Epiphany, suffering

What, Now? What is Bleak Theology?

This blog comes out of numerous conversations I’ve had with my fellow biblical critics and theologians of a certain age and cultural context. Many of us have been trained in all sorts of history, language, culture, theory, methodology, philosophy, doctrine, what have you. Many of us remember our youth during the cultural anxiety and fallout of the Cold War. And now, we have this world-weariness, this Weltschmerz, that, in some way, binds us together. And, well, misery loves company. Some of us find our roots in the existentialists. Some in the critical theory of Marx and his descendants. Others came of age with the postmodernists. All of us carry this introspection on religion that just won’t let us go. And we’ve come to understand that our melancholy is not a bad thing. It makes us the biblical critics and theologians that we are. This blog is just honest about it.

Bleak theology is the affirmation of the encounter and experience of sorrow, anxiety, and lament in the Christian religion in all its forms: in its myriad theologies and doctrines, in its historical study, in its textual study, and all else. It is a theology that finds its home at the liminality and on the margins. It finds solace and understanding in paradox. It treats faith, hope, and love as radical absurdities and as absurd radicalities. Bleak theology is a theology of desire where ordinate and inordinate desires are constantly deconstructed and deconstructing to the point of incomprehensibility. Bleak theology is anxious, but not despairing. It is pessimistic, but not hopeless. It is materialistic, but not idolatrous. It doesn’t always have hope, but it certainly would like to have that hope. And yet, paradoxically, I find that bleak theology resonates with negative theology. Perhaps, it’s a subset.

Bleak theology is not a punk theology, knocking everything down in frantic, anarchic acts of creativity, upending hegemonies and patriarchies and the like, with fists and arms swinging. Bleak theology is a post-punk theology. It’s a theology that stands and stares, as the dust settles after the stained windows are smashed and after the pews are overturned and asks “What now?”

This is a blog that brings to the forefront the anxious and melancholic lamentations for things lost, the witness and acknowledgement of idols and icons overturned, the idea of working out a salvation in fear and trembling. It’s a theology of Passover and Good Friday approached through various lenses in a world after deconstruction has had its fun. It’s a theology that gazes troublingly up at Mt. Moriah; that sits in sack and ashcloth and resists cursing God and dying; that cries out that everything is meaningless (meaningless!); that sits by the rivers of Babylon and cries; that staggers away from the crucifixion disillusioned; and, after seeing the stone rolled back and the dead vanished, leaves the tomb and tells no one.

It seemed like Epiphany, the Western holiday of the appearance of the Christ child, was a suitable day to initiate this blog. We read the narrative in Matthew that the Magi come from the East and offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (That last one, used for embalming, is just a not-so-subtle taste of things to come.) The story is that Jesus is there, seen now by the World, by both Jews and Gentiles, in a crappy barn. And for Christians who have any sort of “high church” liturgies, they go back to this story every January, at the start of the new year. It’s a reminder that we’d better throw out the tree now, and pack up the decorations. It’s a reminder in the woozy aftermath of frenetic Christmas and New Year that there’s this fussing baby still here and it’s probably best to change the hay about now and get started.

Epiphany is important because it’s the acknowledgment (at bare minimum) that the story of Jesus is here. And that’s something we have to keep in mind. Many throughout history have claimed to act in the name of Jesus and have accomplished wonderfully good things and have committed unspeakable atrocities. Epiphany is the start of all that. It’s reminding us, once a year, that we’re stuck with Jesus, for better or for worse. And that can be gold and that can be myrrh.

Epiphany is important because it grounds the story, the event, of Christianity. It gets the two gospels of Matthew and Luke on their way. It gets the Platonism of John’s gospel explaining itself. It’s what John the Baptizer heralds in Mark. But the epiphany of Epiphany is that now we’re operating with just these stories. And these stories have the luxury of the occurrence of Jesus. We, however, are not so lucky. Our own personal epiphanies are not so grounded. So let’s get started.


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