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.