Saturday, December 25, 2010

In order to unlock the chest holding Rombaldi’s secret message, you will need to find his key. The key has been hidden, but there is a map.

Rombaldi hid the first piece of the map underneath a picture of his favorite tree. It is stored with vessels for entertaining.

Rombaldi hid the second piece of the map in a room that was once used, now is not used, but will be used again next spring.

You will need to assemble the two pieces of the map to discover the key to Rombaldi’s chest.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Systematic Theology by Wolfhart Pannenberg

I just finished volume 3 of Wolfhart Pannenberg's Systematic Theology, and for the third year in a row it will reign as "the best book I read this year." Pannenberg is brilliant. I will be digesting this work for a long time. He ends the three-volume book:

On the whole path from the beginning of creation by way of reconciliation to the eschatological future of salvation, the march of the divine economy of salvation is an expression of the incursion of the eternal future of God to the salvation of creatures and thus a manifestation of the divine love. Here is the eternal basis for God's coming forth from the immanence of the divine life as the economic Trinity and of the incorporation of creatures, mediated thereby, into the unity of the trinitarian life. The distinction and unity of the immanent and economic Trinity constitute the heartbeat of the divine love, and with a single such heartbeat this love encompasses the whole world of creatures. (Systematic Theology, 3, 646.)
Three years ago I would have read that and said, "What?" Now, I read it and say, "Sweet."
I have sketched an outline of how Pannenberg's theology can provide a way forward for "Big Tent Evangelicalism" to work together for the Gospel. I hope to put something together for Scot McKnight's blog. More on that soon.

Another Passage I Don't "Get"

What do we do with this one?

Jeremiah 35:1 The LORD spoke to Jeremiah when Jehoiakim son of Josiah was ruling over Judah. He said, 2 "Go to the Rechabite community. Invite them to come into one of the side rooms of the LORD's temple and offer them some wine to drink." 3 So I went and got Jaazaniah son of Jeremiah, the grandson of Habazziniah, and his brothers and all his sons and all the rest of the Rechabite community. 4 I took them to the LORD's temple. I took them into the room where the disciples of the prophet Hanan son of Igdaliah stayed. That room was next to the one where the temple officers stayed and above the room where Maaseiah son of Shallum, one of the doorkeepers of the temple, stayed. 5 Then I set cups and pitchers full of wine in front of the members of the Rechabite community and said to them, "Have some wine." 6 But they answered, "We don't drink wine because our ancestor Jonadab son of Rechab commanded us not to. He told us, 'You and your children must never drink wine. 7 Don't build houses. Don't plant crops. Don't plant a vineyard or own one. Live in tents all your lives. If you do these things you will live a long time in the land that you wander about on.' 8 We and our wives and our sons and daughters have obeyed everything our ancestor Jonadab commanded us. We have never drunk wine. 9 We haven't built any houses to live in. We don't own any vineyards, fields, or crops. 10 We have lived in tents. We have obeyed our ancestor Jonadab and done exactly as he commanded us. 11 But when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded the land we said, 'Let's get up and go to Jerusalem to get away from the Babylonian and Aramean armies.' That is why we are staying here in Jerusalem."

12 Then the LORD spoke to Jeremiah. 13 The LORD God of Israel who rules over all told him, "Go and speak to the people of Judah and the citizens of Jerusalem. Tell them, 'I, the LORD, ask, "Won't you learn a lesson from this about obeying what I say? 14 Jonadab son of Rechab ordered his descendants not to drink wine. And his orders have been carried out. To this day his descendants have drunk no wine because they have obeyed what their ancestor commanded them. But I have spoken to you over and over again and you have not obeyed me.

I am just thinking of how it squares up with James 1:13, "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted by God,' for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one."

Friday, September 24, 2010

David Opderbeck on God's Justice

Good article. Here's an excerpt:

The Girl in the Cage, the Lion, and the Lamb

Somewhere in America right now, there is a little girl locked in a dog cage. A man will bind her with duct tape. The man will sexually abuse her while another takes pictures and videos. The men will distribute these materials over a vast network of child pornography file sharing servers. Tens of thousands of other men will look at the pictures and videos, discuss them in chat rooms, use them as masturbatory tools, and demand more. And they will get more, much more.

I know this is true because I’m teaching a course this semester on “Cybersecurity Law.” Most of the course focuses on commercial and public espionage – hacking, data theft, and so on. This week, however, the topic has been online safety – cyberstalking, harassment, obscenity and child pornography. Our guest speaker yesterday was the Brian Sinclair, Chief of the Computer Crime Prosecution Unit in Bergen County, New Jersey. While he mercifully didn’t show us any of the volumes of child porn his unit has seized over the years (it is technically a felony to display such materials even in an educational setting), he described in general terms the sorts of things that commonly appear, including what he noted as “disturbing recent trend” towards the literal caging of victims.

What is justice? When is justice? Where is justice?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Eugene Peterson on the Busy Pastor

I just started reading The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson. Wow! There are so many gems even in the first chapter. This is the one I like the best, on pastors being busy:

The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my wastebasket is the letter addressed to the 'busy pastor.' Not that the phrase doesn't describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me.

I'm not arguing the accuracy of the adjective; I am, though, contesting the way it is used to flatter and express sympathy.

'The poor man,' we say. 'He's so devoted to his flock; the work is endless, and he sacrifices himself so unstintingly.' But the word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.
So you know where he is going with this, he writes later:

But if I vainly crowd my day with conspicuous activity or let others fill my day with imperious demands, I don't have time to do my proper work, the work to which I have been called. How can I lead people into the quiet place beside still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What Does It Mean to Love God?

Christians talk a lot about loving God (which is good, since Jesus said that the most important commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that the second is like it--to love your neighbor as yourself). But, how often do we ask ourselves what this looks like? What does it mean to love God?

The Greeks had three words that we translate, love--agape, phileo, and eros. Phileo refers more to a "friendship" love, eros to an erotic love, and agape to a sacrificial, unconditional love.

When we talk of loving God, often we mistakenly think of our love for God in terms of phileo love (or worse yet, eros love). We have nice feelings for God. We like Him. But, agape love is the love with which God loves us, and it is the love with which we have been called to love God and others.

What does it look like to love God with agape love? First John 4:7–12 (NET) says:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
Wolfhart Pannenberg asks some provocative questions about Christian love for God:

If Christian love is essentially a participation in God's love for the world, then we have to ask whether we can distinguish at all between love of God and love of neighbor. Does not true love consist of sharing in God's love for the world? And in the depth of turning to the cohuman Thou, do we not also love God? (Systematic Theology, vol. 3, 187.)
Pannenberg argues that, while love for God and love for neighbor are inseparable, they do not collapse into one another. Jesus seemed to prioritize love for God over love for others, implying at least a subtle distinction. Pannenberg describes love for God:
We love God by letting him be God to us as Jesus let the Father be God to him, by letting him be our God, our Father, and thus by putting our trust and confidence in him. (Systematic Theology, vol. 3, 193.)
Love for God is expressed in faith.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Is Egalitarianism/Complementarianism a Gospel Issue?

Scot McKnight links to an article by Dan Stringer, asking the neo-calvinists whether complementarianism is essential to the gospel. Can egalitarians be gospel-centered?

(Complementarianism and egalitarianism relate to the roles of men and women in the church, home, and society. Egalitarians say that there should be no distinctions between men and women. Complementarians say that while men and women are equal, God has assigned them diferent roles. Most complementarian churches would reserve the role of elder or pastor to a man; some would go farther than that.)

At issue is the neo-calvinists' strong stance on complementarianism. Stringer asks whether the neo-calvinists have allowed a secondary issue to muddle the gospel.

The discussion was on interest to me because I think some, like my hero James Dunn, may have gone to the opposite extreme and made egalitarianism a part of the gospel.

Wolfhart Pannenberg on Christian Hope

From Systematic Theology, vol 3. I love the last sentence (emphasis mine).

Faith lifts us above our entanglement in the vicious circle of sin and death by uniting us to Jesus and giving us a share in his Spirit. Hence believers in Christ, to whom they are united in the ecstatic 'outside the self' of faith, acquire a hope beyond death. In the process, too, a basis is established for overcoming the egotistical structure of human hopes. Christians do not hope just for themselves, which would mean only too often that the hope of one would be at the cost of the hopes of others. In Christ they share in a universal hope for humanity. Individual wants may certainly be taken up and met, but this takes place within the larger context of the saving reality of God's kingdom that transcends individual particularism. By faith Christians are snatched out of bondage to their egotistical striving for happiness and find the fulfillment of their personal life precisely in the fellowship of the body of Christ and in the work for the future of humanity in the kingdom of God.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Theology of Job's Friends--Right or Wrong?

I am reading Job right now. When I studied Job in school, the first thing that we learned was that Job's friends spit out bad theology. I am starting to wonder if that is the case.

Job starts out with a wager between God and Satan. God highlights Job as an example of a righteous man, and Satan accuses Job of only being righteous because God has made it worth his while. God gives Satan permission torment Job to see whether he will curse God.

In the middle of Job's suffering, his friends try to "console" him by encouraging him to repent. In Job's friends' view, God is just and unable to punish the righteous. Job's suffering is evidence of sin. The reader knows that Job has not sinned. He is suffering, not under the hand of God, but under the hand of Satan. Thus, as Job's friends wax eloquently about righteousness, justice, and repentance, the reader knows that they are full of it.

At the end of the book, God steps in, rebukes Job's friends, and vindicates Job. So, we know that Job's friends don't "get it." They were wrong all along.

But, what do we do with Job's friends' theology? It actually lines up with what we read elsewhere in the Old Testament. If we write it off as bad theology, we have to write off a number of other passages in the Old Testament as well. What if the role of Job's friends in the story is not to debunk their theology and point out that even the righteous can suffer, but to point out that we don't have God figured out? This seems to be God's point at the end of the book--"Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let the person who accuses God give him an answer!" (40:2 NET) God essentially says, "When you figure out how to keep the universe together, then you can question how I run things."

This isn't to say that theology isn't important or that we can't know certain things about who God is or how He acts. But, maybe Job is a reminder to us that God is God and He can't fit in our box.

I taught a class once in which we were discussing God's providence and His eternal decree. We looked at several passages in which God says, "I am not a man that I should change my mind." We also looked at passages in which God apparently changes His mind. What do we do with instances like this? Do we elevate one and try to explain the other away, or can we hold them in tension and admit we don't have it figured out? I prefer the latter approach, concluding, "God's decree is permanent. He doesn't change His mind . . . except when He does."

Is that unsettling or helpful (or both)? Is that approach to theology freeing or discouraging?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Chaplain Mike on the Emerging Church

In response to Scot McKnight's recent CT article about the present and future of evangelicalism, Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk is discussing McKnight's three streams--the emerging church, the ancient-future movement, and the neo-reformed. First up for discussion is the emerging church--what it was, what it is, and where it is going. I posted my thoughts on at least two of the threads.

My journey with the emerging church began when I read A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren. It ended when I read Deep Church by Jim Belcher, A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren, and Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer.

I think Belcher, Spencer, and McKnight are pointing the way forward.

Joe Carter on Gimmicky Preaching

Joe Carter isn't impressed with the skateboarding Hungarian Catholic priest who has become a YouTube sensation. He shows why evangelicals are still the reigning champs of gimmicky preaching.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why Don't We Ever Talk about Passages Like This?

So, I was reading in the Book of Esther today, and I came across chapter 9. Yikes!

We all know the story of Esther. The Persian king Ahasuerus parties for seven straight days, and then sends a messenger to his wife Vashti to get dressed up so that he show off how hot she is to all of his drunken friends. When she refuses, he decides that she will no longer be queen and that all of the beautiful virgins of the land should be brought to him, and whichever one "pleases" him the most will be the new queen.

Mordecai is an honorable Jew living in Susa and taking care of his younger cousin, Esther, who "had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at" (2:7 ESV). Esther is summoned to the harem, but she keeps her ethnicity a secret. Sure enough, she pleases the king more than any of the other women and she is made queen instead of Vashti. Mordecai hears of a plot to assassinate the king, he tells Esther of the plot, she warns the king, and the king is saved.

Haman is Ahasuerus's top official. He hates Mordecai because Mordecai won't bow down to him. So, he plots to exterminate all of the Jewish people, Mordecai and Esther included. When Mordecai learns of the plot, he tells Esther that she needs to step in and save her people, even though doing so would put her own life at risk. He warns her that if she doesn't step in, deliverance will come from elsewhere but that she and her father's house will perish. Esther agrees to the plan.

Esther plans a banquet for Ahasuerus and Haman, during which she plans to talk to her husband about her ethnicity and Haman's plot.

Haman decides to construct a gallows from which to hang Mordecai.

One night, when the king can't sleep, he asks his officials to read to him from the annuls, and he realizes that he never honored Mordecai for saving his life. Just then, Haman comes in to get the king's permission to hang Mordecai. The king asks him what he should do to honor a special man. Haman, presuming that the king wants to honor him, says, "Dress him in the king's robe and put him on the king's horse." The king says, "Great idea. Do this for Mordecai."

After Haman's humiliation, he attends Esther's banquet with the king. During the banquet, Esther reveals Haman's plot, and the king orders that he be executed--hung from the gallows he constructed for Mordecai. Haman is executed, the Jews are saved, Mordecai and Esther are put in charge of everything Haman once ran, the feast of Purim is established as a remembrance, and everyone lives happily ever after. End of story.

But not really. Then we come to chapter 9.

On the day on which the extermination of the Jews was supposed to take place, a counter-extermination takes place instead. The Jews are allowed to get up and kill all of their enemies. In Susa alone, 500 men are killed. The report is brought to the king, and he says to Esther, "Well, you got what you wanted. Now, if there is anything else you want me to do--I'll do it. Up to half of my kingdom." Esther responds, "Let the killing continue for another day." Over the two-day period, 75,000 people are killed throughout the Persian empire.

Now, I have heard Esther characterized in a number of ways. Some are positive, pointing out that she risked her life to save her people. Others are negative, pointing out that she got her power through sexual prowess and that she didn't step up to save the Jews until Mordecai threatened her. Esther never honors God or even mentions Him.

But not once have I ever heard anyone point out that Esther, when offered anything in the world by the most powerful man in the world, chose to continue a massacre for an additional 24 hours. This makes Herodias's daughter's request look like a call for world peace.

What do we do with chapters like this? Have you ever heard a sermon on Esther 9?

Scot McKnight Interviews Brian McLaren at Q

This is good. McKnight asks McLaren about his "provocative ambiguity" (great phrase btw), how he reconciles his views in A Generous Orthodoxy with those in A New Kind of Christianity, and about whether he is a universalist.

Q | Conversations on Being a Heretic from Q Ideas on Vimeo.

There are no words . . .

Monday, August 9, 2010

Thoughts on Ezra 8:21–23

Ezra 8:21–23 NET:

I called for a fast there by the Ahava Canal, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and seek from him a safe journey for us, our children, and all our property. 22 I was embarrassed to request soldiers and horsemen from the king to protect us from the enemy along the way, because we had said to the king, "The good hand of our God is on everyone who is seeking him, but his great anger is on everyone who forsakes him." 23 So we fasted and prayed to our God about this, and he answered us.

I like this passage. Ezra is leading a group to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity. He gathers the heads of the families and arranges to set off on the long walk to Israel. But before they leave, he calls for a fast.

I love Ezra's explanation for the fast: he was afraid and he was embarrassed. He made some bold statements to the Persian king, "The good hand of our God is on everyone who is seeking him, but his great anger is on everyone who forsakes him," but then he was afraid that someone would mug them on the road to Jerusalem. He wanted soldiers for protection, but he was embarrassed to ask for them because of his God-talk.

Honest words from Ezra preserved for eternity.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Interesting Re-Reading of the Jacob Narrative

So, I was reading in Genesis the other day, and I had an interesting thought: Why do we take the claims of Jacob seriously in this narrative?

The question arose when I compared Genesis 30:25–43 and Genesis 31:4–11. Genesis 30:25–43 is that strange passage in which Jacob makes a deal with Laban that his wages shall be the spotted and striped goats of the heard and that Laban would keep the solid colored ones. After Laban agrees to the deal, Jacob starts putting out sticks by the water troughs when the goats are breeding, and as a result of his actions, the young goats are all spotted and striped and Jacob gets rich.

Questions of science aside, Jacob clearly intends to take advantage of Laban in this passage.

But, it's interesting how Jacob spins this in the next chapter. When he is explaining to his wives why they must leave their father-in-law and travel back to his hometown, Jacob accuses Laban of taking advantage of him and he says that the LORD appeared to him in a vision and told him that He had vindicated him by giving him wealth anyway. So, in Genesis 31, Jacob says that God gave him prosperity because Laban tried to take advantage of him, but in Genesis 30 the text says that Jacob got wealthy by taking advantage of Laban.

Typically, we try to harmonize these passages. We conclude, "Well, Laban was trying to take advantage of Jacob, and even though Jacob was trying to take advantage of Laban, too, God sided with Jacob and vindicated him over Laban."

The question that popped into my head was, "Why do we try to harmonize what the text itself says happened with what Jacob claimed happened?" Why do we take Jacob seriously when he talks of visions that he received from the Lord? After all, Jacob's name means "deceiver," and he lies to keep himself out of trouble every chance that he gets. The text never says that Jacob actually had a vision of the LORD, it just says that he told his wives that he had a vision of the LORD. What if he was lying?

So, I started reading the Jacob narrative differently. Unless the text says explicitly that God told Jacob something, I just assumed that he was lying about everything that he claimed God told him. It makes for an interesting re-read. It intensifies Jacob's character as a deceiver and highlights God's grace for being faithful to him even though he manipulated everyone he met.

I don't know that I will settle on that reading as my preferred reading, but it's an interesting exercise.

Monday, August 2, 2010

2 Chronicles 30:18–20

I came across an interesting passage in 2 Chronicles the other day. It's one of those strange passages about which a former professor of mine may have said, "Put THAT in your theological pipe and smoke it."

Judah had come under the judgment of God due to the actions of their former king, Ahaz. His son Hezekiah, the new king, was trying to get them back on track by restoring the Temple worship. After the priests and Levites had consecrated themselves, Hezekiah decided that the nation should celebrate the Passover as an act of repentance--even though it was the wrong month (Exod 12:1–6, 2 Chr 30:1–4). A great number of people responded, but they didn't consecrate themselves and celebrate the feast according to the prescriptions in the law. The passage (2 Chr 30:18–20) says:

"The majority of the many people from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun were ritually unclean, yet they ate the Passover in violation of what is prescribed in the law. For Hezekiah prayed for them, saying: 'May the LORD, who is good, forgive 19 everyone who has determined to follow God, the LORD God of his ancestors, even if he is not ritually clean according to the standards of the temple.' 20 The LORD responded favorably to Hezekiah and forgave the people." (NET)

So, the people repent and decide to come back to God, but they don't "do it right," according to the Scriptures. Hezekiah prays that God would honor their actions anyway, and God does. What do we do with that?

Systematic theology would be so much easier were it not for the Bible. :)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Brian McLaren on Resurrection

I know I said I was done writing about this, but I am finishing the book. I found McLaren's eschatology to confusing and saddening, so I am looking for someone to correct me here if I am mistaken in my understanding.

As I read through McLaren's chapter on eschatology, I found one concept curiously absent--resurrection. So, I did some digging, scouring the pages for any reference to resurrection or any discussion of it in the footnotes, and the best I came up with was a link to a deleted chapter called "Making Echatology Personal." McLaren says that the article was written in response to the question, "What happens to me when I die?"

Here is the article. Is this resurrection? Note especially the italicized portions on pages 12–14.

It seems to me that McLaren's "resurrection" is that the good deeds that we did are swallowed up into the memory of God, so that they live on, but our bad deeds are consumed by the judgment so that they are forgotten. Curiously, his descriptions of Jesus' resurrection are starting to look like that to me, too--the resurrection shouldn't be interpreted as a bodily resurrection, but as rememberance by Jesus' people. Jesus is "resurrected" in the sense that the church is his body and memory of him lives on.

If this is the role resurrection (especially Jesus' resurrection) plays in the new kind of Christianity, then I don't think it can be called Christianity in any meaningful sense. That saddens me.

I hope I am mistaken about this. If anyone can correct me, please do. I would appreciate it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A New Kind of Christianity--I Quit :(

Sitting in my "drafts" folder is a 2500 word review of Brian McLaren's "gospel question." I get depressed just thinking about it. In fact, reviewing this book has been such a downer that I have decided to quit. I hate quitting projects, but I have to quit this one for the following reasons:
  1. I am not finding the book to be helpful. McLaren's approach to life and faith are so different than my own that I struggle to find points of commonality. Also, his attitude toward people like me (conservative evangelicals, especially conservative evangelical pastors) has me constantly on the defensive.

  2. I am not finding reviewing the book to be helpful. I hate being negative. I have tried to put a positive spin on my review of his book, but it's getting tougher. Sometimes negativity and criticism are good, even needed, but I am not really interested in continuing a project that draws out the worst in me. I dread reading the book because I know I will inevitably have to follow it up with a lengthy negative review.

  3. I am not finding his book to be as influential as I thought it would be. I think McLaren's days of being a lightning rod are over. He's a gifted writer. He is a great thinker. He's visionary and he's not afraid of asking the hard questions. He's an influential leader in his circle. But I think his hostility to his critics has marginalized him and destroyed his credibility to the middle. He has lost his voice as a "third way" or as the middle; he's an extremist. It pains me to write that, but I think it's the case. His books will be devoured by his camp and burned by the opposition.
Anyway, I will finish the book and maybe write some parting words, but I'm done spending so much time on it.

Scot McKnight on the Evangelical "Image Problem"

Scot McKnight discusses a chapter out of Brad Wright's book, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . . and Other Lies You've Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths from the Secular and Christian Media at

The discussion is on how our culture perceives evangelicals. The numbers are shocking--we don't have as bad of a reputation as some claim.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Adam Omelianchuk on the Ugliness of Baseball

Adam Omelianchuk illustrates how baseball mirrors all that is tragic in life:

He writes, "Beholding such monotony gives one a rotten sense of the infinite where hope for one last out comes to symbolize Kierkegaard’s notion of despair; wanting no longer to exist and not being able to do anything about it."

Great writing.

Monday, July 19, 2010

My Review of Mere Churchianity on Jesus Creed

Scot McKnight published a review I wrote of Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer. Spencer was the Internet Monk. He passed away in April.

Read the review at:

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Brian McLaren's Jesus Question

I am blogging through A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. McLaren is noted for his dissatisfaction with evangelicalism, and his new book raises “ten questions that are transforming the faith.” He writes, “It’s time for a new quest, launched by new questions, a quest across denominations and around the world, a quest for new ways to believe and new ways to serve faithfully in the way of Jesus, a quest for a new kind of Christian faith.” He insists that he is not offering answers to these questions, but responses that invite counter-responses. Let the conversation begin! I will offer summaries of each question and response, along with my counter-responses.

McLaren’s fourth question is the Jesus question: Who is Jesus and Why Is He Important? Having explained his ideas about God, the biblical narrative, and the way the Bible should be read, McLaren sets out to describe Jesus. He does this by debunking views of Jesus held by two of his biggest critics. To protect his anonymity, we’ll call the first one “M. Driscoll.” No, that’s too obvious. We’ll call him “Mark D.” Mark D. accuses McLaren of wanting:

“To recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in his hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes.” (Quoted in McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 120)
Instead, Mark D. prefers a different Jesus:

“In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in his hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.” (Quoted in McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 120)
McLaren insists that, while his Jesus may be “new” to some people, we need to be careful of rejecting a “new” Jesus in favor of the previous generation’s Jesus. Just because a Jesus is familiar, that doesn’t make it the real Jesus. He says that his critic’s Jesus looks more like the Greco-Roman Jesus than the Jesus of the Bible.

In contrast to the tattooed, sword-toting Jesus of his critics, McLaren describes a peaceful Jesus with a sword in his mouth, not in his hands (Mark misquotes Revelation 19:15), and with a robe drenched in his own blood, not the blood of his enemies. He writes:

“If you don’t want to worship a guy you can beat up, then I might humbly suggest you reconsider Caesar and the Greco-Roman narrative. It sounds like ‘Christ and him crucified’ is not for you. At least not yet.” (126)

Having debunked one critic’s Jesus, McLaren moves on to the Jesus of critic number two, whom we will call “Johnny Mac.” Johnny Mac wrote a book critical of McLaren that featured a rattlesnake on the cover. In an interview related to the book, he said:

“The only reason Jesus came was to save people from hell. . . . Jesus had no social agenda. . . . [He didn’t come to eliminate poverty or slavery or] . . . fix something in somebody’s life for the little moment they live on this earth.” (Quoted in McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, 127)
In contrast to the Jesus who only wants to save people from hell, McLaren describes a Jesus according to his reading of the biblical narrative, one who is primarily concerned with self-actualization and liberation from bondage. His key text (a good one) is Luke 4:17–19. He writes:

“Jesus, contrary to my dear loyal critic’s assertion, did not come merely to ‘save souls from hell.’ No, he came to launch a new Genesis, to lead a new Exodus, and to announce, embody, and inaugurate a new kingdom as the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6). Seen in this light, Jesus and his message have everything to do with poverty, slavery, and a ‘social agenda.’” (135)
So, what do we do with these three portrayals of Jesus—Mark’s cage-fighter Jesus, John’s fire-insurance Jesus, and McLaren’s Che-Guevara Jesus?

I have to agree with McLaren’s critiques. In saying, “I can’t worship a Jesus that I can beat up,” we are putting ourselves in the shoes of the Roman soldiers mocking Jesus from the foot of the cross. Also, suggesting that Jesus did nothing to challenge the social institutions of his day (as John does in the interview to which McLaren refers) couldn’t be further from the truth. What about his association with prostitutes and sinners? What about his welcoming of Gentiles? What about his “You have heard it said . . . but I tell you” teachings? As John Meier points out, the historical Jesus is the halakic Jesus.

But, does this mean that McLaren’s Jesus is the real one? Not exactly. What do we do with those passages in Revelation that portray Jesus as killing his enemies? McLaren offers a reinterpretation of the blood on Jesus robe, but I can’t help but think that this is an allusion to Isaiah 63:3. And what do we do with Jesus’ teaching on hell? Sure, Jesus taught that the kingdom of God was at hand in his ministry, but he also expected something in the future.

I think McLaren’s error here is his failure to read the Scriptures in the way he suggests in part 3 (the authority question). Absent in these chapters is any attempt to describe Jesus on his own terms. Instead, McLaren starts with the biblical narrative that he outlined in part 2 and shoehorns Jesus into the narrative. As I argued earlier, I don’t think Jesus read the narrative of the Old Testament in the way that McLaren is suggesting. McLaren doesn’t offer any evidence in this section that he did.

McLaren’s Jesus leaves me with some unanswered questions. What is the kingdom of God? Is it fully present now, or are we awaiting its consummation? Is he writing off resurrection of the dead and eternal rewards and punishment? Did Jesus believe in those things? If there is future justice and retribution, is there room for the sword-toting, tattooed Jesus?

Ultimately, I think the “real” Jesus has elements of each of these Jesuses. Mark may be right that Jesus isn’t a limp-wrist hippie, but he did overcome the forces of evil through suffering, not through violence. John may be right that Jesus wanted to deliver humanity from hell, but that doesn’t mean he was unconcerned about present evil and suffering. McLaren may be right that Jesus is a liberator, but he’s a liberator from sin, not just from the powers of this age.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Brian McLaren's God Question

I am blogging through A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. McLaren is noted for his dissatisfaction with evangelicalism, and his new book raises “ten questions that are transforming the faith.” He writes, “It’s time for a new quest, launched by new questions, a quest across denominations and around the world, a quest for new ways to believe and new ways to serve faithfully in the way of Jesus, a quest for a new kind of Christian faith.” He insists that he is not offering answers to these questions, but responses that invite counter-responses. Let the conversation begin! I will offer summaries of each question and response, along with my counter-responses.

McLaren’s third question is The God Question: Is God violent? Having insisted that we treat the Bible as a library rather than a constitution, he moves on to one of the stickier issues in treating the Bible as a library—What do we do with all of the violence in the Bible (especially in the Old Testament)? In Genesis 6, God sees that the earth is corrupt, and He decides to wipe everyone out in a deluge, save for Noah, his family, and some animals. Not only is this genocide, it’s geocide. What do we do with this story? If this is the way that God behaves, is it how we are to behave?

To show that the flood story is not an example to follow, McLaren lays out a hermeneutic that illustrates how our understanding of God has evolved from a “violent tribal God” to a “Christlike God.” For instance, Genesis 6 tells a story of oppression, flood, and deliverance by an ark. Exodus tells a similar story—only this time it is Israel that is oppressed, and baby Moses who is delivered by an ark (in Hebrew, the raft his mother made for him is called an ark). McLaren suggests that the Moses story may be a commentary on the Noah story—only our perceptions of God have evolved. No longer is God the God who liberates through genocide; He’s a God who liberates through salvation.

Brian is not suggesting that God has changed, only that people grow in their understanding of God. He writes:
I’m not saying that the Bible is free of passages that depict God as competitive, superficially exacting, exclusive, deterministic, and violent. But neither am I saying that those passages are the last word on the character of God. I am not saying that the Bible reveals a process of evolution within God’s actual character, as if God used to be rather adolescent, but has taken a turn for the better and is growing up nicely over the last few centuries. I am saying that human beings can’t do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and that Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment. If we read the Bible as a cultural library rather than as a constitution, and if we don’t impose a Greco-Roman plotline on the biblical narrative, we are free to learn from that evolutionary process—and, we might even add, participate in it. (103)
McLaren argues that this is often the way we teach children. For instance, in second grade, you might learn that “you can’t subtract a larger number from a smaller number.” However, in sixth grade, you might start working with negative numbers and learn that “a negative number is the result of subtracting a larger number from a smaller number.” Does this new knowledge mean that what you learned in second grade was wrong? No; it just means that what you learned in second grade was appropriate for second-graders. Sixth-graders can handle more complex truth.

So, how do we, 2000 years after Jesus, develop our theology in conversation with the Bible? McLaren insists that Jesus is the ultimate authority for our theology, not the Bible. The Bible is an invaluable conversation partner, but not the ultimate authority. Instead, he suggests we plot the Bible’s teaching over time on any given subject, and look for a trajectory that represents the teaching of Jesus. For instance, take our treatment of “the other.” In the early parts of the Old Testament, other tribes were feared, conquered, and exterminated. When Joshua conquered the Promised Land, they slaughtered the Canaanites, showing them no mercy. Later in the Old Testament, we see this idea of Israel being a light to the Gentiles—that some day the nations would come and worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. In the New Testament, we see Jesus associate with Gentiles on their terms, and in Paul we see the Gentiles fully accepted into the fold. What does this trajectory suggest to us about how Jesus would like us to treat those outside of our “tribe”?

I find very little of Brian’s hermeneutic to be helpful. In fact, I was more discouraged than helped. McLaren misrepresents the way he develops his theology, and he falsely caricatures those who disagree as Neanderthals, abusers, and fear-mongers. To paraphrase Scot McKnight’s response to the book, there is very little generous and orthodox about this section.

At the very end of this section, McLaren illustrates his approach to the Bible and theology with a physical Bible. He opens the Bible to the beginning of the New Testament, and lays it on a table, spine up. The Old Testament side represents the Old Testament, the New Testament side represents the New Testament, and the spine represents Jesus. Most people read the Bible flat, taking bits and pieces from everything and giving them equal weight. Some might give precedence to the Old Testament (and he lifts the Old Testament side of the Bible as he says this), and others might give precedence to the New Testament (he lifts the Bible from the other end at this point). McLaren would prefer to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus (at this point he lifts the Bible by the spine so that both Old and New Testaments are sloping toward the middle).

I think that this is a great illustration—but it is not what McLaren is doing. The trajectory illustration is a better picture of what he is doing--imagine the cover of the New Testament extending a couple of inches to represent the 2000 years since it was written, and McLaren picking the Bible up by this extended side. Thus the Old Testament, Jesus, the New Testament, the church Fathers, the medieval church, the Reformers, and modern philosophers all lead up to him—the ultimate authority on what “Jesus” thinks we should think about God.

Jesus was the climax of God’s revelation to mankind (Hebrews 1:1–3). William Blake wrote that “the final revelation of Christianity is, therefore, not that Jesus is God, but that ‘God is Jesus.’” If we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus. What, then, do we do with the Bible?

First, we have to recognize that the Bible is God’s revelation to mankind, even if it is inferior revelation to that of Jesus (inferior in the sense that not as much can be deduced about God through the Bible as through Jesus).

Second, I think we have to recognize progress in revelation. I don’t know that I agree with McLaren’s illustration about Noah and Moses, but something like that is happening in the Bible. The clearest examples of this are the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the role of messiah. If the Old Testament teaches that God exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that God would become human and die for the sins of humanity, and that messiah would be a suffering messiah, why didn’t anyone get this when Jesus walked the earth? Even Jesus’ own family and his closest followers missed the point. It wasn’t until after the resurrection that the church started sorting out this new revelation. I would argue, like McLaren, that God has eternally existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but only revealed Himself as such in the first century CE.

Third, we have to understand Jesus in his own context, not ours. This means we read the Old Testament because it was the Bible that Jesus read. He was immersed in the stories of the Old Testament, and his theology grew out of its pages. This also means that we read the New Testament as the immediate response of the church to what happened with Jesus. Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles wrote the New Testament as a record of what Jesus did and thought, and His significance for the life of the church. The church Fathers continued this tradition, as did many who came afterward.

So, when we try to understand “the Christlike God,” we have to look at Jesus in his context. How did Jesus arise out of first century Judaism? What did Jesus believe about the God of the Old Testament? Helping us to understand that is the New Testament—What teachings did Jesus pass on to his followers? As I mentioned in the previous post, the historical Jesus has to come out of first century Judaism, and He has to explain the rise of the church.

Is this what McLaren is trying to do? I don’t think so. He seems more interested in creating a theology that is more palatable to the new atheists. This may be a noble effort, but as his theology grows more and more acceptable to our contemporary situation, it looks less and less like the theology of Jesus. Jesus said and did some things that weren’t popular. He wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with McLaren teaching “liberal” theology. I am confident enough with what I believe and familiar enough with what I don’t believe that I don’t need to agree with him on every point. Why doesn’t he just identify himself as a “liberal Christian” and get on with his life? Why does he have to demonize those who disagree? He writes:

People who are part of what is often called fundamentalism today, whether Christian, Muslims, or Jews, often find it difficult to acknowledge this kind of progression in understanding across the centuries. If anything, they feel obliged to defend and give priority to the early, raw, more primal, less-tested and –developed view of God, minimizing or marginalizing what I am calling the more mature and nuanced understandings. So the God of the fundamentalists is a competitive warrior—always jealous of rivals and determined to drive them into defeat and disgrace. And the God of the fundamentalists is superficially exacting—demanding technical perfection in regard to ceremonial and legal matters while minimizing deeper concerns about social justice—especially where outsiders and outcasts are concerned. Similarly, the fundamentalist god is exclusive, faithfully loving one in-group and rejecting—perhaps even hating—all others. The fundamentalist God is also deterministic—controlling rather than interacting, a mover of events but never moved by them. And finally, though the fundamentalist God may be patient for a while, he (fundamentalist versions of God tend to be very male) is ultimately violent, eventually destined to explode with unquenchable rage, condemnation, punishment, torture, and vengeance if you push him too far. (102)
I don’t know anyone who would describe God in those terms. Yet, this is the way McLaren caricatures those who dissent from his opinions.

One of the first books I read by Brian McLaren was A New Kind of Christian (not to be confused with A New Kind of Christianity). In it, McLaren tells the story of a pastor’s journey from a “modernist” concept of God to a more “postmodern” concept. I liked a lot in the book—many of McLaren’s questions resonated with me. But when I read the sequel, The Story We Find Ourselves In, I was turned off by the rhetoric. In the first book, McLaren presented his opinions as ideas to be discussed. The tone of the book was, “These are just some thoughts I am having. Don’t hate me if you disagree.” But in the second book, the tone changed. He introduced some more conservative Christian characters to the novel that were little more than stereotypes. The shoe was clearly on the other foot, and McLaren dished out just as must hate as he claimed to be a victim of in the first book.

I didn’t read the third novel in the trilogy, but I tried to give McLaren the benefit of the doubt. I reasoned that perhaps he had significant negative experiences with conservatives, and I attributed his stereotyping to ignorance.

But, I am starting to think that this is not the case—it’s just the way he writes. He presents himself as the victim, and when he has gained his readers’ sympathy, he goes on the attack. If Brian wants to understand why people keep sending him hate mail, maybe he should stop asking why people are afraid of his ideas and look instead at the rhetoric he uses to describe the “conversation partner.”

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Theology and LOST

I admit, I have been hooked on LOST for the past 4 or 5 years. Brooke and I usually wait until the DVDs come out and watch an entire season in a few weeks, but now that we have a computer that runs HULU well, we have been keeping up with the show as it unfolds.

I have to say, season 6 is fantastic. I lost interest in the show during season 4. I don't know if it was the writers' strike or what, but season 4 was awful. (Yet, for some reason, I couldn't stop watching.) Season 5 was an improvement over season 4, but the show had lost the "must-see" excitement of the first three seasons.

That has all changed.

The sixth season of LOST changed the theme of the show from time travel and pseudo-science to serious questions about evil, justice, and redemption. Here are some of the more compelling questions on my mind as the final season of LOST unfolds:

1. What will happen to Benjamin Linus? As soon as Ben was introduced on the show he became the most interesting character. It's tough to think of a character in any book, movie, or television show as evil as Ben. He is a master manipulator. Every word he says is a lie, and yet you can't stop believing him.

But in the last two seasons, Ben has been cast in a more human light. We have seen why he is as evil as he is (traumatic home life, perceived betrayal by Jacob). He has even shown signs of remorse for his crimes (especially the acts that led to the death of his daughter), and the flash sideways episode about him suggested he might not be so bad of a guy were it not for Jacob and the island.

What do we do with Ben? Do we believe that he is truly repentant? Can he be redeemed? Can we forget all of the atrocities he committed (let's not forget he killed everyone in the Dharma Initiative)? Can we help but empathize with him when he was asked about why he was joining the man in black, and he answered, "Because he'll have me"?

2. What is the point of the "flash sideways"? (For that matter, what is the plural of "flash sideways," "flash sidewayses"?)

Are they setting us up to show that life would have been worse were it not for the crash? If so, is this an attempt at theodicy? Jacob, representing the good "god," brought innocent people to the island against their will to prove to the man in black that not all people are evil. I see echoes of Job here--God and Satan having a wager over whether or not Job would curse God if Satan plagued him. But if Jacob is so good, why kill all of those people in the plane crash? Why wreck the lives of the survivors? Perhaps the flash sideways will show us that life would have been worse were it not for the crash.

Also, in the first episode of season 6, Sawyer saw that Juliet was still down in mine shaft, dying, and he said, "It didn't work." Juliet corrected him, "It did work." What did she mean by that? If it worked, then life would have gone on as in the flash sideways scenes. What do we do with the island scenes, then?

3. What is Jacob's plan for defeating the man in black? The writers have set us up for a "good god" (Jacob) versus "bad god" (the man in black) battle. When Ben killed Jacob, I thought, Huh. I guess Jacob wasn't as powerful as everyone thought he was. But, in last week's episode, Richard tried to kill Jacob (using the same knife that Ben would later use to kill him), and Jacob showed remarkable reflexes and fighting ability. This makes me think that Jacob allowed Ben to kill him. Why would he do that? If I were writing the show, it would to show that the only way sin (the man in black) could be defeated was for a good God (Jacob) to be murdered at the hands of evil men (Ben). But I'm not writing the show, so the symbolism is probably a stretch.

4. Why did actor Matthew Fox stop trying? Just kidding about that one, but Jack has become the least interesting character in the show.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Brian McLaren's Authority Question

I am blogging through A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. McLaren is noted for his dissatisfaction with evangelicalism, and his new book raises “ten questions that are transforming the faith.” He writes, “It’s time for a new quest, launched by new questions, a quest across denominations and around the world, a quest for new ways to believe and new ways to serve faithfully in the way of Jesus, a quest for a new kind of Christian faith.” In the second chapter, he insists that he is not offering answers to these questions, but responses that invite counter-responses. Let the conversation begin! I will offer summaries of each question and response, along with my counter-responses.

McLaren’s second question is the authority question: How should the Bible be understood? McLaren argues that the Bible has traditionally been treated as a constitution—a consistent and easily understood set of rules and regulations—but should rather be understood as a library—a collection of community-relevant documents that inform, but do not end, conversation.

In chapter seven, McLaren claims that we are in drastic need of a new way of reading the Bible. First, the current paradigm produces a truth problem—the church consistently finds itself on the wrong side of scientific investigation. Second, the current paradigm produces an ethics problem—the church finds itself unable to answer the pressing ethical questions of the day. Finally, the current paradigm produces a peace problem—preachers use the text to promote violence. The clearest example of the dominant hermeneutic’s shortcomings was the American church’s inane defense of slavery in the South, similar arguments for which are currently used to support other unethical social positions. (Hermeneutics is “the art and science of biblical interpretation,” and someone’s hermeneutic is their system for reading and interpreting the Bible. Some with a literal hermeneutic reads the Bible literally. Someone with an allegorical hermeneutic reads the Bible allegorically. Some with a redemptive-historical hermeneutic reads the Bible looking at how each passage relates to God’s redemptive history. There are as many hermeneutics as there are theologians.)

In chapter eight, contrasts a Bible-as-constitution hermeneutic with a Bible-as-library hermeneutic. In the former, the Bible is a collection of internally consistent, authoritative declaration about all things pertaining to life. For each of life’s questions there is a definitive verse that ends discussion. In the latter, the Bible is a collection of thoughts about God and life from different perspectives, none of which is intended to be absolute. While the Bible has a “unique” and “unparalleled” role in the conversation, it is not the only voice. Instead, it “preserves, presents, and inspires an ongoing vigorous conversation with and about God, a living and vital civil argument into which we are all invited and through which God is revealed.” (83)

In chapter nine, McLaren presents the Book of Job as a hermeneutic paradigm. The story opens with a contest between Job and the Satan to see whether Job only worships God because of the good it brings him and his family. Although Job has done nothing wrong, God allows the Satan to plague him to test the basis of his allegiance. Neither Job nor his friends have any idea about the cosmic wager, and Job’s friends are quick to offer inaccurate platitudes about blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience, all of which come from the theology of Deuteronomy. Job rightly rejects his friends’ instructions, and when God finally speaks he takes Job’s side.

McLaren raises some stimulating hermeneutical questions related to Job. First, the character “God” rejects the theology of Job’s friends, but this theology comes from Deuteronomy. What do we do with this tension? Second, do we assume that the character “God” represents the thoughts of the real God? Perhaps “God’s” opinions are merely the opinions of the author, preserved in the biblical text to be debated and engaged with.

At this point, some readers may object to this idea, noting that Job is “inspired” by God. McLaren agrees that Job is “inspired,” but questions what this means. In the Bible-as-constitution paradigm, an inspired text means an accurate, conversation-stopping text. In McLaren’s Bible-as-library paradigm, an “inspired” text is a vital part of a community’s library that needs to be debated and engaged. Thus the story of Job needs to be a part of our conversation, even if we come to different conclusions than the author.

Although McLaren has much good to say in these chapters, he presents a false dichotomy. Rejection of McLaren’s hermeneutic does not mean endorsement of human slavery, or approval of those who use the Bible to endorse other, similar social positions. There are as many approaches to reading the Bible as there are people who read it. While I agree with McLaren in some of his criticisms, I am reluctant to accept his hermeneutical suggestions.

McLaren rightly calls this section “the authority question,” because at the heart of his critique of the dominant hermeneutic are the questions, Does the Bible have special authority? And, if so, Why? Before we can answer these questions, we have to answer the more foundational questions, What is the Bible? and How did we get the Bible? Once we establish what the Bible is, we can discuss its authority.

The Bible is not one book, but a collection of smaller books. (As I discuss the formation of the Bible, I am going to limit my comments to the formation of the New Testament, because that’s where I have a broader knowledge-base. The formation of the Old Testament was similar, but also unique.) There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament—the four Gospels, The Book of Acts, thirteen letters written by the Apostle Paul, seven other letters written by others, one anonymous homily (The Book of Hebrews), and one apocalyptic vision, recorded and sent as a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor (The Book of Revelation).

These books of the New Testament varied in structure, genre, and intent, but they circulated quickly within in the early church. Matthew, Mark, and Luke evidence dependence upon each other, convincing many scholars that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke combined Mark’s Gospel with other Jesus tradition to create their own Gospels. Colossians 4:16 instructs the readers to pass the letter on to the Laodiceans and to read that letter originally written to them. In 2 Peter 3:15, the author expresses familiarity with the writings of Paul. So, early on, the church saw the writings of the New Testament to be relevant to, if not authoritative upon, the teaching and ministry of their local congregations. As time went on, churches in the major metropolitan areas gained access to more and more of these writings, along with other letters and stories written by Christian authors.

The second and third centuries brought new and definitive challenges to the church—the rise of Gnosticism and other new ideas. The Gnostics combined Christian theology with Greek dualism to create their own hybrid system of belief. Much of it sounded Christian, but Gnostic thought demanded that their theologians deny either the full humanity of Jesus or the deity of the God of the Old Testament. They cut and pasted passages that they liked and disliked from the Old Testament and the forming New Testament, and they added books of their own that supported Gnostic theology (i.e. The Gospel of Thomas). The rise of Gnosticism, Arianism, and other new ideas led the church to discuss things like canon (which books are authoritative), orthodoxy (which teachings are faithful to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles), and heresy (which teachings are incompatible with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles). It is in this context that the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were “canonized” in the early fourth century. It is also in this context that the ancient creeds were written and ideas like Gnosticism, Arianism, etc. were condemned as heresy, i.e a departure from the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles.

So, what is the New Testament? At one level, the New Testament is a collection of letters, sermons, and stories, written by the first generation of Christians, that best represent the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Atheist historians even admit to that much. But people of faith see something else going on at another level. While the Holy Spirit is active in the life of all believers, we recognize that something special was going on in the ministries of Jesus and the Apostles. In fact, we would even say that the Spirit was so present in their ministries that the words that they have left behind contain the Word of God.

But, even if the Bible is the Word of God, it is the Word of God packaged in the words of people. When God speaks through the Scriptures, he does so through the personalities of those writing and reading. For instance, consider the following two passages, both commentaries on the Genesis account of Abraham’s justification:

“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1–5 ESV)
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’- and he was called a friend of God.” (James 2:21–24 ESV)
It’s interesting that Paul and James use the same verse, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness,” to prove opposite things. Paul writes, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28), and James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

How do we reconcile this blatant contradiction in Scripture? The only solution is to recognize that Paul and James mean something completely different by the terms “justified” and “works.” Paul is dealing with the question of whether someone has to be Jewish to be Christian, and he concludes, “No. A person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” James is dealing with the question of whether or not someone can have faith if they don’t care for the poor and downtrodden, and he concludes, “No. A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” While the Bible is a divine book, it is also a human book, full of nuance from the human authors.

Now, McLaren would probably agree with everything I have written to this point. He believes that the Bible is the Word of God. He believes that it was written by human beings by the power of the Spirit. Where we disagree is in the nature of this relationship and the implications for the authority of the Scriptures.

I recognize a human element in the creation of the Bible. Just as Jesus was both God and man, I think the Bible is both the words of men and the Word of God. We need to use every historical, grammatical, and theological tool in our toolbox to best discern the message of the human author of the Bible, because it is only in understanding that message that we can understand the divine message. To propose wooden literalism as the only alternative to his hermeneutic is misleading by McLaren. There is a middle ground that accounts for the language, culture, and genre of the Bible that doesn’t reduce it to one voice among many in the development of theology.

So, what of McLaren’s hermeneutic? McLaren inappropriately elevates the novel over the ancient. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Democracy means that no voice is excluded on the accidence of his birth. Tradition means that no voice is excluded on the accidence of his death.” Christianity is a communal faith, and when we read the Bible we are communing with those who have gone before. Their voices are important and they deserve to be considered.

Further, while McLaren can point to a few examples of bad theology stemming from a wooden hermeneutic, he doesn't show how his hermeneutic can prevent similar bad theology. When we allow the spirit of the age to control the conversation, we are vulnerable to the prejudices and evils of that age.

When you read the words of Jesus, he doesn’t enter the conversation as a dialog partner, but as our Lord. To treat him as less than Lord is to betray the heart of Christianity. The same can be said about the words of the Apostles—they spoke with authority as men with a unique gifting and calling. We reject their thoughts about God at our own peril.

Like I said, McLaren gets a lot right in this section. We can’t neglect the artistic elements of the Bible—much of it intends to raise questions or stir emotions, and not all of it can be read like a constitution or recipe. But it is unfair to characterize all of the Bible as a mere conversation starter. The message of the Bible represents to teachings of our fathers in the faith and the One that we worship as Lord and God. As Paul wrote about the authority behind one of his “judgments” (sticking his tongue firmly in his cheek), “Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (1 Cor 7:40, see 7:25)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Brian McLaren's Narrative Question

I am blogging through A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. McLaren is noted for his dissatisfaction with evangelicalism, and his new book raises “ten questions that are transforming the faith.” He writes, “It’s time for a new quest, launched by new questions, a quest across denominations and around the world, a quest for new ways to believe and new ways to serve faithfully in the way of Jesus, a quest for a new kind of Christian faith.” In the second chapter, he insists that he is not offering answers to these questions, but responses that invite counter-responses. Let the conversation begin! I will offer summaries of each question and response, along with my counter-responses.

McLaren calls his first question the narrative question: What is the overarching storyline of the Bible? He notes that traditionally, the narrative of the Bible has been interpreted as Creation-Fall-Redemption/Damnation. In other words, God created the world perfect, human beings “Fell” from grace through sinning, Jesus died on the cross, and one day He will return to resurrect the Christians to eternal life and condemn the unbelievers to eternal torment.

McLaren has two problems with this narrative. First, he finds it morally deplorable. In the traditional narrative, God starts with a perfect, pain-and-evil free world, but ends with a world in which a good portion of creation is suffering in Hell. He writes:
“Few of us acknowledge that this master narrative starts with one category of things—good and blessed—and then ends up with two categories of things: good and blessed at the top line and evil and tormented at the bottom. Might we dare ask if this story can be reduced to a manufacturing process—producing a finished product of blessed souls on the top line with a damned unfortunate by-product on the bottom line? Could this be the story of a sorting and shipping process, the purpose of which is to deliver souls into their appropriate eternal bin? Can we dare wonder, given an ending that has more evil and suffering than the beginning, if it would have been better for this story never to have begun?” (34–35)

Second, he argues that this narrative cannot be found in the Bible itself. Instead, it is the product of the church reading Greco-Roman philosophy back into a Hebraic document. When we read the words of Jesus, we read them through a modern lens. We don’t see Jesus as he actually was, but we see Jesus as interpreted by Paul as interpreted by Augustine as interpreted by Aquinas as interpreted by Luther as interpreted by Calvin as interpreted by Jerry Falwell. So much post-Jesus theology has influenced our thinking that we are unable to see Jesus as he actually was.

On the other hand, McLaren suggests we learn to see Jesus through a Hebraic lens. In other words, if we start the story with Adam, and then move to Abraham, then Moses, then David, then the prophets, then John the Baptist, and finally to Jesus, we can see how Jesus fit into the context of his day.

According to McLaren, the predominant view of the Bible’s narrative comes from reading Greco-Roman philosophy back into the text. Plato was the one who introduced the notion of a “perfect” creation and a fall into an imperfect reality, and the Greeks were the ones looking for “salvation” through a return to the perfect order. This, however, was not the mindset of the ancient Hebrews.

According to McLaren, the Hebrews began with a “good” (but not perfect) Creation. Humanity’s “Fall” wasn’t so much of a catastrophic fall from the ideal, but a gradual spiraling into more and more depravity, climaxing at the building of the Tower of Babel—representing humanity’s empire-building and oppressing tendencies. Genesis sets the stage for the most important book in the Bible, Exodus, which demonstrates God’s heart for the oppressed and His liberating work in freeing people from the tyranny of Empire. The second half of Exodus (the giving of the law) demonstrates God’s work in forming people through the overcoming of “the dominating powers of fear, greed, impatience, ingratitude, and so one” (58). The rest of the Old Testament is a repeat of this greatest chapter—God’s longing for a peaceful kingdom to be built on earth contrasted with humanity’s tendency to build oppressive empires.

There is much to applaud in this first section of McLaren’s book. He is right in emphasizing the need to understand Jesus within a Jewish context. A Jesus that cannot be situated within the realm of first century Judaism is most likely not the historical Jesus. There is also much right in his “return from exile” or “liberation” theology. The theme of God’s liberation of the oppressed echoes throughout the Scriptures, and Exodus is a key book in understanding the Bible’s overarching narrative.

However, I think that McLaren has made some critical errors in his reconstruction of the biblical narrative. First, he omits early Christian interpretations of the biblical narrative. Second, he fails to appreciate the influence of Greco-Roman thought on first century Judaism and on Jesus himself. Finally, he fails to show how his interpretation of Genesis and Exodus is actually the ancient interpretation of these books.

While McLaren rightly insists that Jesus be placed in his appropriate Jewish context, he forgets that he also needs to be placed in an appropriate Christian context. Historians studying Jesus are governed by two principles. First, Jesus needs to be fit into a first century Jewish context. Jesus was a Jew just like all of the other Jews of his day. He spoke the same language, had the same education, celebrated the same holidays, and thought of God the same way they did. But, Jesus also needs to be fit into the movement that bears his name. N.T. Wright is fond of saying about this principle, “Where there is smoke, there is probably fire.” In other words, unless it can be proven otherwise, the beliefs and practices of the early followers of Jesus probably go back to Jesus himself. So, McLaren’s glaring omission is: How did Paul understand the narrative of the Old Testament? Since the writings of Paul are the earliest Christian documents that we have, shouldn’t they be the starting point of analyzing Christian thought (or at least a very important piece of the puzzle)?

McLaren’ second error is in neglecting the importance of Greco-Roman thought on first century Judaism and on Jesus himself. After reading this first section of the book, you’d think that Plato had no influence in the world until the sixth century A.D. Not only did Platonism dominate Greco-Roman thought at the time of Jesus, but it also heavily influenced his contemporary Judaism. (The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has proven this beyond a shadow of a doubt.) So, if we are going to take McLaren’s advice and start with Adam, and then move to Abraham, Moses, David, etc., we have to place Plato somewhere between Isaiah and John the Baptist. While Christianity is a Hebraic religion, it is also a western religion.

McLaren’s third error is his failure to demonstrate that his re-reading of Genesis and Exodus is actually the ancient reading of those texts. Even if we grant that it is possible that Jesus read Genesis and Exodus the way that McLaren is suggesting, how do we know if it is likely that he read it that way? McLaren doesn’t give any examples of ancient writers reading the Bible according to his framework.

Do we have examples of ancient writers reading Genesis according to the traditional interpretation? Second Baruch is a Jewish document written at about the same time as the New Testament. The author writes:

“For, although Adam sinned first and has brought death upon all who were not in his own time, yet each of them who has been born from him has prepared for himself the coming torment. . . . Adam is, therefore, not the cause, except for himself, but each has become his own Adam.” (54:15, 19, A.F.J. Klijn translation)

The author continues:

“And as you first saw the black waters on the top of the cloud which first came down upon the earth; this is the transgression which Adam, the first man, committed. For when he transgressed, untimely death came into being, mourning was mentioned, affliction was prepared, illness was created, labor accomplished, pride began to come into existence, the realm of death began to ask to be renewed with blood, the conception of children came about, the passion of parents was produced, the loftiness of men was humiliated, and goodness vanished.” (56:5–6, A.F.J. Klijn translation)

While the writer of 2 Baruch insists that no one is condemned for the sin of Adam (but for his own sin), he also indicates that a curse was brought upon the earth through Adam’s sin so that sickness, death, and evil hearts infected all people.

Fourth Ezra is another Jewish work written around the time of the New Testament. The author writes:

“You did not take away from them their evil heart, so that you Law might bring forth fruit in them. For the first Adam, burdened with an evil heart, transgressed and was overcome, as were also all who were descended from him. Thus the disease became permanent; the law was in people’s heart along with the evil root, but what was good departed, and the evil remained.” (3:20–22, B.M Metzger translation)

The writer of 4 Ezra likewise noted that something happened within the heart of humanity when Adam sinned. Before, there were tendencies both toward good and evil, but after Adam the good departed and people were left with an evil root.

Finally (and most importantly), there is the Apostle Paul. Paul was a Pharisee and a contemporary of Jesus, although the two likely never met before Paul’s encounter with Him on the road to Damascus. Paul writes:

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” (Romans 5:12–14 ESV)

Sin and death came into the world through one man, Adam.

Paul also note that all of creation suffers from the consequences of Adam’s sin and is awaiting its redemption. He writes:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:18–23 ESV)

So, the narrative of Creation-Curse-Redemption was certainly around at the time of Jesus—it was not invented in the sixth century A.D. The same cannot be said for McLaren’s reconstruction.

Why is this important?

First, I want to reiterate that much of what McLaren says in this section is right. God is against oppression. God wants us to work for righteousness and peace in the here-and-now, and not just wait for Him to bring it in the sweet by-and-by. It’s not what McLaren affirms that I disagree with, it’s what he denies, namely that human beings are fallen creatures in need of redemption. And, for the record, he doesn’t mince words. About the two different interpretations of the biblical narrative, he writes:

“The wild, passionate, creative, liberating, hope-inspiring God whose image emerges in these three sacred narratives is not the dread cosmic dictator of the six-line Greco-Roman framework. No, that deity, we must conclude, is an idol, a damnable idol. Yes, that idol is popular, perhaps even predominant, and defended by many a well-meaning but misguided scholar and fire-breathing preacher. But in the end you cannot serve two masters, Theos [the traditional God] and Elohim [McLaren’s reconstruction], the god of the Greco-Roman philosophers and Caesars and the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the violent god of profit proclaimed by the empire and the compassionate God of justice proclaimed by the prophets.” (65)

Working for justice and peace is all well and good, but if the last 100 years has taught us anything it’s that it will never work, because there is something wrong with us. We are fallen, sinful creatures in need of redemption. If we reject that theology, we will fail in whatever sort of “kingdom-building” endeavor for which we set out.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Brian McLaren's Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith

I am blogging through A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. McLaren is noted for his dissatisfaction with evangelicalism, and his new book raises “ten questions that are transforming the faith.” He writes, “It’s time for a new quest, launched by new questions, a quest across denominations and around the world, a quest for new ways to believe and new ways to serve faithfully in the way of Jesus, a quest for a new kind of Christian faith.” In the second chapter, he insists that he is not offering answers to these questions, but responses that invite counter-responses. Let the conversation begin! I will offer summaries of each question and response, along with my counter-responses.

If you’re unfamiliar with Brian McLaren, he has been a fairly prolific author during the 21st century—one who has stirred up plenty of controversy in evangelical circles. Along with Rob Bell, he is the author I am asked about most often. Personally, I feel that he is criticized more than he is understood. Most people who ask me about him know little about his thought other than that it is bad. That’s not really fair to Brian.

On the other hand, I have heard that McLaren takes his ideas to a new level in his latest book. To this point, he has offered more questions than answers, and the answers he has offered have been frustratingly vague. I am hoping that A New Kind of Christianity clarifies his faith, and I am blogging through the book because I anticipate his ideas spreading throughout evangelicalism.

The book is divided into chapters based on ten questions and answers:

  1. The narrative question: What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
  2. The authority question: How should the Bible be understood?
  3. The God question: Is God violent?
  4. The Jesus question: Who is Jesus and why is he important?
  5. The gospel question: What is the gospel?
  6. The church question: What do we do about the church?
  7. The sex question: Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
  8. The future question: Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
  9. The pluralism question: How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
  10. The what-do-we-do-now question: How can we translate our quest into action?

I first came across McLaren’s writings in 2005, while I was living in Dallas. I thoroughly enjoyed A New Kind of Christian (2001) and was prompted to read A Generous Orthodoxy (2004). Since then I’ve read a number of his books, the most significant being The Secret Message of Jesus (2006), Everything Must Change (2007), and Finding Our Way Again (2008).

I find McLaren’s writings to be helpful but dissatisfying. They are helpful in the sense that he asks good questions and he has a knack for pointing out what is wrong with contemporary Christianity. They are dissatisfying in that, despite claiming to be “new,” his answers are largely rehashes of ideas that have been tried and found wanting. He seems to forget that evangelicalism arose to prominence because people found the 20th century liberal movement unfruitful. Sometimes it seems like he is advocating we push that button again, only harder, and expect to get different results this time. Then again, that shouldn’t be surprising—it’s far easier to agree with someone that something is wrong than agree with them how to fix it (see the now moot Nationalized Health Care Debate, The).

I’m thankful for guys like Brian McLaren. We shouldn’t be afraid to analyze current goings-on in evangelicalism or ask hard questions. I haven’t read anything written by him that would qualify as “heresy,” even if I have read things that would qualify as “non-evangelical.” I am interested in seeing where he takes the conversation next.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

God is not Great—Parting Thoughts

I finished god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens today. It took me almost six months to work through it, but I responded to every chapter here on the blog. (You can access them on the archives on the left side of the blog—the first entry is September 30, 2009.)

As you will be able to tell by reading through my responses, I didn’t hate the book. Obviously, there is much in it with which I disagree, and at times I found myself on the defensive while I read. I didn’t plan for this to be the case, but Hitchens’ lively rhetoric and his use of ridicule unexpectedly evoked anger and indignation from me. He’s a great writer and religions give him a lot of ammunition.

Here are some things I walked away with having read the book:

The nature of the debate has changed. In the past, attacks against religion focused on the historical reliability of religious documents or in the philosophical claims of the religions. Hitchens glances by these, focusing instead on the moral deficiencies of religions and religious people, and he has found an audience. He doesn’t care about the cosmological argument or the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, he wants to know why religious people fly airplanes into buildings and why the divorce rate in the church is just as high as that outside of the church. If we continue to focus our apologetics on the reliability of the Scriptures and philosophical proofs for the existence of God, then we are failing to answer the questions that people like Christopher Hitchens are asking.

Religious authority is a major distraction from the Gospel. There is a subtext throughout god is not Great of contempt for authority—especially religious authority. Much of the book has the tone of a rebellious teenager yelling “You’re not the boss of me!” in the face of his bewildered parents who can no longer physically restrain him.

But maybe this is what the church needs to hear.

The Gospel is not about power. It’s not about forcing people to behave a certain way by flexing our political or military muscles. Christian leadership is leadership through service, and the spiritual authority of the church does not extend to the world, which Paul says is under the control of the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2).

When Jesus ministered in the flesh, he was opposed by the religious authorities. He did not try to pull rank on them and insist upon his right to rule over the faith community. He led by service and let the power of the Holy Spirit testify to his authority. The church today needs to follow suit. We need to live like Christ, proclaim the Gospel as the basis for our changed lives, and allow the power of the word and Spirit to influence our world.

Science is portrayed as the primary antagonist to the church. In the final chapter of the book, Hitchens writes:

“Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a worldview, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard—or try to turn back—the measurable advances that we have made.”
There is some basis to this perception. The scientific community and the religious community offer competing stories of the origins of the cosmos. Personally, I think we need to be careful about making this the battle ground. I don’t think most people can even articulate the theory of evolution, let alone evaluate its tenability. But, they do notice when we offer up junk science as a competing interpretation. That’s not to say that we should abandon the sciences or stop trying to show how scientific inquiry can support our views, but it is to say that we need to be absolutely sure of the soundness of our methods and we need to choose our battles. We can’t make science the enemy. If what we say about the world is true, then we have nothing to fear about honest exploration of it.

Hitchens has not interacted with the greatest Christian minds or the best Christian ideas. One of the frustrating things about reading god is not Great is the feeling one gets that Hitchens thinks that Christians have never read David Hume or that we haven’t updated our apologetics since the Middle Ages. Sure, he quotes C.S. Lewis on occasion, but Mere Christianity was written in 1952. What about 21st century apologetics? Atheists need to react to the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg. He is conversant in particle physics, string theory, evolutionary biology, philosophy of all kinds, ancient Near Eastern religion, biblical theology, systematic theology, and anthropology. His apologetic is postmodern. Even interaction with guys like N.T. Wright or Ravi Zacharias would be better than what we see in god is not Great. While some people’s faith may be shattered by his book, I found that Hitchens didn’t even address the questions that I am asking or the reasons that I believe.

A new approach to apologetics is needed. In “The Grand Inquisitor,” the most famous chapter in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, atheist Ivan and Christian Alyosha debate the existence of God. Actually, the chapter is more of a diatribe by Ivan about why God does not exist. When Ivan finishes, his brother Alyosha responds by kissing him.

I think this is the apologetic that our world needs. They may attack us with ridicule and intellectual arguments, but the most powerful response is not angry retaliation, but love. Like I said above, our culture doesn’t seem as concerned about whether or not Christianity is true, but whether or not it works. If God is real, then Christianity will make a difference in the lives of his followers. (This is also the apologetic of Wolfhart Pannenberg.)

I wish Christopher Hitchens the best. I hope he continues to be open about his doubts, and I hope the Christian community responds to him with compassion. (I think I read that his experience debating Douglas Wilson was encouraging to him. He was surprised at how hospitable Christians were to him.) The only request that I may make of Hitchens is that he tone down the ridicule. No one likes to be mocked by strangers who don’t know them or their stories. He’s a great writer; I hope he can use his gifts to advance dialog rather than impede it.