What Obscenity and Grace Have in Common

“So in the same way at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if it is by grace, it is no longer by works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was diligently seeking, but the elect obtained it. The rest were hardened….”

Romans 11:5-7

Grace. What is this stuff? The hymnist says that it will “pardon and cleanse, within.” Ann says that “all’s grace.” Mike says, “I can’t define it, but I have an evolving theology of my need for it.”

When I was twelve, my overstuffed Baptist church had a visiting preacher named Dr. Richard Land. He was a scholar, a real theologian with letters behind his last name. He was complex, a sesquipedalian skilled in the ways of circumlocution. One Sunday Ryan Carter actually made a functioning origami decoder ring out of the Lottie Moon envelopes in hope of cracking the “Land Code.” It didn’t work.

For all his verbosity, Dr. Land surprised us one Sunday when he offered this definition of Grace–God’s Riches as Christ Expense. It was simple. It stuck. But at thirty-three, I’m wondering if perhaps it was too simple.

I expound. If grace relates to the riches of God, then aren’t all creatures benefactors? After all, God’s riches encompass every facet of nature, every splendor of the morning. It is only by God’s rich blessing that we live, that the birds sing, that the fabric of earth holds together. Did it take Christ’s expense to bring about the richness that God gives to all creation? It seems to me that both those who trust in Christ’s expense and those who do not share equally in some of the riches of God. Thus, God’s riches cannot be the sole subject of grace unless we open ourselves up to the idea that grace is, in fact, unlimited and given to all.

These are human gyrations, I know. But the deconstruction of the Land Doctrine of Grace leaves me stranded (and perhaps teetering on a universalist brink). The deconstruction sounds nothing like the grace of the biblical text (See Romans 11). So, what is grace?

In 1964 the United States Supreme Court was asked to determine whether a particular film could be censored as “hard-core pornography” under the First Amendment. To make the determination, the Court was required to formulate the threshold definition of pornography. Penning perhaps the most quoted concurring opinion in Supreme Court history, Justice Potter Stewart wrote,

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

See Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).

Maybe in formulating a working definition for grace, I’m left with little more than Justice Stewart’s definition of obscenity. I know what it is, though only in practice. I know what it’s not. I know that grace is undeserved, that it is a product of God’s choosing (see Romans). I know, like Mike, that I have an ever-evolving theology of my need for it. I know, like Ann, that all’s grace. Ultimately I know that grace, much like obscenity, is known most explicitly when it is seen.

And with all the humility I can muster today I’ll ask to catch one obscene glimpse of it.

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12 Responses to What Obscenity and Grace Have in Common

  1. Rob says:

    Hard-Core grace. Nice.

  2. I don’t think you meant it this way, but I like the word “obscenity” in the same sentence with grace . . . what could be more obscene (“offensive, indecent” the dictionary says) then grace?

    Now, I’m going to go look up “sesquipedalian” and “circumlocution” and learn me some new words.

    • sethhaines says:

      Oh… But I did mean it this way. 🙂 It’s obscene that God would choose to extend grace to me, chief that I am and all of that. Amazing and obscene.

      I have a friend who I should credit with the thoughts behind this post. He knows who he is and there is a reason I can’t drop his name (or otherwise use his exact words). But he introduced me to this idea of using incongruent terms in relation to grace. It made it make sense to me.

      I think we need to explore the tensions in grace, ask ourselves if we really “get it.” it informs SO MUCH of our theology.

  3. Glad to know I was tracking then. 😉 And I think you (and your friend) are right about incongruent term using in relation to grace. Somehow it creates new abstractions from what once was “old”. I find myself searching for ways to articulate absurdities that I find while wandering around the gospels – through grace and beyond.

  4. J. Ray says:

    Seth,

    Been thinking about this as well lately. In fact, just taught on Romans 11 this past Sunday. Love the definition, plan on using it myself and not giving you any credit (just to make sure you stay humble, bro) The more I think of grace in the way it relates to the Christ follower, the less I think we can understand it apart from experiential faith. Thus, I think your use of good ‘ol Potter’s definition may have a deeper meaning than we realize.

    • sethhaines says:

      John,

      You are one of the good brothers and I encourage you to steal anything that I write and pass it off as your own because that’s really all I did in the first place.

      God has been teaching me about humility this Lenten season. It’s tough to learn that it’s not our thoughts or names that matter. It’s tough to realize that rugged individualism is no match for a well centered community. So… My words are yours. Just remember, though… That means your words are mine too! 🙂

      Don’t I owe you coffee or something?

  5. Kelly Sauer says:

    I take a more cautious definition of grace, I think.

    Grace comes only through Christ, can be only about knowing God. We only see Him in the world around us when we have seen His Son, for whoever sees Him sees the Father. It is grace that covers us before God so that He no longer needs to turn His face from us, grace that makes us righteous, grace that means that sinners are new creations in Christ.

    I wrestle with the idea that what God does may be called obscene, because however sinful we are, He so loved the world, and there is nothing obscene about love, is there? Dramatic, maybe, or drastic – but obscene?

    Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (I think I quoted that right.) You’re right – there are some things we just know. But it is grace that opens our ears to His voice, to His knowing. It is grace that we are not hardened, as Israel or as Pharaoh, or as others will be before the end. It is grace that we follow, that we are chosen, though we did not choose.

    It is mystery, not obscenity, I think. And the knowledge of it – that is grace too.

    • sethhaines says:

      Kelly,

      Well warranted push-back and I accept it whole-heartedly.

      Amber and I actually talked a bit about the paragraph dealing with the deconstruction of the “God’s riches at Christ Expense” definition. To be clear about the post, I completely agree that “Grace comes only through Christ, can be only about knowing God.” That is why I do not like definitions that boil grace down to “God’s riches.” To some extent, all have been given God’s riches. However, I agree that the full richness of life comes only through Christ, and that not all have received that. That’s why I argue against what I find to be an overly-simplistic definition of Grace. Definitions that make grace about God’s gifts and not his glory boil grace down to a level where it can be misused to support universalist tendancies. That makes me uncomfortable.

      I actually think that you define this much better–the new creation and all. I guess that’s what I mean by “I know it when I see it.” There are so many times that I wallow in my own rules and religion, that I am not clothed anew. There are so many times when I impose those rules on others and I think that’s not Grace. Instead, you capture it well with “[i]t is grace that covers us before God so that He no longer needs to turn His face from us, grace that makes us righteous, grace that means that sinners are new creations in Christ.”

      This is good. I am very glad you stopped by and through your half-dollar into the pot (much better than two cents).

      We can agree on mystery. I like it.

    • Kelly, your reflection is beautifully expressed in humility. I am drawn. Thank-you.

      In my heart, I believe this is how the great interlocking circle of contribution goes – not one way or another, but “both/and”. We stand ringed arm in arm around this world alternately shouting and whispering our understanding of things and in this case, grace.

      You say “dramatic”, I say “obscene” and I mean this word with utmost reverence along with you. I use graphic language for the part of the audience that has gone cold or is desensitized and in need of a jolt, a fresh way of seeing something. It is on this earth full of systems and logic that anything to do with the gospel of Christ is obscene, absurd, foolish and any other audacious word I can find. It is in my most broken human moments that I use these words for myself when I can’t grasp the paradox . . . “Jesus, You are foolish to save me . . . Your grace is offensive to my projected self . . .” Etc.

      Is there a place in the Kingdom for both our languages of grace?

      As the collective voice hones our individual language and expressions, the mutual hope, I think, is that our definitions will fall on the ears that need to hear them.

      With Love,
      Erika

  6. Kelly Sauer says:

    “Definitions that make grace about God’s gifts and not his glory boil grace down to a level where it can be misused to support universalist tendancies.”

    You just answered a question here that I’ve been trying to articulate for a long time. But it’s a blog post, not a comment. And I stay away from deep theological discussions at my blog. I just comment once in a while. To keep people who do discuss theology honest. 😉

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