Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wrestling as Devotion

When Jacob went to meet Esau, years after the younger stole the birthright of the older, Jacob perceived that his brother intended to bring to naught the blessing of their father Isaac. He heard, "four hundred men are with him," and "he is coming to meet you," (Gen. 32:6).

What else could it be but revenge? Jacob calls out to God, and so began one of the most strange episodes in the history of the people of God.

Night came. Jacob was alone. And a man was there. They wrestled until light returned.
"When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob's thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him.

Then he said, 'let me go, for the dawn is breaking.'
'I will not let you go unless you bless me.'
So he said to him, 'What is your name?'
He said, 'Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.'" (Gen. 32:25-28)
Jacob had received a promise, and just as that promise appeared to be coming to an end, he begins to strive with God. The blessing he receives as a result is a name, but it is an immense name that came to define the people of God: Israel, "he who strives with God."

If the church is, as Andrew Kirk once said, "an enlarged Israel," (as opposed to a "new Israel"), we still carry this name, though we rarely invoke it. It still marks us, even if it is only a latent marking, like an indelible tattoo on our back. What else is the church, but a people who strives with God? Surely the history of the church, and Israel, bears this out. Faithful men are those who are continually wrestling with God, through prayer seated in the heart; through fasting gnawing at the body; through earnest and tireless supplication. They are faithful people, continually submitting themselves to "the sharp compassion" of the wounded and wounding hands.

What else is apostasy, but refusing to wrestle anymore? It is turning instead to wrestle with an object of wood, stone, paper, or plastic–– one we think we can dominate. An idol lets us believe that we define the rules and set the boundaries of engagement. It lets us think it will bend to our lustful clawing hands–– although in a treacherous twist, we all find ourselves crushed in the end.

Wrestling with God is different. It means He sets the parameters. It means knowing we will walk away limping–– a difficult prospect, for none like pain, and most will refuse Him for it. But in wrestling with Him, we will gain our fitness and our blessing. It is the only way we can be prepared for the rigors of His glory and our joy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Story of Eldridge and a Mexican Drug Cartel

When I first heard this story about a month ago, the first words out of my mouth were an exuberant "ah-hah!"

But the more I think about it, this sort of situation is not uncommon. How often in the past have prominent figures of Christianity (whether we love them or hate them) been co-opted by movements that bear little resemblance to Christ? The example that comes most readily to mind is, for me, Luther, whose theology became a convenient tool for German National Socialism, and I know there are other less insidious examples we could think of. It's too simple to excuse those figures whom we like as merely misunderstood while we heap coals of condemnation on those whom we don't like. To what extent, and under what circumstances, is the proverbial fruit of a work actually a reflection of its deeper theology?

At the end of the day, I guess I just don't like who I want to not-like, and I don't like that about myself.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Physicality of Psalm 23

Robert Alter's excellent translation of Psalm 23 strips the psalm of its typical eschatological, and dualistic bent. Rather than translating verse 3, "he restores my soul" he translates it "he brings my life back." The image being of one who is close to death, and is prevented from entering that realm. It is not one of spiritual refreshment through solitude. In verse 5 rather than translating the Hebrew, "you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows" he translates "you moisten my head with oil, my cup overflows." Alter points out that the word typically translated anoint is absent, therefore the image is more "sensual than sacramental". This verse is an ode to the physical elements of the good life, where wine is ever-present, and luxury is granted even in the scoffing presence of one's enemies. Finally, Alter translates verse 6, "And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for many long days." Again the image is not eschatological, but profoundly present. David hopes that his daily life will be structured around presence in God's house, with God's people.

Robert Alter is no iconoclast (cf. his latest book in praise of the KJV). He is more sentimental about time-honored translations than most evangelicals. His translations break away from Tyndale's only when linguistic evidence stacks up beyond a shadow of a doubt.

I wonder how a Christian could be grateful for Alter's move away from subjectivism, all the while accepting the cross-bearing discipleship that Jesus calls him to? Can Bonhoeffer and Alter embrace?

Monday, October 4, 2010

What Culture is Not

C.K. Rowe on what culture cannot mean:

Culture cannot mean: a sphere of life that exists in independence from God (cf. Acts 17:24, 26). In this respect H. Richard Niebuhr's famous book 'Christ and Culture' is the example par excellence of how not to speak of culture: in Niehbuhrian grammar, Christ is one thing, culture another. Whatever this teaches us about Niehbuhr's thought, it is emphatically not what the word culture could mean if it is to be employed rightly in relation to the text of Acts. Indeed... Jesus is Lord of all (Acts 10:36).

Culture cannot mean: a piece of reality that is separable from other basic aspects of a total pattern of life. When historian David Cherry, for example writes of the effects of Roman presence in North Africa, he separates what belongs inherently together. "There is in fact no evidence to show that there was any really significant measure of cultural change in the region during the period of Roman occupation. It might be supposed instead that the main consequences of the coming of the Romans were economic and social." Contra Cherry, economic and social consequences are not non-cultural but are instead bound up with what it would mean to speak of cultural consequences in the first place. Precisely to the degree that the Romans affected social and economic life, they also effected cultural change.

Culture cannot mean: a static backdrop to the text of Acts, as if Acts itself were somehow sealed off from and did not partake of Graeco-Roman culture; or a pristine reality that Acts attempts to form, as if the new culture that Acts seeks to narrate was to retain nothing from the old. It is of course that the 'culturally fluid' situation of the late antique period bears little resemblance to the situation Acts describes. But if we are to speak of culture in relation to Acts, we cannot think in terms of entirely isolated forms of life. To take one obvious example: when the Christian community bursts the conceptual framework of Graeco-Roman altruism by engaging in radical economic redistribution (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-37), they did not attempt to erect their own mint and strike 'Christian' coins for use in the network of house churches. The governor Felix hopes for Paul's collection money not for spiritual reasons but because he can use it (Acts 24:17, 23, 26).