Friday, July 31, 2009

Sunday's Best...

Maybe I'm the only one, but can anyone else relate to the below picture...particularly in relation to Sunday morning? Seems oftentimes I find myself putting on a smile when its not necessarily the case, just because its Sunday. We can't let anyone thinks somethings wrong, can we?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How to Hear the Message of the Kingdom

Robert Gundry, from his fantastic Mark commentary, p. 206, commenting on Mk. 4:13-20 (i.e. Jesus' interpretation of the Parable of the Sower):
    In summary, the good hearers [of the message of the Kingdom] welcome the word immediately, so that Satan cannot snatch it away. They welcome it deeply, so that persecution because of it cannot induce them to apostatize. They welcome it exclusively, so that other concerns do not stifle it.
(Emphasis mine).

Grace is No Science

Ponder this 'mystery of divine causality' with me.

2 Cor. 4.6: 'For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.'

That is (nearly) quoting Genesis 1.3: Let there be light. I do not have any commentaries around that can confirm this. It seems straightforward. The question that arises, then, is what is the connection Paul is affirming?

Let me suggest the following. God saves us by His grace - this is indisputable. It does not matter for my purposes here whether this is prevenient grace, cooperative grace &c, for no Christian can say the grace of God is uninvolved in salvation.

But what is grace? Is it a substance? a gas? some circumambient airy matter in the heavens? As stated, no Christian can say grace is uninvolved in salvation. This is just another way of saying grace is the cause or at least a cause of our salvation. But then the question again: what is the nature of this causality? is it traceable? can it be demonstrated? is there data for it?

No matter how many sociological surveys, or neuroscience studies, or advances in physics, the most determinative truth about those who are born again is this: it is by the grace of God, not the works of men.

Christians, we must notice and embrace the peculiarity in this statement. What we affirm is that there is a force or cause in this universe that is not reducible to scientific explanation. This is the cause that shines in our hearts and shows up in our lives. It causes us to repent. It causes us to worship. It causes us to rejoice. It is a gift, a mystery, a light, a knowledge - but it is not any thing that we may reduce to constitutive physical properties or laws, period. Grace is no science. Gravity is a science. As Simone Weil put it:
All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception.
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, p. 1.
So what is the connection Paul is making? My suggestion is this: that grace is a mystery, just as is the very creation of the world. Both represent a cause that is 'outside' that which man can discover. Instead, faith, hope and love access what reason can only ram into and halt. My supervisor puts it best:
Whatever scientific researchers may believe they are able to tell us about the prehistory of the universe, they can tell us nothing about 'creation' in the theological sense, because creation is not a process which might be accessible through the backward extrapolation of other processes. Creation as a completed design is presupposed by any movement in time. Its teleological order, expressed in the regular patterns of history, is not a product of the historical process, such that it might be surpassed and left behind as history proceeds further toward its goal. It is the condition of history's movement, a condition which, in one form or another, history will always bear witness.
Oliver O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, p. 63.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Keepers of the Aquarium Instead of Fishers of Men"

From Mike Wilkins' commentary on Matthew, p. 189, commenting on Mt. 4:12-25:
    In a chapel message at our seminary, guest speaker and pastor E. V. Hill made the statement that the church throughout the centuries has struggled with the temptation to be 'keepers of the aquarium instead of fishers of men.' Those words hit home to each of us in attendance. There is a world of hurt outside the walls of our churches and organizations, but we can be so intent on building our ministries that we don't go to where people are hurting. Instead, we just take care of our own. As Jesus' disciples, we all have the incredible privilege, and obligation, to carry the message of the gospel of the kingdom to those who lives in the darkness all around us.

Monday, July 27, 2009

May We Celebrate That Which We Find Lacking?

Leading question: What is the proper Christian response to things that move us, but do not (seem to) arise from the Gospel?

Last night I indulged in a favourite film of mine, Cool Hand Luke (1967) starring Paul Newman. I like(d) Newman. I especially like the character he plays, Luke Jackson, a kind of smooth-talking 'maverick' (sorry, the word just fits) who at the beginning of the film is arrested and sentenced to two years in a Florida prison camp for damaging municipal property (i.e. cutting off the heads of parking meters.) Much like the later and notable film Shawshank Redemption, the plot of C.H.L. centers around the injustices of prison life, as well as the problematic dialectics of authority-to-freedom, conformity-to-individuality, legality-to-morality. Newman attempts three escapes, all of which fail, the last of which costs him his life (presumably; the film leaves it only somewhat in doubt.) In the final scene, his fellow inmates - who quickly warm to Luke's incorrigible spirit - spend time reminiscing about 'that ol' Luke smile' which seemed to transcend the confines of their prison life. The film leaves viewers with an overwhelming affinity as well: Luke is someone free, someone outside; someone lawless and yet deeply true, deeply human. He is a stirring character, one with whom we want to relate, and probably do relate, at some level or another.

I suspect many have similar sensations from various kinds of art: music, paintings, theater, etc. I'm also aware that some people prefer to 'switch their brains off' when they do engage these things, and I don't find fault in this. I guess I'm just not like that. For me, the question that always seems to arise is this: how am I supposed to think about this moving representation of a life - as a Christian? Or in other words: how much or little should I celebrate a life or form of life that - to the best of my knowledge - does not place Christ at the centre?

Several answers come to mind, but the first bell to go off is a sober warning: temptation lurks all around this kind of enquiry. There is the temptation first to presume too much (Luke did not know Christ); then to observe too narrowly (Luke did not show Christ the way I expect someone should); or to profess self-righteously (Luke is not the kind of person I am); and, perhaps most fatal (but also most problematic), finally to abstract ourselves from humanity (Luke is a sinner; I am a saint). These four plus several more represent the extremities of some faulty or just plain sinful perspectives on that which is not noticeably in the exclusive province of Christian faith. As with any 'interpretive lens' we need to recognise that its focus may need to be adjusted or even radically changed; and furthermore that we ourselves need to be placed in that very field of vision, the parts of which we plan to judge for the sake of learning, affirming, celebrating and at times even refusing. Jesus' command in (fittingly) Luke 6.42 proves instructive: first take the log out of your own eyes, and then ...so on and so forth.

In fact, rather than making this self-examination the preface to every exercise of judgment, it seems better to argue it is continuous with the act of judgment itself. It would be wonderful to arrive at that place which is free of log-jams, free of our own sinful ways, but such an event is not the luxury of the Christian in this life. That is why the answer to the question 'how should I think of this movie, this testimony, this example, this life?' goes something like this: you should think of this in continuity with the common experience of humanity in the light of the creation, fall and redemption of that humanity in Christ. If the image or representation elicits our reflection, the place to start is where we begin when we wish to make sense of anything in this life: that is, the nature of our condition in the light of the revelation of God in Christ. With the Spirit's help, the 'nature of our condition' invariably implicates us in it, so that what we may now observe in others not in Christ is the faint echo of the common human experience that is, yes, irreducibly multiform, but no, not of such a nature that it does not reveal something more to us about the nature of humanity which is common to us all.

This much said, what do I think of Mr. Luke Jackson, of 'cool hand Luke'? In a few brief words, I think he illustrates the inner struggle which many have felt: that struggle against a world of laws and regulations, taboos and expectations that sometimes seem so arbitrary, so fake, so ready to be overthrown. Luke, of course, is not without his own spiritual journey. In his final hour he finds himself in an old church sanctuary, where he asks God to speak, to deal him some better cards. What is God's answer? Well, Luke gets caught and shot. The viewer is then left wondering whether Luke made his peace with the Almighty; or whether the message is that no true peace can be made in a world that never tires to spoil our transcendent longings with brute suffering and violence.

Then there is Luke's smile: that intractable grin which never lets on about the imprisonment he endures. What to make of this smile? I wonder if it's part of the mystery of the human condition. For all our theorising, we can never justly exhaust the depths and complexity of one another. The sensation we feel when others go through so much, only to turn about and rejoice; or to reveal some beautiful expression on a worn-out face; or to rend their garments in ceaseless tears; or to capture the moment in a single word, all of these things Christians ought to celebrate and affirm, placing them in the stream of God's love which flows through that good so often inexplicable.

Yet in their celebration, Christians recognise incompleteness and restlessness. That is why the true virtues of the church - faith, hope and love - never cease to exercise themselves within the celebration that is both final and not yet final. Which is finally to say that the Christian who celebrates what lacks in affirming Christ, does not cease to hope in God and believe all things, and act in love toward the true good s/he affirms.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Abuse of Biblical Words (or Why Don't Churches Do Ministry?)

Acts 2:42 says, "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." Phil. 1:5 says that the Philippians had partnership (Gk. koinonia, translated "fellowship" in Acts 2:42) with Paul in the gospel. 1 Jn. 1:3 links the church's fellowship in the gospel with the believer's fellowship in the Trinity.

That doesn't mean that we have coffee and donuts with the Trinity, does it?

"Fellowship" is one of those biblical words that we've castrated. What the Bible connects to the Trinity, prayer, biblical teaching, and the sufferings of Christ, we use to describe what happens when believers get together to watch The Princess Bride.

This is one of the clearest symptoms of church-as-social-club that I know. Only Christians use the term (I've never heard believers talk about getting together for some fellowship over pot, liquor, and casual sex...), yet with little resemblance to its uniquely Christian meaning.

And "fellowship" is far from the only Christian term we do this with. Is it really outreach, or is it just believers drinking tea together? Is it really worship, or is it just believers having a sing-a-long? Is it really preaching, or is it a guy firing off semi-Christianized moralisms?

So fellowship is the word that got this little diatribe going (thanks to some insightful comments on Phil. 1:5 from the youth group summer camp speaker this week). And it is worth noting that I experienced what seems to be the real intent of that term when a bunch of us youth pastors who didn't know each other got together and prayed fervently for God to work in the lives of our students. That was fellowship.

But that isn't even really the big issue. The big issue is that a whole lot of what we call "ministry" isn't ministry at all. It is just believers who go to the same church doing stuff together. And that doesn't qualify as ministry.

What we've got to do is what a lot of quasi-Emerg*** types have been saying for awhile now: stop wasting our precious time ("the days are evil" after all) on stuff that doesn't meaningfully contribute to the church's mission.

Oh right, there's another: by mission, I don't mean spending thousands of dollars to fly across the world to somewhere more exotic and paint a church for two weeks. Just so we're clear.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Neutrality is Nowhere

Up at John Piper's D.G. blog there's a post on the so-called 'myth of neutrality.' This prompts me for several reasons, not least of which is the relevance of the topic for Augustinian studies. Also, I recently gave a paper at the University of Aberdeen on ethics and technology, the opening of which placed the problematic nature of 'neutrality' front and centre. I said the following:
'The aim of my paper is to investigate where the intersection of ethics and technology occurs in modern societies. I am speaking as a Christian theologian. Because of this, I do not pretend to participate on neutral turf; in fact, it is fundamental to my critique of technology-in-modernity that neutrality be exposed for the dangerous pretension that I think it is. My opposition to neutrality is thus coextensive with my expectation that those who do not share my convictions will have a difficult time agreeing with me.'
I include this not to bore you with my own writing, but to address what I think it critically important to any substantive discussion held anywhere at any time. In some sense it is a relief for me to attend academic conferences under the title of theologian: the cat's out of the bag from the start, and the only question my peers really have to ask is how much I take what I study seriously, i.e. how much I believe. But this is still not to excuse me from locating myself in the grips and throes of the catholic Christian tradition. What is therefore essential for conversation is that no veil is thrown over the most determinative truth on which I base my criticism or scholarship or whatever; which is, invariably (hopefully), the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But my above (imperfect) introduction wants to do more than this. It is not simply to claim no neutrality on my part, but to ask that others excuse themselves from such pretension as well. Thus the question I want to elicit is exactly the one I received, namely whether I believe there is a so-called 'neutral perspective' from which humanity may discuss and determine truth, etc. The reply is very simply, no. But this, too, is not a claim divorced from Christian theological convictions. Since Christians believe in a Creator, they believe we are creatures. Therefore our creaturely status implicates us in the creation within which we participate but over which we cannot preside as some 'neutral observer' or even transcendent being. We participate in a world that is created. Moreover the doctrine of the fall stipulates that this participation is in some sense fatally flawed, in which case the redemption we experience is a redemption that converts our hearts, minds and wills from one place and to another, rather than from no place to something. That is why it is rebirth, not first birth. The creatio ex nihilo has already occurred; we do not repeat it, but get transformed following it.

There is much more to say, but I conclude with this thought. The struggle of the non-believer rests in her inability to identify or unwillingness to acknowledge (or both) what separates her from God: namely, her sin. Augustine spoke of the primordial sin as pride: it is pride that betrays our vision, that gives us the sense of superior reason, of a 'neutral' vantage point. Yet the claim to neutrality is the claim from nowhere, which is in a certain sense the claim not to exist. Perhaps then the task of any Christian apologetic or (perhaps more properly, following Barth) Christian polemic is first to refuse any pretense to neutrality at all. For this is how we should begin to make sense of what faith, hope and especially love is. It is love, expressed through worship - and not pride, expressed through reason - that speaks of Christ and orders and explores reality through Christ. The use of reason operates within the wisdom we possess in the Trinity, revealed to us in the face of the Son of God to whom we belong - having formerly belonged to something else. Giving away our false purchase on neutrality is therefore to acknowledge ourselves as creatures, as slaves to righteousness rather than slaves to sin; and it is to keep us from transcending the heights of scholarly 'wisdom' only to find that in this false transcendence, we have abandoned the very truth that rendered the joy of the Lord our strength: namely, that apart from Him we can do nothing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Vacuum Salesmen and Hell: A Parable

Last summer my wife and I went to the Nebraska State Fair so I could eat my first deep-fried Twinkie. It was worth the price of admission, price of Twinkie, and all future heart problems. While we were there we made our way to the exhibitors hall, where all the cool gadgets are peddled. These are the sorts of products that are cool enough that people will buy them at first glance, but not reliable enough that Wal-Mart or Target would stand behind them. I believe the strategy is make a good sell then flee town before your product falls apart.

While we were there, we were drawn in by an air purifier/humidifier that was free if we agreed to let a vacuum salesman come to our house and give us a 45 minute demonstration of his product. So after he came and gave us his 90 minute demonstration, I was still unconvinced. He tried every angle: need ("look at all these germs and allergens your breathing and living in"), benefit ("this will save you money in the long run over carpet and upholstery cleanings, allergy medicines, etc."), and guilt ("I've got a family, I'm just trying to provide for them. Don't waste my time"). He almost parted me with $4,000 when he showed my wife a thin, black cloth with a pile of what he vacuumed out of our couch. He should have been ashamed for playing on the fears of an already-neurotic, pregnant woman.

I was reminded of our vacuum salesman incident (as we now call it) today while reading Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. Don't worry, this is not a post on the emergent church. However, this did jog my memory: "On the emergent end I think people are afraid that Christians are using hell as a sales tool to get people to buy into Christianity, and I think that should be avoided". It got me thinking of the salesman. While I agreed with his premise that we needed to be free of all the dust mites, dead skin cells, allergens, and germs in our life, I just couldn't get over the cost. When he asked for references of others he could pitch to, I certainly did not want to be the one responsible for afflicting anyone else with what I just went through. Not only that, but his approach colored my opinion of other salesmen.

Hell is a reality just like dust mites, dead skin cells, allergens, and germs (my wife would probably suggest they are synonymous). Certainly not equal in magnitude and severity, but roll with my analogy. Even if people agree with our premise that hell exists and should be avoided, many of them just can't get over the cost. When this happens, our approach and conduct up to this point will determine largely how they think of Christianity afterwards. Will they feel that we had a genuine concern for them or that we just wanted to "seal the deal"? Will they want to spend more time around Christians or less? Will they come and seek you out when their life gets too messy dirty or will they go to someone else?

I am not suggesting that our Gospel presentation should just be "hell avoidance". Indeed, the Gospel, in its essentials, need not include hell at all. But when we do talk about hell, how is it handled? Are we presenting the Gospel like our vacuum salesman, just using the idea of hell to scare, coerce and intimidate? Are people being scared away from Christianity for fear that they will have to adopt similar tactics in being Gospel salesmen if they buy in? Is my impersonal and calloused approach coloring their opinion of not only me but other Christians and even Christ? The Gospel is offensive enough without us adding offense to it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Book Review: True For You but Not For Me by Paul Copan

Ten years ago Paul Copan addressed and challenged the relativism and pluralism of our culture in his book True For You but Not For Me. Somehow that book had slipped under my radar and it was only upon the release of the new revised and expanded edition that I discovered it.

Thank goodness for revised and expanded editions.

This short and smart book reads like a practical field-guide for dealing with the challenges of moral relativism and religious pluralism that face Christianity today. While each chapter builds on the foundation laid by previous chapters, each is easily referenced by type and specific challege for a brush-up if one is in need of a quick response. As a philosopher, Copan is well equipped to both understand and deconstruct the false assumptions and faulty logic of some of the more extreme forms of postmodernism. At the end of every chapter is a summary in a few bullet points for easy review and a list of recommended books for further study.

This is, in short, the most concise handbook for addressing our culture's postmodern-fueled relativism that I have read. The information contained in this book should not just be read. It should be memorized if we are to present Christianity in a way that is clear, rational, reasonable, and winsome.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Fred Sanders on Dutch Theologians on the Trinity

Fred Sanders has a typically great post up on trinitarian theology, which is his area of theological expertise.

The post surveys some of the points made by the Dutch theologian A. A. van Ruler on the necessary distinctions between christology and pneumatology. Sanders agrees, but then goes the next step by showing how they two are necessarily related:
    My main criticism of van Ruler’s schema is that, having teased apart these two doctrinal perspectives, a theologian really ought to put them back together. After all, everything Christ does he does with the Spirit (conceived by the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit, sender of the Spirit, his presence now mediated by the Spirit, etc.), and everything the Spirit does he does with Christ (anointing Christ, applying the redemption in Christ, enabling confession of Christ, etc.). The two distinct works of Christ and the Spirit are internally connected to each other, and shouldn’t be played off against each other. There are not two different economies of salvation, but one twofold economy.
Sanders is, as always, highly informative and highly readable. He is by far the main contributor to Scriptorium these days, which you really should be reading for that very reason.

Book Review: Satan and His Kingdom by Dennis McCallum

As embarrassed as I am to admit this, my thinking on Satan and demons has almost solely been shaped by Lewis' Screwtape Letters and Peretti's This Present Darkness. Until now. Dennis McCallum has written a much needed work for Christian literature in Satan and His Kingdom. It is well studied, biblically balanced, and very readable.

While it may not be at the top of my list of recommended reads for the new Christian, it most certainly is for anyone in church leadership. Dennis McCallum is frank about spiritual warfare being fought around us and the tendency of most Christians to fall into a "peacetime mentality". While he is not seeing demons around every corner and behind every temptation, McCallum is honest and strongly biblical about the existence and activity of spiritual beings opposed to God and his children.

Many Christians are too quick to attribute every temptation and conflict to Satan and his minions ("The devil made me do it" type of people) rather than our own sinful tendencies and the system of the world. Others ignore their reality to the point of verging on naturalism. Dennis McCallum is a fresh voice bringing balance and biblical insight into the all too real battle going on around us.

If I have one criticism, it is that after a couple chapters of such subject matter, I felt like I needed to cleanse my palate, put the book down, and read the Bible. But I think McCallum would be happy with that.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Book Review: The Hole In Our Gospel by Richard Stearns

While the gospel of social justice is a popular topic today, it is refreshing to read a presentation of the Gospel that gives both spiritual transformation and social justice its biblical due. Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, has written a compelling book that pulls the blinders off of our comfortable, American Christianity. While social justice was given the bulk of the attention here, this is due to Stearns' sense of it's utter neglect in the Gospel of many evangelicals.

This book read like a half autobiography/half World Vision sponsor video script, neither of which I particularly enjoy but both of which I found compelling. And certainly, when there is such abject poverty and suffering in our world, and when we live in such opulence by comparison, we do not deserve to enjoy everything we read.

I was not convinced by some of Stearns' arguments from the Bible. I am still of the mind that Jesus' proclamation of good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and release of the oppressed was primarily (though not solely) referring to the spiritually poor, imprisoned, blind, and oppressed. Case in point: how many prisoners did Jesus free? Not even John the Baptist was freed by Jesus.

However, much of Stearns' offering was well-reasoned and biblically supported. World Vision's founder, Bob Pierce, famously prayed, "Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God." How will this ever be true if we blind ourselves to the things that break the heart of God?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Balancing Act of Jesus

One thing that has always puzzled me about the ministry of Jesus is why he would exert so much effort to squash the buzz surrounding him. There are seven separate occasions recorded in the book of Mark where Jesus instructed the recipient of a healing miracle to "Tell no one!" Even more fascinating are the accounts of Jesus telling demons to be silent when they cry "You are the Son of God!" as they are cast out. Luke says that he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ (4:41).

However, I think these are indicators of the type of ministry Jesus was setting out to create. He was not simply trying to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth with his teachings. He wasn't just aiming to start a movement. He didn't want to amass a large group of followers. At least not yet.

Jesus, from the very beginning, had his eyes set on the cross. He knew that all his teachings and ministry would be futile if atonement was never made for the sinfulness of mankind. No amount of wisdom from the mouth of God would accomplish what he knew must take place through the cross in his death and resurrection.

Jesus had to keep his followers few enough, his teachings hard enough, and his identity vague enough that the cross would become a reality.

So with this little insight, many strange things in the Gospels start to fall into place. Two of the three recorded temptations from Satan in the wilderness would have instantly revealed Jesus' true identity and drawn the militant masses ready to fight Rome in the name of the Messiah. The same would have taken place if all the healed were proclaiming him. This also would explain why Jesus snapped "Get behind me, Satan!" when Peter tried to dissuade him at saying he would die in Jerusalem. When an overt temptation to bypass the cross failed in the desert, Satan tried again in the form of a trusted friend.

Jesus would be seen as Messiah all the more by the masses if the demons were allowed to proclaim the truth that he was the Son of God as they were cast out. Instead, when Jesus was asked by whose authority he performed his miracles, he replied with a question. When his challengers were unable to answer his question, he said "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things". Even so Jesus, on at least one occasion, had to escape "knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force".

And it was not just the masses who had trouble deciding about Jesus. In an amazing twist, John the Baptist, while in prison, sent a few of his own followers to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah or if they should expect someone else. This from the very person who prepared the way for Jesus and even proclaimed him the Lamb of God at his baptism.

And what of all his hard teachings? Hate your brother and mother and father? Eat my body? Drink my blood? Tear this temple down and in three days I will raise it up? Through the lens of the cross and the harmony of Scripture we see the truth and beauty of his words, but on the front end of his death he sounded kinda nutty. Though the disciples knew he had the "words of eternal life", there are several points recorded in the Gospels where they grasped Jesus' teaching only after his resurrection and glorification. And while the disciples hung on and remembered even when they didn't understand, many others were driven away by Jesus words.

This starts to become quite distressing when considering all the people "driven away" from the Gospel by Jesus himself! That is, of course, unless Jesus "knew what was in a man" and knew that many had just come to be entertained by the talk of the town. Disturbing, unless Jesus knew that "All that the Father gives me will come to me", and "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him". Confusing, unless Jesus spoke in parables precisely to weed out those who, "Though seeing they do not see, and though hearing they do not hear or understand". The behavior of Jesus is quite frustrating unless he has a cool confidence in the sovereignty and election of God to bring all the sheep out from among the rebellious and cold-hearted wolves into the fold of the Shepherd and not lose one.

So throughout the Gospels I see a balancing act emerging, a tight-rope walk on the part of Jesus. His words of life tempered by hard teachings. Questions answered contrasted with questions left unanswered. Jesus proclaiming his own divinity (often vaguely) but squashing overt proclamations from the demons. Miracles performed followed by miracles refused. Crowds drawn and beckoned, and then driven away. All this to ensure the climax and apex of his incarnation, his death and resurrection. If you still find this hard to believe, consider Jesus' own words to his disciples: "What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs." Jesus himself was aware that he was whispering in the dark during his own ministry.

Jesus' goal on earth was never to evangelize the nations himself. In deed, his ministry was quite localized and relatively brief. Rather, his goal was to prepare a small group of followers and equip them with the "words of eternal life" and the Holy Spirit so that they were prepared to go to the nations after he had purchased salvation for the world. This is why Jesus kept his followers few enough, his teachings hard enough, and his identity vague enough that the cross would become a reality.

And now for someone completely different . . .

Hello everybody,

It has been a distinct pleasure following and interacting with the folks here at Christians in Context, so it was no small surprise to be invited on as a guest blogger recently. . . and by that I mean it was a huge surprise, in case I'm using my words not good. My name is Jared Totten and I'll be pestering you with a few of my thoughts over the next couple months.

Sooo, a little about me: I am first and foremost a sinner saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, his work on the cross, and his power over death in resurrection. Lest that sound trite, I am not worthy of it (by definition or experience) and do not reflect adequate glory to God for it. Truth be told, I am a pretty pathetic "little Christ" much of the time, and ask to be reminded every so often if I start sounding inflated in the head. Even so, I press on with faltering steps to honor him who loved me while I was still an enemy and fully involved in seeking my own glory.

Omaha, Nebraska is home. I moved here in 2000 to attend Grace University (I later graduated). I started a rock band here (I later quit). I met my wife-to-be here (I later married her, but I guess that was self-explanatory). I am a worship leader at a young church plant here. I am a brand new father of a baby girl. I am an avid reader and occasionally even grasp what I'm reading. I am a bard/poet/warrior. OK, that last one isn't real . . . yet, but if it can occur vicariously through what I read, it will happen soon enough. C'mon literary osmosis.

I've been asked to join the CiC community to fill a void here. I can only assume that would be the void of people reading more than they can take in, writing poorly, and occasionally drooling on themselves when they nap. I do love to read (and nap). My book-purchasing abilities currently outpace my book-reading abilities. I will be posting on my ongoing struggle to bring these two entities into balance. That means book reviews.

My weaknesses are bacon cheeseburgers, Star Wars lore, football, a good rock show, coffee with cream and sugar, new book smell, movies that make you think, movies that make you stupid, theological discussions, microbreweries, John Piper, and new socks. Side note: on no other list anywhere will you find John Piper sandwiched between those two items.

Don't worry. I'm not always this ADHD (undiagnosed as of yet). But I must stop now because I have too much left to say. Oh yeah. I love irony, too.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. - Hebrews 10:23,24

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

John Dickson on Martin Hengel

By now you've probably heard that Martin Hengel died last week. Some will not appreciate the significance of Dr. Hengel in the world of NT studies. For that matter most of us probably won't simply because it is almost hard to overestimate how important his work is.

John Dickson has a post up on Koinonia that recounts his time interviewing Dr. Hengel not long before he died. I highly recommend Dickson's account. It is both a helpful introduction to Dr. Hengel the Scholar and Martin Hengel the Man. Not that I ever knew him, but Dickson's account comports with something Clint Arnold (who studied with Hengel some at Tubingen) once told me in a Talbot class, namely that despite not being evangelical, he had the heart and piety of an evangelical in many respects. He was no cold, stiff scholar who sat around endlessly critiquing.

And for this wannabe scholar, that sort of thing is both encouraging and inspiring. Do go read Dickson's piece.

Why We Should Read the Pope

I'm usually very appreciative of the thoughts of NY Times columnist Ross Douthat. His recent entry makes no exception: 'The Audacity of the Pope' is a great slap in the face to those dismissive of Pope Benedict's recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate, and a great exhortation to those of us who didn't care to give the Pope any thought at all.

The call to explode 'Republican/Democrat' polarities is no new thing, but it is fascinating how stubborn and resilient many Americans can prove to be when it come to expressing themselves politically. Douthat is right to state the Pope isn't a conservative or a liberal. He's the Pope. To the extent that lets down American Catholics and religious leaders tells us more about them then it does about Pope Benedict.

Of course the rejoinder to this is all too easily imagined: how is the Pope in any sense 'politically relevant' if he's taking so many divisive positions? Douthat talks of the so-called 'transcendent politics' that many characterise the Pope as espousing. Classic line from modernity. Actually, one finds this talk often enough in historic Lutheran exegesis of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. The point of labeling something as 'transcendent' is to dismiss or applaud it as idealist, otherworldly, etc. Whereas I should like to think - I pray Christians should like to think - that the Sermon on the Mount is a message for this world, not for some other one. It certainly needs to be interpreted; but it certainly is not suspended until we sort out our own problems. It cuts - now.

The Pope's encyclical is not the Sermon on the Mount. But it is the Pope's encyclical. And at the very least it teaches us that to 'transcend politics' is really to speak plain political sense, or at least to try. American evangelicals need to recognise this point: when we stop thinking through the Gospel, and start basing the terms of our political involvement in the prevailing ethos of the modern liberal state, we give it up. We surrender the political message of the Gospel. We subsume under political categories. We cease to be witness.

In this vein, it should make no sense for any evangelical to call herself 'personally' Christian but 'politically' conservative, or 'politically' Republican. The presumed translation from Christian to conservative just does not occur, either historically or today. What is the most determinative reality of your existence? Whom do you call Lord? Evangelicals have the language to see this point through: we wax eloquent of giving our all to God, of surrendering our money, job, family, our very lives. I say, no less for politics! Let the impracticalities of the Gospel be voiced! We do not control history; God controls history. What it then looks like to live in a society that does not honour the Gospel is, not to silence it, but to hold steadfast to it. Our most determinative allegiance belongs to nothing else.

So let's read the Pope. Let's disagree with him. Let's declare Amen. But let's not miss out on what he has to teach us. The battle is too fierce to mistake friend for enemy.

Carl Versus Karl

Randy Alcorn has a great little post on Carl F. H. Henry. Easily the most interesting part is a section from Henry's autobiography about a question he asked Barth during a public Q & A. Here is the lead-up and the question:
    Aware that the initial queries often set the mood for all subsequent discussion, I asked the next question. Identifying myself as Carl Henry, editor of Christianity Today, I continued: 'The question, Dr. Barth, concerns the historical factuality of the resurrection of Jesus.' I pointed to the press table and noted the presence of leading reporters representing United Press, Religious News Service, Washington Post, Washington Star, and other media. If these journalists had their present duties at the times of Christ, I asked, was the resurrection of such a nature that covering some aspect of it would have fallen under their area of responsibility? 'Was it news,' I asked, 'in the sense that the man on the street understands news?'
You'll have to read the whole thing to get Barth's response.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Deconstructing Bruno - A Guest Post by Christopher Faris

The following is a guest post from my older brother, Christopher Faris.

Have you ever met a Mexican? If not, here's what to expect: Mexicans are lazy and uneducated. All of the males make cat-calls at white girls while drinking Corona's like triathletes drink water. The majority of adult males are day laborers who sit on the corner by Home Depot. All Mexicans are illegal, especially in California, and all of their children are in gangs (it's a genetic thing). I even hear that some are firing pistols straight out of the womb. All female Mexican teens get pregnant before graduating high school and they all wear crazy eye liner with teardrop tattoos. Adult Mexican women wear fluffy dresses with the colors of Mexico (I know because I saw it at a restaurant that serves Mexican food). And all Mexicans keep Tapatio bottles in their back pockets next to their wallets.

Yup, that's exactly what all Mexicans are like.

Or maybe not. But if you don't regularly converse with different ethnic, religious, or other cultural groups, you may start to believe what you see on TV or hear from your friends who watched that one movie that totally nailed it. Like Saved! for evangelicals, Crash for Los Angeles, or Reno: 911 for cops.

Or like Borat for Kazakhstanis.

Which brings me to Sacha Baron-Cohen. If you don't know the name, he is the guy responsible not only for Borat, but for Ali-G and Bruno. Baron-Cohen popularized these 3 alter egos on his hilariously offensive, biting, and painfully watchable TV "sereez" on HBO called Da Ali-G Show. The Bruno movie opened last night, and frankly, I'm eager to see it.

Borat's legitimate point was overshadowed by its relentless mission to cross the line. I haven't seen it yet, but based on early reviews I expect Bruno to go even farther. Either way, it's worth considering Bruno the character for a moment.

Sacha Baron-Cohen's characters work because they stand on the building blocks of assumption. Consider the aforementioned 3 alter egos. Borat represents what Westerners assume to be a foreigner: gleeful to be in America yet blissfully unaware of cultural norms. He is smelly (while in character, Baron-Cohen reportedly did not shower or use deodorant for extended periods of time), he has a thick mustache, and he frequently mispronounces common words. Ali-G is a crass, walking hip hop cliché with something like a southern drawl-gone-British accent. He throws up gang signs during interviews with esteemed world leaders and uses hilariously concocted slang words such as "respek." Ali-G is hip-hop culture according to the assumptions of an older generation.

And now Baron-Cohen has given us a feature length version of the 3rd of his alter egos: Bruno.

If you spend your time in a community where conversing with openly gay people is rare to non-existent, you are in Baron-Cohen's crosshairs. His goal is to hold a mirror to your face and show you just how ridiculous your gay stereotypes are by embodying the stereotype itself. Many assume that all homosexual males are obsessed with fashion and phallic symbols and talk with ridiculous lisps. Plenty of films and tv shows reinforce the stereotype. How any romantic comedies exploit the awkward, gay "drama queen" who is boisterous and all too in tune with what women want?

So if you are from the Castro, seeing Bruno on the street may be no big deal. But if you encountered him in, as Bruno says on Da Ali-G Show, "the gayest state in America - ALABAMA!" your reaction may be quite different.

And that is why the character works so well. Our own conceptions of homosexuals today may vary widely, but without actually spending time with anyone who openly identifies as gay or lesbian we can be suckered into believing that Bruno is the homosexual poster child the same way a Latino dude with a shaved head and a mustache is an 18th street gang member.

The trouble is, Sacha Baron-Cohen falls into his own trap, and it dupes both his fans and the casual movie going audience: he is often caricaturing his targets in the same way his targets caricature him.

Take the scene from the trailer where Bruno is awkwardly sitting with hunters around a campfire and makes a gut-busting Sex and the City reference. As I watched the hunters' reactions, I even found myself thinking "dumb hicks- what part of the Midwest are they from?" And this is exactly the point: as much as he wants to shake America's perception of the homosexual community by presenting such a ridiculously over the top gay caricature, he shows almost equally over the top examples of the cultural groups he aims to humiliate. And that gets us nowhere.

I know Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles have a disdain for my culture - white Christian male. Over the past several years, I have felt that disdain and turned it inwards on myself. I feel a little dirty just typing the words "white Christian male." But it's true of how I identify. It makes me wonder: as much as I am being preached at to be tolerant of others, why are others so rarely tolerant of me? Could it have anything to do with the conclusions about white male Christians that Baron-Cohen forces his viewers to draw?

I still am eager to see Bruno. I think Baron-Cohen is a brilliant improviser and hilarious comedian. His comments on American culture are often convicting. I anticipate squirming both for reason of embarrassment and disgust. And yes, I realize that in these outlandish acts, the man is interacting with real people. Real people who really say and really do all the stuff on camera, which means there are real examples of Baron-Cohen's targets. But as I've argued, Bruno takes the extremes from his interviews and casts them as normal, thereby caricaturing and stereotyping whole groups of people on a few edited interview pieces.

Those who think that Baron-Cohen is simply out to shock are missing the point: Bruno isn't going to be funny or engrossing based only on hilariously flamboyant outfits or new catchphrases. Just like with Borat and Ali-G, the impact is in the underlying message that for all our posturing about being in touch with ourselves and the world around us, we really aren't that in touch at all.

It's a message Sacha Baron-Cohen may need to consider for himself.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Kierkegaard: Existence is Motion

Most undergraduate philosophy textbooks do away with S. Kierkegaard by a singularly modern curse, the 'f-' word; namely, the word 'fideism.' What grave injustice. Such epistemic pretensions elicit my disdain. They also do great violence to a great thinker, whom I believe still has much to teach us - that is, those who care to listen.

In Works of Love, reflecting on 1 Cor. 13.7 ('love...believes all things'), SK writes:
'...knowledge per se is impersonal and must be communicated impersonally. Knowledge places everything in the category of possibility, and to the extent that it is in possibility it is outside the reality of existence. The individual first of all begins his life with ergo, with faith....[W]hen a man's knowledge has placed contrasting possibilities in equilibrium and he wants or has to judge, then what he believes in becomes apparent, who he is, whether he is mistrustful or loving' (218)*
We begin our life with ergo, with faith. SK provides a wonderful illustration of what this means. He writes,
'Truly, it is not knowledge which defiles a man, far from it. Knowledge is like the sheerest transparency, precisely the most perfect and purest, like the purest water, which has no taste at all. The magistrate is not defiled because he knows more about the plots than the criminal. No, knowledge does not defile a man; it is mistrust which defiles a man's knowledge just as love purifies it' (220)
That is, knowledge in itself is objective; man is not. Man is subject, not object. He takes into himself knowledge as he drains into his body liquid. In so doing he is not passive. He thirsts. He sees. He fills. He grasps. He swallows. All verbs, motions, actions, participations. A world is out there and he is in it. Man is implicated. He is creatura.

Yet so long as knowledge remains outside us, it remains 'outside the reality of existence.' That is, it remains outside the reality of our existence. For example, God is, apart from us. He exists, apart from us. But the knowledge that He exists is not knowledge that is in the reality of existence apart from us. He is the ground of our existence and our knowledge. But ground is not ground of anything lest on that ground stands something. To bring knowledge into reality therefore requires motion. That motion is faith, which is the ergo after knowledge.

Thus to exist is to move; and to move is to exercise faith. Existence entails faith, says SK. That is why he may say the following,
'To believe nothing is right on the border where believing evil begins; the good is the object of faith, and therefore one who believes nothing begins to believe evil. To believe nothing is the beginning of being evil, for it shows that one has no good in him, since faith is precisely the good in a man, which does not come through great knowledge, nor need it be lacking because knowledge is meagre' (220)
To believe in nothing is (as I interpret it) to cease motion. It is to stop moving, therefore it is to tend toward non-existence. For existence is motion. It is subjectivity in objectivity. To believe in nothing is to cease as a subject, and to join knowledge in suspension, in non-reality. Thus in true Augustinian colours SK holds that evil is privation of good. It is nothingness, non-existence. It is motionlessness. It is faithlessness.

But not all faith is good faith. Faith may purchase the wrong thing. It may purchase the lesser good instead of the supreme good [summum bonum]. Cut off from the supreme good, this faith cannot and will not survive. It is misplaced faith. But it is not motionless; no, it is not dead yet.

We leave out discussions of 'love' for another time. But let us round the corner back to the f-word, fideism. So much presumption lies in this word. It presumes, firstly, intellectualism; that is, it presumes certain truths about human nature, all of which SK denies, viz. that man may know apart from volition, apart from movement. To SK this objectifies man, and pitches him out of existence. It dissolves his subjectivity and obscures his creatureliness. It removes him from the actions that make his life a life. We may not follow SK through to all of the conclusions he has hitherto surmised. But we surely do not want to overlook, thanks to our philosophy books, what important questions he raises concerning what it is to be human.

*SK, (1962), Works of Love. Trans. Howard and Edna Long. NY: Harper Torchbooks.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Gospel About Jesus Christ

Mark 1:1 says this: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."

It is almost certain that the first "of" should be taken as objective (i.e. "the good news about Jesus", not "the good news from Jesus", which would be subjective). I will take the point for granted here- challenge me in the meta if you disagree.

This means at least two things:
  1. Mark's book is about Jesus.
  2. Mark's book is not about you.
Since we believe that the Bible is authoritative, we are encouraged to read it always with a view to personal application. We know that we should be reorganizing our lives according to what Scripture says, so we faithfully read our Bibles in the morning and ask, "How do I apply this to my life?"

At a basic level, that is a good question. I encourage it and I practice it myself. But that is often an easier question to answer when we read the Epistles than when we read the Gospels. The command to always be edifying in Ephesians 4 directly challenges what comes out of our mouths. "How do I apply this to my life?" is a simple question: I need to always be edifying!

But then we read the stories of healing in the Gospels and think, "OK, so Jesus can heal. That's nice. I'll pray for healing." Then we get bored when the Evangelist piles up a few stories in a row on the subject. We can think of no other application, so we skim until we get to some of Jesus' teaching, since that is easier to know how to apply.

All of this is why we need to remember that the Gospels, as Mark makes clear, are not about us. The application question can mislead us to always be looking for ourselves in the text.

But the Gospels aren't about us.
The Gospels are about Jesus.


So as you work through the Gospels, ask "What does this text teach me about Jesus?" The practical benefits will almost always fall into place when we do this, because quite simply, when we get Jesus right, we'll get our lives right.

For all of its good, the application question can also be symptomatic of the cultural value on the self. Focus on Jesus, brothers and sisters! Mark tells you that Jesus is his subject. He should be yours too. Fix your eyes on our Lord, and be amazed at how easy the application comes along.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

So Simple the Act, So Hard the Undoing

I've started listening through Carson's sermons/lectures on temptation that JT pointed out on Saturday. No comment yet on the overall quality, but Dr. Don had this quote about Adam and Eve's initial sin in the Garden: "So simple the act, so hard the undoing. God Himself will taste poverty and death before 'Take and Eat' become verbs of salvation."

I just thought the quote was too good not to pass on. And to be clear, he says he is quoting someone else, but he doesn't mention who specifically.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Calvin the Commentator

Nice post here from Mark Strauss on Koinonia about Calvin's legacy as not just a theologian, but a commentator. Here's Strauss's intro:
As the 500th birthday of John Calvin approaches (July 10th), theologians around the world will be reflecting on and celebrating this man's remarkable legacy. Calvin is perhaps best known for his Institutes of the Christian Religion, his magnum opus on Reformed Theology. Yet Calvin also wrote commentaries on almost every book in the Bible. For me, at least, these may be his most lasting legacy. Calvin embodied through his life, ministry and scholarship the spirit of sola scriptura.
I sympathize with Strauss. Not that the Institutes is anything less than amazing, but as a guy who leans toward exegesis, I love his commentaries. They are almost always useful, and for older commentators especially, it is remarkable how he models and anticipates historical-grammatical exegesis with an eye to the whole biblical story and personal application all at the same time. They are consistently great. Heck, they don't call him the "Prince of Commentators" for nothing...

One more thing: should it come as any surprise that Calvin was such a masterful theologian when he spent that much time in the Bible? If we really do believe in sola scriptura, then we need to recognize that there is nothing more important for forming good theological conclusions than spending a lot of time thinking through the text itself. Theologians need to be rigorous in their exegesis before and at the same time as they do theology. Add to that his unwavering commitment to the Church, and it becomes clear that Calvin models truly Christian theology like few (if any!) others.