Sunday Meditations: O Death

O, Death
O, Death
Won’t you spare me over ’til another year?

– “A Conversation with Death,” Lloyd Chandler

For as long as I can remember, I knew what would happen to me when I died.

When I was very young, I knew that, when I died, my spirit would go to Heaven where I would live forever in a paradise that was as varied as there were inhabitants.  One of my pastors talked about rooms full of banana pudding.

When I became older, Calvinistic, and more dour, I traded the rooms of banana pudding for the new heavens and earth.  With some help from N.T. Wright, I adjusted my focus to a bodily resurrection into a new earth, although my concept of what that would look like didn’t differ too much from Heaven.  What happens immediately after death became more of a mystery to me and, ultimately, not very relevant.

My senior year of college, I wrote a paper for a philosophy class on God and time where I argued that time was not an objective feature in the universe but a faculty of perception that helps us distinguish between events.  What set me on this path was the tension between the idea of an intermediate state and a final judgement.  Did God yank everyone out of Heaven and Hell only to send them back there?  I came to the conclusion that our death and the final judgement seem like two distinct events to us, but they do not to God.  I concluded that, after death, our next conscious experience would be the final judgement.

I’m still warm to that “time is a faculty of perception” idea, incidentally.

As you can see, these ideas changed over time, but at any given time, I felt very sure.  Death just seemed like a vaguely unpleasant thing that brought grief to those who remained, but was essentially a gateway into joy for believers.  Although I hated the grief that death brought to everyone around it, I did not fear death.

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from Death?
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your destruction?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

Although he may flourish among rushes,
the east wind shall come, a blast from the Lord,
rising from the wilderness;
and his fountain shall dry up,
his spring shall be parched.
It shall strip his treasury
of every precious thing.
Samaria shall bear her guilt,
because she has rebelled against her God;
they shall fall by the sword,
their little ones shall be dashed in pieces,
and their pregnant women ripped open.

Hosea 13:14-16 (NRSV)

The beginning of that passage will be quoted in the New Testament and put to very different use.

Here, we see God through the prophet bringing  a message of destruction to Israel who has become corrupt, unjust, and very much like all the other nations – allying with them, worshiping their gods, and mimicking their power structures.

Hosea still holds out hope if Israel will repent, but here, we see that the outcome of Israel’s behavior is destruction by another nation.  There is no Hell in this passage.  Simply widespread death at the hands of another national power is plenty bad enough.  This is very common in the Old Testament.

A few different Psalms have the writer pleading with God to spare the psalmist’s life, because who can declare God’s praises after they are dead?

We see this in Hezekiah’s prayer for healing:

O Lord, by these things people live,
and in all these is the life of my spirit.
Oh, restore me to health and make me live!
Surely it was for my welfare
that I had great bitterness;
but you have held back my life
from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
behind your back.
For Sheol cannot thank you,
death cannot praise you;
those who go down to the Pit cannot hope
for your faithfulness.
The living, the living, they thank you,
as I do this day;
fathers make known to children
your faithfulness.

Isaiah 38:16-19 (NRSV)

Yes, death is plenty bad all on its own, and this sentiment extends into the New Testament as well.  Due to translations and popular connotations, a rather lot of the passages where we assume Jesus is talking about Hell, he’s talking about dying.

A few years ago, I turned 40, but it took a year to two to hit me.  I was now in striking range of dying of natural causes.

One of my managers at a previous job died when he was 47, and while that’s not typical, it’s not unheard of, either.  Unlike the days of my youth when I had the luxury of contemplating death from the standpoint of belief in my own immortality, I was now beginning to discern its form as it began to rise on the horizon.

This also happened at a time when my own convictions about faith were undergoing a fairly intensive degree of criticism and restructuring.  I felt very uncertain about what, if anything, would happen to me after I died, and the contemplation of the loss of myself and my relationships began to hit me in powerful ways they had not, before.

It extended as well to things like my children growing up – the inevitability of time and the permanent loss of those little people I knew.

It was a time of a lot of grief and anxiety for me, and I would reach out to the Lord and not find Him.  I didn’t know what would happen to me when I died, and now I was facing its possibility with my theological and psychological shields down, and I was not ready for it.

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:54-57 (NRSV)

You see what Paul did there?  He took that thing from Hosea and turned it around.  In light of the resurrection of Jesus, that thing that was a manifestation of God’s wrath now has no force.  When Hosea asks those questions, he’s preparing for the onslaught of death.  When Paul asks those questions, he’s mocking the effectiveness of death.

At the risk of frustrating some of my friends who are more conservative theologically, I still don’t know what’s going to happen to me after I die.  Nor do I know what’s going to happen when all this cosmic drama comes to an end.  I have doubts and fears about these things, sometimes, and I long sometimes for simpler days when I had an unshakable certainty in a very literal understanding of the Scriptures and knew exactly how all of this would pan out.

I don’t have those concrete understandings, anymore, and what I do think I understand, I’m never certain about it.  Always rethinking.  Always self-critiquing.  Always leaving behind things that no longer seem to serve and taking on new things that serve better or, in some cases, just coming to terms with not knowing.

But I do know that, if I allow the fear of death to be any kind of force in my life at all, it will cause me to sin.  I will seek self-preservation and immortality in all kinds of ways that will be empty and futile at best and harmful to others at worst.

So, what do we do then?  Denial?  Just pretend it isn’t out there?

Well, as Richard Beck helped me understand in his very, very good book The Slavery of Death, my identity – the inner being of Who-I-Am – my life, my psyche, my soul – it’s not mine.  I didn’t create it.  It was given to me.  It was thrust upon me, really.  It’s a gift.  I’m supposed to steward it, not grasp it for my own possession.

Because this me-ness was not really mine in the first place, I can give it away.  I can spend it for the benefit of others, and when my time is up, I can give it back to my Lord and say, “Here’s what I have done with your investment.”  I hope I do ok with it.

But the point is that I have given it back over to a trustworthy God – a master that Jesus says rewards good stewardship.  A master who does not leave His people to desolation but will carry them safely through all administrations of their enemies, and the last enemy is death.

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 20:14 (NRSV)

You see, during that long, dark night of my soul, God was taking something away from me and replacing it with Himself.

I can’t place my trust in my theological understanding of death.  I can’t place my trust in my reading of Scripture.  I can’t place my trust in my ability to figure death out in palatable ways.  I used to trust in all those things, but those are not reliable and proper objects of trust.

My object of trust has to be God Himself – the original Conceiver of my identity and the Recipient of it when I pass on.  The Locus and Shepherd of the birth of stars, the heat death of the universe, and me.

The removal of the enslavement of death is not to cling to a specific idea of exactly how things are going to shake out, but to cling to God and say to Him, “I don’t know how You’re going to pull this off, or what You’re going to do, or when.  I don’t know what you’re going to do with me.  But I trust You, so here You go.”

I have never been able to shake my belief in the resurrection of Jesus.  I’m not sure I can confidently say exactly what that looked like or exactly what happened.  We just have stories written well after the fact and the stories do not agree on various details.  But no matter how skeptical I get, I can’t shake the idea that this must have happened, as completely ridiculous as it sounds.  It’s not even a matter of what happened in history afterwards with Paul’s conversion and the spread of the Church, although that’s worthy of consideration.  It’s a simple, embedded in my bones faith commitment.

Friends who make fun of me for it are probably right to do so.  It’s ridiculous.  People do not come back to life, again; I know this, and so did everyone in the ancient world.

I believe this happened at least once.

But Jesus, you know, he was a trailblazer for the rest of us.  He didn’t have Paul’s argumentation.  He prayed in Gethsemane to be spared, and God did not respond.  He anguished over his impending death, and God did not make him feel better.  He did not fall back on prooftexts or arguments about the immortality of the soul.  He was confronted with his extermination and he did not want it to happen.

But at the end, without any kind of sign or assistance, he threw himself into God’s arms.

And just look what happened.

Happy Easter, everyone, from the most fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, King James-onlyist of you to the most materialistic, naturalistic, atheistic, disenchanted universe of you.

This God I’m talking about loves all of you.


Sunday Meditations: Holiness and Mission

This morning in worship, we sang a Matt Maher song.  I like Matt Maher, overall, and even burned myself a CD of Matt Maher songs for my commute.  But he does sometimes sling lyrics out there where I’m not sure what he means.

I have this experience fairly regularly with worship songs.  There’ll be a line in there (or a verse, or… the whole song) that has various keywords in it that sound good on the surface, but I’m unclear on what’s actually being communicated.  In some cases, I think this may be because the writer doesn’t actually mean anything in particular and is, in fact, stringing keywords together.

I don’t think this is the case, here, but here’s the bit that made me wonder:

Where sin runs deep Your grace is more
Where grace is found is where You are
Where You are, Lord, I am free
Holiness is Christ in me

– “Lord, I Need You” lyrics © Capitol Christian Music Group (emphasis mine)

Holiness is Christ in me.

I would have understood the line if it had said, “Righteousness is Christ in me.”  Not only would that be a nod to the general evangelical/Protestant doctrine of imputation, but virtually all Christians believe that the presence of Jesus in us by the power of the Spirit is something that guides us into right behaviors.  This verse of the song seems to be pointed in that direction: I have sin, God’s grace is greater, this has set me free from my sins, so I am holy.

But holiness is not about right behaviors, moral purity, etc.  That’s what righteousness is primarily about – how faithful are we to a standard?  When we behave rightly/faithfully, we are righteous; when we don’t, we are unrighteous.

At first, I wondered if maybe this was just a simple equivocation.  A rather lot of Christians use the word “holiness” to mean “morally correct behavior.”  There’s even a Holiness Movement in American church history that is entirely concerned with whether or not a person can stop sinning.

And that may be the case with this song; I don’t know and Matt Maher is unlikely to call me up and explain it to me.

But it might also be capturing something important to our identity and mission.

What is Holiness?

I once wrote about a tangle of terms that often get conflated with one another, and holiness was one of them.

I’m not going to retread all that ground, here, but the upshot is that holiness is the state of being especially set apart from everything else that might otherwise be just like you.

For instance, some consider the Jordan River to be a holy site, because it’s where Jesus was baptized (among other things).  A river does not behave morally or possess any moral attributes, nor is it physically any different than rivers in general.  However, the Jordan River is considered to be a special, sacred river.  And if you consider the Jordan River to be a special, sacred river, then it is a holy site.

You can extend this to just about anything else.  Holy sites.  Holy books.  Holy relics.  Holy artifacts.  Holy days.  There is nothing physically about the things themselves that are any different than other similar things.  We have set them apart as special.  They have a special purpose.

Sundays or Easter is a complete rotation of the Earth just like the day before and the day after.  The bread we use in the Lord’s Supper is not physically any different than the bread in our pantries.  But they are holy because we have set them apart to be special and use them for a purpose distinct from other things like them.  They are sacred.  And because of that, we deal with them differently.  If they were treated just the same as everything else, they wouldn’t be holy at all.

When we talk about God being holy, we are saying that He is not like anything else that could be described as a god.  As Paul says to the Corinthians, the world is full of gods and lords.  But God is of an order very different than the other powers to which one might give allegiance.  In Paul’s day, you had the Greco-Roman pantheon of deities and rulers that claimed to be divine or human-divine hybrids, but God was not like them.  He was special.  He was sacred.  He was holy.

What About Us?

When we talk about Christians being holy or cultivating the quality of holiness, we are talking about what makes us set apart.  What makes us different.  Certainly, behavior is a big part of this and is probably why it’s so easy to swap holiness and righteousness around.

But it’s important to note that holiness precedes the behavior.  Since we are holy, we behave in certain ways.  We are not holy because we behave in certain ways.

Consider our father Abraham.

God called Abraham out of all humanity to grow into a nation that would be special to God (and God would be special to them) and would bless the world.  He was set apart.  He was unlike everyone else at that moment.

But Abraham had done nothing remarkable, at least that we’re told about in the Scriptures.  God did not see that Abraham was special and then deal with him on that basis.  All we know is that God elected Abraham and, in doing so, Abraham was holy.

He was still a man just like any of us, but he had been set apart for special use by God.  He was not like everyone else and was not supposed to be like anyone else.  He was meant to be a holy patriarch of a holy family that would become a holy nation – a people distinct and set apart by God.

Many of the laws in the Torah reflect this holiness principle.  There’s not anything particularly immoral about mixing fabrics for your clothes or not wearing tassels on the hem of your robe.  These things are done to mark off the holiness of God’s people.  They are sacred, they are not like the other nations, and these things are symbols of that holiness.

In terms of being a people and a nation, they are not physically distinguishable from anything else.  In fact, God will point out through the prophets that there was nothing particularly great about Israel when He called her.  Yet, this calling made her holy.

We can see this trajectory progressively drop away as time goes on.

Israel wants a king so that she can be like the other nations, and God doesn’t approve.  It’s not that there’s something inherently immoral about having a king.  David was a king.  Jesus is a king.  It’s that the people began to want to run like everyone around them was running.  They wanted to be a “real” nation like everyone else, and all the other nations – many of whom were more powerful and prosperous – had kings.

As we watch the rise and fall of Israel’s prosperity, we see that this is intimately connected to how much they are like the other nations versus how unique they are.  They begin to worship the gods of the other nations and, as a corollary, take on their values and practices.  They ally with and combine their people with other nations for protection, rather than being devoted to God, maintaining their holiness, and trusting He will protect them.  Ultimately, the leadership ends up becoming despotic just like their neighbors, where the justice system becomes about how wealthy you are, the poor and the widow and the foreigner are oppressed, and the powerful use their positions to gain wealth and comfort for themselves at the expense of their people.

At that point, the nation had become just like everyone else.  Just another loaf of bread in the pantry or another rotation of the Earth on the calendar.  Nothing distinct about them at all, really.

Jesus’ mission could at least partially be described as the recovery of Israel’s holiness.

Jesus, like the prophets before, call Israel back to faith, back to devotion, back to true obedience to the key values the Torah contained, and away from a life of desperate dissolution that characterized everyone else in the Roman Empire.  He called them to trust God for their deliverance from oppressors.  In many ways, Jesus is calling them back to the project of being a special people in the world who would be special to God and through whom God would bless the world.

And as we move through the New Testament, we discover a mystery – God will accomplish this in history by grafting in the Gentiles who share the faith in Jesus that faithful Israel will have.

Now, Gentiles can be made holy.  Now, they can be set apart from the rest of the nations.  Now, they can be part of a community that looks different than all other power structures that surround them, in their ethics, their values, and even their composition that stretches across lines of race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

This is something that happens from the outward command of our Lord and the inward, Spiritual journey of our lives living him out into the world and among one another.  And in that sense, yes, I think we can probably say, “Holiness is Christ in me.”

Practical Application Time

I think it’s entirely valid and necessary for the Church to look at herself and the rest of the world and see how we compare, not in the sense of judging anyone, but in the sense of seeing whether or not we’re actually a unique people.  Do we look any different than the organizations and power structures around us?

There are some complicating factors to this question.

One factor is that I’m not sure how often or how well the Church is reminded of her identity and calling in the world.  This is a large burden I have for the Church, and as I’ve told others, if I all of a sudden became independently wealthy, I’d visit any church that would have me and tell them our story, how they connect with it, and what it means for who they are and what that looks like.

Not that my ideas on that are super amazing or anything, but just the act of talking about it and making it a big part of how we think about how we spend our resources, etc. would be really helpful, I think.

Often, the church is told that she is a collection of “saved” people, and her job is to get other people “saved” as well.  The impulse here isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s anemic and bereft of any kind of context, and you end up with what we’ve got – a large group of people who assent to doctrines who have prayed a special prayer that are otherwise indistinguishable from any other organization.

The other complicating factor is that we’ve been so unfocused on our holy calling and purpose that, at least in some cases, “the world” is doing better at some things that we should actually be leading.

We had the beginnings of an egalitarian community literally millennia ago.  Where did that go?  How did we end up with a world where evangelical Christianity is a large prop to the power and wealth of white men?

We used to heal the sick.  We used to forgive sins.  We used to sell all we had to care for the poor.  Love didn’t look like condemnation; it looked like self-sacrifice for someone’s welfare.  We used to say things like, “Even if I can speak the languages of men and angels, if I don’t have love, I’m just a noisy gong when I speak.”

We used to be scientists.

The complication is, of course, when we fail to be the things we’re supposed to be, and the things we’re supposed to be bless the world, then eventually humanitarian folks will step in to fill the gap with the tools at their disposal, and that’s pretty much what’s happened in many areas.  This has led to the bizarro-world backwards practice of labeling the activities that bless the nations as “conformity to the world” and “holiness” as doing none of that stuff.  In fact, we should be on our guard that we do not find ourselves consumed with issues like love, justice, and the healing of suffering and instead make sure we stay focused on… other stuff, I guess.  Getting people to pray the Get Out of Hell Free prayer and not watching R rated movies.

But regardless of how complicated and tangled up the situation has become, it’s not an excuse for inaction.  We can remind ourselves who we are and we can call ourselves to holiness.

Such did the prophets of old, and I would say we need those prophets back.

Sunday Meditations: What Are We Doing?

Last week was an interesting week in the world of Blogs I Read.

On the exact same day, Kirk Leavens asked the question, “Has Christianity outlived its usefulness?” and Andrew Perriman wrote, “If the Bible is history, what are we supposed to do?”  Andrew’s blog wasn’t written to answer Kirk’s question, but they have interesting and complementary thrusts.

Kirk points out that, as Christianity has lost the traction Christendom provided, he observes a certain increasing commitment to authoritarianism, tribalism, and defensiveness that isn’t doing anybody any good, but those are now our primary characteristics, especially as they latch on to things like nationalism/racism.  If these are our primary “contributions” to the world, why even bother existing when we’re just making everything worse for everyone?

This is an extremely valid question.  I can’t speak for other countries, but in the USA, this is a big issue, and our non-Christian friends have picked up on this with a vengeance.  Rightly so, they point out that you can tie Christian commitments to many negative social forces.  Granted, there may be a tendency to overlook or minimize the positive social forces, but as Christians, this should not be an acceptable state of affairs.  We want to offer more than, “We’re not any worse than anyone else on balance.”

Kirk points out that one of the contributing factors to this is a view of life and Christian mission that is entirely spiritual.  All this other stuff like righting wrongs, healing hurts, etc. are all nice things but not really what the Church should be all about (so the story goes).  In fact, some evangelical leaders worry that such works are a distraction from the actual work of the Church, which is to save souls.

I’ll give the “saving souls” mission credit: it’s easy to understand and applies all the time in all contexts.  It also has the side benefit of isolating us from the powerful forces of evil at work in the world.  If people are starving to death, racked with disease, or treated unfairly because of their skin color, those are all regrettable things, but we should focus on getting souls saved until God supernaturally fixes all of this one day.

However, I’ve come to question the origins of this “mission” and the weight it receives in the biblical story.

It’s a hard thing to analyze very objectively, because once you have this mission in your head, it’s easy to find it in the biblical text.  If you start out with the belief that Jesus’ primary concern is people going to Heaven when they die instead of Hell, you can find plenty of Scriptural infrastructure for that.  And, of course, when you share your faith with someone, this is the framework you pass on, so they come to the Bible with the same framework already in place.

But I’ve come to the conclusion (for now) that, although we do see things in the New Testament’s agenda like spiritual conversion and questions of what happens to the faithful who die, these are notes in a much larger symphony.

For the bulk of the New Testament, the focus is on what will become of God’s people at a time in history when it seems like all the promises have failed.  The children of Abraham worship under a corrupt Temple power structure.  They are dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and under pagan dominion.  Most live lives of terrific poverty while land that had once belonged to their families is now the property of some wealthy Senator or Sadducee.  Israel has little time to pay attention to her God because she’s trying to live under this order of things and has turned to the kinds of things we all turn to when life is hard and we feel abandoned.

And this situation doesn’t happen to them overnight – it’s been going on for some time by the time we get to the New Testament.

It’s into this situation that God determines to save His people from their condition and sends Jesus to do it.  The plan is to convince Israel to trust God again and repent of her current ways of life, restore Israel’s faith(fulness), and overthrow the powers that currently dominate her and replace them with the line of David.

This is the critical situation the New Testament addresses.  How is God going about this?  What are the ramifications?  What’s going to happen to us as a result?  How should we live?  What should we hope for?  How do we understand what’s happening to us when it doesn’t look like victory is on the horizon?

All the key elements the New Testament lays out – a coming judgement, repentance, salvation, Jesus’ death and resurrection and exaltation, the coming of the Spirit, the inclusion of Gentiles, the hope of the age to come – all of these are developments in the story I just described.  They are best understood in the context of the concrete situation of the people of God in the first century.

But you may have noticed that my list of questions up there is remarkably similar to questions we might have as Christians in the West – perhaps even more so now that the cultural (and political) dominance of Christianity is fading into the distance.

We find ourselves, once again, as a people who are losing our power and our cultural centrality and respect.  While there are some exceptional bright spots, many of our leaders embody the worst of us and want to take everyone else with them.  We are losing numbers, not growing to fill the world (granted, this trend is reversed in other parts of the world, but it remains to be seen if secularism will simply stop at national borders).  We, who are the children of Abraham’s faith, look around us and see that not only are we not growing to fill the world, but discouragingly, there are many who do not share our faith who are doing a much better job at blessing the nations than we are.

And maybe that’s what this is all about.  Maybe we’ve been poor stewards of the cultural dominance we used to have.  Maybe we could have used that position to perform great acts of love and justice for our fellow man that would have been a shining beacon that manifested the will of our Creator in the world, but instead we became oppressors.  And now that’s being taken away from us.

I don’t know.

But what I do know is that the situation addressed by the New Testament is extremely relevant to us these days, not all in the same concrete ways, but in principle if nothing else.  We’re on the fringes, now.  We’re the ones making our way through the world either by compromise with the values of power or by keeping our heads down under it.  We’re the ones becoming a minority.  We’re the ones being dominated by another world system.

And we have the same discouragement.  And the same questions.

And this is where Andrew’s list is so helpful.  He may have left out some things you think should be on there, or maybe you would have stated something differently, but he took our present situation and place in the story and asked what it meant to be the people of God at this time in history and came up with, what I think, is a pretty good list worthy of meditation and discussion.

Maybe it’s time for us to repent of what our forefathers did with their power when they had it.  Maybe we’re supposed to lose it, at least for a time, for our own good and the good of the rest of the world.  Maybe the active ethics we see in our counterparts of other religions (and no religion at all) are meant to challenge us – to remind us of what we could have been and what we might yet be.  Maybe all these things around us are a catalyst for a reformation where our hearts turn back to God and we embrace, again, our calling in the world, which is not to be right or be powerful or win but to be a blessing to the nations.

I’m discouraged, too.  But I’m excited.

Sunday Meditations: The Bible and the Myth of Julius Caesar

Every so often, when I talk about the hurdles to understanding the Bible, I refer to the plays of William Shakespeare.

The reason for this is that we all acknowledge that, when it comes to Shakespeare, we usually need a little help.  Yes, someone can read Shakespeare’s plays without knowing anything about Shakespeare or the plays and get benefit from them, maybe even insight.  But we all agree that, if you really want to get the most out of a Shakespearean play, we usually need a little help understanding what’s going on.

Why is this?  Because the language is from the sixteenth century, which makes it a challenge even for English speakers.  Also, we are unfamiliar with many of the idioms, jokes, and references of the time.  We’re unfamiliar with the historical circumstances.  We may be unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s sources.  There are these large, contextual gaps between us and Shakespeare, and we’re talking about documents written four hundred years ago in English by an English man.

We all realize how much help we need to really get something out of Shakespeare’s plays, and yet we think an English translation of a collection of Hebrew and Greek documents written in the Near East 2000 – 2500 years ago is instantly intelligible to anyone who picks it up.

There are other ways the analogy of Shakespearean plays can help us understand the Bible, and one of these is the play “Julius Caesar.”

First of all, Shakespeare is not making all of this up, but he also was not present for the events he writes about.  He’s working from a source – Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (which is also working from sources).  While some of the biblical writings were written by people who were present for the events they describe, many were not.  The authors worked from stories, traditions, and other writings.

Second, Shakespeare does not stay strictly with the source material.  He dramatizes conversations.  He changes some details for effect.  He combines two Battles of Philippi into one.  He changes locations (once to avoid having to create another set).  He does these things because his goal is not to present a raw sequence of events as we might see them on videotape of what happened to Julius Caesar.  His goal is to produce a play.  It’s a story that is meant to communicate themes that Shakespeare wants the audience to encounter.

So, we do not accuse Shakespeare of fraud, here, or all the material in the play of being something he just made up.  It was never Shakespeare’s intent to produce a bio-pic.  Julius Caesar was a real person and the events in the play are essentially what happened to him, but there’s a degree of license taken with “the facts” for the purposes of communication.

Third, and this is the main point of this post, is that what Shakespeare has done is presented us with a myth.

I don’t mean “myth” in the careless sense we sometimes use it to mean “something wholly untrue.”  Disturbingly, we typically contrast “myth” and “fact,” where myth is a pervasive story or belief that is untrue versus fact which is what’s real.

I mean “myth” much closer to its ancient sense, which is a story that is more concerned with communicating a true meaning than reporting true facts.

In “Julius Caesar,” we are given insight into a much larger struggle in both the characters of Caesar and Brutus.

On the one hand, we have Caesar who has defeated the sons of Pompey.  Flush with victory over his political and military rival, he hungers for the crown of Rome, but even moreso, he hungers for the approval of the people and is enraged to discover they do not want him as their ruler.

On the other hand, we have Brutus, who could arguably be the main character.  Brutus is Caesar’s friend, but he fears Caesar may abuse his power, and the other conspirators (who are killing Caesar for financial and political gain) use this to lure him into the conspiracy.  He struggles powerfully between feelings of duty, love, patriotism, and loyalty.

Looming over all is the spectre of chaos as Rome’s leadership descends into a cauldron of violence and squabbling.

Shakespeare is not interested in creating a chronicle of the details of Caesar’s assassination.  Shakespeare wants the audience to experience what all this means.  By focusing on that level, by crafting a true myth of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare pulls his audience into the event.  We may not have been there for the assassination, but we very well may have observed these same powerful forces at work in our own leaders, or perhaps they have been at work in our own heart, and thus the play becomes both something we can identify with and a warning for us if we do not untangle these knots in our own situation.  The play becomes both powerful and useful for the people who read it, not just a presentation of facts.

And it is not unlikely that Shakespeare was thinking of England at exactly that time as an aging Queen Elizabeth had refused to name someone to take the crown.  Perhaps it is not just an accident of budget that Caesar is wearing an Elizabethan doublet in the play and not a toga.

It is not in spite of, but precisely because, Shakespeare has given us a myth of Julius Caesar that the play can continue to speak to our hearts and be useful to us as we contemplate ourselves and our leaders, today.  Yes, we have to reframe the meanings for our context.  The leaders of America are not Roman Caesars (right?) or English queens.  Their allies are not people who have received forged letters from Senators inspiring them to conspiracy (uh, right again?).  But what happened to Caesar as Shakespeare presents it to us can be used to understand and perhaps be of some help in our present situation, and this is the power of operating at the mythological level.

Perhaps the power of Scripture is lessened if we strip everything out to get at the “real history” behind it, as interesting as that might be to historical studies.  But perhaps the power of Scripture is also lessened if we treat it as though it is a factually perfect history book interested primarily in factual news reporting.

Perhaps the power of Scripture to pull us into its world, speak to our hearts, and provide us usefulness in our present situation and for generations to come, lay in its character as myth.

A true myth.

Sunday Meditations: Unbelievable

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read two books that share a title.  Each of these books was written by Christians, but they approach the subject in very different ways.

The first book is Unbelievable? by Justin Brierley, bearing the subtitle: Why after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian.  The second is Unbelievable by Bishop John Shelby Spong, with a slightly different tack for the subtitle: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today.

You can tell the influence of the Puritans on American theology by the fact that you have to cram your book’s entire thesis into the subtitle.

Justin Brierley is a brother in the UK who, for ten years, has been running a radio show (also called “Unbelievable?”) that pairs Christians and atheists to discuss various topics.  Not every show features a big, famous name, but whatever names you might recognize from Christian theologians and apologists or notable atheist authors and speakers that have produced works about Christianity, they have probably ended up on the show at some point.  (For you young folks out there, a radio is a device that detects audio transmitted via “radio waves” that are broadcast from large antennae.  Your “radio” device picks up these waves and translates them back into sound.)

I have to say, I love this project, and it’s available via podcast for those of you who don’t live in the UK and/or have no concept of what a radio is or how you might get hold of one.

One of my friends who is an atheist of the New variety used to hold a small gathering at his house that was very similar – a small group of Christians and a small group of atheists would assemble on his patio to talk about stuff.  It wasn’t topically structured or anything, but the conversations were still good and generally congenial.  So, I had a lot of warmth in my heart for Justin’s stories about his experiences facilitating these kinds of things in radio.  Honestly, if more thoughtful, kind Christians just spent time chatting with thoughtful, kind atheists, I think both parties would end up with a lot more thoughtful, kind regard for one another and their positions, and the world would be a better place.

The book is organized by topic: God, Jesus, Original Sin, Miracles, Resurrection, etc.  Each topic has some stories about how this topic played out in discussions on the radio show.  They also describe the points that have been most meaningful to Justin on that topic as well as the more common objections raised to those points and how Justin has thought through those.

I’m not sure this book would be an onslaught of unanswerable points for anyone, and the author says as much.  People who are looking for books to buy their atheist friends to convince them (BTW: If this is you, we need to talk about what you’re hoping to accomplish and why you think buying books is the way to do it.) may not find this to be the book.  I think about this book more along the lines of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  It’s more of a thoughtful, armchair articulation of the Christian view of various things in a defensible, thought-provoking way, but not with the rigor of thoroughgoing argumentation.

Personally, I enjoyed the stories about the radio show.  The author has a lot of warmth for both the atheist and Christian guests he’s talked with over the years, and you can tell he’s not gone unchanged from the conversations.  The book was inspirational to me on that point.  It affirmed what my own experience has borne out, that a lot of good conversation can happen within the context of mutual respect and people who believe walking away on friendly terms may be more important than rhetorically destroying the other person.  After all, Christians and atheists have to share a planet, and Christians in particular have a biblical mandate to be at peace with everyone and supply their reasons for hope with gentleness and respect.  Wouldn’t it be great if people could disagree and honestly and passionately express themselves without letting their brains treat the discussion as a threat to their survival?

It was also interesting to me some of the theological positions the author put forward, which I believe may have been influenced by his dialogues with atheists.  For example, he does not have a literal understanding of the early chapters of Genesis and, although he does not explicitly state this, seems to be operating from an evolutionary understanding of the development of life.  He obviously holds to a Big Bang view of beginnings and has some interesting things to say about how it was originally a theistic argument and was labelled the “Big Bang” by atheist detractors.  He does explicitly express that he is an annihilationist, and I appreciated this because – mostly due to getting more in touch with the first century world and early Jewish theology – I’m in that neighborhood, myself.

If you’re a Christian and you enjoy books like Mere Christianity, I think you’d enjoy this book as well.  Frankly, I think it’s worth a read if it helps Christians be more respectful and thoughtful about atheists and atheism.  If you’re an atheist, you might enjoy the book as well on similar grounds, and maybe Justin will point out a thing or two you haven’t run across, before, but again, this is not really a rigorous defense of Christianity.  You might find interesting the stories he tells of people who were atheists who found reasons to convert.

Bishop Spong’s book is organized very similarly to Bierley’s book – the chapters are topical and based on fundamental points of Christian doctrine.  In contrast to Bierley, Spong argues that each of these points simply are no longer viable for contemporary Christians to actually believe and, therefore, must be reformulated into more believable versions.

I was actually excited for this project.  People who know me or who have read this blog for a long time know that I’m not really a fan of most evangelical theological beliefs and formulations, although mostly on exegetical grounds.  I also have an avid interest in how Christians should act and speak in an increasingly secular West that actually does good, helps people, and is intelligible and winsome in that world.  I think that Spong is correct that the Church cannot simply state sixteenth century dogma in a world where empiricism and the scientific method have shown us so much truth about our world and has made at least a very highly-literalized way of understanding the Bible somewhat untenable.

But although I was warm to the project, I was fairly unimpressed with the execution.

Spong generally begins each section with the reasons a given Christian point of doctrine (again, organized into things like God, Jesus, the Virgin Birth, etc.) is “unbelievable” in its traditional form.

There is good information in there, and I don’t want to give the impression that everything about it is poorly thought through.  In fact, much of it is worthy of Christians who are trying to be intellectually honest to grapple with.  However, he also does two things that make me crazy when critiquing traditional Christian thought.

One is knowing enough history to make a criticism but not enough to get it right.  You only need to check out the plethora of New Atheist memes to see this phenomenon in action.  Jesus is a recycling of the Horus (or Baldur or Mithras or Ra) legends.  Jesus is a “dying and rising god” of which there are many.  Romans kept meticulous records and we don’t have a record of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Christians destroyed the library at Alexandria.  The Church killed cats in Europe and that contributed to the spread of the Plague.  And on and on.  All common critiques, all wrong.  That’s not to say Christianity doesn’t have its historically critique-able episodes – it absolutely does – but in the zeal to critique it, it’s easy to get the history wrong and subscribe to either a very shallow account of events or total fabrications.

For Spong’s part, especially given the thesis of the book, he depends some on the Conflict Thesis – the idea that the Church and science have historically been at odds with Christianity using its cultural and political power to actively suppress science until recently.  This is so wrong that atheists are calling out other atheists on it (as well they should, just as Christians interested in speaking the truth should call out other Christians when we misrepresent history and not leave it up to the atheists to do that job for us).  But it’s this sort of surface-y understanding of history that gets used at times to present why Christian doctrines are suspect.

The second thing that makes me crazy is closely related, and that’s being uncritical about critique.  If it calls a traditional understanding of a Christian doctrine into question, Spong will cite it as absolute truth.  Christianity does not get the benefit of a doubt, and the sources of the criticism do not get subjected to the same scrutiny.  This cropped up a number of times where “biblical scholarship” allegedly undid the viability of a doctrine, but that scholarship itself was highly debatable.

Another area where this happened was his marshaling of Judaism.  I am all about bringing the Jewish understanding of things to how we understand the Scriptures.  Spong has long had an active collaboration with the Jewish community, and I have no doubt he knows more about contemporary Jewish theology than I do.  However, he will tend to cite a contemporary (and usually more progressive) Jewish view on something as if that is how an author or original reader of Scripture would have understood that same concept, and then use that to demonstrate that our traditional readings are incorrect – as if the views of the rabbis that he knows were the views of an Old Testament writer or Second Temple Judaism.

For instance, Spong talks about how Jesus’ death shouldn’t be understood as an atonement for sin because Judaism did not understand sacrifice as an atonement for sin, but rather an offering to God of our full potential as human beings.  From my own readings of early rabbinical writings, I feel fairly confident this was not at all an early Jewish understanding of sacrifice.  It may very well be a strain of contemporary Jewish thought on the meaning of Old Testament sacrifices, but it would be inaccurate to take that contemporary Jewish theological outlook, project it back into the first century or beyond, and go, “See?  We’ve never understood this correctly.”

Not everything in the book suffers from those criticisms, but they are thoroughly marbled in with the material that does not.  So, you have to be sort of discerning when going through the critical portions of the book, and my fear is that people who perhaps do not know history, biblical scholarship, or the progression of Jewish theology very deeply will simply take his word for it and consider the state of Christian belief to be very dire, indeed, not realizing that a fair amount of the critique is suspect.

Then, each chapter moves on to Spong’s recommendations for the reformulation of the doctrine under examination.  This was at the same time the most thought-provoking part of the book as well as the least compelling.

For instance, Spong offers that we should stop thinking of God in traditionally theistic terms – an omniscient, omnipotent person – and instead think of God as the ground of existence, itself.  In other words, God is existence.  God is being.  When we look at a lion or a rock or another person, we should see God there because those things exist and that principle of being is God.

To some of you, that may sound silly, but not to me.  The fact is that anything existing at all is highly improbable, and yet, here we are.  There have been many religions and philosophies that have posited that God to some degree or another is embodied in the physical universe that exists.  It builds our respect for all created things and underscores our connection with them.  Further, by relieving God of actual personhood, we’ve just crossed off some of the greatest objections to the existence of God like the problem of evil.  Why does God allow suffering?  God doesn’t allow or disallow anything, because God is the ground of all that exists, not a being interacting with it.

Furthermore, this way of defining God makes sense to a secular West currently in a love affair with positivistic empiricism.  How do I know God exists?  Well, you exist, right?  Things exist, right?  There you go.  God is the fact of that existence.

And, honestly, I’m very sympathetic to thinking of that as an aspect of God.  All our understandings of God are analogies, anyway, and a lot of trouble comes from a concept of a God who is basically just like us except all-powerful, all-knowing, and gooder.

But to exhaustively define God this way seems to carry its own problems, not the least of which being that… there’s no particular reason to define God this way other than personal preference.  And this is my basic problem with most of Spong’s recommendations.  There’s nothing to recommend those recommendations except for the fact that Spong came up with them and they are more amenable to a secular worldview.

Virtually all the world’s religions testify to a concept of the divine that somehow has knowledge of the world and interacts with it in some way, even if it’s just thoughtful regard.  And these testimonies continue.  If Spong is correct, then I have to write off all that testimony as not just flawed or limited but actually completely fictional – every last account.  I’m not even just talking about the Bible, here, although obviously the Bible becomes completely incomprehensible if we think of the God who appears in those stories as the bare fact of existence.  At that point, I’m not exactly sure what value there is in even positing this as God at all.  Why not just say, “Isn’t it amazing that anything exists?  Existence is great, and I feel a strong kinship with everything that shares existence with me?”  That would make you a fine person who probably did many ethical and caring things for your fellow man and also an atheist – atheism, by the way, also circumvents many of the philosophical problems with God’s existence.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re going to redefine Christianity solely in terms that are amenable to a materialistic way of understanding the universe, and that redefinition is just coming from your own preferences, anyway, what are you getting out of that enterprise?  The dedication to Jesus’ social message?  You can do that, anyway.  The ability to claim that you’re a Christian and Christianity is now demonstrably correct?  I guess I just don’t care enough about claiming victory for that to be worthwhile.

So, anyway, I’m not sure what audience I’d recommend Spong’s book to.  Atheists will read it and go, “Well, yes, this is all stuff I agree with.  Not sure why I need to tie it to Christian categories,” and Christians will read it and either wonder similar things or, if they buy into the project, construct a Christianity that – at least to me – doesn’t seem to have a reason to be.  You can be a principled, caring atheist full of wonder at the universe and even acknowledge that there are mysterious aspects of human experience; there’s no need to dress materialism up as Christianity so you can continue to maintain that you’re a Christian.  I mean, why would you do that?

And that may be my failure as a reader.  Obviously, Spong is a smart man and a spiritual man and has his reasons, and the fact that I cannot divine them (no pun intended) may be an indication of my own prejudices.  I did enjoy the challenging ways of thinking about these topics and even found some thought-provoking points that made me think I ought to incorporate some of those insights into my own thoughts about these topics, but I didn’t find the overall mission of the book to be a compelling solution to the problem it was trying to solve.

Anyway, two books that both confronted the idea that Christian belief has become unbelievable in the contemporary world and took very different paths as a result.  Surprisingly, to myself, I found myself more impressed with the evangelical apologist.

Sunday Meditations: What to Do with Bible Knowledge

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I’d been thinking about our/my overestimation of the value of knowledge about the Bible and its contents.  Knowledge about the Bible’s contents, its historical context, the languages, exegesis, hermeneutics – these things are just not the big deal we tend to make them in the West.  There are several things the Bible itself holds up as more valuable than knowledge and even has its fair share of warnings that knowledge carries a serious – nearly inevitable – danger of producing pride.  Yes, pride: a top-tier sin in its own right that gives birth to innumerable others.

This has been an uncomfortable phase of my journey because I have a lot of identity, self-worth, and ego wrapped up in knowing and teaching stuff about the Bible.  For most of my life, it’s the main asset I’ve had to offer the church.  When I’d read Paul’s analogy of the church as a body, I’d think of myself as an eye or an ear, and I’d take care to make sure I wasn’t devaluing some “elbow” or “spleen” gift like encouragement or helping.

Well, joke’s on me.  Turns out that Paul doesn’t stop thanking saints who were an encouragement or helpers, but he never includes in his letters, “And give my thanks to Argus, who shared so many insightful facts about the Old Testament to so many of you.”  And if declaratory gifts are your thing, Paul holds out prophecy as a high gift to desire.

It turns out that doing the works the Father is doing is more important than knowing things about what the Father has done.

So, I’ve been thinking through this a lot, because knowing the Scriptures and being able to communicate that knowledge to others has value.  It may not be the peak of the mountain we’ve sometimes made it out to be, but it’s still part of helping the Church accomplish her mission.

This meditation is not about the value of personal Bible study or sermons; that’s a different topic.  Rather, I want to explore what it means for someone to be gifted in the study and teaching of the Bible and what benefits they can bring to the Church with that gift.

I should say at the outset that, like pretty much all of the Sunday Meditations (and probably everything on this blog), this is just me working through this issue.  I hope it’s useful to you.  You can probably think of things that I haven’t or even better things than I have, and I hope so.  If you know how to get in touch with me, I’d like to hear them and learn from you.

Making the Bible Strange Again

You know how easy it is to “peg” someone, right?

Let’s say you have a co-worker at your job as a bank teller – we’ll call him Joe (sorry, Joe).  You’ve worked in the booth next to Joe for a year, now, and the thing that stands out the most to you about Joe is that he has no patience with customers who aren’t ready to be helped.  If they have to fumble around to find their checkbook (people still use their checkbooks for things, right?  I feel like I’m losing control of this analogy) or don’t have their account number and ID ready when they get to his booth, he becomes very curt and snappy with them until they leave.  That’s Joe – the guy who get’s all crabby with people who delay him.

Because Joe is the “crabby with slow customers” guy, that framework you have in place for perceiving Joe makes it almost impossible for him not to be that guy.  Every time he’s crabby with a slow customer, you chalk that up as evidence that Joe is who you thought he was.  Every time he just deals normally with a slow customer, you won’t even see it.  It doesn’t register on your radar because it doesn’t get caught in your framework.  Maybe Joe is only crabby with 60% of slow customers.  Or 40%.  Or 10%!  But every instance where he is consistent with your expectations reinforces those expectations, and every instance where he is not tends to be dismissed.

If you are a Christian in the West, chances are you “knew” what the Bible “said” before you’d even read any of it.  If you grew up in the faith, then you were passed down child-sized stories and teachings (maybe even with Flannelgraph).  If you converted later in life, someone probably explained the Bible’s message to you.  In both cases, you were probably exposed to actual Scripture, but you weren’t exposed to it outside of someone’s summary of its teachings, which they passed along to you.  You had it pegged.

When you already know what the Bible says, it’s incredibly difficult to hear it.  Things that fit the framework add to it, strengthen it, and flesh out the details, but things that don’t fit the framework tend to slide on by.

Note, I’m not talking about having the “right” framework.  The issue of our interpretations being corrected is a different issue than what I’m talking about.  What I’m talking about is the ability to even hear something the Scriptures have to say because our existing familiarity with the Scriptures screens out the other stuff as irrelevant.

Take, for example, the book of Romans and the infamous Romans Road to Salvation.  You may notice that the Romans Road leaves out a passage or two from the book of Romans.  In fact, it leaves out virtually all of the book of Romans, instead constructing a theology from a half dozen verses.

Granted, part of this is due to the time constraints envisioned by someone sharing the gospel.  But I would also offer that part of this is that the vast majority of the book of Romans is irrelevant to a narrative about individual sin and reconciliation with God.  It’s not that those things aren’t in there, but saying the book of Romans is about how an individual gets right with God is like saying a symphony orchestra is about the woodwinds.  But, if you know what Romans is “about,” then Paul’s comments about Jews and Gentiles are just not relevant to anything really meaningful, and the examples involving Abraham are kind of weird, and so on.

I believe that Christians today have a hard time truly hearing God speak through the Scriptures because they already know what He has to say to them.  The Scriptures are familiar.  We don’t even have to crack a Bible open to tell you the gist.

People who know the Bible in-depth, though, know that this collection of writings is complex and strange.  Such people are in a position to shake up the pre-existing narrative – not for the purposes of destruction or looking smart, but for the purpose of helping people read with fresh eyes and listen with fresh ears.  You are in a position to gently, lovingly, cause people to second guess.  There are even new translations of the Bible that are being specifically written to use uncommon words and turns of phrase to provoke people into engaging the reading instead of being on autopilot.

Maybe they don’t know what the Bible is saying, here, or at least shouldn’t assume that.  Maybe the Greek doesn’t lend itself well to the standard way of reading a text.  Maybe the historical circumstances around a text make it unlikely an author is talking about what we see when we read it.  Maybe this obscure, weird little passage actually throws the whole chapter into a different light.  When you take away the safety of the familiar (again, slowly with love and gentleness), people have to reengage these Scriptures and are actually in a position to hear them.  It generally takes someone with a good degree of Bible knowledge to facilitate this.

Making the Bible Familiar Again

Being a Jew in the first century was no guarantee that you’d understand Jesus.  We sometimes talk about knowledge of Second Temple Judaism as if it’s the Rosetta Stone for finally understanding Jesus rightly.  But the narratives of the Gospels and Acts demonstrate for us that this is not the case.  A listener had to approach Jesus in humble faith, and God would open their eyes and ears to understand.  A fisherman might understand a great mystery about Jesus that eluded the Torah scholars of the day.

At the same time, it can’t be stressed enough how much foundational influence the historical context of a writing has on its contents.  Jesus’ disciples spoke the same language, traveled together through the same towns, attended the same religious services, had the same day to day elements of life, lived under the same government, experienced the same newsworthy events, small talked about the same circumstantial and environmental kinds of things that we talk about with our co-workers, and generally shared all the same foundations for communication and understanding.

We, as an audience, are very distant from all of those things, but all those things form the basis for understanding the way people of a time talked to each other.

Consider the plays of William Shakespeare.  When the audiences of his time saw his plays, they understood the turns of phrase.  They understood the people and things he was parodying.  While there may have been some wit or some particularly poetic expression that a common audience might have trouble with, everyone who saw one of Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t have trouble for the most part knowing what was being said and what was going on.  Why?  Because that was the way they also talked.  The people and institutions Shakespeare parodied were people and institutions they were familiar with.  His way of communicating via drama was conditioned by and for 16th-17th century England.

By contrast, we often have trouble understanding Shakespeare’s plays without any help.  If you just grabbed some random people and took them to see “Hamlet,” they might pick up the gist, but a lot of the communication would pass them by.  The language seems arcane to us.  The historical people and places back of Shakespeare’s critiques are not part of our day to day world.  It would be like people in the year 2500 watching a “Saturday Night Live” skit about Sean Spicer; what meaning would such a thing have to them without any explanation?

Shakespeare’s plays are documents that were produced only four hundred years ago by an Englishman for England.  I’m an American, and Americans, today, still need a lot of help understanding those texts.  How much more so, then, do we need help understanding documents produced in the Near East millennia ago?  How is it that Shakespeare or Sartre or Freud are difficult texts to work with, but the Bible is a straightfoward, simple collection of documents that can be understood just like reading the newspaper?

People with Bible knowledge can help bridge this communication gap.  It doesn’t mean we can dictate that communication, but it does mean we can help communication be possible.

For example, in the first act of “Hamlet,” two guards meet each other.  One of them challenges, “Who’s there?” and the other responds, “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.”

If you didn’t know anything about older versions of English or Shakespeare’s world, the second guard’s response probably seems very weird.  He makes the same sound a horse makes, and then he tells the other guard to “unfold” himself like a contortionist.  If that’s all I had to go on, I’d probably come up with a very unique interpretation of that line.

But someone who was more familiar with the forms of communication in Shakespeare’s day could explain that “Nay” means “no” and “unfold yourself” was a phrase meaning “reveal yourself.”  She might also explain that guards did not have walkie-talkies or IDs, so if visibility were poor, this sort of situation might easily take place where two guards did not recognize each other at first and had to figure out if there was a threat.  And, sure enough, subsequent lines of text show that it’s late at night.

Now, that information does not dictate to me all the things I might glean out of that passage, but now communication is possible.  Now I know what I need to know to be able to read those lines closer to the original audience and get a better grasp on what Shakespeare was trying to do, there.

I think Bible scholars are in a position to help the Church come further across that bridge.  It’s not the same thing as telling someone what they can and can’t get out of a passage, and it’s not the same thing as telling someone their view is wrong, but it clarifies important contextual information and clues that can help an ancient passage communicate to us – information that is available through knowledge of the time.  This is an obstacle the earliest believing communities only had to leap for Old Testament writings, and even then, they still had some cultural continuity with the original authors.  We have to leap it for everything, and depending on who you are, you may have exactly zero cultural continuity with the original authors.

Bible scholars can help light the path for us.  We still have to walk it ourselves and make it our own journey, and we may even decide to hack our way through some bushes instead of going down the paved road, but the illumination is helpful.

Bringing Knowledge of the Way

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)


“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.

Matthew 13:51-53 (NRSV)


Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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 3:10-17 (NRSV)

I love that Nehemiah 8 passage.  For all the times I’ve seen “the joy of the Lord is your strength,” quoted, I’ve never seen it quoted in reference to the grief or fear one feels when they realize how far short they fall of God’s requirements, which is exactly what happens in the original context.

Nehemiah and Ezra are helping Israel understand the Law.  As a result, the Israelites are grieved at how disobedient they’ve been.  These Torah scholars tell these people, in essence, “Hey, what are you upset about?  Now you understand how to live in a way that pleases God!  This is a day of celebration!”  These scholars help the people understand, not just the content of the Scriptures, but also give them some healthy perspective.  The people had interpreted the Law as simply pointing out how terrible they were, but Nehemiah and Ezra helped them see that this information was actually a reason to rejoice in what their lives could look like going forward instead of wallowing in the past.

The Scriptures say of themselves that they are useful for teaching and reproof and correction and training in righteousness for the end purpose that all the people of God would have what they need to do good works.  In 2 Timothy, Timothy is the guy facilitating that.

Timothy is supposed to know and understand information about what Jesus has done so that he might guide his congregation into a proper way of life – a way of life that is defined and incarnated by Jesus our King.

On the one hand, Paul is very clear that the Spirit is who gets us where we need to go, ethically.  This is the crux of Paul’s message to the Galatians – why would you turn to the Torah to keep its obligations that will only curse you when you have the Spirit who will lead you in the ways of the life of the ages to come?

On the other hand, Paul knows by practical experience that the Spirit doesn’t force someone into right behavior, and for all kinds of reasons, people will still pursue a way of life suited to their fleshly desires and even construct doctrine to help them do it.

People need the freedom to be led by the Spirit, but they also need help in being brought back to center when they start pursuing the paths of their desires and ego, and being brought back to center is really about bring them back to Jesus – the living Word.  The Scriptures are a way to do this.

Does this mean Bible teaching is only about ethics?  Well, no.  If all of this was about the list of things we should do and the list of things we should avoid, that could have probably been done in a single writing.  No, the biblical writings bring us the story of God’s relationship with His people through history, and this story is a fully-orbed, incarnate story that describes the creation and re-creation of worlds and worlds within worlds in which Jesus is a watershed moment.  We don’t just figure out what we’re supposed to do, but we learn things about who God is and what His intentions are for the world and how we fit into that.  We learn about what values are important, what our thoughts should be, the disposition of our heart, and, yes, our practice and how all of that is derived from and pointing to what God Himself is doing, displayed for us in widescreen surround-sound by Jesus Christ.

But the sticking point is that the goal of all this is not to possess and affirm correct information.  Demons possess and affirm correct information.  The goal of this information is to be useful in producing a people that God wants who is instrumental in bringing about the state of affairs that God wants – to wit, a divine and earthly family where the true God is known by all and our unity and love with one another is a reflection of the unity and love we enjoy with the Father.

This is action.  This is being.  You do not love if you are not doing loving things.  The knowledge we acquire equips us for the purpose of doing the Father’s work in the world.  There is a connection between knowing rightly and acting rightly, but the knowledge is in service to producing a people who are what God wants doing the things God wants done.

This knowledge that equips comes from our special stories of the past.  Historically, the things that the Bible describes are, for the most part, events that have long gone by.  But they are revelatory of the things we need to know and they form a trajectory that keeps us moving in the right direction – ultimately a trajectory that leads us to and is defined by Jesus Christ, who should be the point of exaltation of any spiritual pronouncement.

This is, perhaps, what it means for a scribe trained for the kingdom to bring new treasures out of old.  Not that we are to slavishly confine ourselves to what has gone before in every jot and tittle, but that we use that knowledge to understand who we are, how we got here, and where we need to be going.  The Scriptures should not blind us to what God is doing in our day, but rather help us understand it and take part in it.  They should help us understand our world.  Their events should become our events, and we should find ourselves in those stories even as we bring those stories forward into our present circumstances.

This sort of thing, I think, is a noble and valuable goal for those who have been gifted with knowledge of the Bible.

Sunday Meditations: On Interpretation and Being Smart in General

Imagine with me an elderly widow of a Christian congregation.  Every morning, she meets with other widows for a cup of tea and prayer over the sufferings of the people they know and shared by others in the world.  She volunteers on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to help take care of children at an orphanage.  Although she lives in a small apartment, she invites students over on holidays who have nowhere else to go and cooks a meal for them.  She has a small sofa that folds out into a bed that she frequently offers to people who need a place to stay due to some traumatic experience, and that bed has held everyone from foster children needing short-term care to visiting preachers to families evicted from their apartments.

She has never gotten any awards for any of this.  Her name has never been announced from the pulpit, nor does it appear as the head of any committees or in the bulletin or newsletter, anywhere.  She just quietly serves with what she has.

Now, imagine that same woman being lectured in Sunday School by a young man about how grossly she has misinterpreted a Bible verse about “humility.”

As ironic as such a thing sounds, that scene and scenes very much like it play out in churches all over America.  I have no doubt that, especially in my youth, I have taken center stage in such scenes.

The irony is, of course, that this woman understands humility.  She literally embodies it.  She gives humility skin and bones.  She is a walking sermon in humility and her life is a program of instruction – an intensive series of courses on walking humbly.  The young man who “knows the Bible” needs to learn from her what humility means.  Whatever skill or knowledge he might possess in exegesis or the context of texts has done nothing but make him proud and blind to the fact that, for all the hours he spent on the Greek morphology of the text, he might have invested in a friendship with this widow and learned more of godliness than he ever could have in his own reading – godliness that is etched on that lady’s bones.

One of the more uncomfortable realizations I have had over the last few years is how little value “Bible knowledge” has both to me as an individual and in the consistent life and witness of the Church.  That is not to say such knowledge is not valuable, but rather that its actual value is often far out of proportion to the value we place on it in the American church.

This realization is very uncomfortable for me because it’s one of the few aspects of faith that I’m any good at and largely defines what I have to offer a body of believers.  It’s very uncomfortable to sign up for the pot luck with grand thoughts of dishes that will make everyone “ooh” and “aah” and then realize that you’re the one bringing the bags of ice.  Yes, everyone can use the ice, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the centerpiece you thought it was.  And, funny thing, if you failed to bring the ice, somehow people would still benefit from the host who was providing the water.

On the way to worship this morning, it occurred to me that I may possess the least of all spiritual gifts – the spiritual gift of knowing stuff.  If you read the New Testament for any length of time, you will discover that the spiritual gift of knowing stuff is not held in very high regard – at least the type of knowing stuff that comes from study and intellectual rigor.

The New Testament is not against study or intellectual rigor and, in fact, illustrates the place for this among the Church.  We might think of Paul, for instance, and his knowledge of the Old Testament, the Greek classics, plays, politics, and philosophy – and how his ability to be conversant in those topics helped him address different audiences, be conversant with various groups, and open up the Old Testament for those who were struggling to reconcile it with what was happening in those first decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But however useful these things were to Paul, they were not why God called him to be an apostle.

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

1 Timothy 1:12-17 (NRSV)

Paul wasn’t called to service because of his education (although God used that); he was called to service because he was initially a terrible person.  The terriblest, to hear him tell it.  The fact that he received mercy and not judgement from the Christ he persecuted was intended to be an example to everyone.

And when you think about Paul’s persuasive power in the early church, or even to this day, what do you think of – some particularly clever argument or insight into an Old Testament passage?  Or the fact that someone who thought they were on a mission from God when he imprisoned and killed those early Christians ultimately poured out his life so that Christianity might grow and flourish?  Which one of those things indicates that Paul had an encounter with the risen Lord?  Which one of those things testifies most powerfully that Jesus is alive and is the Lord?  Paul’s insightful teachings or his life?

Paul, well-educated rhetorician that he is, also offers us this little gem in the midst of a practical and theological controversy about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols:

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

1 Corinthians 8:1b-3 (NRSV)

And this is easily the most intellectual of Jesus’ followers we read about in the New Testament.  Apollos is probably in there, too, and he almost managed to cause a church split because he was so brilliant.  Maybe bringing up the end of the “educated” pack is Matthew, a tax collector, who was making money off the oppression of his own people.  Most of Jesus’ disciples were uneducated peasants who couldn’t read the Old Testament if you glued it to their faces.

But Paul’s education and sharp mind were used in the Church, as were Apollos’ and Matthew’s (probably)!  As you say, but it was not these things that brought the living presence and power of Christ to the Church:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:20-25 (NRSV)

But Paul, you might respond, is talking about worldly wisdom and philosophies.  Surely he doesn’t mean the truths found in the Bible.

Well, the thing is, understanding the Bible in a way that makes a difference doesn’t really come from fancy book learnin’, neither.

In Jesus’ day, the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests – these people all knew the Scriptures better than any of Jesus’ disciples.  Easily.  They could out-Hebrew, out-Greek, out-commentary, out-original-context, out-historical-studies, out-exegete any of Jesus’ disciples with one hand tied behind their back.  There were no teachers of the Bible greater than these people.

But what did that gain them, in the end?

In a passage where a group of people at a Jewish festival refuse to help a sick man because it was the Sabbath, Jesus issues diatribe against them including:

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you.

John 5:39-41 (NRSV)

All that Bible knowledge did was provide them a nice buffer between themselves and the actual Jesus, not to mention the things that God actually wanted them to be doing.  The fisherman who helped carry an injured Israelite to where he needed to go was so much closer to “understanding the Bible” than the people who actually understood the Bible, because God was in him and not simply an object of study.

The picture we get in the New Testament is that God has to open our eyes to the Scriptures to see in them the mysteries of the kingdom, and this is not something that comes from greater study but an actual encounter – an etching of God’s truth on pages of the heart that leads to a life of humble and faithful obedience.

Study, I can tell you both from the Bible and from personal experience, has a devastating tendency to create pride and self-satisfaction and turn you from the very path of lived-out suffering and redemption that you need to walk to have God’s words written on your heart.

You will never learn to fish until you fish.  You can read every book about fishing.  You can learn the history of fishing.  You can learn everything about the equipment.  You can learn about great fishermen through history.  All of that could possibly help you in fishing or increase your enjoyment of it.  You might even glean a helpful thing or two from it.  And that knowledge would certainly be useful if someone were going around teaching about those topics and was full of crap and needed correction.

But none of that – NONE OF THAT – is fishing, and you will never be a good or even passable fisherman unless you are fishing.  And the funny bit is someone who doesn’t know the first academic fact about fishing can be an awesome fisherman.  There is no correlation between how much you know about fishing, and how much you know fishing.

When I look at the history of the Church in the world, it’s hard to come away from that believing that God’s primary concern is that everyone understand the Bible thoroughly and in the same way.  And if you believe there was a time when everyone did understand the Bible thoroughly and in the same way and we’ve gradually drifted from that, or if you believe we’re getting closer and closer to that ideal – well, you’re both wrong.

It may very well be that God’s desire is not increased knowledge of a book, but that He is known and His people look like Him and the world look like He intended – one that runs off the engine of love because God is love.  Insofar as biblical knowledge helps that project, that knowledge is good and useful.  But the life of the ages is not found in the Scriptures; that life is found in Jesus and the Scriptures testify to him.

None of this should be taken as a rant against the intellect or a greater understanding of the Bible.  Like I said, this is kind of a lot of what I’ve got and I don’t want to waste it, and I regularly think about how I could help bring God’s great vision for the world to pass by using it.

But, people of God, we were not called out of the world to increase Bible study.  “Biblical teaching” is not what your congregation was designed to produce in your community.  You were designed to produce embodied acts of love and forgiveness, examples that Christ can save sinners and is still saving them, calling them from one world into another one that exists in its very midst in the here and now.  Calling them with your voice.  Healing them with your hands and prayers.  Alleviating their poverty with your money and your time.  Setting them free from self-destructive lives with your example and, yes, your teaching – pointing them to the one who will ultimately set all things to rights and is setting them to rights as we speak.

Maybe the answer to being the people we need to be has more to do with emulating the people who are those things and less to do with reading more books about those things.

Sunday Meditations: Penal Substitutionary Atonement

I wouldn’t say I’ve been meditating on this, per se, but I’ve been recently in conversation on this topic with my friend, Matthew.  What follows comes mostly from email, but I’ve adapted it somewhat to fit as a blog post and included a little additional stuff.  Still, this isn’t a comprehensive overview of the issue.  I don’t really dig into the textual references or deal with objections or anything like that.

For those of you who aren’t up on your fancy theological terms, the penal subtitutionary theory of the Atonement (PSA) as it’s held to by Christians, today, looks something like this:

  1. Every individual has sinned.  It should be noted that there is also a theology of original sin that has all human beings inheriting the penalties of the sin of Adam.  Either way, you as an individual have sinned.
  2. When an individual sins, they incur the death penalty from God whose justice demands both their physical death and eternal torment in Hell.
  3. Jesus Christ died on the cross and descended into Hell to some extent, thus taking the penalty for sin that you deserve onto himself.
  4. Because Jesus paid the penalty for your sins, himself, anyone who believes in this receives the benefits of it, which are the rewards Jesus received for His obedience – eternal life in the presence of the Father.

This form of PSA is relatively modern, although some of the ideas back of this were present in the early church fathers.  Anselm in the 11th century made a version of it that described mankind’s lack of giving the obedience that God is due as a “debt” that needed to be paid.  The Reformers made the point that this debt was more specific – it was disobedience to the Law.  John Calvin sharpened this point very thoroughly, and this is probably where we get some of the ambiguity between words like “debt” and “trespass” when we talk about sin.  We possibly owe the development of theology in America for the radical individual orientation of these ideas.

Anyway, PSA is one of those things that I don’t think is right, but I don’t think is totally wrong, either.  The death of Jesus is substitutionary for sins, but I don’t think it’s according to the calculus that PSA lays out.  On the other hand, I also don’t think it’s a good idea to jettison all those concepts back of PSA and replace them with modern sensibilities, which is my perennial problem with the way some might do progressive theology – there’s a danger of not correcting old ideas with better exegesis or reasoning, but rather simply discarding those ideas in favor of a view of God or man that fits our preferences and concerns.

At the heart of PSA is the notion that God hates sin so much that, when someone sins, someone has to die to make restitution for it.  The redemptive problem, then, with the Old Testament sacrificial system is that they aren’t able to kill enough to meet the demands of God’s justice.  All those animals just sort of mollified Him for a while until the death of Jesus could finally pay the whole tab and exhaust the penalties that God had to incur.

There’s a certain simple, mathematical elegance to this story, and that’s what I think accounts for its persuasive power.  It offers an explanation that is syllogistically tight and explains a lot of data.  Unfortunately, there’s rather a lot of biblical data that doesn’t fit the model.

For example, there are instances in the Old Testament where atonement is given for the sacrifice of things that are not alive (Lev. 5:11-13, Exodus 30:14-15, Numbers 31:30, Numbers 16:46-50, Isaiah 6:6-7) as well as instances where forgiveness of sins was given without any sacrifice of any kind, such as with Nineveh when Jonah preached to them.  In the case of Nineveh, their repentance of their ways (accompanied by a national period of fasting) was enough for God to forgive them.  So, given that we have instances that God doesn’t need something or someone to die in order to forgive sins, that seems to undermine a key term in the PSA equation.

It appears that God’s forgiveness ultimately comes down to His decision to forgive, which is exactly what happens in the parable of the indebted servants in Matthew 18:21-35.  The forgiving king isn’t paid off by someone else – that’s arguably not forgiveness of the debt at all; he just decides to forgive the debt.

When I was a little more Westminstery than I am, today, a teenager in my church was very grieved over the idea that God would send someone to Hell for any offense.  What I explained to him was that God did not make a choice to do this, but rather God was forced to act out of His nature, which was both holy and just.  You wouldn’t morally critique a hungry lion for killing a person because the lion isn’t making a choice; they are doing what lions do out of their nature.  So it is with God and sin.

There are a number of issues, today, that I see with this explanation, although there are some truths there, as well.  But one of the problems is that we see instances of a God who chooses to forgive, and He can do so without someone paying for it with death.

Personally, I think the Old Testament sacrifices for atonement are best explained by giving up something of value.  Taking something that is valuable to you and offering it to God shows how much you want that relationship restored.  This is a rabbinical understanding of sacrifice and also makes sense of a lot of the data, not the least of which is Paul’s command to present our bodies as living sacrifices – an image that is difficult to understand if “sacrifice” means “something you kill because God’s justice demands it for satisfaction of His wrath.”  If the center of gravity changes to “something valuable you offer to God to demonstrate your commitment to restoring a right relationship,” that makes more sense of Paul’s imagery.

In addition, we have to keep in mind that God’s wrath against sin in the Old Testament was at a national level by and large.  He gave commandments to the people and punished them as a people.  Individuals brought sacrifices, so there is this idea of individuals atoning for their sins or families atoning for their sins, but this was all under the larger umbrella of the people.  God did not prosecute His wrath individually; when the nation broke the covenant, they invoked the penalties of the covenant, and that is the form God’s wrath against sin took.

It’s important, I think, for both conservatives and progressives to view categories like “God’s wrath” the way the Bible presents them.  When we think of wrath, we think of someone driven by absolute rage.  We think of someone taking retribution because of their great anger.  This is, indeed, a very fearsome way to think about God because, if PSA is correct, this is how God is about anything that anyone could possibly do, no matter how big or how small.  In this picture, any sin throws God into an all-consuming rage that won’t abate until someone dies.

But in the Bible, “God’s wrath” describes the concrete, historical, political outcomes of a people and, in virtually all cases, it results in the liberation of another group of people who are suffering under the sinful behavior of the first group.  Both the Old and New Testaments present God’s wrath as a correction (granted, a destructive one) to the state of affairs that national sins have produced in the world, and we lose all of that if we boil away all the historical particulars of Scripture and end up with a picture of a God who is filled with eternal-torment-style rage if someone cusses at their parents.

Even with the individual penalties in the Law, only some of those are the death penalty.  The Old Testament perspective does not seem to be that every sin merits the death penalty, which is another key presupposition in PSA.  You commit a sin and God has to kill you.  If this is so, then why does the Torah explicitly illustrate that some sins are worthy of death while others are not?  All sins require restitution, which is designed not just to restore a right relationship with God but also with the neighbor who was hurt by your actions.  But they don’t all require your life as restitution.

At the same time, we do have God’s displeasure with sin and a system by which individuals can make things right by offering up something they’ve got to demonstrate their contrition.  This is an issue I have with some folks who criticize PSA; they find the idea of the seriousness of sin or God’s wrath against sin to be distasteful concepts, period.  But they are biblical ones, and I think our theology has to make room for them.  I would encourage people who may be struggling with the idea of how a loving or Christlike God could also demonstrate wrath to forget the way you and I might use the words and look at how, historically, the biblical writings present these concepts to us.  I think you might find that Jesus also displays this concept of “wrath,” but he is obviously a long way from a rage-fueled demander of vengeance.

The problems I have with PSA are not the concepts of sin and wrath per se, but rather the ideas that:

  1. Any individual sin invokes the death penalty from a just God.
  2. God’s anger toward individual sins is placated as long as something or someone gets killed for it.

The biblical data does not seem to bear that out.  Furthermore (although this isn’t the last word on whether something is true or not), it does paint God in a very unflattering color.  Under this way of looking at things, concepts like “grace” and “mercy” look less like unmerited forgiveness out of love and more like, “God will kill something or someone else instead of you.”

Well, if God doesn’t -need- someone to die to forgive sins, then what does Jesus’ death accomplish?  In my opinion, the answer lay in leaving the mathematical abstractions behind and looking at the concrete history.

In Jesus’ day, Israel was under the curse of the Law.  Because of a very long spiral of national disobedience (toward both God and her own people) through which God patiently sent warning after warning, she ended up defeated by a pagan empire (i.e. the wrath of God) ruling her in her own land.  This conquering nation even installed their own High Priest in the Temple.  Israelites sharecropped land that used to belong to them and lived lives of poverty and servitude under this foreign empire.  They were all but destroyed as a nation.

In an interesting parallel, one of the rulers over Israel before Rome was Antiochus Epiphanes – a tyrant who regularly perpetrated institutional blasphemies and persecutions against the Jews.  The book 4 Maccabees reflects on this time via a story of seven righteous sons who are being tortured to death by Antiochus, and one of the themes you see are some of the brothers asking God to accept their martyrdom as an atonement sacrifice for Israel so that He will put his wrath (i.e. life under this tyrant) aside and deliver Israel.

I think this gives us insight into the death of Jesus.  These brothers are not saying that their deaths pay for some death penalty everyone has accrued.  They’re being killed as a indirect result of the curse God has brought upon disobedient Israel, but they themselves are righteous.  They don’t deserve to be killed by the curse because they have been faithful this whole time, and they want their deaths to move God’s heart.  They want God to see their faithful, obedient lives that they have lived even unto death by this tyrant, and they hope God will decide that things have gone on long enough.  Because of the willing offerings of these righteous servants, they want God to accept them as sacrifices, forgive Israel of her sins, and save her from her situation.

So, these sons are not “paying” for Israel’s sins in the sense that Israel’s sins incurred the death penalty and these sons are offering to die in everyone else’s place to satisfy God’s wrath.  Instead, they are hoping that their faithful deaths will make a plea to God to forgive.  They are offering up the most valuable things they have – their own faithful lives – to move God to restore His relationship with Israel.  To make atonement for Israel’s transgressions.  To make things right again.

In this way, their deaths are a substitutionary sacrifice in the sense that they want their sufferings and death to avert the penalties Israel is experiencing, but they are not a substitutionary sacrifice in the sense that they think their deaths will satisfy God’s just requirement to kill someone if they sin, and once the sacrifice is made, He’s obligated to let the people they died for go free.

I think this very Jewish theology is behind the death of Jesus.

If Jesus’ death is a substitutionary payment for the sin of all mankind, then it doesn’t matter when he shows up in history.  He could have come immediately after Adam’s sin and accomplished exactly the same thing.  But Jesus comes when he comes because of what Israel is experiencing, and with his faithful death, his sacrifice is an appeal to God to forgive the sins of His people and save them from the penalties their sins have brought about.

God is absolutely convinced by this.  He accepts the sacrifice of Jesus, raising him from the dead, thus demonstrating (among other things) that He will forgive Israel’s sins and save her.  Although, it should be noted, this appears to have been God’s intent the whole time, because Jesus was proclaiming the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of Israel before he was crucified.

So, Jesus’ death is substitutionary for sins in the sense of him offering himself as an atonement sacrifice.  He’s trying to make things right between God and Israel and motivate God to save her.  But I don’t think his death satisfies a need or demand in in God to kill someone because of their sins.

Now, so far, all of that is very Israel-centric.  I don’t know about you, but I’m a Gentile.  What’s more, the New Testament seems to indicate that Jesus’ death was necessary to save the Gentiles from God’s wrath as well, so how does that work?

Well, one of the things the death and resurrection of Jesus means is that Torah-compliance no longer determines who the faithful people of God are; faith in what God has done in Jesus is.  Gentiles can have this faith as well and, by doing so, become part of the people of God.  Part of this, too, means repenting of our past ways of life and embracing a new life of faithfulness defined by following the path of Jesus.  In this way, God not only saves Gentiles from their sins, but He saves Israel, too.  By forming a new people out of the two where righteousness is defined by faith and not Torah, believing Israel is freed from her condemnation under the Law and Gentiles are redeemed from their fruitless ways of living to which they were enslaved into a priestly service to God.

Additionally, God’s faithful remnant who might otherwise have been snuffed out as time went on suddenly received a massive influx in membership.

God’s judgement expanded to the nations as well, and those who had faith in Jesus were saved.  And we see that there will be a final judgment on the distant horizon, too.

In this way, Jesus’ death brought about a very different situation for both Jews and Gentiles and changed the trajectory of history such that Israel’s God became Lord over all the nations.  Jesus’ death was not only necessary for all this, but it had to happen -at the time that it happened-.

What we see, I would argue, is a much richer drama around Jesus’ death that is far more relational and covenant-oriented than PSA has to offer.

Sunday Meditations: Jesus and Politics

Several years ago, I was an elder at a small but dedicated Reformed church.  Given the size of the congregation, it might not seem like being an elder there was a lot of work, but the body of elders was also very small at least some of those times, and there were a lot of big ups and downs during that time, so it really was like having a second, albeit part-time, job.

During that time, a congregation member had called me to vent.  He was angry and thinking about leaving the church.  Those are awkward times in the life of an elder, because you want the other person to be able to pour out their pain.  Sometimes, people just want to be heard even if they don’t want you to do something about it.

On the other hand, people can say some really unfair things during those times, and while you don’t want to get into a debate (anecdotally, I’d say that 90% of people who say they’re “thinking of leaving the church” in your conversation have already made up their minds to do so), it’s also not always healthy to let them say whatever they want about whomever they want without some gentle nudging back to a more fair and charitable way of talking about them.

In this particular case, this man was upset at, among other things, the pastor not preaching things he felt were indispensable.  As an example of this, he pointed to a recent sermon and said, “He said that Jesus wasn’t political, but Jesus was so political that it wasn’t funny.”

Like I said, those aren’t times for a careful discussion, but I am almost totally positive that, if I’d asked, “What do you mean by Jesus being political?” I would not have gotten a cogent answer back.  Someone he had complete exegetical trust in had told him Jesus was political, and even though he didn’t understand that, himself, he knew that anyone who said otherwise had to be wrong.

The pastor being critiqued is someone whose impact on my life overall is inestimable, and I remember the sermon where he said that Jesus wasn’t political.  I also remember the phone conversation where someone countered that notion with a somewhat odd way of putting it: Jesus was so political that it wasn’t funny.

As mid-term elections draw nigh (I already voted – get the whole nasty business over with), I’ve been thinking about Jesus and politics, and depending on what you mean, I think some could make the statement, “Jesus was not political,” and be right or the statement, “Jesus was so political that it wasn’t funny,” and also be right – and not because of the funny part.

Jesus Was Not Political

Jesus was not political in the sense of how evangelicals have viewed American politics of the last several decades.  Jesus did not try to get influence with public officials, nor did he encourage others to do so (with the possible exception of Luke 16:9).  He did not participate in the various groups vying for the political destiny of Jerusalem in true Game of Thrones style, nor did he endorse any of them.  In short, Jesus did not view his mission in terms of using existing political mechanisms to bring about his agenda or accomplish his mission.

This is something of a contrast as to how conservative evangelicals have approached the American political sphere where using existing political mechanisms to bring about your agenda or mission is seen as vital.  At an evangelical church, you are likely to have a Voters’ Guide thrust upon you at some point.  It’s not uncommon to hear this or that political party or specific politician elevated or decried from the pulpit.  It’s also not uncommon to hear the outcomes of elections or referenda as incredibly high stakes events for the Church where the results mark major watersheds in God’s plan for America.  Oh yeah, in this way of thinking, God has a special relationship with America that is, more or less, the relationship He had with Old Testament Israel.

When we compare that view of spirituality and politics with the activity of Jesus, we do see some pretty large differences.  In that sense, which is the sense the Rev. Smith was using in his sermon, Jesus was not political.  Jesus was about the coming Kingdom of God, and that kingdom had a trajectory and destiny that began with calling faithful Israel out of the present world structures and into the coming kingdom.  To plant the seed of this kingdom, Jesus spent his time reclaiming the lost sheep of Israel – body and soul.

As we look at the early church continuing this mission, they continued this perspective.  The early church forbade their members to be politicians or soldiers (or actors, for some reason).  This is obviously a stark contrast to the fervent political activism and veneration of the military that are defining marks of much of the American evangelical church, today.  The idea for the early church is that those were institutions that propped up the powers of the age – the very powers that God was in the act of overturning.  A convert to Christianity who became a soldier or a Senator for his career was like a Jew becoming a pork distributor; you were not just joining “the rest of the world,” you were actively propping it up.

It’s from this standpoint that the sentence, “Jesus was not political” has meaning.  If we think about all the money American Christians have spent to get their favored candidate elected or what have you and transferred that money to programs that work against poverty and hunger, or that feed and clothe orphans, or that help prisoners get their lives back in society, it’s staggering to think of the good that might be accomplished.  From that standpoint, Christians in America could stand to reevaluate the example and commands of the Lord Jesus to see if our priorities and resources are directed along the same lines that Jesus’ were.

But Jesus Was Political

In American Christianity, you also have a group that contends that Jesus was solely interested in the spiritual condition of individuals, and this should be the Church’s priority.  What’s weird about this is that there is a significant overlap between the “Let’s Burn the World to Get Our Candidate Elected” crowd and the “Jesus Only Cared About People’s Souls” crowd.  I don’t get it, either, but there you go.

Unfortunately, you can’t talk about the Kingdom of God without talking about politics – specifically, how do the people of God exist in the world in the midst of other nations who are typically hostile or at least far more powerful, and what does this mean for the futures of both God’s people and the surrounding nations?

This concern weaves throughout the Old Testament, obviously.  The Old Testament writings do not give us a story of people’s individual spiritual well-being, but rather they give us the story of Israel and her God in the world.  It isn’t too uncommon to read the Old Testament in an individualistic way, especially in sermons.  The different characters become examples of our own individual spiritual journeys rather than pivotal figures in the ongoing story of Israel and her God among the nations.  I think, sometimes, we’re just not sure what to do with the Old Testament, so this is the route some choose to make it relevant.

But you have to cut out a rather lot of the Old Testament to make the Old Testament a collection of positive and negative examples of individual spirituality.  The Old Testament is about the fate of nations with Israel at the center.  When God saves His people, He saves the nation.  When Israel’s sins get her in trouble, they are national sins like idolatry or the priesthood only using lame and diseased animals for offerings or rampant injustice toward the poor and defenseless or dishonest business practices to make a profit.  Israel’s leadership stands as a proxy for the nation such that all it takes is an unfaithful king or obsequious prophets to get the whole nation in trouble.

And as Israel comes into contact with other nations, they are drawn into the scope of this story.  God saves Israel from other nations.  God invokes the penalties of the Law on Israel with other nations.  God takes and restores Israel’s land with other nations.  On the whole, messing with Israel is a sure means to God removing you from the world scene at some point.

It is this trajectory into which the Son of God is sent.  Israel’s land is occupied by a larger, more powerful pagan empire.  Many Jews can still live in their land and Jerusalem is still the center of their religious and political life, but this is a shadow of what it once meant.  Many Jews are dispersed throughout the empire and don’t live in their ancestral lands at all.  Roman law, not Torah, is the highest ethical and political authority in Judea.  Roman officials, not Jewish officials, have the final say in what goes on in the land.  Even the High Priest becomes a position filled by Roman appointment.

When Jesus arrives, his goal is to save Israel from their sins.  He is going to turn this situation around.  This will involve calling the lost to repentance of their ways of life into the ways of love of God and neighbor.  This will involve instilling a new piety in Israel and reminding her that God has not abandoned her, loves her, remembers His promises, and is for her.  In this sense, the disposition of the heart is very important to what Jesus is trying to accomplish.

But this is also political.  This all happens in the context that the Kingdom of God has come with Jesus.  He forgives sins, heals the sick, and casts out evil spirits not just to be a good dude but because the Kingdom of God has come and Jesus is the king of it.  He is out to restore everything that was broken and lost.  He is liberating his people from the curse of the law.  He is creating a counter-kingdom that runs off a very different engine than the world powers at the time – a kingdom where the Law is love, and no matter how much damage you may have done in your past, if you are willing to put that life aside and begin anew in God’s kingdom with Jesus as your king, there is no limit to how much you will be forgiven and what God will restore to you.  It is, in fact, Jesus’ claim to leading a rival kingdom that finds him executed by the Romans for insurrection.

Furthermore, there is a coming calamity on Jerusalem that will shatter the power of Israel’s leaders and redefine her place in the world.  Jesus wills that as much of Israel that can be spared this fate should be spared, and he labors powerfully to make that happen.  Many believe his warnings and are saved, but the powers of that age reject Jesus and crucify him, and God does not prevent the Roman onslaught when Jerusalem falls and the Temple is destroyed.  These consequences are not merely personal and spiritual; they are highly political.  The landscape of God’s people in the world would never be the same after that.

But it doesn’t stop there.  The Kingdom grows like a giant tree from the smallest of all seeds, and this does not escape the notice of the Empire.  While it would be a mistake to portray Christians as under constant and fiery Imperial persecution, they nevertheless experienced those seasons as the disposition of emperors toward Christianity would vacillate from seeing them as “distasteful religious sect not worth the bother” to “threat to Imperial stability.”

And one of the reasons for these changing dispositions was – to the shock of everyone – the fact that Romans themselves were hearing about Jesus and what God had done and believed it.  They believed and wanted to be part of this kingdom, too, eventually in even greater numbers than Jesus would have among his own people.  These people, too, were forgiven and healed and displayed the same Spirit that Israel’s God had poured out upon faithful Israel.

It was this trajectory of the kingdom that eventually caused Constantine to declare Jesus Christ the Lord of the Roman Empire and paint the Chi Rho on his shields, removing all who persecuted Christians decisively from power.

This is not to say everything Constantine did was good or even very Jesus-like.  But the political impact of the spread of the Kingdom cannot be denied, here, and the change it made on the political landscape for the people of God.

What About Now?

We’re in a situation for which there is little analogy in the Bible, unfortunately.  While we can and should turn to the written word for guidance, the Church must be especially attentive to the living Word because we are in a very different place than the Bible addresses as far as politics are concerned.

  1. Believing Jews and Gentiles have been made into one people of God.  In the Bible, this opened the scope from “the land promised to Israel” to “the nations,” which essentially meant the Roman Empire, and now we see the people of God distributed throughout the entire world, effectively decentralizing God’s people into all lands in general and no lands in particular, including America and what we now refer to as the modern nation-state of Israel.
  2. There is no centralized world power or dominant empire.  We talk about military super powers, but there is no Empire in the same sense as we find in the outlook of the New Testament.  In the New Testament writings, Rome is as big as you can get and they rule everything.  They were “global power” from the first century perspective.  Now, this perspective no longer serves in a direct sense.  We might look at the influence different nations have on the global community, but there is no longer a single, centralized Empire to define ourselves against.
  3. Christendom has come and pretty much gone.  In America, we have a strong fundamentalist streak that has slowed the disappearance of Christian elements prevailing in culture and government, and maybe there’s even a baseline under which it simply will not dip, but the idea of a government run basically by Jesus is gone and is unlikely to return anytime soon, if ever.  The images of a world where all nations proclaimed Jesus as lord has, from the standpoint of the New Testament, had its run, and now we’re kind of on the other side of that.  That doesn’t mean something couldn’t happen in the future, but where we are now, we are post-nations-proclaiming-Jesus-as-Lord, not experiencing it.
  4. America is a Republic informed by democratic principles.  The people elect representatives to government to speak and vote on our behalf.  So, there is a sense in which Americans (including American Christians) are the government and wield its power.  We are not helplessly at the mercy of a monarch or an emperor (however much it might feel that way from time to time), and this one factor alone puts us in a very different situation than Jesus or the early church.  Turns out that the principalities and powers of our age are, to a large degree, us.

This is why trying to drop the examples of the New Testament directly on top of our situation without further thought are bound to take us in weird directions.  Even in the Torah itself, we see God’s commandments changing to reflect the changing circumstances of Israel.  For example, the laws about sacrifices while Israel is wandering in the wilderness undergo some serious revision once they have an established Temple in Jerusalem.  It would be absurd to think that, politically speaking, the people of God in 21st century America are basically in the same situation as Jesus or the Apostles.  There are countries in the world, today, where Christians face an extremely similar situation to the first century Church, but America is not one of those places.

At the same time, Jesus is still Lord and we are not free to replace him with people or values we might prefer or who might better embody our cultural sensibilities.  What was important to Jesus?  Who was he helping?  Who received his critique and who received his compassion?  What principles and values do his commandments reveal to us such that we can still find ways to act in accordance with those principles and values?

The power of a vote or a political voice is a resource given to you just like your money or your time.  It belongs to Jesus and was given to you for stewardship.  How will you use it and what outcome do you hope to see from that?  Is it the sort of outcome that our Lord has shown us best represents his own priorities?  Are we shaping a world with MORE healing?  MORE forgiveness?  MORE lives being put back together?  MORE compassion?  MORE care for those who cannot care for themselves?  What did Jesus spend his time doing?  Who received his critiques, and why?

Is the Law love or isn’t it?  Is Jesus’ highest concern that we protect ourselves and our stuff?  Did Jesus value his own prosperity at the expense of others, or the prosperity of those he loved at his own expense?

And at any time, did Jesus ever use the complexities or ambiguities of a situation as a reason to do nothing?


Sunday Meditations: What’s the Word?

What is the Word of God?

In the Old Testament, the Word of God is something that comes to you.  It shares something with you.  In many instances, what the Word shared with the receiver was meant to be passed on to Israel.

Take, for example, Jeremiah’s account of his calling to be a prophet:

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Jeremiah 1:4-5 (NRSV)

This is very common prophetic language in the Old Testament.  The word of the Lord is something that comes to you and says things to you.  This is tricky for us to envision because words are what is said, and therefore it is easy to conflate the two, and I would argue that the Hebrew intends for the distinction to be somewhat porous.

Nevertheless, the idea is that the word of the Lord is something living that tells you things.  Those words could also be thought of as “the word of the Lord,” but in a derivative sense.  They are the words the prophet received from the Word.

This is an idea we should keep in mind as we read Old Testament passages that talk about God’s Word.  They aren’t talking about the Bible because the Bible didn’t exist yet.

In certain passages, they may be referring to the Law.  For example, there’s the famous passage in Psalm 119:105 where the psalmist writes, “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path,” and the rest of the psalm indicates this is talking about the law.  God’s commandments show the psalmist how to navigate.

Although, even in this psalm, it’s unclear that the psalmist is referring to the written record of these commandments, which were often lost for generations on end in Israel’s history only to be rediscovered later.  They were passed along (when they were passed along) through oral tradition, and Psalm 119 has various references in it that the “word” the psalmist is thinking about is a little bit more organic than the Torah.

Blessed are you, O Lord;
    teach me your statutes.

Psalm 119:12 (NRSV)

Here, the psalmist is asking for God to teach him His statutes.  In other words, God’s commandments are something God has to communicate to the psalmist.  This plea for God to teach the psalmist is repeated several times throughout Psalm 119.

The psalmist goes on to say that God’s word will revive him from the edge of death.  God’s word will bring him salvation.  God’s word is something in which the psalmist places his hope.

And then we get to this gem:

 The Lord exists forever;
your word is firmly fixed in heaven.
Your faithfulness endures to all generations;
you have established the earth, and it stands fast.
By your appointment they stand today,
for all things are your servants.

Psalm 119:89-91 (NRSV)

Here, we get the idea that God’s word is not simply the commandments that the psalmist observes but is also something established forever in heaven.  It existed before the earth and governs not only the workings of heaven but the workings of all creation.

This concept is part of a strong wisdom tradition in Judaism that crops up in a number of different literary sources, but one of my favorite examples is in Proverbs:

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew.

Proverbs 3:19-20 (NRSV)

and in a long passage where Wisdom as a person appeals to the reader:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
    or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
    when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
    when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
    so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
    then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
    rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
    and delighting in the human race.

Proverbs 8:22-31 (NRSV)

Once more, we have the idea that God’s wisdom is not to be equated with the words of the Proverbs, but rather a “being” who was with God before anything was created who assisted Him in creation.  It is from this “being” – this elemental law and logic that existed before creation and underlies all creation – that the words of wisdom in Proverbs proceed.  By acting in accordance with the wisdom of the Proverbs, you are acting in accordance with the fundamental structure of created reality that precedes it.

The Hellenistic version of this is Logos (also translated “word”).  The concept of “logos” is the same – the universe has law at the core of it, and this is logos.  It is the underlying structure that everything obeys and how it naturally works.  It’s not only where we get the word “logic” from, describing the way reason is supposed to work, but also why all of our disciplines of study end in “-logy.”  We are uncovering these underlying laws of whatever we happen to be studying, so biology is uncovering the underlying laws of life, geology is uncovering the underlying laws of earth, etc.

It’s the idea of the logos that John turns to in the opening chapter:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 

John 1:1-3 (NRSV)

Ok, so far so good.  This actually seems to be commensurate with both Jewish and Hellenistic thought at the time.  But then:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14 (NRSV)

In John’s gospel, this preexisting Word-of-God-being that we’ve been talking about became enfleshed, and of course he means Jesus Christ.

Of course, early Christian theology had a certain level of diversity as to exactly how this came about.  On one side of the spectrum were certain forms of adoptionism where Jesus was just a regular guy who ended up becoming this thing.  On the other side of the spectrum as something resembling Nicean trinitarianism where the man Jesus was God incarnate.  And you had all kinds of positions somewhere in between, like Arianism.

But the one thing they all agreed on was that Jesus embodied (literally) this Logos.  Jesus, as a human being, displayed this eternal Word of God.  He was a person, not a book.  But like the Word of the Lord in the Old Testament, he said things to people.  But he didn’t just say things, he did things.  And he didn’t just do things, he loved, served, wept, laughed, and sacrificed himself.

Behold, the inner logic of God.  The fundamental laws of all creation.

The Word of God is Jesus.  If you want to more deeply know and walk according to the Word of God, you have to more deeply know and walk with Jesus.

How does this happen?

Well, the Bible is one way.  Both testaments have things to teach us about Jesus, and we can find him there.  But like the words given to the prophets, these words are derivative products.  We can say they are the words of God, but we have to keep in mind that they are Gods words in a secondary, mediated sense.  The Word of God is a person, not a book.  He is a being, not words on a page.

It is the holistic, spiritual encounter with this living Word that we discover in the New Testament:

The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:7 (NRSV)

No doubt, this spread of the “word of God” involved apostolic teaching (although, once again, keep in mind none of these people had Bibles).  It also involved selling your goods to take care of the poor.  It involved healing.  It involved visions.  It involved discernment.  It involved, not just the spread of verbalized words, but the spread of certain kinds of behavior, values, spiritual realignment, and even miracles.

Does this sound like anybody you know?  By the power of the Spirit, these early communities embodied Jesus and carried his presence to each other and the world around them.

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Hebrews 4:12 (NRSV)

Books are not living and active.  But the Word of God is.

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

2 Corinthians 3:1-3 (NRSV)

If you’re looking for the secret epistle written by Jesus Christ in a handwritten scroll, you are looking in the wrong place.  The Scripture that Jesus wrote, he wrote with the Spirit dwelling inside his followers.

How do you get to know this Word?

True, the Bible presents him to you.  I am not in any sense trying to take that away.

The mysteries of the Lord’s Supper and baptism present him to you as well.  As the Bible brings you Jesus through written words, the Supper brings you Jesus in bread and wine.  Baptism brings you Jesus in the going through and emerging from water.

The communion of the saints present Jesus to you.  They are his temple and the flesh that carries his presence.  His words come to you through them.  His love for you and service to you comes through them.  They bring the Word of God to you, and you, if you have the Spirit, are part of the project of bringing the Word of God to them in the same way.

And of course, there is your personal experience of the Spirit.  The godly wisdom the book of your life has written, the fellowship with Jesus in prayer and the voice you hear tugging at your heart.  The prodding of your conscience.  The wind that blows you in this or that direction.

In these things, we hear, see, touch, and even taste this Word.