Saturday, October 27, 2007

Paul on the Cross

The thing that began my long-standing love affair with theology was trying to find an answer to the question of why Jesus had to die. Growing up in a Lutheran church, I don't recall ever hearing any answer to this question. Then one evening I asked my father-in-law, who I knew to spend an inordinant amount of time in Bible study. He said he didn't know. It's just so foundational that a lot of people don't even question it. Poking around to see who did have an answer to this question, I very quickly met St. Anselm, and yes I even read Cur Deus Homo.

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.

Let's Talk About Paul

Are you interested in the New Perspective on Paul? Do you like to talk about biblical interpretation? Hey! Me too!

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

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Dishonest Steward

I've been thinking recently about the parable of the dishonest steward. This parable is one of the most curious parts of the Bible. It gives us an example of a man doing something that would be almost universally viewed as wrong, and then commends him for setting such a fine example. The only thing I can conclude is that Jesus wasn't a capitalist.

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 8:4-7
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.
We 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.

The psalm paired with the parable in the lectionary is Psalm 113. It ends like this:
Psalm 113:5-9
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!
Why 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?

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

God Talk

In the opening chapter of The Word is Very Near You Martin Smith asks the readers to pause at the threshold as it were and consider why they are reading a book on prayer. He suggests that one reason must be that they desire God. Smith says many people will naturally shy away from this suggestion.

He writes:
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

Thrown Out

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.
-Matthew 5:13-16

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

A Parable of the Mainline Churches

A certain pub owner served nothing but the finest beers -- Guinness, Smithwick's, Samuel Adams, Widmer, Rogue -- his selection was exquisite. Many years of prosperity had made him very wealthy, but as his clientelle aged his business was no longer thriving. Reflecting on this, he decided that he missed the packed houses and lively conversations more than he would miss his money, so one night he went out and posted a sign: "Free Beer". Still the crowds did not come.

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.