Friday, November 30, 2007
The gospel readings in the lectionary for the coming year are from the Gospel of Matthew. One of the most prominent features of Matthew's gospel is the way it presents Jesus' life as a fulfillment of Old Testament scripture. Ten times in the gospel Matthew uses a formula of the form "this was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet...."
On the surface, these quotations appear to be taken completely out of context. In many cases, the passages he's quoting don't look anything like Messianic prophecy. And in all cases critical reading seems to indicate that the prophet was talking about something else. If someone were using scripture like this today, it would be labelled as "proof-texting" and looking down upon. Is it possible that Matthew a hack?
I don't think so.
The earliest Christians were convinced that Jesus Christ was at the heart of the Old Testament. They didn't just believe that a few passages predicted specific things about Jesus' life. They believed that the scriptures as a whole were pointing toward Jesus.
In the case of the fulfillment statements in Matthew's gospel, a closer examination of the texts he is quoting, paying particular attention to what they meant in context, reveals the possibility that Matthew was using these passages to evoke a much richer image than is immediately obvious. To see the richness of what Matthew is doing, we have to completely immerse ourselves in Scripture.
Before I get into that I want to step back and consider what it means to have fulfilled what was spoken through the prophets.
What do you think of when you hear the word "fulfill"? When you hear it in connection with prophecy, chances are your first impression is that something happened that was previously predicted. But I don't think that's quite what Matthew has in mind.
What other uses of "fulfill" are you familiar with? You may hear that something has fulfilled its purpose, or someone has fulfilled a duty or an obligation. You might even hear that something has fulfilled someone's dreams. Now we're getting somewhere.
The Greek word Matthew uses to talk about "fulfillment" is πληροω. It comes from a combination of the adjective πληρης, meaning "full", and the suffix "-οω", meaning "to cause" (actually "I cause"). So to fulfill means to cause to be full. But look, we could have seen that from the English! I find that a lot when I get into "what the Greek means" but it often is something I hadn't realy noticed about the English word. Just like in English, Greek speakers probably didn't think about this, but this is what's behind the word.
So to fulfill the words of the prophet is to take those words and make them full of something. But full of what?
At this point, the it's useful to consider the development of Messianic expectations more generally. As Judah faced threats from its neighbors in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. prophets arose and promised hope. Often this hope was associated with a new king coming to the throne. When that king didn't live up to expectations, rather than the people losing hope, the promise grew. The hopes developed into a general expectation of "the one who is to come" -- God's annointed. We can already see this happening in the canonical forms of the prophetic books. By the time Jesus was born, it had blossomed into full blown Messianic hope, but nothing in the original context of the prophetic words could "fill" the words interpreted this way.
But this is what Matthew is saying. Jesus "fill" the hope that had been placed in these Old Testament promises.
Friday, November 09, 2007
Then recently it dawned on me just how much of a snob I am. I mean, I'd never even read one of John Ortberg's books. What right did I have to look down my nose at him? So I went on to Book Mooch and mooched one of his books so I could look down my nose at him with a clear conscience. :-)
I went with The Life You've Always Wanted because I like books about the spiritual disciplines. It had a blurb from Richard Foster saying it was an OK book, so that was a good sign. I like Richard Foster. Browsing through the book, I found some references to Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.
In the preface, Ortberg acknowledges his dependence on the work of Dallas Willard, who I also like, and says his private working title for the book was "Dallas for Dummies." From what I can tell so far, that's not a bad self-assessment. So I didn't expect to find anything radically new here, but thought maybe it would be like chatting with my pastor about spiritual disciplines over cookies. Maybe I'd pick up a tip or two.
Here's the first great tip I've come across: sleep is a spiritual discipline.
This is something I actually should have noticed before. Last year I took a retreat at Mount Angel Abbey (which happens to be one of my favorite places in the world). I had no plan for the retreat -- no program. I took my Bible and a couple of books. I planned to just read and attend prayer services. But as I sat down in my guest room to read, I found myself nodding off. So I decided to just go with that. I ended up spending about half my time sleeping during that retreat. It turned out to be one of the best retreats I've experienced!
But I didn't learn the lesson. I needed to read it in a book a year later. Maybe now I'll remember.
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
The tagline on the back cover says "Drawing the theological consequences of current scholarship on Paul". I'm pretty sure that sells it short too.
Admittedly, I have only limited knowledge of the New Perspective on Paul, but I'm pretty sure Brondos' work goes beyond of the typical edges of even the New Perspective, though he's definitely in that tradition.
My impression is that the New Perspective scholars have, for the most part, tried to keep one foot in the traditional church and keep the New Perspective in touch with and to some extent compatible with traditional doctrine, even as it points out the fallacies that led to the formulation of the traditional doctrine. Brondos, near as I can tell, harbors no such sacred cows.
And that's what I think is such a remarkable achievement in this book. Although he is certainly building on the substantial groundwork of the New Perspective, he has managed to produce a fresh reading of Paul's writings, disentangling himself from all of the traditional meanings that have been attached to the key terms and phrases in Paul and reimagining Paul's meanings in terms of the story he thinks Paul is telling. It's a breath-taking accomplishment.
Brondos says that the early Christian story of redemption, envisioned as a fulfillment of the general Jewish story of redemption of the time, was this: Israel was awaiting a Messiah who would vindicate them and their God and bring about a new age of peace and general well-being. Israel's God, being all powerful, could make this happen at will. There were no obstacles preventing God from accomplishing this redemption (no required sacrfice, no justice to be meted out). It was strictly at the will of God. However, God was seen as waiting for something. Typically, the idea was that God was waiting for the people of Israel to be living out the Torah. Enter Jesus. Jesus is God's promised Messiah, and he has come not because the Torah is being fulfilled but in order to gather to himself a community whom he will teach to keep the Torah, according to the spirit rather than according to the letter. Jesus' way of acting and committing himself entirely to fulfilling the will of God brings him into inevitable conflict with the authorities, but Jesus chooses obedience over safety. God raises Jesus from the dead as a sign and seal of approval on Jesus' mission. Finally, God pours out the Holy Spirit upon the community to enable them to live out Jesus' teachings.
That may not be exactly the traditional interpretation of Jesus' life, but I don't think anything there is particularly novel there. A lot of scholars see it that way, I think. But it doesn't seem to fit the traditional interpretation of Paul where Paul's thought is broken (even in the New Perspective) into the two categories of sacrificial/cultic language, where Jesus died for our sins, and participatory language, where we find salvation by being "in Christ," neither of which map to the story above. What's remarkable about Brondos' book is the way he uses the early Christian story of redemption outlined above and works it into both the sacrificial language and the participatory language in Paul.
Jesus died for us in that he was willing to give his life in obedience to the work that he had to do as teacher of the Torah and gatherer of the community whom he would make righteous. We are "in Christ" when we also commit to obedience, following the teaching that Christ has given us and living as he lived. You're probably not buying this without hearing a serious explanation of an awful lot of individual texts. Read the book! He may not be exactly right, but I think he's definitely on to something.
I'm actually very anxious to re-read this book very soon, which I hardly ever do. I would be going back into it again right away to try to absorb the ideas more fully except I've committed to teaching a class on the fulfillment texts in Matthew during Advent and I need to get me attention focused on that. Expect me to return to this in January.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Now perhaps I was very sheltered before this. I may be the only person in the last 500 years to have read Cur Deus Homo before becoming familiar with the satisfaction theory of the atonement in its modern form. It was extremely fascinating to me to see the way Anselm reasoned. I was particularly taken with his claim that humans are being redeemed to make up the number of fallen angels so that there will be a perfect number of worshippers in heaven. I didn't think he was right, of course, but I was charmed. I've been in love with theology ever since.
While I've found in the years since then that nothing, absolutely nothing, can be as pointless and counter-productive as debating theories of the atonement, I've never quite been able to let this question go.
With that background, when I saw David Brondos' Paul on the Cross announced on the Fortress Press web site, I bought it immediately. Unfortunately I have a bad habit of buying books faster than I can read them, so this one has been sitting on the bookshelf for nearly a year. Finally last week I started it.
I should've read it sooner.
I'm not sure yet if I buy his argument, but Brondos' suggestion is nothing less than revolutionary. He builds on the New Perspective on Paul, but goes beyond it, I think, and critiques the key scholars involved in the New Perspective.
Brondos begins his book by making a sweeping survey of atonement theories from Irenaeus to Barth and Bultmann, rejecting all of them. Then he presents a reconstruction of the first century Jewish story of redemption and a reconstructed early Christian story (i.e. pre-Paul as echoed in the gospels). In the second half of the book he argues that Paul's story of redemption is essentially the same as the early Christian story and that expressed in the gospels.
The upshot of all this is that, according to Brondos, the search for a "theory of the atonement" as we typically think of it is misguided because they all think of salvation as something the follows "mechanically" from Jesus' death and try to explain how the atonement "works." Against this Brondos claims that Paul, in agreement with other earlier Christians, is proclaiming a gospel where Jesus as God's Messiah is bringing about redemption of Israel through his obedience to the will of God primarily in his life and teaching, with his death being a consequence of this obedience and the resurrection being God's seal of approval. I'm only halfway through my first reading, so I might be misrepresenting a lot of this, but I think that's the gist of it.
I don't know what the academic community thinks of Brondos' ideas. The only review I've been able to find was by D.A. Carson who, predictably, thinks he's wrong. It seems to me that Paul doesn't talk enough about Jesus' teaching for this idea to hold (at least as I've understood it), but it does have the very great merit of bringing Paul and the gospels into much better harmony than the standard reading of Paul would have them. I think I'm going to have to try re-reading the New Testament from this perspective.
Anyway, experimenting with the new format on Beliefnet, I just started a discussion group to talk about the New Perspective on Paul. I don't know how well it will fly, but I know if a few of the smart people from the blog world stopped by it would make for better conversation.
If you're interested, come check it out at http://community.beliefnet.com/paulperspective
Thursday, October 25, 2007
When it comes right down to it, we value fair play more than we value mercy, and so this parable just doesn't sit right with us. The steward forgives a portion of some large debts. This may have made an immense difference to the debtors. It may have saved the family farm. "But the debt wasn't owed to him," we say. "It's not right!" Reading the parable, I can't help but think that maybe Jesus just doesn't care about that.
I was curious to see what the Church does with this, so I looked to see where it falls in the lectionary. (I think we ought to start viewing the Revised Common Lectionary as if it were inspired by God, because those people made some fantastic pairings.) The Old Testament reading paired with this parable is from Amos:
Amos 8:4-7We want to make money, and we don't want religion getting in the way of that. This must be one of those cases I've heard so much about where the prophet was inspired to see beyond his own time and offered a message for people living in North America in the early 21st century.
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
The psalm paired with the parable in the lectionary is Psalm 113. It ends like this:
Psalm 113:5-9Why should it surprise us to find Jesus praising a man who cheats a rich business man and helps out the rich man's debtors? Why do we need to allegorize it?
Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD!
There's something else curious going on in this parable. In Luke 16:9, Jesus says, "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes." The logic here is nearly heretical. Drawing a lesson from the parable, just as the dishonest steward helped out his master's debtors so that the debtors would provide for him in his time of need, we should help people with our wealth (interpreters seem to universally agree that Jesus means the poor) so that when it's gone (which I take when we're dead) they will welcome us into eternal homes!
How many images of the pearly gates have you seen that picture the poor as gatekeepers?
I was looking for some interpretations of this and I happened on one that was quoting the NIV. The NIV translation of this verse reads:
I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.Strange, I thought, is the NRSV taking liberties with the translation? Or maybe it's a textual variant? Now it happens that I have an NIV-based reverse interlinear, complete with parsing information. So I looked up this verse, and under the word "received" I find "dexontai" parsed as third person plural aorist middle subjunctive. Hmmm...third person plural = "you will be welcomed"? Somebody's got a theological bias.
Looking further, I found St. Augustine trying a different spin on it. He says that if we use our wealth to help the poor, Jesus will receive our help in the person of the poor (Matthew 25). Closer, but the parable still says "so that...they may welcome you...."
Am I reading too much into this, or is Jesus teaching us something here?
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Many of us have never received any encouragement to recognize or honor within ourselves the desire for God. The expression seems too sublime to be applied to the faint movements of our own spirit. To speak to most others about having a desire for God would cause embarrassment or even invite ridicule. No one talks like this in "normal" life.I think he's onto something here. I've seen this in myself, particularly the not wanting to talk that way. I've got these things going on inside me that are definitely somewhere on the road to mysticism, but I don't want to talk like that even with other people in my congregation because they don't talk like that.
And yet, isn't this a basic requirement for religion? If religion can be talked about in the language of "normal" life, is it really religion?
One of the best books I've read in the past couple of years is The Evangelizing Church, written by a team of thinkers from within the ELCA. One of the surprising conclusions of this book is that a critical step to becoming an evangelizing church (and not just a church that does evangelism) is getting the members of the church to talk to one another about the things of God.
At the same time, I think there's something reasonable in this reticence to talk about the movement of the Spirit. At some level it's a mark of humility. If I go to my neighbor and say, "God spoke to me," my neighbor may be right to look askance at me.
It seems to me that the right balance would be to speak boldly about the work of God in our lives within the Church but to speak to the world as the world speaks. Too often, I think, this gets reversed.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
In response to last week's Parable of the Pub Owner, Dan raised the objection that perhaps the problem isn't that we aren't out on the streets talking to people. Perhaps the problem is that people really don't want what we're offering. I'm reinterpreting. Correct me, Dan, if that isn't what you were saying. To quote directly, Dan said (in the terms of the parable), "In the circles I move in, nobody wants beer at all, even when given to them in the public square or on the street. These people were raised on beer, already know what it tastes like and just don't want it anymore - cheap or refined."
Now I've heard of the surveys claiming that most people would come to church if asked, and I know that a lot of churches are growing and those people have to be coming from somewhere, but sooner or later we're going to have to come to terms with the fact that there are a whole lot of people out there who do know what Christianity is about and just don't want anything to do with it. What do we do about this?
Part of the problem, no doubt, is that the public face of Christianity isn't always a pretty one. Another part of the problem, I think, is that people just don't find church all that appealing. God they like. I'm certain we could sell them on Jesus too. But church? A lot of people just don't see the point.
What if they're right?
We do not read in the Gospel that Jesus said, "Go therefore and build big buildings. Get people to gather weekly to sing songs and have coffee afterward." Isn't it possible that we could fulfill the Great Commission without getting people to come to church?
Let me go off on a tangent for a second. The place where I work is gray -- all of it. We have gray walls, gray carpets, gray cubicles, gray desks, gray cabinets, gray chairs. I'm not making this up. About a year ago someone got the brilliant idea that maybe all this gray wasn't good for morale, so after a vote on what color to use, they painted one wall red. Again, I'm not making this up. More recently, it was decided that more drastic steps needed to be taken. We're running a pilot program on my floor where the entire workspace is being radically remodeled. According to our VP, they're taking it "down to the studs."
A day or two after reading Dan's comments mentioned above, I read Matthew 5:13: "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot." It made me think of the remodeling project at work and the words "down to the studs."
Do we need to rethink the Christian mission? I'm not saying we don't need churches, but as Kelly Fryer has often said, church is so not the point. What's essential? What should we be sharing with people?
The problem with stripping our churches down to the studs, of course, is that no two people agree about what's a stud and what isn't. And maybe that's part of the problem. We're all pack-rats. We've got too much that we won't let go.
Jesus said, "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." He did not say "so that they may see your beautiful liturgies" or "so that they may see your sound doctrine" or "so they may hear your inspirational sermons." Have we put our light on the lampstand, or have we put something else there?
Thursday, October 04, 2007
For many nights he sat at his bar and puzzled over this. He discussed it at length with his remaining patrons. They didn't understand why people wouldn't rush to accept this generous offer.
One day he left his establishment and went out for a walk. He was amazed to find that his competitors had people in the streets handing out free beer to anyone who would take it. People in the public square chased after passers-by trying to convince them to try their beer. A sign announced a free beer festival in the park that weekend. He went to one of these competing businesses and found that they were serving Pabst Blue Ribbon and Milwaukee's Best, but the place was packed.
He returned to his own pub to consider what he had seen. His competitors, he reasoned, must be just as desperate as he was, having also resorted to giving out free beer, but they, having less money and more customers, couldn't afford to give away quality beer as he did. So he sat back and waited. Eventually the people in the streets would come to him.
But he waited and waited, and the crowds did not come. He decided that perhaps the common people lacked the refined taste to appreciate his beers. The beers his competitors offered must have more appeal to the common folk, he thought. So he put out a sign announcing a "PBR Night" once a week. A few new faces came in, and a few of them became regular customers, but he didn't draw the crowds he had hoped for.
Eventually, the man grew old and died, never having recaptured the great crowds he remembered from his glory days.
Saturday, September 29, 2007
All in all, like a lot of the education I received during that time in my life, these things have perhaps had the unfortunate effect of giving me the impression that I knew something about Plato without my having actually read much Plato -- kind of like seeing a movie and concluding that you don't need to read the book.
This week, as I was rummaging about my bookshelves for something to read, I came across the Dialogues and thought I'd give them a try. Seventy pages in, I'm really liking it.
It turns out my general knowledge was pretty reasonable. If I had discoursed on these dialogues with someone who had actually read them, I wouldn't have seemed like a total dolt. But, of course, the real enjoyment has come in the details. I've relished the simple pleasure of listening to Socrates debating. I've marveled at seeing ideas that are echoed in the New Testament (Socrates' discussion of the wisdom of God vs. the wisdom of men, for instance). I was intrigued by the dialogue with Euthyphro on the nature of the holy, though there were many questions I'd have liked to have put to Socrates.
And now, in reading "Phaedo", I've just come to the place where Socrates discusses philosophy as the practice of death and dying. Christianity could naturally make a similar claim, so it's very interesting to see how Socrates' development of the idea differs from (and yet has obviosuly influenced the development of) the Christian idea.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
I was thrilled about this on several levels. One, she recognizes the unreality of magic. (She's crazy about Harry Potter, so I wasn't sure.) Two, she's thinking about the Bible. Three, she's questioning things. Four, she's talking to me about her doubts. How long can I hope that will last? My two biggest fears as my daughters develop in their faith are that they won't question anything and that they won't talk to be about the things they question.
So, we talked about it and I did my best to leave things open-ended enough for her to think about it and come to her own conclusion. Frankly, I'm not sure what I think of miracles.
But today, as I was thinking back on this conversation, I formed this fanciful mental image of a lost scene from the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
Delmar: I just don't see how all them things coulda happened the way it says in the Bible.
Everett: Well, Delmar, many people believe that the universe is possessed of a kind of sensitivity such that it reponds to the presence of goodness and justice, and so when a purely righteous man comes into the world, nature itself is at his beck and call.
Pete: What about that story of Elisha causin' them she-bears to maul a bunch o' boys?
Everett: The Bible's just a dusty old book written by superstitious people. What do you expect?
Saturday, September 22, 2007
I got San Antonio, Papa Juan Pablo and la Virgen de Guadelupe. I was hoping for San Francisco, but Gina wouldn't give me any more quarters.
Friday, September 21, 2007
The manifest dispute was over whether or not Dawkins' line that he wouldn't need to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns has any merit, meaning he doesn't need to be well-read in theology to criticize belief in God. What's behind this, I think, is one of the standard Christian lines of defense against atheism. We ask, "Which god don't you believe in?" with the intention that we would follow-up saying, "I don't believe in that god either."
But there is an elephant in the room. A lot of Christian do believe in the God Dawkins is arguing against. In his letter to The Independent which started this discussion, Dawkins addresses Peter Stanford's objection that he "caricatures all church-goers as simple-minded fundamentalists" by saying:
Of course the churchgoers Stanford or I meet socially are not simple-minded fundamentalists. Unfortunately, they are heavily outnumbered, especially in the most powerful country on earth, where nearly half the people believe the universe began after domestication of the dog, and a slightly smaller proportion yearns for a Middle East Armageddon when they'll be raptured "up" to Heaven.Let's face it, Tim LaHaye's God cannot be defended by reference to Paul Tillich's theology. But there's more than that going on here.
Before today I hadn't read anything by Dawkins, but following the hints in his aforementioned letter, I checked out this excerpt from his The God Delusion. I have to admit, I'm impressed.
Dawkins here lays out a sort of nature mysticism that many people would like to connect with belief in God, but then he shows how what he's talking about isn't belief in God. This is good stuff. I have a definite affection for the sort of wonder at the natural universe he describes. I like how it goes beyond a dry, mechanical view of the world and sees more there. At the same time it's frustrating, because I have to admit that as much as I want to think of my theological view as sophisticated and plausible, I must still finally admit that my faith with its view of a personal God who cares about the fate of the world, falls under Dawkins' condemnation.
I suppose the thing that frustrates me is that he says so much I can agree with, but just when I want him to go that one step further with me and consider the possibility of a personal God, he turns on me and mocks me, leaving me ashamed.
Dawkins' main distinction is between the natural and the supernatural, but it strikes me that there are some parallels here to the old theological debate between God's immanence and God's transcendence, except that Dawkins is on the extreme of the immanence continuum and wouldn't use the term "God" for what he's describing.
Let's remind ourselves of the terminology. A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. In many theistic belief systems, the deity is intimately involved in human affairs. He answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them). A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no specific interest in human affairs. Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a nonsupernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. Deists differ from theists in that their God does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles. Deists differ from pantheists in that the deist God is some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than the pantheist's metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe. Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism.It's kind of ironic that after spending much of this excerpt showing how theists are wrong to claim Einstein for their side, Dawkins makes this bold move to claim pantheists for his side. I have to say I bristle at the statement that "pantheism is sexed-up atheism."
But let me go back to the immanence/transcendence idea, as it relates to Dawkins' concern about natural/supernatural. In the past I've taken issue with the way immanence and transcendence are played against each other in Paul Laughlin's writings. Laughlin treats them as opposite extremes on a single spectrum, with some caveats about weak forms of either. Against this I maintain that Christianity has often tried to take a position that doesn't fit on a linear scale between these two extremes.
But who says that immanence and transcendence are opposites? What happens if instead we map them out on separate axes? Thinking through this, it occurred to me that I'm not quite talking about immanence and transcendence as such anymore. I need new terminology. So I propose one axis that maps God's being organically present versus God's being wholly external, and a second axis that maps God's being ontologically distinct versus God's being ontologically identical with creation. Both of these scales could be described as mapping transcendence versus immanence, but notice that they are actually concerned with two very different things.
Here's my proposed map:
I've tentatively labelled the lower left quadrant as "atheism". That is, "God" is seen as ontologically identical with the universe, but not present -- atheism. I think that works.
It may not be clear what I mean by "organically present". Considering that I am proposing this as an analog of immanence might help. Basically, I mean a God who is part of the system so to speak -- not external and also not present as a visitor from the outside. I might be able to say "one with creation."
But if I make that last statement, you might start scratching your head, looking at my diagram and asking "How can God be both organically present and ontologically other?" That's a good question. If you have a substance-based ontology, it isn't possible, but if you have a relationally-based ontology (as suggested by John Zizioulas, for instance) then this is the only quadrant of my diagram that is possible. That is, if God's being is a being-in-relationship, then God cannot be other than organically present, and it is wholly natural for God to be personal.
Monday, September 17, 2007
According to Short, Hopkins has the idea that all things bring forth Christ into the world by doing what they are. "The grape grapes, the star stars, a volcano volcanoes. Each, doing this, is being itself: doing what it is. Hopkins calls this 'do-being'. This do-being is doing Christ." Of course, Hopkins being who he was tended to say it more like this:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;So I've been trying to get in touch with this sort of view of the world. And so as I was riding to work today, I was thinking about this, and I was thinking how it's easy to see trees, for instance, as being God-covered or even the flow of traffic or a well-made road. But what about the trash on the side of the road. Does trash trash, or is this a defilement of its nature? How can trash on the side of the road be God-covered?
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves - goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is -
Christ - for Christ play in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
And this led me to wonder, can sin be God-covered? Naturally, the verbal cues here took me to the Atonement as I thought how all sin is covered by the blood of Christ, but that didn't really meet what I was looking for.
Then I connected this with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The man who fell among robbers has a certain affinity with the trash along the side of the road, and the Samaritan made him God-covered by bringing God into the situation through compassion.
And so I thought how there must be a distinction to be made between sin and what is despoiled by sin, but then I thought that likely God doesn't see it that way. Doesn't God see the robbers as creatures despoiled by sin as much as their victim? And here I met an obstacle. There's a clear class of villians in the Bible. Jesus has compassion on sinners and tax collectors, but he has strong words for the Pharisees, and beyond them we have the larger shadow of Caesar and Rome. How do they become God-covered?
My intuition is that Jesus' primary response to them is to allow himself to be crucified, but I haven't worked out how this fits.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Thursday, September 13, 2007
As a Lutheran, I naturally started from the recognition that I'm not one of the soils, I'm all of them. I'm constantly showered by the grace of God's Word, but it has different results at different times. There are times when the word hits me and bounces off without effect. There are times when I receive the word with joy but it takes no root. There are times when the word starts to take root, but it is choked out by the pleasures and cares of the world. And there are times when the word takes root and bears fruit. This isn't a terribly original interpretation, but it's a good starting point for reflection.
One of the things that I thought about is that possibly this state of things is normal. That is, maybe it's because God knows I'm going to be like this that God scatters the seed so generously. I could set about looking for the paths and the rocky ground and the thorns in my life and try to get rid of them, but the sower in the parable doesn't do that. He just sows, and he gets a good crop.
At the same time, there are things I can do. For instance, consider the seed sown among thorns. It starts to grow. Suppose I find that a word of God I have received is starting to take root. If I leave it, it might be choked by thorns. But if I watch it and care for it, I can nuture it and help it bear fruit. I can take the plant from among the throns and carefully replant it in good soil.
That is, there are times when I hear something and it strikes a chord with me, or I understand it in a new way. If I let it go, nothing more will come of it. But if I keep it in mind ("hold it fast in an honest and good heart", in Luke's version of the parable), it grows and, hopefully, will bear fruit in my life.
As I continued to think about the parable, I thought the field isn't me -- the field is the world and the parable is about the world. Individualism is so ingrained in our culture that it's hard to even think about this parable apart from how it impacts individuals. The natural tendency is to look at one person and ask, what does the parable say about this person (usually "me")? But what does it mean if it's a parable about the world? It seems to me that in that case, its message is essentially the same as the parable of the woman baking bread. God scatters the seed freely, indiscriminantly, prodigally throughout the world. Sometimes nothing good happens but sometimes it does and when it does the results are wonderful. Just as the leaven leavens the whole loaf, the good soil produces enough crop for the whole field.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Then a couple of years ago I was in Russia on business. Unlike typical business trips, this one left some free time for non-business activities. I was in Nizhny-Novogorod, so after visiting the house where Maxim Gorky was born, there wasn't a lot of typical touristy stuff to do. Naturally I wanted to see some churches, and let me tell you...Wow!
So Nizhny doesn't have anything like St. Basil's Cathedral, but for someone who had never seen a Russian Orthodox church before, all of them are awe inspiring.
My first experience was with a group of co-workers. First, we visited a monastery where after a small contribution the monk who was trying to get us to leave gave us a tour and (through a Russian co-worker who translated for us) gave a very motivational speech about St. John the Baptist ("Sometimes you have to preach to explain," our interpreter said). Later we visited a church whose name my Russian co-worker translated for us as "the Church of the Death of the Mother of God." We happened to be there during a worship service, and I was very uncomfortable as our mixed, mostly non-Christian, group stood in the "tacky knicknack shoppe" area and observed.
As it happens, however, because there are only two flights a week out of Nizhny, I had a Saturday morning free and was able to return to the church of the Dormition for Divine Liturgy. It was then that it became a place of prayer for me. The liturgy was, of course, in Russian and I only know about three words in Russian (no one taught me the Russian word for lip). I think I picked up "спасибо" ("thanks") a few times.
But it turns out that this language barrier was, for me, the greastest blessing of the whole visit. It allowed me to notice the non-verbal aspects of worship -- the sounds, the smells, the sights and the motions -- most of all the motions.
The sounds: there seemed to be a choir somewhere, but I never did figure out where they were, which was brilliant. Listening to these beautiful, far off voices singing something that I couldn't entirely comprehend...it's a wonderful metaphor for worship.
The smells: incense, incense and more incense. I thought of the refrain I know from Ash Wednesday services, "Lord, may our prayers rise like incense in your sight...."
The sights: this particular church, and every church I saw in Nizhny, had a full iconostasis, which was stunning, but beyond that, the arched walls of the area where the laity worship was covered with icons. Having these images of the saints "looking in" on the liturgy -- from behind, from above, from all around -- gave me, for the first time, an experiential knowledge of what is meant by worshipping with the whole Church.
The motions: Lutherans think they move around a lot in worship...sit, stand, kneel...but we've got nothing on the Russian Orthodox. First, they don't sit. They don't have pews. They would just be in the way. Throughout the service, everyone was constantly prostrating, bowing and making the sign of the cross. At first, I watched the people next to me and tried to keep up, usually half a step behind. Eventually I picked up on some of the auditory cues and began doing things at the right time (to the extent that there is a right time -- there was quite a bit of variation). I saw what it means to worship God with one's body. Anyone who speaks of "just" going through the motions in worship hasn't truly noticed what the motions are capable of.
All of this showed me a side of worship I never knew. I haven't been able to even approximate the experience in a Lutheran service, but the mere memory of it calls me deeper. It reminds me that there's more going on than meets the eye.
1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has the longest last name of any player in major league baseball history. As the Tigers' announcer observed, I wouldn't want to be the guy who has to stitch the letters on the back of his jersey.
2. The Rangers' pitchers combined to throw 230 pitches on Sunday. This is a major league record for most pitches thrown by the winning team in a nine inning game.
You've gotta love baseball. What other sport tracks these kind of things? BTW, the picture of Saltalamacchia's jersey is from the Rangers' 30-3 win over my beloved Orioles. It was the first time a team scored 30 runs in a game since 1897 when the Chicago Colts beat the Louisville Colonels 36-7. Yet another bad "Colts" link for Baltimore sports fans (yes, we're still bitter about that).
Thursday, August 30, 2007
For the past sixty years or so, Western culture has had a sort of infatuation with Eastern religions. They give us something we find lacking in our own culture. They're mysterious and offer a view on esoteric wisdom from the farthest reaches of human history. And so Westerners are particularly drawn to these religions in contrast with our own religions. We read things like the Upanishads and are immediately struck by the fact that the Bible doesn't have anything like this.
We've been told that the Bible opens a window on another world, but when we pick it up and read it, we find it full of this world. We see lying, cheating, jealousy, greed, adultery, murder -- and that's just Genesis. But the Upanishads really look like a window on another world. These are the kind of things we wanted to be thinking when we were lighting up a doobie and saying dreamily, "What if our solar system were just like one atom in...."
As I was reading Parmananda's introduction today, it clarified for me what's at the root of this and why Christians shouldn't be ashamed of the Bible in the face of it, without dimishining the value of the Hindu scriptures.
For one thing, the Upanishads are just a part of a larger work (the Vedas). They are the wisdom writings, freed from prescriptive cultic instruction on sacrifices and the like. How much more would people like the Bible without the book of Leviticus? But Leviticus is there, and the Upanishads still have their lofty view.
The real meat of the difference is in the way that Judaism and Christianity approach religion as contrasted to Hinduism. Parmananda writes, "The value of the Upanishads, however, does not rest upon their antiquity, but upon the vital message they contain for all times and all peoples. There is nothing peculiarly racial or local in them." There it is. The wisdom of the Upanishads is grounded in the Universal. The wisdom of the Bible is grounded in the Particular.
Parmananda quotes Thoreau as saying, "What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the light of a higher and purer luminary which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum free from particulars, simple, universal." Free from particulars -- is that really something to be commended? Yes, but also no. This quality is necessary for the universal quality of these writings. It also, undoubtedly, makes them more accessible. By contrast, the spirituality of the Judeo-Christian scriptures is grounded precisely in the particular. Rather than ponder what God is like, the Bible is concerned to tell us what God has done.
The trouble in all of this is that Christianity, while it inherited this view of particularlity from Judaism, doesn't always seem to know what to do with it. We often seem to want to be universal and "free from particulars." And as post-Enlightenment Christianity has tried to shuck its dogma, the particularity has often gotten lumped in there. And so instead of a God who acts in history -- a God who becomes history -- we end up with a great teacher and wonder what to do with the fact that he was crucified. And the fact is, Christianity can't support its own weight in this sort of construction.
So you've probably noticed I'm not talking about the Upanishads anymore. Everything brings me back to Christ. And so what I see in this is a lesson for Christian mission. While the Christian gospel is universal, it is also, and must be, particular. The particularity is the Gospel. The Gospel is not that God is love. The Gospel is that God so loved that world that he sent his only begotten son. And so as Christians, we aren't in the business of showing people our great wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:17-25). We are in the business of telling people what God has done. If our mission is to succeed, we need to learn to get people excited about the particular.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
It occurs to me that there is a great parallel between the Church as bearer of the Kingdom of God and America as bearer of Liberty. When you look at the history of the United States -- that is, when you look at any particular time -- we're always, and I mean always, doing something that is simply attrocious. And yet, I think the record is clear that over time our trajectory is toward Liberty.
You could look at the history of the United States as a continual process of the people our country struggling against the government to gain their freedom, and I don't think that's wrong, but the beauty of it is that somewhere, at least as far back as the Magna Carta and possibly dating all the way to the Exodus, someone built Liberty into the heart of a machine of injustice.
And that, I think, is also the mystery of the Church. The Church (institutional and otherwise) is deeply flawed, but it carries within it the seeds of the Gospel and, although the Church itself is constantly warring against its own purpose, it is also constantly bringing forth the fruits of the Kingdom of God.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
The movie is your typical conspiracy-theory/bash-the-Catholic-Church/promote-the-Gospel-of-Thomas piece and isn't too bad as conspiracy-theory/bash-the-Catholic-Church/promote-the-Gospel-of-Thomas movies go. That is, the theology is terrible but the action is good. Of course, I'm not the type who can just let the terrible theology bit pass.
In the movie, a young woman receives the rosary of a devout priest who has recently died and begins manifesting the stigmata in graphic horror-film style. The priest sent by the Vatican to investigate naturally points out that this usually only happens to the holiest of people -- so far, so good. But it turns out that the woman has been possessed, as it were, by the recently deceased priest. OK, so that's wierd, but it still isn't what was really bugging me today.
The thing that was really bugging me is that the reason the priest was possessing this woman was to let someone know where they could find a copy of a gospel that might have been written by Jesus himself -- a gospel which the Catholic Church had attempted to repress. That's the movie-world description of the gospel though the "opening words" reveal it to be the Gospel of Thomas.
Now I have nothing in particular against the Gospel of Thomas. The thing that gets me about this is that the stigmata are, in this movie, completely incidental -- nothing more than a stepping stone to get to the real meat -- the lost book. A sign and symbol of the cross of Christ is used to point to a book that says the Gnostics were right all along. It's something like the Virgin Mary appearing to reveal the location of an ancient book forbidding the veneration of the saints.
But there's something more here that I'm not sure I can quite put my finger on. The whole fascination with lost gospels (Gnostic and otherwise) is a part of it, but so is the evangelical dogmatism about the Bible. We don't want God -- we want a book. We have taken the ad fontes of the Enlightment and run with it until our very relationship to the ancient text has become a reductio ad absurdum argument against the ad fontes approach. If God has not been living and active in the world, what difference could it possibly make what some ancient book says?
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
A worldwide survey was conducted by the UN. The only question asked was: "Would you please give your honest opinion about solutions to the food shortage in the rest of the world?"This is brilliantly targeted at Americans. The humor sucks us in as we laugh at what we know is "wrong with them" and then nails us with what we should know is wrong with us, though most of us still try to point at them even on the last line.
The survey was a huge failure.
In Africa, they didn't know what "food" meant.
In Eastern Europe they didn't know what "honest" meant.
In Western Europe they didn't know what "shortage" meant.
In China they didn't know what "opinion" meant.
In the Middle East they didn't know what "solution" meant.
In South America they didn't know what "please" meant.
And in the US, they didn't know what "the rest of the world" meant.
Friday, August 10, 2007
Sometimes I'm not even sure what the promise is. I look to the God who says "See, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:5), but I don't see everything new. O Lord God, what will you give me, for the world crumbles around me?
I happen to have been reading something today from John Zizioulas where he talks about the tension between the historical and eschatological models of the Church. The Church is on a mission from God in history, but we live at the end of time. That helps me make sense of it all. We're in history and beyond history at the same time.
And this is what the readings for the week offer me. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Need encouragement? Here's a list of people who lived in the promise and never saw what they were hoping for. Thanks. That helps a lot.
But it does, really. It shows me that I'm not doing this wrong. I'm not (necessarily) looking for the wrong things. It's not going to be easy. This is our calling.
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.You may have noticed that I haven't posted much lately. That's because I've mostly had not much to say. It's been a busy summer. Too busy. I haven't been busy with the traditional "cares of the world" (money, work, etc.) but with things like vacations, camping trips and so on that are supposed to bring balance. Yet they've thrown me out of my rhythm and my spiritual life has suffered. I've drifted away from God. Time to refocus.
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
I'm a life-long Orioles fan, and so even though it took me a train, two planes, a car and a minivan to get there, I didn't want to miss this. The Hall of Fame induction ceremony is one of rare events that takes place outside of time. In time -- during the baseball season -- I follow the Orioles; I complain about things like how lousy their relief pitching is and why firing Sam Perlozzo won't fix their problems; I watch to see if some happiness can be salvaged as they take two out of three from the Yankees; I suffer the indignity of watching them fall farther and farther out of the pennant race. But this Sunday for one shining day all of that was put aside. There was Cal. There was Earl Weaver. There was Jim Palmer. There was Eddie Murray. There was Brooks Robinson. There was Frank Robinson. For this one day, the Orioles were great again. Like I said, magic. And, oh yeah, there were 49 other members of the Hall of Fame there too.
A few other random notes on my trip:
- I felt sort of bad for Tony Gwynn. You only get inducted into the Hall of Fame once, and Gwynn was fairly overshadowed by all the attention on Cal, not least because of the Hall's proximity to Baltimore.
- Because of weather, Cal and Tony's induction was moved up to the beginning of the ceremony, ahead of a segment to honor long-time Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, and the presentation of career achievement awards to Kansas City broadcaster Denny Matthews and St. Louis sportswriter Rick Hummel. Perhaps predictably, about two thirds of the crowd walked out after Cal was done giving his acceptance speech. It was quite disgraceful. I felt especially bad for Bobby Doerr, who was speaking while this mass exodus took place. I couldn't hear a word he said.
- On the way home, I had a layover in Charlotte, NC. The "Simply Books" bookstore at the Charlotte airport has quite a selection of Christian books, but I was more than a little flumoxxed by the fact that both Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now and Jim Wallis' God's Politics showed up on their "recommended" shelf. I'm all for having a well-rounded perspective, but I can't imagine two books with more diametrically opposed visions of Christianity.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
But when he gets into the Yahwist material, his commentary really comes alive. This is the Bonhoeffer I've come to love. When he gets to the serpent's question to Eve ("Did God really say...?"), he is at the heart of discipleship. Here's what Bonhoeffer has to say about judging the concrete word of God:
What is the real evil in this question? It is not that a question as such is asked. It is that this question already contains the wrong answer. It is that with this question the basic attitude of the creature toward the Creator comes under attack. It requires humankind to sit in judgment on God's word instead of simply listening to it and doing it. And this is achieved by proposing that, on the basis of an idea, a principle, or some prior knowledge about God, humankind should now pass judgment on the concrete word of God. But where human beings use a principle, an idea of God, as a weapon to fight against the concrete word of God, there they are from the outset already right; at that point they have become God's master, they have left the path of obedience, they have withdrawn from being addressed by God.This is brilliant. He exposes the human tendency to put ideas about God above God. My trouble is, what is this concrete word of God? Many would say it is obviously the Bible, but it seems to me that ideas about the inerrancy of the Bible can and do become precisely the sort of idea or principle that we use to judge God. Specifically, when anyone says they are strictly following the Bible as the word of God, they are almost always in the position that Bonhoeffer here describes as "from the outset already right." That is, their position is fixed, and the word of God becomes a prop to demonstrate the rightness of their position.
On the other hand, the liberal position which tends to take a principle like "love your neighbor as yourself" as the baseline for all Christian behavior fits directly in the pattern Bonhoeffer lays out. We take this position of knowing that God is love and use it as the standard by which we judge God. If God doesn't in our estimation meet this standard, then we put aside what God says, and "at that point [we] have become God's master."
This is where the story of Abraham and Isaac comes to the fore. Suppose Abraham had said, "Surely God would never ask me to kill Isaac. Therefore, I will not do what God seems to have asked of me." But Abraham is put forward as a model of faith precisely because he obeyed God rather than judging God's word. But notice that Abraham did not read this command in scripture.
So what does that leave us? Adam and Eve and Abraham in these examples have a direct word from God. It is precisely this sort of word that Abraham obeys and this sort of word that the serpent calls into question. But do we receive this sort of word from God? Certainly not in the literal Biblical sense, but I think we do receive leading from God. That is, I'm pretty sure from time to time God is leading me. But God doesn't lead me in such a way that I could set out a systematic ethics or set doctrinal policy. It's more a leading to a direct act like, "Help this person" or "listen to what she is saying."
And here, I think I've come into the problem of the institutional church. The institutional church necessarily sets policies and principles which we must abide by, but when the direction in which we are led to act comes into conflict with the leading we feel from God (I don't think I need to give anyone in the ELCA an example) then we must decide for ourselves whether it is right to obey God or obey men.
But what I get out of all of this is that while we do need guidelines and principles, we must be prepared to drop them at a moment's notice to obey the leading of God in any direction whatsoever.
Here's what Bonhoeffer says immediately following what I quoted above:
In other words, in this question what is possible is played off against what is reality, and what is possible undermines what is reality. In the relation of human beings to God, however, there are no possibilities: there is only reality. There is no "let me first..."; there is only the commandment and obedience.So what do you think? Am I understanding this correctly?
Friday, July 20, 2007
Two books I read last week were Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Sabbath and J. Philip Newell's The Book of Creation. I paired them intentionally, as I thought they'd have a similar mood.
It's a bit odd reading a Jewish book on the Sabbath as a Christian, like an outsider looking in, but Heschel always has such brilliant insights that I'm willing to accept such a position to listen to what he has to say. Right from the prologue he blew me away with the idea that God exists in time moreso than in space. Listen:
Even religions are frequently dominated by the notion that the deity resides in space, with particular localities like mountains, forests, trees or stones, which are, therefore, singled out as holy places; the deity is bound to a particular land; holiness a quality associated with things of space, and the primary question is: Where is the god? There is much enthusiasm from the idea that God is present in the universe, but that idea is taken to mean His presence in space rather than in time, in nature rather than in history; as if He were a thing, not a spirit.Then I read Newell's The Book of Creation, which happens to be precisely about finding God in nature. Newell's book is an introduction to Celtic spirituality by way of a meditation on the seven days of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:4. It's very good overall, but in the shadow of Heschel's book, it left me with a certain disatisfaction -- namely, the God that Newell finds in nature tends to be "God-in-general" and not particularly the God of Christianity. He mentions Christ occaissionally, and even points to the Incarnation, but it's not really central to his thought.
On the seventh day he says:
The seven days of Genesis, as we have noted, are not a chronological account of the emergence of the universe in the past but a meditation on the ever-present mytsery of creation. The life of creation is a theophany of God. It is a visible expression of the One who is essentially invisible, an intelligible sign of the One who is beyond knowledge. Just as the first day points to the light that is always at the heart of life, so the seventh reflects the stillness that is part of God's ongoing creativity.I don't want to knock this too much. It's a very solid theology of nature, and in the end I do agree that nature points us to God. But Heschel convinced me that you can't really have the blessing of the seventh day without the God who blessed the seventh day. The blessing, the very God we are experiencing, is necessarily tied to the historical event. I don't mean to hereby embrace seven-day creationism (nor do I think Heschel does), but ultimately the creation story doesn't tell us anything about God-in-particular if it isn't telling us about God's historical act of creation.
At least that's what I think tonight.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
I read the full text of the Vatican document and there is absolutely nothing even remotely new about it. If this indeed "angers Protestants" then those Protestants ought to be lining up outside Catholic seminaries every day in protest, because this is strictly everyday Catholic ecclesiology.
In summary, "It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them...[but]...These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called 'Churches' in the proper sense."
Saturday, July 07, 2007
As I said in the comments there, this reminded me of a saying I heard a few years ago from David Tiede --"The Holy Spirit is a disruptive influence in the Church." Dr. Tiede developed this thesis based on his study of Acts, and I keep seeing that it's true. The Holy Spirit doesn't seem to like to let us get settled. And so we face adversity and the Holy Spirit works in the midst of the adversity to make amazing things happen.
I've been reading a biography of John Wesley. As late as 1789 Wesley was vigorously maintaining that he had no intention of separating from the Church of England. But as early as 1739 he was appointing lay people to preach and by 1784 he took it upon himself to ordain priests to send to America. His justification for these actions? It was necessary in order to spread the gospel.
Wesley's case provides an inspiring example of how setting mission ahead of ecclesiology can prepare the way for great works of the Holy Spirit. The actions of St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta as they continue to support Pastor Schmeling is also an inspiring example. In his July 5 statement to the press, Pastor Schmeling said, "The good news for today is that we can now return to the ministry and mission that we have been called to do." Good stuff -- get to work and let the chips fall where they may.
At first I thought this must be some kind of metaphor for the individualistic isolationism of American society closing in the family unit while closing out everything else. But as I thought more about it (biking gives you a lot of time to think) and considered how it works in my own neighborhood, I changed my mind.
I don't live on a cul de sac, but my street does loop back to the street it starts on. No one has any reason to use this street unless they live there. But the effect is that I know more of my neighbors here than anywhere I've lived. We're closed in but we're closed in together, and it makes me wonder if perhaps borders are necessary for community.
Monday, July 02, 2007
That is, Wesley saw his task as finding nominal Christians and prodding them on to becoming "real Christians" (his term).
There's a lot of bickering that goes on in many Christian circles over who is a "real Christian" and who isn't. Certain conservatives point fingers at liberals and say they aren't real Christians because they don't believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Some liberals point fingers at conservatives and say they aren't real Christians because they don't put enough emphasis on compassion.
Wesley's idea of a "real Christian" probably seemed a lot like that to his contemporaries, but he had a very sound basis. For Wesley, a "real Christian" was someone who had been converted to saving faith by the work of the Holy Spirit.
A nominal Christian might be someone who tried to live a good and moral life. He might go to church and receive the sacraments regulary. He might even be very zealous in his practice and preaching of Christianity. But, said Wesley, if this person hadn't been the beneficiary of the work of the Holy Spirit converting him to faith, he wasn't yet a real Christian.
This is very sound in theory, though I can't imagine how it could be anything other than contentious in practice -- and it was. And yet there's something breathtaking, even in reading it as history, about someone being willing to stand up and say, not everything is right in our churches.
I've referred before to David Tiede's maxim that "The Holy Spirit is a disruptive influence in the Church," and I see this as yet another application of that truth.
Imagine if someone were to go around in your average Lutheran congregation suggesting that not everyone in the pews every week really knew Jesus. Such a person would quickly find themselves pointed toward the door. But wouldn't it be true?
I'm reminded of Kierkegaard's parable of a fire in a vaudeville theatre, where the only person who know about the fire is dressed in a clown suit, and the more frantically he tells people there's a fire, the more everyone laughs.
Friday, June 29, 2007
Following a theme from my last post, I've been contemplating the nature of justice. In American culture justice is generally understood as punishment for wrongdoing. Justice is found when the guilty receive equal retribution for what they have done. Not surprisingly we read this understanding of justice into the Bible, and hence we get theories of the atonement where "God's perfect justice" requires that there must be a punishment for sin. This, of course, is not a new development.
What is a relatively new development is the recognition in certain quarters that this isn't the predominant Biblical meaning of justice. It's easy to read the above meaning into the Bible, because it fits well in instances like "David administered justice and equity to all his people" (2 Sam. 8:15), but it's not such a good fit for other uses such as "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:17). I'd like to say that the Biblical model of justice means relieving the poor and needy of the burden upon them, but it doesn't seem to be quite that simple -- almost, but not quite.
As a simple start, I did a search for the word "justice" in the Bible. I think that in every instance in this search, a case can be made that the idea of relieving oppression fits better than the idea of punishing guilt. But this could be a trick of the translation.
I tried to get into the Hebrew a little bit, because the concept appears primarily in the Old Testament, but I don't know any Hebrew and am completely reliant on language tools, so my conclusions will be very tentative.
It seems that the primary Hebrew word translated as "justice" is "mishpat". It's translated as "justice" more than any other single word, but this only accounts for 118 of the 419 occurances of this word in the Bible. So what does "mishpat" mean?
It apparently means "justice" but also "judgment" -- it's what the Israelites hoped for from God to vindicate them against their enemies. One interesting use is in Joshua 6:15 where it is translated as "manner" as in "[they] marched around the city in the same manner seven times." In Judges 13:12, it is used to ask about the "rule of life" intended for Samson. Often it is translated "ordinance". And so I get the sense that it means "the way things ought to be" or something like that.
This, of course, leads me right back to the ambiguity between justice as retribution and justice as vindication. Vindication for some people has harsh consequences for others.
The reason this troubles me is that if we approach things from the perspective of justice as providing help to those in need, then the American judicial system has the effect of being almost the exact opposite of justice. That is, it punishes the poor.
We tell ourselves that it's only the "bad people" who are punished, but this is a lie that we have bought into -- the lie that criminals are bad people and we are good people. Now I know that for the most part the people in our jails have done some very bad things. They've hurt people much more than the average sinner would even imagine doing. The problem is that socio-economic factors are just too good as predictors of criminal behavior.
At the beginning of The Great Gatsby, the narrator relates some advice he received from his father, "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had." St. Francis of Assisi said, "If God had given the greatest criminal the graces He has given me, he would have used them to better advantage than I have done."
How far can I push this?
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Ask most Christians, and I suspect you'd find that they have a sort of sentimentalized idea of the man who fell into the hands of robbers. He's an innocent victim, and so we have a soft spot for him. But what if he had been involved in a gang fight instead? Does that change the story?
I'm trying to get my head around the idea of grace and its relationship to the general human tendency to only want to see grace given to those who are worthy of it. I mentioned in a previous post that religious types like repentant sinners, but not sinners.
I think of the story of Jean Valjean and Monseigneur Myriel in Les Miserables as an exploration of the parable of the good Samaritan. Valjean is starving and sleeping on the street. Myriel takes him in. For many this would complete the parallel to the parable. But when Valjean steals Myriel's silverware, is caught and is returned to Myriel, Myriel covers his crime and gives him his candelesticks as well. This pushes the parable of the good Samaritan to the level of loving one's enemies and repaying good for evil. It shows, more than Walter Wink's nonsense about putting people in an awkward position, what it means to go the extra mile.
So trying to put this into my own life, suppose I'm riding my bike down the street and I come across a car pulled off to the side of the road. The driver yells a request for help. It's nothing extraordinary to stop and help him. It's the remnant of chivalry in our society that makes us want to help those in trouble. But now suppose that I discover that he's drunk and the reason he needs help is that he ran into a curb and blew out a tire. Do I still help him? Or do I call the police and report him for drunk driving? What does grace look like in this scenario? What would Jesus do?
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
1. He hangs out with unpopular people. Growing up, I was one of those not-cool, not-rich, not-athletic, not-terribly-clean kids that nobody really wanted to talk to and a few people actively avoided. And I dig that Jesus doesn't have a problem with that.
2. He touches unclean people. Unclean people are a step beyond unpopular people. There's something about them that causes even good people to be afraid to come near them. I think people with HIV are probably the best example we've got today. If we say that Jesus was miraculously immune to their diseases, we miss the point. I dig that Jesus would touch the people no one else would come near.
3. He welcomes sinners. Lots of religious types are enthusiastic about welcoming repentant sinners, but I don't think Jesus made that distinction. I think he welcomed real sinners, active sinners. Again, if we rush ahead to where he changes their life, we're missing the point. I dig that Jesus isn't put off by sin.
4. He offends religious types. By religious types, I mean those people whose self-image is tied up in the fact that they've got this religion thing figured out and they're doing it right. It's hard to point out where they're wrong, because I'd have to have it figured out to do so. But I don't trust them, and I dig that Jesus rubs them the wrong way.
5. He isn't afraid of the government. I'm a long-time "question authority" advocate, though at times I've been doing it for the wrong reasons. Jesus does it for the right reasons. He sees that those who put themselves in places of authority aren't really the final authority. He doesn't go out of his way to flaunt this, but he knows it and lives it. I dig that about Jesus.
Monday, June 18, 2007
Last week a Del Monte plant was raided in Portland. There were 167 illegal immigrants arrested and sent to a deportation facility. The incident led to a wide spread panic among immigrant workers in the community. For instance, schools were reporting abnormal absentee rates as immigrant parents were afraid to let their children leave home.
The pastor's sermon hit some of the usual points about how those of us present were all descended from immigrants and so on. He said he wasn't so naive as to think we could simply open our borders -- there were issues of civil order and economics which couldn't be ignored -- but he was hopeful that if we truly intend to we could work out a just solution. Overall, it was a pretty good sermon.
I'm much more naive than this pastor. I don't see why we can't just open our borders. I'm not suggesting we close down the customs department completely -- by all means keep asking people why they're coming into the country -- but I don't see why we need to turn away anyone who is coming here looking for work.
People say that it can't be done because of the impact it would have on our economy. The cost of social services is often mentioned. I don't doubt that it would cost us a great deal, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. What it comes down to is this, the people of our country are willing to offer help to the poor in neighboring countries, but only so long as it doesn't hurt.
I would like to suggest that the situation of the wealthy United States closing its borders to Mexico's poor is a direct acting out of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus lay at the rich man's gate and longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table. And I'm sure the rich man would have been happy to let Lazarus have what fell from the table -- just so he didn't have to give Lazarus something from his own plate.
Friday, June 15, 2007
It's not a bad back story. It might seem a bit cliche, but legends like this need to build on fundamental archetypes, so you ought to expect that. It's presented as a recurring myth -- a man sells his soul to the devil and as a result he's the devil's bounty hunter. OK, so this is cool, we get a little pseudo-theology in our comic book movie. Then one of these ghost riders decides not to do the devil's bidding. That's the back story.
The demonology of the movie is a little confused as there are some issues over the devil and his son having varying strengths and weaknesses, not to mention the son being a little more evil but for some reaosn being described as not having fallen. But all of that easily fits in the suspension of disbelief any movie asks of the viewer.
So the protagonist, after becoming the latest ghost rider, finds himself struggling with the possibility that maybe, just maybe, he can get a second chance, and he decides to use his powers for good. OK, so we've got a nice redemption/grace thing going there, but somehow the story can't avoid the vengence model of religion.
The Ghost Rider's greatest power is his "penance stare" -- as his opponent looks into his eyes, he feels the pain of all the innocent souls he has wounded and is reduced to a quivering mass and presumably remanded to hell.
In the final scene, when the devil is about to release him from his curse, he refuses, informing the devil that he intends to fight against him, saying that whenever innocent blood is spilled he'll be there fighting fire with fire.
So...the Ghost Rider will chase down the wicked with hellfire and damn them by revealing their sins to them. Excuse me? How is that different from the devil? It all seems to come down to the fact that people just aren't willing to go past the idea that God likes innocent people and wants to see bad people punished. A motorcycle named "Grace" isn't going to fix this storyline.
Summary: fun movie, bad theology.
Disclaimer: My MP3 player has a lot of storage, and I went with a play list that includes everything I have on there for any reason. I can't be held responsible for the quality of these selections.
Why are you taking yet another shuffle quiz?
Song: But Anyway
Artist: Blues Traveler
Comment: Why not?
What’s currently in your fridge?
Song: Still Remains
Artist: Stone Temple Pilots
Comment: It's kind of green and fuzzy. Whatever it is, it's been in there for a long time.
Your biggest nightmare?
Artist: Travis Tritt
Comment: I better not comment on this.
What place would you like to visit?
Song: Down In It
Composer: Nine Inch Nails
Comment: Actually, I'm not sure I would want to visit there.
A reason to commit suicide?
Song: Keep On Loving You
Artist: REO Speedwagon
Comment: It becomes publicly known that I have REO Speedwagon on my MP3 player.
Why are we here?
Song: The Approaching of the Disco Void
Composer: John Fahey
Comment: Someone has to stop disco.
Something you never dared to say to anyone…?
Song: Custard Pie
Artist: Led Zeppelin
Comment: OK, so when I actually said it it didn't really make any sense to anyone anyway.
One thing the world really doesn’t need?
Song: Hellhound On My Trail
Composer: Robert Johnson
Comment: No one needs a hellhound on their trail.
What’s your biggest unfulfilled wish?
Artist: Elton John
Comment: Clear all the sappy music off my MP3 player.
If you could invent something, what would it be?
Song: Cross-Eyed Mary
Composer: Jethro Tull
Comment: Rock and roll flute. Oh wait, someone's already done that.
The last thing you say before you die?
Song: Girl, You'll be a Woman Soon
Artist: Urge Overkill
Comment: Hopefully, I'll be saying this to an as yet unborn granddaughter or great-granddaughter, and not one of my daughters, who are growing up fast.
What’s your destiny?
Artist: Gravity Kills
Comment: I refuse to face destiny.
What do you do when you’re alone in an elevator?
Song: Strength Beyond Strength
Comment: I marvel at the fact that I am the strongest man in the elevator.
Why do people go fishing?
Song: Baby Come Back
Comment: It beats listening to 70's music compilations.
What would you do with your slaves?
Song: Watching You
Composer: Melissa Etheridge
Comment: You just can't trust those slaves.
Is there a man on the moon?
Song: Not Dark Yet
Artist: Bob Dylan
Comment: I'll look when it's dark, and then I'll know.
What does hell look like?
Song: Lil' Devil
Artist: The Cult
Comment: I swear, that's just what came up.
About what would you like to write a book?
Song: Cotton Eye Joe
Comment: I'd write a book about sex and violins.
The best thing ever is…?
Song: So Alone
Comment: Sartre was right, "Hell is other people."
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Song: Go Outside and Drive
Artist: Blues Traveler
Comment: He was parked on the other side of the road.
Why do you listen to music?
Song: Jumpin' Jack Flash
Composer: The Rolling Stones
Comment: 'Cause it's alright now. In fact, it's a gas.
What do you do when you’re alone and nobody’s watching?
Comment: If nobody's watching, am I really here?
Why are other people so stupid?
Artist: Jane's Addiction
Comment: Sorry, I seem to have poor impulse control today. That just came out.
Last thing you ate?
Song: 99 Ways to Die
Comment: Remember that green fuzzy stuff in my fridge?
Why is grass green?
Song: Wonderful One
Comment: Grass is green because God is love!
Your phone is ringing, but who’s on the other end?
Song: (I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear
Comment: It's my wife. No one else calls me. Really.
What should you stop doing?
Song: First Time
Comment: I should stop admitting to the sappy music on my MP3 player.
A word of advice to the readers of this quiz?
Song: Can't Get It Out of My Head
Artist: Electric Light Orchestra
Comment: Too much music clouds your thinking.