Monday, December 6, 2010

If Spirit = Breath, what of Theopneustos?

Those who know me well may have seen this coming...but now that we've looked at the Holy Spirit, not as a "being" but as the Wind/Breath of God (see this post if you haven't already read it), it's time to take another look at an old friend.  I refer, of course, to θεόπνευστος ("theopneustos") from 2 Tim. 3:16.  Those who already know Greek will know, and the perceptive among the rest of you may notice, that this is a compound of θεός ("theos," god--not necessarily the Christian one) and a form of πνεῦμα ("pneuma", wind or breath or spirit as previously discussed).

The usual translation of θεόπνευστος, as nearly everybody knows, is "inspired" or "God-breathed," and is the source of the common notion that what Paul was saying to Timothy was that the scriptural canon was breathed out by God...that is, that God is the source of "all scripture" (I've previously argued--1 & 2--that this statement cannot legitimately be read as an imprimatur on the entirety of our current canon).  Unfortunately, it appears that Paul coined a word that has no antecedent in classical Greek literature and only occurs once in the entire biblical text.  We are therefore stuck with the task of deducing what he meant by taking the word apart into its constituent parts, and one possibility (of course) is that the translators are right, that equivalents of "breathed out by God" are in fact correct and that Paul is saying that those scriptures which "are able to make you wise unto salvation" (v. 17) actually come from God.

But what if θεόπνευστος is not "breathed out," but rather "breathed upon" or "breathed into?"  Might Paul be suggesting that the written words, lifeless in and of themselves, become profitable--even powerful--when they are infused with the life-giving Breath of the Father?  Perhaps it's not an issue of writings being "inspired" at all, but rather what happens when these writings become "in-spirited" in the context of believers individually and collectively seeking God through them.  It stands to reason that any writing, whether by the canonical authors, by modern believers, or even by secular writers, becomes highly profitable if and when it's enlivened by the Breath of Life.

This is not to suggest that God is not the actual source of any of the biblical writings.  2 Pet. 2:20-21 is one good example of how God clearly and specifically moved prophets to write and speak specific words to his people.  Our task as believers is to discern those words--and the spirit within them--and to pray that God will yet again breathe upon us as we seek to be equipped for his work.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Holy Spirit - Part 2: When and Where?

In my last post I took issue with common Christian creeds' trinitarian characterization of the Holy Spirit.  This time I'm going to take a look at another element of common Evangelical statements of faith: the claim that the Holy Spirit "indwells every believer."  This teaching makes the claim that the Holy Spirit is bestowed upon everyone who "believes in Christ" (a phrase fraught with its own baggage), and essentially dwells in the believer for life.

As with most required doctrines, this one doesn't stand up well to comparison with what scripture actually says.  Let's start with the most obvious evidence, two historical accounts in Acts.  Acts 8:14-17 relates how Peter and John were sent to Samaria, to a group who had believed in Jesus, who were even "baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus," but who did not receive the Holy Spirit until the prayer of Peter and John.  The second account is Acts 19:1-7, in which a group of "disciples" had already received the baptism of John (and given the use of the term "disciples," one would believe already accepted the message of Jesus' lordship), but who had not even heard of the Holy Spirit, which was given to them when Paul laid his hands on them after baptism.  The evidence is pretty straightforward: unless we accept a dispensational interpretation nowhere supported in the New Testament, it is possible both to believe in Jesus and to be baptised in his name, and yet not have received the Holy Spirit.

The second part of this doctrine is the implicit notion that whatever receiving the Holy Spirit means, it's a once-and-done event.  Here, too, the scriptural evidence would suggest otherwise.  There are, of course, numerous accounts in the Old Testament (particularly the books of Samuel and Kings) where the Spirit of God seems to come and go from the same individuals...usually kings or minor prophets.  But even in Acts, it is interesting to note that the same people are shown to have been "filled with the Holy Spirit" at least twice:  see Acts 2:4 and Acts 4:31.  Furthermore, we learn in Acts 6:3-5 that a condition for selecting the men to serve as the first deacons (this is when Stephen was ordained), was that these be men "full of the Spirit."   This requirement is nonsensical, unless there is either (1) such a thing as a believer who has not received the Spirit at all, or (2) at least varying degrees of "filledness" with the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps as intriguing as anything, though, is Paul's statement in 1 Cor. 7:40 that, in relation to a command he's just given, "I think I, too, have the Spirit of God."  This claim truly makes no sense if every believer is always-and-forever indwelt by the Spirit.

The principal reason I believe this error matters, is that it allows us to cop out of a major self-examination desperately needed by both individual believers and the church as a body.  Here's what I mean:  throughout the Bible, when the Breath of God moves in and through an individual or a group, something big happens--and by "big" I do not mean people get teary-eyed or feel a major case of the warm fuzzies.  Countless times, it results in the individual prophesying (Num. 11:25, 1 Sam. 10:10, 1 Sam. 19:20, Luke 1:67, Acts 19:6).  It can result in people speaking in languages other than their own (Acts 2:4, Acts 10:46).  It can also result in superhuman strength (Judges 15:14) or even physical transportation (Acts 8:39).  The Spirit of God doesn't always make a splash; Isaiah 11:2 refers to the overall anointing of Messiah's life (though when this actually happened (Luke 3:22 and parallels) it was certainly obvious enough.
An interesting aside here--if the conventional notion of the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ being persons of the Trinity were true, why does scripture report the Holy Spirit coming on Jesus, not only in Luke 3:22, but also his self-proclamation in Luke 4:18-19?  How can one "person" of a "godhead" receive another "person?"
Anyhow, my point here is, what is the evidence of the Breath of God blowing through our churches today?  It is my stubborn belief that, if God's mighty wind were to blow in our midst, we wouldn't have to do mental gymnastics to believe it, we'd have the evidence smacking us in the face!  And if, as I regretfully suspect, those who lead the Body of Christ have so thoroughly quenched the spirit that God has taken his action elsewhere, what are we--what are you--what am I--going to do about it?

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Holy Spirit - Breath of God

I approach this subject with a bit more caution than some of my posts, because I know it's going to be particularly sensitive to some readers...enough so, in fact, that a couple caveats are necessary at the outset.  First and foremost, while in the next couple posts I'm going to challenge a number of commonly-held teachings about the Holy Spirit, I am NOT denying either (1) that the Holy Spirit is real, or (2) that the Holy Spirit comes from God the Father.  I acknowledge Jesus' warning in Matt. 12:31, paralleled in Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10, that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable; however, the context in Matthew and Mark makes it clear that what Jesus was talking about here was an accusation that the work he was doing through the Spirit of God, was actually of the devil.  This is not what I am saying, nor should it so be taken.

With the caveats properly stated, though, I will come to the first point.  Christian doctrine has held since the very early days, that the Holy Spirit is a "hypostasis" or "person" of a triune godhead.  I have previously suggested that the notion of the Trinity doesn't square well with the way Jesus represented himself and his relationship to the Father; now here I will add that the Spirit of God as described in the Gospels and Acts, also doesn't lend itself well to the Trinitarian definition.  I just took a look at every occurrence of the word in all four Gospels plus Acts, and while the Spirit is heavily in evidence throughout all five accounts, the sense of the word seems to me far more like an amorphous presence than a distinct entity, and nowhere in all five books is there any claim that God's Spirit (which is clearly bestowed upon others from time to time, and which clearly influences events) is actually a form or being of God himself (though it unquestionably comes from God).

The word in Greek which is translated "Spirit" as in "Holy Spirit" is nothing more than the word πνεῦμα (pneuma).  This same word is also translated as "ghost," "breath," and "wind" in various places and by various translators.  Sometimes it's linked to the word "holy," and other times it stands by itself.  But by separating the concept of "breath/wind" from the concept of "spirit," English Bible translators have created a divided concept which fits well with standard creeds, but masks a much less clear-cut concept in the actual text.  Perhaps the most intriguing passage I found to illustrate this point was John 3:8, which says:
"The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Both the word "wind" in the beginning of the verse, and "Spirit" at the end, are the exact same word in Greek.  We may think "the Spirit blows where it wishes" or "everyone born of the wind" make no sense, but that has more to do with the doctrines we've built around the Holy Spirit than it does with solid translation.  If we were to allow the original language to speak for itself, the metaphor of the "breath of God" actually pervades the Bible all the way from Genesis on.  In the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures done about 200 years before Jesus, the spirit of God moving over the face of the waters is a form of the same Greek word (the wind of God moving over the waters...think about it), and even more beautifully, when in Genesis 2, God breaths into man the breath of life, it's also the same word--actually the Greek synonym πνοὴν (pnoe). 

This latter parallels spectacularly with Jesus' breathing on the disciples and saying "receive the Holy Spirit (breath)" in John 20:22.  Just as the breath of God is what made man "a living soul" in Genesis 2, so the breath of Jesus made man a living soul in the New Creation of the resurrected Christ.

So why am I saying this?  Do I really care whether we use the term "Holy Spirit" or the maybe more-poetic term "Breath of God" to refer to the influencing presence God sometimes bestows on his people?  Well yes, I do, but not as a matter of semantics.  I'll get into how the coming of the Holy Breath is actually described in scripture, next time.  But for now, I care because the doctrinal statements to which Evangelicals are often expected to subscribe, include assent to an explicit and detailed doctrine of the Trinity.  Nothing new here...the old creeds have been demanding as much since at least the third or fourth century, though interestingly, the Apostles' Creed only states "I believe in the Holy Spirit," without any details of just what that belief must entail.  Nevertheless, I'm afraid this is another area where our Christian authorities' obsession with lists of things one must think in order not to be damned, has overtaken the simple message of the Gospel.  The expectation of the church is that we think and speak and teach a certain way.  The expectation of Jesus was, and is, that we live a certain way, influenced by the wind of his Father blowing through us.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Confronting homelessness in person

Just wanted to highlight the work of a local Atlanta man who's chosen to spend a month homeless to highlight the homelessness situation around here.  Elijah Montgomery has temporarily abandoned his comfortable job and digs, in an attempt to raise money for a coffee house he wants to start, at which he will hire homeless kids to work.

You can read about his effort on, or even better read his own thoughts at his blog, The Waiverly Projects.  I encourage you to visit, comment, and if possible, donate!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

An Open Letter to Christopher Hitchens

 Note:  I don't actually know any way to get this letter to Mr. Hitchens, and I have no idea how he'd respond if he read it. But I think some of the following needs to be said...and maybe someone who needs to will read it.

Dear Mr. Hitchens,

I'm a Christian, and I'd like to apologize to you.

I heard the NPR interview with you and your brother Peter yesterday, and I understand that Christians are coming out of the woodwork to let you know they're praying for you, and to make a last-ditch effort to save your soul before the cancer gets you.  I wonder if you must be feeling like the vultures are circling, waiting to take a bite out of your carcass--although in your case the disquieting reality is that those buzzards want their bite of you BEFORE you die.  I wouldn't be too pleased with that either.  I regret the harrassment you're getting in the name of my God.

I'm sorry.

You have expressed before, and expressed again in the interview, some pretty harsh objections to Christianity.  Strange as it may seem, I think your criticisms have at times been spot-on.  You said that you found the notion of a human sacrifice vicariously atoning for your sin to be morally offensive, and I agree completely.  The funny thing is, if I'm reading my Bible at all correctly, God would agree too.  The penal-substitution so loudly proclaimed by most Christians is a complex theory that does not hold up to serious scrutiny of the source from which they claim to derive it--that is the Bible--and I regret you've been sold such a bill of goods, that you believe that teaching to be integral to faith in God.

I'm sorry.

You also have pointed out on repeated occasions, the horrors that have been done throughout history in the name of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.  Again I agree with you, and the way I read my Bible, I believe God would agree with you too.  The Inquisition and the Crusades, and right up to the wars of Bush, have at least partial roots in Christian institutions, and they were wrong and evil. 

Of course I do think you're making a category mistake by concluding those acts are the necessary outgrowth of religion.  Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung also commited horrible atrocities--right up there in awfulness with the Christian ones--and they did it in the name of Communism.  I would submit that a careful comparison of these guys with the writing of Karl Marx makes it patently obvious that what they did had nothing to do with Marxism, and that an equally-careful comparison of the medieval popes' and crusaders' and Bush's actions with the Bible would lead to the identical conclusion:  in fact public Christianity has just about as much in common with the Jesus of the Bible, as the Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge, and Communist China have with Marx and his Manifesto.  So I would submit to you that applying your journalistic chops to a comparison/contrast of the sacred texts of either group would be in order.  Nevertheless, you have been sold a bill of goods by a violent, hateful mob claiming the mantle of Christ, and I regret the mischaracterization of Jesus has left you so repulsed by him.

I'm sorry.

I'm not trying to convert you, Mr. Hitchens.  I know my powers of reasoning aren't that stunning, and furthermore, though reason can inform faith, I don't believe it can compel it.  Frankly, I do not know, were you to confront the reality of Jesus instead of the bad counterfeit that's been shoved in your face all these years, whether you'd like the real thing any better.  I only dare you to have a serious look at the Jesus the Gospels actually portray, without all the baggage Christians have loaded onto him--baggage which I say again, you have rightly rejected.

I hope you will indulge me if I say that I do pray you'll find peace--not only in an eternal sense (to the extent you may or may not feel you need it), but in the very earthly sense that the vultures will let you spend your last days, or months, or years unassaulted.  In this, perhaps, the real Jesus might intervene...for what it's worth, I'll ask him.


Dan Martin

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Christopher Hitchens Interview -- More evidence bad theology drives people away from Jesus

I heard a great feature this morning on NPR's show "Morning Edition," in which the brothers Christopher and Peter Hitchens were interviewed.  Christopher, as most of you likely know, is a world-famous atheist (I would describe him as an anti-theist fundamentalist) who rails against those who hold to faith, and who wrote the bestseller "God is Not Great."  What I did not know is that his brother Peter is an Anglican Christian, and their arguments for and against belief have been somewhat public as well.  Now Christopher is dying of cancer, so people are coming out of the woodwork to pray for him (good) and to "witness" to him (mostly bad, I'm guessing) before he cashes in.

I was struck by a statement Christopher made in the interview:
"Under no persuasion could I be made to believe that a human sacrifice several thousand years ago vicariously redeems me from sin," he says. "Nothing could persuade me that that was true — or moral, by the way. It's white noise to me."
Wow.  This sounds like exactly the frustration I expressed after reading Robert Heinlein's book Job: A Comedy of Justice.  As I described in my essay on the book,  I'm bothered that, having come to the conclusion that the classic doctrine of penal-substitutionary atonement is unbiblical, I keep on encountering evidence that people have been driven from faith in Jesus, at least in part, because they can't accept PSA.  It angers me that what I firmly believe to be bad theology, is being force-fed to people with such vigor that it's all they can see of Jesus.

Jesus himself had some pretty harsh things to say about those whose false teaching drives people from true faith.  We as believers need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.  I said it last week, and I'll repeat it today:  how can anyone be blamed for rejecting Jesus if we've never introduced them to anything but a bad caricature of him?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Gospel According to Heinlein, or Why Christians are sometimes God's worst enemies...

Over the past few days I read Robert A. Heinlein's 1984 book Job: A Comedy of Justice.  For those who enjoy mind-bending adventures with an eternal twist, I recommend it as a fun story.  Be forewarned: if you only enjoy fiction that comports with your theology and cosmology,  and you consider yourself an orthodox Christian, this book is probably not for you.  But if you can stomach a book in which the character of Satan describes his brother Yahweh as a jerk (and given the narrative context, the reader will find himself agreeing with Satan), and if sexuality that is R-rated in content though only PG in description doesn't put you off, then you may well find Job a fun read.

But what I wanted to highlight with this post was the way in which Heinlein's book illustrates the damage that Christians have done--and, I'm sorry to say, continue to do--to the cause of Christ.  I don't know anything about Heinlein's own faith or philosophy, but I can tell you that he did his homework for this book.  The main character, Alexander Hergensheimer, starts out as a conservative, fundamentalist preacher who's head of an organization called Churches United for Decency (CUD), in an alternative-universe America with only 46 states and the kind of laws fundamentalist Americans in our universe would appreciate.  During a firewalking experience while on vacation in Papua New Guinea, our friend Alec finds himself in an parallel universe--the first of many--where his own morals and faith run headlong into those of cultures and Americas with decidedly different outlooks.

But although Heinlein could have resorted to the usual caricature of conservative Christians by those who are neither conservative nor Christian, he absolutely did not do so.  Alec's story is told in the first person, with frequent quotations from the Bible.  The character is portrayed in a completely sympathetic light, and whatever Heinlein's own predilections about faith may have been, there is not a hint of mocking or hostility toward this character.  At least twice within the narrative, Alec makes a heartfelt effort to lead other characters to Christ in the context of a premillenial rapture that he is convinced is imminent (turns out he's right), and each time, the message Alec conveys is straight out of an Evangelical Christian playbook, delivered without a hint of irony or ill motive.

And yet the arc of the story is clearly not one that resonates with Christian teaching.  Beyond the character's shift in his sexual standards and choice of beverages, the real issue at the climax of the story is that Yahweh doesn't play fair (a la Job), and never has.  Consider this section near the end of the book:

Alec, 'justice' is not a divine concept; it is a human illusion.  The very basis of the Judeo-Christian code is injustice, the scapegoat system.  The scapegoat sacrifice runs all through the Old Testament, then it reaches its height in the New Testament with the notion of the Martyred Redeemer.  How can justice possibly be served by loading your sins on another?  Whether it be a lamb having its throat cut ritually, or a Messiah nailed to a cross and 'dying for your sins.'  Somebody should tell all of Yahweh's followers, Jews and Christians, that there is no such thing as a free lunch.  "Or maybe there is.  Being in that catatonic condition called 'grace' at the exact moment of death--or at the Final Trump--will get you into Heaven.  Right?  You got to Heaven that way, did you not?"

"That's correct.  I hit it lucky.  For I had racked up quite a list of sins before then."

"A long and wicked life followed by five minutes of perfect grace gets you into Heaven.  An equally long life of decent living and good works followed by one outburst of taking the name of the Lord in vain--then have a heart attack at that moment and be damned for eternity..."

"...I've known Him too long.  It's His world, His rules, His doing.  His rules are exact and anyone can follow them and reap the reward.  But 'just' they are not." (Hardcover edition, pp.291-292)

OK, so first of all it's obvious in the next-to-last paragraph I quoted, that Heinlein's not referring to the "eternal security" brand of Christianity; however I doubt he'd have come out any differently in his conclusions if he were.  Heinlein forces the reader face-to-face with a painful fact:  the God that is portrayed by much of traditional Christian teaching is not just.  No amount of wordplay can change the obvious truth of this statement.  Genocide of the Canaanites, the angel of death slaughtering thousands in penalty for David's adultery, the infinite punishment of hell for the necessarily-finite violations of temporal sin, none of these is remotely akin to our basic, reasonable notion of making the punishment fit the crime.  Merely shouting "but God is just" in the face of such evidence beggars belief.

I know people will defend their doctrines to the nth degree, and some will accuse me of heresy or blasphemy, but here I have to side with Heinlein's assessment (as a character says elsewhere in the book, "anyone who can worship a trinity and insist that his religion is a monotheism can believe anything--just give him time to rationalize it."

My frustration, and the one that made me finish "Job" with some sadness,  is that, like so many before him and since, Heinlein may have rejected the Gospel precisely (only?) because he was fed a counterfeit "gospel!"  He clearly knew--even understood--the message that churches have trumpeted for centuries.  He knew all about the Old Testament sacrificial system as portrayed by Evangelicals.  Like a lot of Christians, he apparently did not know that the "scapegoat" in the Old Testament wasn't sacrificed.  Heinlein knew about Old Testament blood sacrifice too, again as Evangelicals teach it.  He did not know that blood sacrifice in the Old Testament represents cleansing or thanksgiving, but not payment for forgiveness of sin (go back and read Leviticus!).   He understood the Evangelical teaching that Jesus' death finally fulfilled the blood-for-sin paradigm upon which Penal-Substitutionary Atonement is based.   But he was not equipped to realize that the PSA theory of atonement is at best a tiny fraction of the work of Jesus' death and resurrection.

Heinlein had presumably met a lot of Christians, but he had never met Jesus.  How could he?  The "gospel" message preached by most Christians throughout the Twentieth Century (Heinlein died in 1988) had very little Jesus in it...a "four laws and then the rapture" gospel needs Jesus for his blood and for his second coming, but completely ignores his teachings and his life, and only gives a passing nod to his resurrection.  If Heinlein believed the God of Christians and Jews to be unjust, well, when did anyone in either group introduce him to the justice preached by Jesus and before him by the prophets?

And most importantly, of course, here and now and today, what portrait of God are you holding up to the world around you?  If people consider your testimony of Jesus and ultimately reject him (as some will), are they rejecting the real thing?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Grand Theft Jesus - Part 2 - "All About Eve"

In my previous review of Grand Theft Jesus by Robert McElvaine, I mentioned that he did a spectacular mis-exegesis of the accounts of the creation and fall in Genesis 1-3.  I'd like to dig into this a little further, as McElvaine claims that mysogyny in religion is one of religion's (and for that matter, the world's) biggest problems.

Now I will stipulate at the outset that an awful lot of conservative Christians seem to me to be way too hung up on issues of sex and male superiority.  Please don't misunderstand me as thinking there are no problems here...though as I shall argue in the future, the problem isn't so much with male power over woman, but rather the notion that "power over" itself is a corruption that doesn't belong with followers of Jesus, regardless of their gender.  But having granted that there is a problem, the arguments that McElvaine lays out are spectacular in their overreach and just-plain idiocy.

We'll start with the "problem" of being "born again."  I was going to try and summarize, but this just has to be quoted in full:
The question becomes more complicated and intriguing when we remember that those who say it is necessary to be born again also say that the unborn are without sin: One of the worst things about abortion, they say, is that it is the taking of innocent life.  The unborn are innocent, without sin.  Yet the born have to be reborn in order to overcome their sin and be "saved."  Ostensibly this rebirth removes the stain of Original Sin.  But let's think about this assertion.  If the unborn are innocent, they must not have yet acquired Original Sin.  Both the unborn and the reborn are "saved;" it is the once-born who are damned.  Pre-born and reborn are good; it is the in-between state--born--that is evil.  So just when is it that Original Sin is taken on?  Given the foregoing beliefs, no other possibility seems to exist than that Original Sin is acquired at birth.  It seems we all get Original Sin from the same source that is said to have led Adam into sin: a woman!
And that, at the most basic level, is what is wrong with our first birth--it is from a woman.
McElvaine goes on to explain that being "born again" (that is born from Jesus, a man) sanctifies because it comes from a man instead of from a woman.  He then goes on to speculate that this whole dysfunction comes from men envying the female power of creation--that is childbirth.  (How any man who's ever witnessed pregnancy, or childbirth, or even the monthly misery that is menstruation, could possibly have "womb envy" is beyond me, but hey, maybe that's just because I'm so suppressed by the male-dominated culture!)  He goes on an intriguing excursion into the ways men have constructed "no-woman zones" of work, duty, ritual, power, etc., all to make up for the inadequacy we men feel due to our inability to create.  In fact, the whole notion that God is referred to as male in Genesis is, in McElvaine's analysis, a male-dominated insistence that creation isn't just a woman's thing!

And then it gets really weird...

To make a VERY long story short(er), in Paleolithic times where men were hunters and women were gatherers, both were valued in society.  As the agricultural revolution led to people settling down in groups, women's roles in agriculture and reproduction maintained or even grew in  value, while men's importance as providers of meat and defenders of the tribe declined precipitously.  Men, not wanting to get stuck with the "girlie stuff" like agriculture, instead built elaborate mythologies and power structures to assert their superiority.  "Because the switch to agriculture ultimately came to seem like such a bad deal for men, devaluing their traditional roles as hunters, leaving the with the 'woman's work' of farming, labor that was in fact much harder than hunting, they eventually blamed women for having lost what seemed in distant retrospect to have been a paradise in which people lived without work, picking abundant food from trees."  Here he then draws the analogy to Adam & Eve in the garden, with Eve's temptation being an allegorical representation of the woman taking man's power from him and forcing him into agriculture!

Here it becomes obvious McElvain is pumping his other book "Eve's Seed," in which I surmise he develops his special brand of misandry even more fully.  Here's his own footnote quoting that work (the entire section is from his footnoote; the quotes delineate that portion that he's quoting from his other book):
The Eve and Adam story wonderfully weaves together sex and agriculture.  "Eve's sharing of the fruit with Adam has often been interpreted as symbolic of introducing him to sexual relations."  In light of the Seed Metaphor, "a woman teaching a man how to have intercourse with her becomes a perfect symbol for women teaching men how to plant crops in the ground.  Both are seductions by woman, the temptress."
Of course, McElvaine's death-defying leap into the metanarrative of female subjugation overlooks a few obvious points about the actual Genesis myth, including
  • The fact that Adam and Eve are told to be fruitful and multiply--presumably requiring sex--before the fall (Gen 1:28), and 
  • The fact that Adam was placed in the garden to till and care for it, also before the fall (Gen 2:15).
For a long time I've seen one of the most-overlooked lessons of the story of the fall in Gen. 3 to be the failure of the man to defend his wife--when the serpent tempts Eve, she then gave some "to her husband who was with her" (Gen 3:6), but somehow he didn't think to interpose himself between her and a talking snake...hmm!!!  Anyway, I think it's safe to say the only way to come to McElvaine's wild interpretation of Genesis is to start with heavily-loaded preconceptions and little respect for even the mythologic structure of the text.

Where does all this lead?  McElvaine is not completely wrong when he paints a picture of religion in general, and hijacked Christianity in particular, of having been unjustly and cruelly down on women.  But his attempt to draw the theological lines goes stunningly wide of the mark, and can only be described as fantasy in itself.  And his conclusion is, I believe, deeply and basically wrong:  "ChristianityLite is Jesusless, but an even more fundamental problem shared by all monotheistic religions is that they are Goddessless.  The basic problem for millenia has been not that people are godless (Ann Coulter's accusations notwithstanding), but that people conceive of God as a male, rather than as a Being either undivided by sex or combining both sexes--either asexual or bisexual, as a Creative and Omnipotent Force logically must be."

Well, no.  A scriptural view of God is neither asexual nor bisexual, but better non-sexual.  That God represented himself in a male gender (though clearly not in a sexual sense) throughout scripture (in particular Jesus' references to the Father) may not fully make sense to us, but it cannot be dismissed  as simply out of style.  To go there is to finally say that nothing in the scriptural text really matters at all if we decide we have found a paradigm that "speaks to us" in a more attractive way today.  That's not the lordship of Jesus; it's merely hijacking Jesus for a different agenda.  That the hijacker comes from the left instead of the right is not progress.

McElvaine claims that "on one point after another, what Jesus is urging on us are behaviors more commonly associated with women than with men:  gentleness, compassion, and forgiveness."   He presents this as evidence we need to acknowledge the feminine side of God.  He doesn't seem to realize that when he makes a claim like this, he's actually reinforcing the same crap he combats:  those traits are only "feminine" if we acknowledge that the ascription of power traits to the man, and caring traits to the woman, is in fact valid!


It's not "feminine" when I hug and kiss my boys.  It's not "masculine" when my wife disciplines them.  It's not "masculine" if a woman like Jael in the old testament or Margaret Thatcher in England leads a war.  It's not "feminine" when a man gently tends to the bruises--physical or psychological--of a friend.  I'll say it again: if one argues for a "feminine" side of God due to the compassionate and caring traits we see in scripture, then one is giving (undeserved) support to the whole notion of  "masculine" and "feminine" traits that really HAS caused a great deal of heartache in our world.

The gender wars have left a lot of casualties.  Soon, I'm going to take on this issue as it relates to the church.  But if we're ever going to make headway in this, as in so many other issues, we've got to face the reality that the answers have been wrong, not least because the questions have themselves been wrong.  In this, McElvaine has done the dialog no good.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rightly Dividing the Word -- A Summary

I was under the illusion that I had completed my occasional series on Biblical Inspiration until several friends pushed back on my "ROCK" summary of my faith distinctives.  Reading back over my posts I see that I never really wrapped up my position, so this is a shot at doing so.  I shall not attempt to fully justify my position in this post; interested readers may want to go back to earlier posts in this series for more of the foundation behind what I'm claiming here.

In contrast to most Evangelical statements of faith, I reject the claim that the Bible--either the Protestant or Catholic canon--is the Word of God.  In fact, I believe that insistence on treating the Bible as God's Word is at the root of a great deal of error, as well as the foundation for many "endless controversies" that both create division and strife within the body of Christ, and drive many who otherwise might believe, from the faith.  The dogma of "Verbal and Plenary Inspiration" (VPI) and its variants (including the companion dogma of "inerrancy") tend to lead to what I call a "flat book" interpretation of the Biblical texts, whereby any phrase, anywhere in the text can become the foundation (dare I say, the pretext?) for doctrine, often without regard to either its textual or historical context.  But beyond the errors of "flat book" interpretation, I primarily object to calling the Bible the Word of God because to do so is, on the very face of it, UNbiblical.  At its worst, this error devolves to Bibliolatry--ascribing divine status to an object.  Listen carefully to the arguments on VPI from many Evangelicals and you'll find they're often not far from Bibliolatry.

The Bible does not call itself God's word--therefore, neither should we.  Specific places--particularly the prophets with their "Thus saith the LORD" declarations, highlight that at the particular point thereby designated, they are repeating God's word.  If we believe anything at all about Jesus' divinity (a topic for another time), then Jesus' own words certainly rise to the level of God's words...and of course Jesus himself is described as the Word of God become flesh.  The apostle Paul referred to "all scripture" as "theopneustos" ("God-breathed?"or "God's breath?"  Paul unfortunately coined a term or borrowed a rare one, and neglected to define it); however, careful thought makes it quite obvious that whatever Paul was referring to by "all scripture," he wasn't prospectively endorsing our current canon.

In contrast to flat-book Bibliolatry, I hold to what I have come to describe as a "Word of God hermaneutic" which I have also described as "Rightly Dividing the Word."  In choosing this phrase, I freely admit that I've borrowed a phrase from the King James version of 2 Tim 2:15, even though the Elizabethan English phrase "rightly dividing" does not mean what I think it means (inconceivable!).  I find it a helpful way of encapsulating the notion that we are to approach scripture in an inquiring mode, searching within its texts for that subset which actually is God's word.  As a rule of thumb, I hold to a hierarchy of authority among the texts, where the words of Jesus as reported in the Gospels take supremacy, and shortly behind them, the words of the prophets where they explicitly highlight their message as the "Word of the LORD."  Explicative works like the epistles follow behind these, and historical reporting still further behind, with wisdom and poetry such as Proverbs and Psalms bringing up the utmost rear (well, along with apocalyptic literature which frankly nobody really understands any more).

This is not to state that the rest of the Bible is either false or untrustworthy.  In particular with the Gospels, I find a great deal that leads me to the belief that they are the honest accounts of faithful human witnesses to Jesus' words and actions.  The Old Testament historical writings I'm less sure about, in that they so patently include stuff that seems awfully similar to the jingoistic, prejudiced attitudes that many similarly-ethnocentric peoples have displayed throughout history.  But here I argue principally that unless interpreting a text has demonstrable bearing on the life of the disciple of Jesus, it's really not that important just how true it is, or isn't.  (please take note I said the "life," not the "thought," of the disciple)

Valuable teaching can still be gleaned from much that is not the Word of God...for that matter from much that isn't in the Bible at all.  But we must learn to reserve the stamp of the divine for that which merits it.  When we do, our priorities tend to skew somewhat differently than those which hold sway in contemporary (and much historic) Christian thought.  It really IS all about Jesus!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Book Review - Grand Theft Jesus (Part 1)

I just finished reading the book Grand Theft Jesus -- The Hijacking of Religion in America by Robert S. McElvaine.  I really expected to love the book:  after all, he starts out sympathizing with
"the Christian Messiah (as he) looks at the crew of megachurch preachers, televangelists, hypocrites, imposters, snake-oil salesmen, and just plain snakes who have hijacked the name of Christianity, perpetrated identity theft against Jesus, subverted his teachings, transformed his name into a representation of just the opposite of what he stands for, mocked and damned those who advocate what he actually said, and shouted 'Jesus! JESUS! Jeee-SUSS!' at the top of their lungs to distract attention from their crimes against the one they blaspheme."
Anyone who's read more than five minutes in this blog knows I resonate with that sentiment.  But despite the fact that the author --in my estimation-- correctly catalogs and decries the manifold abuses of the Religious Right (who he alternatively mocks as the "Irreligious Wrong" or the "Xian Lite"), I found the book an exhausting read.   The first three quarters of the book are an unrelenting tirade against the evils of the "Christian" Right and their outright distortions of the message of Jesus, and however well-deserved McElvaine's accusations may be, I started feeling like I was just reading a left-wing equivalent of Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter.  That may be refreshing to some...and if I defined what is wrong with conservative Christianity primarily by its being associated with the "wrong" wing, maybe I'd like it.  But I'm getting to the point where I'm tired of nastiness and ad-hominem regardless of whether I like the target (or the attacker) or not.

Don't misunderstand me.  I remain firmly convinced that a great deal that passes for conservative Christianity in America today is misguided at best and idolatrous at worst.  I am deeply offended at the hatred and bloodshed and plain-old meanness that are frequently perpetrated by those who loudly shout the name of Jesus.  I've said before, and it's still true, that if all I knew of Jesus came from what I've seen of Christians, I wouldn't be one either.

But replacing right-wing vitriol with left-wing vitriol, to me, is not progress.  If you feel the same, I suspect you, like me, would find Grand Theft Jesus to be an unpleasant read.

There are other issues.  In the last two chapters of the book, McElvaine does some spectacularly sloppy exegesis of Genesis 1-3 and comes up with a truly mind-bending screed against the male domination of society in general and religion in particular.  I'll get into that in a separate post.

But for now, I'll just say that while I'd probably enjoy a lively discussion over multiple beers with McElvaine, I cannot recommend his book.  More's the pity too!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Does God Change? Part 1 of 2

Last week in Sunday School we had a big discussion (started by yours truly, I'm afraid) as to whether or not God ever changes his mind.  It came out of the account in 1 Sam. 15:11, where God states that "I regret that I have made Saul king..."  Our teacher stated "well, we know God can't really regret anything he did, because God doesn't change his mind."  His defense, of course, was that God doesn't change, period, and the Bible says as much.

Well, it does and it doesn't.  In this post I'm going to look at some of the "proof texts" that suggest God DOESN'T change, and in the next one I'll examine "proof texts" that suggest he DOES.  My hope is that by looking at the context for both, we can get a consistent picture besides "the Bible is paradoxical on this point" (although that, too, would be a valid conclusion).

So, let's have a look.  Since this was a Presbyterian church, I'll start with a prooftext  linked from the Westminster Confession of Faith, James 1:17 (all quotes ESV):
 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
 This sounds pretty straightforward, doesn't it?  But what does it say in context?  Take a look at the whole passage, James 1:2-17.  James is contrasting God's not changing, with the "double-minded man" of verse 8, and even more so he's objecting to the notion somebody must've promulgated, that God might actually tempt someone (verse 13).  In this context, James is saying that God doesn't pull the dirty trick of tempting someone to violate a divine law...rather people's own desires lead them to sin (v. 13-14).  "God doesn't change" here is evidence that God doesn't pull a fast one on his people.

A second passage that was quoted by one of our class on Sunday was Malachi 3:6-7:
For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts...
 Of course, all my friend read was the first half of verse 6:  "I the LORD do not change."  But the context makes it clear that God's not talking about some overarching notion of immutability here, but about the fact that he keeps his covenants (see Malachi 2:4-5).  God, unlike the faithless Israelites (see Mal. 2:10-11).  So here again, God's unchanging nature is set in clear contrast to human fickleness and faithlessness.  "I do not change" here means "I keep my word."

My friend also quoted Numbers 3:19:
God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
 Actually, here again my friend only quoted the first half of the verse.  The second half makes the statement far more clear, and specific.  God says the truth, and does what he says.  This is actually part of Balaam's oracle.  Remember that Balaam was hired by Balak the king of Moab, to come out and curse Israel so that they (Israel) wouldn't kick their (the Moabites') butts the way they had the Amorites (see Num. 22:1-6).  After a truly funny story about Balaam's misadventures, he gets up to the cursin' place and blesses Israel.  Balak, not surprisingly, is peeved, and asks Balaam why he didn't do what he was paid to do.  Balaam's answer is that God doesn't go back on his word and curse those he promised to bless.  So again, we have a pattern here.  God sticks to his promises.

There are more verses to look at, I'm sure.  I chose these because they were represented in several articles, people's Bible footnotes, and in my discussions, as the classic proofs that God can't possibly change.  Taken in context, I'd have to say, if this is all the better they can do, I'm not convinced.  As some wag has said before, a proof text is a text lifted out of context as a pretext.  Restoring the context, at least in these verses, suggests to me a much more limited interpretation for the passages...and a very consistent one:

God, unlike man, can be trusted!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Profound confusion

Hey everybody, I know I've been silent for an awful long time...I've been in the process (not yet completed) of a job change and a move from San Jose to Atlanta. I will break my silence soon, in fact I have a study in the works, but gotta get a little time to breathe first.

But I had to share the following anonymous quote from my parents' fridge (and multiple sites around the web). While it was probably stated by a scientist, it could apply equally well to theology or philosophy:

I fully realize that I have not succeeded in answering all of your questions... Indeed, I feel I have not answered any of them completely. The answers I have found only serve to raise a whole new set of questions, which only lead to more problems, some of which we weren't even aware were problems. To sum it all up... In some ways I feel we are confused as ever, but I believe we are confused on a higher level, and about more important things.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

ROCK your faith! A few core tenets. . .

I've been chewing over a variety of theological ideas with you all over the approximately year and a half that I've been blogging.  These have been supplemented by long conversations with my good friend Ben (who's not blogging theology right now), as well as a variety of books I've mentioned.

Ben and I have come to the realization that four key concepts do a pretty good job of summarizing where we're departing from the Evangelical mainstream, and in these four areas we find a clear call to re-focus our faith.  The mnemonic "ROCK" helps me to think about them:

Rightly dividing the word - The concept that the Bible contains many words of God, though it is not, in its entirety "the Word of God."  Carefully, prayerfully, and in fellowship with others, discerning the words of God within the Biblical texts and narrative, is important to understanding God's priorities and commands.

Open View of God & the future - Though it is wildly unpopular in orthodox Evangelical circles, the notion that God has released the control of certain decisions to his creation, and actually experiences those things unfolding in time, is a liberating perspective.  It completely does away with the determinism of predestination, as well as a lot of the theodicy arguments of why a good God allows evil.  In its place we find God interacting with his creation in a dynamic and sacrificial way, suffering with those who suffer even as he ministers to their wounds, or commissions his people so to minister.  In the Open View, God calls us to work because he has work he ACTUALLY WANTS US TO DO.

Christus Victor as the model for atonement, within the context of a Warfare Worldview:  This perspective recognizes that sin is not merely the failings of humans, but the corruption of a whole swath of creation (maybe all of it) by God's enemies, the Principalities and Powers of which the New Testament writers spoke.  Jesus' death and (more especially) resurrection were key battles in that war, in which we are now engaged with God in fighting to take back territory and citizens occupied and enslaved by the enemy.  Paradoxically, as the weapon of Jesus' victory was to take on death and defeat it by rising anew, so our greatest weapon is to take on hatred and defeat it with his love, for our weapons are not carnal.

Kingdom citizenship - We understand the salvation of Jesus not to be simply a future escape from earth to heaven, but rather his naturalizing us into citizenship in his kingdom (the new creation) here and now.  As God breathed into Adam the breath of life in the first creation, so Jesus breathes into his disciples the Breath (Spirit) of new life in the new creation.  With our new citizenship we are now aliens in this present enslaved world, and we (individually as citizens, and collectively as embassies or outposts of the kingdom) are called to work as reconciling ambassadors and members of a divine resistance, participating with Christ to take back his territory and his people from the slavery under which they now live.  Our goal is not to get people "believing" in a "religion;" it's to help people to recognize who is their true king--to bow the knee to Jesus as Lord now, and then to join us as citizens of Jesus' growing kingdom.

These four concepts have the capacity to ROCK some dearly-held doctrines.  But I hope the will also ROCK a few lives and maybe even  ROCK a church or two!  ROCK on!

Friday, April 23, 2010

McLaren - "A New Kind of Christianity" - Thoughts on John 14:6

Yesterday I discussed at length my criticism of Brian McLaren's perspective on homosexuality, and to some extent sexuality in general, in his book A New Kind of Christianity.  Today I want to laud a point that McLaren has gotten absolutely right, in chapter 19 of the same book, entitled "The Pluralism Question: How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?"  Here I'll start by letting Brian speak for himself:

"When I'm asked about pluralism in my travels, I generally return to Jesus' simple teachings of neighborliness such as the Golden Rule, saying something like this:  'Our first responsibility as followers of Jesus is to treat people of other religions with the same respect we would want to receive from them.  When you are kind and respectful to followers of other religions, you are not being unfaithful to Jesus, you are being faithful to him.'  Then I ask them how they would want people of other religions to treat them.  They typically say things like: 'I would want them to respect my faith, show interest in it and learn about it, not constantly attack it, find points of agreement they could affirm, respectfully disagree where necessary--but not let disagreement shatter the friendship, share about their faith with me without pressuring me to convert, invite me to share my faith with them, include me in their social life without making me feel odd,' and so on.  After each reply, I generally say, 'That sounds great.  Go and do likewise.'"  (pp 211-212)

McLaren then says that often people's next question is something on the order of "What about John 14:6?"  You all know that one..."No one comes to the Father but by me."  I, too, have heard (and for a long time believed) this phrase of Jesus' was the principal defense against universalism in the Bible.  Only problem is, and here Brian is spot-on, there is nothing at all in the context of that statement, that gives us any evidence at all that Jesus was making a claim of exclusivity when he said it.  Quite a different conversation was going on at that point, where Jesus had just been telling his disciples of his impending departure and death, and telling them they couldn't follow him just now, but that they still  knew the way to the Father.  Thomas had just interrupted that no, they DIDN'T know the way (for that matter, they didn't know what the heck he was talking about).  Jesus' answer in John 14:6 is "but you DO know the way, I AM the way."  To use this verse, woefully out of context, as the trump cards in an argument of "my religion is better than yours", is doing complete violence to any reasonable reading of the text.

In this chapter, McLaren makes a compelling case for the notion that introducing people to Jesus is not the same thing as converting them to the religion of Christianity (in this vein, I have had some pretty conservative Evangelicals tell me of places in the world where Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are choosing to follow, love, and worship Jesus without giving up their respective religious practices).  He is not arguing universalism, though some may accuse him of that (his footnote #32 on p. 292 makes this abundantly clear).  He is, however, saying something you might have heard before on this blog (see my entire series on hell), that where you go when you die isn't the point of calling people to Jesus, and that John 14:6 is not talking about where ANYBODY goes when they die.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book in progress - "A New Kind of Christianity" by McLaren

I'm still in process of reading Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith, and for the most part I really appreciate it.  McLaren coherently describes the conventionally-accepted framework of the Biblical narrative, which he calls the "Greco-Roman model," and contrasts it with a narrative that takes into account the story of God's calling and working through the Jews leading up to Jesus.  He is likewise helpful in posing the contrast between Bible-as-constitution (his characterization of the various "inerrancy" approaches), and Bible-as-library, an approach that takes the breadth and nuance of biblical writers into account.  He's at his best, IMO, in his discussion of the centrality of Jesus and the gospels as the lens/filter/paradigm through which all scripture, both Old Testament and Epistles, must be read.

Unfortunately, I can't recommend the book unreservedly, because peppered throughout nearly every chapter, McLaren can't seem to get away from a need to throw in comments that essentially paint the gay rights agenda as the civil rights moral issue of the day.  Again and again, he lumps "homophobia" (a sloppy word if I ever saw one) with slavery, apartheid, Jim Crow, and the like, as places where the church has been on the wrong side of history and justice.

I haven't read other writing by McLaren, so perhaps I missed an argument he's made more coherently somewhere else.  I don't presume to understand where he's coming from on this.  But he seems to have made a category mistake that I find all too frequently among Christians who are recovering from their fundamentalist afflictions, of accepting without critique the claim that homosexuality is an identity, and therefore issues of how we respond to gays are necessarily civil and human rights issues.  Wholly unconsidered (at least in the present book) is the notion that homosexual practice might, in fact, still be sinful even if one is not a right-wingnut (As I have previously written, I suggest that gay practice is simply a subset of adultery, which remains equally unacceptable for the believer whether straight OR gay).

I'm sorry to say that this constant drumbeat distracts from an otherwise-helpful and -challenging set of questions that the church would do well to consider.  That said, if you can see past the distraction, I do recommend the book.

Edit:  Well, I was wrong about the argument being somewhere else---I just read Chapter 17 over lunch, where McLaren goes through his argument in greater detail.  I would not say his argument is compelling, though it is indeed interesting, as he makes the case that a binary (just male and female) sexuality is an "ideal concept" a-la Plato just as much as some of the Greco-Roman notions of God are Platonic rather than Biblical.  He goes on to basically say that our more nuanced understanding of biology today militates against such simplistic reading of sexuality.

McLaren then points out--quite correctly according to my reading--the fact that Christians in general, and Evangelical Christians in particular, seem little different from everyone else regarding sexual practice (premarital/extramarital sex, divorce), though perhaps we experience more guilt and conflicted feelings than others.  He concludes by suggesting that perhaps we need as a church to re-examine the whole concept of sexuality based on our current base of knowledge and centered in the love of Jesus.  He seems (to me at least) to leave open the notion that even serial or contemporaneous polyamory/polygamy, as well as the spectrum of GLBT issues, might not be outside the pale of Jesus-followers' practice in this new consideration.  In fact, I'm not sure he believes there's any place for sexual mores EVEN AMONG THE COMMUNITY OF BELIEVERS in the light of current biology and loving Jesus' way.
McLaren is correct that religion has been the bastion of a lot of stick-in-the-mud, head-in-the-sand obstinacy.  In this chapter he reminds us of the church's opposition to everything from Galilean and Copernican cosmology to South African apartheid.  But I think he, too, needs to be confronted with a question:  Are you saying that just because constitutionalist church hierarchies have insisted on a thing, that it must necessarily be wrong?  And how is this different from the Corinthian church Paul was blasting in 1 Corinthians 5?

I will reiterate that McLaren asks a lot of useful questions in this book...questions the church needs to confront.  But I think he's gone over the edge on the sexuality issue, and he seems to me to have forgotten that Jesus, while loving and associating with "sinners," still called them to "sin no more."  The conservative church still needs to be called to account for its demands that the unredeemed world start acting like they say Christians should act, before they can be "saved."  But dismissing all acknowledgment of a moral standard is not going to help get that message across.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

God or Mammon?

My brother Dave's blog is primarily about economics, mine primarily about theology.  But I have got to highlight to you guys, this post in which Dave quite properly calls out some of the ways in which church institutions seem to have forgotten which deity they ought to serve (Matt. 6:19-24).

Churches sometimes talk a good game about justice, and even do great works for justice.  But who stops to think about what their investment and property holdings say about justice?  Dave points out some flagrant examples in New Guinea where he's done extensive work. . .I would suggest that a look closer to home, even to the lavish "worship centers" we build and equip, would be equally valid.  Where, then, is our treasure?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

He is Risen, He has Conquered, He Rules!

Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!

A joyous Easter to each of you.  This is the day when we celebrate Jesus' victory over the powers and their grip on the world, for in raising Jesus from the dead, the Father achieved victory over the ultimate weapon of evil - death and our fear of death.

I was thinking this morning in church. . .we often look at the Genesis story of the fall as being the point where death entered the world, and to some extent we are supported in that view by Paul's comments in Romans 5.  However, if we look at the biology of life, can we really say nobody would have died without the fall?  I wonder if perhaps Tolkein had it right (though he was writing fiction) when he portrayed death as God's GIFT to man:  to be the transition whereby man passes from earthly life into a newer and closer existence with God, but that death itself became corrupted when man chose his own path to immortality instead of God's.

I wouldn't take this too far, in that we really don't know all the details, but perhaps it wasn't (and isn't) biological death that is or ever was the enemy, but rather that death of that sort got corrupted along with everything else in creation and thereby became our enemy as it became a tool for separation from, rather than approach to, God.

This would make sense out of the fact that we still die, even as believers, but we need not fear death because in Jesus, death is not the end of the story.  The grave has not been eliminated, but it HAS been defanged:  "O death, where is thy sting?"  This is why John of Patmos was able to write in Rev. 14:13:  "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. 'Blessed indeed,' says the Spirit, 'that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!'”

So rejoice in the knowledge that your king defeated the enemy's ultimate weapon of mass destruction--death as separation from God--and now invites us to live in, and work for his Kingdom from now until that Kingdom overtakes the entire fallen world.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Kingdom of Jesus Christ - Rebels Wanted!

One aspect of the Kingdom of God that we often misunderstand, is that this Kingdom is at war.  The Genesis creation story teaches us that God originally created the cosmos as his own domain, and specifically on Earth, he placed his image-bearers as viceroys--rulers in his stead--and stewards of that domain.  However, a deceitful enemy tempted humans to disobey their creator, and through a process we describe as "the Fall," seized control of God's good creation.  Since that time, through various tactics and strategies, God and those forces loyal to him have been engaged in warfare with the enemy, fighting to retake God's lost territory.

Citizens of God's Kingdom are soldiers in that battle; not with conventional human weapons, but with weapons nonetheless (2 Cor. 10:3-6), pulling down strongholds and taking territory for the Kingdom.  But just as our weapons are not of the flesh, the strongholds we attack are not ordinary land territory, but rather "every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God" (v. 5), so more subjects of the kingdom of this world, will place themselves in subjection to the True King.

For what we are really trying to do in evangelism, is not to "save souls from hell," but rather to recruit for the resistance!  It is when those enslaved to the Powers renounce their allegiance, are freed from their chains, and place their allegiance in the True King, that the Kingdom advances.  Those new recruits are naturalized into citizenship in the Kingdom, renounce their former allegiance, and bear new (different) arms for their sovereign King.  They, like we, become ambassadors and soldiers of the King, waging war against the Powers by ministering to the Powers' subjects with the paradoxical weapons of love and peace and kindness and justice.

Kingdom citizens, we are living in enemy territory!  From the Bible Belt of the United States to the steppes of Siberia to the jungles of Myanmar to the deserts of Saudi Arabia, this world is the territory of the Prince of this world (Lk 4:5-6), and that Prince is the sworn enemy of the Prince of Peace!  There is not, never has been, and never will be a Christian nation.  The Christian nation, the Kingdom of God, knows no national boundaries, fights no earthly wars, but seeks recruits from all men everywhere to again acknowledge and serve the one God and his anointed king, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Kingdom of Jesus Christ - of Sanctuary and Flag

There are perhaps deeper issues I should pursue first, but I'd like to take a look at a couple of highly  symbolic elements of the kingdom, and how they aren't commonly practiced in church, although perhaps they should be. 

First the element of sanctuary.  We all know the word; until the more-hip "worship center" started taking hold in churches that didn't want to sound too "churchy," it was what we called the giant room in most church buildings, where the Sunday morning service was held, and the notion that it was a holy place where people should enter with reverence (and kids should be quiet) is a venerable, if not exactly Biblical, tradition.

But the concept of "sanctuary"--not as restricted space but as refuge--actually has a long and proud history within Judaeo-Christian tradition, and perhaps other faiths as well though I am not familiar with them.  1 Kings 1:50-53 is an example where a man who feared the wrath of the king took refuge in the sanctuary and held onto the horns of the altar for protection.  Medieval churches took the concept quite seriously, and for the most part one who had taken sanctuary within a church compound (sometimes the building itself, sometimes the church property as a whole) was out of reach of the civil law as long as he remained there.  Part of the scandal of St. Thomas More's murder was that he was slain in the sanctuary at prayer.  In modern times, some churches in the United States have declared themselves to be sanctuaries for illegal aliens, although I do not know how successful they've been with American civil authority.

But whether the civil law honors the concept or not, I think it might be helpful to think of the church facility in the terms of an embassy.  Though embassies are obviously built on the soil of the host country, international law holds that the embassy is the sovereign territory, not of the host country, but of the country it represents.  Recognizing that we are "Christ's ambassadors" (2 Cor. 5:20), might it not be reasonable to consider our church facilities as embassies of the Kingdom of God?  This concept could take a lot of unpacking, but the notions that the church provides protection even for the "sinner" who seeks it, is not so far from the gospel if you think about it.  Contemplate:  the malefactor who's taken refuge in a holy Sanctuary (1) is unable to inflict damage on the wider society since he has effectively confined himself; and (2) while there, will inevitably be exposed to the love of God and of Kingdom ambassadors throughout his sojourn. . .what effect might that have?

But a corollary to this idea, and one about which I feel quite viscerally, is that the host country flag has no business being displayed in a sanctuary of the Kingdom of God.  From all I've heard and seen, this seems to be a particularly American issue; I don't recall seeing flags in the churches I've visited in most other countries, but in American Evangelical churches it's almost de rigueur.  And it's wrong, I believe, primarily because Americans (especially, but not only, conservative Christian Americans) treat the flag rather like an idol.  But if the church is an embassy of the Kingdom of God, the place the American flag should fly--if at all--is not the platform of the sanctuary, but rather at the front door.  Properly taught, this could imbue the door with meaning as the border between two sovereign kingdoms, and could be a helpful reminder to the believers of where their final loyalties must lie.  We certainly need to rediscover that, when we go out "into the world," we go as ambassadors, not as citizens.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Roger Williams - A patriot for the rest of us

I've just finished the book Roger Williams by historian Edwin S. Gaustad.  Loaned to me by a friend from church, this brief book is an overview of the life and writings of the man who founded the colony of Rhode Island in the early 17th century.  I recommend it to anyone who, like me, is frustrated by the frequent drumbeat among conservative Americans, as to the intent by America's founders to create a Christian nation.  Though it's true that some were, Williams (along with William Penn some seventy years later) offers a fascinating counterpoint.

Simply put, Roger Williams was one of the guys that the Massachusetts Bay Colony folks persecuted for not toeing the spiritual line.  A devout follower of Jesus, Williams believed firmly in liberty of conscience, and was therefore as offended by the theocratic tendencies of the Massachusetts leaders, as he was by those of the European despots they had fled.  Among his particularly interesting positions:
  • Williams held that the English Crown's grant of land patents was immoral, as the land was already owned by the natives who lived there.  If the colonists wanted land, they should buy it from the Indians, not seek it from the King.  "In doing this, Williams questioned the very foundation of the colony's government and legitimacy.  Williams was especially troubled by the use of the Christian religion to do a very un-Christian deed: namely, depriving the Indians of their own property without due compensation or negotiation. . .Christian kings somehow believe that they are invested with right, by virtue of their Christianity, 'to take and give away the Lands and Countries of other men.'"  (p. 9)
  • Williams also believed that requiring the phrase "so help me God" in an oath in court, was wrong in the case of anyone who was not himself a believer in God.  In fact, he argued that to so require was to force the unbeliever, not only to violate his own conscience, but to break the third commandment (against taking the Lord's name in vain) in the process.
For his unorthodox beliefs, Roger Williams was banished from the colony of Massachusetts, and forced to leave to parts unknown in the middle of winter in 1636.  He wandered for a while in the wilderness, was offered hospitality by the Narragansett Indians, and finally established residence in what would become the town of Providence, Rhode Island (on land he purchased from the Indians).  The colony which grew from these humble beginnings, required as part of its original laws and charters, absolute freedom of conscience in matters of religion.  No anarchist, Williams made clear that citizens were still subject to civil governance, but that in matters of the state, the church would have no voice, and vice versa.

Interestingly, his convictions regarding freedom of conscience led Williams to found the first Baptist church in America in 1638.  Though he himself left the church after a few months (concluding that the true church would only be re-established when Jesus returned to earth and appointed new apostles), he remained firm in his conviction that membership in both church and faith was a choice to be made by deliberate action of the individual--not a result of birth, christening, or residence (he actually wrote a tract "Christenings Make Not Christians" in 1645--though vitriolically anti-Catholic, it's worth a read considering it challenges the Christianity of good Protestant Englishmen).
There's much more, and I encourage you to get and read the book. . .and next time your friends trot out the writings of Patrick Henry to prove that America started out a Christian theocracy, remember the persecution and struggles of Roger Williams.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"Worship" songs that make us puke. . .

I just have to put in a plug for a blog of a friend. . .Jonathan has just started a thread on awful "worship" music over at his "Ponder Anew" blog.  As he has expressed, it pains me how much content in the stuff we call "worship" is just plain lousy theology.

(Beyond that, I often find it to be bad poetry and sloppy music too, but those are aesthetic considerations and I grant that one person's Picasso is another person's childish scribbles.  Nevertheless I hear good music so rarely--almost never in my church--that just the sound of a truly beautiful song, beautifully done, can bring me to tears of hunger. . .but I digress).

Back to the point, however, we really need to learn what worship is--and isn't--and what really is asked of us in scripture.  Without getting into it right now (I haven't taken the time to study the subject yet), I would wager that gushing about how cool God is and how fuzzy he makes us feel, is NOT part of the Biblical mandate. . .

And meanwhile, I just hope that God isn't as repulsed by our church services as I am, though when I read Amos 5:21-24 I'm not so sure. . .

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Kingdom of Jesus Christ, Citizenship

Since the language of "Kingdom" implies citizenship and allegiance, it's instructive to see what the kingdoms of this world think of citizenship.  I decided to take a look at the law of the kingdom in which I reside, the United States of America.  The basis for defining citizenship in the United States is the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the first sentence of which reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

Simply, you are a citizen of the U.S. if you were either born here, or naturalized, and are subject to the nation's jurisdiction.  Born is easy, and obvious.  Naturalization is defined by a completely different and much more complex law.  It's also more relevant to our subject of Kingdom citizenship, for the simple reason that nobody becomes a citizen of the Kingdom of God by natural birth.  We are all naturalized citizens of the Kingdom of God, if we are citizens at all.  While I'm not saying that Kingdom naturalization is identical to American naturalization, there are some interesting parallels we can draw out.  You can see the entire Immigration and Nationality Act Title III here, and it's worth a look.  The meat of the law is in section 337, subsections (a) and (b):


SEC. 337. [8 U.S.C. 1448]

(a) A person who has applied for naturalization shall, in order to be and before being admitted to citizenship, take in a public ceremony before the Attorney General or a court with jurisdiction under section 310(b) an oath (1) to support the Constitution of the United States; (2) to renounce and abjure absolutely and entirely all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which the applicant was before a subject or citizen; (3) to support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; (4) to bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and (5) (A) to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law, or (B) to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law, or (C) to perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law. Any such person shall be required to take an oath containing the substance of clauses (1) through (5) of the preceding sentence, except that a person who shows by clear and convincing evidence to the satisfaction of the Attorney General that he is opposed to the bearing of arms in the Armed Forces of the United States by reason of religious training and belief shall be required to take an oath containing the substance of clauses (1) through (4) and clauses (5)(B) and (5)(C), and a person who shows by clear and convincing evidence to the satisfaction of the Attorney General that he is opposed to any type of service in the Armed Forces of the United States by reason of religious training and belief shall be required to take an oath containing the substance of clauses (1) through (4) and clause (5)(C). The term "religious training and belief" as used in this section shall mean an individual's belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code. In the case of the naturalization of a child under the provisions of section 322 of this title the Attorney General may waive the taking of the oath if in the opinion of the Attorney General the child is unable to understand its meaning.

(b) In case the person applying for naturalization has borne any hereditary title, or has been of any of the orders of nobility in any foreign state, the applicant shall in addition to complying with the requirements of subsection (a) of this section, make under oath in the same public ceremony in which the oath of allegiance is administered, an express renunciation of such title or order of nobility, and such renunciation shall be recorded as a part of such proceedings.

Of interest here are several points.  To become a citizen of the United States, you must swear to:
  • Suppport the Constitution of the United States;
  • Renounce the allegiance and claim of any other nation, state, or sovereign;
  • "Support and defend" the Constitution and laws, and "bear true faith and allegience" to them;
  • Serve the United States either by bearing arms or noncombatant military or civilian service, when required (note that religious conscientious objection to military service is permitted, but does not excuse the citizen from civilian service)
  • If you have any title or nobility in your  previous citizenship, you must renounce that as well (I never knew this!)
As for analogs to the Kingdom of God, I note that we, too, have a constitution.  Though Christians can and do argue about what that constitution actually is (see my series on Biblical inspiration), I would submit that in Jesus' kindgom the Sermon on the Mount is a pretty good candidate.  It is also certainly true that we must renounce the claims of other sovereigns if God is our king. . .for Jesus pointed out that we cannot serve two masters (Matt. 6:24), and that no one who throws his lot in with Jesus but turns back is fit for the kingdom (Luke 9:62).  While I would argue (and have written) that one cannot take up arms for the Kingdom of God, we are certainly required to serve the King, and Matt. 25:31-46 gives us a pretty good clue what that will look like.  It is finally also true that earthly rank is meaningless in the Kingdom of God (Luke 22:24-30 and elsewhere). 

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Kingdom of Jesus Christ, Introduction

I have alluded in various posts up to now, about the notion that Jesus is our king, that he was anointed the same by God the Father, and that we are called to follow and obey him rather than merely to give intellectual assent to some list of propositions about him.  In the next few posts I want to ruminate a bit about what this means, and why, even though the majority of those who call themselves "Christians" would agree with what I just said, they actually have very little understanding of what it means.

Strange as it may sound,  I'm going to look to earthly nations and kingdoms for some help on the concept.  I'm doing this, not because these nations have any similarity to the Kingdom of Christ (heaven knows), but rather because nations DO give us some helpful clues on what concepts like "sovereign," "citizen," and "nation" (or "kingdom") actually mean.  For though the kingdoms of this world acknowledge the wrong sovereign, they do know what a sovereign is, and what a citizen's role is vis-a-vis that sovereign.  All analogies break down, and these will too, but before they do, I think we can glean some helpful insights.

Just to establish a little foundation, here, we start by acknowledging that Jesus Christ is, in fact, a king.  He was prophesied as King of the Jews at his birth (Matt. 2:2), alluded to himself as the ultimate king under the Father (Matt 25:34), was acclaimed king by the people of Jerusalem (Luke 19:38), and he acknowledged the title before Herod (Matt. 27:11) (note that each of these passages have their parallels in the other synoptic gospels).  He is finally acknowledged as King of Kings and Lord of Lords in Rev. 17:14 and Rev. 19:6.

Perhaps more importantly, Jesus spent a huge amount of his ministry on earth teaching about the "kingdom of heaven."  A quick search in my electronic ESV shows 118 occurrences of the English word "kingdom" in the gospels alone, and a quick glance down through them shows that the vast majority are referring in some form to the "kingdom of God" or "kingdom of heaven."  I may unpack those words with a more careful word study at another time, but for now, let us be satisfied that, whether Jesus was referring to himself or his Father as the sovereign (and there are plenty of each), his teaching was rich with the term.

So what's a kingdom?  The simplest possible definition I can think of, and one that certainly fits the biblical paradigm, is that a kingdom is a group of subjects or citizens who, along with their property, goods, and territory, are subject to a sovereign.  This is a concept we in the democratic West, don't entirely comprehend.  As I have discussed before, we live in a nation where, at least in theory and doctrine, it is the collected people who are sovereign, and to a certain extent the individual who is his own sovereign.  It's understandable, therefore, that we don't fully grasp the notion that anyone else--even God--has in his very nature the right to command our submission.  But he does.  And when we acknowledge and submit to his sovereignty, it sets in motion a collection of realities that we need to confront far more directly than most of us have done.  It is these realities to which I will turn in future posts.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Must-Read: Mark Siljander's "A Deadly Misunderstanding"

Today I finished the book A Deadly Misunderstanding by Mark Siljander, and I vigorously recommend it.  A former Republican congressman with impeccable conservative credentials, colleague of Newt Gingrich and the "Young Turks" of the Reagan Revolution, Mark was also a staunch conservative Evangelical Christian, solid supporter of Israel and opponent of communists and Muslims wherever they might be found.  Challenged not long after an electoral defeat, to find the scriptural basis for his conviction to convert others to Christianity, Mark discovered to his shock that the supposed command wasn't there.  But rather than pull back into his comfortable religious shell, Mark did the crazy thing:  he learned Greek and Aramaic and started digging into what the original languages of the New Testament actually taught.

Without trying to tell Mark's story for him (which I couldn't anyhow--he tells it too well himself), let me just say that he's a shining example of what can happen when a true believer in Jesus allows for the dangerous possibility that what Jesus said and taught might actually be lived.  In Mark's case, that has meant learning Arabic and studying the Qur'an too, and discovering between Quranic Arabic, New Testament Aramaic, and Old Testament Hebrew, that an awful lot of the buzz words our faiths use to keep us apart, are actually the same words--or at least words with the same roots--in the Semitic language family.  For example, he demonstrates with some weight, that the Aramaic word "salem" that the Peshitta (Aramaic New Testament) uses to describe repentance and turning to Jesus, is of the same root as the Arabic word for "submission" to God (a Mu-slim is "one who submits or surrenders" to God).

I want to be clear:  this is no milquetoast universalist pablum.  Siljander is NOT claiming some notion of all roads leading to God.  What he's doing is far more careful and well-thought than that.  He is demonstrating the frequency with which fundamental--often violent--differences between the Abrahamic faiths are based on ignorance:  not only ignorance of the "other's" faith, but all too often ignorance of the actual text and context of our own faith and its creeds.  In this, he's coming to a conclusion a Muslim roommate and I (with far less scholarship) came to more than 20 years ago:  if both of us and our brothers merely were careful to follow what OUR OWN SCRIPTURES actually said, we'd find a lot of common ground, and at the very least, we couldn't fight each other.

Through story after story, Siljander tells how dealing with the actual person and teaching of Jesus (as opposed to the theological constructs ABOUT Jesus that make up most creeds), has opened doors for loving, peacemaking relations with Muslim, Buddhist, and other religious and political leaders on three continents.  This book is a powerful call to live in submission to the Prince of Peace, not in word and doctrine, but in actual love and practice.

Read it!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Why do you "need" God?

My wife and I finally watched "Fireproof" yesterday.  Though preachier than I might prefer, I overall enjoyed it as a well-done and worthwhile movie.  I was bothered by the content of the obligatory "Gospel Message" in the middle, though.  In usual form, the sage believer lectures the unbelieving hero on how he "can't measure up to God's standard" because he's "broken God's law."  The "Gospel," as usual, involves getting the hero to acknowledge that because of his sinfulness, he needs Jesus' redemption.

Nothing new, I grant, but we've gotta get this perspective turned around somehow.  While I do not dispute for one minute that Jesus' work frees us from our sin (though I probably mean different things when I use those words), the invitation to Jesus is not, never has been, and should not be centered around sin.  People recognize Jesus' lordship first, and only when they realize that, are they convicted of the ways in which they have failed to live as his lordship demands.  It's not necessary to acknowledge sin in order to fact, it's only once we believe that we can understand our sin.

Notice Acts 2 as a great example of this.  Peter's excellent sermon does not use the word "sin" once.  Nor does it directly mention anything about anybody's guilt.  Rather, the climax of Peter's sermon--and the clincher that makes the sale for 3,000 people--is Acts 2:36:  "Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."  Yes, people are confronted with the reality of their evil act in crucifying Jesus, not because the crucifixion was a sin (though it was), but rather because Jesus is LORD.  Those who did not accept Peter's declaration of Jesus' lordship, certainly did not accept the sinfulness of his crucifixion.

Here, frankly, we could learn something from Islam.  Muslims do not invite people to grovel as sinners to come to God.  They merely declare (if I may paraphrase) that "there is only one God, you must submit to him; God sent Mohammed as a prophet, you must listen to him."  Our declaration should only be slightly different:

There is only one God, and he has raised his son Jesus from the dead and made him King.  Now live like it.

If we do that, we will certainly be convicted by ways in which our lives are incongruent with the standards of our King.  But that comes only AFTER we've recognized who's king.  It's a result, not a condition, of submission to our Lord.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

New Testament Word Study on Life

I wanted to highlight a recent post by my mom over at Pioneers' New Testament, because what she says is actually a useful foundation for some things I'm going to be writing soon.  She has just posted a word study on the various Greek words that are sometimes translated as "Life" or "Soul" in the New Testament.  I recommend the post, and will add more to the concept soon.