Monday, April 27, 2009

Newbigin's Take on Mission

Lesslie Newbigin, village evangelist in India, takes his cue on the church's mission from the Gospels and Acts. In these five narrative accounts there is an "indissoluble nexus between deeds and words". Miraculous deeds perk curiosity of a new reality which is then explicitly stated in word. Preaching without these deeds is about as unhelpful as answering questions that aren't being asked. But where these deeds are present, questions abound concerning the new plausibility structure of which they are a part, and gospel proclamation answers those very questions.

The point here is not to prove every word was accompanied by a miraculous deed, but that such deeds prompted right questions to which the gospel could respond.

The Church inherits this mantle of powerful witness inasmuch as she marries deed and word. The Kingdom of God is not an abstract reality but a Person who we have encountered and whose new creation we have a forestaste in the Spirit. "To set word and deed, preaching and action, against each other is absurd. The central reality is neither word nor act, but the total life of a community enabled by the Spirit to live in Christ, sharing his passion and the power of his resurrection."

How do our lifestyles reflect a new reality? How do we proclaim "Jesus is risen" not just on Easter Sunday but in the company we keep at our table? In the hurt we mend? By the injustices we confront? Through aspirations for our children?

Sadly so much of our lives play out the script of this present reality. No wonder nobody's asking.

Thiselton's Question That Arise

Anthony Thiselton's recent work, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine, seeks to examine if a more substantial interaction between hermeneutics and doctrine could, "rescue doctrine from from its marginalized function and abstraction from life" (xvi). Christian doctrine's premier pitfall has historically been the high-level of abstraction it dwells in. In Thiselton's first chapter he corrects this by shifting the focus from "free-floating problems", to "questions that arise".

An example of this would be the way we exposit a doctrine of creation. Thiselton's position is that early understandings of human origins did not actually come from the question, "where did we come from", but rather from a gratitude for life, a sense of human dependence upon God, and a desire to rejoice in the great natural gifts that we experience. "My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth" (Ps. 121:2). The doctrine of creation, therefore, was sharpened at the dinner table, not in the study.

The issue is not then whether propositions such as, "God is creator" feature at all, but whether we engage these propositions detached from the way they originally arose. This gives a call to examine, as best we can, what context authors were originally asking their questions in. The answers to these questions will naturally have application built into them, because the questions were originally asked in a context where application was their jumping off point. The task of clearly articulating relevant Christian doctrine may not be as difficult as is thought. It is simply a matter of asking questions as they arise.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Seminarian Woes or New Testament Scholarship Has No Clothes

I'm deathly afraid of naive fundamentalism. The Jesus within it hovers six inches above the dusty near east earth. He opens doors for women, never passes gas, and speaks timeless principles that drift over the heads of his hearers and into my living room unscathed. He fits well into the moral majority mold made for him.

But my self-righteous flight leads me into the jaws of the burgeoning beast of NT scholarship. Deep within its bowels I can't make heads or tails of what I came looking for - Was it the Jesus of history? Or was it Matthew's spin? Or am I really seeking the church behind the author behind the text? Or did it all get fuddled in transmission anyway?

There, the Jesus who so winsomely and authoritatively turned Torah interpretations on their heads now slavishly fulfills every whim of Second Temple Jewish literature. The Jesus who confidently butted heads with Pharisees and Sadducees now double checks his theology with Qumran. And the Jesus who recreated the world in his resurrection becomes Paul's plaything, a vacuous two-dimensional figure brought back to life and relevance by a stroke of creative genius.

Who will deliver me from this hermeneutical body of death?

"Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" As I settle down to my English text, millenia removed from the events it contains, I encounter a present, abiding, divine Word. He neither sparkles like the gilded former version nor evaporates into the obscurity of the latter.

Jesus speaks. There is power in the written and risen Word.

Friday, April 24, 2009

"it's a powerful thing, family."

I have loved reading each of Marilynne Robinson's books, but this week I'm contemplating why her latest novel, Home, is by far my favorite.

There are the obvious reasons ... the narrator is female, one with whom I more comfortably identify than with Gilead's John Ames. And Housekeeping, while containing some of the most achingly lovely descriptions I've ever come across in literature, is just too dark for me.

But there's something deeper there, below the first impressions. I think at my very core I resonate with Home because it is a book about family.

As the story unfolds through Glory Boughton's eyes, I am given the rare gift of peering in on this woman's most private possession: the emotional inner-workings of her family. At times I feel the discomfort of an outsider, being made privy that that which is none of my business. And I wonder it if this is a gift I really want.

But I can't stop reading, partly because it is a story I want to know the end of, but mostly because as a human being I am swept up in my own story of family, and I identify all too well with many of the thoughts and emotions taking place within these pages.

This story gets at what is closest to the heart of all humans. To be in family is to be vulnerable. Aren't family relationships the most tenuous of all relationships? There is so much power there. A word can make or break them at any time. They can bring the most joy or the most pain to a person's life. A conversation about one's own family evokes feelings of enthusiasm or pain or anger, but rarely indifference.

As we live and work and play we are each living out our own version of the Boughton's saga - whether we interact with members of our family on a daily basis or never speak to them. Our own family's history, its patterns and wounds and victories and secrets often run too deep to be easily explicable to outsiders but they are part of the fiber of who we are - no matter how much we may try to run from it.

To really know another is to see him in the context of his family story. This is why Home is the most intimate of novels. And I think why it is my favorite.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Christians and the Corporation

“We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster.”
Grapes of Wrath, 45

In Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck paints a grim picture of the American economic landscape. His portrayal of the simple farmer who is closely tied to the land is contrasted against the leviathan-like qualities of a bank. The land managers roll up in their automobiles and roll down there windows, never making contact with the earth, to tell the tenants squatting in the dirt that they must leave because it is no longer cost effective to have tenants. Why deal with the messiness of tenant farmers when a machine can do just as much work in a fraction of the time? When the tenants protest, the manager simply defers to the “machine”. “It’s not us,” they say,

It’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster….It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it. (ibid)

The irony of the situation is hard to miss. If the men built the machine, who else but the men who built and comprise it would be responsible?
Steinbeck’s question is a deeply troubling one, particularly for the western Christian. Our own society has created something that historically has few direct parallels; whole businesses–– private enterprises–– that, to a very large degree, influence and even control the direction of the country and the world. Before capitalism, this sort of power resided almost entirely in the hands of the state (for better or worse). The Church was often better equipped to speak on issues of oppression and tyranny by the government because it has scripture that speaks directly to Christian’s relationship to the state (cf. Romans 13). Furthermore, it has an identity that is firmly established apart from the state (consider for instance, John 18:36), even if the men within the Church were prone to acquiescence. But how ought we as believers respond to institutions that are not the state and apparently reside outside of our scripture and our history? Specifically, how ought we regard those corporations that we know are causes of oppression? If an organization is responsible for indirectly killing a person, who is responsible?

It should be said first that if we affirm the authority of Scripture, then it must also be affirmed that the Bible and the Spirit have not failed to speak to this particular situation, so it is an artificial problem if we concede that somehow a scenario has arisen that Christ failed to prepare us for.

Where do we begin then? Should the corporation be regarded as the state, since it contains many of the same features as the state, minus the authority? Perhaps that is just it, since it possesses no real authority, should it be regarded at all? Should the Church support it or condemn it for its propensity keep one from loving his neighbor due to globalization (in which case our neighbor is not visible, but still there)?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pragmatic Test

At some point the pragmatic test deserves its day in court. Usually its leveled against the pacifist - i.e., How can we live in a world without war? And that deserves an answer. But there is a more potent practical question the pacifist can ask: Has there ever been a just war?

Both questions appropriately demand livability, an essential component of any conception of Christian life. Something may look great on paper, adorned with proof texts and Luther quotes, but does it work? Can it be lived?

If a pair of scissors was used in a brutal murder, no one would call into question whether or not we should continue to manufacture and use them for their other effective purpose. Just because something is abused does not undermine its validity. But what if we lived in a world where scissors were only ever without exception used not for cutting paper but stabbing victims? Every single time any well-meaning school teacher sought to conduct an art project, she ended up with a room full of bodies. We might begin to wonder if scissors were such a great idea after all.

Enter "just war". Has there ever been a just war? Even if you support war without the "just" part, has there ever been a war for which a Christian could fully support its cause and fully support its means?

This might sound like an unfair test. It might sound like asking, Has there every been a completely untainted democratic process? But that's not what I'm asking. I'm not saying that we throw out democracy because its always tainted. I'm saying we throw out communism because we always end up with totalitarianism.

Enter "war". We don't abandon war for the Christian because it involves non-Christians and its always tainted by evil on both sides. We abandon war because when we set out for justice on paper we always end up with injustice. We fight for unjust reasons, with unjust means, and get unjust results. Sure there might be some mixed blessings in there. I could name a few mixed blessings under Mao or Stalin or Hitler. But collateral blessings are cause for abandonment not embodiment.

And so the pragmatic challenge stands: Has there ever been a just war?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Why Christians Make Bad Soldiers

Stanley Hauerwas' short article "Why Homosexuals (as a Group) are More Moral than Christians (as a Group)", written during debates surrounding admitting homosexuals into the military, made a great point - the real debate should be over whether to let Christians in. True ones make dismal soldiers. He could have gone much further.

First, the more Christian soldiers espouse just war theory, the more likely they may begin thinking through what they mean by it. Sooner or later protecting oil fields or killing Muslims is going to come up short. What are you going to do with a massive standing army who keeps asking, Should we be doing this?

Second, if a soldier obeys orders and kills civilians there's the nasty business of church discipline, handing them over to Satan. That's terrible for morale.

Third, Christians will (counter-intuitively) pray for their enemies. They will demonstrate mercy over justice. They will turn the other cheek. In fact, they may get confused and accidentally do corporately what they vigorously practice privately. Or they might just realize that's a stupid distinction anyway.

Fourth, they share a commission greater than capitalism. What happens when they begin to lose gospel credibility because they keep shooting everybody? They might be forced to choose baptizing over bombing, witnessing over water boarding.

Finally, Christian soldiers are ultimately under not the commander in chief but Christ. And worse, they are striving to become more and more like him. Which means they are becoming decidedly less and less what they are defending. Old wine skins can't hold the new wine.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Jesus was a Sexual Predator

At the crux of the story of Jesus is the cross. Without his humiliating death we are left proclaiming "another Jesus" (2 Cor 11:4), not the one of Scripture. No wonder Paul was forced to fight super-apostles in Corinth, missionaries in Galatia, and adversaries in Philippi over its centrality. Battle fatigue prompted him to assert Christ crucified is what he preaches (1 Cor 1:23), all he boasts in (Gal 6:14), and all he knows (1 Cor 2:2).

Our present aversion to the cross centers around a question posed by a friend: Is it a symbol of God's love or God's love itself? There is a world of difference. If the cross is a symbol it is a demonstration; it is a kind gesture (albeit confusing) out there. But if it is God's definitive act of love we invite two messy concepts right here, our sin and God's wrath.

There is no ambiguity in the Scriptures. Jesus died for sins. "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God" (1 Pet 3:18). Language of imputation and balance transfers has the adverse affect of rendering what we mean by it as about as controversial as an accounting textbook. But as we approach Good Friday we are in a season to reflect very graphically and very precisely on what we mean.

On the cross, afflicted, bloodied, abandoned my God, naked, reeking of his own feces Jesus was a sexual predator. He raped women; he performed back alley abortions; he was an avid homosexual with multiple partners; he was strung out on coke; he was racist.

And just as the transition from Romans 1 to 2 indicts the self-righteous elder brother along with the prodigal, he was an online porn addict; he was anorexic; he said and did cruel things to his spouse; he insulated himself in the suburbs; he isolated himself in the city; he withheld the gospel from those who needed it most and collected trinkets for his modest home while others starved; he was proud, greedy, selfish, loving only people who were most like him.

For such a vile sinner there could be no humane execution, no heart attack in the garden or beheading before Pilate. The utter, vehement, violent wrath of God demanded abandonment, humiliation, horror, mocking, spitting, beating, whipping, thorns, nails, agony, desperation till Isaiah's prophecy could chillingly be fulfilled: "his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind" (52:14).

Martin Luther said, "The whole value of the meditation of the suffering of Christ lies in this, that man should come to the knowledge of himself, and sink and tremble."