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.