Sunday Meditations: Is There a Place for Prophecy?

Not too long ago, I wrote about how a certain segment of the Church who thinks of themselves as heavily steeped in the prophetic turned out to get it catastrophically wrong.

The place and validity of prophecy as an activity of the contemporary church is a hotly contested area of theology, and I would offer that most of the disagreement comes less from exegesis and more from interpretations of our present experience against the imagined experience of Israel and the early church, and we read that back into the Scriptures. This serves to shape your church’s present experiences, and the cycle continues. Cessationists are likely to continue not to experience prophecy, and this confirms their cessationism; charismatics are likely to experience prophecy, and this confirms their… uh… charisma.

What we think our experiences should be shapes what experiences we have, and vice-versa. And then we interpret that. For example, if Presbyterians don’t speak in tongues, a Charismatic might view that as evidence that Presbyterians don’t have the fulness of the Holy Spirit. A Presbyterian, on the other hand, is likely to view that as evidence that the Charismatic experience is artificial at best and demonic at worst.

The Bible simply does not give us a theology of these things. It rarely gives us a theology of anything, to be honest. The closest we come is Paul’s corrective comments to some excesses at the Corinthian church that were causing them to fall into disrepute in the community. He encourages them to make love a priority over the pursuit of ecstatic experiences, and it is here that he makes an unfortunately ambiguous comment:

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

1 Corinthians 13:8-10 (NRSV)

Paul’s point is that love is something that will always be a central feature of the experience of the people of God, but the charismata are here to cover the eschatological gaps as we wait for a time in which such tools are no longer necessary.

The problem is that he doesn’t come out and define what that time or event is, and Christians can and have plugged all sorts of things in there to make their current experiences comprehensible. Maybe it’s the arrival of Jesus. Maybe it’s the second arrival of Jesus. Maybe it’s the completion of the New Testament (my personal favorite – yes, of course, Paul’s thinking about the closing of the Protestant New Testament canon in the fifth century OBVIOUSLY).

Ironically, instead of this passage driving home the main point, which is the importance and centrality of love as a practice of the Church above all other kinds of religious experiences, we instead try to make it a prognosis about when we should all stop prophesying.

When we look at how prophets functioned in the life of Israel, they were the living voice of God to the people, typically in response to specific circumstances. Moses appears as the prophet par excellence. Other prophets run continuously through Israel’s story. It’s important to note that the Old Testament did not exist in anything like the format we’re accustomed to until we get to the last few centuries BC, although the source material for these books spanned a much broader time frame. For example, “the Law” and the “Book of the Law” feature in several Old Testament passages.

As important as writings were to the Jewish religion over time, there was still the need for that living, in the moment ability to hear from God. This may have partially occurred through divination (such as the High Priest’s urim and thummim stones), but primarily occurred through the voice of the prophet.

Prophets were not widespread, although over time they became more widespread than you might think. They functioned largely as oracles – sometimes sought out, sometimes butting in. A bit of theater was often part of how they delivered their messages, using props or dramatic actions to become the living embodiment of their message.

From a narrative perspective, it’s important to note that prophets weren’t fortune tellers. They did predict the future, but it was to address the situation of the people, often warning them of what would happen if they pursued a given course of action and recommending what ought to be done. Because of this, the role of prophet became folded into a sort of advisor to the king when kings became relevant to Israel’s direction.

Prophetic activity was more organic than we sometimes imagine. It was primarily a role that involved interpretation. That may have been interpretation of visionary experiences, but it was at least as often just the ability to see where things were going – to interpret events, forecast outcomes based on them, and do all of this from a theological perspective. Where is the will of Heaven in all of this?

One incident that James recently wrote about that illustrates the organic nature of prophecy is a story about Elisha:

Elisha went to Damascus while King Ben-hadad of Aram was ill. When it was told him, “The man of God has come here,” the king said to Hazael, “Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God. Inquire of the Lord through him, whether I shall recover from this illness.” So Hazael went to meet him, taking a present with him, all kinds of goods of Damascus, forty camel loads. When he entered and stood before him, he said, “Your son King Ben-hadad of Aram has sent me to you, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this illness?’” Elisha said to him, “Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover’; but the Lord has shown me that he shall certainly die.” He fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was ashamed. Then the man of God wept. Hazael asked, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set their fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their pregnant women.” Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is a mere dog, that he should do this great thing?” Elisha answered, “The Lord has shown me that you are to be king over Aram.” Then he left Elisha, and went to his master Ben-hadad, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would certainly recover.” But the next day he took the bed-cover and dipped it in water and spread it over the king’s face, until he died. And Hazael succeeded him.

2 Kings 8:7-15 (NRSV)

One wonders if Hazael would have done such a thing if he hadn’t heard the prophecy. Here, Elisha sees what’s coming, tells the person involved, and then the person goes out and makes the prophecy happen. The activity of prophecy is closely intertwined with the events, not some abstraction like, “God is preparing to release angels of blessing” or whatever.

In the Old Testament writings, prophetic activity is something that seems to be reserved only for certain people, a fact lamented by Moses in Numbers 11:29, when he wishes that the Spirit would fall on all the Lord’s people and they all would be able to prophesy. Such a day is foreseen in Joel 2, and the apostle Peter declares that Pentecost is the fulfillment of that prophecy in Acts 2.

Even before we get to Pentecost, however, we find Jesus. Jesus is consumed by an upcoming war with Rome that he continually warns Israel about, and he is frustrated that other Israelites don’t seem to see it coming, especially since he is announcing it to them:

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

Luke 12:54-56 (NRSV)

After the distribution of the Holy Spirit, the story steers us in the direction that prophecy has become more democratized than it used to be, although we are told very few non-apostolic stories about prophecy. Once we leave Acts, the New Testament gets a lot more doctrinish and a lot less narrativish.

From what we can tell from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, it appears as though prophecy is a gifting and prophets have a role to play in the operation of the Church (1 Cor. 12:27-31 – a listing basically rehashed in Eph. 4). We just don’t have a ton of stories of this happening or what it looks like.

One story concerns Agabus, who predicts an upcoming famine and later predicts Paul’s captivity if he goes to Jerusalem (assuming this is the same Agabus, cf. Acts 11:27-30 and Acts 21:10-11). He is described as part of a group of itinerant prophets mentioned in Acts 11.

We have plenty of New Testament mentions of people who are prophets in general but not a lot of examples of what it looks like. Still, from what narrative we have, it seems like prophecy and prophets continue to work as they have in the past – people supernaturally gifted in being able to discern what is about to happen and can advise the Church, either so the Church can respond to it or simply to give encouragement as they endure it.

That brings us to prophecy as expressed in the Church, today.

There is a lot of what is being called “prophecy” that doesn’t look very much like the way prophecy functions as the biblical stories present it. Prophecies are not always precise, but they are also not vague sentiments that mean virtually nothing. A lot of contemporary prophecy boils down to, “God is preparing to do something you can’t empirically verify.” Often, He is preparing to “release” something or another. This is a safe route to take with prophecy, but it’s also virtually useless. The Church can’t respond to it. It usually only serves to stir up emotions.

Perhaps with some irony, what many prophets were doing when they predicted the re-election of Trump is getting closer to what biblical prophets do. They speak for God into His people’s present circumstances, often with an element of predicting where things are going. It just so happened that none of them were speaking for God but rather according to what they wanted to be true.

One of the many downsides to this sort of thing is that it can discourage people from evaluating their prophetic gifts. Since nobody wants to chance being wrong, prophets pull inward. They make “God is about to release” style of prophecies so that they’ll never be proven wrong. Others, perhaps more tentatively coming to the idea of prophecy, may feel like they have to wait for an unmistakable vision or God downloading words directly into their brain or something.

But here’s the thing: the value of prophecy is not hearing from God. Every believer hears from God in some form or fashion. Every believer has the Spirit. A prophet whose prophecies are simply to establish that they have a “special connection” to God is just ego. It’s just “I hear from God in a way most people can’t” often followed with “so support my ministry or buy my book.” That isn’t the gift of prophecy at all. That serves no one but the alleged prophet.

The value of prophecy is that it informs the people of God in the present about something they’re not seeing so they can act accordingly. Granted, sometimes “acting accordingly” is simply holding on in faith during a discouraging time, but it’s for the audience. There are occasions where the prophecy involves knowledge that could only be supernaturally disclosed, but a lot of prophecy in the Bible is simply the Spirit-gifted acumen to look at present circumstances, interpret them from God’s point of view, and see where they’re going so you can inform the people who need to know.

Take Agabus’ prophecy to Paul. Agabus was from Jerusalem. He knew what the Temple power structure was like. He knew Paul’s message and how it was being received. His prediction didn’t come to him in some unmistakable, supernatural flash of insight. Rather, it came from being able to look at all those circumstances and, with the prompting and assistance of the Spirit, understand that he needed to warn Paul about what would surely come to pass, because obviously Paul et al wasn’t seeing it.

So, if you’re out there wondering if you have prophetic gifts, I’d encourage you not to rely on taking stock of dreams or visions or hearing unmistakable messages from God in your brain. Instead, look at your gifts. Are you regularly able to see outcomes that others can’t see or perhaps even doubt will come to pass? Are you able to perceive a potential spiritual dimension to events? Are you the person in the room who says things like, “Guys, if we keep following this course of action, we’re headed for trouble even though things might look okay right now,” or “Guys, even though it doesn’t seem like this is working out, we need to stay the course because I see a good outcome at the end of this,” and in either case, it turns out that you’re right? Are you able to look at circumstances and put two and two together for people who can’t see what you see, and they benefit from it?

If so, you might have the knack for it. You may have the gifts. And if you do, you should consider how you can use that same gift that has probably helped you and others in business, relationships, etc. and see how you can put it into service for the Church. Maybe if you are a faithful steward of that, visions may not be far behind.

Right now, we have a shortage of real prophets, or at least ones that are self-consciously putting their talents to use and speaking out. There’s no reason that can’t be you.

Sunday Meditations: When Prophecy Fails

Because I have something of a missional interest for the Church in the United States, I try to keep informed on what’s going on with the various forms of Christianity people experience in the United States. I watch for publications, news, what figures are saying what things, what issues are they struggling with, and if I can swing it, I try to worship with different Christian traditions from time to time so I can enter into their best world, even for just a little bit.

Let me tell you: the past few years and especially few months have been a wild ride for our Charismatic brothers and sisters.

According to a study by Todd M. Johnson, nearly a third of Christians in the USA identify with some kind of Charismatic movement. This seems generally corroborated by Pew research. Just like any other overarching movement, there are lots of variations and subcultures when we talk about the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements in the US, ranging from the Benny Hinn experiences to churches that are virtually indistinguishable from a non-Charismatic evangelical church.

One thing that all Charismatics have in common is the belief that all the spiritual gifts described in the New Testament are in operation, today, including miraculous healings, speaking in tongues, and prophecy. The more we get into the not-quite-denominational Charismatic megachurchy part of the subculture, the more likely we are to find people specifically designated as prophets, apostles, and so on.

And these prophets have been overwhelmingly in support of Donald Trump. These prophets haven’t just been dispassionately reporting on where they think things are going, and it’s in a pro-Trump direction; they have put Trump on a white horse and made him the savior of the world. These dominant voices in the movement have painted a picture of an always embattled but always victorious Trump who is God’s chosen warrior against the satanic forces of evil (i.e. Democrats).

As the 2020 election neared, these prophets universally prophesied a Trump victory, with several of them going so far as to call it a landslide. Some (although not all) of these prophets were also QAnon supporters and painted vivid pictures of Trump finally exposing the crimes against humanity committed by the shadowy “global elites” (i.e. Jewish people) and putting them to the sword.

So, you can imagine the personal stakes tied up in the election for these people. Their reputations, and in many cases their paychecks, were somewhat dependent on things working out this way.

But you also have to keep in mind the investment of the people who looked up to these “prophets.” Many of these prophets have built up large ministries full of people who have invested time, money, and faith into the work these prophets are doing. It’s not simply a matter of pride or ego, but of identity and sacrifice.

Things did not work out this way, however. Trump lost the election in both the popular and electoral votes.

I will say to their credit that two or three prophetic voices in the Charismatic community apologized. They said they had wanted a particular outcome, and when it seemed like so many other prophetic voices were “hearing” about a Trump win, they just went along with it moreso than following something they believed they had heard from the Lord.

The vast majority of these prophets, however, insisted that a Trump victory was still the prophesied outcome. Obviously, the election had been stolen, and as those facts came to light, we’d see a reversal of the election results, and Trump would be re-elected.

One of the “win by a landslide” prophets even clarified that the idea of a landslide is that you have these tiny movements of loose ground and rocks that eventually build up into great movement, and that’s what their “landslide” prophecy must have meant. It’s interesting, because that is actually very close to how apocalyptic imagery works in the Scriptures, but it probably would have been more believable if they had led with that interpretation.

But despite the manpower, the money, the recounts, the audits, and the huge amount of legal contestations, nobody was able to produce any credible evidence that this last election had any more variance in it than any other election. Even top Republican leadership tried to get people to come to terms with this, especially as the electoral certification rolled around.

There was no landslide. The election results were not overturned or overruled, despite the intense pleading from many, many Charismatic prophetic leaders. There was simply no way so many prophets could be wrong.

Interestingly, the Bible says they can!

In 1 Kings 22, a story is told of the kings of Judah and Israel contemplating a joint effort against the Aramaeans. They inquire of four hundred prophets who all prophesy a great victory. Only Michaiah does not, and he ends up being correct. Four hundred prophets all got it wrong. 99.75% of prophets got it wrong.

With the failure of anything dramatic happening at the electoral vote certification, hopes began to hinge on the inauguration. Surely, Trump was just letting all of this play out so, at the most dramatic moment in front of the biggest audience, he would take the reins, denounce the traitors and schemers, kill them all, and reign forever from this throne of righteousness. I even recall reading one particularly vibrant prophecy where Trump would use the Space Force to militarily control the inauguration to make his pronouncements.

But the reality was far from this. Trump just sort of fluffed off the world stage and left. He didn’t even attend the inauguration, much less seize it with the Space Force. He shuffled off without even his characteristic fiery rhetoric. Biden and Harris were sworn in without incident and… that was it.

This has left leaders in the Charismatic movement in an interesting place.

Most of them stridently prophesied something that clearly did not happen. In fact, the opposite happened, every single time. What’s more, this wasn’t just your drunk, conservative uncle going on a rant in your living room – these were leaders who had shepherded very large amounts of people into this – people who had invested their hopes, faith, and in many cases money into the vision these prophets were offering.

It seems like there are only two general ways to respond to situations like this: 1) Admit you were wrong, repent, and spend the next few months thinking about how this will never happen again – probably involving you not giving prophecies about America’s future, anymore. 2) Insist that you were actually right, but events are still unfolding. Maybe Trump is still secretly pulling the strings behind the current administration. Maybe Trump will still find a way to overturn the election. Maybe Trump will win in 2024 and -that’s- the date all the prophecies were actually about.

You can probably guess the path that most people are taking.

The history of Christianity has many failures of prophets and their prophecies. Some might even argue (incorrectly, in my view) that Jesus himself fits into this category. In this trajectory are many prophets that predict some suitably apocalyptic outcome, ranging from the political affairs of their day to the end of the world. More recently, we have seen the phenomenon of people predicting the date of the return of Christ, only to miss this date again and again.

You might think that surely people will stop giving credence to such prophets, but interestingly, this rarely happens. Sure, there are some people who pack it up, but often a failed prophecy is no obstacle at all to the failed prophet. They just keep going and people just keep on believing them and giving the money (cf. Jonathan Cahn).

Why is this?

As a side note, if you’re interested in field research into the failure of prophecy and how people deal with it, you might check out the book When Prophecy Fails by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter. At the time I’m writing this, the Kindle edition is only 99 cents.

I don’t think there’s any one, single reason you can write it up to, and it’s harmful for all kinds of reasons to chalk it all up to people being stupid or gullible, however smart that may make us feel.

One factor is that Christianity has a hard time with accountability and reparations. We believe in extending grace, which is good, but we aren’t so great at coming up with concrete things people need to do to repair the damage they’ve done and hold them to that. Perhaps it’s because we associate such things with retribution. But being accountable to taking concrete steps to repair the damage that you’ve done isn’t retribution; it’s biblical repentance.

If you claim to be a prophet and people are following you, and you maintain a prophecy that turns out to be false, you have done damage. You have damaged the reputation of Christ and his Church. You have led many people astray. You have driven a wedge between your followers and pesky things like “evidence” and “accepting reality.” You have given them false hopes. You have left them in an emotionally damaged state where they have to come to terms with what just happened because you misled them. They have probably also given you money. You may not have intended for these things to happen, but they did. Doing things you might not enjoy in order to try and repair these damages is not retribution; it’s what needs to happen for you to repent and for everyone to heal.

I didn’t always understand that, myself, but I do now, and Christians need to be about it. As much as it may sound like love to let a leader slide in times like this, it isn’t very loving to the people they’ve hurt, even if that hurt was unintentional.

Another factor is that, with evangelical Christianity in America, we’ve created a sort of antagonistic relationship between people and evidence. It’s one thing to maintain that there is truth you cannot empirically verify, and it’s another thing altogether to maintain empirically verifiable falsehoods in the face of evidence. We indoctrinate people to think that, if we can come up with a narrative that explains the world, that narrative must be true. We sow mistrust in things like scientific consensus and sometimes even seminaries as corrupting expressions of satanic power in the world.

We have, more or less, taught people to believe things that shore up the tribe and disbelieve things that put the tribe in a bad light. Truth is about winning, not about understanding reality.

Another factor – and I believe this factor is sharpened to a razor edge by the COVID-19 crisis – is pervasive disenchantment.

When we read the various writings in the Bible, the narrative is presented in a compressed format. In both Old and New Testaments, we see these dramatic episodes strung together of miracles, God speaking, exorcisms, and so on. It can give one the impression that everyday life should be thoroughly supernatural with these sorts of things being regular occurrences.

At the same time, secularism is rapidly deteriorating both Christianity’s influence as well as various understandings of its core narratives that have been key for a long time. A popular counter-narrative is that the scientific method is the only way we have to know if anything is true. As it gets more rigorously applied to more areas of life and more verified claims roll in, we come to realize that the natural world and its natural operations occupy ground that we once thought was the realm of the supernatural. And as our trust in empiricism grows, so does our skepticism in claims that either lay outside the boundaries of empirical verification or seem to run contrary to it.

The truth is that Christianity is actually kind of boring. When you are trying to live out a life on earth reflective of heaven, it in many ways does not look indistinguishable from anyone else trying to be a good, compassionate person. This is one reason why our narratives are so important: why do we do what we do, and what is this God doing right now that we can share with the world?

This can be somewhat unfulfilling. We want dramatic conversions. We want miracles. We want God speaking verbally. We want fire and lights and smoke. We want to battle demons spiritually with our spiritual armor and invocations. We want to feel something – anything besides the uncertainty and ennui that can come from our present circumstances. For all the fundamentalist Charismatic denouncement of Dungeons and Dragons, they often want Christianity to look like it.

These false prophecies and their narratives provide it. They provide an epic struggle of good and evil at a crucial time that you, too, can be a part of – a struggle that is primarily won or lost through the intensity of your spiritual activity. These times are special, you are special, and it’s time to show the world that the mystical power of God is a real thing.

But the stories of the wild and miraculous in the Bible stand out due to their exceptional nature, are often relegated to a single person or small group, and usually long periods of time pass between them. Most of the experiences of the “typical believer” are not specifically portrayed in the Bible. But the accounts show us that most followers of God were born, lived, and died without anything particularly extraordinary happening at all.

The life of the faithful making their way in the world is a life of community, shared values, shared customs and rituals, and a witness to the rest of the world of what humanity can look like when they are called to service of the God who made the heavens and the earth. It is difficult, often tedious, boring, and neither cool nor impressive. It’s just humbly doing good in the world and walking with your God. It’s not very American, but it’s very biblical.

There are more factors, of course. It’s a complex phenomenon that doesn’t reduce to easy explanations or solutions.

But whether we’re talking about a person who calls themselves a prophet making an official prophecy, or whether we’re talking about a pastor confidently trumpeting from the pulpit that the election was stolen, these people have all been claiming false narratives in God’s name, and several still can’t let it go.

If we’re going to have a credible witness in the world, we need to reckon with this. Leaders need to be held accountable to what they’ve said and the damage it has done. We need to protect ourselves from false prophecy, and give our brothers and sisters who may still be in its grips (and are probably in a profound existential crisis right now) the tools they need not to be consumed by it. Critical thought, evidence evaluation, and the discernment of good and poor reasoning need to be part of our spiritual development and holy task of speaking the truth and not things we cast mistrust on out of a spirit of fear.

If Christianity (and I mean the current, not the official form it takes today) is to be survivable into the ages to come, we need to radically come to grips with reality.

Sunday Meditations: Constructing Jesus

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, and in the United States, we have a federal holiday to celebrate this that we’re observing on Monday.

If you’re looking for something to do on that day, one thing you might do is search up a speech by Dr. King that is any other speech than the “I Have a Dream” speech and read/listen to it.

The “I Have a Dream” speech is perhaps the most well known expression of Dr. King’s thought. If people know anything that Dr. King said, it likely comes from that speech. Many people have never even heard the whole thing, but we’ve heard fragments cited. One particular favorite is this fragment:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

“I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963

This fragment was cited many times during the Black Lives Matter protests all over America in 2020, often in opposition to these protests. According to this take, Dr. King did not want us thinking about race, but rather that we should be colorblind. By making a “big deal” about race, it was said, BLM was actually moving further away from what King wanted.

When property was being destroyed at some of these protests, again, the spirit of Martin Luther King was summoned since he believed in non-violence.

By taking facets like these in the abstract, people were (are) able to construct a Martin Luther King Jr. that fit what they wanted. They wanted a civil rights leader who wanted a society where race didn’t matter and who wasn’t up to making too big of a fuss about it. They wanted a King who would have advised Black Lives Matter to quiet down some and not make everything about race. In other words, from these fragments, they constructed a Martin Luther King who was a projection of what they wanted in society.

But how well does this construction of Martin Luther King actually stack up to the historical one? Was he a man who wanted everyone to decide in their hearts that race didn’t matter? Was he a man who did not see a place for violence in the process of historical change?

As we expand our familiarity with Dr. King to other speeches, his letters, narrative passed on to us from those closest to him, we see a person who saw that part of the reason for the conditions of black people in America were rooted in the economic inequities produced by capitalism and slavery. While it may be a stretch to think he was a Communist, he certainly advocated the redistribution of wealth as a necessary component to eliminating racism.

America freed the slaves in 1863 through the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, but gave the slaves no land, nothing in reality to get started on. At the same time, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the Midwest, which meant that there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base and yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa who came here involuntarily, in chains, and had worked for free for 244 years, any kind of economic base. So Emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate and therefore it was freedom and famine at the same time. And when white Americans tell the negro to lift himself by his own bootstraps they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression and as a result of a society that has deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.

Martin Luther King Jr., Remarks delivered at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968 (5 days before he was killed)

While Dr. King maintained a position of non-violence, we also have to understand his reasoning for adopting that stance. Certainly, part of it were the noble reasons that perhaps spring to our minds, but the reasoning behind non-violence as a mechanism for social change was that it would attract violence by the oppressor, and when people saw the horror of this violence, they would respond. In other words, when the rest of America and the world saw the violence enacted against Dr. King and his followers, they would be forced to act.

And this is what happened. Most of the civil rights advances we credit to Dr. King happened after his assassination. In the wake of that act, riots sprung up all over America, galvanizing other civil rights leaders and producing a massive influx of donations to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Civil Rights Act was passed in response to this unrest, a mere week after the assassination. Even though Dr. King did not want to be violent, himself, violence had a significant role in how his efforts were to bring about change.

What we discover, then, is the idyllic picture in the “I Have a Dream” speech was a picture of how things could be after the foreseen upheavals, restructuring, and recompense that King wanted, not simply a state of mind his hearers could create simply by changing their views. Far from a man who wanted us to quit talking about race and limiting ourselves to civil discussions, we see a man who wanted a holistic redressing of America’s crimes toward black people, not in the least of which were economic, and the road there would be one sadly littered with violence.

When we situate Dr. King in his concrete place in history, we discover someone very different than the picture we can create with a handful of excerpts abstracted from their historical, and often textual, context.

Incidentally, there are many fine biographies of Martin Luther King. My favorite is I May Not Get There with You by Michael Eric Dyson, as its aim is to present Dr. King as a complex and sometimes flawed man who was, ultimately, still a hero. It will acquaint you with so much source material from Dr. King’s life that paint a much fuller and deeper picture than the same handful of sources we’re familiar with.

It would be interesting to explore the similarities and differences in the stories of MLK and Jesus, but I want to focus on one thing in particular: our tendency to construct a Jesus that we like from useful fragments of source material.

When the gospel of Mark was written, the Jewish people were under the oppression of the Roman Empire assisted by a powerful and corrupt Temple hierarchy. Jesus, the latest in a line of apocalyptic prophets promising an imminent judgement and restoration, had been executed. And yet, there was testimony that he had risen from the dead. His movement was growing, especially with an increasing influx of Gentiles. Miracles were said to happen among these people. Those who persecuted the movement ratcheted up their efforts.

Against this historical backdrop, we have a Jesus who is primarily concerned for what will happen to God’s people at a time when massive upheaval was just around the corner.

Relatively early on in church history, the Gentile composition of Jesus’ followers eclipse the Jewish numbers. Jesus’ story ends up in the hands of people who have very little contact with either the lived out experience of the first century Jewish people or their ways of understanding and using Scripture.

At this point, the trajectory of the story gets diverted into timeless principles and issues that affect all mankind at all times. The struggle of good and evil, the afterlife, moral living, the experience of the Divine – Jesus becomes a man who is primarily concerned about these things.

As time goes on, and we get to the Reformation, this takes a strongly individualistic turn. Taking flight from what eventually comes to be seen as an oppressive Church, this cosmic drama gets placed in the hands of each individual.

Christian Europeans come to North America, many of them to escape religious or political tyranny, and as their colonies become a nation and this nation’s values get hammered out on the frontier, the individualism becomes cultural DNA, and this is characteristic of at least the Protestant religious movements in America. A laser-like focus is developed on the individual accepting Jesus and going to Heaven instead of Hell and living a life of vaguely Puritanical moral reform.

I’m oversimplifying, of course. The story of Jesus doesn’t fit into these nice, neat stages. But what I’m trying to illustrate is that Jesus is different against each of these backdrops. A Jesus who is concerned about the souls of mankind going to Hell is not the same as a Jesus who is concerned about faithful Israel surviving an impending war with Rome, and if that is the same person, then those concerns need to interweave in some way that is perhaps more complex and nuanced that we might construct out of a handful of texts.

Where this gets interesting for me, personally, is with the advent of what is sometimes called “progressive Christianity.”

It’s hard to talk about progressive Christianity as A Thing because it’s more of a scattered grassroots thing than anything else. Christians, especially evangelical Christians, are disappointed with where the commitment to the evangelical version of Jesus has led us, especially in America. The alliance with Donald Trump was probably the last straw for many of these people.

In response to this disappointment, there is an effort to claim a different picture of Jesus and, consequently, the Church and her mission, and this effort can look different depending on who you’re talking to. Progressive Christianity is not a specific organization or theological movement with tenets, so whatever I or anyone else says about it is going to be painting with very large brush strokes.

By the way, although I have thought about this a long time, I should give credit to Andrew Perriman’s recent post on Progressive Christianity and the Narrative-Historical Method, which catalyzed me to write about this, today.

At the outset, I would say the larger “progressive Christianity” label probably fits me more than it doesn’t. I’m sympathetic both to the reason it exists and what it’s attempting to do. Whatever a survivable church and movement will look like in America in future generations, it’ll probably come out of the impetus of this movement and the experiments being tried there.

If we’re to learn lessons from history, however, we have to be aware of the tendency to construct a Jesus that serves the perceived needs of our contemporary situation in accordance with our contemporary values.

Even under the most noble of motives, it is easy to lift Jesus out of his concrete historical context and make him about the things we wish he were about.

For example, we may rightly be appalled at the hatred we see at work in the evangelical church toward this or that group, and in response, we create a Jesus who represents universal love. We may recoil at a church that seems so easily to side with war and violence, and in response we create a Jesus who is wholly nonviolent. We are disappointed at those leaders who say the church should stay out of social justice issues, and in response we create a Jesus consumed by social justice issues.

But Jesus is not an embodiment of universal principles – he is a human being of a particular nationality in a particular region at a particular moment in history. We need to be careful that we do not trade one ahistorical, abstract Jesus for another ahistorical, abstract Jesus who embodies abstractions that are more to our liking.

We do not have a Jesus who is pro-Second Amendment. We also do not have a Jesus is who is for gun control. We have a Jesus who does not know what a gun is and makes no statement directly or indirectly on governmental regulation of weapons.

“Ah,” you say, “but Jesus is against violence.”

Well, sort of. We have Jesus commanding his followers not to resist the Roman Empire in the Sermon on the Mount. We have Jesus reprimanding Peter for trying to cut his way through Jesus’ arrest. Jesus certainly at no point is an advocate for violent solutions.

At the same time, we have Jesus enacting a bit of apocalyptic theater by driving the moneychangers forcibly from the Temple. We have a Jesus who believes that God is about to act violently in Israel’s history to remove the corrupt power structure they labor under. We have a Jesus who tells parables about unfaithful vineyard owners being put to death. We have a Jesus who describes himself as a corner stone that will fall on some and grind them to dust.

Further, when we look at what actually happened in history, violence was a determining factor both in how the Temple structure was removed and in how Christian persecution ended in the Roman Empire.

Back to the other side of this issue, we also see Jesus weeping over a Jerusalem that is about to be destroyed.

So, what emerges is a much more complex Jesus than an embodiment of a principle. We don’t get Violence is Fine Jesus, and we don’t get Violence is Never Acceptable Jesus. We just get Jesus, and Jesus does not intend to teach us a Christian view of violence. Even the Sermon on the Mount is not an exposition of timeless principles that Jesus just felt like throwing out there, any more than the Ten Commandments were an exposition of timeless principles that Moses just felt needed to get in front of people; it’s delivered to his disciples as they begin to spread their work in a world that looks a certain way.

We may decide that these teachings have broader implications than the specific historical situations they address, and I would argue that is a good and wise effort – wrestling with the Scriptures to understand what they meant at the time and what implications that may have for us as we make our way through our own historical situation.

But we don’t get a Jesus who is only ever loving and gentle and peaceful. We don’t get a Jesus whose primary mission is social reform in the name of justice in the abstract. And this is a core issue with abstracting Jesus (or a given Scripture) from its historical context: when you do this, you have the raw materials to construct more or less whatever fits your concerns.

We have long been aware of the pitfalls of making a Jesus who fits our viewpoints, but I don’t know if we’ve really grappled with the problem of making a Jesus who addresses our concerns, whether those concerns are social, psychological, or eschatological.

We want a Jesus who addresses systemic racism. We want a Jesus who addresses our internal states of fear or shame. We want a Jesus who addresses what happens when we die. It’s unpalatable to think that Jesus did not have something to say on questions and issues that are so important to us or, even if he did, he did not make those things much of a priority.

We have to take seriously the idea that we have a multifaceted, complex, human Jesus who was instrumentally responsive to the situation of his place and time. He may not have been concerned with the things we wish he were. He may not have consistently displayed the character traits we wish he would have. If we believe Jesus is anything other than a useful myth, we have to suspend the things we want to see and hear from him and let him act and speak on his own.

Once we have done that, then we are in a position to hear from the Spirit in ourselves, how are we to manifest this in our own time, our own issues, our own region, our own way. How can our road today be informed by Jesus’ life without being the focus of Jesus life? We are not in the position Jesus was. We are in our own position.

If the world is to find a “relevant” Jesus, they need to find it in us, the inheritors of his story and Spirit.

Sunday Meditations: Are We Better Than This?

In a tweet on Jan. 6, Joe Biden wrote: “America is so much better than what we’re seeing today.”

This general sentiment is something you can find in many different contexts. “Our company is too good to have sales this low.” “I’m sorry about the video where I called that man the n-word. That’s not who I am.” “You need to stop losing your temper. You’re better than that.”

These sentiments are comforting and somewhat inspirational and aspirational, which is how they’re intended to be used. When we hear them, we’re motivated to be the better person/organization/business/country they describe. That’s a good thing.

But there’s a very large problem at the core of all these sentiments: the thing that we’re “better than” or “too good for” or “not who we are” is something that actually happened.

You can’t be too good to have low sales if you have low sales. You can’t be better than someone who loses their temper if you lose your temper. If you call someone something racist, you can’t not be a person who calls people racist things.

I don’t really want to talk specifically about what happened at the Capitol last week and how we got there. Others are doing this very capably, and I doubt I’ll have any real insight to offer.

I do want to talk about the question of whether or not we can think ourselves as being better than the things we actually do.

From a Christian perspective, and specifically an American evangelical one, I believe our tendency is to create a fairly sharp division between our internal state and our external behaviors.

The origins of this likely go back to certain ideas about the division of the body and the soul/spirit. I would argue that many of these ideas have more to do with Plato than Scripture, but we tend to have this concept that there is an internal, immortal part of us that is our true self, and this is clothed a temporary suit of skin and organs that is not our true self – it’s a temporary arrangement that will someday be discarded. The external things that one can see and interact with are secondary to an invisible, spiritual core that is primary.

There are some passages that, absent from their Jewish narrative context and placed into a framework of Western thought, sound like this very thing. I would argue that the philosophical framework makes all the difference, however. Plato put forth the idea that real reality existed in a perfect state of ideal forms, and the material world was simply imperfect manifested copies of this reality. This philosophical disjuncture had profound ramifications for Western thought and theology as well as the development of Jewish theology.

This idea that “true reality” exists in the invisible, unchangeable, eternal, perfect, spiritual world versus the visible, mutable, temporal, imperfect physical world has wide-ranging effects on Christian theology even to this very day. It impacts our eschatology, identity, and mission, and we could explore those topics for hours.

I want to focus mostly on the ethical aspects, though. Are we really better than our actions?

I’d contend that one of the issues with the idea that our internal, spiritual core is who we “really” are is that sin, coming to grips with sin, and dealing with sin all become primarily an internal matter.

In this way of thinking, if I sin, the primary problem is that I’m stained internally, and the primary thing I need to do is ask God for forgiveness to restore the purity of my internal state. This is perhaps the core problem with which evangelicalism confronts the world: you are in a bad internal state and you need to ask God to repair your internal state.

In this way, dealing with sin is really more about dealing with your internal experience of sin. It’s more about dealing with guilt and shame, really. You sin, it affects you negatively in a spiritual sense, you pray for forgiveness, and everything is fine. You are absolved of the guilt, the spiritual stains are washed away, and the matter is over.

But is everything fine? Is the matter over?

What about why we did that thing in the first place? What uncomfortable truths or issues does that reveal about us? What about the damage we did to others and ourselves? What did our sin reveal about ourselves, and what are the things we need to do to repair the damage we have done and, ideally, prevent such things from happening and become stronger and healthier from them?

The idea that we have an internal core that is our real self, and this is distinct from the things we do with our brains, mouths, and bodies in general, insulates us from these very uncomfortable questions and answers.

A dichotomy is created where we can imagine ourselves internally as righteous, faithful, compassionate, peaceful, generous, good – you name it – while externally we may act very inconsistently with those characterizations.

Those actions become flukes. They are temporary glitches in the system. They are not “who we are.” When they occur, we ask God to forgive them, He does, and we go on our way continuing to think of our true selves as ultimately virtuous even if we don’t act that way from time to time.

I think this is the true power of this separation. It allows us to manage the apparent difference between what we profess and what we actually do. Rather than deal with the notion that our actions may very well be our true selves and react to that information accordingly, the notion of an internal self that is distinct from those actions allows us the comforting thought that we are actually good people on the inside even if our actions don’t seem to line up with that.

It is also disconcerting when we think about our theology because, again, in a Western philosophico-theological context, there are certain passages that seem to indicate a radical spiritual and ethical revision when a person comes to Christ, but when we look at our actions (or lack thereof), it doesn’t seem like that’s what happened to us. The idea that our real, true self is spiritual and pure allows us to manage this tension. Our radical renewal is a “spiritual reality” even if you can’t see it.

This, I would contend, hurts us a lot more than it helps.

When Joe Biden or anyone says something like, “America is better than this,” it implies that the true condition of America is one in which things like radicalized Trump-supporters storming the Capitol shouldn’t happen. It was a fluke. It was a glitch in the system. We’re actually fine; we just had a hiccup there where something in America happened that was inconsistent with who America really is.

If this is the case, there’s really nothing to fix, is there? There’s nothing to work on. The true state of America is one where everyone is rational and good and peaceful. We’ll deal with the isolated incidents as they come up, but there’s no underlying issues that need fixing.

I hope you can see that such an idea is nuts, and I don’t believe Joe Biden actually thinks that, either. These things happen because of underlying issues. They are not random, chaotic circumstances that sprung up because everyone’s blood sugar was low that day or whatever.

Yet, when we look at our own, individual lives, we are content to think of ourselves this way. We are in our true cores good people, and when we act inconsistently with that, it’s a blip that we can easily deal with and move on.

But our individual choices are no more random products of circumstance than a group of protestors storming the Capitol. True, some circumstances are more extreme than others, and we may act unethically in a high-pressure situation that, under calmer circumstances, we wouldn’t. But that still shows us who we are. In those high-pressure situations, we make these choices and do or say these things.

I believe the best chance you have for ethical development is to have a realistic view of who you are and what you do (or don’t do). When you act in ways that you at some level believe to be wrong, that is your true self. That is who you are. Don’t sweep it under the rug. If you can realistically assess your situation, then you can realistically start to deal with it.

And that’s the other side of this coin. I believe we can be reluctant to associate our actions with our true selves because the emotional weight of this is too much to bear. We want to be good Christians. We have genuinely converted and therefore believe that, ethically, we should look like Jesus. But we don’t.

If we don’t theologize this phenomenon away, the guilt and the doubt can be overwhelming. Are we really Christians at all? Did we really convert? Am I really a very selfish person who cares more about their own comfort than the welfare of others? Am I actually a pervert? Am I actually a racist? These are horrible things to entertain and, if they turned out to be true, would be crushing.

Before I get to the comforting part, I need to pile on just a little more. Sorry about that.

Reality is what it is, and it really doesn’t matter what you think or how you feel about it. Whatever actions you do, you are a person who does things like that. Whatever actions you don’t do, you are not a person who does things like that. It really doesn’t matter what you think you should be doing or not doing. It really doesn’t matter what explanations you concoct for why you aren’t the way you think you should be. It doesn’t matter how we theologically truss it up. Whatever explanations we come up for this disjuncture – Scriptural or otherwise – it exists.

But here’s the thing: when you have a realistic assessment of where you’re at, you can start doing things about it. The idea that “I’m better than this” can be very useful if it inspires me to better actions, but it can be very harmful if I don’t interpret that as, “I want to be better than this, and I’m going to try.”

The very struggle you may be feeling right now was shared by the Israelites who, after having been in exile under Babylon, were sent back to their homeland. In Nehemiah 8, we read an account where Ezra assembles the returnees and reads the Torah to them, educating them anew on what it meant to be an Israelite. Upon getting a realistic picture of who they were supposed to be and comparing that to who they actually were, they reacted pretty much like you and I would: they wept. The realization of the disparity between who they were supposed to be and who they actually were broke them. Keep in mind, these are not new converts. They are Jews and have been Jews for a very long time.

The reaction of Nehemiah and Ezra is a powerful one:

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NRSV)

Well, that was unexpected.

As far as Nehemiah et al were concerned, coming to a true knowledge of the difference between what you ought to be and what you actually are is a cause for celebration. It is a holy thing that is special to the Lord. It is a pious act of faith to say, “God requires me to be this, but I am actually not that.”

And as far as Nehemiah is concerned, that’s an occasion to throw a big party. Coming to an honest realization of this disparity is an occasion to feel joy, and not just any joy, but joy that comes from the Lord.

The assumption here, of course, is that the people can now dedicate their lives to the pursuit of becoming the sort of people the Law requires. This realization of the disparity between who they are and who they are supposed to be is meant to be the basis for change, not a different type of harmful, passive comfort. “We’re all sinners, so I guess we can quit stressing out about that. Anyone got any idols on them?” No.

No, the waking up to the reality of our condition is meant to give us a desire for change and a map for what we need to work on. And if you find that you don’t actually desire to change (this is a VERY important thing to be honest with yourself about), then that should be a focus.

If I want to be a good basketball player, it does me no good to think of myself as a good basketball player in my heart while rarely playing basketball. I need to look at the disparity between what I am doing and what it means to be a good basketball player. I cannot change this situation simply by desiring it or saying a prayer about it (although prayer may be a part of my journey).

I have to start doing the things that will eventually produce a good basketball player. I have to start drilling, playing basketball, getting a coach, etc. I can’t do everything at once like an 80s movie training montage suggests. It’s going to take a great deal of time and incremental progress as a result of focusing on the right things I need to do right then.

It may turn out that I do not actually do those things. Then, again, I have to be honest with myself. I can’t say, “Well, I want to be a good basketball player, but I don’t practice because this that and the other thing.” The actual reality is that I only wish I were a good basketball player, but I don’t want to become one.

This is where I might focus my effort – figuring out why I seem to believe I want to be a good basketball player while not really wanting to do any of the things that would make me a good basketball player. I may need help understanding this. I may need to talk to other players who had this struggle; it’s not going to help me to talk to players who immediately gave their all in their pursuit of basketball, as inspiring as those stories may be to me. That’s not where I am.

Bringing this analogy back around to our morals and ethics. We may have to be honest with ourselves that we really don’t want to give up a behavior or do the work necessary to grow in a virtue. Again, and I can’t emphasize this enough, it does absolutely no good to keep telling yourself you “really” want these things in your heart when your actions are obviously so incommensurate with that. Just own up to it. But don’t despair because of it. It is a -good thing-, a -holy- and -joyous- thing to be completely honest with God, yourself, and ultimately others about where you’re actually at.

And if not wanting those things is unacceptable to you, then that’s where you can begin your work. I promise you that you will need to get someone else involved in that. You will not be able to manufacture those desires under your own power, because if you could, you would.

Your efforts may have to involve conversations with pastors, other believers, and counselors and therapists to really help you discover what is at the bottom of what you want and don’t want, what you do and don’t do, and what you might do about it. Some of these things may be relatively easy to tackle. Some will take decades. A few you might even take to your grave.

These things, however, are accommodated by the compassion of our Lord and our High Priest who sympathizes with us. You are not alone in your pursuit either in Heaven or on the Earth. God is your ally in this process, not a disapproving judge. We have all the best conditions for changing if we are willing to embrace them.

But it all starts with a courageous and radical honesty.

Christmas Is Not a Pagan Holiday

Happy Belated Christmas, everyone!

Around this time of year, the memes and comments start flowing around the Internet about how Christmas is the co-opting of a pagan holiday and various common practices we see at Christmas are vestigial pagan practices or deliberately maintained pagan practices designed to sort of “take over” these ancient practices with a Christian veneer.

I, too, thought this for a long time. In the Church’s historical missionary efforts, syncretism is not uncommon. When it comes to getting some headway into a society that already has an existing folk religion, one of the more effective things you can do is demonstrate how their folk religion is really yours or is at least compatible with yours, and you’re fleshing it out with fuller truth.

One could argue this is what the Apostle Paul does in Athens as told in Acts 17. He notes the religiosity of the people, notes some insights from their poets and playwrights, and explains to them the “unknown god” to whom they have built an altar, which is the God of Israel.

Whether you agree with this tactic or not, it shouldn’t bother anyone today if Christmas were meant to supplant native pagan beliefs and practices over a millennium ago. Nobody having a Christmas service today is thinking, “This’ll really rope in the Mithraic cults.”

For some time, I also thought Christmas was intended to displace pagan beliefs, holidays, and practices, and this didn’t particularly bother me other than noting that this was a pretty jerky thing to do nearly 2000 years ago in ancient Rome.

It turns out, however, that there doesn’t seem to be much historical support for the idea that Christmas is derived from pagan beliefs and practices.

One of the things that seriously challenged this notion I had was from an atheist – Tim O’Neill – who refers to this as one of the Great Myths that gets summoned in atheistic critiques of Christianity. The article deals primarily with the alleged similarities between Christmas and Mithraic beliefs and practices, but it also touches on other popular misconceptions.

This year, Tim revisited the theme, focusing a bit more on specific practices like Christmas trees, mistletoe, etc.

Both the articles are good reads (make sure you have a few minutes to spare) as are the links they contain.

How did this idea of Christmas being pagan get so pervasive? It’s not simply the pet belief of people angry with Christianity who will latch on to anything that makes it look bad. It’s more or less pop history. It’s such a common conception that it’s virtually the default. I even had one person, when I asked them for sources establishing the pagan roots of Christmas practices, say I was positing an “alternate history” and told me I had the burden of proof – even though I had only asked him for sources. The idea is that obviously Christmas is derived from pagan practices, and to even question it is seen as highly eccentric.

Historian Tom Holland suggests that this idea emerged from Christianity itself. Specifically, it was part of the Puritan criticism of holy days inherited from the Roman Catholic church. He does not cite any particular sources for this (this is a common issue with virtually every article going around the Internet discussing Christmas’ origins), but a case for this is made in Bruce Daniels’ Puritans at Play. The revelries around Christmas made them think of ancient pagan celebrations, so they just made the accusation that Christmas was a continuation of those practices.

Outside of the specific issue of Christmas’ pagan origins, what we see here is an important principle that is good to keep in mind, not just with history, but with everything we hear or read: the ability to come up with an explanation does not mean the explanation is true.

Driving out to visit my parents, yesterday, I drove by a homemade sign that read “Trump 2020 – Stolen Election.” Despite the consistent failure to produce any evidence of this by the very people who have a vested interest in Trump’s election, a fairly decent amount of people believe that he lost the election due to widespread fraud and conspiracy.

The story about widespread fraud has explanatory power. If Trump losing simply due to most Americans not wanting to re-elect him doesn’t make sense to you, the fraud story makes sense of it all. This is also behind the popularity of QAnon – there are stories here that “explain the truth” behind current events.

The problem is that almost anyone can come up with a theory or a narrative that, if true, would explain something. But the fact that a narrative explains something does not make it true, and similarities do not automatically imply connections.

For instance, take a list of thunder gods from various cultures and pick two. The similarities are such that you could come up with an explanation how one culture’s thunder god is an appropriation of another culture’s thunder god. But you can see how quickly this can become absurd.

I could argue, for instance, that the Mayan Chaac with his thunder-axe is very similar to Scandinavia’s Thor with his thunder-hammer, so obviously the Norse pantheon was heavily influenced by the Mayans. This has explanatory power and is also highly implausible. The idea that an ancient civilization on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico influenced the religion of a collection of islands half a world away is something that would require further argumentation.

It completely explains where Thor “really” came from, but there is absolutely no evidence for this, and anyone would rightly ask for such evidence in light of such an unlikely contention. It isn’t enough that my explanation explains things. I have to substantiate it.

We need to be very careful that we are not seduced by the power of a clever explanation. We need to be careful not to assume connections where there are similarities. This is true whether we’re looking at memes on the Internet, listening to a news story, talking with our neighbors, or reading a history book.

Sunday Meditations: The Prophetic and the Political

Well, I haven’t been able to get round to doing all the amazing things I wanted to do with the blog this week. A lot has been going on.

I’m not going to talk about the American Presidential election per se, but I do want to look at how modern-day prophecy has interacted with it and use it as a sort of jumping off point for thinking about the role prophecy has in the Bible. I want to get some thoughts out about the role of prophets and prophecy in the contemporary church – if there is such a role – and looking at what people who call themselves prophets have been doing might be illustrative.

If you’ve spent any time over at the Charisma Magazine website the past couple of weeks, you’ve noticed something interesting. A few weeks ago, there were a number of “prophets” stridently predicting the landslide victory of Donald Trump.

As this week has progressed, some of those posts have quietly vanished from the home page while others are picking up the strain that God will still give Donald Trump the election once all the alleged voting corruption has been exposed.

I will say one thing for all the leaders who prophesied a decisive Trump victory – they had the guts to make an actual prediction. They were wrong, but they actually said something empirically verifiable would happen.

This was a nice change from the kind of “prophecy” that is entirely unverifiable. This kind usually involves something happening in the “heavenly realms.” God is releasing angels of such and such to so and so. How could you ever know if that really happened or not? That kind of prophecy is mostly absent from the Scriptures. Where there is prophecy that unveils something happening in the heavenly realms, it is typically directly correlated to a visible outcome on Earth.

This is a common feature of most worldviews in the ancient Near East. Everything that happens in the empirical world has an invisible, spiritual side to it, and vice-versa. The occupation of Judea by the Roman Empire was the physical manifestation of the demonic occupation of Judea in the spiritual realm. Sicknesses, wars, famines, riches, births, deaths – all these realities of life had a spiritual facet to them and vice-versa.

One example of this might be 1 Kings 22, where Michaiah reveals to the king a scene in heaven where God asks for a spirit to volunteer to lie to the king’s prophets in order that he might receive favorable prophecies and be led into destruction. This is what the king’s prophets did, and his defeat is what happened. Although there was an invisible, spiritual component to the prophecy, it was connected with a particular concrete outcome.

As far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be any precedent in the Bible for prophecies that are purely “heavenly” in nature, like “God is about to release angels of blessing in 2021” or whatever.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake simply to define prophecy as predicting the future.

Prophets exercising their gifts of prophecy spend quite a bit of time outlining the shortcomings of the people and/or their leaders in light of the covenant they have made with God. If you crack open any of the books in the Old Testament that belong to “the Prophets,” you’ll find a rather large chunk of them dedicated to this. In most cases, the prophet is looking at national faithfulness, but there are times when the focus is specifically on the failures of an individual, such as Nathan’s clever accusations of David in 2 Samuel 12.

But even though this may occupy long stretches of prophecy, they are also tied to concrete outcomes in the future. Typically, the prophet depicts the terrible outcomes that come from unfaithfulness (or the great joys that will follow repentance) to the people using the most dramatic of imagery that the prophetic imagination can find to describe the scope and decisiveness of these outcomes. If you keep going down Path A, God will respond with terrible consequences. But if you turn away from Path A, you will ultimately be restored and rewarded.

It’s worth noting that, even though the imagery may be vibrant, it’s not ambiguous.

I can’t help but think here of Jonathan Cahn’s (what an unfortunate last name for that man) big prophecy that there would be “shakings” in 2020, and now he is gleefully pointing to things like COVID-19, BLM protests, etc. as evidence of his credibility as a prophet.

Wow. Really going out on a limb, there, Jon. Big things will happen in the course of a year. Hey, do you think there will be conflict in the Middle East, too?

This tack is most likely in response to his failed prophecy that “The Shemitah” would occur on September 13, 2015 bringing an end to the world as we know it. This did not happen, of course, so Cahn said the stock market selloff on August 18 of that year was what he must have been predicting.

I don’t want to chase this too far, but let me be clear in case anyone is reading this and vague on the subject: Jonathan Cahn is not a prophet nor a rabbi. He is consistently wrong and consistently fudges and lies and does whatever he needs to do to try to sound kind of right and sell his next book. He does not understand the Old Testament any better than your pastor does, and he has not found a secret code that predicts the future. He is a shyster. Stop buying his books.

So, to circle back around, the prophecy that we find in the Bible is:

  1. Ultimately tied to a concrete outcome for the audience, typically in the future.
  2. May heavily involve a level of exhortation as the audience’s lives and decisions are evaluated and future outcomes from them are projected, sometimes several generations into the future.
  3. Empirically verifiable, although, again, it might take a while.
  4. Often involves very dramatic and vibrant imagery to communicate the scope and decisiveness of future events.
  5. May be about specific individuals, especially as it leads to impacts on the larger audience

Conversely, prophecy is not:

  1. Completely “spiritual” and disconnected from any concrete, empirically verifiable outcome
  2. So ambiguous that you can stick virtually anything in there and make it work
  3. Only the act of exhortation from God’s word
  4. About squid demons

Ok, I threw that last one in there for fun, but seriously – there are not squid demons.

So, interestingly, the prophecies about Trump winning the election and what it might mean for the Church are kind of in line with the sorts of things we might expect from prophecy as it appears in the Bible. They are sort of a Spirit-led ability to look at a people’s present circumstances and project the outcomes.

It just so happens that virtually all those prophets were also wrong.

You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.

– Deuteronomy 18:21-22 (NRSV)

Sunday Meditations: For All the Saints

Today is Allhallowtide.

“For All the Saints” performed by the choir at King’s College

A few different liturgical holidays coalesce around this time, and you can follow the linked article above to learn more about them, but the upshot is that this is the time we reflect on the saints who have gone before us, especially the martyrs.

My family name comes from a saint who found himself on the wrong side of a succession war. He had his eyes removed and tongue cut out and, for this reason, is sometimes considered the patron saint of people with eye troubles, which is something I think about when I wear my reading glasses. Interestingly, another saint with whom my family is associated miraculously cured someone of blindness.

In the past years, learning about my ancestry has become important to me because I have learned just how much the past has shaped who we are. We are very much shaped by our parents, and they were very much shaped by theirs, and so on. Everyone in your ancestral chain has played a key role in shaping who you are, now. In turn, they were also shaped by their cultures and prevailing circumstances.

These things are not necessarily to be venerated, nor do we necessarily need to return to the good ol’ days of hunting wandering herds of reindeer or invading cities to take them away from monophysites, but we can understand ourselves when we see the broken roads our ancestors have walked before us.

I come from a Protestant tradition, so we don’t make too much of the saints and are usually discouraged from doing so.

I think this is unfortunate.

Granted, it is quite possible to make too much of the saints – to make them almost minor divinities. Little gods in a Christianized pantheon.

But for all its good points, the Protestant Reformation was not really characterized by measured and nuanced reflection and evaluation, especially as other leaders began to hop on the Luther Train, and instead of carefully considering what value there may have been in the richness of our Roman Catholic tradition, there was a big effort to simply excise it, especially as time went on. The saints and the feasts associated with them may be one of those things.

Because, you see, there is nothing superhuman about our saints. Quite the opposite, really. They also sinned as we do. They also had their crises of faith and doubt. They were also products of their cultures. They were also afraid.

But they show us what faith makes possible, even in the lives of people like you and me. We discover that great moments in the history of faith are really simply regular people doing the best they can when they find themselves in particular circumstances. I doubt most of the saints had any notion that they might be canonized, someday. They just did what they thought was right.

As it turns out, their ten seconds of courage and faithfulness were enough to direct the stream of history from one direction to another. For every saint we might look up to, there are 999 others who simply made different decisions and changed nothing. But in the course of history, we find these women and men who were brave at just the right moment for just the right amount of time. They made a decision based on faith at a time when it truly cost them something, which is in itself an act of faith, believing that the outcome of their action would mean something greater than the cost because it was done for the sake of Christ.

The emphasis on martyrs reminds us of the special place martyrs are given by the New Testament – so much so that we may be a little quick on the draw to apply passages generically to all Christians that may be a little more focused on dealing with Christians who are at the time being persecuted and martyred. Those who have died in faithful service to God are given a special place in the New Testament writings not shared by others; make of that theologically what you will.

It’s encouraging, you know, because they weren’t any more or less personally equipped to do those things than you are or I am. It’s just a matter of having those ten seconds of courage to say the thing that needs to be said or do the thing that needs to be done, then accept the outcomes in humility.

Also, as we look at those who have gone before us, we see that they and their societies survived worse things than, say, Donald Trump – even a Donald Trump who gets elected for another four years.

This is not to say that the circumstances that face us today are somehow trivial in light of what other societies have faced in history. Rather, it just goes to show that there are always crises. Our ancestors had theirs as well. This time is no more catastrophic or world-ending than other periods in history. I believe it is healthy to recognize on the one hand how important our current issues are and to actively engage them in faith, and on the other hand realize that we are living through nothing that is not common with those who have gone on before us.

It does not take long, for instance, to think of global health crises that put COVID-19 to shame or political leaders to whom, hyperbole and rhetoric aside, we’d prefer Donald Trump. That does not mean COVID-19 isn’t serious or that Donald Trump isn’t terrible. It just means that our ancestors lived through these sorts of things as well. I personally find that comforting, but maybe that’s just more disturbing depending on how you look at it.

So, today, if you are in a tradition that doesn’t particularly do anything about saints, you might explore it a little. Is there a saint in your family tree? Did your parents or grandparents talk about a saint? If you don’t have a particular saint who has meant something to your past that you can tell, find a list of them and choose one that seems interesting.

What do their lives demonstrate to you? What lessons do they teach you? What characteristics do they encourage you to cultivate and demonstrate in your life? What did they do in their circumstances that are analogous to your own? Did they write anything that you could read this afternoon? Do they have a feast day coming up where you might round up your Christian buddies and read a couple of things about them over some beer and bread?

We are definitely shaped by those who have gone before us. They are not always to be emulated, but they always have something to teach us.

By way of announcement, I will be making some changes to this blog in the near future. It might even look different.

When I began the blog, it was mostly so I could write devotionals from a narrative historical perspective, and that was mostly so I could work through some texts. I wrote almost every day and just went systematically through Matthew, getting about a third or so through the book.

Honestly, this became something of a slog, and I went through a pretty dry period where I wrote virtually nothing.

Now, I’m feeling more of a desire to write again, but I don’t want to turn it into a chore, so while the blog will still be focused on a narrative historical perspective, I’m going to open up the content a little. The devotions may or may not have a particular sequence. I may talk about general topics or current events (much like these Sunday Meditations) or review books or put together lists of helpful resources. It’ll be more like a blog with a particular topical focus than a blog with a very specific type of content.

I hope that doesn’t put anyone off, but if you’re reading this, you haven’t been put off so far. I will definitely continue to write devotionals about specific passages and talk about specific things in the Bible, but I just want to be able to be a little freer about content and sequence in the hopes that I will write more often.

To that end, I may move things around, change the look, and recategorize some things. Don’t be alarmed, and please let me know if I change something and you liked the old way better.

On occasion, the old ways are better.

Sunday Meditations: Reconstruction

Some years ago, a friend I used to work with and I would go out to lunch most days and trade off the driving responsibility.

One afternoon, I was bringing us back to work from some place we’d never been before, and I made this sort of looping, spiraling pattern that eventually got us back to work. It was as if the building had a gravitational pull and we were an object in its orbit.

As we pulled into the parking lot, I looked and saw a side street that was a fairly straight shot to one of the roads we had been on.

“Why didn’t you point that road out to me?” I asked.

He considered his words for a moment and said, “I find it’s better just to let you go your own way. You’ll get around to the right way, eventually.”

For better or worse, this characterizes a lot about how I make my way through life. I rarely take a straight shot to where I need to be. I usually have to strike out, evaluate, and readjust, and sometimes I have to bounce off a number of crazy walls before I finally end up in the right place.

Because of this, I pay a lot of attention to how to recover quickly from mistakes. Yes, on paper, it would be great if I never headed down the wrong road to begin with, but that’s not a realistic expectation for me (or anyone else, really). How can I quickly identify that I’m on the wrong path and quickly adjust my course?

This is not the only way to deal with mistakes, however.

Another option is to believe that whatever path you happen to be on is 100% the right one, for sure, all the time. This tends to make it difficult to see if you’re on the wrong path. Switching paths is usually very big and traumatic, and people who think this way tend to carry this way of thinking with them to their new path. The old one was obviously completely trash, but this new path is 100% correct.

But there is another tactic that I’m starting to see more and more, and that’s recognizing that you’re on the wrong path, being thorough in your critique of the path, and… that’s it.

Many people, especially evangelicals, are going through a period of deconstruction.

This may partially be due to secularism growing in power and voice. People from a strictly materialist worldview make very good observations and criticisms about the nature of Christian faith and her Scriptures, and anyone who wants to engage the truth can’t go unchanged by some of these critiques.

This may also be partially due to the fact that evangelicalism has sort of revealed itself in a new way to love political power and be willing to obtain it at all costs. The overwhelming white evangelical support for Donald Trump speaks volumes to any observer. You can’t claim the moral or the epistemological high ground when you hitch your wagon to such blatant immorality and stupidity just because you think you’ll be back on top if you do. It’s very difficult to maintain your claims of Christlike, sacrificial love of all people when you vote for the man who issues orders on TV to white supremacist groups.

Many of us are coming to discover that “evangelicalism” has less to do with a certain theology and mission and more to do with maintaining the white picket fence, reducing Christianity to a collection of pedantic moral qualms and “saving souls.”

Whatever the reason, a rather lot of American Christians are looking at the landscape and are deeply dissatisfied with the faith and traditions they’ve inherited, and being genuinely interested in higher marks like Truth and Love, they cannot uncritically stay on the train.

This is all very understandable and, in some sense, hopeful. It speaks really well of evangelical individuals when they are in crisis right now.

But tearing apart the views we used to have or the traditions we came from is not helpful on its own. The question is: what are we going to embrace, instead? If we aren’t going to believe certain things, what will we believe, instead? If we aren’t going to embrace these traditions any longer, which ones will we embrace? Will we create new ones?

Destruction is necessary for growth. This is the way nature works. Things have to die to keep other things alive. Resources must be released to be put to work in new ways.

But the value of the destruction is in the new things that are now free to flourish. When this ratio begins to get out of whack, we fight it. We may purposefully burn large patches of dead grasses so new grasses can grow, but we will try our hardest to extinguish a prairie fire that has gotten out of hand.

It can be very difficult, though, to envision something better.

I find this is often the case with evangelicals I talk to who have a strong desire to share the gospel. They very much want to call people out of their broken worlds but have very few ideas of what we are calling people into. What kind of people ought we to be if we are meant to be an alternative? That’s tougher. That’s a lot tougher than pointing out the problems other people have.

When things are primarily defined by absences and negations, we generally consider them to be impoverished. A moral system needs to be richer than a list of things you abstain from. A confession of faith can’t entirely consist of errors that you reject. An organization can’t be defined wholly by what they oppose. In all of these aspects and more, we want to see actual, positive substance. If you are against these things, what are you for?

If you see a problem, what’s your better idea? Because if you don’t have a better idea, or you aren’t enlisting people to help you find a better idea, why did you even bother to point out the problem?

This is hard work, of course. Destruction is easy compared to creation.

But the people of God are not unfamiliar with this. We see it documented in the Scriptures.

When Israel completed her time as nomads and settled into a nation, many laws and practices had to change. There was a Temple, now, and not a tent that was carried around. Community life now involved a greater amount of goods and fixed boundaries. Even the role of livestock was different.

Eventually, Israel became a monarchy under a king. That meant the oversight structure set up by Moses had to change. The role of prophet changed.

Laws changed when Israel was conquered, when the Temple was destroyed, and when her lands were resettled and the Temple rebuilt.

Large changes happened when a prophet named Jesus arrived on the scene to announce that the kingdom of God was imminent and the old world order was about to come down.

When the Holy Spirit was given and Gentiles began to worship Israel’s God, big changes occurred with regards to the Law as well as overall teaching.

In each of these circumstances and more, the people of God looked at their context in history and looked at what they were teaching and doing and determined what needed to die in order that they might live. It may have been laws that no longer served, or doctrine or traditions that no longer seemed to match what God was doing at the time.

Perhaps we also have this responsibility in our day, both individually and collectively, to determine not only what things have defined us that need to be cast aside, but what ought to define us and what that ought to look like in our practice.

The traditional Protestant way of dealing with this issue is to start your own denomination. As attractive as that may seem at times, I’m not sure that’s the way forward. Overall, I’d say the presence of Protestant denominations has been a net loss for the Church rather than a help, and when I think about what the world needs most right now, the answer is not “a new Protestant denomination.

It may mean a new vision of what it looks like to be the people of God in America or in the world. It might not look like church has looked for the past few centuries. It may not mean steeples and sermons and professional clergy. It may not mean statements of faith. It may not mean doctrinal distinctives.

It may mean something organic, self-supportive, and cellular. It may happen in the booths of pubs and around grills in backyards and in the basements of existing church buildings. It may be about prayerfully getting people through life and helping them find Spiritual nourishment and expression, meeting all their needs as befits the whole person.

It may be about forming a community where anyone would bail anyone else out of jail (or go to jail with them) or help them move or float them a couple hundred to get them through the month. Where we go over to people’s houses so we can all hang out together for no particular reason.

It may be that we rediscover the phenomenon of prophecy as a Sprit-led analysis of our present circumstances and visionary portrayal of our hope and trust for future outcomes. We can take it away from the Jonathan Cahn “this passage about a hurricane is really predicting Hilary Clinton’s real estate deals” nutballs and the useless “God is preparing to loose angels of blessing” pointless sentimentality that dominates the practice, today.

It may be that we identify the Beasts of our age and refuse their mark.

If you are going through your own period of deconstruction, I know it is scary and painful. You are not alone. I and countless others are working through it as well.

But one thing that can make it not quite so scary and painful is to set your sights on something better. What new life can flourish? What new things will you be about? And if you feel like you have to do it by yourself, you don’t. There are lots of us out here.

By way of announcement, I’ve turned comments on for all my articles.

Originally, I had them shut off because this blog was just for me and not for communal discussion. Also, at the time, I had Christian friends who had blogs and the Comments section just seemed to be a lot of people angry at each other with very little discussion or learning. I also was part of that, and I didn’t like the person I was nor what those comment sections became.

But these days I feel differently about those things, and I’m willing to at least give it a shot and see what happens. So, if I’ve ever written an article that rubbed you the wrong way and you’ve really wanted to let me have it, now’s your chance. Search it up and go nuts.

Have a good Sunday.

Sunday Meditations: What Is Romans About?

The timing catalyst for this post goes to Alex who wrote a fine article recently on the topic of the political dimension of Romans and how we might understand some of Paul’s instructions in light of the coming of the kingdom of God and the king. If he isn’t in your blogroll, you might consider adding him.

Romans is a pivotal book for American evangelicalism as it is often teed up as THE book that outlines man’s separation from God through sin and how we can be made right with God by accepting Jesus through faith (as opposed to works). Fundamentalists love the “Romans Road,” which you might be familiar with, yourself. Calvinists especially love Romans because the whole schema is described in terms of God’s predestination.

I learned the Romans Road when I was a child. You start in Romans 3:23 to establish the fact that everyone has sinned, and then you jump to the next verse on the Road, then the next, and as you hop around to these different verses in Romans, you articulate the basic evangelical message: everyone is a sinner and therefore condemned to Hell by a just God, but if you accept Jesus in faith, you will be saved and made right with God, which implicitly means going to heaven.

This is still a popular way people view Romans, but even for those who think this method of jumping around from verse to verse to link a narrative together is a little suspect, they generally still agree that this is basically what Romans is about. It’s about the human condition of sin, subject to God’s judgement, and how we are made right with God through faith in Christ as opposed to works.

But is this really what Romans is about? If it is, why are there so many portions of Romans that seem to be irrelevant to this topic?

  • Why does Paul point out that Jesus was descended from David?
  • Why does Paul point out the power of salvation is to the Jew, first, then the Greek (more than once)?
  • Why does Paul talk so much about the Law?
  • Why does Paul say that circumcision is valuable if you keep the Law?
  • Why does Paul explain what advantages the Jews have?
  • Why is Abraham, born prior to the Law, used as an example?
  • Why does Paul explain how the promise to Abraham about his descendants and inheritance is nullified through the Law but established on faith?

These are just a handful of questions from the content of the first four chapters. If it’s truly Paul’s intent to simply make the point that everyone has sinned and under God’s judgement, and we can be made right with God if we accept Jesus on faith, there is quite a bit of material in Romans that seems only vaguely related or not related at all.

In fairness, whatever kind of overarching hermeneutic you use for a large text, there are always going to be little bits and bobs that don’t seem to fit quite right. Doug Moo once explained to me that hermeneutics is sort of like putting a jigsaw puzzle together according to the picture you have in your head. There are going to be some pieces that don’t fit your configuration, so you change your idea and see if more pieces fit that concept better, and so on.

So, I have no doubt that whatever I throw out there, someone could find some pieces that don’t quite fit, and that’s fine. I do think, however, that we need to look for themes and messages in Romans that give most of the contents a cogent place, and the theme of individual, spiritual salvation does not do that.

So, what is Romans about?

First, we need to recognize that Romans is a letter to a church going through certain things. Paul did not sit down and think, “I’ll write a helpful theological treatise about salvation that’ll probably end up in the Bible, someday.” He wrote a letter to a church to assist them.

This wasn’t simply a backwater church in Asia Minor, though. Rome was the cosmopolitan seat of government of the Empire, home to many Jews as well as other peoples under the Empire’s dominion. Christian faith reached this city very quickly. When Paul arrived in Corinth (50 AD), he met Christians who had come there from Rome.

So, swiftly after Jesus’ ministry and Pentecost, we have Christians in Rome, both Jew and Gentile, meeting in synagogues and in homes.

Although it seems strange to us, the presence of both Jew and Gentile converts to Christianity was a troubling moment for both parties. On the Jewish side, they had a very well-defined, biblical process for Gentiles converting to Judaism, which is what they perceived to be happening. When you decide to become Jewish, you become circumcised and you keep the Law – all of it. There was no concept of “moral” and “ceremonial” parts of the Law.

On the Gentile side, they were uncircumcised (honestly, I wonder how successful evangelistic rallies would have been in America if mandatory circumcision were part of it – pray the Sinner’s Prayer, fill out this card, and then this guy over here will remove your foreskin). They had zero relationship to the Law. While some Gentiles are described as fearing God, many more indulged in Rome’s infamous excesses and immorality.

So, you can imagine the tensions of bringing these groups together. On the one hand, you have the Jewish converts who insist (on scriptural grounds) that the Gentiles basically need to become Jewish, and they don’t seem to want to do that. If you’re a Gentile, you’ve come to faith in Christ and may be exhibiting dramatic signs of being filled with the same Spirit as the Jewish converts, but you’re being told that, along with this, you also need to take the sign of the covenant and follow the Law, and you have no point of reference to know if this is right or not.

One of the key themes of Romans is what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to be converts and worshippers together. It is a very practical problem the church is facing, and it has both theological and practical facets.

This is why, when we read Romans 3:23, Paul is not making a generic declaration about the state of mankind; he is making the point that both Jews and Gentiles are sinners and in the same boat. This is what you miss when you don’t read the other verses in Romans 3 and the preceding chapters.

Paul explains that the Empire is full of immorality and excesses and aren’t those Gentiles just terrible? You can almost see the Jewish audience going, “Yeah, get ’em, Paul.” And Paul points out that the Jews were the ones who received the oracles of God and the sign of the covenant, not Gentiles.

And then Paul springs the trap:

What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin

Romans 3:9 (NRSV)

Paul’s whole point is about Jews and Gentiles. Yes, granted, “Jews and People Who Aren’t Jews” does describe all of humanity, but Paul isn’t trying to get across a general point about mankind, but establish that Jews and Gentiles are both suffering for their sins, together, in the same boat – a very important point to make when Jew and Gentile believers are having tensions.

Because of this, Paul has to address the topics of what constitutes righteousness and justification. Who is in the right, and who will be judged to be in the right?

If I make a contract with you that I will mow your lawn every Friday, and I do this, then I am righteous with regard to our covenant. If you were to sue me for breach of contract, I would present my righteousness to the judge, and she would justify me (declare me to be in the right).

At the point in history that Paul is addressing, the Jews are suffering consequences as a result of a failure to keep the covenant. The Gentiles are doing some of the things the covenant requires, but they do not have a covenant with God. No arrangement with Him.

In order for both of these groups to be righteous and justified, this righteousness has to be defined in some other way than the Law. Israel has been unable to keep it, and Gentiles never had it to begin with. Thus, faith in Jesus is something that is shared by both groups, and the presence of the Spirit upon having faith in Christ is evidence of their rightness – a pre-judgement mini-judgement.

This is why Abraham is an important example – he had faith in the promise prior to receiving circumcision, and thus is the “faith father” of Gentiles just as he is the biological and covenant father of the Jews.

But there’s still a problem, here. Why is it that so many of Israel do not have faith in Christ? What does this mean for God’s promises? If God promised certain outcomes to Israel, and most of Israel continues to cling to their broken covenant trying to “covenant harder,” what does all that mean? Will God have to go back on His promises? Is most of Israel actually doomed? What does this say about God, His promises, His election, etc.? What does it even mean to be Israel if these upstart Gentiles all of a sudden share the same status and outcomes as Jewish believers?

These are not easy questions with easy answers, and the bulk of the middle portion of Romans is dedicated to addressing them. I don’t want to get too far into those weeds because they require a lot of attention, and certainly there are strong opinions on exactly what Paul means with some of his answers.

But the point I want to bring out is that all of these issues are being discussed under the umbrella of what is happening to both Jews and Gentiles in this new era of the history of the people of God – an era characterized by an imminent judgement and arrival of the kingdom as guaranteed by the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

And it is this eschatological outcome that is the fire under all these questions. None of these groups are desperately wondering, “How can I go to heaven when I die?” They are wondering what their present means and their future holds in light of the events that are happening around them.

This is why so many of the “faith vs. works” discussions about Romans are so impoverished. To posit that the Jews thought they could “earn their way to heaven by works” is howlingly anachronistic exegesis.

Romans does not discuss faith and works in the abstract; it talks about the role of the Law and what has happened to the people of God as a result, and what needs to happen to live through the Judgement into the age to come, and especially what this means for defining Israel as a people.

The question at the Roman church isn’t, “Can I earn my way to heaven with good works,” it’s, “Will God avert His punishment of Israel if we return to covenant faithfulness?” Perhaps followed by, “If we will ultimately fail to be justified by the Law, and instead are justified by faith in Christ just as the Gentiles are, then why did we even have it? What does it even mean to be Jewish without it?”

Theological and practical questions right at the heart of the lived-out experience of a troubled congregation in the midst of world-changing events.

And of course, Romans is full of practical advice for how this congregation is to move forward, both as a congregation, in the world at large, and in the midst of the seat of Empire.

Romans is a letter to a church – possibly the first church with a substantial amount of both Jew and Gentile believers very early on after the Jesus Event and Pentecost. It addresses their struggles, their questions, and helps them understand what’s going on and what they should do, and this guidance was so useful that the other churches also read it, and now we’ve all got it.

If all this sounds kind of bookish to you, I’d point out that it only sounds that way because of our historical distance from these issues. The Christians in Rome were not scholars and theologians – at least not at the time Romans was written. Yet, they understood what many consider to be one of Paul’s most complex writings. Why? Simply because they were living in the circumstances Paul was addressing.

If you seek greater clarity about Romans, that journey begins by getting closer to the lives of the original audience. There are many resources that can help you do this, and I’ll include a few at the end of this post, but you can actually cover a lot of ground just by asking yourself questions like, “What would this passage mean to me if I were a first century Jewish convert who had to deal with Gentiles flooding my religion all of a sudden? What if I were a first century Gentile who had no idea of whether or not my Jewish brothers were right when they tried to get me to follow the biblical directions for converting? What if I actually held contemptuous views of these Jewish believers?”

These kinds of questions help us get into the right frame of mind to let Romans speak to us, and obviously the more you learn about these people and their current events, the more you will see.

If you’re just starting to dip your toes into these waters, you might pick up N.T. Wright’s Paul for Everyone book on the first chapters of Romans. If you’re new to some of these issues, this will begin to push you without being too disruptive.

When you feel like being completely disrupted, I recommend Andrew Perriman’s The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom. It doesn’t get as much into the details that a full-blown commentary would, but it resets the themes of Romans firmly into its own world and also makes some bold steps into looking at how we might benefit from this narrative as a contemporary church in the world.

There are, of course, so many resources on Romans that it would take a long time to list out all the ones I like for this or that reason. As you evaluate resources for yourself, keep your eyes open for whether they are talking about the issues as experienced by that early community of Jewish and Gentile believers trying to reorient themselves, or whether they focus more on doctrinal issues the way we might think of them.

Sunday Meditations: So What Is the Bible About?

Something that happens to me a lot is that people come to me expressing discontent about something but they have no thoughts on what should happen as a result. Maybe it’s something about the work we’re doing or a personal or a political issue, but it involves the person complaining about the thing, and then just sitting there.

I’m sure I’ve done this to people, too, but when it happens to me, I just want to ask, “So, what are you wanting to do about this?” Sometimes, if I think it’ll be helpful, I do ask that.

Discontent isn’t intended to be a goal. It’s there to let us know something isn’t right so we can identify it and fix it if possible. It’s not valuable to go around trying to get everyone as upset about something as you are and stop at that. Your discontent suggests that a better option is out there and you should try to get that rolling, or if you can’t see what it is, maybe round some people up to help you figure it out.

So, when I start grumbling about how the Bible isn’t about going to heaven when you die, I think it’s fair that I offer some positive thoughts on what the Bible may be about as a better construction.

The key is in how we got the Bible to begin with.

For starters, much of the material that ended up in the Bible eventually began as oral traditions. Stories, customs, laws, wise sayings, songs, teachings – these things get passed down.

But each of these things originated in a community that needed them for some reason. At some point, a community needed a story about creation, probably to recognize on the one hand what everyone “knew” about creation while also distinguishing themselves in some way. At some point, somebody needed an encapsulation of what you need to think about when it comes to answering fools. At some point, somebody needed a worship song.

Some of the stories even contain a reference to being the explanation for a particular practice or landmark (e.g. Exodus 12:26-27).

The important thing to keep in mind is that all these ingredients arose at particular times in response to the lived out experience of the community that produced them. They did not arise in a historical vacuum. They were useful, which is why they were generated and why they continued to be passed down.

I am not saying that God was not involved in this in some form or fashion, but rather to point out that this content arises in response to the historical contingencies of the community that produced it. Stuff happens to the early Israelites, and as a result, they form stories and songs and laws in response to their situation.

As time goes on, some of this content gets written down, again in response to the needs of the day. There are even references to these writings in other biblical writings, such as 2 Kings 22:8 where the priest Hilkiah finds “The Book of the Law” as the Temple is being refurbished and presents it to King Josiah who uses it as the basis for his legal reforms.

At some point, someone wrote “the Book of the Law” which was most likely an early version of what would become Deuteronomy, and someone found it later and it was useful for them. So, the dribbling in of oral content becomes the dribbling in of written content, which in many ways makes it easier to preserve and transmit.

There is no printing press at this time. The written material is largely self-contained and relies on copies for anyone else to ever see them. Collections begin to form, such as collections of the Psalms. Why are copies made and why do collections form? Because this is useful to the community at the time. Nobody is saying, “Hey, if we want a Bible out of all this, we’d better get serious about putting one together.”

Documents are created and copies are made based on what the community needs and, as such, already people are seeing some of the writings going around as special and authoritative, partially because of the origins of the source material (Moses, for example) and partially because that material continues to be informative and useful for later generations, especially with regard to creating a unified identity and understanding of present circumstances.

Perhaps the activity that most looks like putting together a Bible occurs in the fifth century BC when Ezra and other scribes begin putting together what we would come to consider the Torah.

There’s a lot of debate over how much redaction happened and how many different sources and traditions are represented by the Old Testament, but regardless of your position, it is definitely a repository of composite documents. Some parts are in Hebrew. Some parts are in Aramaic. The Hebrew differs in style and quality. In some places, God is referred to in this way, in other places, He’s referred to in a different way. Sometimes the same story is told with different information. Sometimes, multiple accounts of the same story appear side by side in the same writing or even stitched together into a single account.

Why has this activity reached such a fever pitch in the fifth century?

Israel has experienced a profound difficulty. They have been invaded by pagans, the people dispersed, the Temple destroyed, the youth taken from their families and sent to live among the Babylonians, the language almost gone – and not only is this a massive historical issue for Israel, it’s a theological one, too, because God has allowed this to happen to His chosen people with whom He has an everlasting covenant.

Now, in Ezra’s day, Persia is allowing Israelites back into Jerusalem to resettle it and rebuild the city and the Temple. It’s like a resurrection! It’s a restart – a reboot – of Israel.

So, naturally, it’s important that these people who are basically Babylonians, culturally speaking, become Israelites again. How is this going to happen? By learning the laws, traditions, songs, teachings, histories, etc. of their ancestors. In order to facilitate this, these need to be assembled and compiled so they can be read and taught to everyone.

A historical need and community usefulness produces the book.

Even so, the canon of the Old Testament doesn’t become fixed until the second century (as far as we know). For the people, the main issue was not to have a perfect, holy book but rather to have the writings they needed. Of course, part of answering the question of whether a writing is needful is determining the authority of a writing, but that’s a means, not an end. The Bible did not come to Israel; Israel produced the Bible insofar as she needed one.

As we look back on Israel’s history, what writings this generated, and why they were compiled, this gives us some insight into the diversity of material we find in the Old Testament.

Imagine that America was conquered. Its important sites were razed. Its people were dispersed throughout the world. This was life for 70 years. Then, someone decides that people who used to be Americans can go back there and put America back together.

You’d have a chunk of people who actually remembered America before the invasion, but most of the people going back would have been born abroad in whatever country speaking that language. If it were your job to teach these people how to, ahem, make America great again, what collection of documents would you put together for them?

The Constitution? The Declaration of Independence? Some biographies of key figures? Some historical accounts both broad and narrowly focused? Some patriotic songs? Some writings that underscored key historical sins and missteps that we wouldn’t want to recreate? Some material from the people who warned the invasion was coming? Some material from people who kept American lore alive while in exile? Some suggestions for how things might better this time around?

These are all the kinds of things you find in the Old Testament.

And if I were to ask you, “What’s your book about,” what would you say?

You’d probably say something like, “It’s about what it was meant to be America in years past, who our people were, what they went through, and how they changed so that we can be a new and better version of this in the years to come.”

I think that’s as good a statement about what the Bible is about as any, really, except substitute “Israelite” for “American.”

This larger principle was responsible for writings that continued to be produced and, eventually, added to the larger canon of Scripture.

“But what about Jesus?” you might interject. “Surely the Bible is about Jesus, or at the very least, he is the organizing principle around the New Testament.”

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t think the Bible is about Jesus and neither is the New Testament.

The arrival of Jesus and the events he sets into motion not only rival but arguably eclipse what Israel has experienced in the past, and this during a very dark hour.

At this point in history, the kingdom of God – lost through covenant unfaithfulness – is about to come back bigger and better than before at this point in history with Jesus as the new king of the new Israel. Current powers will be removed from their thrones. The kingdom of God will come in like a boulder smashing a giant statue. The powers on Earth will be conquered by the Son who will win for himself all power and authority.

This good news is seemingly stymied by the execution of this king under the very powers he was supposed to conquer, but instead, God raises him from the dead and seats him at God’s right hand as the risen king ready to enact his will, which happens through such craziness as the outpouring of the Spirit and the inclusion of the Gentiles.

This is all such big events and craziness. Of course people write about this. The people living through this need to know what’s happening and why. They need to know how to live through it. They need to know what to expect and what to hope for. They need to know how to behave during a time like this. They need to grapple with the realities of this great upheaval.

This calls for more teachings, more stories, more ethical guidance, more prophecies, and more writings that get copied, passed around, and gathered together as the community finds them useful in this project of continuing to live out their own story in their own time – still preserving the identity that has been passed down but also being a better version of it that is suited for their circumstances.

Perhaps one of the best encapsulations of this idea is found in these writings:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NRSV)

We usually focus on the “inspired” part, but this passage is not about what inspiration means; it’s about the Scriptures being useful. This letter is convincing Timothy that the collection of writings he’s holding in his hand will actually serve his congregation well.

So, this is why I say the New Testament isn’t about Jesus. It is and it isn’t. It’s probably more accurate to say that the New Testament is about what it means to be God’s covenant people during the events in which the writings were produced – events that were caused the ministry, death, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

The book you hold in your hands when you read the Bible is an anthology of writings that have been generated and collected together over time, and even the individual books themselves have sometimes been pieced together from other source material. Just like any other anthology, it is very difficult to identify a specific topic or theme that literally all of its contents is “about.”

But you can identify the organizing principle of an anthology, and speaking through the lens of history, I’d offer that the Bible is “about” what it means to be the people of God in the world as it has been embodied over time.

These documents are formative both for our understanding and our behaviors, but they are also not exhaustive. We currently live in a time when virtually all the expectations presented to that early New Testament church have not only been realized, but they also have begun to fade with time.

The Roman Empire has collapsed, and although we might still be able to identify the power Christianity has held on the world without that political infrastructure, we also have to come to terms with the fact that it is fading and, in some countries, has all but disappeared.

When the kingdom is gone, what does it mean for the king and his people?

I think this is a key question to ask ourselves along with other examinations of the issues we face in the world, such as the crisis with our environment and a superheated geopolitical situation. What does it mean to be the people of God in my country? What does it mean to be the people of God in the world? What does it mean for us that this is our present reality and these are the obstacles that we face?

This is where prophets are supposed to be speaking up. We need to understand our present circumstances in light of the Bible, but we also need the people in touch with the Spirit who can help illuminate our present situation that the Bible doesn’t describe (or maybe in the most abstract of senses).

Is the Bible still useful to us? No doubt. But the community still needs things. Events are still happening to us. There is neither Temple nor Kingdom but rather the dispersed community united by the Spirit. What do we do now, with everything that’s going on? How do we understand it? What does it mean to live out our identity in these present circumstances? And what do we hope for in the future?

What will we produce that will be useful?