view of God as Lover, however, God’s eros moves us to love both ourselves and God because of who we are - together. God’s eros says to the beloved: You are precious and valuable. Surely it is hard to disagree with McFague when she states, “Being found valuable in this way is the most complete affirmation possible.”[20] We must take seriously the fact that God’s love as agape fails to elicit the same feeling of being valued. Only eros grants that ineffable feeling of being valued as God’s precious beloved (e.g. read Hosea from the perspective of Israel).

Thirdly and consequently, the view of God as Lover elicits a unique response from humankind. Lovers respond to one another out of mutual joy and desire. It is not a response that is calculated or founded. As McFague notes, “Lovers love each other for no reason or beyond all reasons; … in a love relationship, one responds in kind: one values the valuer.”[21] When God is seen as loving with eros, the beloved world will find it difficult not to respond in kind. Unfortunately, God’s unilateral agape has not proven to effect the same response.

This last point brings us to the central issue in the God-as-Lover paradigm: “The assumption that eros is the desire for union with, or possession of, the valuable suggests, however, that it lacks what it would have.”[22] The question is whether or not God needs the response of the beloved (and is lacking without it). As mentioned above, Classical Theism submits that God needs nothing. McFague, however, postulates the contrary. Here I would like to explore the possibility that God does, in fact, need the response of creation.

I return again to the Christ event as paradigmatic. Christ reveals the dialectic of God’s love as both unilateral and mutual. In Christ God’s will is accomplished, but it is accomplished with and through the response of humankind (cf. Luke 1:38; 60; 80; 2:7; etc.). We may not speculate if God’s will would have been accomplished with or without humankind, for such questions are pointless and add nothing to theology! We may only theologize based on the revelation as it is. As Moltmann insists, “We can only say who he is for us in the history of Christ which reaches us in our history.”[23] The Christ event reveals the Triune God working in close relationship with creation to reconcile all things. When I examine the Christ event, I am compelled to believe that God does, in fact, need our response.

But for what purpose does God need our response? Herein lies the crux of the model of God as Lover. In this model, salvation is defined in terms of romantic love. Salvation is what The Song of Songs expresses in the phrase: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” (6:3). Karl Barth captures this beautifully:

“He wills to be ours, and He wills that we should be His. He wills to belong to us and He wills that we should belong to Him. He does not will to be without us, and He does not will that we should be without Him. He wills certainly to be God and He does not will that we should be God. But He does not will to be God for Himself nor as God to be alone in Himself. He wills as God to be for us and with us who are not God.”[24]

When we consider God as Lover, salvation is conveyed in the mystery of romantic love: “The two shall become one flesh,” (Gen. 2:24). Is this not expressed in the Incarnation? And is it not suggested in the teachings of Jesus (John 17:21)? The ultimate expression of God’s love, therefore, is characterized by desire, mutuality, and reciprocity – that mystery for which romantic love is an image. It deserves serious consideration whether agape alone can offer this. I suggest that it cannot. As Donald F. Dreisbach contends, “One important element of what seems to be a higher form of love is reciprocity, that love is accepted, acknowledged, and returned.”[25] This is the kind of love revealed in Christ and emphasized in the model of God as Lover.

What, then, does God need in response? I suggest that the very thing God needs is that which God’s desires. Put another way, God needs precisely what God offers. The response that is needed by God from humankind is precisely to hear and believe God’s “I love you.” Again Dreisbach is helpful:

“The assertion ‘I love you’ then is not simply informational; we might call it transformational. In hearing it the hearer takes on value; he comes to understand himself as being valued. A proclamation of God’s love, if believed and accepted, has the function of giving the hearer a new self-understanding.”[26]

We respond to what God has already expressed in God’s eros (rather than one agapic act). I say “already” because it simply is the nature of the God-world relation. God is always acts prior to us. God has loved from beginning and to the End (cf. Jer.31:3; 1 John 4:19). This is to clarify that God’s eros is not confined temporally to the Christ event; though it is the event that reveals the nature of God’s love to us. Thus, the response of humankind is to become who we are in eyes of God. Walter Wangerin Jr. captures this in his phrase, “True obedience was ever an act of freedom!”[27] To be more specific, God needs the response revealed in Scripture and in Christ: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). This is similar to McFague who writes, “The response of the beloved, the need we fill in God, is directed toward God’s body, the world.”[28] This response, I contend, is practically irresistible when we come to see God as our Beloved, the Lover of the world. In short, responding to God’s eros becomes a joy.

Traditional Protestant theology is reluctant to acknowledge any work on the part of humankind in the act of salvation. But, as I have stated, God as Lover presents a different view of salvation. Rather than passively receiving God’s love (agape), we are invited into a truly mutual fellowship based on God’s everlasting desire (eros). When humankind does not respond – fails to hear God’s “I love you” – humankind fails to “be” God’s beloved.[29] Sin, argues McFague, is therefore the “refusal to be the beloved of our lover God and the refusal to be lover of all God loves.”[30] In this paradigm, to not participate in God’s act of salvation is to miss salvation altogether.

All of this implies that humankind genuinely affects God. In this model God is vulnerable and open; but, because of this, God loves humankind with a higher form of love: romantic love. This, I contend, is the nature of God, Who is Love, in Godself. The Immanent Trinity is open and vulnerable yet also erotic and perichoretic. The Trinity expresses the state of being “in love.” But God as Lover is for us and has invited humankind into the triune life. Many fear that this means that God is open to change: “To be affected by others is to be changed by others.”[31] But what if love is contingent upon change? What if God-as-Love is “change?” The fact that God is love cannot change; but because love is inherently dynamic, vulnerable, and mutual, God indeed “changes” to relate most lovingly with the world. In other words, God simply is relationship and that relationship is expressed most deeply in romantic love. If we take orthodox Trinitarian theology seriously then this ought not alarm us. In the final analysis, the Christ event reveals that the nature of God’s love necessitates a response from humankind who is the Beloved of God.

So Loved? So What?

Perhaps the boldest claim that anyone can ever make is that God loves the world. For in this claim a person imparts sacred value to all reality in the name of the highest Being and the highest expression of being. The Beatles echoed what humanity seems to universally understand: all you need is love. The ubiquity of love will never expire “because it is so central to human life: we never feel better than when we are in love, when we love and are loved.”[32] So perhaps, at the end of the day, it is not that God loves the world that compels us, but rather that God loves the world. The idea infatuates us. What is love and why does it seem to drive our entire existence? And so on we go. Yet the central claim of Christianity is not “God loves the world.” Instead, it is “God so loved the world,” (Grk: οὕτω, "in this way"). This small, adverbial modifier invites us to know the nature of God’s love for the world in and through the Christ event.

As I have argued, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ reveal the nature of God’s love as eros. The Christ event reveals the God Who loves closely and intimately with a love as strong as death (cf. Song of Songs 8:6). The God revealed in Christ is the One who needs the world and suffers with it. As a lover loves his Beloved, God “wills to be ours… and that we should be His.”[33] This view of the God-world relation is thoroughly compelling. Why? Because human beings recognize and crave this mystery we call romantic love.

In the end, we will not come to faith in God because we have carefully calculated the cost/benefit. No, we will come to faith because we desire God. We will come to faith in the God of the Bible because the God revealed in Christ is irresistible. And then, I believe, we shall discover that our faith is really not faith at all, but love.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.28, trans. G.W. Bromiley, et. al., ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, (London, England: T&T Clark, 2009), 20.

[2] See Gary D. Badcock, “The Concept of Love: Divine and Human,” Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2001).

[3] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, "Introduction: The Love of God - Its Place, Meaning, and Function in Systematic Theology," Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God, 6.

[4] Paul Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God, (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 18.

[5] Vanhoozer, 4.

[6] Badcock, 45.

[7] Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1987), 73. See also Badcock, 41.

[8] Badcock, 45.

[9] Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1993), 222.

[10] Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.28, 19-20.

[11] Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.28, 20.

[12] “Truly divine and truly human.” Does not Jesus reveal true humanity as well?

[13] McFague, 126.

[14] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (San Diego, California: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1960), 91.

[15] Lewis, 94.

[16] Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.28, 18.

[17] Geoffrey Grogan, “A Biblical Theology of the Love of God,” Nothing Greater, Nothing Better, 61.

[18] Grogran, “Biblical Theology,” 55.

[19] McFague, 128.

[20] McFague, 128.

[21] McFague, 128.

[22] McFague, 130.

[23] Moltmann, Crucified God, 238. See also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.27, 196. See also Barth God in Action, 12.

[24] Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.28, 18.

[25] Donald F. Dreisbach, “On the Love of God,” Anglican Theological Review. 59 no 1 January 1977, 41. Italics added.

[26] Dreisbach,, 39. Italics added.

[27] Walter Wangerin Jr., Preparing for Jesus, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999), 48.

[28] McFage, 135.

[29] To “be” God’s beloved is not a matter of substance or attribute; it is an ontology of personhood (i.e. being-in-relation).

[30] McFague, 139.

[31] Fiddes, 18, original italics.

[32] McFague, 127.

[33] Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1.28, 18.