Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Shack by William Young

Well, The Shack continues to sell like hotcakes, and already people are asking me what I think about it. So, I thought I would give it a read to see what all the hype was about. Going into the read, I had heard two reviews from people close to me. The first said it was the best book he had ever read, the second said he threw the book across the room halfway through it because it was “garbage.” Sounds like a good book to me.

The Shack is a novel about a man named Mack whose daughter is kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer. The body is never found, but evidence of her brutal murder is discovered in a shack in the wilderness of Oregon. Mack is overwhelmed with depression in the following years, until he receives a mysterious note from “Papa” to return to the shack and have a talk. “Papa” is the name by which Mack’s pious wife Nan refers to God, so Mack concludes that this might be an invitation from God himself. Mack returns to the shack where, indeed, he encounters the Trinitarian God.

The power of the message behind The Shack is undeniable. The themes of evil, suffering, forgiveness, reconciliation, and God’s justice permeate the novel, and at times the reader will be moved to tears by the shear force of the drama. However, many are up in arms about the theology of The Shack, most notably the way in which the trinity is portrayed in the novel. When Mack meets “God,” he meets three people—Elousia (who goes by Papa), a middle-aged African American woman who represents the Father; Jesus, a Jewish carpenter who represents the Son; and Sarayu, an Asian woman who represents the Holy Spirit. In their conversations, Papa, Jesus and Sarayu describe their function within the Godhead and correct some of Mack’s misunderstandings of God and life. It is in this dialogue that God makes some comments about Himself that some find heretical.

What do I think about The Shack? Well, I don’t want to pronounce judgment on the book. Instead I will offer up some thoughts to keep in mind as one reads the book for oneself. (Note: As with everything on this blog, these opinions do not necessarily represent the opinions of Believers Fellowship. They are my opinions.)

First, The Shack is a (fictional) novel. You have to keep the genre of the work in mind as you read it. This is not a systematic theology, and the writer has taken some creative liberties in characterization, especially of God. I have read some bloggers compare the work to The Chronicles of Narnia and the portrayal of God as a lion. In some ways, William Young does this in The Shack. He is not advocating goddess worship as some (the cussing pastor in Seattle) claim. Further, at the end the author allows for the idea that the whole story was a hallucination.

Second, the primary intent of The Shack is theodicy, reconciling the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving God with the presence of evil. The purpose of The Shack is not “to describe what the trinity looks like;” it is “to demonstrate how God responds to evil and suffering.” To this end, I found The Shack very satisfying. I have never been too keen on any of the traditional theodocies. I always resort to “God sees our suffering and hurts with us. Further, we can be confident that one day God will eliminate evil and suffering.” This is the approach to the problem that Young takes and he does so very well.

Third, the trinity is an essential doctrine of the faith, and misrepresenting it is heresy. I think defenders of The Shack are off-base when they claim that the critics are being nit-picky. I am pretty “generous” in my orthodoxy, but even I say that misrepresenting the trinity is heresy. If unorthodox trinitarianism can still be called Christian, what is not Christian? My expertise is not in systematic theology—I avoid the subject whenever I can (for this reason). We need to be careful about the language we use to describe God—it’s important. If William Young’s views of the trinity are deemed unorthodox, then they should be condemned—strongly. That being said, I think Young hints at some heretical ideas, but he never comes out and says “the Father was crucified,” or “the Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in essence,” or “the Father, Son, and Spirit do not exist at the same time.” Until someone convinces me otherwise, I want to give Young the benefit of the doubt. (Young advocates charismaticism, egalitarianism, and spiritual ideas that may be likened to the “new age.” Although I disagree with his flavor of Christianity, these ideas don’t bother me. But I am sure they will put others into a frenzy. However, Young also hints at universalism, which is more troubling to me, even if I might not call it heresy.)

Fourth, all truth is God’s truth, and much truth can be gleaned from works that are in other ways errant, even if they are grossly errant. You cannot deny the emotional power of this book—especially to people who have seen great tragedy. To condemn the work outright would be equally tragic. Young gets to the heart of the problem of evil. It is not a logical problem, it is an emotional one. People don’t disbelieve in God because of hypothetical evil that happens to animals in the forest, they disbelieve in God because their parents abuse them or because their children suffer. The Shack is powerful as theodicy, and as such, it has value.

It’s a shame to me that Young had to try to illustrate the trinity to make his point. It’s almost inevitable to slip into heresy when illustrating the trinity, and his message would not be condemned so much if he had left it alone.

I welcome any thoughts on The Shack.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Psalm 8

Psalm 8 extols the glory of God based on the majesty of creation. While I usually read this psalm and focus on vv 5–6, "You made him [mankind] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet:" (NIV). This makes me think that the psalm is about the preeminence that mankind has among creation. However, the psalm begins and ends with the refrain, "O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (NIV)

I am starting to think that this psalm is more about God than it is about us. Perhaps when the psalmist rattles off the roll call of the animal kingdom that has been subjected to mankind, what he is really saying is, "I can't believe that you have entrusted all of this to us!" Perhaps those verses continue the thought, "What is man that you are mindful of him?"

When we think of creation, we should think about how it reflects the glory of God. How are we going to treat this glory? Are we going to subject it to the glory of man, or are we going to tend to it as we were comissioned to do? Perhaps our desire to control nature is a symptom of our desire to control God--to show Him that He is not the only one who can bring rain to the crops and heal people from disease.

While I am not at all suggesting that these technological advances are a bad thing, I am suggesting that perhaps they rob us of a bit of our awe of God. Maybe we should start viewing nature, not as an obstacle to be overcome, but as a reflection of the brilliance of God.

"Father, I confess that I don't aways give You the glory that You deserve. I sit here in my man-made kingdom with my man-made toys and can't help but marvel at the glory of man. Yet all around me there are illustrations of something that is bigger than myself. I pray that You would restore to me this awe. I pray that I would realize my insignificance and the insignificance of the kingdom of man compared to Your creation. I confess that my very existence depends on your sustaining it. You are good. Amen."

Everything Must Change by Brian McLaren

In Everything Must Change, Brian McLaren develops the themes introduced in The Secret Message of Jesus to show how Jesus' radical new "framing story" is the solution to the global crises of our day. This book is by far the best by McLaren and is one of the best books I have read all year.

McLaren sees three crises in our world--the security crisis (the growing hostility between the developed nations and the poor, i.e. U.S. vs Al-Qaeda), the prosperity crisis (the unsustainability of free market "theo-capitalism" on our environment), and the equity crisis (the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer). I think McLaren is spot on in each of these crises, and I especially appreciated his analysis of the U.S. Al-Qaeda conflict. He calls the current dominating "framing story" (metanarrative) a suicide machine, meaning that if we keep operating the way we have been, we will destroy ourselves.

McLaren's solution to the global crises is the "revolution of hope"--substituting Jesus' message of the kingdom of God for the suicide machine. McLaren doesn't think that the phrase "kingdom of God" is appropriate for our day, so he substitutes titles like "God's sacred ecosystem" and "God's unterror movement." By convincing people to stop believing the dominant metanarratives and start believing Jesus' metanarrative, we will fuel the fire of the "revolution of hope" and turn around the suicide machine.

All of McLaren's thoughts (in this book) are good.

However, I think McLaren's one-sided view of the kingdom of God will torpedo any success he hopes to accomplish with this needed message. I completely agree that the world has adopted a metanarrative that is self-destructive. I also agree that Jesus' message of the kingdom of God is the message that is needed to turn everything around. However, notably absent in this book is any mention of the church or the Holy Spirit.

When McLaren speaks of "the Gospel," he refers to God's good news that He is redeeming the world. This is half true. McLaren has an axe to grind against most evangelicals that just want to preach substitutionary atonement and self-help sermons. His writings to this point have been a needed wake-up call to social justice. However, in reacting against Reformed theology, McLaren has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. He doesn't address the fact that deep down, people have a spiritual problem. They will read his book, think "That's nice," and then go back to the suicide machine. Apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, no one will set aside the suicide machine to live the kingdom of God. We can't do that on our own because we are infected with the disease called sin. Therefore, we can't throw out preaching of the cross. The Holy Spirit works through that Gospel to regenerate people so that they can live the life McLaren is calling them to live.

If it weren't for the significant disagreements that I have with Brian McLaren about Jesus' message, I would say Everything Must Change is the best book I have read all year. But I do disagree with him on some major points, so I will just say that the book is very good.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Third Kainos Service

Kainos met again last night. As usual, it was great.

Putting on this worship service once per month (soon to be twice) is a lot of work for a lot of people. Last night, 11 people showed up. At the same time, I think all 11 people would say that they met God there. There is something about doing church simply, with no bells or whistles--just a Bible, a piano, some candles, some bread, and some wine, that makes encountering God more meaningful. I think the difference is authenticity.

When I speak in church, I prepare. I use all of the skills I learned in homeletics, and put the hours into the studying. There is pressure. There are standards. There are expectations. When I share at Kainos, I just say, "This is what god has laid on my heart." It's a much needed time of refreshment.

Even if it's just me and 10 friends.

Psalm 7 (Plus some musings on God's violence and the Christian metanarrative)

Psalm 7 continues the theme of some of the previous psalms. It is a prayer to the Lord for deliverance from one's enemies.

I love the imagery in this psalm, especially verse 14--"He who is pregnant with evil and conceives trouble gives birth to disillusionment" (NIV). The psalmist portrays his enemies as lions and the Lord as a mighty warrior. It's great imagery throughout. (On a side note, this is a great "God is not your girlfriend" psalm. How many contemporary Christian songs portray God as sharpening His sword and stringing His bow intending to destroy the wicked?)

I am reading two great books right now--Systematic Theology (vol 1) by Wolfhart Pannenberg and Everything Must Change by Brian McLaren. It's interesting to me to reflect on the ideas of these books when combined with the language of this psalm.

McLaren's book is great--the best book by him by far. It's a serious call to reevaluate the way in which we look at the world. I love his conclusions, although his one-sided portrayal of Jesus and the Gospel kind of irritates me. The risk in doing historical Jesus studies is that when you are finished, the "historical" Jesus usually looks a lot like the historian. Such is the case with McLaren's Jesus. He is the Jesus of the disenchanted boomer American evangelical intellectual--kind of a John Lennon, Ghandi, and MLK, Jr., and Al Gore all rolled into one. While I appreciate McLaren's call to re-examine the Gospel, and I love some of the changes he would like to see in American evangelicalism, I wonder how McLaren reads psalms like Psalm 7.

There is a lot of violence in the Bible. There are real bad people, and real good people, and God doesn't take too kindly to the bad people.

Also, Pannenberg's Systematic Theology is OUTSTANDING. It may be the toughest book I have ever read, but it is also one of the best. Pannenberg wrestles with the question of whether the "truthfulness" of Systematic theology should be a goal of the discipline, or whether the discussion is simply an in-house dialogue among the already convinced. If systematic theology seeks to prove the truthfulness of its assertions, by what means can it do so? (Pannenberg argues from a postmodern context in which the authority of the church, Scriptures, and natural theology have all been lost.) Pannenberg says that the truthfulness of religious claims are demonstrated historically as the proposed deity does what he/she claims it can do. I am only 240 pages into the book, but I am pretty sure that Pannenberg is going to say that the truthfulness of Yahweh's rule will be demonstrated in the eschaton when He does everything that He says He would do.

So Pannenberg would read Psalm 7 by saying that God sharpens His sword to slay the wicked in order to prove that He is indeed the righteous judge He claims to be.

McLaren talks a lot about "framing stories," which I call metanarratives. This is what I think the metanarrative of Christianity looks like now:

God is the God of Psalm 7. He is holy and righteous. He rewards the righteous and He condemns the wicked. In the Old Testament, God did a lot of "mighty deeds" to prove His reign. He blessed Israel, He preserved the Davidic dynasty, He rewarded the righteous and punished the wicked. Then came the Babylonian captivity, and the story changed. No longer could it be said that God rewarded the righteous and punished the wicked, because history demonstrates that sometimes the wicked win. So, eschatology was introduced into the equation. Although it looks like the wicked win, death is not the end of the story. God will resurrect the just and the unjust, and at that resurrection He will vindicate, or "justify" the righteous, and condemn the wicked. This is the metanarrative into which Jesus entered, only he changed the rules again. He redefined the elect people who will be justified from "those who are a part of Israel as demonstrated by circumcision and obedience to the law" to "those who are a part of the new Israel as demonstrated by faith in (i.e. allegiance to) Jesus." Also, he introduced the reign of God as an "already" reality by the presence of His Spirit.

So, when I read Psalm 7, I learn more about God than I do about life. God is certainly the God who rewards the righteous and condemns the wicked, but I might not see that justice this side of the eschaton.

"Father, it seems that every day I learn something different about your character. I thank you for the many voices of our age, and for the Scriptures that we have inherited from the ancients. I pray that as I study concepts like "righteousness" and "justice" that I would not get caught so much in theology that lose sight of being righteous and just. I pray that I would become a part of the global solution and not so much a part of the global problem. Give us wisdom in America. We need to change. Amen."

Friday, April 25, 2008

Psalm 6

What a great psalm. It's psalms like this that make me read the Bible.

I love the imagery in this psalm about the emotional consequnces of sin. The psalmist says, "my bones are in agony" and "[I] drench my couch with tears." Wow. The reference to the enemies implies to me that the psalmist saw the physical affliction brought to him by these enemies as God's way of chastening him. He sinned, and the bad guys started hurting him. He prayed for mercy, and he anticipated that the Lord would drive them away.

It's great that we have a God who cares about our groaning. Sometimes it feels like people in church are afraid to hurt. They feel that because they have Jesus, everything should be bright and chipper in their lives. This hasn't been my experience, and I don't think it's normative for Christianity. We are still experiencing the effects of the fall. Death is alive and well. Satan is still the ruler of this age. We are all wasting away. And yet, we are also members of a new age--an age in which death has no power over us. But as we await our redemption, it's okay to mourn the tragedies we see every day. The promise of victory and resurrection should motivate us to cry out to the One who defeated death. He cares about our pain.

"Father, I don't understand why, in Your greatness, you give second thought to people like me. But I'm grateful that you do. Thank you for being compassionate, for being merciful, for being faithful. Father, as I see the pain and suffering around me and around the world, I am reminded that the last enemy has not been subdued yet. I am reminded that I am not home yet. I am reminded that Your kingdom is still in a lot of ways not yet. Father, give me the the faith to persevere. I ask also for the wisdom to recognize the hurting around me and to reach out to them with comfort. I thank you for Your comfort, and for the community of saints who have comforted me. Amen."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Psalm 5

Psalm 5 seems to me to be a contrast between 2 kinds of people. First there are the "wicked" people. They are "arrogant," they "do wrong," they "tell lies," and they are "bloodthirsty and deceitful." Then there are those who "take refuge" in God, "love [His] name," and are "righteous" (all terms from NIV).

The psalmist affirms that God is not on the side of the wicked and then prays that God will pronounce them guilty and bring swift judgment on them. The basis of his plea seems to be his persistence in prayer, his humility in the way he bows to the temple, and God's great mercy.

It's hard for me to read the psalm and say for certain that I am one of the "righteous" whom God has sworn to protect. Am I ever "arrogant"? Yes. Have I "told lies"? Yes. Do I otherwise "do wrong"? Certainly. On the other hand, I am certain that the psalmist had done these things too, yet he confidently affirmed that he was righteous and that his enemies were wicked. Perhaps the basis for this confidence was his appeal to God's mercy and his recognition of God's greatness.

What does it look like to "take refuge" in the Lord? What does it mean to "love the name" of the Lord? Is it simply intellectual assent to the propositions in the Book of Romans, or is it more than that? When I say that I have "faith," what do I mean? What is faith? Tough question.

"Father, I acknowledge that You are the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. I confess that there are no other gods besides You. I believe that Jesus died for my sins and that He rose from the dead. And yet, Father, I wonder. I wonder if we haven't missed the point. Are we kidding ourselves? Is the life of Christ far more radical that any of us in America have imagined? I don't want to be counted among the 'wicked.' But, God, looking at the life of Christ and the example to which we have been called, I have to confess that I anticipate my failure. Further, I can't say that I have met anyone who comes close to the pattern that Jesus left for us. Are we all failing? Is this a reminder that ultimately, we need to cry for your mercy? I don't know.

Father, I confess that You are good. I confess that You care for all humanity, including me. I confess that ultimately, salvation is a work of grace. While I pray that you would continue to mold me into the image of Christ, I confess that only He is righteous. Amen."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Psalm 4

Today I reflected on Psalm 4. From what I gather, Israel was going through some kind of famine or otherwise trying time, and they were starting to doubt the Lord's faithfulness and the psalmist's ability to lead. Verses 4–6 imply that some of them were grumbling against Yahweh/the king and were even turning to other gods for prosperity. On the one hand, the psalmist expresses confidence that the Lord will protect his righteous ones, so that he can sleep more peacefully at night than the others can even when their storehouses overflow with grain and their vats with wine. On the other hand, he acknowledges the hard times and cries out to God to deliver him.

Again, a lot of this language is foreign to me because the "tough times" I have seen are nothing compared to the impact of a famine on an agrarian culture. I can't imagine praying to idols to turn around the American economy. But then again, maybe that American economic machine is the "delusion" and the "false god" of our day. Why do we get so worked up when the value of the dollar decreases, when the stock market starts to slide, or when the housing market slumps? Do we doubt God's ability to take care of us? These things seem kind of trivial when I reflect on the poverty of many people outside of the U.S. Yet, I worry about them all the same.

"Father, I still wrestle with the discomfort of my personal prosperity. I feel uneasy about being a part of an economic system that promotes global inequality. Perhaps that is conviction. Perhaps it is false guilt. I can't help that I was born in America. I can't help that there are certain realities to living in America. Yet, Father, I feel that the American system saps my need for you. The times that You have felt most "close" or "real" have been the times of personal tragedy. Am I robbing my spirit by feeding by bank account and belly?

Lord, I don't know the answer to my uneasiness. I do know that I want to be a part of the solution. I pray that You would continue to work in me. That You would convict me of greed, of selfishness, of pride. I pray that You would make me more conscious of the needs of the people around me and of the people around the world. I pray that You would make our nation a more compassionate one, and that You would start with Your church here. Amen."

Monday, April 21, 2008

Psalm 3

Today's psalm is one written by David as he was fleeing his son Absalom. It's one of those psalms in which David reminds the Lord about all of his enemies and how they mock him and claim that the Lord will not deliver him. Then, he confesses that he survives each night only because the Lord is his protection. He expresses his confidence in the Lord, and then calls the Lord to kick in the teeth of his enemies. Finally, he reminds the reader/hearer of the psalm that the Lord puts such "blessing" on all of His people.

David's world seems so far removed from my own. I can't imagine what it would be like to have a number of people "out to get me" in the sense that they wanted to kill me. David recognized that these guys were acting against the Lord and not for Him, and therefore they would be foiled in their attempts.

The part of the psalm that sticks out to me is verse 7, in which David calls on God to give his enemies the beat down. This is hardly turning the other cheek. Somehow, I don't see Jesus echoing this prayer. I guess Peter called down the thunder on a couple of people (Acts 5:9, 8:20–23) and Paul handed some people over to Satan (1 Cor 5:5, 1 Tim 1:20), but these reactions seem to be the exception rather than the rule. That really raises the question of what is going on in this psalm.

I am reading Wolfhart Pannenberg's Systematic Theology right now, and I think he presents a solution to me. In his discussion of the world's religions, he says that the relative truthfulness of a religion has to be demonstrated on its own terms, i.e. how the claims of the religions play out in the experiences of (primarily) the adherents of that religion and (secondarily) the non-adherents of the religion. So, how do we know that Marduk isn't the supreme deity? Because his people were conquered and worship of him disappeared from the earth. History showed that the Babylonian religion was "false." In the case of Yahweh, He has to demonstrate His superiority to the other religions by action in history. This is what was going on when Elijah took on the prophets of Baal. They were having a contest to see which deity was true. (Perhaps you can say that the resurrection of Jesus was the proof par excellence of Yahweh's superiority.)

In the case of David, God had sworn to protect David and failure to do so would be evidence of His weakness. (Even the bad things that happened to David are presented in Scripture as judgments of Yahweh on David for his unfaithfulness.) So, I think that David could pray for Yahweh to kick in his enemies' teeth because, in a way, that was demonstrating God's power. By protecting the king, God would be preserving His own reputation.

The situation is different for us today. Jesus reversed the paradigm so that by suffering with faith we are actually "overcoming" our enemies. (I wrote my masters thesis on this theme in the Book of Revelation.)

So, if you are my enemy--rest assured. I am not praying for God to kick your teeth in.

"Father, I was to thank You for the way that You have watched over me and preserved me. It's a testimony to David's words about Your blessing that I haven't experienced the things he did. God I confess that when I have encountered opposition, my reaction has been to want to kick in the teeth of my enemies--not for Your glory--but for my own. I confess that this is not the way of Jesus. God, I pray that You would help me to be a part of the solution. I pray that I would stand up for Your glory by my willingness to suffer for those who hate me. I pray that You would give the courage to do so, because my instinct will be to respond to hate with hate.

I pray that You would strengthen my faith--that I would never doubt Your protection or Your superiority to the "gods" of my age. Too often I take You for granted. I thank You for Jesus. I thank You for Your grace. Amen."

The Johannine Question by Martin Hengel

I recently finished reading Richard Bauckham's The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. Throughout, he referred to Martin Hengel's book, The Johannine Question, so I thought I should give it a read. Excellent decision on my part, if I do say so. Hengel is arguably the premier scholar of our time when it comes to Second Temple Judaism and Christian origins, and his work on the authorship/background of John is excellent.

There are two major opinions with regard to the authorship of the Fourth Gospel. The conservative position, held by Carson, Keener, Kostenberger, and others, is that John the son of Zebedee (or someone close to him) wrote/edited the gospel. The more progressive position, held by (the deceased) Raymond Brown and others, is that the author(s) are unknown and that the Fourth Gospel and Epistles of John tell us more about a "Johannine" community than they do about Jesus. There are, of course, mediating positions, but these two extremes are the most common views.

Hengel offers another solution to the question, namely that "John the elder," a mysterious figure mentioned by Papias (as quoted by Eusebius) wrote the Gospel and that over time he was confused with the more prominent John the son of Zebedee. According to Hengel, John the elder was a young man during the ministry of Jesus, taught in Ephesus after the resurrection, wrote the Fourth Gospel, I, II, and III John (and perhaps Revelation), and was one of the last eyewitnesses to pass away (probably at an old age). Bauckham follows this theory and adds that perhaps John the elder was a disciple of John the son of Zebedee, further adding to the historical confusion.

In my opinion, the best part of Hengel's book is his evaluation of the more "liberal" views that the Fourth Gospel is a cut-and-paste collection of anecdotes put together by a series of redactors over a long period of time. Hengel shows that this is extremely unlikely. However, I wish he had interacted more with the more conservative position. The only discussion that I saw in the book was an allusion in a footnote to a tradition that John the son of Zebedee was martyred at a young age (before the Fourth Gospel could have been written) and a reference to a 1962 JBL article written by P. Parker.

I wasn't convinced by Hengel's arguments that "John the elder" wrote the Gospel. It seems to me that if John was prominant enough in the church to have produced 4 or 5 books of the New Testament canon, more steps would have been taken to distinguish him from John the son of Zebedee. The early church went to great lengths to distinguish between James the brother of Jesus and James the son of Zebedee, and between the numerous guys named "Judas." It seems odd that this guy John the elder would fall off of the historical map. (Note also the distinction in the Synoptics between John the Baptist and John the son of Zebedee. If it weren't for the latter John, perhaps John the Baptist would just be known as "John.")

After reading The Community of the Beloved Disciple by Raymond Brown, Life in Abundance: Studies in John's Gospel in Tribute to Raymond Brown edited by John R. Donahue, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple by Richard Bauckham, and The Johannine Question by Martin Hengel, I am pretty convinced that there is good reason to attribute the Fourth Gospel to John the son of Zebedee.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Psalm 2

I've always kind of liked this psalm because it's quoted so much by people who haven't really thought through what it is saying. It's a sobering and in many ways terrifying description of God and His annointed one (Israel's king imo, with possible later references to Christ, the annointed one par excellence).

The psalm is more or less a warning to the subdued nations that they better not try to rebel and free themselves from Israel's rule because the Lord would smite them if they did. When you think of Israel's king as 'The Son of God" (to which he was sometimes referred), this gives new meaning to the verse that the NIV renders, "Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way." In other words, "Submit to us, or you're going to get it."

This is not the way that most Americans like to think about God and His people. But, that is the way that God is portrayed in the Old Testament. We have to keep in mind that in the Ancient Near East, each nation had it's own deity and that deity's power was demonstrated by the power of the nation that worshipped the deity. So, in a sense, Yahweh exercised his rule through the rule of Israel. Yahweh demonstrated His power when his annointed one "ruled them with an iron scepter" and "dashed them to pieces like pottery." Yikes.

It's sad how often I "plot in vain" against the Lord. All too frequently I try to throw off the fetters of His rule. Perhaps I wouldn't be so rebellious if God still struck people down for rebellion (but then again, that didn't stop people in antiquity). There is something to be said for a healthy "fear of God," one that goes beyond the "reverence" that we usually say this phrase means. (Sometimes it feels like we say fear=reverence just so that we don't have to fear or revere God.)

"Father, I know that you are good. You have shown your grace to me time and again. And yet, sometimes I wonder if You are shooting Yourself in the foot by doing so. Sometimes I wish I had more of a fear of You. That isn't to say that I don't recognize Your power or Your right to rule, neither is it to say that You delight in terrorizing Your people. It is just to say that as The One Who Is, I should have a better appreciation for Your being and for my relative insignificance.

Father, how do I develop a healthy fear of You? I certainly don't want to be a legalist. I don't want to lose sight of Your love or Your grace. I just don't want to develop a heart that takes advantage of Your grace. As Paul reminds us, that way leads to death. I pray that You would mold me. I pray that You would do what it takes to make me into a man of wisdom--one who knows You and Your ways. I confess that I haven't been proactive enough in this endeavor. You are life. You are peace. You are joy. Amen."

Monday, April 14, 2008

Psalm 1

There was a time in my life when I decided that I needed to ground myself in what the Scriptures say about God so that I could better navigate through contemporary literature. So much of what we do and say is based on our own perceptions of what we want God to be like instead of what the Scriptures say God is like. My decision took me to the psalms, and I ploughed through them, one psalm at a time, through the whole book. When I finished the book, I stopped the discipline.

Well, I think I could use that again. I read a lot about theology, Christianity, ministry, etc., but it's not too often that I just reflect on God. Even when I study the New Testament, I tend to emphasize translation, historical background, and theology. Too often these other valuable things crowd out what God has to say to me through His word.

Today I reflected on Psalm 1 for a bit. It's interesting that a decision to reflect on the Scriptures begins with a psalm expounding the importance of reflecting on the Scriptures. The psalm has three stanzas--one about the man who delights in the law, one about the wicked, and one summary statement.

I find myself easily agreeing with the second stanza. It's easy to see the connection between living apart from God and failing miserably in life. The first stanza, however, is a bit tougher for me to believe--I mean really believe. I can acknowledge with my head that studying the Scriptures is a good thing, but would I go so far as to say that "my delight is in the law," or that I "meditate on it day and night" as the NIV renders the verses? Hardly.

Maybe this is a challenge to me to reevaluate the way I "do Christianity." I study the Scriptures because I enjoy it--it's fascinating to me to dig into the cultural milieu of the anciet world to uncover what was going on in the ancient writers' heads as they reflected on God. But do I go one step further, and ask, "How does this promote wise living?" Perhaps I need to do more of that.

"Father, I confess that at times I have been guilty of treating the Scriptures as an historical document and not a living, spiritual force. I confess that when I have made decisions based on what has seemed right to me at the time, that I have gotten into trouble. Father, I believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that I won't be whole until I figure out what that means for me. I pray that you would continue to mold me. I pray that I would be humble in my thoughts and disciplined in my commitments. I pray that I would develop a spiritual wisdom. I thank you for being patient--for picking me up when I have failed miserably. I thank you for your grace. I thank you for the spiritual community of which I am a part. You are good to me. Amen."

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Everyone has their guilty pleasure. For me, it's Starcraft--the greatest PC game of all time.

I bought Starcraft in June 1998, 2 months after it came out. I had played Warcraft 2 (the precursor to Starcraft) and was long awaiting this epic game. The first week after I came home from my freshman year of college, I dropped $40 at Fred Meyer and began the next chapter of my life. I played throughout college, off and on from 2000–2006, and then picked it up again last year. (I also played Warcraft 3, the follow-up to Starcraft from 2002–2004.) The friends from college with whom I have maintained the best relations are my old Starcraft partner and some rival players.
In some ways, real-time strategy games have surpassed Starcraft--at least with regard to graphics and game-play innovation (Warcraft 3 is a clear example of this). However, Starcraft remains the best RTS game out there and qualifies as the best game ever for the following reasons:
  1. Variety in Game Play. The thing that Starcraft was able to do that no other game before or since has been able to equal was the variety in game play. There are three races from which a play can choose--Protoss, Zerg, or Terran--and each plays the game completely different. Yet, there is no "best" race. In a 2v2, if all four players choose "random", there are 81 possibilities for the matchup. That doesn't take into account the various strategies within each race and the different maps.
  2. Perfect Balance of Skill and Strategy. Stracraft is a strategy game, but the real-time element means that skill is just as important as strategy. This means that a beginner can learn a good strategy and compete with more skilled players. On the other hand, it means that very skilled players can overcome strategic mistakes with quick decisions. I have played games in which I have had better strategy, only to lose because my opponent was quicker on the keyboard. (Likewise, I have beaten people that way.) No other game has balanced skill and strategy like Starcraft.
  3. High Skill Ceiling. You can always improve at Starcraft. With most other games, you play for a couple of months and you have mastered it. I have been playing Starcraft for 10 years, and I still run into players online in which I say, "Wow. That guy is awesome."

If playing the same online video game with your friends for 10 years is a crime, then consider me guilty. If it makes me a nerd--so be it. Like I said, we all have our guilty pleasures.

I played some Starcraft with my friends this Saturday. We must have played 15 games. In the game's heyday, we used to dominate. Now, all of the casual players are gone, leaving only the professionals (yes, you can make a living playing Starcraft) and the otherwise very good. Now we only win about 45% of the time. But, when Starcraft 2 hits the shelves later this year or next, the casual gamers will be back and we will dominate again!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Hadji Murad" by Leo Tolstoy

Well, I finished my first book by Tolstoy. The last short story in this collection is "Hadji Murad," set in the 19th Russian war with the Chechnyans. (I know nothing of Russian history, but still found the story enlightening.)

The story starts with the narrator describing the act of destroying a beautiful thistle as he tries to extract it from a plant. The act reminds him of how mankind destroys things when we try to harvest them for our own purposes. Case in point, the narrator remarks, the life of Hadji Murad. Madji Murad was a noble man, destroyed by the politics of the Russians and Chhechnyan Muslims. The story then moves to recount the life and death of this young Muslim "warlord" and his battles with the Russians and with rival Muslim "warlords."

The story is great and it makes some revealing parallels between the ancient Chechnyan Muslim culture (thought to be barbarous by the Russian aristocracy) and the Russian aristocracy itself. Hadji Murad is certainly the hero of the story--he is noble, loyal, proud, pious, and strong. However, he is not idealized. Tolstoy points out that he and his contemporaries are polygamists, they punish rebels by maiming or beheading them, and they maintain blood feuds between rival tribes for generations. At the same time, the Russian artistrocracy is lampooned in the story. Tolstoy exposes their petty jealousy and rivalries, debauchery, and greed.

Tolstoy includes just enough stereotypical ancient Muslim customs to make westerners shake their heads in disapproval, only to follow them up with parallels in Russian culture. (This is the same rhetorical technique many of the ancient Israelite prophets used.) For instance, a westerner might look down on Muslim polygamy, but when Hadji Murad is taken to a Russian ball, topless women are paraded around for the men the gawk at, and only Hadji Murad disaproves. Further, westerners might scoff at the Muslim blood feuds, but Hadji Murad is able to identify "tribalism" within the Russian society. When he surrenders to the Russians, he can tell by way of their mannerisms (he doesn't speak Russian) who is "really" in charge. Although Meller-Zakomelsky was the ranking officer in the camp, Vorontsov, being the son of an aristocrat, was viewed as "more important" by the soldiers. Hadji Murad picks up on this and refuses to talk to anyone except Vorontsov.

As usual, Tolstoy has amazing insight into human behavior. In this case, he is right to point out the similarity of most cultures. In 21st century America, we subconciously think that we are "more civilized" than say the native tribes high in the Andes mountains. In reality, our cultures are structured more or less the same. Further, America prides itself as being a "democracy," but you can see signs of an aristrocracy. If Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election, that means for at least 24 straight years this country will have been run by someone from either the Bush or the Clinton family. Statistically, would that happen in a true democracy? Now, granted, there are systems in place in America in which a "nobody" can rise to the top through innovation, but this is certainly the exception rather than the rule.

I have worked with the urban poor and the suburban rich, and I have to say that the two cultures are pretty similar. People sort themselves through power plays. Among the urban poor, those power plays might look like street fights or drive-bys; among the suburban rich they might look like "networking" with people from the same ivy-league league school or the same country club. (Among pastors it might be sorting based on the size of one's congregation or budget.) It's the same game, just a different context.

To this, Christ confronts us with the challenge to serve people--the last will be first and the first will be last. Application of that message might look slightly different to a gang member in Tacoma than it does to a businessman in Gig Harbor, but it's the same challenge to both groups. But, man, is that a hard message to preach to people.

I loved reading Tolstoy, but War and Peace and Anna Karenina are some big books.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple by Richard Bauckham

I just finished reading The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John by Richard Bauckham. Great book. I like Richard Bauckham because he is not afraid to think outside of the scholarly concensus. He offers fresh looks at old issues and makes you walk away thinking, "Now I don't know what I believe."

Case in point, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple pretty much deconstructs the scholarly concensus on reading the Gospel of John. I just finished reading two books based on Raymond Brown's interpretation of John. Raymond Brown's two volumes on John in the Anchor Bible Commentary, followed by his volume on the Epistles of John in the same series and his book, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, revolutionized the way scholars read John. Bauckham's book refutes a lot of the conclusions drawn by Brown and others.

In an essay titled "The Gospel of John: The Legacy of Raymond E. Brown and Beyond" (included in Life in Abundance: Studies of John's Gospel in Tribute to Raymond E. Brown) Francis Maloney says that the major issues in current Johannine theology are: (1) the religious environment forming the background of the Gospel, (2) the Johannine community, (3) the possibility of redaction criticism of the Gospel, (4) Johannine christology and the historical Jesus, (5) creativity in John, (6) canonical criticism of the Gospel, (7) characterization, (8) symbolism, (9) (postmodern) hermeneutics and (10) interaction with a wider range of scholarship. Bauckham deals with the first 8 of these directly. He argues that the closest literary genre to the Gospels is the ancient bios, roughly similar (yet with important differenences) to the modern biography. He adds that a "two-level" reading of John is methodologically suspect because there exists in history no literary genre dedicated to that sort of function. Further, he says that there is no historical evidence for a sectarian "Johannine community," and that the evidence from the Gospel itself suggests that it was intended to be read by a wide audience. Finally, he argues that "the beloved disciple" is not presented as an ideal disciple, but as an ideal eye-witness, strenthening the Gospel's claim to be real history. (Baukham also deals with other issues in addition to these.)

The major strength of Baukham's book is that it restores credibility to the idea that John contains real history. As I prepare for my upcoming sermon series on John, I am still going to use Raymond Brown's commentary (and probably those of Francis Maloney, Craig Keener, and D.A. Carson), but I will be more aware of some of its shortcomings. Brown had some revolutionary ideas, many of which have been validated by further research, but some of which have been shown to be questionable. I appreciate the red flags raised by Richard Bauckham.