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The Drama of Grace: Taking it to the Streets

So. That’s the theory side. In sum, if you’re going to take the Bible seriously, your drama should be different. You should tell the story of Grace. Your rhetoric must be a comedy.

book.jpgThe Book

I got my box of a dozen free copies today. You never know . . . . you might get one as a Christmas present from me this year. 😉 But it’s weird to see so much of yourself shrink-wrapped and stacked on the counter.

Sometime I might explain in the style of Nothstine, Blair, and Copeland all the behind-the-scenes steps that brought me to that last, now-expunged chapter. Currently the book is nearly unchanged from its original 2001 form. It both describes and prescribes to religious sectarians. I argue that separatists are crafting a new drama in the public sphere. Instead of killing off their Other (which doesn’t jibe with the Great Commission) and instead of critiquing (which implies an equality that’s a little too vulnerable), religious sectarians are trying to woo the secular Other to Christ. They separate from those outside the faith in order to win them over. My BJU texts are the campus museums, the art gallery, the extension ministries, and Campaign 2000. My critical voice is very feminine. Very Esther-like. Very Christine de Pisan. I’m whispering in the King’s ear with that book — “stay beautiful, dear King” — while asking the secular scholar, “What happens if we add to the Burke canon?”

The Chapter

But living in ongoing romance is tough. We might say with an empathetic giggle, “Dating’s hard!” It’s difficult to be beautiful all the time. And since my 2001 defense, I heard a different story that wasn’t as romantic as the histories or as comedic as the Museum and Gallery. This was tragedy plain and simple.

The drama of sanctification is a key story in the Christian life. After justification and before glorification, what’s up with the still-sinning, but no-longer-condemned believer? Pick up any respected Protestant theologian or read any New Testament Text, and the drama is the same. The catalyst for my closer-look at this drama was my former grad student, Christie Moye, and her rhetorical critique of Jonathan Edwards’ “Resolutions.” A pentadic analysis would look like this:

  • (Co-)Agents: God and the believer
  • Act: Minister (a big word!)
  • Agency: with Grace
  • Scene: This earthly life
  • Purpose: God’s glory

I heard a friend express that drama as “God’s going to do His ongoing work with or without me. But He invites me to join him.” John Murray puts it as “because God works we work.”

The drama I was hearing, however, rearranged and narrowed those dramatistic elements. In the past, I’ve labeled it Keswick theology. But after more study, I’ve found that there’s really no difference between Keswick’s drama and the so-called dispensationalist and the Pentecostal view of sanctification. All three are fairly close in age (mid- to late-Nineteenth century). All three are direct products of Anglo/American revivalism (but indirect products of a much older Pelagius). All three sell very well in our consumer economy. All three differ from the older Reformed and Wesleyan narratives of sanctification. Their stories are the same:

  • Agent: God or the believer (it subjectively vacillates)
  • Act: Kill the self
  • Agency: Through separated living
  • Scene: The believer
  • Purpose: To get Grace/God

Kenneth Burke would talk about the idea of action versus motion. It’s the difference between sentience and habit. Only human beings can act; animals can only move. When you act, you are deliberate, aware, moral, and communicative. When you move, you are passive. Breathing is motion, but sighing is action. Burke urged human beings to act since passive habits almost always get us into trouble.

Back to the pentads above. Living in this “Kesidispiecostal” drama, you never quite know if the believer is acting or moving, the agent or the scene. If you’re having any trouble, the automatic advice is the opposite of whatever you appear to be doing. If there’s any criticism against you, it’s because you’re too passive. Or maybe you’re too involved and, thus, too selfish. If you’re sinning, it’s probably because you’re not trying hard enough. Or maybe you’re trying too hard and you need to “let go and let God.” If you’re an anorexic (the ultimate example of denying the self), you’re actually just selfish. All sin is reduced to selfishness (the bigger, biblical definition of “missing the mark” is forgotten). All Scripture is re-read and misread as a battle between the (redeemed or otherwise) self and God.

Ironically, Marilyn Manson sums it up perfectly:

So initially I was drawn into the darker side of life. But it’s really just human nature. I started to learn that everything that’s considered a sin is what makes you a human being. All the seven deadly sins are man’s true nature. To be greedy. To be hateful. To have lust. Of course, you have to control them, but if you’re made to feel guilty for being human, then you’re going to be trapped in a never-ending sin-and-repent cycle that you can’t escape from and you’re going to be miserable. Ultimately, you’re going to be living in your Hell, so there’s no need to worry about going to Hell because Hell is going to be on Earth.

The bottom line.

It’s just a bad drama. It’s tragic. God or the believer (you’re never sure which) must kill the self through separated living in order to get grace. Grace becomes a badge to be worn — something to “get” because you’re humble enough. No wonder grace becomes so difficult to demonstrate to others when it’s treated as a commodity to hoard and display. The believer fetishizes his own good works. It’s a hybrid push-pull of overt unselfish selfishness — a story with built-in criticism ready to blame the believer for doing the opposite of what he should. 

And in this Kesidispiecostal drama, separation doesn’t woo anyone. Instead the believer separates in order to insulate against an infectious world. Like a surgeon and his gloves, the believer dons his own insulating gear to protect his spiritual health. Because the dispensationalist view of salvation and the end times insists that the world is getting worse, the need for ever-increasing insulation grows. And if you have trouble, you’re simply not separated enough. For the fundamentalist, it’s that popular novel you read that is causing you harm or that believing friend who’s a bad influence. For the Pentecostal, it’s that your skirts are too short and enticing or maybe they are too long and worldly.

All in all, it’s really no different than karma.

Salt and Light.

Please understand — you’ll never find the separation as insulation drama in Scripture. Christ proved that His holiness was contagious as He dined with prostitutes and tax collectors and smelly fishermen. We are secure in Christ, and the lost and dying world needs the salt of the Christian to preserve it. Salt doesn’t get ruined when it’s in the meat; that’s what salt is for! It’s useless if it stays in the salt shaker. And light can’t help anyone — including yourself — if you hoard it under a basket.

The problem.

The end product of the Kesidispiecostal drama is a kind of solipsism. You’re always looking inward to the self to see if you’re unselfish, always (secretly) keeping score of your good deeds. It’s a trap that only pinches harder when you try to break free. Manson said it as well as anyone. The drama is hopelessly tragic.

When Kenneth Burke in his Rhetoric of Religion (mis)reads Augustine, he comes to the same conclusion as the Kesidispiecostal. I put it this way in the expunged chapter:

Thus, in this text the romantic sectarian is far from beautiful. Too encased in hazmat gear to even be seen, the sectarian kills the self as a scapegoat. Even the romantic’s position before God is insecure since the divine is both elevated and reduced to a goal. God’s grace must be earned by regularly removing dangerously growing fleshliness. The insider without proper protection might even be the worst secular outsider: the reprobate. . . .

In sum, both [Kenneth Burke’s Augustine and the religious sectarian] purge. Both confuse the action versus motion dichotomy. Both make the believer the actor and the scene. Both make the divine a goal never quite reached. And in doing so, in making God an irretrievable carrot-on-a-stick, both are recalcitrantly tragic. Neither seeks resolution but persists in the cycle of tragedy like a hamster stuck in its wheel.

And let’s be honest, who would want to be a Christian if that’s all that Christ has to offer? How depressing and futile! As I joked in an earlier post, Christ would be no different than Jenny Craig – teasing us with the unrequited hopes of being spiritually svelte.

The point.

I remember hearing this Kesidispiecostal drama after our daughter died, and I just would blink in astonishment. Someone said, “You’re obviously doing something right because so many people can see God giving you His grace.” Huh? No . . . I was feeble and weak. I cried often. I felt sad and wept loudly and publicly. It didn’t seem like I was doing anything — right or wrong.

I remember hearing this drama after some friends, who had just weathered a big storm, were blessed with a long-awaited but still unexpected answer to prayer. Someone outside of their struggle said, “I don’t understand why God is blessing them after they obviously did the wrong thing.”

No. No, that’s not it. I’m secure in Christ. God blesses whom He blesses. When He sees me, He sees His perfect Son. My righteousnesses are not the point. I don’t earn God’s grace by being more unselfish or by straining at humility (an oxymoron). I already have it and I need to give it away. Nothing’s in peril. I’m safe.

When I rock my sons to sleep, I sing them a little song that helps me remember all this. The poetry isn’t great, so I’ll just summarize the last line: “you are good just like you should be because Jesus makes you so.” Every time I sing it, the prodigal’s brother haunts me. You remember him — that good son who works so hard. Yes, he would scold me: “No, he’s not good at all. He’s totally rotten. He needs to do good.” But that’s not it. The thing that saves my sons is the same thing that saves me — God’s love through Christ. All of us are totally incapable (not totally rotten) to do good outside of God’s love.

You see, sanctification is something God starts and accomplishes and something we join. God sets us apart (a.k.a. “sanctifies” or “separates” us), so any external separation is at best a distraction and at worst a hedge. How will others know that we are Christ’s disciples? Not because we look peculiar or rich or professional or neat! But because we love one another. You just can’t love anyone in tragedy because you’re too worried about your own safety.

When you realize you’re safe in God’s love because of Christ, everything changes. You don’t stay stuck in Romans 7, but you can go on to relish the rest of the book. It’s easy to do the right thing. It’s easy to eat that beautifully catered meal in your Father’s house and invite others in to share your Father’s generousity.

It’s all a divine comedy. It’s a gift. Totally unearned.

And that is contagious.

[tags]Kenneth Burke, Rhetorical Criticism, Productive criticism, Burkean comedy, comic correction, tragedy, Grace, pentad, dramatistic criticism, Keswick, dispensationalism, pentecostal[/tags]

19 thoughts on “The Drama of Grace: Taking it to the Streets

  1. I agree with most of what you are saying…I think–still wrapping my brain around a few turns of phrases, but I have a few wonderings.
    How does “if the salt has lost its savor it is henceforth good for nothing” fit into the salt and light analogy?
    And does the “not totally rotten” bit refer to a “rejection”–can’t think of a better word right now–of the doctrine of total depravity or am I missing something?
    Praise the Lord it’s not about me because me is a mess right now.

  2. And does the “not totally rotten” bit refer to a “rejection”–can’t think of a better word right now–of the doctrine of total depravity or am I missing something?

    Actually no. It’s a clarification. “Total depravity” is often misread as we are absolutely rotten. But that’s not what the Reformers mean. They mean that we are totally unable to save ourselves.

  3. Wow. Very well put. I’m going to have re-read this several times to soak it all in, but you definitely display Grace as a hopeful thing, instead of something for which we should feel guilty. I like that.

  4. Sorry to bug you but your answer leads me to another question. Are you saying that you believe total depravity to just refer to the extent of depravity and not the intensity? I thought that the reformed thought was one of extensity and intensity but yet the intensity is held in check in some degree or another by common grace i.e. Romans 1 because God does “give some over”. Maybe I am just reading past you so thank you for your patience. I know you cited the reformed.org website, do you have any other specific sources that you used that I could look at regarding this.

  5. P.S. I do agree with the total inability bit I guess I just go a bit farther. There is absolutely nothing I can do to save myself but also “in me that is in my flesh dwelleth no good thing”.

  6. There is absolutely nothing I can do to save myself but also “in me that is in my flesh dwelleth no good thing”
    But the Holy Spirit dwells in you. 🙂 You’re God’s child. Redeemed!
    This earlier blog post explains it better and cites sources too.

  7. I guess I’m not seeing where you are coming from so I will read your other post when I have time hopefully tomorrow. The doctrine of total depravity is talking about man in his natural state without God. With Him I am fully righteous, redeemed intensively and extensively so now I am not totally depraved. So maybe that is where we are differing because I am talking BC and you are talking AD:-).

  8. Perhaps. I’ve just heard in my little slice of the world people talking about redeemed people like they are the wicked — even containing a “clone” of Satan’s own nature. That’s what I’m responding to.

  9. My husband and I had an awesome converstion last night after reading this, even though we still can’t figure out what “pentads” means (aside from 5).

    Wow, what a relief to jump off that hamster wheel. Even though I find myself confortable there, for some unknown reason. Thank you, again, for the reminder. God’s work in me is done, he has saved me throughly, I am safe……..PRAISE HIM!

  10. I think Leigh attributing any misunderstanding to BC/AD is right. My understanding of total depravity has always been entirely incapable, yes, but entirely sinful as well. So there is an utter inability to come to God, but also a complete lack of desire. God goes against everything in the unregenerate man. Romans makes it clear that the unregenerate person is an actually an enemy of God. In fact, the extent of an unredeemed person’s depravity is so great that even when they do normal everyday things, whatever that is not of faith, is sin. Even “good” things are “filthy rags.”

    Then enter the Holy Spirit. And the thing that makes God look so good, is precisely because man was so depraved. And this is what God has rescued us from! So now even the normal, everyday things we did before are from faith and are good. God has saved us, the Holy Spirit indwells us, so we no longer are as we were before. Totally depraved. The redeemed are not wicked, containing a clone of Satan’s nature, because they are redeemed. We now have Christ’s righteousness. This is the glory of salvation.

    I’m willing to be corrected, but I think the difference regarding depravity is that Leigh is thinking before Christ and Camille is thinking after.

  11. I’m willing to be corrected, but I think the difference regarding depravity is that Leigh is thinking before Christ and Camille is thinking after.

    I was just wondering the same thing. I think that’s a pretty fair observation.

  12. I’m having a difficult time, though, with reconciling this with Romans 7:21-25. There are obviously two forces at work in the Christian. In the Christian (we’re talking A.D. here). One force serves God and the other serves sin. Paul wants to be delivered from that which serves sin, but the deliverance isn’t fully present in salvation, in a sense. That’s why in Romans 8 he says “if by the Spirit you put to death [or “you are putting to death”] the deeds of the body, you shall live.” I can see the idea that Christ is the one who makes us righteous (in the justification sense) and who also moves us along the path of righteousness (the sanctification sense). But why does Paul speak about us putting to death the deeds of the body if he does not intend for us to do so… if he only intends that we use it as a gauge to measure what Christ is doing in us? What are verses like I Peter 2:11, 5:6 or James 4:9-10 or Ephesians 4:22-24 supposed to work in us? What can you tell a Christian from those verses? How do I tell my son (once he is redeemed… he’s 5 weeks old and I’m not a Covenantalist 😉 ) that he must actively put off the old man and that he is already good because Christ makes him so? He is good in the sense of his standing before God, yes. But there are obviously things he does that are wrong and those things come from fleshly lusts that are still within him. The fact that the Spirit dwells in us does not eradicate our desires to sin and we must acknowledge that we have done wrong. Wrong does not “make us bad” because Christ has already made us good—made us righteous before God. But there is still something within us that, yes, is very like Satan. If not, where does the desire to sin come from in the redeemed? If the Spirit lives in us to the exclusion of a “clone of Satan’s nature,” where do those desires come from?

    I’m really not trying to be contentious. This is a subject I’ve been growing more conflicted about for close to two years, so I’m trying to understand it. I could be completely misunderstanding you, but…

  13. Hey, Jeff! As I’m sure you know, the jury’s not out on which Paul Paul is talking about in Romans 7 — pre-redemption or post. Good men disagree. But if we assume, just for the sake of discussion, that he IS talking about post-redemption, we’d still have to at least take the whole chapter in view. Christ still has WON the victory for us — in the here and now and in the future! That part is finished. The punishment is done. The Christian life is not an ongoing punishment for our sin. The dept is paid. The end.

    But . . . I would say that we’ve gotten a little too Gnostic in our perspective on this struggle. It’s not our sin nature versus our redeemed nature. That dual-nature perspective isn’t Scriptural. It’s not God v. me. We have one nature, and it’s sinful. It’s full of sin. That’s how the Heidelburg confession puts it, and that’s standard fare in more Reformed theologies (it’s in the more recent dispie systematic theologies that that dualism is reified).

    In other words, it’s not the fight between the black dog and the white dog, and the one that wins is the one you feed. It’s that the black dog is dead, so we need to stop feeding the black dog.

    It seems to me that we get stuck in Romans 7. We’re not to stay there focusing on ourselves and our yuck! A friend explained it to me this way (I think she found this example elsewhere. I might even reference it somewhere on this blog, now that I think about it): before redemption we were in the gutter, eating out of the garbage, stuck in our sin. At redemption, Christ invites us into His home to feast at His table. He cleans us up, sits us down, and treats us as His joint-heir. Why would we go back and eat out of the scrap bucket? Yes, we might, but that’s pretty dopey. And we wouldn’t sit there going on and on about how tempting the compost is and how we just wish we could have those potato peelings and we need to stop thinking about those wormy apple cores! There’s a turkey dinner in front of you, for Pete’s sake!

    Sure — we might not know any better, but the comparison between giving in to sin and living for Christ is just really no comparison at all. They aren’t on an equal plane like caffeinated coffee or decaf. It’s swill or Starbucks.

    I’m not sure that I’m Covental or not. But I’m not convinced that God wants us to leave our little ones out in the cold to find their own way to the arms of the Church. I’m wrestling with that one too. 😀

  14. I’ve been thinking about responding to this post for some time, but the more I thought, the less I had to say because I agree with Camille’s rhetorical contrast of the sanctification narratives. The book I am currently reading–called _On Being Presbyterian_ by Sean Lucas (former Fundy Baptist, now PCA seminarian and former member of my church her in Louisville)–devotes a section to the Reformed view of Santification and stresses how our walk, just like our salvation, is completely by grace.

    I cannot remember reading before how the “kesidispecostal” story offers so little certainty. It’s results driven (hence the consumer appeal), and it has a pat answer for whatever you face or do. But nowhere can it offer any certainty; your sanctification is (in part) up to you, and you can never be sure that you worked hard enough. Just as the man-centered, Arminian view of salvation leads to despair (“did we make the invitaition long enough? Did I say the right words? Did I mess up my testimony and therefore cause someone to reject Christ?), the man-centered view of sanctification leads to despair. Now I know that while I do have a responsibility to “work out [my] own salvation,” (here, Paul is using salvation to mean what we normally call sanctification, I know that “it is God who works in me, both to will and to do His good pleasure.” Collossians 2:12. It’s utimately God, not me, so I need not despair (as to those who say that God’s ultimate control gives me a green light to willfully sin, Paul answer them in Romans).

    Absent Grace, Marilyn Manson is completely right. Completely. To be *human* is to relish all the evils we know are wrong. Someone once told me that I should “trust people’s humanity more.” My response was “There’s nothing I am more sure of than their humanity, so that is why I do not trust them.” And Manson’s right about Hell. Sarte said essentially the same thing. All God has to do is leave us alone, and we make our own.

    That’s why Salvation is so wonderul. That’s why we sing. We were *that bad,* yes, that bad, even if we think otherwise, and we have been redeemed through no merit of our own. After salvation, everything changes. If we forget that, our story gets twisted. We should not confuse the Old Man and the New.

    I broke my promise to be brief. Oh well. Won’t be the first time I do that. 🙂

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