Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Book Review -- After You Believe

What is the chief goal of man?

This is the question that prolific scholar N.T. Wright addresses in After You Believe. According to Wright, the goal of human existence is to
“become genuine human beings, reflecting the God in whose image we’re made, and doing so in worship on the one hand and in mission, in its full and large sense, on the other; and that we do this not least by following Jesus.” [Page 26]

After You Believe is the conclusion to the trilogy of Simply Christian and Surprised By Hope. In the preceding works Wright expounded on the subjects of why Christianity made sense, and subsequently on proper Christian hope for the future and afterlife. After You Believe represents the culmination of that series, dealing directly with the issue of putting into proper praxis orthodox Christian faith.

For Wright, the goal is virtue, which comes through a transformation of character. This transformation must be understood in terms of proper understanding of the eschatological nature of the promise and work of God. Through Jesus God has enacted a worldwide redemption plan, which transcends the simplistic, and dualistic understanding of salvation as merely heaven when you die. Wright persistently draws the readers’ attention back to the idea that the work of God is transforming the entire cosmos. This transformation does not lie in the distant future, but rather is has been inaugurated in the life and death of Jesus.

Christians long for the day of glorification, when we shall be released from our bondage to sin and decay, however, it is important to recognize that the transformation process from depravity to glorification has already been enacted. This is the eschatological dimension of Wright’s work. The Christian life is meant to be lived in anticipation of this future event, and evidence of that event is to be manifested in the here and now.

Wright contrasts the Aristotelian goal of virtue, with the Christian goal of virtue. One is accomplished in a Pelagian sort of manner, and leads to active service in ones polis, while the other results in the manifestation of Christian virtues in the life of the Christian results in being formed to more closely reflect the image of God.

The transformation of character, which leads to virtue, is not an instantaneous experience. Rather, it is the long drawn out process of making many small, important decisions about reflecting the image of God which leads those engaged with this process to make the right decision when faced with a crisis.

We are called to be rulers and priests. Wright surveys the vast, but often times overlooked Biblical passages that speak of the human race one-day ruling with Christ. Our calling is one of great privilege and responsibility, to be rulers and priests is a high calling, and one that we should be working out in the present in anticipation of that future vocation.

One of the most brilliant chapters of the book is the section on 1 Corinthians 13. Because of familiarity some passages require a fresh reading with new eyes. We have so often heard the passage read and expounded upon, that we miss the intensity of what love really is. For Wright, love is the chief of all the virtues. Love is not something that can be gained overnight, or that can be exercised without much learning. To obtain the true virtue of love is to partake in the long arduous process of transformation of the mind.

In this book Wright characteristically exegetes Biblical passages, his style is both readable and challenging. Fans of his work will enjoy his characteristic interpretation of the Scriptures. However, what sets this work apart from his voluminous other works is the tying of that exegesis to attainment of virtue, and right Christian action. In this book Wright closes out the circle of his trilogy by taking proper orthodox Christian belief and hope and connecting it with proper Christian praxis.

After You Believe II

“Liberation theology, as it was then known, wasn’t any longer an abstract exercise, a seemingly exciting, flaky, and slightly dangerous sub-branch of systematic theology created to keep left-wing students from getting bored with the study of ancient dogmas. It was about churches, themselves poor and living among the poor, that were working out from day to day what it meant to call Jesus Lord and to make that lordship a living reality in their wider communities.”

--N.T. Wright, After You Believe, Page 235

“Rodney Stark’s book The Rise Of Christianity is his description of how Christians in ancient Turkey would react when their town was struck by plague. The rich, the well-to-do, and particularly the doctors would gather up family and possessions and leave town. They would flee to the hills, to fresher and less polluted air, or to friends or family in towns some distance away. But the Christians often among the poorest, and many of them slaves would stay and nurse people, including those who were neither Christians, nor their own family members, nor in any other way obviously connected to them. Sometimes such people got well again; not all diseases were necessarily fatal. Sometimes Christians would themselves catch the disease and die from it. But the point was made, graphically and unmistakably: this was a different way to be human. Nobody had ever thought of living like that before. Why were they doing it? And the Christians, called upon to explain the habits of the heart which made it ‘natural’ to do such things, would talk about Jesus, and about the God they had discovered through Jesus the God whose very nature was and is self-giving love. Stark suggests that this kind of behavior was one of many contributory reasons for the rapid spread of Christianity, despite the best efforts of efficient Roman persecutors, leading up to the time when, by the start of the fourth century, nearly half the empire was Christian and the emperors decided it was better to join what seemed to be the winning side.”

--N.T. Wright, After You Believe, Page 237

“The church has been divided between those who cultivate their own personal holiness but do nothing about working for justice in the world and those who are passionate for justice but regard personal holiness as an unnecessary distraction from that task. This division has been solidified by the church’s unfortunate habit of adopting from our surrounding culture the unhelpful packages of ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ prejudices, the former speaking of ‘justice’ and meaning ‘libertarianism’ and the latter speaking of ‘holiness’ and meaning ‘dualism.’ All this must be firmly pushed to one side. What we need is integration.”

--N.T. Wright, After You Believe, Page 247

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The End Is Near...

Apocalyptic fervor seems to be at an all time high. We are on the verge of the conclusion of the Mayan calendar, global warming threatens to drastically change the landscape of our world, and the recent economic crisis has lead many to believe that we are fast approaching the end of days. Frightened readers may find solace in the knowledge that even before the dawning of a new millennium prognosticators predicted the ending of our world. Fortunately to this point every Nostradamus has been incorrect in their predictions.

As Christians we are called to be an eschatological people. For some this means a constant mining of the apocalyptic Scriptures for hidden insights about the coming world catastrophe. These insights are appealing to much of our world, some having so much appeal that their unveiling is the cause for rampant fandom resulting a fervor that distracts many well meaning Christians from the crises on which their attention should fall.

What is the telios of the Christian life? Paul makes it abundantly clear, building upon his understanding of what the atonement accomplishes. Our goal is new creation [2 Corinthians 5:17]. We are to live with the end in mind; our attention should be fixed on the future of God, coming to redeem all things, and to restore all of the created order. What Paul calls us to is a life lived in expectation of that future goal, we are to model new creation in our lives in the here and now.

Unfortunately, we are often distracted from the grandiose nature of that goal. A narrow understanding of what the life and death of Jesus on the cross accomplishes easily distracts us. We want to subsume the work of Jesus into a single narrative that focuses its attention primarily on how we get to heaven when we die. But the atonement accomplishes so much more. In his death and resurrection Jesus says no to the powers of this world, he defeats death, evil, and faithfully does what Israel could never do. This work is based primarily on the faithfulness of God to his covenant with Abraham.

Jesus death on the cross inaugurates a new eschatological reality. We are to live out lives today in anticipation of the future coming of God, the restoration of all things, and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on the earth. Our future goal is not disembodied bliss, but rather a world where God runs the show. In anticipation of that reality, we must begin to ask ourselves some probing questions.

First, what would our family, our neighborhood, our city, our country, and our world look like if God were running the show? Our lives should propel our world in that direction. Our sphere of influence should resemble heaven a little more because we are in it. If there will be peace in heaven, we should be peacemakers in our families. If there will be plenty for all in heaven, we should strive to ensure that no one is without when we have the means to bless them.

Second, we recognize that living out Christian ideals is not a matter of adherence to a list of rules to which we are obligated to follow out of fear of divine retribution. Nor are we simply free to live in a world of grace without consequences because we serve a God who is overflowing with forgiveness. Rather, we understand that our lives are to be lived in anticipation of our redemption. We are an eschatological people, not because we long for the end of time, or the removal of ourselves from this evil world, but rather because we long for the day when God will restore all things. In anticipation of that restoration, our lives serve as glimpses into that future reality. This eschatological anticipation motivates us to live up to the standards of the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5-7]. We are neither trying to earn God’s favor, nor are we taking advantage of His grace. We are striving towards the goal of completion when we will be made whole.

Finally, because we are an eschatological people we will seek out others who share our convictions and hopes of reaching fulfillment. The path that leads to completion is not to be traveled in seclusion. We are a community of called out people challenged with the task of orienting our lives around the reality of the resurrection. We cannot traverse this path alone, nor were we meant to. Living in anticipation of the end means a radical change in lifestyle, commitments, and values. This transformation is designed to take place within the context of a community of believers who challenge, prod, and dare us to take the next steps toward our goal. We are not meant to walk alone on this road, for God has called out others just like us to be an eschatological people.

Monday, March 29, 2010

After You Believe I

“Thus in literal historic truth, not simply in theological interpretation, the one bore the sins of the many. Some theories of atonement detach themselves from the actual events and superimpose on (or even substitute for) the gospel narrative a theological scheme of interpretation culled from elsewhere, in order to explain how sinners may ultimately leave this world and go to heaven. Such theories are no better, at the level of a proper theological method, than theories of the kingdom, which ignore the cross. Kingdom and cross belong together. The whole story is the whole story. And it is within that whole story, not within some truncated version, that Jesus’s call to a new-creation kind of virtue makes the sense which it does.”

--N.T. Wright, After You Believe, page 114

Embracing Grace Book Review

“The Gospel is more like a piece of music to be performed than a list of ideas to endorse.”

With those words Scot McKnight launches the reader in to an extremely helpful and often times much needed reminder of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ actually entails. This book represents a clear synopsis of the overall narrative of Scripture, which allows the reader to make sense the message and actions of Jesus within a context of the developing story.

For McKnight, the Gospel is about the restoration of cracked eikons. McKnight begins with the story of Genesis, which is where any explanation of the Gospel must begin. For too often the Old Testament has been discarded as the history of Israel, containing only archaic laws and commands, which were clearly replaced by the ministry of Jesus. McKnight traces human beings need for the Gospel all the way back to the garden of Eden, where human beings are created in the image of God [Genesis 1], and are subsequently cracked [Genesis 3], and in need of restoration.

Jesus represents the true eikon, the one in whom all things are contained. In Jesus we see a true reflection of what it looks like to be human. From the Genesis story we also see a clear reflection of what the Gospel is all about. The death and resurrection of Jesus provide restoration of not only the cracked eikon, but also of the entire world. The Gospel is bigger and greater than we have made it out to be, involving not just our own personal salvation, but the restoration of the entire world.

The reality of judgment must also be faced when speaking about the restoration of cracked eikons. Exclusion is the way in which McKnight chooses to speak about the reality of judgment for those who choose to reject the restorative power of the Gospel, and instead choose their own path. In the garden Adam and Eve were excluded from fellowship with God, and allowed to pursue their own selfish ambitions, we too face the same sort of choice. We are free to choose our own path apart from God, only to end up excluding ourselves from God’s restorative justice. All of this, McKnight rightly points out, happens in the context of community.

McKnight's chapter on theories of the atonement is worth the price of the entire book. The atonement accomplishes so much that no single theory can possibly contain it. McKnight carefully walks through different theories of the atonement, pointing out the teachings of each one, and the validity each one possesses for a well-rounded theology of the cross. Any student of theology would do well to read McKnight’s chapter on the atonement. If more pastors were to glimpse the broad brush with which McKnight understands the atonement preaching on the Gospel would improve exponentially.

An excellent read, I highly recommend it for any serious student of theology.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Ghandi is Back!

Funny clip, Brian McLaren recently pointed out how this clip illustrates some of the hazardous ways the second coming of Jesus is read from Scripture. For too long Christians have missed the non-violent message of Jesus from the Gospels.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Why Believe?

Depsite all the skepticism of today's Western world, there might after all be a God who made the world and who is going to put it right at last. The dreams we have that refuse to die -- dreams of freedom and beauty, of order and love, dreams that we can make a real difference in the world -- come into their own when we put them within a framework of belief in a God who made the world and is going to sort it out once and for all, and wants to involve human beings in that process.

--N.T. Wright, After You Believe page xi

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Scot McKnight -- Embracing Grace

In exclusions most radical form, humans can exclude themselves from God and other so categorically that they can gain a sense -- again only a sense-- that God no longer exists. We call this 'atheism.' But, humans can't really be atheists. Instead, they become individualists; their absorption with an All-consuming Self drowns out their Eikonic sense of God, and, before long, they begin to tell themselves that there is no God and that they are atheists. What they really are is individualists.

--Scot McKnight Embracing Grace, page 132

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

N.T. Wright

It isn't that God basically wants to condemn and then finds a way to rescue some from that disaster. It is that God longs to bless lavishly, and so to rescue and bless those in danger of tragedy -- and therefore must curse everything that thwarts and destroys the blessing of his world and his people.

--N.T. Wright. Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision, page 52

Monday, March 22, 2010

Genesis III

Lessons From Genesis:

If we adhere to a reading of Scripture that maintains a focus on the narrative of Scripture and strays from arguments on historicity, and instead narrows our attention to the intent of the author and the lessons to be learned from the passage, what can we expect to find in Genesis?

Genesis clearly expounds the fall of man, and the consequences of that fall from perfect relationship with God. In essence we can all find our story wrapped up on the story of Adam. We have all strayed from God, and sought to live on our own power. We are all prone to wander off in our own direction, seeking a course that seems right in our own eyes. This is exactly what is presented to us in Genesis, the results of straying from the plan and purpose of God.

The result of that sin in the garden is two fold. First, as man is created in the image of God, straying causes that image to be marred. Talk of original sin [something not emphasized in the Genesis story, but rather imported there via Paul], too often misses the point of judgment in the creation story. We are what Scot McKnight calls cracked eikons. We were created to reflect the image of God, our sin causes cracks in that image.

The second result from the sin in the garden is seperation from community with God. Adam and Eve are no longer permitted to remain in the close companionship of their creator. As they move further from God, giving into their own desires and ways, their relationship is damaged. It is not the desire of God for us to live in seperation. Community and relationship are established from the very beginning of the narrative. However, judgment comes when we decide to live in our own way apart from relationship with God.

If we seriously read the first chapters of Genesis as indicative of what all humans go through, and a picture of the relationship that man has with God, it could radically change our view of judgment and the future. Instead of God banishing humans to eternal conscious torment, the loss of relationship, and marred image of humans more clearly represents a Biblical example of future divine punishment.

That punishment in no way diminishes the reality of judgment, but rather as C.S. Lewis so adequately said emphasizes the two paths one can choose: At the end of life, either you say to God: Your will be done. Or God says to you: Your will be done.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Genesis Story II

If as I advocated previously, we begin to read the Scriptures in narrative form our priorities and methods of interpreting Scripture will change.

If we start from the beginning, reading the story of the creation of the world, not as a historical manifesto, but rather as an indicative story of the way in which all human beings fall from grace, and are in need of restoration, we will soon find ourselves relieved from the albatross of proof.

Much has been written in recent years about absolute proofs for the historicity of the Bible, and the trustworthiness of its message based on provable facts. And while those apologetic arguments are important [and many of them factual], our postmodern world has freed us to recover the story of Scripture. If we read the Bible as true myth [which in no way denigrates the usefulness, or inspiration of Scripture], we see less need to prove the historicity of the story and can then instead focus our attention on the inherent truths of that story.

Scot McKnight points out in his book Embracing Grace

The gospel is good enough on its own, and it doesn't need to be propped up with proofs. Stories are like that. No one needs to prove that The Adventues of Tom Sawyer or The Lord of the Rings or Charlotte's Web are good stories. Read them and you will be drawn in, just as we can be drawn into the gospel story.

How would our understanding of the Genesis story change if we read it simply as a story without the constant worry about extricating historical truths from its pages, and instead viewed the narrative as the story of how human beings created in the image of God crack that image, and are in need of restoration. I am once again not denying its historicity, or the truth of the story. If anything I would say that this reading makes the story even more truthful [I would like to insert the made up word truthfuller somewhere here]

If the gospel story begins in Genesis 1, maybe we should be reading the Scriptures as a story, and not a contract made between God and man.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Social Justice Distracting?

Much has been said in recent times about the role that social justice should play in the proclamation of the Gospel. Both sides of the aisle stridently appeal to their understanding of the Gospel, which unfortunately leaves sparring partners in separate corners throwing jabs at their opponent. This is both unhelpful for the cause of Christianity and the Gospel, and a poor understanding of what the Gospel actually is.

How did we arrive at this point?

First, we divorce Jesus from His Old Testament roots. If we were to read the Old Testament, and actually take it seriously, we would find not a story of individuals looking for entrance into a disembodied existence, nor would we find persons striving to obtain individual forgiveness. Instead we find the story of Israel, and God being faithful to His covenant with them [even though they are unfaithful time and time again.] If we divorce Jesus from this story line, we assume that His message is about how to gain entrance into a disembodied existence after you die, which leads us to think that the pain and suffering in the here and now is simply a distraction from that goal.

Second, we divorce Jesus from his primary teaching, which is the Kingdom of God. I cannot imagine how one could read the Gospels and do so, but we forget that Jesus came preaching a message about His coming Kingdom. Even a cursory reading of Luke’s Gospel plunges us into this social message, when Jesus proclaims that he is here to proclaim the year of Jubilation.

Third, we completely miss out on the teachings of the Minor Prophets. This omission is understandable, because most Christians don’t spend much devotional time in the book of Zechariah. However, if we were to divert our attention there for a few moments we would soon find a clear picture of the social message of the prophets of the Old Testament, who emphasize justice, peace, and right living before burnt offerings, and songs of praise.

To divorce the mandate for social justice from the Gospel of Jesus would be akin to removing the cross from the life of Jesus. If someone were to make the statement that: “too many Christians are focused on the cross, and that is taking away our attention from the Gospel”, I am quite sure there would be a resounding answer to that misguided thought. The same must be true for social justice. Our job as Christians is to promote justice, so that God’s Kingdom may come “on earth as it is in heaven” [Matthew 6:10].

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Genesis Story

Narrative and Myth:

The initial narrative of Scripture rightfully addresses the issue of the origins of the earth and mankind. This particular narrative has come under much scrutiny and study by both those who interpret the passage in a literal sense, and those who view the passage primarily as a literary passage. Endless debate ensues as to the historicity of the story, which normally conjoins itself to a discussion about the reliability, truthfulness, or inerrant nature of the Scriptures.

If we understand the Scriptures as the grand narrative of the working of God in the world throughout history, how are we to understand the Genesis account?

Our cultural/contextual reading of the story of Genesis fundamentally influences the problem of interpretation. When we attempt to conform the story of Genesis into our rational world of historical fact, we import meaning into an ancient text that may not be necessarily the intent of the author. While historicity of the account is certainly a key issue, what if we focus instead on how the narrative of Genesis fits within the grand story of Scripture, informing, shaping, and molding how we read the rest of Scripture.

N.T. Wright has recently said that when we take Genesis out of its ancient Jewish context, we flatten out the story, instead focusing on sidebar issues such as historicity and truthfulness, instead of recognizing the narrative as a true myth, one that informs and capitalizes on human experience, giving humans archetypal origins that transcend beyond the five senses. Wright goes on to say:

“To flatten that [the text of Genesis] out is to almost perversely avoid the real thrust of the narrative … we have to read Genesis for all its worth and to say either history or myth is a way of saying 'I’m not going to read this text for all its worth, I am just going to flatten it out so that it conforms to the cultural questions that my culture today is telling me to ask.”

At its heart the story of Genesis is the typical experience of all human beings. We are all prone to fail, to turn against God. We are all living in exile in this world separated from God because of our insistence to live independent lives. If we continue to read the story of Genesis as the basis of all human experience, and as the beginning of the narrative of Scripture that emphasizes exile and deliverance from that exile, we cease to argue over the historicity of the story, and we begin to ask the question: How would the original hearers have understood this story, and interpreted it in light of their experiences with God.

This way of reading Genesis will almost certainly inspire the question of truthfulness, because we are so informed by a rational understanding of our world where myth = false. But if we are able to suspend those objections for a moment, we will be able to read Genesis in a new light, possibly allowing us to view Scripture in a new way, connecting the story of Genesis to the remainder of Scripture.

Is the narrative of Genesis true? Absolutely, just maybe not the way we think of something being true. If we begin with a reading of Genesis that allows us to move beyond modern questions we may find new connections with the rest of the Scriptural narrative.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Book Review -- A New Kind of Christianity

I must admit that I approached A New Kind of Christianity with high expectations. The book was able to ascend to the status of book that I bought in a retail store, which normally brings with it an elevated price tag, and this book was no different.

I must admit to having read almost all of Brian McLaren’s books. The Story We Find Ourselves In remains one of my favorite books of all time, and The Last Word and the Word After That is still one of the most challenging and thought provoking books that I have read in recent years. I found myself inspired by the careful consideration that God’s good creation was given in the former book, and angry, frustrated, and by the end rethinking my view on the afterlife in the latter. McLaren’s new book is in many ways an echoing of his recent work. In my mind McLaren has functioned in many ways like a translator of theology for the rest of us. The influences on his writing are clear throughout the book, as he takes the arguments and thoughts of great theologians and translates them into a form that the everyman can understand. This is not an indictment of McLaren for a lack of individual thoughts, but rather he fulfills an important role in the area of progressive theology. As one who considers theology the work of not just the professional, but also the layman, McLaren makes theology accessible for those who have not had the privilege/trial of attending seminary.

In A New Kind of Christianity, McLaren asks ten probing questions. Questions range from unlocking the story of the Bible addressing issues like: The Gospel question, to issues that are facing Christians today, including sexuality, pluralism, and the future. McLaren addresses each issue by providing important insights that will challenge conventional thinking, and seeks to provide a new way forward.

The book is interesting, and easy to read, however, I would strongly recommend following up on the numerous footnotes throughout the book, which provide some of the most interesting and challenging commentary in the book.

While each of the ten questions needs to be adequately discussed, I would like to spend a few moments interacting with a few of the primary issues that are brought to light in the book.

First, McLaren constantly rails against a linear 6 story line reading of Scripture that he claims has been the common reading in Christendom. This story line involves an understanding of the narrative of the Bible that includes an ideal state, followed by the fall of man. This fallen state, is solved through salvation, which provides the path to re-ascension to a platonic future state, those who do not attain salvation are bound to eternal conscious torment.

McLaren utilizes the teaching of the Greek philosophers to delineate where this story line finds its genesis. Plato vs. Aristotle have so highly influenced our reading of the Bible that we must break free from that controlling narrative, and reclaim a narrative of Scripture that rightly focuses on creation, liberation, and restoration.

McLaren advocates an understanding of Scripture that emphasizes the messages of Genesis, Exodus, and Isaiah. It is vital according to McLaren to read the Scriptures as a narrative that builds as the story goes along. For too long Christians have read the gospels without considering the foundation that the Old Testament provides, this is one of the most helpful insights in the entire book. If Christians were to understand the Scriptures in story format, with the Old Testament picture of God and His work in the world leading into the story of Jesus, our interpretation of the life and work of Jesus would be significantly impacted.

From this six-line narrative, readers of Scripture have created a god foreign to the Scriptures. McLaren gives this false god the name of Theos, a character that is both controlling, and deterministic. This god is capable of condemning those who do not follow him into eternal conscious torment. McLaren finds this version of god and judgment to be wholly inadequate. In his chapter on the Gospel McLaren expounds:

“In fact, in light of everything we know about Jesus, doesn’t it seem positively ludicrous to imagine him gathering his disciples to announce, ‘Listen guys. Here is my real agenda. We’re going to start a new religion, and we’re going to name it after me. … It’s even more ludicrous to imagine him saying, ‘And we’re going to eternally torture anyone who doesn’t accept this new religion named after me”
(Page 139).

McLaren has previously dealt with the issue of judgment in his book The Last Word and the Word After That, and this book continues along those lines furthering the discussion of what happens to those who do not belong to the Kingdom of God. McLaren here raises some critical questions that need to be addressed by Christians. If one decides to believe in eternal conscious torment, one needs to have thought through the issue, and McLaren calls his readers to just that.

My issue with McLaren’s line of thinking on this particular theme is that while McLaren wants Christians to rethink their version of judgment, he seems to disregard the clear passages in Scripture that talk about the reality of the possibility of being separated from God. I agree with McLaren that passages dealing with the topic of hell in the gospels often times do not conform to our traditional understandings when they are examined in context. However, that being said, I think a total denial of the reality of judgment goes too far in disregarding the punishment that awaits those who disregard the working of God in their lives. N.T. Wright, who McLaren quotes often, has delved into this topic, regarding the ultimate punishment of those who turn away from God as a choice of dehumanization. Less and less they mirror the image of God, and eventually they are turned over to their flesh, and dehumanize themselves to the point that they are no longer welcome in the presence of God. This lack of fellowship and loneliness is the ultimate punishment, the banishment into outer darkness because of a lack of fellowship. At different points in the book it seemed as though McLaren was heading into this sort of direction, but he never really gets there.

McLarens characterization of Theos is certainly a god that we must reject as foreign to the narrative of Scripture. The God of Scripture is not a deterministic God whose future plans for the earth is one of destruction. However, McLaren seems to move in the direction of an open theism view of the future, in which the plans of God are determined by the actions of man. A balance must be found here where responsibility for building the Kingdom of God remains on faithful followers of Christ, while at the same time realizing that it is God who will complete the task.

This book may frustrate the reader, because of the lack of answers provided. I found myself constantly wanting more from each chapter. The themes incorporated are ones that McLaren has dealt with in previous books, often times in more detail. McLaren has attempted to bring a plethora of issues to the forefront of Christian conversation, and has at times left the reader wanting more. That frustration is met with an answer in the closing chapter of the book.

“You will see that I have not tried to answer these questions definitively, but only responded to them provisionally, seeking to open up conversation, not close it down”

(Page 257).

McLaren has accomplished what he set out to do. More questions were raised in my mind as a result of reading this book. I cannot say that I agree with all his assertions. While I agree that a new narrative reading of Scripture is warranted, I cannot completely agree with the openness of McLaren’s reading on the future. I certainly would wish that more space had been devoted to the atonement, and what is accomplished in the death and resurrection of Christ; however, McLaren avoids this conversation in fear that the great crises of our world would be ignored (Page 254).

This book is both challenging and thought provoking. It will not answer all the questions, because it is not meant to. The book has hints of future work from McLaren, where issues that are raised will be delved into in greater detail; I foresee another book that will find itself worthy of the retail price.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Book Review -- The Great Awakening

The Great Awakening is the companion and follow up to God’s Politics in which Jim Wallis calls for a new sort of politics among Christians, which emphasizes not just a few hot button issues, but rather a policy that addresses the many life threatening issues that we are facing in our world today.

This book echoes the message of God’s Politics, and calls Christians to a new awakening. Wallis is passionate about both Christianity and politics and both shines is this book. Wallis grounds his book in the understanding that the message of Jesus is inherently political; divorcing his message from political undertones strips the message of the gospels of their power. Wallis consistently appeals to the themes of the Kingdom of God, and justice as key characteristics of the message of Jesus. These themes are to be understood by the church as the foundation for Christian’s action in the world.

Wallis continues his book by addressing several hot button issues including racial diversity, a consistent ethic of life, family values, responsible stewardship of creation, and peace. At every turn Wallis calls forth Christians to think and act in a Christian way. For too long Christian politics have been co-opted by the Religious Right, something Wallis continually critiques because of their narrow focus on issues, and blatant disregard for others which Wallis considers to be essential.

The Great Awakening calls Christians to further action, and points to a new way forward. It calls Christians to truly love their neighbor, to fight against the continued racial boundaries that constrain many in America. Wallis pleads with Christians to consider their stewardship over God’s good creation, and our responsibility to care for what God has left us stewards over.

A consistent ethic of life includes not only support for pro-life legislation, but must be expanded from the cradle to the grave. 30,000 people will die today from preventable diseases, a fact which is often lost on Christian conservatives who focus their sole attention on abortion. A holistic Christian is one who fights for the unborn; while at the same time joins the battle to provide medical help for those who so desperately need it.

As with any book, the author does not come to the table without presuppositions, and biases. Wallis is no different. If there is a weakness to his book, it is the perceived hubris that at times comes across in his writing. While the Religious Right certainly damaged both politics, and Christians understanding about their responsibility in the political world, they are not the pariahs that Wallis seems to make them out to be. At times the constant criticism of only one side of the coin makes the book somewhat less believable, and reminds the reader of the constant partisan politics which Washington so frequently falls into, thereby rendering them unable to pass legislation which would make a significant impact on our world.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in a new way forward in politics, Christian or not, this book will be helpful for any reader, and lead them to a greater understanding of the issues which we must be concerned about, and the issues that we must address.

In God's Time Book Review

Apocalyptic fervor among Christians is reaching an all time high. With the immense popularity of the Left Behind Series, coupled with the imminent end of the world in 2012, the desire for a road map to the future has officially ascended to a level that surpasses anything we have ever seen.

In his excellent book In God’s Time, Craig C. Hill carefully guides us through the many diverse interpretations of apocalyptic literature in the Scriptures, and provides a way forward for Christians who are serious about sound hermeneutics. Hill opens his book by emphasizing that fundamentalism does not own eschatology. This point becomes even more important as you make your way through the book, because it becomes clear that Hill is directly arguing against a hermeneutic of interpreting futuristic passages in Scripture as though they could not possibly have a historical counterpart. Understanding the historical context, and varied nature of historical interpretation of apocalyptic passages in Scripture gives the interpreter a well-rounded view of the possible meanings of passages in question. If
Daniel and Revelation can be read not as guide maps to the future, but rather as carefully crafted literature that speaks to the historical context in which Christians are suffering the interpretation and meaning of those passages could be freed from narrow fundamentalist understandings.

Hill is correct in pointing out that eschatology in Scripture is not always unanimous. Varied positions, and perspectives grounded in historical context should be expected. Hill carefully traces eschatology throughout the Scriptures, and rightly points out that eschatology is not always about the future that cannot be changed, and is most certainly not about some far off distant land, which would be indiscernible to the original hearers.

In this book the reader is given a clear alternative to interpretations of the book of Revelation that rely completely on a futuristic interpretation. Revelation must be read in its proper context as apocalyptic literature, which always functions as the literature of the oppressed. Revelation must be firmly grounded in its historical context in order to be properly understood. Hill is careful to note that the pendulum normally swings between two extremes when interpreting Revelation:

“We are prone to domesticate Revelation in one of two ways. The first is to strip the book of its historical context, decoupling Revelation from the first century and viewing it as a timeless guidebook to the Last Days, which coincidentally happen to be our days… The opposite tack is to limit the book to its Roman context, assuming that to explain Revelation is to be done with Revelation. No enduring insights are met, no ongoing questions entertained. The book is tamed and our world goes happily undisturbed.” (Page 111)

If we are to properly understand apocalyptic literature in Scripture we must ensure that our understandings are firmly grounded in historical context, while at the same time realizing that Revelation has a significant message for us today.

I thoroughly enjoyed Hill’s book, however, as with all works there are inherent weaknesses. I disagree with Hill on some of the stances he takes on Biblical authorship, and his binary understanding between the Gospels, Jesus, and Paul. Christian Eschatology is multifaceted in Scripture, with different authors giving us a different viewpoint to the future. These viewpoints are to be expected, celebrated, and understood as giving us a multi-dimensional look at the future plans of God for our world. God’s kingdom is both here and not yet, causing the tension that we live with in Scripture today. That tension is clear in both the Gospels, and Paul where each author struggles with here and not yet manifestation of the Kingdom of God.

In God’s Time is an excellent book, and I recommend it for any serious student of eschatology.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Humility Starts At The Top

I can feel all fifteen sets of eyes on me… all waiting for me to respond, looking anxiously because I am assumed to have an answer that will settle all disputes. Humility is often talked about, and frequently held up as a virtue required of all leaders. Some leaders make grand claims to have attained humility and are quick to recount the episodes in their lives that gave them the ability to somehow remain humble in the face of success all around them.

Anyone in a leadership position, especially one that involves teaching can easily fall into the trap of thinking they know more than they really do. The church culture expects answers from their leaders. As a professor at two different colleges, I am constantly faced with questions from eager students who expect me to give them the answers to all the difficult questions in the world. It becomes increasingly easy to operate from a stance of epistemic authority from the position of teacher. Add to that the perceived infallibility that comes from advanced degrees, or special titles, and you have a potent combination that can cause anyone to think more of themselves and their understanding of all things than is really the case.

What would be the response to a pastor on a Sunday morning that admits during the weekly service that he/she has studied the Scripture passage under inspection that week only to discover more questions have risen in his/her mind than answers. Could a pastor really tell his/her congregation that all the answers are not divinely imparted to them during their weekly study? Could the existence of mystery really become not only acceptable, but also expected?

I often times wonder what the response would be in a congregation if a pastor openly admitted to the congregation that “I have been studying this passage all week, and honestly I’m still not quite sure what all the implications of this are.”

“We know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9). The apostle Paul rightly understands the incomplete nature of our understanding of the world around us.

Responsible Christian teaching rightly admits the incomplete nature of our comprehension of God. God is beyond our comprehension; any attempt to adequately describe the God of the Bible always falls short of completion. A sense of awe and wonder must always accompany any theological enterprise.

Christian pastors and teachers need to become acutely aware of this limitation, because of temptation to think more of ourselves than we should. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking we have all the answers, which soon leads to dogmatic statements that extend to every area of theology. Certainly there should be some subjects with which we speak with great certitude about, however, in many cases a little epistemic humility would go a long way.

So how can we remain humble in front of others without compromising the imparting of truth, which is the responsibility of Christian teachers?

First, I would extend a call to all teachers, whatever their status to learn three very important words: I don’t know. There is something refreshing about admitting that you do not know something when asked a question. So much pressure is placed on Christian leaders to have all the answers, because they are professional Christian leaders. However, admitting that we are not all knowing relieves us from the pressure of having to be infallible on all things in theology. Pastors admitting that they don’t have all the answers would actually encourage their constituents ensuring them that questions are sometimes ok.

Second, Christian leaders need to approach any teaching with great humility, knowing that anything they begin to say about God will be in part inadequate to fully capture His greatness. Any statement about God in human language falls short of His holiness, His perfection. So we will begin to readily admit that God is bigger, and greater than anything our words can describe.

Finally, pastors, and teachers will understand that sometimes starting the conversation amongst your listeners is actually a greater method of teaching than giving all the answers. The pastor on Sunday morning moves from being the last word on the subject to the first word. The pastor starts a conversation that will continue throughout the week.

Questions are often times better than answers, because through our questions we become seekers after God, searching the Scriptures prayerfully to encounter a God who is both beyond us, and somehow personally attainable through the Scriptures.

Reclaiming a Narrative of Hope

Reclaiming a narrative of hope.

When I was in the ninth grade a new teacher came to my little school in rural Pennsylvania. Loquacious students quickly spread word about the new style of this particular teacher, with two main points of emphasis coming down the grapevine to my ever interested ears. The school was a buzz about the particularly strange way in which this new teacher utilized a thin pencil to daily draw in a set of eyebrows that had previously been scorched off in some sort of terrible accident with a razor [or so my ninth grade mind thought].

The other piece of news that quickly made its way to my corner of the small school was the religious practices of this teacher. Information was passed along to me that this teacher was a practicing Pentecostal, and as such engaged in all sorts of strange religious practices that were foreign to a good young Baptist as I was. My immediate reaction was to pass judgment on this foreign sect that my teacher participated in, and immediately to judge the validity of her faith. Why was I so quick to pass down judgment? First naïveté, and second because of the narrative in which I was so deeply entrenched.

Everyone is engaged in a controlling narrative that informs his or her lives. While postmodernity would like to cast aside all controlling narratives, it is impossible to do so. We make our decisions based on this narrative, and from the story above, you can see that I made judgments on others based on the narrative in which I lived. From a distance I am able to marvel at how quickly I was willing to judge, and glad to see that the personal narrative in which I live is quite a bit more broad and accepting.

The Christian community in general has been cast into a narrative in which we are often times uncomfortable, but which we are most likely well deserving. The Christian community would be well off to rediscover the narrative that permeates the Scriptures, that narrative of exile and exodus.

Scripture opens with the grand story of Moses and the people of Israel enslaved in a foreign land, the chosen people call upon God to remember his covenant promises and deliver them from bondage. God is faithful to his promises, and delivers his people from their bondage. God brought them from exile to freedom.

Thousands of years later we see this same narrative informing all of our lives. We live exile, longing for our home. This longing is a natural outworking of the experiences we have while separated from the rule of God, but these longings can often times revert our attention from the grand purpose of God, and focus them too narrowly on our personal longings for freedom.

Certainly the promise of freedom as individuals is an important aspect of the narrative of Scripture, but we must remember that what God is doing in our world comprises a narrative that we have nearly forgotten.
So how do we broaden out our perspective in order to fully engage with the overarching narrative of exile and exodus in Scripture?

First, we must begin to recognize that God wants to restore all things in His creation. The sin that befell the physical world in Genesis 3 will soon be overturned with the return of God. This means instead of emphasizing a narrative where the souls of those who are lucky enough to hear a particular message about God and His work head off to disembodied bliss upon death, we would rather begin to expand the controlling narrative in our lives to include the restoration of all creation. This means we would be just as likely to speak about the well being of creation as we would the well being of individual souls.

Second, we realize that in our world there are still many who languish in exile, struggling under the oppressive regimes in our world that control the wealth for themselves, while allowing others to suffer without. Exodus means deliverance from this oppression, and it is the business of the people of God to be concerned about those who are currently suffering this type of persecution. As we begin to recognize that in our flattened world the suffering of others is not only our business but also our responsibility, we will look to spread the gospel of freedom to those that live in a world without freedom. We will begin to use our resources to help those in need, because this becomes a part of our responsibility as the people of God.

Finally, we will see the work of God in the lives of all people, both believers and unbelievers. As a young man I could not fathom that God would be working in the life of someone who was a member of a different denomination than I. My narrative was too small. As the narrative that controls our lives expands and grows, we will begin to realize that God wants to deliver all people from their exile, and we will see that work of God in everyone’s life, regardless of where they are in their particular journey. This saves us from being the judge as to who is in and who is out, and instead calls us to love everyone and join them in the work that God is doing in their lives.

May we all expand the narratives that control our lives until the day when God is “all in all.”