Thursday, December 28, 2006

Scandal in SLO: The Outing of a Journalist Who Believes

Some of my interest in the intersection of religion and public life got a lot less theoretical this month when a local radio host blasted my good friend, Ryan Miller, editor of the New Times, a widely read alternative newsweekly here in San Luis Obispo. Ryan was taken to the cleaners for his supposed mixing of his faith with his journalism and, because he has been publically seen with me, a confirmed, fully-outed, religious guy (see below).
Congalton has long had the biggest radio audience in the county, and is a major opinion-shaper. Ryan is a Christian (a member of my church, actually), and recently took the helm of the second largest paper in town. One of Ryan's editorial strengths is his general unwilingness to publish "hit pieces," stories that do not allow a person who is criticized to give his or her own response to other's charges. While this would seem to be just journalistic fair-play, many alternative weeklys avoid such scruples. While this certainly gives such papers scintillating content, it usually comes at the expense of fairness. As Ryan once explained it to me, in some alternative newspapers, in any hypothetical story that might discuss a dispute between a landord and a tenant, the landlord will always be the bad guy, and the tenant will always be painted as unfairly oppressed. But Ryan, who says he learned this lesson directly from Steve Moss, New Times' revered founder, assumes that sometimes the tenants might actually be the bad guys, and if so, the story should be written that way.
So, both Steve Moss and Ryan Miller have had this thing about fairness, and believed (Moss has since died) that it is more important for a paper to be fair than to make a story scintillating. I didn't know Steve Moss, and so I don't know where his ideas about fairness found their ultimate grounding, but for Ryan, a Christian, values like fairness, honesty, and thoroughness flow, quite naturally, from his religious convictions. So here's the question: if Ryan's journalistic ethics flow from his specifically Christian faith, is he Christianizing the New Times by operating with those ethics? Is he (rightly or wrongly) making the paper into an Evangelical rag by doing so? Dave Congalton thinks so. Here's what he said:

Sunday, December 17, 2006

New Times Gets Religion

I suspect some dramatic editorial changes are underway at what has been the Alternative Paper of Record in this community for 20 years. New Times has had a pretty rocky period these last 18 months, starting with the sad death of founder Steve Moss, the uncertainty surrounding possible new owners, the whole controversy involving the meth story, the departure of King Harris as Managing Editor, declining circulation, etc.

Now it seems there is a staff revolt simmering under the surface and it just may boil over in the next few weeks as key members of the newsroom decide to move on.

The problem seems to be twofold. First, publisher Bob Rucker wants New Times to be more upbeat, softer in tone and less controversial, a vision shared by Ryan Miller, the wet-behind-the-ears editor who is still finding his editorial voice with the paper.

Apparently the voice Ryan is listening to most belongs to God. No kidding. A devout Christian, Miller is apparently being guided by a higher authority in putting out the newspaper week after week. Stories alleging a serial rapist on the loose in San Luis Obispo and reports of major FEMA violations by Atascadero are being scrapped in favor of this Thursday's cover story . . . .wait for it . . . . .A COMPARISON BETWEEN 'THE NATIVITY STORY" AND "PASSION OF THE CHRIST."

I'm not kidding! That's the cover story scheduled for this week by the weekly alternative paper.

Look, I believe in religious tolerance and support the right of anyone to follow the god of their choice -- or not. But leave it at the door, pal. Ryan apparently has trouble doing that, often openly consulting his pastor for advice in running the newspaper.

There are a few points of fact I'd dispute about this story, such as my role as Ryan's consultant, the main thrust of the cover-story he mentions, Ryan's level of experience (five years editing the Santa Maria Sun), etc. But the main question is this: while Congalton believes in "religious tolerance", does that include tolerance for religions (such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, to name a few) that cannot be "left at the door" without denying their central precepts? Most religions advocate a non-compartmentalized life, that is, to purposefully ignore their teachings when you go to work would really be to fundamentally deny the religion. To say to a religious person, "I tolerate you as long as you don't act religious from 9 to 5" is not really tolerance. This is not to say that Congalton or anyone should tolerate every religious impulse a person might have. If a newspaper editor said, "My religion requires me to sacrifice one of my reporters every day at noon before a statue of Molech," or, "my religion requires me to maliciously misquote all politicians," then well, it's probably OK not to tolerate the practice of that religion in a newspaper editor while he's on the job.

So, I'd make the case that we ought to be more tolerant than Congalton, but not tolerant of every form of religion that someone might want to practice in the workplace. Just how much tolerance is the right amount? That's a hard question, but shouldn't we at least say that an editor like Ryan Miller should be allowed to follow his religiously grounded ethics, especially when those ethics match up to commonly agreed upon journalistic standards that others might hold to because of a different fundamental philosophy? Remember, Miller and Moss agreed on their ethics, though would probably describe their ultimate reasons for such beliefs differently. This doesn't completely solve the tough question about the proper place of religious reasoning in a religiously pluralistic society, but it should be enough to show that telling someone to leave his Christianity at the door is not necessary or desirable, nor a mark of the kind of tolerance that we're all hoping to achieve.

Here's how I responded to Dave Congalton, and then his words back to me.

I'm the pastor of the church that Ryan attends -- I'm not sure who your sources were, Dave, but since Ryan took the helm at the New Times, I've never met with him to talk about the paper. We used to meet for lunch when he edited the Santa Maria Sun, and occassionally we'd talk about his work, but to call it a "consulting" relationship would be more than a stretch.

Even still, the requirement that someone like Ryan leave his faith "at the door" is easily overplayed. While I can understand your concern that a newspaper editor might covertly import his religious beliefs in illegitimate ways, there are many ways that one's ultimate beliefs can increase the quality of work, especially in a field like journalism. If someone's religous beliefs ground his convictions about justice, truth-telling, honesty, etc., -- all of which are New Testament values as well as journalistic values, I'm sure we'd all hope those are not jettisoned merely because they were born out of religious conviction. In fact, unless we were to ask all newspaper editors to only ground the ethics that we expect of them in a specifically a-religious philosophical pragmatism, we need to allow that privatley held religious beliefs can properly inform public ethics. Of course, there are plenty of examples of misappropriation of religious beliefs in the public square -- no argument there -- but there's not much evidence that Ryan has done so, Christmas cover-story notwithstanding. In fact, here's one piece of counter-evidence that the New Times is some kind of vehicle for softy Christian sappiness (something I loathe myself): earlier this month we saw an opinion piece making fun of heterosexual soccer moms and the downtown Christmas parade. At least two f-bombs were dropped in the process. Whatever changes Ryan has brought, he's certainly not forcing his staff to get religion.

To Brian Kay,

Though we are honored to have a pastor join the discussion on the blog, I stand by what I wrote originally and have taken it a step further in a new posting.

New Times is going soft, backing away from investigative reporting, playing up arts and events coverage. More and more religion will creep into these pages because of Ryan.

Oh, well. At least we got the conversation started.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Jansenists: Reformed and Roman Catholic?

I'm biting off more than I can chew with this post, since it's about time for bed, on a Saturday night no less, and Jansenism has a complex history that I'm just getting my head around. Let's suffice it to say that in the mid-1600's a Roman Catholic movement developed based on the ideas of a Dutch bishop named Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638). After reading a ton of St. Augustine, Jansen came to believe that the Roman Catholic Church, and espeicially the Jesuits who were so active in his own day, had departed from the radical nature of grace and sin for which Augustine had argued against Pelagius. By ditching Augustine and instead following the ideas of Molina, the Jesuits had functionally become semi-Pelagian: fallen humanity was only sick in sin, not dead, and that by cooperating with a dose of God's grace, we can cooperate in our eventual acceptance by God. Jansen's seminal work, the Augustinus rapidly spread through Holland,Belgium, and France, and was actually endorsed by ten professors at the Sorbonne in Paris, the old bastion of Catholic orthodoxy. The party didn't last long. Pope Innocent X, after thirty-six long discussions with advocates and detractors, over two years, finally condemned five representative statemements from the Augustinus in 1653. But here's my point: look at the five condemned statements and notice how close they were to the Reformed views on the same topics. Here are the five condemned statements as they appear in the somewhat clunky wording of the old Catholic Encylcopedia ( Following that are my five, easier-to-read versions of the same points:

1. Some of God's commandments are impossible to just men who wish and strive (to keep them) considermg the powers they actually have, the grace by which these precepts may become possible is also wanting;
2. In the state of fallen nature no one ever resists interior grace;
3. To merit, or demerit, in the state of fallen nature we must be free from all external constraint, but not from interior necessity,
4. The Semipelagians admitted the necessity of interior preventing grace for all acts, even for the beginning of faith; but they fell into heresy in pretending that this grace is such that man may either follow or resist it;
5. To say that Christ died or shed His blood for all men, is Semipelagianism.

Now, to put this in updated and slightly expanded language:
1. No one can follow all of God's laws, no matter how hard they strive, for no one now has the moral power to do so. God does not even grant this power to everyone.
2. An unregenerate person can only be saved by an irresistible act of God's grace.
3. The idea of an unregenerate person eventually "choosing" God is not a contradiction of God's irresistible grace that ennables such a choice. This irresistible grace does not externally constrain the will, but ennables it, from the inside, to really be free.
4. Semipelagians admitted that ennabling grace was necessary, but fell into heresy when they said such grace must be cooperated with by a non-ennabled choice of the free will.
5. To say that Christ atoned for all people's sins is Semipelagian, because, since all people are not finally saved by God, then they must have resisted what is merely an open offer of his grace.

If this reminds anyone of the classically Protestant Canons of Dort, also completed in Holland a few decades earlier, you couldn't be blamed! To me, this is an amazing example of how some within the Roman Catholic Church were able to advocate for, at least for a few years, a return to Augustinian (dare I say, Pauline!) views about sin and grace, and with several highly-situated advocates. To bad Jansen's views were outlawed-- they probably wouldn't have been as controversial three-hundred years earlier, but the Reformatin/Counter-Reformation lines were drawn pretty firmly by the 1650's.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Some Thoughts on Bart Ehrman

I've had a few thoughts bubbling since Bart Ehrman released his book, Misquoting Jesus, last year. After hearing an interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross I finally thought I'd better write them down, and now, at last, post them here. Ehrman teaches New Testament at the University of North Carolina, is an ex-Evangelical, and, overall, makes the case that our present English Bibles cover-up hopelessly contradictory stories about Jesus in the existing Greek manuscripts. Here are a couple of his summary thoughts, mosty from the NPR interview, and some of my responses.

Ehrman says that the story in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery is only attested by late manuscripts, and thus is not likely original to John's own composition. This example functions as kind of a locus classicus for Ehrman's overall point that our English Bible, which contains this story, is fraught with arbitrary privileging of one text's reading over other ancient manuscripts that might have a contradictory reading. I.e. the presence of the woman caught in adultery story in most English Bible's proves that Jesus must be routinely "misquoted" in the N.T.
Problem: Ehrman is right that this story from John 8 is very unstable, but most English translations alert the reader to this fact in a footnote, so the instability of this partiuclar story is very transparent to the reader. More problematically, Ehrman implies by this example that all or many other stories is the New Testament are as equally instable as John 8. But there is no such textual instability for the vast majority of N.T. stories. That is, John 8 is not generally representative or an example of a coomon problem, it is, rather, an extreme outlier on the spectrum of textual stability (the only other comparable example might be the long ending of Mark's Gospel). To leverage John 8 to make a general point about widespread and damning textual discrepancies is like pointing to someone's hangnail and saying, "See, I told you he was dying."

Ehrman also says, "If the original text is authoritative, we have a problem, because we don't have the original text." By this, Ehrman is trying undercut the basis for the orthodox Christian claim that the Bible is our ultimate authority, since God inspired the apostles to write what they wrote. Ehrman is saying that if we don't even possess their original manuscripts, and if the manuscipts we do have contradict each other, then there's no sense pointing at any current Bible verse and saying, "This is God's authoritative word."

A few thoughts:
1. Not having the original manuscripts does not mean we have a substantial disconnect from the original in the texts that we do have. Like I've said above, this would be the mistake of concluding that the presence of a few conflciting texts, or even the presence of many insignificant variances between texts (i.e. those that have little impact on the final meaning of a verse) means that the original N.T. is basically unrecoverable or it's meaning basically obscure. Of course, if I had it my way we'd have access to the original manuscripts, but, failing that, what we do have is pretty good, even considering the text variances.

2. Ehrman seems to act as if textual criticism, the task of determining which of the two or more conflicting readings most likely represents the original, is a task unknown to orthdox Christians, or that they somehow turn a blind eye to how textual criticism makes their submission to scritpure as God's Word unreasonable or naive. But everyone have always known we don't have the original manuscripts. Apart from the King-James-Only crowd who believes that God surpernaturally inspired the 17th century English translators to make a newly inerrant Bible, Christians have always had to do the hard, disciplined, principled work (science? art?) of text criticism, that is, determining which of a number of contradictory readings might be closest to the original. This is not arbitrary or hopeless work, it has a fairy established and uncontroversial methodology, and most conclusions that text critics make are quite defensible.

3. In short, Ehrman overplays (a) the number of scribal changes, (b) the significance of the changes - i.e. even the variant texts have very little doctrinal signficance, (c) the final overall judgment against the N.T.'s stability, which is far greater that any other ancient text that I know of.

4. A final word on the definsibility of recognizing the present N.T. as divinely authoritative: Even though a text like the English Bible has the possibility, even liklihood, of some minor textual or translation errors, it makes sense for people who believe that the original N.T. was God's authoritative word to treat our present N.T. texts authoritatively as well (more particulalry, it is a good critical text like the Nestle-Aland 27th edition that is the safest to treat authoritatively, since it is the product of lot of careful textual criticism). Until counter-evidence appears that might cause us to ammend our text (and the end of Jn.8 should probably be deemed non-authoritative for this very reason), it is intellectually defesible to treat the N.T. as if the apostles and their associates really wrote it. In other words, if my secretary left me a note saying, "Your wife called to ask you to pick up three tomatoes on the way home," I might name many reasons why the note might not be letter-accurate to my wife's original words (maybe my secretary wasn't listening closely, maybe she accidentally wrote "three" instead of "two", etc.) but I would not be wrong to treat the note "authoriatively" even with those possibilities facing me, in fact, it would be more unreasonable and risky not to act on it and come home empty-handed, pleading "how could I have been sure?" No, treating a text with authority does not require claiming infallibility of the present text nor even our own interpretation of it. That's just the way texts work, and the Bible, in this regard, is not so different.

Ehrman has defeated the King James Only folks with his observations, but not really any historically mainstream view of Christian scripture, and not even that of conseravtive mainstream American Evangelicalism.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Why Conservative and Liberal Radio Isn't Good for You

I could have called this post "The Hermeneutics of Political Radio," but that might have sounded pretentious -- my point, however, really does relate to how certain political discourse interprets facts in the world. This morning during breakfast I was listening to the left-wing Air America radio network. Al Franken was away and two commentators were sitting in for him. As the hosts weighed-in on many recent events, one uniting theme soon became apparent, "George Bush and people who like him are only evil and dumb, all of the time." Which is to say, today's uniting theme on Air America was the same as yesterday's, and the day before. If a Republican were to do something apparently commendable, the interpretation of that event would fall into one or more of the following categories: (1) "Yes, but the commendable act was a publicity stunt, his heart wasn't really in it as we can clearly see by his past actions." (2) "It's about time he did something commendable, but this won't take away from the greater damage of his past actions. How dare he think this one act redeems him?" (3) "Victory for us! Our side exerted enough pressure to get him to do the right thing! So really, we're the ones to thank." (4) "Hey -- commendable acts like that were invented and perfected by OUR side - now HE'S trying to take credit?" (5) "OK, this was a commendable act -- but the exception proves the rule! The stark contrast between this act and the normal way our opponents conduct themselves highlights how generally uncommendable they are." The driving interpretive grid is this: whatever the event might be, it proves that "Republicans and what they do are always bad." Conservative radio operates by the same rules: all facts, all news stories, one way or another, prove the absurdity and villainy of liberals.

What's wrong with these kind of intepretive systems? Most philosphers and theologians recognize that we all operate with complex cognitive grids through which we pass all of our experiences. This is necessary so that we can quickly categorize what is happening around us, make decisions, etc. We can't avoid having presuppositions, even biases -- in fact, we'd be immobilized without them. Sometimes this is called the "hermeneutical spiral" - the proper, gentle circularity with which our presuppositions help us make sense of the facts, while the facts also shape our presuppositions. However, our ability to arrive at the truth is endangered when our presuppositions cannot themselves be corrected by the new discoveries, nor admit exceptions to general rules. A kind of craziness results when the hermeneutical spiral is interupted is this way, when our interpretive grid cannot be challenged by any number of contrary experiences, and so, our minds become shut off from the possibility of knowledge of certain things. For example: "Are all Democratic party leaders evil secularists?" ("Yes!") "But Democratic senator Barak Obama admits that his party is too secular and should allow more religious language in public policy debates - surely he is not an evil secularist." ("Wrong! We know he's an evil secularist because he's a Democrat.") Philosophers also call this "begging the question" -- using your conclusion as evidence for your conclusion. This is not to say that, for the sake of argument, the basic Democratic interpretation of the world is more correct than the basic Republican world view. Nor is it to say that one could not, with intellectual honesty, host a radio show that discusses national events from the vantage point of one such political perspective. Rather, the test of political craziness might be to ask, "Have my opponents ever gotten it right? If not, might they sometimes have at least meant to get it right? Can I speak for more than sixty seconds about an area of commonality bewteen us?" The most successul politicians (and people) are able to build on commonalities, give credit where credit is due, admit past mistakes in their own belief or action, find ways to work with opponents, etc., all without going soft on their own convictions, goals, and general presuppositions about reality. The radio shows, by contrast, tend to enforce interpretive grids that are actually, on these terms, crazy, because all facts, all the time, prove the host's grand narrative to be true: on all counts we are morally good and epistmemically right, and they are morally bad and epistemically wrong.

The Bible has another word for this state: blindness - the morally blameworthy state of making yourself unable to see relative value in others or faults in yourself. Christianity says that the reason we are drawn to such totalizing political visions is a problem with our hearts: we desperately want to see ourselves as good and respectable, and the easiest way to do this is to find an opponent who is always wrong, always morally corrupt, always so much worse than we are. Like a drowning person, we elevate ourselves by pushing the other guy under water. My own faults are made so much smaller in the face of the heinous faults of the opponent. For example: "They're blaming our guy for X? Well, X might have been a mistake, but their guy did Y! How can you blame us for one instance X when they do Y all the time?" And, while, Y may really be much worse than X, X is still wrong and, morally speaking, requires an unqualified apology. Being a Christian, among other things, involves actually believing that on your best day you are a moral and epistemic mixed-bag. Put differently, it means saying that apart from all the legitimate good you may have done in a given day, you have so fallen short of God's perfection that your sins required the death of Christ to atone for them. Those who really believe they have need of Christ to cover their daily sins are moving toward the cure for all kinds of blindness, including political blindness. Such people may still have a specific political vision, yet they won't be able to speak or act morally superior to everyone who disagrees with that some part of that vision. They'll make a case for their interpratation of the truth, but will less likely do so with words or a tone that suggests only idiots would disagree. They'll see sinners on both sides of the isle, and will include themselves in that number. Their need to see their oppenent as thoroughly dumb or evil will be diminished because they have already admitted to their own intellectual and moral failings: as Christians they believe God alone is all-knowing, not them, and he has moved to forgive them from their own failures through the sacrifice of Christ for them. Such people, when acting consistently with their beliefs, won't spend much energy drawing attention to their intelletual or moral OK-ness, nor, espectially, will they they need to push others down in order to lift themselves up. In a sense, Christ has already allowed himself to drown in order to bear them up.

Of course, all of these thougths about politics apply to the politics within our families, our churches, our schools. Common sense can keep us from some of the crazy politics we may be tempted to engage in, but the gospel is the most intellectually sound and spiritually powerful cure. Only it addresses the real heart of crazy politics, the compelling idol that we always get our way and that we be seen by God and others as right and respectable.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Vancouver the Great

I'm writing today from Vancouver, British Colombia, where my family and I are taking a week to relax and audit a theology class from Jeremy Begbie at Regent College (one of my favorite places in the world). At the moment, I'm looking out over the city from our 22nd floor hotel room. This week hosts Vancouver's international fireworks competition, so every other night or so everyone heads out to the beaches and watches different nations compete for the best display. Does any other city in the world so effortlessly blend urban style with the majesty of ancient forests and surging, crystal rivers? I almost did my M.Div. here instead of Gordon-Conwell, but changed my mind because, among other reasons, I was afraid I'd love British Colombia too much by the time I was forced to leave the country upon graduating. My wife has never been to Regent College or Vancouver, so I'm in show-off mode. Tomorrow we'll do tea at Stanley Park, then probably rent bikes and explore the forest. I'd say this place is most like a big-city version of a Europeanized Yosemite, if that makes any sense. And watching the sun start to set (it won't fully go down until 10:00 p.m.), over the blue English Bay, wild forests rising up beyond the skyline to the north, it makes plenty of sense to me.

Strangely, I'm sitting here waiting for J.I. Packer to call me back. I never thought I'd write that sentence before today. He's (maybe) doing the foreward to a book I'm putting out next year, and thought I'd use that as my excuse to try to drop in on him at the college and introduce myself. One of the Regent staffers who nearly forced me to call him at home laughed at how Packer-fans sometimes show up and take pictures of themselves in front of his house. Check out his new book, Prayer: Finding Our Way Through Duty to Delight (co-written by Carolyn Nystrom, who groomed some of his lectures). Packer is best known for the tremendous Knowing God but has continued a steady output now into his eighties. Another classic is Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God which shows why a high view of divine sovereignty in salvation (that God chooses us before we choose him) is perfectly compatible with the practice of sharing our faith with others. Last month Packer gave a lecture here at Regent where he claimed that best the label for his career-calling would be "catechist" (agreeing with Alister McGrath's dubbing him as such in his biography of Packer). That is, he takes historic Christian orthodoxy and makes it accessible to everyone.

More on the Regent College trip later. Tomorrow, my wife and I and about six others will have tea with George Marsden, who wrote the great new (and really, the definitive) biography of Jonathan Edwards. Quite a treat, indeed. I'll write more about the Jeremby Begbie class later, but now, back to vacationing...

Friday, July 21, 2006

Univocity vs. Analogy vs. Equivocity

If the title of this entry didn't stop you from reading further, especially in the middle of a hot summer, you must be a real theologian. Here's the issue: when the Bible attributes certain characteristics to God, how are to we to understand the relationship between those attributes and God himself? Or, how does Biblical language work? More simply, if the Bible says that God "changed his mind" or is "fuming in anger" or "feels betrayed", we have three main interpretive options. "Univocity" means that such words when applied to God mean the same thing ("one voice") that they do when applied to us. Lately some controversial evangelical theologicans have taken the univocal approach in order to say that when God "changed his mind" (in a few places in Scripture) that he did so in the same way and for the same reasons that we change our mind: new data that we hadn't forseen comes into view, and so, we adjust ourselves. So, God changed his mind about destroying Israel in the desert because Moses helped him see reality in a new way. You can see the problems that univocity gets you into! But many fundamentalists use the univocity view to justify extremely literalistic readings that discount metaphor, allegory, etc. On the other extreme, equivocity is the route of hyper-skepticism and postmodernity, which often suggets that God is so ultra-transcendant and unknowable that the Biblical language itself can't tell us anything very reliable about God. Human language for God, including scriptural language, is a form of our reaching up and trying to explain our religious feelings and experiences. Of course, this view would deny that Biblical claims about God are themselves revealed by God.
The best way out of the dead-ends of univocity and equivocity is analogy. To say that God felt "betrayed" in an analogical sense means that our experience of being betrayed is both similar and somehow different than God's experience. In common with God, we would experience betrayal when someone who promised us love ended up witholding it from us. Different, however, is that God is never dominated or overwhelmed by his feelings, he is never taken off guard by a betraying act, he somehow also uses the other's betrayal for a better end he had in mind, amongst other diferences that we can't even name because we don't fully understand God given our finitude. The analogical view says that the differences in language usage between how a word applies to God and how it applies to us does not cancel the communicative, revelatory value of such a word: when God says "I felt betrayed" he is communicating something real about himself, and enough for us to know him deeper by him tellling us so. God gives us biblical descriptions of himself to deepen our love and worship of him, but not as a way of building a univocal and exhaustively metaphysical model of his nature. As the Reformers said, we never know God fully as he is in himself. So, did God change his mind that day with Moses in the desert? Yes and no. He halted one plan and embarked on another (like we might do), but he foreknew this reversal and was teaching Moses something about intercession (unlike what we could do). Respecting the principle of analogy helps us avoid a lot of bizarre theological claims that we might be able to "prooftext," but that really misuse the text (usually in the direction of univocity).
If you made it this far, I think you've earned your beach read. In fact, I'm off to the pool myself...

Friday, July 14, 2006

Psalms and Concurrent Operation

"Concurrent operation" is the theological idea that every event that comes to pass in our world, apart from its natural cause, is simultaneously and fully the operation of God. For example, when it rains, it is proper to say, "God gave us this rain" as well as "a rising warm air system has collided with a sinking cold air system." God is the first cause, but both the divine cause and the natural cause are real, and operate concurrently, not in competition. This is not just a theological axiom, but a fundamental for the spiritual life. In other words, the more you believe in concurrent operation, the more you: 1) thank God for every good thing that happens; 2) trust that God is up to something valuable when bad things happen; 3) pray for all kinds of things, knowing that all events, however mundane or momentous, are under his control.
As for prayer and concurrent operation, I've been noticing lately how much the Psalmist glorifies God for his work in the normal operation of the world. In the case of the animal kingdom, notice: Ps. 29:9, "the voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth"; Ps. 104:21 "the young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God"; Ps.104:27ff. "these [animals] all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your breath, they are created." So, in addition to what National Geographic has taught us, lions also can be said to look for their food and receive it from God, they are dismayed or happy depending on what God provides them, they die when God determines, and are born when he breathes new life into a cub. Perhaps a culture as scientifically advanced as ours needs to be re-convinced of the dotrine of concurrent operation the same way the Psalmist was -- if we were, instead of letting God get sqeezed-out with our advances in knowledge, we'd just find more things to praise God for..." when you give them the word, O Lord, the chromosomes divide, the stem cells commit to be a particular tissue, the electrons spin and never collide..." Or as Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God...Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs - Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Hard Road Out of Cultural Captivity

One of the comments on my last post brings up a truism about Chrisitanity wherever it flourishes: cultural captivity will never be fully escaped, even by the church. Tim V. mentioned that while Africa's current orthodoxy is marked by a traditional (and proper) resistance to homosexuality, it is, at least where Tim lived, less stalwart about the orthodox view of marital celibacy. Ouch. That is, while the church might be unanimous that homosexuality is wrong, it is less unanimous in its belief that husbands should be monogamous. The statistics of African church growth could be embarrasingly compared to the equally dramatic rise in AIDS, suggesting that while many folks are converting to Christ, many are also sleeping around.
Should this surprise us or cause us to doubt the authenticity of the African revival of the last thirty years? No. The church, even when it is flourishing, always exists within broader cultures. And, since cultures are made up of humans, and humans are sinfully fallen, the church will likely always have sin-patterns of the same variety as their surrounding fallen cultures. Amercan churches will tend to have more sinfully materialistic members than churches in poorer countries, while Christians in, say, Asian cultures, will be more likely to over-venerate their ancestors, and male Christians of other cultures will have a higher rate of marital infidelity. While Christianity is counter-cultural in many ways since it is about the erecting of a new kingdom with new values, it takes generations (sometimes) for certain cultural sins to be purged from the believing community. The power of culture is that it slowly, surely, makes us blind to certain moral categories that, were we really objective, we'd see the Bible clearly opposes. As much as we'd like it be different, real Christians sin in culturally predictable ways.
This is worth mentioning because one of common reasons people reject the Christian gospel is that they perceive hypocrisy or lifestyle failure in Chrisitans they meet as a deal-breaker. The underlying assumption is that followers of Christ will be fairly sinless, and if they aren't, then they are either frauds or the Christian message itself is to blame. But even Christian people are not quickly or ever thoroughly freed from the false values they are surrounded by. Often it takes a Christian from the perspective of a different culture to diagonse the ways we have capitulated to our own. East Indian evangelist K.P. Yohannan reports visiting a 3,000 member church in the United States and being shocked to find only two or three in attendance at their weekly prayer-meeting. Does the prayerlessness of that church mean that that it, or that Chrisitanity, is a sham? No, it means that 3,000 self-suffficient Western Christians need to go back and read the Bible more closely where it speaks about prayer, and be glad for the kind rebuke of an Indian brother. One of the reasons that it's good to have multi-national church dialogue is that we can help each other to take off the cultural blinders that we often don't know we're wearing. As Jesus said, the wheat and the tares of his kingdom will grow up together, and only finally sorted out at his return. The Lord of his church knows that it will always be impure, until he comes to fully purify it. Until then, authentic-yet-fallen churches need to keep helping each other to be better cultural critics of their own surroundings.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Global South Christians Take the Lead

A few years ago we used to hear anecdotes that the geographic center of world Christianity was Timbuktu, Africa. Sometime later, in November of 2003 to be exact, Peter Jenkins wrote a cover story for the Atlantic Monthly called "The Next Christianity," citing a lot more statistics to make the same point: increasingly, Christianity is a Southern Hemisphere religion. The church is growing wildly in Africa and South-East Asia, while sputtering in Europe (old news) and plateauing in North America. Nothing will illustrate this global shift more plainly than what is going on today in world Anglicanism. Of the 73 million Anglicans in the world, the majority live in Africa. The Nigerian church alone sees more worshippers on Sunday than all of England. While the African church owes its existence to colonial-era missionaries from Britain (primarily), the African church is now taking to task its Western brethren in England and the U.S.A. for failure to hold to the teachings it had first learned from them. And, because of the global shift, the West is forced to listen. As you may know, the 2003 confirmation of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church (USA) began a chain reaction of dissent among the few remaining orthodox Episcopal churches in America, and the African (and South American) bishops heard their cry. So began a new phenomena in world Anglicanism: individual American congregations began to secede from the oversight of their own American bishops and ask to be reassigned under a third-world bishop. The Anglican bishops of Rwanda and Uganda now both have several American churches under their authority. In fact, one of my old seminary buddies, Bill Haley, was ordained in February to begin an Episcopal church in Washington, D.C., but his ordination was by the Anglican bishop of Bolivia! Last week, the Most Rev. Peter Aquinola, who heads the Primates of the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa (CAPA) published an "Open Letter from Global South Anglican Leaders to the Episcopal Church USA" to say, in effect, "you Americans have broken with the faith you once taught us -- so we're moving on without you." (To be fair, the ordination of a homosexual bishop is really the last straw after decades of creeping unorthodoxy in the American church.) CAPA will meet in September to make a final decision about what to do about their formal ties with what they perceive as the rogue American church, but whatever they decide will really be the global Anglican response to a pipsqueak American branch of the world Anglican movement (and the American church loses abot 50,000 members a year). Of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury still has unofficial "first among equals" status among Anglican leaders, but for sheer reasons of size, the Africans are the heavies of global Anglicanism. And because of that fact, thankfully, global Anglicanism is largely an orthodox, biblical, movement. I predict we'll see a rise in African ruled American churches as the likes of Peter Aquinola increasingly see America as spiritually destitute region of the world that is in need of the gospel, and many, many missionaries. What a reversal, huh?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Renaming God?

Summer is a time for annual denominational conventions, and, because of the occasional absurdity of what those conventions are debating, it is a time for loads of media coverage of American Christianity. Not the least interesting of these stories was last week's revelation that the Presbyterian Church (USA) received a policy paper recommending that the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" be allowably replaced with "Mother, Child, and Womb" as a way to refer to the triune God in worship services. How bad is this development for the PC (USA)? On one hand, the Associated Press names the reaction of certain conservatives that "the church should stick close to the way God is named in the Bible." This seems almost right, but the real issue is not that we must only use explicitly Biblical language for God (i.e. who would argue that it would be wrong to address God as the "Great Physician"?), or even that God does not have certain "motherly" qualities (cf. a previous post regarding places in the Bible where God is portrayed as a brooding mother-bird). The real problem is the desire to replace God's own self-determined names with names that explictly reverse the meaning of those revealed names -- even when the new name might carry some truth in it.
Here's what I mean: The first person of the Trinity calls himself "Father," and though he also reveals mother-like qualities about himself, this fact, for whatever reason, does not result in God also naming himself in the Bible as "Mother." Why not? In the end, you and I don't know the answer for this, nor do we have to know. Somehow, the Father-metaphor is more central to God's character, more helpul for us to know, whatever -- but "Father" is what he has chosen to call himself, rather than "Mother". To substitute "Mother" for "Father" is different than calling God "Great Physician," since doing so does not reverse any other name that God has chosen to reveal.
Another trend in the Scriptures that helps to make the same point: God reveals certain qualities about himself by way of metaphor, others by way of simile. Metaphors say "A is B" while similes say "A is like B". I.e. Jesus "is" the Son, but is only "like" a mother hen (Luke 13:34). Of course, one could do a lot of unwarranted speculation about why God chooses some names as metaphors and other self-descriptions as mere similes, but it's an easy, organic, and biblical way to name God by using the metaphors, and not to try to reframe the similes as if they could as easily become metaphors. I.e. to start calling Jesus our loving "Hen" is to turn a simile into a metaphor. This is not an insignificant move, but is a kind of genre-violation of God's own modes of self-naming. Language does matter, and for reasons we can't always name.
The impulse to rename is sometimes legitimate and a sign of affection, of course -- we give endearing nick-names to our spouses and kids -- but this habit becomes immediately subversive (wouldn't you say?) when we do it to those in authority over us. To call a civil court judge "Pops" is partly appropriate as to the nature of his authority, but definitely disrespectul. And, since God exercises his authority over us lovingly, for our benefit, even the names he has chosen for himself carry some form of a gift, even if we don't always see it.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Getting into the Psalms

In about 381 AD a Christian woman named Egeria set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from her native Spain, and wrote a travel-journal of her experiences. Among the other wonders of her story (it's still in print, by the way) is what she reports about how ancient Christians conducted their public worship services. Now, nothing that's old is worth repeating merely because it's old, but getting a viewpoint from a different millenium and a different culture has its value. And what the early Christians seemed to value was the Psalms. For example, the basic daily morning services she would have encountered in Jerusalem opened with either Psalm 50 and 51 or 62 and 63, then several other variable Psalms were read (or sung), then an Old Testament "canticle" (like a Psalm), then Psalms 148-150, followed by various prayers and a blessing. While the services she attended had been heavily influenced by "monastic model" worship practices and their even heavier Psalmody, these "cathedral model" services of the average Christian were very Psalms-rich.
What's great about the Psalms? They marry theology and poetry, doctrine and personal experience, and model how the whole range of human emotions can be expressed to God through through prayer. The Pslams teach us how to pray, and praying them ourselves gives us words to say to God that we might have difficulty expressing on our own. Since the Psalms are also inspired by the Holy Spirit, they are God-endorsed guides that we can trust, and keep us from being lopsided in our own self-made prayers. For example, praying the Psalms over time keeps us well balanced between praise, thanksgiving, repentance, and requests for God's help.
Christians have the advantage (and duty!) of praying the Psalms in light of Christ -- which will help us to make use of many Psalms that might otherwise seem too locked-in to an ancient time and place. Here are few tips: When there is a dialogue between "the king" and "the LORD" in a Psalm, think about Christ as that king. While David was the historical king who wrote the dialogue, Christ is the "Greater David," and many of these Psalms amazingly illuminate Christ's relationship with the Father, especially while he was on earth and depending on his Father while on the way to the cross. We can worship as we rehearse how Christ was in league with his Father in their joint project to save their people. Another tip: when the Psalmist calls out to God for the destruction of his enemies, remember that the three main enemies of the believer in this life are sin, death, and the harassment of the devil. While David had earthly enemies who he could pray against very strongly because of his particular call by God to maintain an earthly kingdom, we are citizens of Christ's spiritual kingdom that is presently more concerned about spiritual enemies. So, don't pray brimstone down on your cranky office-mate, but do pray it down on your own sin-nature and the work of the devil in the world. Again, when the Psalmist praises God for his rescue of his people at the Red Sea, remember that the Exodus is a foreshadowing of Christ's greater rescue at the cross -- realizing this will allow you to use many Psalms word-for-word while praising God for the greater Exodus by which he saved us. Likewise, the Psalmist warnings against abandoning God in the Sinai desert can be read as a warning to the church to not forget the God who has brought them into such freedom through Christ. With a few such New Covenant adjustments to our interpetation, we can see why the Psalms are just as useful for the Christian as they were for Jews before Christ.
Now a very practical idea. If you'd like to go through Psalms in a month, read the Psalm that has the number of the current date, as well as the current date plus 30, 60, 90, and 120. So, on June 22, you'd read Psalm 22, 52, 82, 112, and 142. That's a lot in one day, but still less than a lot of Egeria's new friend's were reading! Personally, I'd say to go slow and try to pray as you read. There's no shame in taking ten or more minutes per Psalm (or even an hour). You only might finish one Psalm in a sitting, but at least you're on your way. Enjoy meeting God through his own words!

Friday, June 16, 2006

Book of the Month

One of ongoing problems in contemporary theology is how to best relate "systematic theology" and "biblical studies." Here's the problem: if a person starts with a somewhat formed view on any of the traditional subjects within theology (such as the nature of God, the Bible, the person and work of Christ, the role of the Holy Spirit, etc.), he will have a hard time being unbaised when he is trying to interpret any individual text of the Bible. He'll be tempted to sift scripture through his predetermined theological grid, and so, individual texts will have less chance to challenge or correct his views. His pre-textual framework will decide beforehand which texts are essential and determinative and which are odd anomalies that are "exceptions to the rule." But the other problem comes when someone seeks to do biblical studies without reference to systematics, that is, to interpret any individual text without reference to what the Bible says elsewhere on the same topic. To refuse to engage in systematics makes one forever a mere child -- never growing in wisdom as the broad strokes of the whole Scripture sink in. Such a path also tends to arbitrarily deny the organic nature of the Bible, that is, that, Christianly speaking, the Holy Spirit is behind the whole project of Scripture, and that Scripture therefore fundamentally agrees with itself and invites some form of systematization (while being sensitive to various genres, historical contexts, etc.).

Enter Covenant Theology. A long-tradition, perhaps begun in earnest by the early church father Irenaeus (2nd century AD) and massively expanded by Protestant Scholastics in the 16th and 17th century, Covenant Theology seeks to make some inroads to solving this age-old problem. To grossly oversimplify, Covenant Theology suggests that the organic structure of the Bible is covenantal, that is, the unfolding drama of Scripture is strikingly organized around various "covenant administrations" between God and his people. Scripture does not just tell us about these covenants, rather, covenants are the basic "architectonic principle" (Horton's term, I think) of both testaments. So, while this observation definitely sees some "system" to scripture, it is a system that is in every imaginable way inherent to the text, not forced on it from above. The covenantal superstructure of Scripture has been made even more clear after various acheological discoveries of the 20th century showed that whole books of the Old Testament bear remarkable literary-stuctural similarity to ancient near-eastern treaty formulas. When all of this is understood, an extremely organic way of connecting biblical texts to systematics starts to arise. If this is unclear, it's because I've left out all of the specifics, but hopefully a post of this short lenth will be enough to at least whet your appetite.

Michael Horton's new book God of Promise: An Introduction to Covenant Theology is a good place to dive into this amazing field (O. Palmer Robertson's Christ of the Covenants is the older, simpler, intro), though, by any counts, it's for advanced beginners, at least. Horton was my dissertation advisor, so I'm a little biased, but I do think his last two academic titles (with a finale on the way) have done a lot to advance Covenant Theology in dialogue with a range of unlikely modern conversation partners. Not exactly summer reading, I guess, but it is a worthy book for anyone's 2006 reading list. Start here, then if you're really ready to take the plunge, try his Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama and Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology to see how other areas of systematics are helpfully impacted by attention to the Bible's own covenantal structures.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Whatever Happened to Chanting?

In light of my last post on clergy shirts, the topic today might contribute to the rumor that some kind of hyper-traditionalism has overtaken this site. That is not the case, and yet, the question today is "whatever happened to the practice of chanting in Christian worship services?" Perhaps I should mention that I am one who has never chanted a word in any service I've led. Chanting has never been tied to one particular branch of the church, so the numerical rise of one branch over any others can't be the answer for its general demise. (As evidence for this, compare Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian worship books from a few decades ago -- they all have rubrics for chanting various prayers, Psalms, and biblical texts.) The rise of informalism could be the culprit, but informalism hasn't killed-off music or singing in general, and many forms of chanting are actually more simple than praise choruses. In fact, just learning a handful of chants would make the entire Psalter singable. How easy is that? Chanting provides some of the same benefits of singing longer melodies - it gets the truth of the words deeper into the heart, sort-of romancing us with what is said. Even other religions recognize this -- Muslims, Jews, and Hindus are big chanters, even today. Some Protestants might say that chanting sounds too medieval or Roman Catholic, but that response tends to be a catch-all rebuttal for any church practice that doesn't have roots in the Second Great Awakening. Chanting a few scripture readings in Sunday services might emphasize that we're to worship as we hear the Word read, and not just listen for content. Again, I welcome comments.

Friday, June 02, 2006

On Wearing a "Dog-Collar"

I have an old friend, about my age, who is an Anglican priest in a very orthodox American denomination of churches who have either broken away from, or never joined, the liberal Episcopal Church U.S.A. Brian is a rather high-church sort-of a fellow, which means that whenever I meet with him he's decked out in a clergy-shirt and a large cross necklace. Last week we met for a meeting in a local saloon, and he was wearing his usual "clerical," except this time with shorts. Needless to say, he tends to turn a few heads. But more interestingly, he also attracts a lot of people who want to talk to him about God and their souls. About two years ago I was late to meet him in another restaurant, and by the time I got there he was, somehow, holding court at the bar with several drinkers who had layed into him with all manner of theological questions. I asked Brian about this phenomena, and he said when he is wearing his collar he is routinely approached by people in the street who want to get right with God, confess their sins, etc. Routinely.
Many of us who do full-time church ministry wish we had more contact with non-Christians, more chances to get out of the church-ghetto and into real conversations with people who may be asking important spiritual questions. In light of Brian's experiences, putting on a clergy shirt and walking downtown sounds almost too easy. I've started doing a little on-line research on the topic and have found many similar testimonials from pastors who simply don the collar, and watch the sparks fly. What might happen if a pastor were to put on a collar, take a seat by himself in a bar or coffeehouse, and just wait? I'm contemplating running this experiment myself. Some of the standard objections to wearing a collar don't quite stand up, either. The clergy shirt has no historical tie to Roman Catholicism, as some fear, since the typical clery shirts styles were first used by Protestants. How about the potential problem overly distinguishing a pastor from other Christians, i.e. somehow denying the "priesthood of all believers"? Martin Luther, the first developer of that doctrine, still wore some form of distinct attire, as do most Lutheran pastors (at least while conducting services). Most Protestant denominations have used collars at the discretion of the individual minister, though the practice seems to have declined in the mid-twentieth century when clergy were trying to de-emphasize the clergy/laity distinction. But, I'd argue, whatever else the priesthood of the believer means, it does not erase the distinction in calling between the believer who is an ordained minister from the believer who is a doctor, engineer, construction worker, etc. The shirt simply communicates, "I'm a pastor" in the same way that other dress communicates "I'm a pilot," "I'm a police officer," "I'm a dentist," etc. And, to wear to the collar in public really would seem to say, "I'm a minister, and I'm on the job. How can I help you?" It's almost too easy.

For a lot more info on this, check out and as well as a pictorial guide to "clericals" (street wear) versus "vestments" (attire for use during public worship) see

Friday, May 26, 2006

The "Christ" is Jesus' Last Name Problem

What if we took a break from saying "Jesus Christ" and instead went with "Jesus the Messiah" or "Jesus the Anointed"? Here's my rationale: Technically, when we say "Christ" we are merely transliterating the Greek noun "christos" rather than really translating the word into English. That is, "Christ" doesn't have any meaning in the English language outside of a moniker for Jesus, which is why some people, understandably, think it must be just part of Jesus' given name. "Christos" translates the Hebrew word "messiah," and comes into English as "anointed-one." All to say, when the Bible calls Jesus the "Christ," it is actually communicating something about Jesus' mission, the purpose that the Father had appointed for him. To start calling him "Jesus the Anointed" would remind us that Jesus was called and equipped by God for a specific kingly, priestly task (kings and priests were both anointed in the Old Testament). Many people these days are rightly acknowledging that the most recurrent theme in Jesus' own teaching about himself is that he had arrived to inaugurate his Father's kingdom, to put-the-world-to-rights (as N.T. Wright likes to say). Whenever the New Testament writers call Jesus the "Christ," they are reminding us that Jesus is God's chosen-one, Israel's messiah who was sent to be the world's rightful Lord, that this Jesus has personally brought the beginning of the end of history, as all the old prophets had anticipated. To many people, the untranslated word "Christ" does not communicate any of this rich meaning (though certainly, we can train ourselves make such an association in our heads whenever we hear "Christ"). To start calling Jesus "the Anointed" would immediately raise the question "anointed to do what?" - and of course, the answer to that question is what matters most about Jesus. Any thoughts, readers?

Friday, May 19, 2006

N.T. Wright at City Church of San Francisco

As promised, here's a short review of the event last Monday night. I drove up to the city in time to catch dinner with Rev. Mike Hayes of City Church, then over to the Russian Center. N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, spoke to a packed house of mostly twenty and thirty somethings. To see some five hundred young people cram-in to hear a lecture about theology from a former Oxbridge don, in San Francisco no less, is surely good news for the future of the world. The lecture was mostly Wright summarizing his new book, Simply Chrisitian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, which has a chance at being the next Mere Christianity in terms of its hyper-accessible, smart, appealing introduction to the Christian faith. The hook of the talk (and the book) is Wright's observation that all human beings hear four "echoes of a voice": a desire that the world be more just and fair, a drive for some spiritual connection, a yearning for relationships, and an awe before real beauty. While these voices are universal, they are mere whispers, since none these yearnings are ever quite satisfied or explainable on their own terms. From here, Wright shows how the story of God's creation of the world, its fall, and its recreation through Christ and his kingdom makes the most sense of these vague yet persistent voices. Because God's new creation has been inaugurated in the arrival Jesus Christ in Palestine, God's justice is on its way, a path to spiritual union with God has been opened, the possibility of a renewed human commmunity has begun, and a glimpse of the truest beauty has appeared. These are different ways to introduce the old Christian doctrines, but (especially in the book) Wright gets around to the Trinity, person and work of Christ, etc. Of course, new creation themes make up the dominant doctrinal framework for Wright, which sometimes to me seems reductionistic when it comes to the atonement. The book is worth the read though, and especially good for post-modern types who might be specifically suspicious of traditional Christianity. Is it the Mere Christianity of the 21st century? Time will tell.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Gettin' on the Bus for N.T. Wright

If there was such a thing as a rock star of theology living today, it would be N.T. Wright. The slightly plump, bearded, vestment-wearing, sixty-something Anglican bishop might not say so himself, but the fact is that he inspires groupies as well as super-fans, those who swear he's reinventing the study of the New Testament. I, for one, am not quite a super-fan, but I am about to inconvenience myself and my family tomorrow in order to drive four hours to hear him speak in San Francisco (heck, even moderate fans of U2 would drive that far to hear them play). Beyond the rock-and-roll analogy, N.T. Wright is a serious scholar at the fore-front of what has been called the "Third Quest for the Historical Jesus." In case you missed the first two quests, they began in the 1700's and are just recently winding up. These quests, as they are known, tended to conclude that the Jesus of history was either a "pale Galilean" who was very sweet and mostly talked like Robert Schuller, or, a New Age guru who tried to get everyone to wake up to their inner deity. He certainly did not do miracles or rise from the dead. The interesting (and amazing) news is that many of these conclusions about Jesus are no longer in theological vogue, giving way to a Jesus that looks a lot like a first century Jew who might have actually known something about the Torah (how uncouth!) and, the biggest surprise, may well have been painted fairly accurately by the Gospel writers (at least Matthew, Mark, and Luke). What's more amazing is that this family of scholars is simultaneously academically respectable even to those who disagree with their conclusions, and, their conclusions about Jesus are relatively orthodox. I've tangled a little with N.T. on this blog, but I'd still agree with the super-fans that he's the most widely influential scholar in theology today. I'm heading up to hear him speak to a fairly small group of folks at City Church of San Francisco surrounding the release of his new book Simply Christian. I'll make a report here later in the week.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Da Vinci Code Absurdity of the Week

This week's selection comes from page 240 of the illustrated edition: Dr. Teabing says, "Don't get a symbologist started on Christian icons. Nothing in Christianity is original. The pre-Christian God Mithras-- called the Son of God and the Light of the World-- was born on December 25, died, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days...the newborn Krishna was presented with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Even Christianity's weekly holy day was stolen from the pagans."

Well. Scholars distinguish between two periods of Mithraism, the early Persian original, and a much later Roman version that appeared in the West at the end of the first century, at the earliest. So, the only version that early Christianity could have conceiveably borrowed from was the Persian variety. The Persian Mithras was a cattle herder who was born of a woman who got pregnant by swimming in a lake that happened to have the 400 year-old sperm of a god in it. This Mithras was not resurrected from the dead. The Roman post-Christian Mithras may have had more similarities with Jesus, but the charge of copying is as easily reversed in that case, since the canonical Gospels were in circulation far earlier than Mirthraism. Teabing's reference to Mithras' burial and resurrection on the third day (and Krishna's birthday gifts) seems to be lifted in toto from Kersey Graves' discredited The World's Sixteen Saviors, an outlandish book of undocumented claims published in 1875 (for example, no Hindu texts before 300 AD even discuss Krishna's birth, and the later Harivasma Purana, which does, makes no reference to "gold, frankincense, and myhrr.") Is the Christian Lord's Supper a rip-off of a Mithraic "god-eating" ritual, as Teabing also suggets? While Mithraism features a ritual consumption of bread and water (possibly wine), there is no evidence that it was interpreted as an act "god-eating." Even if it was, the Christian Lord's Supper is obviously rooted in the much more ancient Jewish Passover meal which predates any form of Mithraism, Persian or not. As for Sunday worship being "stolen from the pagans," Jesus resurrection on Sunday, as reported in the Gospels, is the real source for that day being hallowed. Again, remember the timeline: the honoring of Sunday as "the Lord's day" (cf. Rev.1:10 and 1 Cor.16:2, for example) arose within the first century, centuries before the pagan Emperor Constantine created a "hybrid-religion" (Teabing's words) bewtween Christianity and paganism. One wonders if Dr. Teabing's doctorate was really issued by a diploma-mill!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Newsweek, Judas, and Me

I was surprised to find a letter I wrote to Newsweek appearing in their May 1st issue. You faithful readers at enormoushippo were the first read my praise for Newsweek's Gospel of Judas coverage in my April 16th posting. After I blogged about the Newsweek article, I sent a letter to the editor, which then appeared two weeks later in print. Since Newsweek has a circulation of 3.2 million, I have likely now experienced the peak audience that anything I write will ever reach. That fact is simultaneouly exhiliarating and deflating. For the remaining 277 million Americans who don't get Newsweek (as well as you international readers), here's the letter they printed:

"Your good coverage of the Gospel of Judas puts the brakes on our readiness to grasp at any newly discovered ancient text that happens to mention Jesus as a reason to rewrite his whole history ("Sealed with a Kiss," April 17). As David Gates reminds us, the Gospel of Judas was written awfully late to play any such revisionist role. Don't get me wrong -- I'll be interested to eventually read the Gospel of Judas -- but as a study of a later variant on the earlier form of Christianity which was based on the much older canonical Gospels, not as a new source for what really happened during the days leading to Jesus' crucifixion."

Monday, April 24, 2006

Da Vinci Code Absurdity of the Week

A few weeks ago I made a tentative decision to stop writing about the Da Vinci Code because thought I'd run the risk of making this blog too repetititive, and perhaps because I'd come off as too much of a crank. I've changed my mind. Since the movie is still on the way, we have at least another couple of months where the ideas of the book will be as hot as ever (as depressing the thought of that is to me!). I also just started teaching a class on it at our church, so everything is fresh in my mind again. Here's the format I'll try in this and future posts: I'll quote a sentence or two from the book, and then make a few comments on why this quote qualifies as "A Da Vinci Absurdity."

This week's selection comes from one of the many historically revisionist speeches of the character Leigh Teabing. He says,"Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ human traits and embellished those gospels that made him godlike." The hint of truth: Constantine did commision the copying of a few dozen Bibles after the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. The absurdity: the list of Gospels included were only what anyone would have expected -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These Gospels were not in dispute as the historically reputable ones by anyone at the Council of Nicea. So, Constantine was not pulling a fast one, nor did he even personally act as the Bible's editor. Also, no evidence whatsoever exists to suggest that these Gospels were "embellished." On top of this, the four canonical Gospels, far from supressing ideas of Christ's humanity, are replete with his humanity. The critique of the Gnostic Gospels was, in fact, that they are the ones that diminish Christ's true human nature by turning him into some kind of phantasm that only appears to have had human flesh. Orthodox Christianity, from the earliest of times, claimed that Christ was fully God and fully human -- and this conclusion came because the four canonical Gospels emphasize both of those things. That Christ was fully human was not something that the early church denied or tried to supress as Dr. Teabing suggests -- in fact, Christ's full humanity is one of the most fundamental articles of faith as even the Nicene Creed itself alludes to.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Is Christian Salvation Other-Worldly or This-Worldly?

(My apologies to anyone who just read a shorter version of this entry that I just posted on JollyBlogger.)
A hot-topic in theology circles these days, especially in light of the rise of the "Emergent Church" movement, is whether or not the kingdom that Jesus Christ came to announce is more about a life-after-death place we go, or an entire overhaul of the present created world. My contribution to the debate: salvation is both of these things.
Despite what we might think about his whole theological project, N.T. Wright nails the biblical theme of salvation as "new creation," proving that the scripture really does underwrite some of the renewed interest in going beyond the language of mere life-after-death. The "heaven" of the book of Revelation is really more like a fabulously renewed earth than a wispy, cloudy, world of disembodied, blissful souls. Yet, (and this is a big "yet"), the fulness of the renewed future creation is only experienced by those who pass into it through a physical death (and dying in Christ no less), and then, a future bodily resurrection and vindication at the judgment seat of Christ (cf. 2 Cor.5). This "new heavens and new earth" is not an inevitable inheritance of anyone who lives on earth today, nor a reality that we can realize through any degree of sanctified efforts at cultural reform. The present world, and all of its history, must draw to a close at the moment of a future cataclysmic judgment, before that new creation will be brought to fruition. Most of us will experience this as a life-after-death reality. Until then, of course, we should get busy making the world more kingdom-like in ways that we can -- to do so proves that we have a theology of creation/re-creation, and not just a theology of the redemption of souls. There is, in fact, no room for the view that we shouldn't bother improving this world since it's all "going to burn."
But there is no ultimate conflict between a life-after-death understanding of salvation and that of a renewed creation. The mistake would be to pick either emphasis and make it its own "camp" from which to judge the other perspective as entirely wrong-headed. No surprise, the biblical view of reality, even heavenly reality, is not so easily summarised by just one metaphor, one image.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Newsweek on Judas

Continuing the theme of giving credit where credit is due in media coverage of the Gospel of Judas, let's pause to considerer these wise (even punchy) words from Newsweek's David Gates:

"Don't be expecting this fragmented manuscript to read like the King James. Small sample: " '[Truly] I say to you, [ ... ] angel [ ... ] power will be able to see that [ ... ] these to whom [ ... ] holy generations [ ... ]' After Jesus said this, he departed." And not a minute too soon. The secret wisdom Jesus confides—when he's not laying out a hierarchy of angels, gods and more gods that makes Hinduism sound minimalist—is a lot like that of the Gnostic Gospels, which posit a strict enmity between flesh and spirit..."

"Robinson, who tried to acquire the manuscript again in 1993, says the Gospel is a sensation—but only to scholars, not the public. His own book, "The Secrets of Judas," hardly oversells the translation. "It tells us nothing about the historical Jesus, nothing about the historical Judas," he told NEWSWEEK. "It only tells what, 100 years later, Gnostics were doing with the story they found in the canonical Gospels. I think purchasers are going to throw the book down in disgust." But right now, people are loving the idea that Jesus and Judas were dear friends who were in it together—it's such a downer to think the guy sinned and felt bad—and the hoopla machine is grinding away. The book. The book about the book. The National Geographic TV show about the book and the book about the book. The audiobook. (Can't wait to hear the passage above.) Last week, the public unveiling of the manuscript. Next year, the illustrated critical edition. Can the lipstick tie-in be far behind?"

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The New York Times and Judas

Accolades to John Wiford and Laurie Goodstein for their balanced treatment in the New York Times of the Gospel of Judas on April 7th. They mention that the real debate is not whether the document is ancient, but over it's relevance (presumably, they mean, to the question of Jesus studies). Those experts who they go on to quote as representatives of the pro-gnostic side of this new debate show how limited the scope of this whole conversation will really be. In other words, the relevance of the discovery is not so much to a possible redrawing of old lines about the historical Jesus, about which all late-dated gnostic Gospels are dubious source texts, but relevance merely to the nature of second and third century beliefs about Jesus in certain sub-sects. One of the champions of gnostic Christianity, Elaine Pagels, is quoted as saying that discoveries of this and other gnostic texts "are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was." She's right, though one wonders if anyone ever believed such a myth (though again, the truly "early Christian movement" of pre 70 A.D. shows very little of the diversity that Pagels revels in). The Gospel of Judas will be a fascinating read, but only as it gives insight into a highly marginal (even among Gnostics?) religious community and their imaginings about Jesus and Judas.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Betraying The Gospel of Judas

Today's big story in religion is the unveiling of The Gospel of Judas, a 1,700 year-old Coptic document that purports to record a secret conversation between Jesus and Judas, where Jesus asks Judas to betray him. The text was actually dug up in Egypt in the 1970's, but, somehow, ended up in a New York City bank safe-deposit box until it was recently restored and translated (National Geographic will soon print and sell copies). Is this copy of The Gospel of Judas really as old as 300 A.D.? Yes, probably. Does this mean we have to seriously re-evaluate what really happened on the night that Jesus was betrayed? Well, not exactly. First, it must be conceded that this Gospel was probably written well before 300 A.D. If the idea that Jesus asked Judas to stage a betrayal sounds familiar, it might be because you saw Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ in the late 1980's, which portrays such a scene. We've actually known about this claim for a long time- since 180 A.D., in fact, since that's the rough publication date of a rebuttal of The Gospel of Judas written by a church leader named Irenaeus. So, through Irenaeus, we've actually had second-hand quotes of The Gospel of Judas for a long time. Today's announcement really only qualifies as news because now we have the full text of the work, and not just quotations. So, despite the tone of some of today's headlines, nothing earth-shattering has come to light. Orthdox Christianity dealt with this book and moved on quite a while ago -- just over 1,800 years ago, to be exact.
But the real reason why we don't need to seriously reconsider what the New Testament says about Jesus having been genuinely betrayed by Judas is that The Gospel of Judas is still a very late occuring document compared to especially the synoptic Gospels (Mathhew, Mark, and Luke), which were written about 100 years earlier. Unfortunatley, today's coverage of the story suggests that we should equally weight the Gospel of Judas alongside the New Testament sources, if not give it even greater weight. But on what grounds? That 100 year gap just yawns too wide. More importantly, The Gospel of Judas bears all the marks of full-blown Gnostic Chrisitanity, a melding of various Greek and Near-Eastern religious elements with the Christianity of the New Testament -- and no one has shown evidence that this advanced form of Gnosticism existed until well into the the second century. The fact that Jesus asks to be killed in order to be freed from the prison of bodily existence is classic Gnostic anti-materialism, but this was not a religious perspective that existed in first-century Palestine. The Gospel of Judas presents us with an alternative Jesus alright, but not a Jesus that likely has much to do with the Jesus of Nazareth.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Please Accept This Emotional Appeal

With the Tom Hanks/Ron Howard film on its way in May, we're headed into another season of media attention for the Da Vinci Code and its claims about Jesus and early Christianity. It will be hard to miss interviews with scholars, pseudo-scholars, the man-in-the-street, and maybe even a rare interview with Dan Brown himself. Our course, I'd like to weigh-in on these heady issues myself, using this forum. But tonight I won't. I have a number of (I'd like to think) well-argued, thoughtful responses to Browns' claims that (1) no one believed Jesus was God until after 325 A.D., 2) Constantine commissioned the writing of the New Testament, 3) Jesus was once widely known to have had children with Mary Magdalene; 4) the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls threaten Christian orthodoxy, and 5) the Gnostic Gospels are better sources of historical information about Jesus than the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Yes, I've got a few things to say about all these things -- but so do, and so have, many other scholars. And, frankly, it doesn't take particularly savvy scholarship to answer many of Brown's claims -- rather, it takes an hour-and-a-half at your nearest public library.
So, instead of a scholarly response, I'd like to draw on all of the trust capital I may have earned with you, gentle reader. I'd like to make a direct appeal to any amount of credibility my education warrants, a plea for consideration based on the simple assurance that I am a generally reasonable person. All of these appeals in order to say: please, please, please believe that what the Da Vinci Code says about Jesus Christ and ancient Christianity is just sheer poppycock. Really, just an incredible pile of unwarranted silliness. I'm not making an argument here, I'm making an emotional appeal. Even anti-Christian scholars wouldn't think of trying to publish most of Brown's stuff in a respected journal. The problem with a lot of the media coverage is that, in the name of objectivity, I suppose, Brown's ideas are introduced as some kind of "fresh perspectives" that are "at least worth considering." Even non-committal talk show hosts want to allow that Brown is at least "thoughtfully examining long-held beliefs." But I'm here tonight, writing way past my bedtime, to say, 'No, no, no,' Dan Brown is not "onto something" here, or even "at least asking hard questions." He's not really asking questions at all, he's making deeply, deeply ridiculous claims through the extended monologues of his characters.
People speak of the sin of "heretical" claims, or the mistake of "ahistorical" claims, but what's at issue here is first, simply, "ridiculous" claims. No one believed in Jesus' divinity until after the Council of Nicea in 325? How does one even begin to answer such an outlandish assertion? The first challenge, certainly, would be to even keep a straight face while trying to make reference to the thousands of parchments that pre-date Nicea that would prove such a belief was widespread -- but now I'm actually making an argument. Brown's ideas in The DaVinci Code are not just wrong -- for you can be earnest, well-researched, and still make wrong conclusions. They are not even exactly devious, for that would suggest some kind of clever manipulation of the data. To date, the best word I've come up with is "ridiculous." Please, please, trust me on this one unless you are planning to pick up one of the many published rebuttals. If you are, my favorite is Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel's The DaVinci Hoax. Until then, I hope that while you may never think of me as the single most discerning, brillliant, penetrating thinker you've ever encountered, you'll at least trust me in this: I know cookoo-rookoo when I read it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

How the New Testament Authors Read the Old

Depending on who you are, the following statement might seem either utterly obvious or pure wishful thinking: The writers of the New Testament actually believed that the Old Testament was all about Jesus Christ. Let me explain why this is a post worth writing. For a long time I've been basically convinced that the Old Testament contained several prophecies of the coming Messiah, and that the New Testament writers thought that Jesus fulfilled those prophecies. Most Christians would admit as much. But it was only recently that I starting "collecting" New Testament references which show the specific ways that they thought Jesus was revealed in the Old Testament. The fairly startling result when these texts are compared is that, according to New Testament, (1) several Old Testament characters had specific knowledge of Jesus, (2) Jesus was an active agent in Old Testament events, and (3) the whole substance of the Old Testament reveals Jesus (not just a few scattered prophecies).

Here are the details: Abraham "rejoiced that he would see my [Jesus'] day" (Jn.8:56); Moses was emboldened to give up the easy life in in Pharoah's court to serve God because he "considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt" (Heb. 11:26); the exodus itself, as well as supernatural intervention of God in the Sinai desert was actually the work of Jesus: "Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe" (Jude 5); the "spiritual rock" from which the Israelites drank in the desert was none other than "Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4); the message of "eternal life" to which the Old Testament bears witness is a message centered on Christ (John 5:39). The Old Testament prophets specifically wrestled with the details of Christ's sufferings and future glories (1 Pet.1:11). In fact, the sin-atoning death, burial, and third-day resurrection of Christ are foretold in the Old Testament (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Isaiah understood his call as a prophet to be about Christ, since "Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him" (Jn.12:41). And, at the broadest level, the Law, Prophets, and the Psalms reveal the entire gospel, including the church's mission to preach Christ to the nations (Luke 24:25-27;44-47).

The upshot: if we agree that the New Testament (and Jesus) got all of this right, we should always read the Old Testament looking for hints and whispers of Christ. Christ's person and work are not incidental or occasional themes, but make up the very warp-and-woof of those old books. If, as the New Testament suggests, the pre-incarnate Christ haunts even the details of the narratives in the Pentateuch, let's keep our eyes open for other ways that Christ may be revealed there. Want a guide-book for this kind of Christ-centered Old Testament study? A great primer is Edmund Clowny's The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Note on One Kind of Good Ecumenism

Let's face it, some Christian traditions have been better at living out certain aspects of the Biblical vision of the Christian life than others. Would anyone doubt, for example, that the charismatic movement -- all theological criticisms aside -- has done a pretty good job modeling fervency in prayer? So here's the point about ecumenism: sometimes we'll find that people in another tradition are living out an aspect of our own doctrine in a better way than we are -- and they may not even officially confess that doctrine themselves. I have plenty of friends, for example, who pray with a fervency and confidence that assumes God is sovereign over all events in the world, though if you asked them they'd articulate a strong free-will theology. Yet, to watch them pray reminds me that my own beliefs about God's sovereignty should make me more like them when I pray, and less like my often tentative, low-horizon self. In such places we can learn from sometimes very different traditions without becoming relativistic about doctrine itself.

Monday, March 20, 2006

March Book Recommendation

D.A. Carson's great little book, Exegetical Fallacies, is an extended list of mistakes that people often make when they think they are proving something "from the Bible." Sadly, many people have become skeptical about any arguments based on "what the Bible says" because they have observed how others have made the Bible say anything and everything. However, the modern adage, "you can prove anything with the Bible," is not true according to Carson. Most erroneous and subjective interpretations of Scripture are also guilty of breaking some classical rules of argumentation. These common fallacies, if they were understood by those seeking to interpret the Bible, would prevent a lot of hanky-panky as well as many honest mistakes. Some of Carson's list of exegetical offenders are partiuclar to the world of biblical interpretation, but many are straight out of a logic textbook. Christians, especially, need to be clear about how to move from text to interpretation, and how not to. To the extent that we are sloppy about this, we can destroy confidence that the Bible is anything other than a spiritual springboard, a wordy Rorshach that carries no particular meaning apart from what our own minds bring to it. Pick up Exegetical Fallacies if you've never seen it, and be prepared for an interpretive tune-up.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Disney and the Other Kingdom

I just got back from Disney World yesterday, a family trip sponsored by my very generous father-in-law. Wow. Would you believe that the Orlando Disney employs fifty-seven thousand people on a forty-seven square mile piece of land? No kidding. After four days, we only scratched the surface of what's there. Even the details impressed me: all the grounds were spotless, the "cast members" cheerful, even the landscaping was show-stopping. For all of my high-brow critiques of Disney and its believe-in-your-dreams humanism, its portrayal of increasingly sexed-up princesses, etc., Disney World was a load of fun, especially with our two year-old, Willa. I'm trying to sort through the fact that I was, myself, a little starstruck when we met Minnie-Mouse at the "character dinner". Willa too was starstruck - shaking, actually. Beyond just Minnie, she was, in a sense, catechized into a mastery of the whole pantheon of Disney characters that prowl around the park. A week ago she only knew how to say "Minnie-Mouse" and "Cinderella", but now she can verbally identify Mickey, Goofy, Pluto, Snow White, the Little Mermaid, and Chip and Dale. Some of this makes me nervous. While we bought very little merchandise, she has no-doubt formed a myriad of positive associations with Disney images that will influence her buying choices for years to come. She, and we, had such an ongoing feast of dazzling entertainment that my wife and I wonder if life after Orlando will seem drab. I.e., it's nine o'clock, where are the fireworks? I vaguely feel the scrutiny of Neil Postman from beyond the grave, for at the end of the four long days we had, it seemed, nearly entertained ourselves to death.

Some of this makes me think that the best Christian response to the arresting power of Disney World is to be sure that our preaching and liturgy tells as compelling a story as Walt's. In a way, Disney lays down the gauntlet when it comes to enthralling an audience. And while the business of the church is not to entertain people, certainly our story - the creation, fall, and redemption of the world through the Passion of Christ, and the future culmination of his kingdom at his final return - surely this is, as Dorothy Sayers said, "the most exciting drama ever staged." Why shouldn't we also seek to capture the imagination of our young people, but about a greater Prince Charming, a more enduring Kingdom, and a real Lion King? After a week at Disney World, to bore people with the gospel seems more sinful than it did before. If the kiss of the bridegroom in the Song of Solomon is, as Bernard of Clairvaux said it is, the kiss of Christ on the lips of his people, and if that kiss raises us from the sleep of spiritual death -- well then, the otherwise enchanting tale of Sleeping Beauty starts to look a little derivative. One of the reasons the church can confidently take up Disney's implicit challenge is that we have the better story -- the True Myth, as J.R.R. Tolkien would have said.

None of this is to say that Disney's kingdom is in direct competition with the kingdom of God. If Tolkien had seen the nightly parade through the streets of the Magic Kingdom, wouldn't he tell us it is a true, however dim, reflection of the future procession of the saints through the gold streets in the kingdom of God? If so, he would have been right. This is why the Christian response to Disney World can not be a one-sided critique. It is somehow right to be swept up by the kernel of truth and beauty that is here. There is such a thing as scrooginess, afterall, and to be unmoved by something like the (four times a day) coronation of pauper-turned-princess Cinderella, complete with royal anthem playing from a thousand speakers, all against the backdrop of the fabulously illuminated palace (fiberglass construction not withstanding) is to be guilty of a wonder deficit. When the myths that are played out on the various park rides and animatronic stage shows are really good, as they often are, glimmers of the gospel are usually just under the surface (as anecdotal evidence, I cite the number of Lion King sermon illustrations preached from American pulpits a few years ago). And, now that Disney owns the Narnia film franchise and has opened a proto Narnia-experience at their Disney-MGM Studios park, the gospel/fairy tale gap has become even narrower when walking the golden streets of Disney World.

But, on the other hand, to try to presently create an explicitly Christian version of Disney's spectacle is to fail to realize that such a final version of the kingdom is a future reality, not a present one (take note, founders of the new Ave Maria town in Florida). Maybe that's why after four days in the park, for all of the fun we were having, it was beginning to feel a tinge like escapism. While the forty-seven square-mile Disney World is a near utopia, once in a while you are reminded that outside the walls of this kingdom there exists a world that is still fallen. A USA Today headline I saw while waiting for the shuttle to EPCOT broke the spell for a moment: "Alabama churches burned 'as a joke,' suspects say." EPCOT means Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. In its best aspects, that's what Disney really is -- a prototype of a future City, but one that we'll have to wait for. So, taken in measured doses, the Disney experience is fun in some of the highest senses of the word. But, as a family, we'll need to remind ourselves this week that God has called us, for the present time, to be pilgrims on the way to the Celestial City -- and not to hole-up for too long in imitations of that place, however legitimately enchanting. And on those warm winter nights in Orlando, schmoozing with the princesses, Disney World was certainly that.