Thursday, May 29, 2008

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 13)

Having warmed the reader up with history and theology, Wright decides to call down the thunder and start preaching in chapter 13 of Surprised by Hope. Given that resurrection is about "life after life after death" and not "going to heaven when you die," what should the mission of the church be? According to Wright, the church is to build for the kingdom of God.

Wright starts chapter 13 with a clarification of what he means by building for the kingdom. He criticizes those who would say, "We can't bring in the kingdom, only God can," saying that while this might sound pious, it is little better than "keeping one's head well down when the boss is looking for volunteers." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 207.)

Wright grants that only God can bring in the kingdom. That is why he says the church doesn't "build the kingdom of God," it "builds for the kingdom of God." (208) Ultimately, God will bring the kingdom to consummation, but what we do here and now will have some continuity in eternity. Wright then explores the implication of this in the areas of justice, beauty, and evangelism.

Wright argues that the church should be working for social justice. He points out that the church has typically erred in two extremes on this issue. The first extreme is the social gospel, which sees Jesus as primarily a revolutionary and tries to build the kingdom through social, political, and cultural revolution. (215) He says that these folks are "fighting with one arm tied behind their back" because they neglect the theology of resurrection. (213) The other extreme is to say that nothing can be done until the Lord returns. (215) Wright compares this to the view that trying to live like Christ is pointless since we will never be fully sanctified until Christ returns. (221)

Having addressed the church's responsibility to work for justice, Wright moves to talk about beauty. He points out that humanity's first job was to create, or at least procreate. (223) He applauds the progress that the church has made in the arts in recent years.

Having addressed justice and beauty, Wright concludes chapter 13 by talking about evangelism. He writes, "Much evangelism has, of course, consisted of taking the traditional framework of heaven-and-hell expectation and persuading people that it's time they consider the heaven option and grab it while they still have a chance." (226) While Wright doesn't fully condemn this approach, he does say that it is less-than-perfect because it doesn't accurately communicate the gospel. According to Wright, the gospel is "the good news that God (the world's creator) is at last becoming king and that Jesus, whom this God raised from the dead, is the world's true lord." (227)

Finally, I love what Wright says about the effect that preaching this gospel would have on evangelism. He writes:

"Putting evangelism and conversion within the context of new creation means that the convert, who has heard the message in terms of the sovereign and saving lordship of Jesus himself, will never be inclined to think that Christian behavior--saying no to the things that diminish human flourishing and God's glory and saying yes to the things that enhance them--is an optional extra or simply a matter of wrapping your head around some rather strange rules and regulations. Some kinds of evangelism in the past implied that the main thing is to sign on, to pray a particular prayer, which results in the assurance that one is safely on the way to heaven--and failed to mention, to the frustration of pastors and teachers who then tried to look after such converts, the fact that following Jesus means just that, following Jesus, not just checking a box that says 'Jesus' and then sitting back as though it's all done. To speak, rather, of Jesus's lordship and of the new creation, which results from his victory on Calvary and at Easter, implies at once that to confess him as Lord and to believe that God raised him from the dead is to allow one's entire life to be reshaped by him, knowing that though this will be painful from time to time, it will be the way not to a diminished or cramped human existence but to genuine human life in the present and to complete, glorious, resurrected human life in the future. As with every other aspect of new creation, there will be surprises on the way. But Christian ethics will only gain from being understood as one expression of Christian hope." (229–30)

I love that. Wright gets to the heart of what it means to have "faith." It's not just about checking a box, it's about following Jesus. If we were to do a better job at remembering this, the world would look much different than it looks.

What do you think about Wright's version of "the gospel"? What about his views on "faith"? Do you think most churches in America do a good or poor job at "preaching the gospel"?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Psalm 13

Psalm 13 is a typical prayer to the Lord for deliverance. The NET Bible renders it:

1For the music director; a psalm of David.
How long, LORD, will you continue to ignore me?
How long will you pay no attention to me?

2 How long must I worry,
and suffer in broad daylight?
How long will my enemy gloat over me?

3 Look at me! Answer me, O LORD my God!
Revive me, or else I will die!

4 Then my enemy will say, "I have defeated him!"
Then my foes will rejoice because I am upended.

5 But I trust in your faithfulness.
May I rejoice because of your deliverance!

6 I will sing praises to the LORD when he vindicates me.

I just noticed another translation difference between the NET and the NIV that reminds me why I like the NET Bible so much. The NIV renders verse 6, "I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me." The tense of the verb in the clause "when he vindicates"/"for he has been good" makes a subtle but HUGE difference. In the NIV, the tone of the entire psalm changes at the end. At the beginning, the psalmist is lamenting about all of the trouble in his life, but then at the end he changes his mind and says, "Well, I guess the Lord has been good to me." In the NET, the psalmist is saying "When the Lord comes through for me, THEN I will praise him." Huge difference.

I remember when I was in high school, someone at church told me that he loved the psalms because David often started so angry at God but then by the end of the psalm he realized that he was out of line. This may the case in the NIV's rendering of this psalm. However, I don't really like that kind of theology. I don't think we should use pious language about God to mask our real emotions. If you're mad at God, tell Him! He's not intimidated. (Just be prepared to repent in dust and ashes if He calls you out like He did to Job.)

"Father I thank you for being good to me. I thank You for caring about me--for listening to my grumbling and complaints. I confess that more often than not I am out of line, but I thank You for caring about what is on my heart. Amen."

JesusCreed and Christ and Culture

Scot McKnight is blogging about one of my favorite topics (see posts below), H. Richard Niebuhr's book Christ and Culture. See the discussion here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Psalm 12

I love the first two words of this Psalm. "Help, LORD." I also love verse 7, " O LORD, you will keep us safe and protect us from such people forever." (NIV)

One of the reasons that I love reading the Psalms is the raw humanity expressed in them. Sometimes I feel like there is an unexpressed competition in the church over who can be the most pious when they pray. We like to use high and lofty languge and express solid theological truth for everyone else to hear. The psalmist just prayed, "Help me!" I love prayers like that.

"Father, I ask that you would calm my anxiety about unfinished projects. Help me to finish and finish well. Amen."

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 12)

Have I expounded on the greatness of N.T. Wright on this blog before? If not, let me say it. N.T. Wright is great. I loved chapter 12 of Surprised by Hope.

Part I of Surprised by Hope (chapters 1–4) addresses misconceptions about heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church. In Part II (chapters 4–11), Wright outlines his view of what is going on in history as it relates to the resurrection. In Part III (chapters 12–15), he is going to talk about how this affects the mission of the church. Chapter 12 is about salvation and the kingdom of God.

Wright introduces Part III of Surprised by Hope with a quote by John Dominic Crossan, which he calls the "moral objection" to the belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Write paraphrases Crossan:

"Even if Jesus did rise from the dead, so what? Very nice for him, but what's that got to do with anything else? Why should he be so heavily favored? If God can pull off a stunt like that, why can't he intervene and do a lot more useful things like stopping genocide or earthquakes?" (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 189. Wright cites Robert B. Stewart, ed., The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006].)

Crossan's critique is legitimate and demands an answer. Fortunately, Wright has one, "Precisely because the resurrection has happened an an event within our own world, its implications and effects are to be felt within our own world, here and now." (191) Setting the world to right is not an extra thing to be tacked on to the end of the Gospel, it is integral to the Gospel itself.

Wright shows how a faulty view of resurrection contributes to a faulty mission of the church. He writes, "As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future." (197) Fleshing out the slogan of Christian Aid, Wright says, "Life before death is what is threatened, called into question, by the idea that salvation is merely life after death." (197)

In contrast to the Gospel being merely about life after death, Wright sees it as encompassing the redemption of all of creation. He writes:

"[The story of the gospels] isn't just a story of some splendid and exciting social work with an unhappy conclusion. Nor is it just a story of an atoning death with an extended introduction. It is something much bigger than the sum of those two diminished perspectives. It is the story of God's kingdom being launched on earth as it is in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus' followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice. Atonement, redemption, and salvation are what happen on the way because engaging in this work demands that people themselves be rescued from the powers that enslave the world in order that they can in turn be rescuers. To put it another way, if you want to help inaugurate God's kingdom, you must follow the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus' saving death, you must become a part of his kingdom project." (204–205.)


I have been throwing this idea around in my head for the last couple of months, and it is refreshing to see N.T. Wright flesh it out in such an eloquent way. We typically think of the Gospel in terms of preaching the message of subsitutionary atonement so that people might make a confession and then be "saved." Should we rather think of the confession of Christ as the beginning of salvation? Salvation is about the "making right of the world," and the clean-up process begins in an individual with professing faith in Christ. Thoughts?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Some Helpful Rules for the ID/Evolution Debate

Over at the Conservative Reformed Mafia, Nate Gilmour posted some philosophical category mistakes made by proponents of Evolution and Intelligent Design. If you like philosophy and/or you care about this discussion, Nate's thoughts are very helpful.

Essentially he says to the evolutionists, the question is not "What is good science?" but "How do we know what we know?" He says to ID supporters, stop using the arguments, "Evolution requires faith" and "Evolution is just a theory"; these are category mistakes.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Psalm 11

I usually read the Psalms in the NIV, but today I decided also to read the NET. I came across a very interesting prayer. The NIV renders Psalm 11:6, "On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot." The NET interprets the verbs as jussives, not indicatives, rendering 11:6, "May the LORD rain down burning coals and brimstone on the wicked! A whirlwind is what they deserve!"

Wow. Subtle, but huge diffference. In the NIV, the psalmist is describing (in general) what happens to the wicked. In the NET, the same verse is a prayer that God will bring down fiery coals on the wicked. Yikes! What a conclusion to the Psalm.

Ultimately, this Psalm is about confidence in the Lord's ability to protect "the righteous." The psalmist is under attack, and his advisors are telling him that he needs to flee to the mountains. The psalmist asks, "Why would I want to do that? God is righteous. He will protect me." Then, he calls down the thunder.

As I have written before, I don't think these kinds of prayers are appropriate today. I think the Old Testament was written by a people with a worldview that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked in this life. I think theology developed so that by the time of Jesus, folks were looking to the eschaton for justice. (See discussion of N.T. Wright's book.)

But I do think that this Psalm has relevance to us today. I like Psalm 11:4, "The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD's throne is in heaven. His eyes watch; his eyes examine all people." (NET) Perhaps here you have a twofold expression of God's reign. On the one hand, the Lord's throne is in heaven, so He can see the whole earth. On the other hand, He lives in His holy temple, i.e. He is present with His people.

God is indeed the cosmic ruler. He is completely distinct from His creation and He is able to do with it what He pleases. At the same time, He is very present in His creation. He sees injustice. He sees pain. He hurts with us. I think this Psalm is also a call to us to be on the look out for injustice. I don't think we should be calling down the thunder when we see it (although, perhaps we should), but we should certainly be hurting with those who hurt.

"Father, I confess that while my eyes are often on the lookout for injustice, too infrequently am I willing to enter into the lives of others and hurt with them. I pray that Your Spirit would change this about me. I confess that too often I worry about schedules, about deadlines, and about expectations; and I don't worry enough about people, about loving my neighbor, about hurting with those who hurt. I pray that I would judge the 'success' of my life not on what I accomplish, but on who I love. I thank You for caring for me. I thank You for looking out for me. I thank You for hurting with me. Amen."

Missional Street Cred

The Internet Monk has a great post on the missional/emerging church, and who has the credibility to talk about appropriate methods. For instance, just becuase "Pastor Joe" has a church of 50,000, is he an authority on the missional church? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe he's just an authority on being a rock star.

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 11)

Abandon all hope all ye who enter here.

'Cause N.T. Wright is going to talk about hell.

In chapter 11 of Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright addresses the questions of purgatory, paradise, and hell. Needless to say, he is not drawing a lot of his conclusions from Dante's The Divine Comedy.

First, Wright addresses purgatory and rejects it on three (or perhaps four) grounds. First, resurrection is still in the future, so there is no "church expectant" purging itself of sin to be allowed into heaven. Second, in no place does the New Testament suggest that there are various gategories of believers--some to go straight to heaven and some to go to purgatory. Third, Romans 8 says that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. (He also implies a fourth reason--the leading Roman Catholic scholars, including Pope Benedict XVI, are abandoning, or at least significantly modifying, their views on purgatory.)

Second, Wright briefly addresses paradise. Whatever can be said about paradise, it is not the ultimate destination of believers. Perhaps Philippians 1:23 implies that the dead "depart to be with Christ," but at most that can be interpreted to be a temporary state of bliss while we await resurrection.

Finally, the moment we've all been waiting for, Wright addresses hell. Honestly, I didn't know where he was going to go. Originally, I thought that he would go the traditional rout, but from some of his statements in Surprised by Hope about the extent of redemption, I thought he might go the rout of the universalist. As I should have expected, Wright opts for C:) none of the above.
Wright writes:
"Part of the difficulty of the topic, as with the others we have been studying, is that the word hell conjures up an image gained more from medieval imagery than from the earliest Christian writings. Just as many who were brought up to think of God as a bearded old gentleman sitting on a cloud decided that when they stopped believing in such a being they had therefore stopped believing in God, so many who were taught to think of hell as a literal underground location full of worms and fire, or for that matter as a kind of titure chamber at the center of God's castle of heavenly delights, decided that when they stopped believing in that, so they stopped believing in hell." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 175.

But Wright reminds us that we cannot escape the language of judgment that is in the New Testament. He writes:

"God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end. Thsi doctrine, like that of resurrection itself, is held firmly in place by the belief in God as creator, on the one side, and the belief in his goodness, on the other. And that setting right must necessarily involve the elimination of all that distorts God's good and lovely creation and in particular of all that defaces his image-bearing human creatures. Not to put too fine a point on it, there will be no barbed wire in the kingdom of God. And those whose whole being has become dependant upon barbed wire will have no place there either.
For 'barbed wire,' of course, read whichever catalog of awfulnewsses you prefer: genocide, nuclear bombs, child prostitution, the arrogance of empire, the commodification of souls, the idolization of race. The New Testament has several such categories, functioning as red flashing lights to warn against going down a road that leads stright to a fenceless cliff." (179)

He adds:

"I find it quite impossible, reading the New Testament on the one hand and the newspaper on the other, to suppose that there will be no ultimate condemnation, no final loss, no human beings to whom, as C.S. Lewis put it, God will eventually say, 'Thy will be done.' I wish it were otherwise, but one cannot forever whistle 'There's a wilderness in God's mercy' in the darkness of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own. Humankind cannot, alas, bear very much reality, and the massive denial of reality by the cheap and cheerful univeralism of Western liberalism has a lot to answer for." (180)

So, what is hell, if not a subterranean world of worms and fire? Wright says that the primary root of sin is worship of the created rather than the Creator (Romans 1). This, in turn, causes people to behave "sub-humanly," in behaviors we would typically label "sinful." Wright says that people become what they worship, so that over time it is possible for someone to so worship the created and live sub-humanly that "after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that were once human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all." (182) Their final destination is death.

Wright's view certainly has a lot going for it, and I have pondered along these lines before. After all, Paul says that the wages of sin is "death," not "hell." If the reward of the righteous is resurrection, then the "punishment" of the wicked would be denial of resurrection. However, his view is not without it's difficulties. I think 2 Cor 5:10 is one--everyone, including the unjust, must stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Revelation 20:13–15 implies a resurrection to judgment of the wicked.

So, where do I stand on hell? I agree with Wright, you can't escape the language of judgment in the New Testament. I think universalism is a product of a Western culture that has been the source of oppression and injustice in history more often than it has been the victim of it. But every now and then, something like Auschwitz or Hiroshima comes along and reminds us that there really are evil people in the world. On the other hand, most of the language about hell occurs in parables and apocalyptic language. It's tough to take any of it literally. That doesn't mean that there isn't a concreate reality behind the figurative langauge, it just means that I am not sure hell involves worms.

All I think I can say now is that hell is real and that it is bad.

What do you think about N.T. Wright's idea that people can lose the image of God through a life of sin? Keep in mind that Colossians 3:10 implies that this image has been marred in all people but is being renewed in Christians.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thoughts on Blogging

From Thomas Friedman:

"It is impossible to imagine what it is going to be like in ten years when virtually everyone you know has a blog. But that is where we are heading. If you look at the phenomenon, an online social directory spreading virally in high schools and colleges, millions of young people now have a platform for telling their own stories." (Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Release 3.0 [New York: Picador, 2007], 118.)

From Michael Frost:

"What all blogs have in common is the host's/author's basic belief that his or her life or thoughts about life are worth sharing with anyone who will log on. It's either the most astonishing universal display of narcissism or the most liberating opportunity for the ordinary and the everyday to be celebrated. On one level, it looks like the liberation of the ordinary, but at another level it's an expression of hyper-reality: it looks like we are meeting people via the Web, but really we're meeting only the acceptable persona that they want displayed to the world." (Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Chritian Culture [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006], 88.)

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 10)

In chapter 10 of Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright begins to draw the discussions of heaven and the resurrection to a close before he starts to talk about the mission of the church. (There is one more chapter on God's future plan.)

Wright answers the question, "What will the redemption of our bodies look like?" He writes:

"Resurrection itself then appears as what the word always meant, whether (like the ancient pagans) people disbelieved it or whether (like many ancient Jews) they affirmed it. It wasn't a way of talking about life after death. It was a way of talking about new bodily life after whatever state of existence one might enter immediately upon death. It was, in other words, life after life after death." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 151.

In other words, when we die, we may go to some kind of intermediary state (or, we might just sleep; Wright doesn't commit). We could call this intermediary state "life after death." But some day, when Christ returns, we will be resurrected to new bodily life after life after death.

To this point, N.T. Wright has argued that resurrection does not mean "going to heaven when you die"; it means "life after life after death." This is what the ancients believed and this what happened to Jesus. God's plan in history is not about a slow improvement of the already good or a radical destruction of the hopelessly bad, but a drastic renewal of the corrupted. The world, in a sense, is waiting for heaven to break into earth. The process began with Jesus, who ascended to heaven (not like a space man) and will one day return. When he does, the world will be redeemed and those who have fallen asleep will be resurrected to life after life after death.

(I came up with the name for this blog after reading Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God. I like the idea that we are awaiting redemption.)

Thoughts on Wright's construction of the Christian hope? His main texts are 1 Cor 15, Romans 8, 2 Cor 5, and Col 1:15–20. (He uses a ton of others, but he often returns to these.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 9)

I was impressed when N.T. Wright compressed all 738 pages of The Resurrection of the Son of God into chapters 3 and 4 of Surprised by Hope. However, he outdid himself by compressing the New Perspective on Paul into the 9 pages of chapter 9.

Chapter 9 of Surprised by Hope is about Jesus the coming judge and the meaning of the term "justification." Wright rightly writes:

"The word judgment carries negative overtones for a good many people in our liberal and postliberal world. We need to remind ourselves that throughout the Bible, not least in the Psalms, God's coming judgment is a good thing, something to be celebrated, longed for, yearned over. It causes people to shout for joy and the trees of the field to clap their hands. In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance, and oppression, the thought that there might be a day when the wicked are firmly put in their right place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be. Faced with a world of rebellion, a world full of exploitation and wickedness, a good God must be a God of judgment." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 137.

This judgment, according to Wright, will be on the basis of works (Rom 14:9–10, 2 Cor 5:10). The idea of justification by faith does not negate this future judgment by works, as Wright notes:

"Justification by faith is what happens in the present time, anticipating the verdict of the future day when God judges the world. It is God's advanced declaration that when someone believes the gospel, that person is already a member of his family no matter who their parents were, that their sins are forgiven because of Jesus' death, and that on the future day, as Paul says, 'there is now no condemnation' (Romans 8:1)." (140)

What does all of this mean for us, who are anticipating our future justification? Don't be too quick to grab the spacesuit.

"In his appearing we find neither a dualist rejection of the present world nor simply his arrival like a spaceman into the present world but rather the transformation of the present world, and ourselves within it, so that it will at least be put to rights and we with it. Death and decay will be overcome, and God will be all in all." (143)

I really like Wright's view of justification. I don't know that I have bought in completely to the New Perspective, but Ed, Tom and Jimmy make some good points. I especially like the idea that our "justification" is justification in the already/not yet sense. We anticipate a future justification, but in some way are "as good as justified" based on what Jesus did and our faith in Him.

How do you like this statement: "God is making the world right, and He is starting with us (the church)"?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 8)

So, I am starting to get a little frustrated with N.T. Wright. I love his work on the historical Jesus. He stuff on Paul is really good, too. But his eschatology is a bit squirrelly. He has a major axe to grind against the idea that Jesus might literally descend from the sky. He compares the view that Jesus will return in the clouds to "a primitive form of space travel." It was funny the first time I read it, but it's getting old. I think I might have an idea for a new drinking game--read a book by N.T. Wright on eschatology and take a drink every time he says "flying cloud," "space," "spaceship," "spaceman," or "space travel." Seriously--he says it that much.

At the same time, I have been thinking long and hard about where I disagree with Wright, and I do not think we are too far off. (I tell you what, though, if the "trumpet" spoken of in 1Thess 4 and Mat 24 plays the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I will remind Wright of his demeaning comments.)

In chapter 8 of Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright harps on the meaning of the Greek word parousia and how it has been misused in American eschatology. The word is most famously used in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18:

"But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming (parousia) of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend (katabaino) from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up (harpadzo) together with them in the clouds to meet (apantesis) the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words." (NIV)

Wright notes that the Greek word parousia does not mean "coming" as in the NIV, but "presence." Wright writes, "The second meaning emerges when a person of high rank makes a visit to a subject state, particularly when a king or emperor visits a colony or province. The word for such a visit is a royal presence: in Greek, parousia. In neither setting, we note, obviously but importantly, is there the slightest suggestion of anybody flying around on a cloud [take a drink]. Nor is there any hint of the imminent collapse or destruction of the space-time [take a drink] universe." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 129. A quick glance at a lexicon validates Wright's claim, that the primary meaning of the term parousia is "presence," not "coming."

Thus, to Wright, the "Second Coming" of Jesus is not about cloud spaceships, but about God being present on earth. He writes, "The reality to which it refers is this: Jesus will be personally present, the dead will be raised, and the living Christians will be transformed." (133)

However, while the word parousia can mean "presence," it can also mean "arrival." This is the sense that Paul uses it in 2 Cor 7:6, "But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus." BDAG classifies the usage in 1 Thess 4 in this second sense, "arrival," and even under a technical use of the term referring to the "arrival" of Christ. I think that there is good reason for this. Specifically, the use of the term apantesis, "a going out to meet," in verse 17. Wright even mentions in his book that this word is used of people going out to greet a royal dignitary at his arrival. Note also that it says that the Lord will "descend" and that believers will be "caught up." There is a lot of language of movement in this verse for parousia just to mean "presence." It more likely means "arrival."

I can't wait to see the cloud spaceship. I hope its piloted by something that looks like a cross between an angel, an oompa loompa, and a klingon.

However, I am willing to grant that whatever the "Second Coming" language means, the point is this--God will be present with His people and we will be transformed. On this, Wright and I agree.

Thoughts on the cloud langauge? Do you think Jesus will literally descend from the sky, or is this just metaphor for "heaven breaking in to earth."

RJS on Science and Faith

RJS has been blogging about Tim Keller's book, The Reason for God, on Scot McKnight's blog, The current chapter of discussion is about the relationship between faith and science. RJS is a chemistry professor (at University of Michigan??), so her thoughts on the subject are especially relevant. The last time they had this discussion over there, I chimed in lot, but I started feeling like a fundamentalist. I think I'll stay out of this one.

New Picture Blog

My friend, John Pleau, started a new blog of pictures he has taken in his neighborhood. He is a great photographer. If you've never been to Washtington, you need to check out his blog here.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Good Life Has Begun

On Sunday I officially started The Good Life series. I am excited about it.

In John 20:30–31, John says that he wrote his gospel so that the readers might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing they might have life in his name. In others words, the purpose of John is to bring life. And to John, life is not just life--it's eternal life, life with God, life in the Spirit. In other words, it's the good life.

In the series, we will be looking at the Gospel of John and contrasting Jesus' message of the good life with suburbia's message of the good life. To John, living the good life is about "staying faithful to Christ, even when it costs you something." So, we are going to look at what "staying faithful to Christ" means in the suburbs. It's going to be all about living counter-culturally.

You can hear the first message here.

Surpised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 7)

Having refuted the idea that history is about a radical redemption of the already existent, N.T. Wright moves on in chapter 7 of Surprised by Hope to talk about the meanings of the Ascension and Second Coming of Christ. As he did in chapters 5 and 6, in chapters 7 and 8 Wright first describes what is not true, and then moves on to what is true.

Wright refutes two extreme positions with regard to the Ascension and Second Coming of Jesus. The first view is that Jesus flew up into the clouds like a space man into another dimension called heaven and that He will one day return in the same way, riding the clouds like a space ship. Wright says that this is a "category mistake" based on a Platonic view of the cosmos, not a biblical one. The second view that Wright refutes is that the Ascension is just a metaphor for Jesus' spiritual filling of all believers, so that Jesus is more or less present now in the form of His church. The problem with this view, according to Wright, is that it more or less makes the church into God. he writes:

"If Jesus is more or less identical with the church--if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created the high road to the worst kind of triumphalism." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 112.

Wright concludes:
"The mystery of the ascension is of course, just that, a mystery. It demands that we think what is, to many today, almost unthinkable: that when the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call matter, and also quite possibly (though this does not necessarily follow from the other two) two different kinds of what we call time." (115)

"What we are encouraged to grasp precisely through the ascension itself is that God's space and ours--heaven and earth, in other words--are, though very different, not far away from one another." (116)

Therefore, to Wright, the Second Coming is not about Jesus returning in his pimped out cloud spaceship, but about his healing of the current world--making it more like heaven.

I like Wright's theology, but I do question his abandonment of the cloud language. I have seen him ridicule that kind of thinking in several of his works, but I don't think you can escape the language that when Christ ascended, He went up into the sky. Acts 1:10 says that after he ascended, the disciples were looking into the sky. Now, I am willing to grant that such an exit was more for the disciples than it was an illustration of the reality of the cosmos. I don't think you can escape the idea that heaven is somehow this world in the sky where God lives.

Perhaps Wright wrestles with the question of how the human Jesus can exist in another dimension, but I think the same mystery is true of the whole trinity--God is somehow distinct from His creation and yet eminently present within it. How does that work? I don't know, but it does.

I love the point behind Wright's theology, though. We need to move the beyond the Left Behind escapist mentality. This is our world. This is where we will live for eternity. Yes, it will be renewed, but it will be the same world nonetheless.

Scot McKnight on Evangelicalism

Scot McKnight has commented on the Evangelical manifesto and other such developments on his site. He makes an interesting point about the three forces trying to hijack Evangelicalism. Of the three, I think the SBC is the most likely to pull it off because of all of the evil geniuses within their ranks. However, the longer the Iraq War goes on, the better chance the lefties have of pulling off a coup d'etat.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 6)

Having explained the two ways in which the early Christians did not view history in chapter 5 of Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright moves on in chapter 6 to describe how he thinks the New Testament does describe history.

I am going to interact with Wright a bit here before I ask for comments because I am not sure that I understand where he is going.

Wright starts by affirming the goodness of creation and the reality of evil. Wright says that evil is not "created things," "things other than God," "physical things," or "things prone to decaying." Wright says that evil "consists not in being created but in the rebellious idolatry by which humans worship and honor elements of the natural world rather than the God who made them." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 95. Wright adds that the result of evil is "spiritual death," the dominant metaphor for which is "exile."

Thus, to Wright, "redemption doesn't mean scrapping what's there and starting again from a clean slate but rather liberating what has come to be enslaved." (96) He adds, "Redemption is not simply making creation a bit better, as the optimist evolutionist would try to suggest. Nor is it rescuing spirits and souls from an evil material world, as the Gnostic would want to say. It is the remaking of creation, having dealt with the evil that is defacing and distorting it." (97) In other words, redemption is not about improving what's already there and it's not about starting over--it's about recreating or transforming what is already there.

Having explained redemption, Wright goes on to show from some key New Testament passages that redemption applies to all of creation, not just "those human beings who believe the gospel and thereby find new life here and hereafter." (97)

The key passages Wright explains are 1 Corinthians 15, Colossians 1:15–20, Philippians 3:3:20–21, Romans 8, and Revelation 21–22. I think the two most significant are Colossians 1:15–20 and Romans 8:20–23.

Romans 8:20–23 (NIV) reads:
"For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies."

Not that Paul says that creation is awaiting its redemption and we, too, are awaiting our redemption.

Colossians 1:15–20 (NIV) reads:
"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross."

Notice that Paul says "all things" were created through Christ and "all things" were/will be reconciled through him.

I might add Colossians 1:13–14 to show that the context of the above is redemption:
"For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."

I like what Wright gets at here that the effects of the cross transcend just humans--that all of creation is being redeemed. However, I have questions about Wright's views on evil, death, and the effects of redemption on those who do not believe.

Wright says that death in the sense of transience (i.e. "physical" death) was part of the original creation (94–95). He says that transience points to God as the eternal. The "death" that was brought into the world as a result of sin is "spiritual" death (95). Wright does not define "spiritual" death, but he says that it is most often illustrated as exile. Thus, when God tells Adam and Eve that they will "die" when they eat the fruit, they are exiled from the garden (95).

What, then, does it mean to be "exiled" or "dead"? Is it just an existential feeling that God is distant? That would imply to me that a key part of redemption is the reversal of that feeling, i.e. the warm fuzzies that God is with me. Obviously, Wright believes that redemption means more than that. I have always read Romans 5:17 to mean that whatever "death" Adam brought on humanity, Christ brought the opposite, "life." Thus if the only "death" that Adam brought upon humanity was spiritual exile, then the only "life" that Christ would bring would be spiritual redemption. Since Wright argues that Christ is bringing eternal life in the sense of freedom from "decay and death" (107), that would imply to me that the introduction of "decay and death" were a part of what we traditionally call "the Fall."

Further, I wonder where Wright is going to go with the extent of the effects of redemption. He says that redemption affects more than just "those human beings who believe the gospel and thereby find new life here and hereafter." (97) And in Colossians 1:15–20, the "all things" that will be redeemed are the same "all things" that were created. Does this mean that "all things," including those who do not believe, will be redeemed? If so, what will that look like for those who do not believe? We'll see where he goes.

Any thoughts on Colossians 1:15–20 and the extent of the effects of "redemption"?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Narrow Stairs by Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab is back and life is good.

I've been listening to Narrow Stairs non-stop for about two days now. While I don't think it is as good as Plans, it doesn't disappoint. As always, Ben Gibbard's poetry and brilliant understanding of human doubts, hopes, fears, and regrets carries the album.

While I felt Plans was about death and the fear of dying, Narrow Stairs seems more about relationships and the fear of being alone. The best lines in the album are in "Your New Twin Sized Bed," in which Gibbard writes, "You look so defeated lying there in your new twin sized bed/ With a single pillow underneath your single head/ I guess you decided that that old queen was more space than you would need/ And now it's in the alley behind your apartment with a sign that says, 'Free.'" Ughhhh.

Narrow Stairs lacks a catchy tune like "Soul Meets Body" or "Crooked Teeth," but there is definitely some good stuff on it comparable to "I Will Follow You into the Dark," "Title and Registration," and "The Sound of Settling." Thoughts on Death Cab or the album?

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 5)

In chapter 5 of Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright describes two views of history that he thinks are not the Christian view. He points out that many Christians have held these views of history, and that aspects of them resemble the Christian view of history. Ultimately, however, they both fail to do justice to what God is doing in history.

The first view that Wright describes and rejects is the optimists' view that the world is getting better and better. This view dominated the modern western age, but has been called into question in the last 60 or so years. Permutations of this view are liberal secularism, the social gospel, and social Darwinism. Wright writes:

"'The real problem with the myth of progress is, as I just hinted, that it cannot deal with evil. And when I say 'deal with,' I don't just mean intellectually, though that is true as well; I mean in practice. It can't develop a strategy that actually addresses the severe problems of evil in the world." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 85.

Wright claims that optimism cannot handle evil on three levels: (1) It cannot stop evil (scientific progress brings us cures for diseases, but it also gives us Hiroshima and the Gulag), (2) it cannot address the moral evil that has already happened (if utopia came today, what would we say about the evil that happened yesterday? Is there justice?), and (3) it underestimates the power and nature of evil itself.

The second view of history that Wright rejects is the view that the world is completely evil, it's getting worse and worse, and Christians need to be "rescued" from it. Wright rightly points out that this view is essentially Gnostic. Wright writes:

"A good many Christian hymns and poems wander off unthinkingly in the direction of Gnosticism. The 'just passing through' spirituality (as in the spiritual 'This world is not my home/ I'm just a'passin' through'), though it has some affinities with classical Christianity, encourages precisely a Gnostic attitude: the created world is at best irrelevant, at worst a dark, evil, gloomy place, and we immortal souls, who existed originally in a different sphere, are looking to returning to it as soon as we're allowed to." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 90.

Where is N.T. Wright going to go next? What is the Christian's relation to the world? If the world isn't getting better and better, and it is not hopelessly evil, what is to become of the world? What role does the church play in the consummation of history?

Psalm 10

As I was reflecting on Psalm 10 today, I think God showed me an attitude that I have toward Him--and it's not a good one. In vv. 11–14, the psalmist writes:

"He [the wicked man] says to himself, 'God has forgotten;
he covers his face and never sees.'

Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.
Why does the wicked man revile God?
Why does he say to himself, 'He won't call me to account'?
But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it and take it in hand.
The victim commits himself to you; you are the helper of the fatherless." (NIV)

Although I don't often think of the evil things that I have done and say, "God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees," I do think that about the troubles that I go through. Somewhere along the line in reflecting on the problem of evil, I concluded that in this fallen world, evil is very real and very powerful. It is an enemy of God. I think subconsciously I have started to think that God is powerless to prevent evil. I don't believe that in my head, but I think I believe it in my heart.

I don't have a hard life by any means. But I think somewhere along the line I lost the belief that God truly was looking out for me and that He would be my "helper." When I face adversity, I don't expect Him to deliver me.

This is tragic.

And I think it accounts for a lot of the anger in my life.

"Father, I don't know how to balance belief in an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God with the reality of evil in the world. I confess that Jesus has called us to a life of suffering, and "by many tribulations" we enter the kingdom of God. But I think somewhere along the line I grew angry at You. I don't want to be angry. Even the thought of being angry at God kind of terrifies me. God, I confess that You have my best interests at heart; I pray that You would help me to believe it. Amen."

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 4)

Chapter 4 of Surprised by Hope moved me to tears in parts and reminded me why I think N.T. Wright is the greatest Christian thinker/writer of our time.

The chapter is largely restatements of things Wright has said elsewhere in The Resurrection of the Son of God, combined with responses to the major critiques of his previous work. I see two major sections of the chapter--one dealing with the historical evidence for Christianity and one dealing with epistemology and why we believe. Both are great.

In the first part of the chapter, Wright reiterates what he wrote in The Resurrection of the Son of God, namely that historical evidence suggests that Jesus (to paraphrase Wright's wording) became physically, thoroughly dead, and then became physically, thoroughly alive. Wright reminds the reader than in the ancient world, nobody believed that people actually died and then actually became alive again. Some may have hoped for a future resurrection, but no one believed that it happened in the here-and-now. However, something happened to make the Christians claim that Jesus physically died and physically became alive again. Wright asks the question, what is the most likely historical event to have caused this change in thinking? His answer? The empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. Neither of these things by themselves would have caused a drastic reinterpretation of the resurrection. An empty tomb would be interpreted as grave-robbery (as Mary supposes in John 20:15). The appearances would be interpreted as hallucinations or ghost sightings (i.e. Mark 6:49 or Acts 12:15). However, taken together, the two led the disciples to conclude that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Thus the Christian movement began.

Having established that the resurrection of Jesus is the most likely explanation for the beliefs and behavior of the early Christians, Wright moves to talk about how we know what we know and why we believe what we believe. Wright writes about the role of historical investigation in "proving" the Easter story:

"We cannot use a supposedly objective historical epistemology as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter. To do so would be like lighting a candle to see whether the sun had risen. What the candles of historical scholarship will do is show that the room has been disturbed, that it doesn't look like it did last night, and that would-be normal explanations for this won't do. Maybe, we think after the historical arguments have done their work, maybe morning has come and the world has woken up. But to investigate whether this is so, we must take the risk and open the curtains to the rising sun. When we do so, we won't rely on the candles any more, not because we don't believe in evidence and argument but because they will have been overtaken by the larger reality from which they borrow, to which they point, and in which they will find a new and larger home." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 74.

Ultimately, what role does historical investigation play in the life of faith? Do you agree with Wright that it is important, but it pales in comparison to other "evidences"?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Psalm 9

I love reading the Psalms. I love the raw honesty and the belief in God rooted in real life. I love the spirituality that avoids statements like "God gives me such peace in my heart" or "God just showers me with His love," but says "God is going to kill the people who are trying to kill me." That's real. I don't always know what to do with those kinds of statements, but I appreciate the authenticity.

So, I come to Psalm 9, and I read this in vv. 17–20:

The wicked will return to the grave,
all the nations that forget God.
But the needy will not always be forgotten,
nor the hope of the afflicted ever perish.

Arise, O LORD, let not man triumph;
let the nations be judged in your presence.
Strike them with terror, O LORD;
let the nations know they are but men. (NIV)


There is so much violence in the Old Testament. It's easy to forget that this is the God that Jesus called "Father." This is the God that Paul worshipped. It's a God who is not afraid to take people out for being evil. To paraphrase one of my professors, Eric "Gunny" Hartman, I think, "I have a God who smokes people for picking up sticks on the wrong day."

Like I said, I don't always know what to do with this language. But I don't want to sweep it under the rug. It's there. I think it's good for us to reflect on God's righteousness. First, it reminds us of what we are headed for. We worship a God who believes that things like violence and oppression are bad--He's wiping them out. We need to reflect on the violent God of the Old Testment to remember that God is righteous and just, and that He is strong enough to make right what has been made wrong. Second, these psalms make us appreciate grace more. One of the preaching professors at DTS once remarked about the necessity of preaching sin--"If you don't have sin, you don't need grace." I like that. I need to be reminded that I am an oppressor and that if it weren't for God's grace, I would "return to the grave," be "struck with terror," and be "reminded that I am just a man." Third, these psalms are a call to live more justly. I don't want to be an oppressor.

"Father, I thank You that You are just. I don't want to think about what life would be like if You weren't. I thank You for Your care and concern about our world--that You aren't going to leave it like we've made it. Father we look forward to the day when You right all of the wrongs. In the mean time, I ask that You help me to be just like You are just, to be righteous like You are righteous, to be compassionate like You are compassionate, and to be merciful like You are merciful. I pray for Your kingdom to come. Amen."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

No Country for Old Men--What Was the Point?

Seriously. I am asking you. What was the point of this movie?

I really like the Coen Brothers' movies, especially Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Big Lebowski, so when I first saw the trailer for this film, I was excited. (Not excited enough to go see it in the theater, mind you, but excited nonetheless.) I finally saw it this past weekend, and I have to admit, I am a bit perplexed about the point of the movie. I liked it and all, I just don't know what I am supposed to walk away with.

In a nutshell, the movie is about Llewelyn Moss's discovery of a drug-deal gone bad in the desert of West Texas, and walking away from the scene with over 2 million dollars. Unfortunately for him, Anton Chigurh, a crazy hitman, finds out he has the money and sets out to retrieve it for himself. All along, Ed Tom Bell, a local sheriff is investigating the trail of crimes left behind by Chigurh.

I get that the movie circles around the themes of death, chance, predestination, free-will, and evil. But did it have a message about any of these themes? I want to say that the movie is about the inevitability of death and how we respond to it. (Perhaps of the meaning of the byline, "There are no clean getaways.")

First, there is Llewelyn, whose attitude is to "rage against the dying of the night" in the spirit of Dylan Thomas. When Chigurh offers him a deal--turn over the money and save his wife (but not himself)--Llewelyn's response is "You won't have to look for me." All along you hope for the Hollywood ending, but suspect that in real life Llewelyn would be dead meat. The story opts for the real ending rather than the Hollywood one.

Second, there is Chigurh, who sees death as unavoidable. He is a terrible villain and seems to have the utmost control over who lives and who dies. However, he often sets aside this power, leaving the fate of his victim's fate into the hands of a coin toss. (The best scene in the movie is an exchange between Chigurh and a West-Texan gas station attendant, in which Chigurh asks, "What's the most you've ever lost on a coin toss?) I can't tell if Chigurh really buys into the whole coin toss thing as a superstition, or if he is just mocking fate when he flips the coin.

Finally, there is Bell, who doesn't think that death is such a bad thing. He is more concerned about growing old and all that it implies. At the end of the movie he talks about dying and how he thinks he will meet his dad again.

The biggest question for me is, "What is the point of the car wreck at the end of the movie?" I think it deliberately makes a parallel between Llewelyn and Chigurh, as Chigurh offers the young boys $100 for their shirts to save his life in the same way that Llewelyn offered the guys in Mexico $500 for a shirt to conceal his gunshot wounds. To me, this is saying that Chigurh, underneath the facade of leaving death to "chance," is really just "raging against the dying of the night" in the same way that Llewelyn was. Implied in this is that Chigurh is not above death in the way he thinks and that some day he will befall tragedy in the same way that Llewelyn did.

As opposed to these two's approach to death is the one taken by Llewelyn's wife who, when confronted with Chigurh, refuses to pick heads or tails. The movie implies that she dies, but that she does so peacefully (as peacefully as you can die from a shotgun blast). The same approach to death is taken by Bell, who doesn't fear death, but perhaps sees it as an escape from being "an old man."

So, the message is, "You can't escape death. Don't fight it, make your peace with it."

Am I missing the boat on this story? What's it about?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Finished with Roots

On Sunday I finished my sermon series called Roots: Understanding Your Spiritual Heritage. Because I only tech about 1/4 of the time at Believers Fellowship, it took me over a year to finish the 9 part series. (I also taught some other things during the year.) Saying good-bye to Roots is kind of like saying good-bye to an old friend. It seems like I have been studying Colossians forever.

The Roots series actually started for me in Dallas. The Honeymooners teaching team was actually going through Colossians when I left, and some of the last lessons I did there were on that book. When I got to Believers Fellowship, I was in a men's group that was reading Velvet Elvis. A number of the guys in the group were a bit troubled by some of the ideas on the book and were frustrated that the church wasn't taking a stance for or against it. I think 1 or 2 people actually left the church because of Velvet Elvis (kind of silly in my opinion, but people do strange things).

At the same time that I was reading Velvet Elvis, I was also reading New Testament Theology: Communion and Community by Philip Esler. Esler put into words a lot of the thoughts that I had about "doing theology" from the New Testament, and my theological method is now modeled largely after him. I was struck particularly by the difference between Esler's communion illustration and Rob Bell's trampouline illustration.

To Bell, "doing theology" is like jumping on a trampouline, and doctrines are like the springs. The implication is that the more flexibility you have in your beliefs, the more spiritual you are.

To Esler, Christianity is a community faith. This community includes community with those who have gone before. The New Testament is communication from "our fathers in the faith" and we owe it to them to honor authorial intent when we interpret a given passage. (Esler is writing partly in response to the postmodern hermeneutic which claims that because the author is dead, the reader's personal subjective interpretation of the text is all that matters.) I liked the idea that when we read the Scriptures, we are communing with those who have gone before us in the faith.

One of the reasons I taught the Roots series was to respond to the trampouline illustration in Velvet Elvis. I don't think it is more spiritual to allow one's theology to develop over time. My approach to theology is more like Esler's--we search the Scriptures to find the ideas that we have inherited from our fathers in the faith. Thus the Roots series was born--Understanding Your Spiritual Heritage. (Apparently, I wasn't the only one bothered by the trampouline illustration. I wrote a review of Velvet Elvis on my now defunct site. Before I shut the site down, the number 1 referring search query to it was "Rob Bell trampouline.")

The reason I used the picture at the top of this post was because it is my roots--four generations of Edwards. I am the little guy in the picture. The idea was, "Just as studying my roots helps me understand myself better, studying the roots of my faith (in Colossians) helps me understand my spiritual journey better." For the last lesson, I used this picture, with an update to the Edwards lineage:

The best part of this picture is the crude photoshop work. It is so cheesy that it makes the picture hilarious.

If you would like to hear the last (and probably best) lesson in the Roots series, you can download it here.

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 3)

In chapter 3 of Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright describes the ancient pagan, Jewish, and Christian beliefs about life, death, and resurrection. First, Wright shows that both the Jews and the pagans believed that death was a one-way street. Once you died, you were dead and there was no coming back. Second, he shows that they both believed that the term "resurrection" meant "dead people coming back to life," not, "disembodied spirits going to heaven." Although pagans and Jews agreed about the meaning of the term "resurrection," the pagans denied any kind of a resurrection, while the Jews anticipated a future resurrection. Wright argues these points at length in his 2003 book The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Having established the meaning of the term "resurrection," Wright explain seven ways in which the Christian notion of the resurrection differed from the Jewish notion. (I found points 5 and 6 most interesting. My first exposure to N.T. Wright was watching him debate John Dominic Crossan in 2005 after he published The Resurrection of the Son of God. Crossan argued that "resurrection" was a metaphor for "God's moral clean-up of the universe," modeled after the idea of resurrection in Ezekiel 16. Wright argued that "resurrection" meant "Jesus died, and then He came back to life." It seems that Wright has now adopted some of Crossan's ideas, although I am sure he would say "the metaphorical use of 'resurrection' is grounded in the literal use, and most New Testament usages of 'resurrection' refer to the literal use.") The seven ways in which the Christian notion of resurrection differed from the Jewish were:
  1. Christians were remarkably united in their view of the resurrection.
  2. Although resurrection was peripheral in Jewish theology, it was central to Christian belief.
  3. Resurrection involves a transformed (i.e. "glorified") body.
  4. The resurrection has been split into two events--the resurrection of Jesus and then of everyone else.
  5. Resurrection is a metaphor for the moral clean-up of society.
  6. Resurrection is a metaphor for individual ethical transformation.
  7. Resurrection is vindication of Jesus as the Son of God.
Rather than arguing about points that Wright has spent his life forming, I thought it would be interesting to compare his thoughts on resurrection to 1 Corinthians 15. It's a lot of text, so I am not going to paste it (for both readability and copyright reasons). How do Wright's 7 point about resurrection compare to what you read in 1 Cor 15?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 2)

In chapter 2 of Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright argues that most Christians' ideas about heaven and hell are influenced more by popular culture (i.e. Dante's The Divine Comedy) than they are the Scriptures. He writes:

"My own church, the Church of England, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, declares that it finds its doctrine in scripture, tradition, and reason, taken together in their proper blend. I suggest that a good deal of our current view of death and the life beyond has come from none of these but rather from impulses in the culture that created, at best, semi-Christian informal traditions that now need reexamined in the clear light of scripture." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 27.

For example, Wright quotes the hymn, "How Great Thou Art":

When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.

To Wright, the future is not about "taking people home" to another dimension called "heaven," it is about resurrection and re-creation of this world. So, Wright has put out a challenge. Are there any verses that specifically state that our eternity will be spent sitting on clouds with the saints, playing harps and singing, Holy, Holy, Holy? Or is the "kingdom of God," "kingdom of heaven," and "paradise" language about a new creation of this world?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 1)

To this point, this blog has been limited to my thoughts on various books, devotions from various biblical passages, my thoughts on American evangelicalism, and updates about my life. Since I know that people actually read this blog occasionally, I have decided to introduce a new aspect. Instead of reviewing an entire book, I am going to pick one of the books that I am reading and offer up a thought from it for reflection and/or discussion.

The first book about which I want to do this is N.T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope. If I haven't mentioned it on this blog before, N.T. Wright is my hero. In my opinion, he is the premier New Testament scholar today. He is a brilliant communicator and has superb research and analysis skills. I like British biblical scholarship better than American because Americans try to get cutesy and creative, while the Brits are more realistic and, in my opinion, relevant. (There are some notable exceptions to this blanket condemnation of American scholarship. Further, in a lot of ways American evangelical scholarship is ahead of mainstream American scholarship in that evangelicals take seriously things like authorial intent and external evidence.)

I like Wright's book already. It has two major themes: eschatology and politics. What do we believe will happen in the future? How should that affect what we do today? I love those questions. So, here is the thought from chapter 1.

"This book addresses two questions that have often been dealt with entirely separately but that, I passionately believe, belong tightly together. First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? And the main answer can be put like this. As long as we see Christian hope in terms of 'going to heaven,' of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated. Indeed, some insist angrily that to ask the second one at all is to ignore the first one, which is the really important one. This in turn makes some others get angry when people talk about resurrection, as if this might draw attention away from the really important and pressing matters of contemporary social concern. But if the Christian hope is for God's new creation, for 'new heavens and new earth,' and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together. And if that is so, we find that answering the one is also answering the other." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by the Voice of Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: Harper One, 2008], 5.

The Left Behind, Dispensationalist eschatology gets hated on by a lot of contemporary authors (Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, for instance). Is this justified? Does the "escape" mentality keep us from social consciousness?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Gig Harbor Community Development

Fresh on the heels of my meeting with the folks from NLF, I met with leaders from several churches in Gig Harbor to talk about how we can work together to develop the community around us. Again, what a great meeting!

We all seemed to be on the same page with everything--that Incarnational ministry was the key to making a significant difference for the kingdom of God, that parachurch ministries and other agencies were doing a better job at this than most churches, and that the best way for us to move forward would be to partner with these agencies to help the community of Gig Harbor.

The next step for us is to talk to the leaders of our respective churches, find out the key ministry areas that each of our churches are interested in, and then come back together to see where our interests overlap. This way, we can have the support of the leadership to make sure that this multi-church effort is a success.

I am excited about what is going to come of this. Although I want to see our church strengthen its relationship to Tacoma, I would also love to see us helping people here in the Harbor. After all, there are legitimate needs here, they just aren't always as blatant as they are in the Hill-Top area or in East Tacoma.

The combined work of all of the churches in Gig Harbor could make some serious progress for the kingdom of God. Chapel Hill Presbyterian, the largest church in Gig Harbor, already does some great things (as do the other churches, but we don't have near the resources and influence of Chapel Hill). I can only imagine what we can do if we pool our efforts. I imagine a time when the Gig Harbor churches have built such a reputation for community development that when the city faces a crisis it looks to us for relief. THAT would be cool. We'll be there some day. This is a much-needed first step.

Friday, May 2, 2008

How the Inner-city can Save the Suburbs

I had a great lunch meeting with some people from the Northwest Leadership Foundation yesterday. Duncan Wilson, Kris Rocke, and Ron Vignec joined me at this Thai restaurant on the MLK in the Hill-Top area of Tacoma to talk about ways that Believers Fellowship can develop a relationship with the city of Tacoma. What a conversation! Duncan is the director of Sound Youth Counseling, a ministry that offers masters-level counseling to the youth of Tacoma for sliding-scale fees so that no one is turned away. Ron is a Lurtheran pastor at a sweet inner-city church in East Tacoma and he also works to raise awareness about the different "associations" within the city of Tacoma. Kris works for NLF, specializing in urban youth ministry. He trains leaders in the city to better understand the urban context both in America and worldwide.

Our conversation revolved around how suburbanites can get involved in the city without doing more harm than good. We all recognized a couple of things about our world. First, we agreed that something is wrong with our socio-economic system in which people in Gig Harbor and East Tacoma can live so close to each other and yet live such radically different lives. He agreed that the Gospel compels us to right what is wrong in our system. Second, we agreed that building real, meaningful relationships is the best way to "help" the city. For instance, Ron mentioned that food is always a need in the city. It's one thing to set up a food bank where people can come and get groceries. It's another thing to have food available and then bring it to people's homes and share their lives. While the former might provide some temporary relief, the latter is working toward a solution to the problem. As long as the suburbanites continue to view city folk as charity cases or problems-to-be-solved, they will make the situation worse rather than better. Only where there is a give-and-take in a relationship can there be meaningful growth.

I appreciated what Ron and Kris were getting at, but I had to ask them their thoughts on this issue from my perspective. I said:

"What does all of this mean for me? I live in Port Orchard. I work in Gig Harbor. I get up every morning, drive to Gig Harbor, work my job, and then return home. I rarely go to Tacoma, even though my job is only 11 miles from downtown. I recognize a disparity in the living conditions between the communities in which I live and work, and in the inner-city community, but I don't have any meaningful contact with inner-city folks on a daily or weekly basis. How, then, do I try to be a part of the solution rather than the problem? Do I just focus on Port Orchard, since that is my community? Do I try to build relationships in the city with people whom I otherwise wouldn't see? (That seems a little artificial to me.) What do I do?"

Everyone recognized the problem, and we dialogued to come up with a solution. The following conversation is paraphrased:

Kris: "Everyone whom I've ever met that moved from the suburbs to the city said that the move was healing for them. There is something about living in the city that is therapeutic. Suburbanites need to discover how the city can help them, not just how they can help the city."

Ron: "In the city, you can't hide your problems. If you have a drug problem, you might have to rob/shoot someone to pay for your habit. Then the story goes all over the news and everyone knows about it. You can't hide your problem. In the suburbs, you can hide your problems. The problems in the city and in the suburbs are the same, they are just easier to hide in the suburbs."

Matt: "There is a real problem in our suburban culture with people learning to be real with each other. I've heard suburbanites described as 'strangers living hospitably amongst one another.' We've created this system where failure is not an option. Sure, people work hard and they succeed, but they are also pressured to conform to a culture of success. Every now and then, someone snaps, and everyone wonders, 'How could that have happened in our community? Why didn't anyone see this coming?' In reality, there are hundreds of people an inch away from snapping, but you wouldn't know it by looking at them because they have learned to play the game."

Kris: "Maybe the city can help the suburbs by teaching people how to grieve. Maybe when suburbanites are confronted with people who can't hide their problems, they will be more willing to own up to their own shortcomings."

Matt: "Wow. Sounds like the church."

We need to build relationships between the city and the suburbs, but these relationships need to be give-and-take, not just us going dowtown to solve poverty.