Monday, December 13, 2010

reflections on Richard Dawkins

In October I had a the chance to see the popular atheist biologist and author, Richard Dawkins, give a talk at Duke University promoting his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth. Now that my crazy semester is winding down, I have a chance to offer here some thoughts on Dawkins's lecture.

First let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed the talk. Dawkins--this is no surprise, as he is a professor--communicated clearly and held our attention well (though this wasn't hard given the audience, most of whom probably keep a copy of The God Delusion on their nightstands). One of my favorite quips came early in the talk: "Well of course there are gaps in the fossil record--we're lucky to have any fossils at all!"
But of course I wasn't their primarily to learn about evolution, though this is a subject about which I still have a lot to learn. I was itching--as was everyone else in the auditorium--to hear what Dawkins had to say about religion.

Much of this came in jokes about a 'designer' strewn throughout the lecture on evolution.
After describing in much and fascinating detail how well-designed the cheetah and the gazelle must be called, what a perfect hunter the one is and what perfect prey the other makes, he remarked with feigned exasperation 'whose side is the designer on??'
Another came after he described the recurrent laryngeal nerve, found in all mammals, that connects the larynx to the brain (only a few inches apart from one another), but which does not directly link the two--instead going first into the chest and wrapping around an artery in the heart for no apparent reason (a detour of about 15 feet in a giraffe, he noted). Dawkins rightly asked why the designer 'doesn't go back to the drawing board' like all good designers do? This poor design and wastefulness, he feels, speak against any such designer. (This oddity can be easily explained from an evolutionary standpoint.)

Most remarks about design took this sort of form. After a while I started to wonder why--why he only addressed a highly anthropomorphized designer, very active in creation?
But then Dawkins used the term 'intelligent design' a few times.
This is what he's responding to. He didn't actually speak a word to the traditional Christian understanding of the Creator, though his anecdotes and retorts were (to my mind) pretty damning for ID. It just doesn't work.

But by far the most interesting portion of Dawkins's talk came after the lecture, during the Q&A.
First off, the people asking questions--and Dr. Dawkins--don't seem to differentiate between "Creationists" and religious people in general. They didn't acknowledge that there could be any Christian who was not a textbook Creationist. This is of course simply absurd, though they don't seem to find such distinctions very important.

However, Dawkins did have a few surprises up his sleeve, both for me and for rest of the audience.
First, after a spiteful question about the place of a divinity school on a university campus, he had some kind things to say about the Bible as a piece of important and sometimes beautiful literature--literature that ought to be studied in the academy.

More surprising, however, was the final word. The last question in the Q&A came from a Christian--apparently the only such questioner--who wanted to know why Dawkins insisted on polemics, why he couldn't work with Christians on social issues they shared concerns over. The last words out of his mouth were: "Yes let's be friends, by all means." There wasn't much clapping after that.
In general, he just wasn't as hostile as his audience was hoping (or I was expecting), and this kind of took the wind out of their sails at the very last. To be sure, there were a few lines that were no doubt quickly immortalized as facebook quotes, like "Damn your preacher!" But as a rule, he wasn't as aggressive as you might suppose.

Something that was hard to miss in the talk was that Dawkins always comes back to evidence. He mentioned this to the last girl, that he didn't feel there was "evidence" for her opinions. It's absolutely key to his epistemology; everything hangs on it. Evidence, evidence, evidence. (There's an essay in his book The Devil's Chaplain to this effect, written as a letter to his young daughter.)
A few days after I saw Richard Dawkins, N. T. Wright gave a talk at the Divinity School. Afterwards I had a chance to talk to the bishop, and I asked about Dawkins and this demand for evidence: should Christians present historical arguments, for instance, about the Resurrection, as 'evidence'?
Wright said no. No, but what we can do, and what we must do, is present the history of the gospels plausibly, and we must show why the alternative readings simply do not hold water. In effect (and this isn't Wright, but my musing) we need to try our best to remove historical doubt. If what we proclaim is true, then this isn't impossible. Of course historical doubt is not the last obstacle to faith--it's just the only one Christians have the power to remove. Beyond this, the person coming to Jesus will have to respond to the gospel, however they will. Neither move will offer the 'evidence' they want.

Those are just a few thoughts I had in the days following Dawkins's visit to Duke. Take from them what you will. Hopefully in the coming weeks, after my last exam on Wednesday, I'll find time for some more real blogging. We'll see.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Barth on the New Testament miracles

As fundamentally astonishing stories, they function first of all in a formal way as a sort of alarm signal, which is the reason the New Testament likes to term them "signs." Scattered at times thickly and at other times more sparsely throughout the history of Immanuel, they alert the hearer and reader to a central fact: this history is concerned with a fundamentally new event which, although undoubtedly occurring within time and space, is not to be identified with other events occurring within the limits of time and space...
But what is the new element signaled by these miracle stories? ... To what do the following phrases point? " 'Rise, take up your bed and go home.' " " 'Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!' " " 'Peace, Be still!' " as was called out to a stormy sea. " 'You give them to eat!' " as was said concerning the five thousand who were hungry in the wilderness. " 'Lazarus, come out!' " " 'He has risen, he is not here.' " According to the biblical testimony, what happened following such statements was always a change in the ordinary course of the world and nature which threatened and oppressed man. Though these changes were isolated and temporary, they were nevertheless radically helpful and saving. What took place were promises and intimations, anticipations of a redeemed nature, of a state of freedom, of a kind of life in which there will be no more sorrows, tears, and crying, and where death as the last enemy will be no more. What is communicated under the form of these little lights is always the reflected brightness of the great light which draws near to the men of the present in the form of hope. What is at stake is the summons, " 'Look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near' " (Luke 21:28). This kindling of the light of hope is what is really new; it is the really surprising element in the biblical miracle stories.

Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 67-69

Monday, November 01, 2010

T. F. Torrance on science and theology

When the scientist inquires into the nature of the world, he does that not by looking at God but by looking away from him at the world, but when the theologian inquires into the nature of God as he has revealed himself he does that not by looking at the nature of the world, which God has created out of nothing, but by looking away from the world to its Creator. The scientist and the theologian thus move in opposite directions. The scientist is concerned with the created or contingent universe, so that he does not reckon God among the data with which natural science is concerned. And that is of course consonant with a proper theological understanding of the nature of the universe which God has created as a reality utterly different from himself but which he has endowed with a created rational order reflecting his own transcendent rationality.

Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking, 48-49

Friday, October 22, 2010

C. S. Lewis and Stephen Hawking

... and this other fellow, Mlodinow. But no one knows his name, so I just put the other two in the title.

In case you hadn't heard, last month Stephen Hawking decided to expound the latest evidence against the existence of a Creator God. I didn't think much of Hawking's reasoning at the time (and still do not), but I would nevertheless love to point everyone towards the C. S. Lewis blog for a wonderful response, offered, oh, 50-60 years ago: How C. S. Lewis "prefutes" Stephen Hawking.

It's a fun and interesting read, so check it out.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Feast of St. Francis

Today is the Feast of St. Francis. To celebrate and recall this really incredible saint, here is his famous hymn, All Creatures of our God and King, or the Song of Brother Son:

All creatures of our God and King
Lift up your voice and with us sing,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
Thou silver moon with softer gleam!

Thou rushing wind that art so strong
Ye clouds that sail in Heaven along,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou rising moon, in praise rejoice,
Ye lights of evening, find a voice!

Thou flowing water, pure and clear,
Make music for thy Lord to hear,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou fire so masterful and bright,
That givest man both warmth and light.

Dear mother earth, who day by day
Unfoldest blessings on our way,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
Let them His glory also show.

And all ye men of tender heart,
Forgiving others, take your part,
O sing ye! Alleluia!
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear,
Praise God and on Him cast your care!

And thou most kind and gentle Death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
And Christ our Lord the way hath trod.

Let all things their Creator bless,
And worship Him in humbleness,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
And praise the Spirit, Three in One!

Friday, October 01, 2010

on Hauerwas and Karl Barth

For those interested, I've just posted a piece, "Hauerwas and Barth, and the subsequent confusion", on another blog, Blarthing.

Blarthing was created recently by another Duke Divinity student to give those of us studying the theology of Karl Barth this semester a fun chance to stretch our intellectual legs with some reflections. Feel free to check it out.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Colbert's Christianity



I have a lot of respect for Stephen Colbert. I've thought for a few years now that if Dick Staub's "culturally savvy Christian"--one who lives as an alien in their culture and yet transforms in by the power of the gospel--is out there in our world, his name is either Bono or Stephen Colbert.

And this video shows, perhaps better than anything I've heard from Colbert, what I mean.

In case you didn't know, the popular funny man gave testimony at a Congressional hearing last week concerning migrant workers in the United States--people who, he says, "suffer and have no rights." This is a snippet of that hearing.
The peak of this clip comes near the end, when Colbert is asked directly "why are you interested in this issue?"
His response? "'Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers'... and these seem like the least of our brothers." That's from Matthew 25, in case you were wondering.

Check it out. I for one am really thankful for Christians who have a voice in culture--especially when it's a voice that people actually enjoy listening to. And, at least this time, Colbert's Christianity isn't veiled by layers of sarcasm and character, but it's on a stand, giving light to all who are in the house.

Monday, August 30, 2010

a free plug


This is the greatest advertisement I've ever seen. Bar none.
A special thanks to Emily Claire Ryder for the lovely photo.

Monday, August 23, 2010

RELEVANT: why twentysomethings are out of the gay marriage debate

I just read this short article from RELEVANT, speculating as to why my generation--or, more specifically, the Evangelicals of my generation--by and large are not entering into the debates over gay marriage. The author points to four main causes for this silence: the number of openly gay friends and loved ones these young Evangelicals have; we are weary of the caustic rhetoric that these debates usually evoke; the hypocrisy of a condemnation of same-sex marriage that is mum on the divorce rates in churches; and "different categories." By this, the article refers to a growing view that an orthodox stance on sexuality doesn't necessitate an opposition to same-sex unions. Frederica Mathewes-Green, author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, is quoted from the book:
I can believe that my gay friends are engaging in something spiritually damaging, without asking the law to stop them. They can perceive that my convictions are grounded in an ancient spiritual consensus, not hate. We still won’t agree. But perhaps we can understand each other, and continue the conversation with mutual respect.

For Mathewes-Green, it seems, an attempt to forcibly prevent such unions through public policy goes beyond the Christian concern for spiritual well-being to an intolerant oppression of those we disagree with.

Here's my question: twentysomething, reading this (and most of you are twentysomethings), how do you fit into this picture? Is this debate one that you've spoken up on, or something that you shy away from? And why--do any of RELEVANT's reasons resonate with you?

I suppose I fall somewhere into the fourth group. I think that homosexual intercourse is plainly contrary to scripture; there's no way around that. And so I have to discourage other Christians from intimate homosexual relationships, and marriage would clearly stand under that umbrella. I have gay friends and relatives whom I care about, but I don't see that as any reason to excuse myself from the conversation. That's not a form I see concern taking. I rarely react to hypocrisy--it's far too prevalent and human a phenomenon to let that direct my course.
But I do find myself echoing Mathewes-Green often enough. I just don't see any excuse for an American legal repudiation of same-sex marriages. We live in a secular democracy, and the country's law is simply not bound by Christian moral teaching (much less a teaching that is hotly debated by the Christians themselves!). If that were how our legislation worked, then any extra-marital or pre-marital sexual relations should be outlawed, along with so many other things. At most, conservatives should hope to establish their 'one man, one woman' definition of "marriage," and then allow for a civil union institution that will grant totally equal rights and privileges to same-sex couples--though my thoroughly-untrained eye doesn't see any legal precedent or authoritative standard that could underpin such a move.

I understand that a lot of Christians, especially conservative Evangelicals, won't follow my thinking here. If you admit that it's a sin, they will say, then how can you support it? I don't. This is one issue (and not the only one that I have to face) where I find myself standing at a fork in the road, with the aims, hopes, and demands of democracy moving very clearly in one direction, while the aims, hopes, and demands of the Kingdom move full-force in another. This will happen sometimes; they are, after all, not the same thing. Democracy must pursue the rights and freedoms of the people, insofar as they do not disrupt the government. On the other hand, the Kingdom, regardless of what connections Christians have drawn for centuries, is not finally interested in rights and freedoms. The Kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17). I don't support gay marriage... but I recognize that America ought to. This is just one of those issues where I cannot in good conscience be a good American.
I guess that means I'm out of the gay marriage debate.

Give me some thoughts. Again, what do you make of RELEVANT's observations? How have you been approaching this important and tender question? How has your church community? Why?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

1 Samuel 13

The concern of the storyteller is not with military operations as such, even though the passage is packed with fascinating detail on terrain and troop movements. The way the story is told guarantees that we will recognize that acts of faith take place in the so-called “real world”—a world of named towns, of strategic troop deployments, of military statistics, of probabilities and “odds.” This is the setting for understanding faith and obedience. Saul believes or disbelieves, is obedient or disobedient to God, trusts or mistrusts God in his daily work as a military leader, not abstracted from it. As it turns out, his is unbelievingly disobedient.

Eugene Peterson, First and Second Samuel, Westminster Bible Companion

Saturday, June 26, 2010

reading the Bible with C. S. Lewis

I joked recently that C. S. Lewis is a poor example for us to follow in reading scripture. After all, he does not adhere to a concept of sola scriptura. If you didn't notice, that post said a lot more about my opinion of sola scriptura than of Lewis.
I actually find Lewis quite an able guide for the faithful reader of scripture. Why?

Lewis never directly addressed the question of proper biblical interpretation in his published writings. The most direct word on the subject he offers us comes from a letter he wrote in 1959:
Whatever view we hold of the divine authority of Scripture must make room for the following facts.

1. The distinction which St. Paul makes in 1 Cor vii between "not I but the Lord" (v. 10) and "I speak, not the Lord" (v. 12). [My translation. Lewis only supplied the Greek.]
2. The apparent inconsistencies between the genealogies in Matt i and Luke iii; with the accounts of the death of Judas in Matt xxvii. 5 and Acts i. 18-19.
3. St. Luke's own account of how be obtained his matter (i. 1-4).
4. The universally admitted unhistoricity (I do not say, of course, falsity) of at least some narratives in Scripture (the parables), which may well extend also to Jonah and Job.
5. If every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of lights then all true and edifying writings, whether in Scripture or not, must be in some sense inspired.
6. John xi. 49-52 Inspiration may operate in a wicked man without his knowing it, and he can then utter the untruth he intends (propriety of making an innocent man a political scapegoat) as well as the truth he does not intend (the divine sacrifice).

It seems to me that 2 and 4 rule our the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth. And 1, 3, 5, and 6 rule our the view that inspiration is a single thing in the sense that, if present at all, it is always present in the same mode and the same degree. Therefore, I think, rule out the view that any one passage taken in isolation can be assumed to be inerrant in exactly the same sense as any other: e.g. that the numbers of O.T. armies (which in view of the size of the country, if true, involve continuous miracle) are statistically correct because the story of the Resurrection is historically correct. That the over-all operation of Scripture is to convey God's Word to the read (he also needs his inspiration) who reads it in the right spirit, I fully believe. That it also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don't. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, not even envisaged by the ancients.

Not exactly a post-card from the Grand Canyon. But I like it.
I like it primarily because Lewis is trying so hard to let the Bible be what the Bible is. Where there are difficulties presented in the text, he doesn't approach them as problems to be solved, but rather factors to take into account. His aim isn't to conform the scripture to any model of inspiration that he holds, but to read the Bible and form a model of inspiration that reflects the realities of the text. I like this very much.

His last remark hints of many of the problems in modern thought on inspiration and biblical authority. People often, especially when thinking about historicity, bring modern ideas to the table of biblical interpretation--ideas which the authors of scripture didn't share, hadn't even conceived of. We tend to think that an account is only true if it faithfully narrates what happened at a particular moment in history, and we reason further that the Bible, since it's true, does this in every instance. So when, for example, the gospel of John says that Christ is crucified on the Day of Preparation (John 19:14, 31), the first day of Passover when the Passover lambs were slaughtered, and Mark and Luke have the Day of Preparation on Thursday, before Christ's arrest (Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7ff), many readers are SOL. If truth is nothing other than historical accuracy, then the Bible falls short.
We also tend to think of true and false as straightforward opposites. If something is true, then whatever contradicts it is false. Then we read, say, Proverbs 26:4-5: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes." And we're in trouble again.
The biblical authors just aren't thinking in the same categories as we are, and we have to be OK with that.

Something similar happens with many of the ideas about inspiration that I've heard in church over the years. When the Bible uses descriptions like "God-breathed and useful..." (2 Tim 3:16), we somehow construe this to mean 'all scripture, that is every individual word, is inspired by God, totally without error in a modern, historical sense, without contradiction from within or without, and must be taken always only at face value.' Yikes. We try to incorporate all sorts of ideas in to the scripture, and we think this is a faithful reading of the word of God.

No. No, if we truly honor scripture, we need to let it speak for itself. We must not tell it what to say or how to say it. When we meet difficulties in the text, we need to make sure that our views can embrace them and proceed with whatever friction they produce. And, honestly, most of the teaching on biblical authority that I received growing up just couldn't do that. Doing this well won't be easy, but we have to give it the thought and effort. Doing this well also depends on our reading the Bible.

Which brings us back to C. S. Lewis.
Lewis's letter gives us a list of biblical curiosities that we have to take into account when undertaking a task like this. (The introduction to Scot McKnight's book Blue Parakeet offers a similar list of things he had to face while trying to figure out how to read the Bible.) Maybe we should begin here--we can, from here begin to search the scriptures for a clue to understanding them better, receiving gratefully everything we're given, refusing to ignore or downplay those problematic passages or words. That's the task.
And that's all Lewis hopes his reader will do. He doesn't set out a view for us to appropriate, but simply says, "whatever view we hold... must make room for the following facts." The task is still before us.

As we undertake it, I can only say, again, that I hope you will let the Bible to shape your hermeneutical commitments, and not the other way around. If we want to be people of the Word, if in faith we submit ourselves to scripture as indeed "God-breathed," then our obedience needs to be thorough. Our obedience has to begin with allowing the Bible to teach us how to read the Bible.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

review: Toy Story 3


This review contains all kinds of SPOILERS. Read on at your own risk.
-

"Death by monkeys."
This is a good start. Woody and Buzz struggle against the forces of evil under the hand of Andy once again. There's an attack-dog with force-field, a force-field-dog eating dinosaur. We hear Randy Newman singing: "... our friendship will never die."
And then sudden silence, with only the word die still ringing in our ears. So Toy Story 3 sets the tone for what will be a darker story, though, of course, not without its moments of light.

The darkness envelops us immediately as we see the toys again for the first time. We recall the droves of toys of the first film as we're faced here with the dozen or so who are left--a terrible fact that Woody acknowledges quickly. These characters have lived into a new and very different age than that we have seen in the previous films. Andy is going to college, and most of his toys, their friends and loves, are long gone. Molly has grown up into a typical pre-/early teen, with her iPod and silly magazines. This isn't a particularly dark world, but for a community of old, dusty toys, it is a lonely place.
Woody is a light in this dark, as faithful as ever to Andy. There was a moment of real jubilation when you saw that Woody was going to go to college. But, of course, that light was counterbalanced by the darkness of the attic for our other heros. It all serves to create some really interesting dynamics between the toys for the rest of the film.
The villains are an interesting bunch. I loved the monkey. Ken is... well, not surprisingly, very shallow. But dynamic, which was a surprised. Lotso adds to the darkness. He isn't merely a bad kid or a greedy collector; he's a toy who was hurt and then turned his back on all companionship, all goodness. He's so corrupt as to spurn all gratitude. His minions turn out to be not so bad, at the film's end, but Lotso is actually a character beyond redemption. This fact is only lightened by the fact that's he's a teddy bear who smells of strawberries.

All of these converge to tell an engaging, layered story. Old familiar characters only make you want to listen more. And it's funny. Monkeys are well-handled throughout the film, which is, of course, the mark of good comedy. It is also, as my roommate noted afterwards, simply not a kid's film. Pixar's strength is that they make adult films in the trappings of kids' entertainment. Just because the characters are Mr. Potato Heads and action figures doesn't mean that this isn't a dramatic and thoughtful tale.

But the movie does have some weaknesses.
I don't think the writers knew what to do with Buzz in this one. His best moments in the film are all moments where we gets an out-of-character Buzz: factory default Buzz, Spanish Buzz. It's all good fun, but the familiar character is too-often absent, and when he does finally return to the screen, he's nearly written out again by the romance with Jesse. We just don't see much of Woody's pal, the brave and devoted former Space Ranger.
The deus ex machina near the film's end is rather overblown, in my mind. Just in the knick of time, just as the fire was approaching. I was almost expected to be roused from a dream sequence at that point: they had just written themselves into the peril too deep for any satisfactory resolution.
That situation was the culmination of what I found to be another hole wearing through the films knees by the end: it just didn't stop. Like a lot of action-adventure movies these days, Toy Story 3 couldn't really afford to slow down for a moment. Perhaps the closest we came to a breather was the dawning realization on our heros that death was eminent, that there was nothing to do now but hold hands and face it together--but even this moment was colored by the fire pit before them, the long flight that had just deposited them here, a flight that Woody, only seconds before had finally given up on. This wasn't so much a reflective pause as the momentarily slower plunge to death and a chance to bait the audience before another daring escape.
Now, Toy Story 3 certainly does not suffer from this particular illness to the extent that other adventure films do. There isn't a clear need in this film to have a constant array for explosions and running and sex and explosions, with no rest for the weary. But there were hints. The film-makers capitulated a bit. No longer do we get Woody and Buzz, sitting through a long, painful night, awaiting Sid's violence in the morning, reflecting on their lives and characters, changing before our very eyes.

All of this, however, is finally but a slight blemish on the face of a excellent film.
The last moments are more heart-wrenching than anything in the beginning of Up, and without any sort of manipulation of the film's part. We are witness to one of the most unique of life's painful and natural transitions. Andy knows it and we know it with him. And Bonnie, our new child, is wonderful. Pixar has created a little girl as cute as any you will encounter in life... which is something between impressive and creepy. She's precious, though, and you leave the film hurt but so, so happy for this deserving little child.

All in all, Toy Story 3 is probably far and away the best thing in theaters right now. And it will probably win the Oscar for best animated film next year. It's fun, moving, and just good. But, for me at least, it wasn't Toy Story. The second film I've only seen a time or two, and it's pretty dimly felt. Enjoyable, but not something I know. Toy Story, however, I know, and this third installment is not quite as charming, not quite as touching, and not so fresh (unavoidably so) as its progenitor. That is not to say, however, that Toy Story 3 isn't a worthy entry into a wonderful franchise. I cannot say 'thank you' enough to Pixar for giving us another delightful film that upholds the good name of the Story. Whatever it was lacking, this final episode has a distinctive power, and it gives us, one more time, just a few more hours with some old friends, and of those I'll take all that I can get.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

an ESPN columnist on homosexuality in the Bible for CNN... what?

LZ Granderson, a columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com, has written an interesting little article for CNN Opinion: "Anti-gays hide their bias behind the Bible". My title, by the way, is meant to communicate my confusion at this whole picture, not to say anything about Granderson's credentials or opinion. I think this is actually a pretty good article: it's well written, honest, and behind both of those qualities stands a really clear passion. LZ himself is a gay Christian, and this is a question that's clearly and rightly important to him.

His argument isn't anything new. Like many, Granderson is discontent with the popular anti-gay arguments of (other) Christians that always seem to make the news and the sandwich boards. If Jesus set us free from the law, why are we so adamant about the prohibition of homosexual intercourse in Leviticus? Why don't we ever raise the banner against other sins mentioned in the law, "such as making love to your wife while she's menstruating." Why don't we lobby for legislation that would punish adultery with the death penalty? Wouldn't that be Biblical and consistent?

Some conservatives might attend church only twice a year, but ask their opinion about gays in the military. They can find Leviticus 18:22 blindfolded, handcuffed and sinking underwater: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination."

... like I said, this is a well written piece.

Granderson concludes by asserting unambiguously that he sees all of the 'conservative' protest as a thinly veiled attempt to use the Bible to buttress our own prejudices.

I think there is a lot of merit to Granderson's reading of scripture.
The Bible doesn't offer any distinction between 'ritual and moral laws' in Leviticus, as people like to imply. Why are people ignoring some and running with others?
The Bible also, as he suggests, doesn't give any justification for the all too common, supreme-demonizing of the GLBT crowd. Homosexual intercourse isn't elevated above other sins in scripture; instead it's frequently mentioned as one in a crowd: you find it right next to envy, thievery, etc. I don't see any sandwich boards about that special place in Hell for all the covetous.
If you want to argue with me on this point, go find me the scripture. This might involve reading the Bible, which you probably have not done before.

But what's wrong with Gradnerson's reading? Because there is something wrong.
I could offer several different points here, but let's highlight a simple one. These highly publicized debates all seem to center around Leviticus 18 and the sexual purity laws presented there, and everyone acts as if this is the only passage in the Bible that addresses the topic... when it's not.
In my opinion, the most important passage in relation to the question of homosexuality is not in the Old Testament at all: it's Romans 1. Despite popular construals, Romans 1 is not pronouncing some sort of extra measure of God's wrath upon gays and lesbians--this chapter isn't a prophetic word about AIDS or some such nonsense--nor is it, I think*, giving homosexual intercourse pride of place in the list of sins Paul mentions. But it is, nevertheless, absolutely condemning the practice, and Paul presents homosexual intercourse as a model indication of the fallenness of (all of) humanity away from the worship of the Creator.
The conversation around Leviticus isn't getting us anywhere, but it also simply isn't necessary. The Bible is, Old Testament and New, very consistent on this question, and it does come up multiple times.

The problem with offering a stance on the question of the Church's relation to gays and lesbians is that this has become a two-sided debate... and both sides are wrong. If I want to maintain any kind of interpretive integrity, I have to completely reject the 'progressive' view that would affirm homosexual partnered lifestyles as consistent with the faith of the Church. On the other hand, if I want to seek the kingdom of God with integrity, I cannot support the political maneuvering, the clear prejudices, the unquestioned hypocrisy, or the outright hatred of various parties on the other side.
People won't always recognize love beyond uncompromising condemnation of a lifestyle--and no, I don't mean to imply anything about 'lifestyle choices' by that--but that doesn't mean it's not there; this is just a difficult matter to address and to be addressed concerning. I do think LZ Granderson can be proud of his handling of it in his column. But I still have to dissent. I just pray that, as I do so, I still manage to look like Jesus.

Any post on this topic will be too short, and it won't give the kind of care, detail, and qualifications that I would in a longer discussion. There are so many more aspects of this that I could address here, and I do not line up with the typical conservative viewpoints on many of them--this just isn't the place to go into it all. I more than welcome whatever remarks you would make in the comments, though, and I'd be glad to continue the topic, if need be, there.

-
* I am here following Richard B. Hays's reading of Romans 1 in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament (pp 383-89--though the entire chapter is excellent). Hays concludes, in summary: "Paul singles out homosexual intercourse for special attention because he regards it as providing a particularly graphic image of the way in which human fallenness distorts God's created order... Homosexual acts are not, however, specially reprehensible sins; they are no worse than any of the other manifestations of human unrighteousness listed in the passage" (388).

Thursday, May 27, 2010

but now you must rid yourselves...

Lately I've been reading through N. T. Wright's commentary on Colossians--which has been chock-full of really brilliant insights--and I thought I'd share a bit.
Today I read his comments on Colossians 3:8. Here Paul is trying to show the Colossians what, practically, it means to take "off the old self with its practices and... put on the new self" (3:9-10), and so he exhorts the church: "Now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips." I think Wright's remarks on this verse, while simple, are powerful:

slander, speech which puts malice into practical effect... and filthy language, words which, either by their foul association or their abusive intent, contaminate both speaker and hearers. All such things are to be put away from your lips: one cannot always prevent angry or hateful thoughts from springing into one's head, but they should be dealt with firmly before they turn into words. It is not 'healthy', as is sometimes supposed, to allow such thoughts to find expression. It is certainly healthy to recognize and face up to one's own anger or frustration, and to search for proper and creative ways of dealing with it. But words do not merely convey information or let off steam. They change situations and relationships, often irrevocably. They can wound as well as heal. Like wild plants blown by the wind, hateful words can scatter their seeds far and wide, giving birth to more anger wherever they land.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

the Church Fathers: confronting misconceptions

The Church Fathers have come up several times in my recent posts on sola scriptura, and--though they've been popping up on this blog pretty consistently for over a year now--I feel like it's time to address some concerns that readers may have about them.

Before that, though, maybe a definition is in order. The Church Fathers are those men (yes, this group is basically entirely male) whose writings made up the bulk of Christian teaching and doctrine for the first several centuries of the Church's existence, from the early 100s and on. These are the ministers and theologians who represent the "Tradition" of the Church: their works have countered heresies, encouraged the Church in times of persecution, been subject to centuries of pious study, and guided God's people in interpreting the scripture throughout the history of the Church. Some of these were martyrs, some were monks, some bishops, others philosophers. Many were saints. Names like Augustine, Ignatius of Antioch, Athanasius, Origen, and Jerome come to mind. These men have, to varying degrees, shaped the Church over the millennia, laying the foundation for the churches of today.

If you would like to know my take on the authority of the Fathers, I'll just point you to my earlier post, "why not sola scriptura?". That's not an issue I want to take up here. Instead, I want to offer some brief responses to what are common misgivings that many modern Protestants--like the Southern Baptists whom I grew up among--have about the Tradition and the Church Fathers. Most of what I have to say is adapted from the introduction to a nice little book by an Evangelical scholar, Bryan M. Litfin: Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Litfin addresses Evangelical distrust by going to the very issues that his students have struggled with over the years, and which he's had to confront.
So, let's jump right in.
  1. The Fathers aren't "unbiblical." This idea, to me, suggests that someone hasn't read the Fathers. To be sure, 'many Protestants today associate the sayings of the church fathers with the nebulous concept of "tradition"... "the doctrines of men," as opposed to the divine revelation given in scripture,' and this is exactly where the Fathers go. But just because something is written by fallen human beings doesn't mean that it is therefore wholly wrong. These are Christian human beings, led by God the Holy Spirit... and they love the Bible. Scriptural quotations and themes echo throughout their writings. As Saint Athanasius put it so well, the scriptures are "the fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take [anything away] from these." These men do nothing other than apply themselves to scripture, in hopes of thereby proclaiming the truth of God in their own words.

  2. The Fathers were not Roman Catholics. Before the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, there was no such thing as the "Roman Catholic Church." There was just the catholic Church (the word "catholic" just means "universal"), which included all Western Christians, and whose head was the Pope in Rome. Most of the Fathers were writing before the Pope really rose to power, and none of them would understand themselves to be anything other than catholic Christians. To try and dismiss the Fathers as Roman Catholics is just silly history.

  3. The Church Fathers do not represent the "fall" of Christianity. And a great many Christians, especially evangelicals, if they had to plot the history of the Church on a graph, might offer something like this parabola:

    The Church in Acts is on the left, then about 1400 years of dismal failure, then we see the effects of the Reformation on the right. This is probably a pretty natural assumption to make for Protestants--after all, the idea was that the Church had been corrupted through papal abuse and was in dire need of 'reforming'. But the Reformers did not include the Church Fathers in this estimation of Church history. The late-medieval Church of the 16th century was in need of reform; the Fathers, like Augustine or John Chrysostom, who lived and ministered after the Church arose to power in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, were revered and relied upon by Luther and Calvin. This is partly due to the above two points.
These three points were taken from Litfin, but they've also been confirmed for me through experience. I've found the Fathers to be an indispensable source of wisdom and guidance as I've seriously studied scripture and given thought to my faith over the last few years. I hope that others might give them a chance and find the same.
And of course, the best way to form an opinion about the Fathers is to just read them and see for yourself. To anyone thinking of dipping their toes into the writings of these brilliant and godly men, I highly recommend St. Athanasius's On the Incarnation, with an introduction by C. S. Lewis. This is a fantastic little volume, and really accessible... the Lewis introduction doesn't hurt my opinion of it, either.

If anyone would like to share your experience of getting to know the Church Fathers--good or ill--I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

confronting Professor Everyman

From the BioLogos blog comes Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Karl Giberson, a "science-and-religion scholar" (whatever that means) has written this interesting and, I thought, entertaining post for BioLogos. Giberson apparently shares my healthy respect for experts. Any kind of experts.

Check it out--it's certainly worth the read.

Monday, May 10, 2010

why not sola scriptura?


None of the Protestant Reformers ever used the phrase "sola scriptura"--which is Latin, by the way, and it usually means 'only the Bible is our authority'. None of the Reformers used this phrase, but it's an idea that's usually credited to them. I don't think that's fair, as you know if you saw my recent post on sola scriptura, but that's the popular perception. In the church environment I grew up in, this was the real legacy of the Reformation. We were sola scriptura people to the core.

And now I'm not.

So why not? Why don't I affirm this idea that 'only the Bible is our authority'?
Well, beyond the obvious point that scripture itself doesn't teach any such doctrine, I have several reasons, really, but I think that here I'm only going to go into two of them that have proven pretty central to me as I've given all of this thought over the last few years.

First, let's look at the Bible itself.

"What's the most important page in the Bible?"
My brother likes to ask it this way, and I think it's a pretty good approach. We'll scratch our heads over the question for a while. 'Well, John 3:16 is on page 760 in mine...' 'Oh, the Resurrection is on 712.' For some people, maybe it's page 1. That one gets a lot of press. Page 895 has the final "Amen", which is probably pretty important.
I find myself leaning another direction: I think the most important page in my Bible is page vii, the Table of Contents. After all, there are 66 different books in our Bibles--and how do we know which books? How do we know what is and what is not the canonical Word of God, affirmed by God's people for centuries? The simple fact is, there's nothing in the Bible that can answer that for us. Instead, to answer this all-important question, we have to look at the Table of Contents.

Why is this so important? Because if scripture is the only authority, then we finally don't know what we can even label as scripture.

Here's the natural question to ask next, which for many of us has never even crossed our minds before: well who the heck did decide what's in the Bible? Was it Jesus? Paul? Peter?

Well... no. It wasn't any of them.
In reality, for 300 years, the Table of Contents hadn't been written yet. The first list recording the 66-book canon that Protestants use today that has been preserved was written by St. Athanasius, around 367, more than 300 years after the Church was born.
There was certainly a kind of consensus in the Church before this over which books were to be treated as authoritative and which were not. Nevertheless, the formation of the canon--the clearly defined set of books that is the Bible--that we have today has a long backstory. Books like Revelation and James were in question for a few hundred years. Other gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas, tried to gain authority. Some early heretics even tried to throw out the whole Old Testament! The Table of Contents we have today wouldn't read the same if not for the efforts and influence of men like Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen, or Athanasius.

Thus, every appeal to the authority of scripture is necessarily an appeal to the authority of the Church.
This suggestion will bother a lot of modern Protestants, especially those of the Baptist or Non-denom varieties. It shouldn't. The New Testament speaks very powerfully of the authority of the Church: 1 Timothy 3:15 calls the "church of the living God" "the pillar and foundation of the truth." There are actually no statements in the Bible that strong concerning the authority of scripture itself.

But I'm not simply appealing to the Church as my authority. The Church can only speak truth because of God the Holy Spirit. Here is my second reason: ultimately the Spirit must be the foundation of any claims to authority.
My trust in the Church's decisions regarding what is to be considered canonical scripture is a trust in the guidance of the Spirit. This is the Spirit of truth whom Christ promised to his disciples: "he will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13). This is a promise that I take seriously, and indeed we all must take it seriously if we are to trust in any Christian message. It is this Spirit who inspired the authors of the New Testament (as well as the Old--2 Peter 1:20-21). It is the same Spirit who guided the Church Fathers as they battled heresy and gradually affirmed the Table of Contents of our Bibles.

Now, I believe that scripture, as canonized by the Church, is the most perfect source of inspiration available to Christians in any and all times. But I also believe that the Spirit has spoken throughout history, and we ought to be vigilant for the voice of the Spirit. Returning to the Reformers for a minute, I think Calvin's understanding of the relation of scripture and the Holy Spirit is useful here: "the Spirit goes before the Church, to enlighten her in understanding the Word, while the Word itself... tests all doctrines." The scriptures cannot be read without the Spirit, nor can we make claims about the Spirit without reference to the scriptures.
In keeping with this, whereas the authority of the Church Councils and the Fathers had always been assumed up until Calvin's time, he grants to them a qualified authority: "although... Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word, we still give to Councils and Fathers such rank and honor as it is [right] for them to hold under Christ."
I think this is the appropriate Christian stance towards the Church Tradition. To say that it has no authority at all is to confine the work of the Spirit to a couple of decades after the ascension of Christ and to ignore the realities of the formation of the Biblical canon. Yet the work of the Spirit in the Tradition must be in harmony with the inspiration of the scripture--so scripture can serve as a litmus test for the authority or inspiration of any teaching of the Fathers of the Church.

Now, frankly, I'm not really hoping to force the Tradition on all the good Christians I know who are living faithfully by earnestly and expectantly poring over the scriptures, applying themselves to the texts and applying the texts to themselves.
What bothers me is the disdain often poured on the Tradition in churches that I have come from. We aren't all going to read the Fathers, but we must all be ready to listen to them. The readiness to dismiss anything at all that is not the Bible as worthless, merely the thoughts of men, is to forget the the Holy Spirit was given to lead men into all truth, that the Church is indeed the pillar and foundation of the truth. When we refuse to listen to the wisdom and faith of the Church, we refuse to listen to the Spirit of God who has been at work through the Church. That is why I am not a sola scriptura person. That attitude forces us to ignore God-given counsel--given for the edification of the Body and for the establishment of right doctrine. It forces us to extinguish a light given for all of us as we read and hope to grasp and realize the truths of our faith that are found in the scriptures.

We are already trusting the Spirit and listening to the Church every time we acknowledge the canon of scripture in our Table of Contents. Why aren't we willing to do more?

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Erasmus on gambling

Growing up I was always told that the Bible forbade gambling. Now that I'm grown and I've read the Bible... I'm fairly certain that isn't actually true. The 'gambling verse' is just not in there.

Nevertheless, I don't support gambling, and I found a man who sees the issue in much the same way that I do. The following is a quotation from Erasmus of Rotterdam, a 16th century Christian writer. Erasmus actually remained Roman Catholic as the Protestant Reformation broke out, though he did sympathize greatly with many of the Reformers' concerns. He simply wasn't willing to sacrifice the unity of the Church. He's also pretty well know as a Christian humanist--he's sometimes called the "prince of the humanists", in fact--but keep in mind that this is a far cry from modern, secular humanism.

So, now that we're all close friends, here is Erasmus's rather strong stance on gambling:
Throwing dice cost you a thousand gold pieces in one night, and meanwhile some wretched girl, compelled by poverty, sold her modesty; and a soul is lost for which Christ gave his own. You say, what is that to me? I mind my own business, according to my lights. And yet you, holding such opinions, consider yourself a Christian, who are not even a man!

Sunday, May 02, 2010

two posts on evolution

Chaplain Mike, who has taken the reins of internetmonk.com, has recently posted twice on the topics of creationism and evolution:
To Be or Not To Be, or Why I'm Not a Young Earth Creationist
and
Update on the Creation Wars

The former is a much older piece by the late iMonk himself. Michael articulated well some of my own experiences with these questions:
If I came away with any suspicions that the young earth creationists might be wrong, it came from my developing an appreciation for Biblical interpretation, not from the Biology lab. Secular science didn’t turn my head. I learned that the people waving the Bible around weren’t necessarily treating it with the respect it deserved... many of my evangelical and fundamentalist brethren were not willing to let the scriptures be what they were or to let them speak their own language.

The latter piece is a bit less sensitive, but well said all the same. This piece was prompted by the recent happenings--that I was until now wholly unaware of--at Reformed Theological Seminary, where respected evangelical Old Testament professor Bruce Waltke was forced to resign after suggesting in an online video that the Church needs to take a new approach to the appraisal of scientific data concerning evolution.

I think these are both worth reading (though they're both relatively long) for those of you interested in or perhaps struggling with the issue. The top post by iMonk, especially, may be helpful to readers for whom this is still a very difficult topic.

If anyone by now is still unsure as to where I stand on these questions and is interested, I would point you to this post from about a year ago on wardrobe: Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

God actually is quite Great: Maria Skobtsova

A year or two ago I tried to read Christopher Hitchens's bestseller God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I wanted to read it, I really did. I like to hear people out. However after a while I threw in the towel. Hitchens's entire argument in the book is a classic logical fallacy: the ad hominem.
An ad hominem runs something like this: 'you have a big nose, therefore your argument is false'. Or, as the dictionary has it: "attacking an opponent's motives or character rather than the policy or position they maintain." This is an appeal not to logic but to emotions, and this is precisely what Hitchens's book is--one big, yellow, bound, ad hominem argument, that actually has no logical weight (though it is quite popular). 'Religion has a big nose, therefore its argument is false'.
After he had viciously criticized the Dali Lama, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa, I had just had enough.

Now there are two major problems with this sort of attack on religion. The first, that I've already suggested, is that it's illogical.
The second, is that it's strength relies on a thoroughly one-sided account of things. Hitchens admits to admiring two Christians--Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Yet he immediately proceeds to explain why they weren't 'really' Christians. After all, if they were, Hitchens's argument would implode.
While his effort, for example, to turn Bonhoeffer's faith into a "nebulous humanism" is ridiculous, it also must be pointed out that there have been thousands upon thousands of Christians over the millennia to whom even Christopher Hitchens might give some credit, were they acknowledged and their stories told.

That's the point of this new series of posts on wardrobe. I want to tell the stories of some of these relatively unknown believers and--though I admit freely that this has no logical weight in the arguments for or against the existence of God, etc.--let their lights shine in the popularly perceived darkness of Christian history. These people, whatever an angry atheist might suggest to the contrary, hint by their lives that God might actually be quite Great.

-
Today I want to introduce an Orthodox missionary and nun named Maria Skobtsova.

Mother Maria began serving Russian refugees in Paris the in 1920s, opening a shelter and soup kitchen. Her efforts there inspired the idea of "Orthodox Action," that seeks to care for needy, displaced peoples.

Of course, Mother Maria's situation changed drastically with the Nazi take-over of Paris in 1940. As persecution of the Jews in Paris began, many Christians felt that this was not a Christian problem and none of their concern. Maria, in contrast contended that "there is no such thing as a Christian problem." During the Nazi occupation, she took part in providing Jews with falsied baptismal certificates so they might avoid registration. When thousands of Jews were arrested in 1942 and held prisoner in a sports stadium awaiting transport to Auschwitz, Maria spent days distributing food and clothing to them. She even managed to smuggle some Jewish children out of stadium by bribing trash-men to take them out in trash-cans and release them. Her hospitality shelter in Paris was overflowing with people, including many Jews, at this time.

In 1943, however, Maria, her son, and their Orthodox companions were arrested by the Nazis as well; all of them were sent to concentration camps, with Maria going to RavensbrΓΌck. Survivors of the camp have spoken of the care that Mother Maria showed for her fellow prisoners and the impression she left on all those she interacted with. On Good Friday 1945 Maria Skobtsova died in the gas chamber after taking the place of a Jewish prisoner who was about to be executed.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

5 poor models of sola scriptura

5. C. S. Lewis (1898-1963). C. S. Lewis might seem harmless on the shelves of your local LifeWay, but you need to stay far away from this fellow. Not only is he willing to call parts of the Bible "truth, not fact," but he claims that we should listen to other voices of the world besides the Word of God. "If every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights then all true and edifying writings, whether in Scripture or not, must be in some sense inspired." You can keep your liberal reasoning, Lewis, and you can keep your unChristian propaganda, LifeWay. Those of us fighting for pure, Reformation Christianity are better off pretending that Lewis didn't exist.

4. John Calvin (1509-1564). Considering Calvin's popularity in all the right circles, one might expect him to be a fine model of the central Christian doctrine of sola scriptura. Better think again. Slippery John Calvin parades himself as a Reformer, but he obviously didn't understand Protestant Christianity. In his famous Institutes, Calvin goes so far as to appeal to the 'wisdom' of pagan philosophers, like Plato (Institutes III. XX. 34). The foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, Mr. Calvin. Elsewhere, he openly professes his confused, Roman Catholic conviction: "we give to Councils and Fathers such rank and honor as it is meet for them to hold, under Christ." John Calvin clearly never learned that true Christians aren't going to give any heed to the thoughts and decisions of men.

3. Martin Luther (1483-1546). Martin Luther is supposed to have inaugurated the Protestant Reformation. He's usually even credited with the whole idea of sola scriptura (though of course we know it's much older than Luther, going all the way back to Jesus), but don't be fooled. Luther is hardly an example for the faithful Christian. For instance, in his 'famous treatise' On the Bondage of the Will, Luther appeals to "saints" like Augustine of Hippo and Hilary of Poitiers, and throughout he quotes pagan writers like Virgil, Horace, Cato, and Ovid. More like famous lies.

2. Jude (d. c. AD 65 ). Jude is thoroughly, thoroughly confused. He doesn't even know what's in the Bible. In Jude 9 he starts rambling about Michael and Moses's body. Think that's from the Old Testament? Wrong. It's from an ancient work called The Assumption of Moses. In verses 14-15 he goes at it again. Here he starts quoting Enoch... as if Enoch had any speaking lines in the Bible. No, this isn't from the Old Testament either, but from another ancient text called 1 Enoch. Yet our friend Jude treats this stuff as if it were actually authoritative. I knew there was a good reason that no one pays attention to his epistle.

1. the Apostle Paul (c. AD 2-67). Now you're thinking 'surely Paul, who wrote so much of the New Testament has a handle on proper Christian doctrine!' Not so. In 2 Timothy 3:8, he refers to "Jannes and Jambres," out of an ancient Jewish paraphrase of Exodus 7. Excuse me, Paul, but that's not in the Bible. It gets worse. In 1 Corinthians 15:33, he quotes "bad company corrupts good morals." Paul's quoting an ancient Greek playwright, Menander, here. You want to know something that corrupts good morals, Paul? Listening to words other than the word of God.

No matter what kinds of examples these sorts of men set, Christians, we must stick to true, Biblical teaching. Sola scriptura.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Wright on C. S. Lewis

N. T. Wright has recently written a short piece for the C. S. Lewis Blog on 'virtue' and following in the footsteps of Lewis. It's all, I have to point out, tied to the Bishop's latest book, After You Believe.
This is, as I say, a short piece. If you'd like to read something more substantial by Wright on Lewis, he gave a talk about four years ago while promoting Simply Christian that's still available online: "Simply Lewis." Here you get a little more insight into the influence Lewis had on N. T. Wright, as well as some of Wright's criticisms of Lewis.

If your literary tastes are anything like mine, then you will enjoy these two pieces, so check them out.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Michael Spencer, 1956-2010

The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, passed away earlier this week. He had been battling cancer since December. Please be in prayer for his family in their time of mourning.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Feast of the Annunciation


Today is the Feast of the Annunciation. In layman's terms, today we celebrate the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary in Luke 1. "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus..." (Luke 1:31).

Why today? Isn't this Lent--isn't Good Friday just next week? It does seem like an odd time for this suspiciously Christmasy celebration, but there is good reason: pregnancies take nine months. You can do the math.

In celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation, I'm again posting a poem by the great English poet John Donne (1572-1631), "Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608." Because Good Friday moves around from year to year, it happens on occasion that it will fall upon March 25th--this happened in 2005, and it's coming up again in 2016. Donne wrote this poem, as the title makes clear enough, on such an occasion. I think this piece is beautiful, and I've personally found it to be a great way to consider the weight and majesty of the Annunciation while nevertheless keeping an eye to Holy Week, fast approaching.

Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who's all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she's seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she's in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgment of Christ's story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels' Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God's court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or 'twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood's extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though one blood drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all;
So though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

speaking true identities


Yesterday I sat through a fantastic lecture in my Old Testament course, where the professor lamented the Church's loss of a serious familiarity with the Psalms in the last century. At the heart of this lament was a respect for the power of a community's shared language.

What do I mean?

Nate: ... and that just didn't work at all. Oh well--now we know.
Joe: And knowing is half the battle.
both: [raising fists in the air] G.I.JOOOOE!

Sub-culture. Right there.
A culture or a sub-culture is bound together by shared experiences--experiences that were here articulated through and recognized by a shared language. These guys are both 80s kids, and now they know it. I could have used a hundred different examples, with talk of red-shirts, or "Who Dat?", or dropping Hennys--the point remains the same. Shared language can forge community.

The Church, too, is bound together by shared language. We have particular language of God, creation, sin, grace, membership, that expresses the particular beliefs and experiences of the Church. Of course the Church is also bound together in a more fundamental way than this--in Christ through the Holy Spirit. "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Cor. 12:27): in Christ we are made into something new and communal that we simply were not before. But socially, as the people who have different visions for the Church's budget, who have to work with each other's kids in the nursery, who have to make long car rides together, and who pray together, we need to be bound by language. Language of faith, hope and love; language of judge not, bear one another's burdens, and pure and undefiled religion.

How is this supposed to happen? Where do we get this language, and why is it common to us all?

It's the language of scripture.
This may sound simplistic, but the Church needs to know the language of scripture--we need to be reading and teaching the Bible. As we are immersed in the words of scripture, not only can we familiarize ourselves with them and be formed by them, but our communities have a foundation. We are the people called out of darkness into His marvelous light; we are the taking-up-cross people; we are the Body of Christ. This is our identity as the people of God, and we learn it and can articulate it from scripture. It is only as we do this that the distinctive culture that is the Church can be properly defined.

Of course, there's also the language of Tradition--the words that the Church has found, over two-thousand years, to best illuminate the scripture, speak where scripture does not, or describe new realities that we are forced to acknowledge. This is the language of Incarnation, Trinity, Fall, Eucharist, and so on. After we've learned the language of scripture--or, rather, as we continue to learn it, for this process won't ever be really concluded--we must begin to learn the language of the Tradition. Only then can we really appreciate the self-understanding of the Church that we've inherited from previous generations, and only then can we converse with the centuries of brothers and sisters who have gone before us, to learn from their insights and inspiration. This also is the language of the properly defined Church.

Why is this so important? Why am I writing about it now?
Though it may not seem so, this message is pressing. It's pressing because the members of the Church are also people in the world, and they are learning the language of the world. The language of The Bachelor or YouTube or SportsCenter. In this context, a subculture has to be purposeful about maintaining its particular identity.
The subculture that is the Church is going to be defined by something. If we are indeed not to be 'of the world' (John 15:19), then we do need to distinguish ourselves from it somehow, don't we?
We can start here. The language of the Church must be the language of the scripture. Therein will we find the perfect articulation of our identities--as a community and as individuals--and learn to articulate it for ourselves. Therein will we find an expression of the beliefs and experiences that bind us together as a particular people in the middle of the melting pot of the world.

Monday, March 08, 2010

fun with Martin Luther


Occasionally the great Reformer will say something really entertaining, at least to me.
This is from Luther's commentary on the book of Genesis:
We all realize how much of the dominion which man received in Paradise was lost after our defilement by sin. And yet what a great blessing it still is that this dominion was turned over to man and not to the devil! For how could we withstand our invisible enemy if he had not only the determination to inflict harm but also the power to do so? In one hour, in one moment, we would all be annihilated if Satan stirred up merely the wild beasts against us.

A man of great insight.

I hope to have some proper posts up soon, but I'm making no guarantees there. This has been an insanely busy semester--Luther & friends have been taking up much of my time and energy. We'll see how the coming weeks treat me, though.

Friday, January 29, 2010

while you're praying for Haiti, say a prayer for Richard Dawkins


Richard Dawkins simply doesn't understand Christianity.

This is sad for a number of reasons.
He is, after all, a man in need of Jesus--just like the rest of us. He's also--sadly, unlike many of us who know better--viewed as something of an authority on religion. Millions of people around the globe place great stock in his words and judgments.
All the while, he simply doesn't understand Christianity.

Earlier today Dr. Dawkins published a column for the Times Online on 'Christian hypocrisy.'
Certainly such a thing exists, and one does not need any kind of pedigree in Christian doctrine to identify it in many of its forms. Yet, I'm afraid what Dawkins has written reveals more about himself than it does about Christian teaching.

Ignoring his remarks about the doctrine of the Atonement (which, I have to point out, betray pretty clearly his ignorance of Christian teaching), let's take a look at some of his closing remarks. All of this is in the context of a reflection on the recent remarks of Pat Robertson concerning the carnage in Haiti, as well as the Christian reaction against Robertson.

You nice, middle-of-the-road theologians and clergymen, be-frocked and bleating in your pulpits, you disclaim Pat Robertson's suggestion that the Haitians are paying for a pact with the Devil. But you worship a god-man who — as you tell your congregations, even if you don’t believe it yourself — “cast out devils”. You even believe (or you don’t disabuse your flock when they believe) that Jesus cured a madman by causing the “devils” in him to fly into a herd of pigs and stampede them over a cliff. Charming story, well calculated to uplift and inspire the Sunday School and the Infant Bible Class.

Robertson may spout evil nonsense, but he is a mere amateur at that game. Just read your own New Testament. Pat Robertson is true to it. But you?

Dawkins, at the end, suggests that the New Testament is as sadistic (I don't think that's too strong a word) as Robertson himself seems to be; it is the compassionate Christian who has missed the most thoroughly Christian reading of both the ancient text and the contemporary disaster.

Dr. Dawkins, let us see if the New Testament itself might guide us towards the proper, Christian view of such horrors as the earthquake in Haiti.
In fact, let's look at the New Testament's final word on such things.

Revelation 21:1-4
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."

I've read my New Testament. I'm not sure what grand theological point you draw from demons driving a herd of swine off of a cliff... but on the issues of pain, suffering, and death, the New Testament is quite straightforward. "Death is swallowed up in victory" (1 Cor. 15:54).

If--and I believe this is the case--Richard Dawkins can really listen to Pat Robertson and then say 'ah, the true Christian voice', he really doesn't understand the first thing about Christianity.

And this man is viewed as something of an authority.

I mean this in all sincerity: pray for Richard Dawkins. Pray that he would come to understand the topics on which he speaks. More than that, pray that he might see something of the God who looks at the world and then says "Behold, I am making all things new."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Feast of St. John Chrysostom

Today is the feast day of Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) on the Church calendar. My brother Daniel has a short post on his blog Gloria Deo commemorating this wonderful man, one of the saints and Fathers who has meant the most to me personally.

Check it out, and take time to remember John.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Rachel Held Evans on the disaster in Haiti

Rachel Held Evans is asking what Christians should have been doing for Haiti.
Last month, last year, whenever. (If you are not sure what's going on in Haiti, here is CNN's latest report on the recent earthquake.)

Perhaps some will plead ignorance in the face of her questions--you may not have known much about the Haitian 'standard of living' (if that term is not too grand) or even been aware of the little island nation. I for one can make no such plea; World Vision has made sure that I'm familiar with such places and such needs.

Check out Rachel's post, and take her questions seriously. Haiti is not the only scene of such poverty, and Haiti, along with the others, is not going anywhere. These issues will be important for Christians long after this earthquake is forgotten.

Also, here's an old post of mine dealing with the Christian response to poverty.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Wright on After You Believe

Trevin Wax has recently interviewed
N. T. Wright concerning the bishop's forth-coming book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.

We modern westerners – and even more postmodern westerners – are trained by the media and public discourse to think that “letting it all out” and “doing what comes naturally” are the criteria for how to behave. There is a sense in which they are – but only when the character has been trained so that “what comes naturally” is the result of that habit-forming training.

The book’s main target is not the other major moral theories of deontology and consequentialism, but the ideas of “spontaneity” and “authenticity” which have a grain of truth (Christians really should act “from the heart”), but which screen out the reality of moral formation, of chosen and worked-at habit-forming prayer and moral reflection and action, which gradually over time form the Christian character in which “authentic” behavior is also truly Christian behavior, not simply “me living out my prejudices and random desires”.

Check out the entire interview at Kingdom People.

The title of the UK version of the book is Virtue Reborn, which may give you further indication of the direction Wright's moving in here. If that weren't enough, the book has been recommended by Stanley Hauerwas: "Bishop Wright, with his usual wisdom and erudition, shows how an account of the virtues is not only compatible but required by the New Testament understanding of what it means to be a Christian. This important book hopefully will be read by theologian and non-theologian alike."

This may prove a nice introduction to the contemporary Christian discussion of the virtues that you find in MacIntyre and Hauerwas, but I suppose those of us who don't receive advance copies of these things will just have to find out in March.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

hermeneutical woes: problems with a hard 'faith alone' reading


"Hermeneutics" is a big word. Or, at least, it's a funny looking word, which is just as threatening. "Hermeneutics" is also an important and prominent word in biblical studies, and it really has a simple meaning: hermeneutics deals with the way one interprets scripture.

Sunday I listened to a sermon by a pastor who is laboring under some hermeneutical woes. This burden, that probably weighs on his every sermon, this pastor would call 'the new covenant', but I think there's a little confusion here.

The sermon came from Colossians 1--they're doing a verse by verse study of the letter--particularly verses 19-23.

19 For in him [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

I had few real complaints with the sermon, in fact it was quite good, until the last point. This point, as you might guess, dealt with the last verse, 23. The pastor had already given his hand away--he did not like verse 23. It was clear from the way he read the passage: he read slowly and with much emphasis the words of :19-22, and then paused a while to glory in the message of the text. Finally he continued, rushing through 23 without any of the previous care.

Why the disdain for Colossians 1:23?
Because, as he said, this verse suddenly makes it sound like 'it's all on us again', and this, apparently, will not do. In this pastor's mind, if it's 'all on us', then it's not all of Jesus, and it's not the gospel. He has a problem with the word 'work'. He feels that the New Testament has a problem with the word 'work'.
He's laboring under a hermeneutical woe.

What does this look like? When people try to read a strong doctrine of justification by grace through faith into every verse of the New Testament, as this man was doing, the woe often has a few consistent characteristics.
  1. Inserting 'earn' language. I've taught studies on James 2 many times now, and I'm often met with opposition from the students when I affirm James 2:24--"You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." James is quite clear on this point, an yet students are quite resistant on this point, and they will ask me 'do you mean that we have to do works to earn our salvation?' This question comes up every time. And of course the answer is no. I don't teach anything about 'earning' salvation. James doesn't write anything about 'earning' salvation. Yet this is how many receive the teaching. This is a misunderstanding of the message. We will always be trapped by interpretive pitfalls if we cannot let the text speak for itself. If you make assumptions about a teaching, you won't be able to understand it or proclaim it for what it actually is. Paul says nothing in Colossians 1:23 about earning salvation, but so long as you force that idea onto his message, you force yourself to ignore entirely what he is actually teaching about the Christian life.

  2. The interpretive contortionist. When one has decided to reject all talk of the necessity of works in the Christian life, they immediately find themselves face to face with quite an obstacle: the New Testament. Verses and passages like 1 Corinthians 9:27, James 2:14-26, 1 Peter 1:17, Revelation 20:12-13, and, apparently, Colossians 1:23 (among others) suddenly become very threatening. The only way to meet this threat is to do a bit a 'creative' interpreting, twisting the scripture into all sorts of shapes that it ought not to be in. "A person is justified by works" actually means 'if you are really saved then you are going to do some kind of work'. Whatever "disqualified" really means, it obviously does not mean what it seems to be communicating in 1 Cor. 9. Colossians 1:23, of course, doesn't actually mean to place any responsibility in our hands. Paul certainly would never suggest we must actually do something as followers of Christ. Such conclusions manage to contort the scripture into some really curious shapes and fit it into very odd, little boxes. Of course there is a prominent alternative to this feat: the disappearing act. Many teachers will rarely if ever address the passages that complicate their teaching. Problem solved.

  3. The dichotomy. All of this is necessary because of the great marker of this particular woe: the faith-works dichotomy. This is the subjection of scripture to, what the pastor I listened to Sunday would call, 'manly wisdom'. Readers assume that faith and works present us with an either/or, and we must choose which option to embrace, which to reject. Unfortunately, this flies in the face of scripture. They will quote Romans 3:28, even though Paul is not talking about works in general but "works of the law", which makes obvious reference to particular works understood within a particular system of Hebrew thought. They will quote James 2:24, even though James is not talking about faith in general but "faith alone", a 'dead faith'. The closest scripture ever comes to supporting this dichotomy is Ephesians 2:8-9 ("For by grace you have been saved..."), but even this passage is suggesting something other than the works described by James as 'justifying'. The fundamental problem of the dichotomy is that interpreters here try to say more than scripture says. When scripture makes an affirmation, the interpreter tries to go even further and infer a negation as well, even though it is not stated in the text. Of course you'll have difficulty 'reconciling' Paul to James when in fact you're misstating both sides' arguments.
I hope that these observations may prove edifying to someone. This is not only a danger when reading passages about justification--all of us reading and teaching scripture must constantly be on guard against bringing artificial suppositions to a passage. More than anything else we have to be able to see what is there.
Also, as I've written recently, we have to be able to accept apparent frictions. When we begin subjecting the text to our own 'reasoning' in hopes of ironing out some of the more unnerving wrinkles in the Bible's message, what we usually accomplish is simply destroying the delicate and necessary balances that scripture tries to maintain between different currents. Most of the great heresies in Church history arose from the emphasis of one such Biblical current to the exclusion of the other. We need the balance. We simply have to take the Bible for what it is.

In the last point of his sermon Sunday, this pastor pointed out that 'a lot of people get mad at me when I tell them that what they do doesn't matter.' He thought this was some kind win for the good guys. They get mad, he feels, because they'd like to think that they can earn their salvation.
Well, I was mad. Not because I want to teach the falsehood that one can do works that merit salvation. I was mad because the New Testament teaches that what we do matters immensely. And his congregation is never going to learn that truth in church, because his teaching is entombed in interpretive confusion.

A member of the congregation later told me that she felt the pastor never taught on obedience.
It seems that Christ's commission to 'teach them to observe all that I have commanded you' has been suffocated by hermeneutical woes.