Isaiah 9: the Warrior-King and Christmas

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For a child has been born to us,
a son has been given to us.
He shoulders responsibility
and is called:
Extraordinary Strategist,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.
9:7 His dominion will be vast
and he will bring immeasurable prosperity.
He will rule on David’s throne
and over David’s kingdom,
establishing it and strengthening it
by promoting justice and fairness,
from this time forward and forevermore.
The Lord’s intense devotion to his people will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7, NET)

Isaiah 9:6 is a favorite passage quoted by Christians just before Christmas, predicting the coming of Messiah. It’s one of my favorites, too. It is difficult for us to look at the passage in its original context, but let’s give it a try.
In the 8th century BCE, Judah was in trouble. Ephraim and Syria were a new threat just to the north and the Assyrian Empire was a terrible juggernaut gobbling up all the surrounding territories. These days, commentators say that Judah was under the “Assyrian Crisis.” The Assyrians were a pretty ruthless people who demonstrated their cruelty in some terrifying ways. Impalement and dismemberment were just a few ways they proved their power to their enemies.
In this cultural and historical setting, Isaiah gave a prophecy of great hope to a people under enormous pressure. A child would be born who would set all things straight. Isaiah’s audience were under Ahaz’s rule, but his actions were less than ideal. But this child would be a king who rules on David’s throne and would bring about a definitive order in the middle of the political chaos.
The birth announcement foretold a human event with divine intention. The child is a human conception, though God has determined its happening and purpose.
He will be one that bears a great weight of responsibility as a political leader, but will be renown for his technique and ability, because he will be called “Extraordinary Strategist” by many. I think the NET Bible communicates this well. Oftentimes we see the popular gloss “Wonderful Counselor” and think that he will be someone that will give great advice or direction in a personal matter. Instead, Isaiah’s audience was more interested in a leader who could get them out of their terrible predicament; someone who could save them from forces like Assyria.
As was common to the ancient Near East, kings were representatives of a nation’s deity. The kings embodied the authority of the gods. They were even considered the very presence of a deity on earth. The title “Mighty God” points to this divine embodiment, but it isn’t an outright incarnation that the New Testament teaches. Instead, a king who accomplished the great things destined for him would obviously be driven by the deity. His authority would be synonymous with the authority of the deity, and so he would represent the divine.
The title “Everlasting Father” really doesn’t have anything to do with deity. Instead, it refers to the fatherly provision and protection of this coming king. A Christian appeal to the Trinity would be problematic here, especially since Christian see the king as the Son and not the Father. The metaphor of a kingly father is also found in Isaiah 22:21 (esp. ESV or NIV). Of course, the duration of his protection will be “everlasting,” which fits the theme of this pericope nicely. This kind of forever language is almost always hyperbolic, not referring to a literal eternity, but is instead a magnanimous description of the coming king. It also fits the language of the promise made in 2 Samuel 7 where God promised David that one from his lineage would establish a kingdom of peace that would endure forever.
He’ll be a “Prince of Peace.” How can a king in that environment establish peace? He’ll be a supreme and unbeatable warrior-king who will force the bad guys into submission and so take care of his people. His concern for his people is clear in verse 7. He’s David’s son, he brings peace and justice to his kingdom, and that kingdom is one of great prosperity. It’s YHWH’s passion that motivates and drives him. He’s the perfect king, truly the Messiah.

Is it any wonder that the first century Jews expected a warrior king that would utterly demolish Rome? It makes a lot of sense when you hear Peter’s revolutionary language and see him charge the crowd who came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane.

But what do we do with this Isaiah 9 passage this Christmastime? The people who walked with Christ experienced a paradigm shift and interpreted these passages like this one differently and we do it too.

A child was born by human effort and divine intention. This child would set things straight and we would save us from a war going on between all humanity and God himself: this king would save us from our own sins (Matt. 1:21). The king will be not simply be a representative of God, but will be the actual incarnation of God Himself. He will not just be a symbol of God’s presence among us (Isaiah 7), but will actually be God in human flesh. He will be Immanuel in substance, and not just in spirit. His kingdom will expand as the Gospel message moves across the globe. Our reasons for fear–death, sickness, and divine retribution–will fade. In him, we got more than was originally expected. With him we gain victory over the grave and death. Political aggressors are really secondary when it comes to the issues of sin and death; and the latter are the most important things in our lives that the Messiah came to correct. The culmination of all God wants to accomplish on earth are found in the Christ child.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

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Categories: Biblical Studies, Christian Calendar, Christmas, Practical, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Christmas: God became Meat

The title of this post is somewhat offensive.  It’s supposed to be.  The incarnation is simultaneously profane and profound.  Christmas is the time Christians remember that God the Son took on human flesh.  Well, that sounds nice and sterile, doesn’t it?  As we say here in the South: “That’ll preach!”  It is an interesting phrase; but these days it does not have the pathos it used to.  The idea of God becoming a human being was sheer blasphemy to the first century Jew.  The English term flesh is rather benign, and so when Christians hear that God took on human flesh there is often a ho-hum attitude.

But in my classes I take a different approach to the incarnation.  I ask students if they have ever eaten “chili con carne,” asking them what that is exactly.  Of course, it is chili with meat.  Then the follow-up question: “Then what do you think the incarnation might be?”  Of course, it refers to God becoming flesh.  A deity became meat, bone, sinews, organs.  It is a kind of mnemonic device students can use to remember the term and its definition.  But I always get strange looks and questions about this.  It seems profane to put the incarnation this way, and I am aware that the English word meat is not a perfect equivalent to the Latin caro/carn- (though the Spanish carne and English meat are pretty close).  Yet I believe it is important to help people recognize the original offense of the incarnation.

From the pages of the Bible we learn that God is not a man.  He is not made of flesh and blood.  He has no need of sleep.  He does not puzzle over things.  He does not need education or advice.  He does not have fear or dread.  He does not need nourishment.  The epitome of the word almighty, God is simply untouchable.  He is infinite.

Theologically, the Christian Church would say that God is wholly other.  He is perpetual.  He is omnipresent, omnipresent, and omniscient.  But perhaps most importantly, God is holy.  He has nothing to do with sin.  If and when he makes his appearance, no one can look at him directly and live.  Even angels cover their faces in his presence.

The birth of Christ actually put limits on the unlimited.  The God of all creation (specifically the second member of the Trinity) was born to a teenage girl in a cave-like stable.  Ultimate royalty, the holy God was wrapped in poor swaddling clothes.  Wrapped snugly, keeping his arms from flailing about, held in a mother’s embrace, being rocked when he cried, the creator of the world became a human.  Not just a human, but the most vulnerable child in need of, well…everything!  A completely independent God had become utterly dependent.  God had become flesh, organs, a starving stomach, weepy eyes, rooting mouth, and on occasion would produce a foul odor!  This scandal is not easy to accept to those who had held so strongly to Old Testament theology.  If we are honest, it may not be easy for us to accept either.

Categories: Christmas, Theology | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Redeeming Christmas

Christmas tree

Christmas tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Around A.D. 336, the Christian Church made December 25 the official date to celebrate the birth of Christ. Some of the images and rituals popular in Christmas celebrations today, have their origins in ancient pagan celebrations.  The Christian Church could have rejected these images but instead redeemed them, pointing them to Christ instead of false gods.  The Biblical authors had no problem with such methods.  In Psalm 29, David described a storm rolling over Lebanon striking down trees with lightning.  Canaanites thought Baal was behind such power, but David corrected this notion, claiming YHWH was behind it all.  Pagans were right to acknowledge a deity who brought the storm, but their adoration was misdirected!  David took the religious enthusiasm fomented by the image of a storm and directed praise toward the Lord.  He used an image that was common to his Canaanite neighbors and corrected the theology behind it.

Likewise, in the New Testament, Paul recognized the religiosity of his audience by noting the pagan idols they worshipped and paid special attention to the writing on one particular altar (Acts 17:23).  Paul used the altar devoted to “the unknown god”  to preach the good news to his listeners!  They had religious momentum, yet Paul sought to correct their misconceptions about religion and direct their devotion to the true God.

So when I remember Christ in December of each year, I enjoy putting up my Christmas lights and admiring their beauty during some of the longest nights of the year, because they remind me of Christ–the light of the world who shines in the darkness.  When I decorate my Christmas tree, I think about how it stays green and vibrant while the  other trees of the woods look dead.  Christ similarly makes believers alive in a world spiritually lifeless in sin.  The gifts under that tree remind me of how Christ was a gift from the Father to the world.  The Yule log in the hearth should keep a home warm through the night until the daylight shines once again, just as Christ’s Spirit in our hearts will keep us until the dawn of the second advent.  Just as God has redeemed our lives and corrected our theology, some of the traditions of Christmas which had pagan roots long ago are now symbols that point to the true God.

Categories: Biblical Studies, Christmas | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sacred Word, Broken Word by Kenton Sparks–Comments from a Former Fundamentalist

When I returned from the SBL annual meeting a few weeks ago, I told lots of folks about my experiences and about a few of the books that I purchased or had hoped to purchase in the near future. The one I began reading on the bus ride home was Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture by Kenton Sparks. I posted the picture of the book on my Facebook account, which led to a flurry of mostly negative comments. I don’t suppose most of the folks knew Sparks or anything about his book. They might have reacted to the title which calls the Bible both sacred and broken, and I’m sure Sparks’s quote from Bonhoeffer that I posted helped egg on the discussion:

“We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One” (Sparks, 1; Bonhoeffer, Reflections on the Bible)

A former fundamentalist, I understand the concern. People assume (as I did once) that any insinuation about the Bible’s brokenness is simply an attack on the Bible’s authority. Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me uneasy, but it is also one of the more wonderful and refreshing things I’ve heard about the Bible in a long time. The more I study the Bible through an academic and critical lens, I am less convinced by the traditional ways to reconcile Bible contradictions and difficulties. It is one reason I could no longer tow the fundamentalist party line. But old habits and theological positions die hard, and Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me nervous yet hopeful in my search for a different approach to Bible interpretation. But Sparks intrigued me with his first quote, so I eagerly dove into the rest of the 156 pages for the next week. I read it slowly, marking it up in several places with some !’s, some ?’s and a whole lot of circles, underlines and comments. Overall, I was enthusiastic about the message.

He began his book by affirming that the Bible is God’s word, the sword of the Spirit, and written by those who were moved by that Spirit (8-9). It contains God’s truth and elements of divine beauty. Yet it also contains some features that are very disturbing to modern readers–to Christians and non-Christians alike. It is pretty clear that one of the basic messages in the Bible is that the world was created by God and yet contains a great deal of pain and evil. Sparks touches on different theological approaches to the creation narrative and the effects of the Fall on the universe, probably to show the theological complexity of the issue. He also offered a very brief argument himself, but ultimately stated that no one can really prove conclusively that the Christian view of evil is correct (17-19). I agree, especially since the Bible itself offers several approaches to the problem of evil (compare the messages of Job and Ecclesiastes for example). Furthermore, Sparks observed that God expresses himself through creation even though it is fallen and warped (20-21; cf. Ps. 19:1-3). I had never considered this before; and so as I read I could feel my hope grow. The Bible can and does reflect a redemptive message through the pens of depraved authors.

Next Sparks devoted a few pages to Christology..which is a little weird until you see where he is going with it. The coming of Jesus is an example of how God seeks to communicate with mankind. God became incarnate, taking on the “likeness of sinful flesh” to redeem and communicate with those people who were condemned (Rom 8:3-4). Therefore, the fallen world is only redeemed when God interacts with it (27). But unlike the nature of Christ himself, the scriptures were written by sinful men whose works were adopted or sanctified for God’s uses. To claim the scriptures themselves were sinless all together, insinuates a kind of hypostatic relationship between God’s divine perfection and text or its authors. Since none of the human authors have a simultaneously divine and human nature, a perfectly written text seems unlikely. This was a difficult section for me, but I largely agree with Sparks and I think that it honors God more to separate him from the text in this way. An inerrantist view of Scripture seems to idolatrously elevate the Bible to a divine status.

After giving some samples of the “broken” elements in the Bible, including logical and theological inconsistencies along with moral difficulties such as genocide and slavery, we get to the heart of the book where Sparks makes his main arguments. The fact that some of the laws of the Old Testament codify actions that are morally troublesome these days, indicates that the Bible is not simply a divine yardstick to measure all morality for all people. In Sparks’s estimation, “biblical error became God’s wise accommodation to the intellectual and spiritual limitations of the human audience” (53). The idea that the text cannot have errors because it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) cannot stand since, “the Greek word itself does not really imply anything in particular about how the transaction between God and the human authors took place” (56). Strengthening his case, Sparks shows that other key theological figures have made similar remarks in Church history.

At this point, I’ve agreed with Sparks a great deal, though I feel some trepidation. When he states, “By virtue of its human form and character, Scripture is an adequate human voice that does not fare so well when judged by the yardstick of divine perfection” (61, emphasis his), I must wonder if there is a yardstick at all. What makes Scripture so special? Should we trust the Bible’s documents with the fate of our souls if it doesn’t fare so well against divine perfection? It’s here my hope begins to fade, giving way to despair. But Sparks doesn’t leave me entirely dead in the water. The Bible is not an end in itself. It is a divinely motivated witness to God’s work of redemption in the world through Christ (63). But this still doesn’t answer my questions.

The chapter on epistemology was foundational to the book and one of the most intriguing parts in my reading, probably because I’ve been exploring postmodern ideas on my own. It is important because the way a person determines truth has direct bearing on that person’s ethics. Sparks promotes what he calls “practical realism” (73), which is a tempered postmodernist view. He acknowledges the importance of empirical evidence in the pursuit of truth, but recognizes that personal experience, culture, and traditions carry a great deal of weight as well. Thus, church tradition and history inform and guide church theology and ethics.

With this in mind, Sparks then revisits some of the diversity of ideas and difficulties in the Scripture again. In anticipation of Christ’s imminent return, Paul stated that people should avoid marriage (1 Cor. 7), but Sparks states that these days one is better off looking to Genesis 2 when deciding to marry (115). Good advice, I think. Regarding slavery: “We should not try to argue that biblical laws which allowed Israel to buy foreign slaves (Lev 25:44) fit very nicely with biblical texts that call for justice, equality, freedom and love of neighbor. At a crucial point the two views are simply incommensurable” (105). These slavery texts may have more self-serving purposes for the human authors than divine mandate. And, of course, there’s the church’s old view of geocentrism they finally had to abandon based on new scientific evidence.

Okay! I get it! But how can I know if my reading of the Bible is correct? I’m a Reformed Protestant, so I cry “Sola Scriptura!“and have placed little emphasis on church tradition for my hermeneutics. But recently I have joined a church that does place a great deal of weight on church tradition; so his points resonate with me now. Sparks notes that more Protestants are like me are recognizing the importance of church traditions in Bible interpretation (125). And so my hope grows even more! (FYI: See also the emphasis on tradition in 2 Thesselonians 2:15 and 1 Corinthians 11:2) We also have confidence that the Spirit of God guides the church as she interprets the Bible. As mentioned earlier, we should also consider the natural world and scientific knowledge, since God also reveals himself in nature. Furthermore, Sparks argues that we should always consider our own experiences. He notes that he was taught as a child that Catholics could not be Christians, but working with several devout Catholics over the years has taught him that this is not the case. The church should take a similar approach when reading the Bible. Sparks also gives a list of guidelines and principles for validating one’s interpretation of the text. Part of it includes the mystery of God’s Spirit interacting with the church throughout history, and part of it recognizes one of the most obvious points of all the canon: God is on a mission to redeem the world.

If I could, I would thank Dr. Sparks personally for writing such a great book! It stretches the limits of my accepted doctrines and has given me the groundwork for an alternative to an inerrantist position. I had abandoned this position a few months ago, but Sparks’s writing has given me a nice blueprint for constructing a new hermeneutic. To me, the Bible remains authoritative even though it has clear evidence of human frailty behind it. Sparks affirmed my suspicions about the Scriptures, pointing out some difficulties I had never considered, and then gave me some guideposts with which I can chart a better hermeneutical method that still shows great reverence to Gods word. Now, I feel that I have stronger supports for my position.

Yet, I do have some criticisms and points of disagreements, but there is really only one matter I care to address. As a former fundamentalist, I was drilled with one doctrine above all: the Bible is inerrant. Without the Bible’s inerrancy, I had supposed with everyone else that all was lost. Without inerrancy, we can’t know God and his requirements. With an inerrant view, we can be certain who God is and what he requires. So when my friends saw the title “Sacred Word, Broken Word” and the Bonhoeffer quote, some felt two things: anger and despair. Anger because to question inerrancy is to question God himself, and despair because the recognition of errors in the Bible can feel like the foundation of one’s faith has been compromised. I’m a trained Biblical scholar, and I felt it even while reading Sacred Word, Broken Word; I can only imagine the layperson’s struggle through such a text. Sparks doesn’t seem to anticipate this tremendous emotional and existential struggle. Simply put, he is not pastoral anywhere in his approach. To be fair, he is a theologian and does a great job arguing his point. But this is a sensitive issue for some, and I didn’t see that he is aware of that.

The model I was taught as a fundamentalist is like that of so many: the Bible is my one foundation for truth. Sparks doesn’t replace that foundation with another, instead giving principles for good Bible interpretation via the church, tradition, experience, and nature. After reading Sparks’s book, there is no more singular foundation upon which a Christian can build his house (life). Thus, despair or anger for the fundamentalist reader. As one who has a so-called Calvinist perspective on the sovereignty of God, I find that this is a great replacement foundation to fill the fundamentalist void. The Spirit of God sovereignly moves through the church and through its members to eventually redeem us. We get it wrong sometimes, but through those errors, shortcomings, and even sins, God will be faithful to accomplish his purposes. A little emphasis on something like this would have been appreciated!

 

 

Categories: Biblical Studies, Calvinism, Existentialism, Postmodernism, Practical, Theology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Diet of Pasta and the Diet of Worms

Pasta again!

Pasta again! (Photo credit: HatM)

What better place to discuss a break from Rome than in an Italian restaurant?  I connected with a couple of fellas at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and later we went to dinner at a nice Italian restaurant in Chicago.  It was one of those great evenings of conversation that theologues savor.  I knew one of the guys already, and the other was a newer acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a while.  We talked about the so-called ‘quests for the historical Jesus‘ all down the sidewalk until we decided on where to eat.  After sitting down and placing our order, we talked about the weather, food, and drink.  Then, the three of us got into a rather aggressive theological debate about Luther’s break from the Roman Catholic Church.

Can you see the picture?  Three of the most un-Italian guys you can think of raising a ruckus about the Roman Catholic Church in an Italian restaurant.  The thought still makes me chuckle.

Anyway, the food was good and the conversation stimulating.  The question we addressed was this: Was it right for Luther to create a new ecclesiastical body separate from that of Rome?  Why divide the church again?  Of course, I thought this was a no-brainer, and one fellah agreed to a point.  Luther was excommunicated.  What else could he have done?  But the other gentleman disagreed.  His argument went something like this (my responses follow each):

(1) Luther was a nut. –I have no disagreement there.  Luther was probably one of the smartest and strangest dudes in church history.  Some of his actions were comical, others were just downright macabre.  But it takes an eccentric personality to make the bold history-changing moves he did.

(2) Why didn’t Luther use proper channels to seek reform? — I’m no church historian, but I thought he tried.  Furthermore, when you’re being excommunicated from the church, that pretty much stops your in-house efforts.

(3) If Luther sought to create a comparable church (a true church), then why did he make it look so very different from the Roman Catholic Church?  The protestant churches were different from Rome on virtually every level.–I think the coming of modernism and individual thought had something to do with that.  In Rome, you’d be struggling to change pre-established tradition.  The Protestants had a clean slate to start over with no traditions to stop them.  The decisions they made reflect Luther’s words at the Diet of Worms: the new doctrines were based on reason and Scripture instead of traditions.  Obviously, that would make the church look much different.

No one won our little Diet of Pasta that evening.  But it was a stimulating conversation nonetheless.

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SBL Annual Meeting 2012

SBL

For the past several years, I have attended the annual and some regional Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meetings where I have learned a lot and met several great scholars. I never had the chance to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), which usually met about the same time and in the same city as ETS–though not this year. Because of my new and recent theological investigations I decided to go to SBL this year. I am so very glad that I did!For those of you who don’t know the difference between ETS and SBL, here’s the deal. ETS is primarily faith-based while SBL is purpose based. ETS is for scholars who believe in two basic things (1) the inerrancy of the Bible and (2) a trinitarian view of God (a later stipulation that deals with any Mormons who want to get involved). SBL exists to encourage any scholarship of the Bible or any literature relating to it. Since it is not limited to a religious view, the scholarship is wonderfully broad which offers so many scholarly views of any given biblical topic or text. Pure gold to a biblical scholar.

SBL exhibits3

SBL exhibits3 (Photo credit: Joe Weaks)

Why go to a conference like this? There are several reasons. One obvious reason is to learn. From Friday through Tuesday morning scholars from all over the world present papers on new findings and new theories. Some people present papers just for the sake of presenting, some really want the feedback of the other participants so they can fine-tune their ideas, some people present ideas as precursors to published essays and books. On the downside, some papers promise a lot but really aren’t worth your time. Another benefit of the conference is the books . Numerous vendors sell their books and products at a huge discount. Additionally, you’ll meet editors at these booths with whom you can discuss publishing opportunities.

Another plus is networking and running into old friends. I met several old buddies and made many new connections while looking at books, eating meals, and traveling. It was over some pasta and a few drinks that I had one of the most aggressive and serious theological discussions I’ve had in years. Each of us made very strong points…and mine were the strongest . That was probably the greatest learning experience for me on the whole trip. It was so friggin’ awesome.

Giordano’s kickin’ pizza

That leads to another reason to go to SBL–the hosting cities. The meetings are always held at great locations:

San Francisco, Dallas, Atlanta, Baltimore, and this year it was Chicago. So during my down time I would go to some of the great r

estaurants and sights. Of course, one evening I strolled to Giordano’s to get a stuffed pizza and ate it nice and slow. Another plus is the fact that you’ll do so much walking in Chicago, it helps offset the fact that you just ate ten thousand calories.

I am so going to do SBL again. I’m hooked.

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Why I’m not Worshipping the Devil this Halloween

When I was younger, one of the first haunted houses I attended for Halloween was actually a part of my local Baptist church building in my small rural hometown.   It was pretty hokey.  One of the church members was dressed up like a ghoul and led us from room to room.  One room was nearly pitch black, but the walls were covered from top to bottom  with aluminum foil.  Some fellah dressed in a kind of foil suit was standing in the corner.  We could barely see him as he walked and tapped us on the shoulder, on the arm, on the top of the head.  I think I freaked more people out because I was wearing glow-in-the-dark make up on my face.  So there was an invisible fellah poking us, and my head was levitating in the middle of the room.  Freaky joy for all the kiddos there.   Another darkened room had a line of several bowls on a single table.  My group was told that the bowls contained various organs harvested from human bodies.  What bodies?  Who the heck knows?  But it was cool when we felt inside the bowls and imagined that the raw chicken, pig, and cow parts from the local Piggly Wiggly were human remains.  The rest of the rooms were also a mix of cool and lame–the stuff that makes great Halloween memories.

Now I do serious Christian theology stuff and so have nothing to do with that evil Halloween nonsense.

Whatever.  I love Halloween.  Does this somehow violate my relationship with Christ?  Nah.

I suppose as a guy who is devoted to Christ, the Church, and Christian theology, I should give you a long explanation of the roots of Halloween, how it came from an ancient pagan celebration called Samhain (pronounced sah-win) which involved sacrifices, and it’s likely some were human sacrifice.  I can also tell you about how the Catholic church took the momentum of that celebration and created All Saints Day, a day when we can think about the heroes of the church who have died.  And how unlike the other Christianized pagan celebrations (Easter and Christmas), All Saints Day never really took off in the community at large.  Halloween really isn’t seen as a Christian holiday by anyone.  But that doesn’t mean that Christians must avoid it like the plague.

Sadly, some people think that the holiday is nothing but the celebration of evil, the devil, and pagan mysticism.  Maybe it  used to be, but that’s not what it is these days–at least not in the places I’ve seen it celebrated.  It doesn’t matter what it used to be, what it is now is what matters.  Now it is a time when people watch scary movies, dress up in costumes, go door-to-door looking for candy, and carve faces in pumpkins.  Now Halloween is a time of seasonal fun.  I don’t know anyone who takes the pagan rituals of Halloween seriously.  I’m sure they are out there, but that’s not what Halloween represents to me or to the people of the community.

When I carve a face in a pumpkin, I have no intentions of scaring away evil spirits.  My faith in Christ does that.  When I give candy to the kids that come to my door, it is because I love making kids happy and not because I’m afraid they will put a supernatural curse on my house.  When I watch a scary movie with friends it’s not because I’m eager to glorify death and the devil; it’s because scary stories are thrilling and entertaining.

To be sure, some people go too far.  Participation in pagan religious ceremonies for fun enters into the realm of spiritual exercise.  If someone tries to engage the spiritual world through pagan religious practices, that definitely goes against basic Judeo-Christian principles and biblical mandates.  So I think that participating in a séance or using a Ouija board to communicate with the dead is out of line for the Christian.  If the Christian trusts Christ to meet all his spiritual needs and then pursues spiritual needs though different avenues, that is spiritual adultery.

But as for the pumpkins, the cartoonish pictures of ghosts and witches, and the trick-or-treating, I’m happy to participate in those things mainly because they are cultural and not religious phenomenon.  It’s the same reason I decorate eggs on Easter (originally a pagan practice) or decorate a tree at Christmas (another pagan practice).  These are cultural things that don’t violate my fidelity to Christ and the Church.

For the past several years I have told people my plans for Halloween in a tongue-in-cheek manner.  I tell them I have a long list of things to do.  Put up the decorations outside and inside the house.  Buy chocolate for trick-or-treaters (quality stuff, not that cheap stuff in black and orange wrappers). Go to Halloween parties.  Help out at my Church’s harvest celebrations.  And, of course, worship the Devil.  But even though I have good intentions of worshiping the Devil each Halloween, I never ever get around to it.  Since I obviously don’t consider it important, I won’t even add it to my list this year.

Of course, that was never on my list, but hopefully you’ll understand my point.

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Jesus’ Wife fragment judged a fake

Jesus’ Wife fragment judged a fake.

Whenever a scholar or archaeologist discovers some new manuscript or artifact that has direct bearing on Jesus of Nazareth or any other Bible character, it usually causes quite a stir in the media.  The loudest voices in the conversations are polar.  Some champion the new finds as yet another hole in Christianity’s supposedly impenetrable armor.  At the same time, many of my fellow Christians become either nervous or defensive.  What if this new find endangers Christianity?  What if it affects my faith?

The recent hubub has been around a fourth century (?) Coptic fragment that mentions Jesus’ wife.  It’s been an interesting discussion, but really doesn’t affect our faith or the Biblical canon one way or the other.  We already know about extra-biblical writings which say all kinds of things about Jesus.  But the canon is what we accept and believe.

Anyway, Daniel Wallace is an authority on the subject of New Testament textual criticism and has some great discussions about it that I recommend. This is the latest one.  Looks like the the Coptic fragment was judged a fake anyway.

…and Church life continues!

 

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My Little “Ah Ha” on Saturday Morning.

The word is very qarob to you…and so is this coffee.

I’m working my way through a very good book: The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer).  So, I’m learning a whole lot more about this postmodern business.  The essays are by some really smart people, and are on topics such as Anglo-American Postmodernity, Postliberal theology, Postmetaphysical theology, Deconstructive theology, Reconstructive theology, and Radical orthodoxy.  It covers more topics than you can shake a post at.  One of the great things about it is how it does not simply promote postmodern theology, but rather explores and critiques it, giving credit in some places and caution in others.

The essay I worked through this Saturday over a pastry and cup of joe was “Deconstructive Theology” by Graham Ward (a priest of the Church of England and professor of lots of philosophical and religious concepts that you and I would probably have a hard time understanding at the University of Manchester).  He gives a history of deconstructive theology and hermeneutic concluding with his own appraisal of such methods.  Discussing Jacques Derrida’s ideas, he notes that Derrida only became academically interested in theology when theologians began using his methods to interpret the scriptures.

Derrida’s approach to the text was nihilistic.  It seems he believed that any given text was a platform upon which a reader constructs meaning.  I think there is some truth in that, but I’m not entirely convinced.  I grew up interpreting the Bible a certain way.  I interpreted it the best way I could based on what I knew.  When I went to seminary, I learned a lot and so interpreted the Bible differently based on my new-found theological education.  I have more tools and knowledge of the text now.  Some bothersome questions arise now: Can God speak to me more clearly through the Bible now that I have a theological education?  If God uses the Bible to speak to me, can he speak to me better now that I’m “educated”?  Are my interpretations of his message more legitimate now than they were in the past?

And here is my “ah-ha!”  My engagement with the Bible is a divine interaction, and the Holy Spirit can and does use these readings to speak directly to me.  When I read the text, in a way, I construct the meaning of that text and I expect that the Holy Spirit is involved in that process.  It’s mysterious, and cannot be entirely measured or regulated.  My education may give me the tools and skill to have a more critical reading of the Bible, but not necessarily a more devotional and thus a more meaningful reading of the Bible.  I can now see the significance of Karl Barth’s approach to the Biblical text.  A Bible laying on a desk is the Word of God.  But an open Bible that I am reading to a church audience behaves differently.  In which instance is the Word “living and active”?–while it sits on the desk or while I actively engage it?   The Holy Spirit works in me while I read it.  I may not always get it “right,” but I have faith that it will affect me positively.

Now, I still believe there must be regulation in reading.  If the text is “God is Love” interpretations like  “My cat is red” would be delusional, illogical, or dishonest.  How does all of this work together–well…this is just an ‘ah ha!’ not a full exposition.

Categories: Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Better Approach to Postmodernists

So I left my readers hanging on my last post that showed folks how not to argue with a postmodernist.  Since then life got busy, so I’m later than I wanted to be (a month–sheesh!), but here you go. Let’s begin by remembering the way the postmodernist thinks.  Postmodernism is a mindset which considers the truth to be something constructed by each person based on their life experiences.  Someone born and raised in Asia will see life differently than one in America, or Brazil, or Africa.  This is a phenomenon we’ve noticed in the Christian church.  Christians of the same tradition, on the other side of the globe will have a different take on many different things religiously.  Different life experiences make people ask different questions about life.  Each individual is forced to come up with answers to those questions on his own.

The “authorities” on any subject are often eyed with suspicion.  Everyone knows that for every expert on a given topic, you can find another one with different or even opposite views.  Both of them will have great reasons for their positions.  Which one will you believe?  How will you determine which one is “right”? You’re not an expert in that field.  You’re not qualified to decide. You don’t have the smarts that they do. So what are you going to do?  Easy…you’re going to choose.  Your choice may not be “right,” and you may never be able to tell if it is with absolute certainty; but the choice you make gives you power and ownership over the situation.   You may choose to side with scholar A, scholar B, or not to side at all.  Whatever choice you make, your choice is completely yours.

Agent Smith and Neo. Neo is the one in the dress.

If you recall, this is one of the themes of the Matrix films.  The main character Neo tries to figure out what is going on in his life, asking some of the deepest questions one can.  Questions like “what is my purpose?” and “What is reality?” In the end of the last movie (the most disappointing of the trilogy, by the way), the arch-villain Agent Smith pummels poor Neo nearly to death.  Utterly broken, Neo stands to fight again.  A frustrated Agent Smith then starts a
lengthy tirade of questions, wanting to find the purpose and motivation behind Neo’s ambition:

Agent Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?

To Smith’s maniacal rant, Neo pants out a simple answer:

Neo: Because I choose to.

This is the triumphant answer of the postmodernist to life’s deepest questions.  There are many why’s and many systems of belief in the world.  Every one of them have logical reasons for their system.   Every one of them have logical inconsistencies as well.   Ultimately, people choose to believe what they believe.  This relates to my previous post where I mentioned that I won a debate with an acquaintance but apparently didn’t convince him of anything. He lost the debate, but I really didn’t convince him of anything.  In a way, I was Agent Smith, questioning all the logical problems of my opponent–but I didn’t win anything.  No, I wasn’t as nihilistic as Smith, but my badgering was the same.  So, what’s a Christian to do?

Here’s where the sovereignty of God comes into play.  If you’ll remember a secretive meeting between Jesus and one of the Pharisees in John 3, the Lord mentioned that the work of the Spirit–conversion–is as unpredictable as the wind (v. 8) [an obvious play on words since wind  and spirit are the same Greek word].  Luke tells us of a woman named Lydia who believed because God opened her heart, enabling her to respond (Acts 16:14).  Paul states that we believed because God made us spiritually alive (Eph. 2:5).  The point is, Christians tend to believe that a supernatural element is involved in all your conversations about Christ.  You may carry the message, but God will determine it’s efficacy.  Though important, apologetics and arguments go only so far, especially with a person who has a solid postmodern perspective.  Remember that the postmodernist sees your best argument as an attempt to control and manipulate others.  So when we talk to people about Christ and Church, you need to have a conversation and not a debatAlvin Plantinga after telling a joke ...e.

In the same way, I’m reminded of something Alvin Plantinga(John O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame) said in a podcast interview some years ago (Unbelievable? July 26, 2008, ~30:00-32:00).  When asked if philosophical arguments could be effectively used to persuade someone to become a Christian, Plantinga indicated that most people are not moved by such an approach.   Instead, people tend to believe in God for existential reasons–that is, life experiences and events which have direct bearing on their thinking.  So experience tends to be more meaningful to people than well-reasoned arguments.  Certainly, God himself interacts with the human heart on this level.  But God also interacts with people externally, and we are privileged to be a part of that process.  That brings us back to the main question of this post: what’s the best way to talk religion with a postmodernist?

It seems to me that a person is not argued into the Christian faith, but is instead wooed.  Certainly, logic and reason are a part of the process and you shouldn’t abandon your convictions.  But there are some things that we can do to communicate a little more clearly.

Disagree, don’t correct.  “Jesus is not the Son of God”  If you are a Christian, what’s your immediate response?  Naturally, you want to say “Oh yes he is!”  Your knee-jerk reaction is to correct something that you see as error–a very big error.  But the moment you try to correct someone in this way, they will likely see you as arrogant and even manipulative.  Think of the people that correct you in life; who are they?  They are usually authority figures such as teachers, parents, judges, etc.  When you move to correct a friend in conversation, you’re acting more like an authority figure than an equal.  A more welcoming response would be disagreement: “I think that Jesus really is the Son of God”  or “I have a different view on that.”  Even “I don’t think that’s accurate” works better, because you’re saying what you think.  Instead of trying to be the truth-police, talk about why you believe what you do.   Otherwise, you may come across like a teacher trying to grade their oral report on religious ideas.

Ask meaningful questions.  One of my most influential professors  at seminary was a man who knew how to ask great questions.  When the topics became particularly controversial he tried not to tell us what to think.  Instead, he asked us a series of important questions about the topic so we could probe deeply.  Each of our answers revealed something about how we all thought about theology, God, and ourselves…which led to some great discussion.  In that class we learned that theology is not a cold machine-like system of facts, but is much more organic.  It is an extension of ourselves, and is subject to growth and change over time.  The prof had at least three reasons for asking questions: (1) so he could evaluate our thinking, (2) so we could evaluate our own thinking, and (3) so he could get to know us a little better.  Essentially, he asked us questions because he cared for us and for what we thought (unlike  Agent Smith).  As we answered these questions out loud in class, we learned to value each other’s opinions and understand how we got to the ideas we had.  Theology was not simply about right and wrong; it valued human relationships and experiences.

No doubt, Christians believe in right and wrong, good and bad.  I’m not denying that.  But when you ask questions with a genuine interest in the other person’s views, you’ll find it helps you communicate better.  It will help develop the relationship.  It also shows that you value that person, even though you may not agree with their views.  This makes a much greater impact than a debate approach.

Find common ground.  People grow through community and conversation, but what do you do if you’re trying to have a conversation with someone who believes that all religion is worthless?  You need to find some issues on which you both agree.  People who give public speeches to foreign audiences do this all the time.  An American speaking to an audience in Germany might try to speak some German just to bridge the obvious gap.  I remember the UK Prime Minister and tremendous orator Tony Blair’s speech to the US Congress, where he mentioned the following:

“On our way down here, Senator Frist was kind enough to show me the fireplace where, in 1814, the British had burnt the Congress Library. I know this is, kind of, late, but sorry.”

Funny stuff!  And it helped to bridge gap between this British leader and the US Congress.  Such gestures show your good will and desire to have a friendship.

Likewise, there will be an obvious gap between you and someone with another religious view.  You may not be able to agree with someone’s religious ideas, but you can find something that you both agree on.  Finding common ground will give both of you confidence with each other.  And you do that by asking meaningful questions!  Take an interest in the other’s views even if you disagree.  You may be surprised how much you agree with each other after all.  That’s valuable to the postmodernist because it shows respect for the other person even though you may not agree with them.

The best argument you have is love.  It’s really a simple and powerful concept and one that Jesus stressed.  No argument speaks louder than a genuine concern for the well-being of others.  The Christian believes that the crescendo of everyone’s well-being comes through embracing the Gospel message…and that’s why  some folks want to present it so urgently…it’s why they are so quick to disagree with other religious views.  But that kind of urgency to present the Gospel looks very suspicious to the postmodernist.   He thinks you’re trying to con him, to trick him.  But if you show a genuine interest in his views, if you live out the Gospel daily in front of him, if you are there for him when he needs you, that makes the Gospel clearer than any philosopher or theologian’s approach.

Overall, how should you talk to a postmodernist about Christianity?  Take it easy.  Respect that other person’s views and interact with them.  Rest in the sovereignty of God.  Love first and speak the Gospel when God presents the opportunity.

Categories: Existentialism, Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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