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10 Minutes on Jesus

Jesus was unique in human history. Here are 4 splits that help us frame that conversation:Jesus icon

  • Christ/Jesus
  • Divine/Human
  • Eternal/Time
  • Type/Degree

The video below is my 10 minute take on Christology.

I am in the final week of my study break – so let me know your thoughts, concerns or questions and we can tackle them next week!

10 Min on Jesus from Bo Sanders on Vimeo.

Jesus was unique in human history. Here are 4 splits that help frame our understanding: Christ/ Jesus, Divine/ Human, Eternal/ Time, Type/ Degree

Liberal & Conservative Christians Must Be Born Again

I was in the pulpit this last Sunday at Westwood UMC and I chose to preach on John 3. It was the first time I have ever engaged that text outside of an evangelical environment.

You can take a listen here [link]. It works to stream it, download it, or get it on Itunes.

I began by addressing an awkward pairing:
– On the one hand, the phrase ‘born again’ has fallen into disrepute and disuse among many believers.
– On the other hand, Jesus is pretty clear that we ‘must be born again’.

Two other aspects that I attempt to overcome with this approach are:

A) We too often read both John 3:3 and 3:16 through a lens of individualism.
B) We have been taught to think of ‘eternal life’ as life after you die.

In order to correct these severely limited and limiting readings, I look at 5 key words/concepts.

  • Kingdom
  • Flesh
  • Eternal Life
  • Salvation
  • Repent

I hope you will listen to the sermon. For those of you who are not initiated into this (in)novative approach … here is a quick overview.

Jesus never talked about the “Kingdom” of God [I’ve written on this before]. That is an English translation and as such is up for debate. I think that there are at least 4 better translations for ‘Basileia tou Theou’ (Strong’s #932).

  1. Kin-dom of God. We are in the family, Abba adoption, etc.
  2. Reign/Rule of God. Still governmental but with the Caesar baggage.
  3. Commonwealth of God. Also governmental imagery but not so top-down and coercive.
  4. The way things should be/the best that they can be. At minimum, this is what we are after.

You will hear all of these explained in the sermon. I do the same for ‘flesh’ (Sarx in Greek), Eternal Life (life of the ages/God’s best life), and salvation/repent.

In the end, what you end up with is this invitation:

We will not see the Basileia that we long for and expect
Until we turn from the way we have been doing things (repent)
Realizing that God loves the world and gave us live through his son
So that we are now children of God
As we participate in God’s plan (the way things should be/the best they can be)
We live the life of the ages and welcome in the reign of God for the common-wealth

This gives us a confidence that things can be different from the way they are now and don’t have to be this way!

If you do take the time to listen to sermon (and I hope you will), I would love to hear your thoughts-concerns-question.

I am glad that I attempted an engagement with John 3 in a different way than I ever had before. It was also significant (as you will hear) that events of South Carolina this week were heavy on everyone’s hearts.

Christianity Isn’t Conservative: incarnation

The incarnation is my favorite part of Christianity. When we say ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’ we say something unique and particular about who we believe God to be.

The divine became human – that which was beyond came near – the unknowable made itself known to us – the transcendent fused the imminent horizon – the eternal entered time … however one frames it, we make bold claims when we talk about what happened in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

From there it gets steep! Folks start talking about the cosmic Christ and the 2nd person of the Trinity and the eternal nature of the Godhead. Those are all great but they are also lofty and can be abstract. Incarnation is the opposite: it is down to earth and fleshly.

Incarnation may seem like an odd thing to talk about during Easter week, but one can never escape the fact that the reason we think something significant happened on the cross and in the empty tomb is because of what we think happened in the person and work of Jesus.cross-150x150

The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus are four of the acts in the great drama that Christians are called up into.

The life of Jesus – including works and teachings – is one that called the entire system of political and religious power into question. His parables undermined and interrogated the assumed order of things as well as the inherited understanding of how the world worked.

This inversion of assumed structures and subversion of “the powers that be” characterized not only his life and death … but the very notion of an incarnation.

Christianity is undeniably incarnational. The Romans tacked lots of people up on crosses – anyone they perceived as being subversive to the order and stability of the empire. Jesus was crucified for sedition, as were many others every week of every year. The reason that we think something significant happened on that cross is because we believe that God was present and revealed in some unique way in the person and work of Jesus.

John Cobb has said that Jesus embodied God’s presence in a unique way in history – a way that constituted Jesus’ very being and allowed him to say things like “I and the Father are one”.

If, therefore, this is what sets Jesus apart and makes that cross different from all of the other crosses – then we who follow the way of Jesus can not be satisfied to simply receive what was done on our behalf and then continue to participate in the system as it is and continue to reinforce the structures as we have inherited them.

We must ask the questions:

“Who is getting conned?” and “What is being served?”

There is a built–in romanticism to Christianity when it comes to the notion of the ‘early church’. There is a perpetual longing to return to some romantic ideal that we see re-presented in the Acts of the Apostles.

Returning to the past is trap for two reasons:

1) As books like  The Churches the Apostles Left Behind have shown, the early church was as plural and diverse as one could possibly imagine. There is no such thing as THE early church. That is a romantic construction that serves as a kind of Eden image we are to be haunted by and perpetually longing to return to.

2) Even if it did exist, it would be impossible for us to return to it. We simply cannot get back to that romantic ideal or edenic notion. Time travel is impossible and too much has happened for a return to be possible.

Which is fine! Because Christianity is incarnational and our calling is to embody the spirit of God in our time and in our place as those early believers did in their time and place.

The church’s calling is not simply to repeat what those in the early centuries did – but to speak to and live in our culture the reality that they attempted to do in theirs!

You can hear more about this on the FreeStyle Christianity interview 

Incarnation is why the impulse to preserve or conserve some former notion of culture is not Christian. Christians are not called to conserve some antique expression or ancient manifestation. Christians are to in-carnate (embody) the life of God by following the way of Jesus in their ‘here and now’.

In fact, I would take it one step further.

To follow the way of Jesus is to call into question and interrogate the very assumptions about the way things are and to subvert the inherited systems and structures that keep people from living the abundant life or the ‘life of the ages’ (eternal life).

One way that we would do this is to ask those two earlier questions:

Who is getting conned?
What is being served?

Given the chance, I would respond that those who have been sold a romanticized notion of the past – a past that we can never return to even if it was as good as remembered – are being conned.

It is somewhere between fantasy and fiction to long for a return to a time that is embedded in structures of patriarchy, sexism and injustice. Jesus would construct stories (parables) that captivated people and caused them to question the assumed order of things and to undermine their  inherited notions of the way that world works.

The bigger question might be “what is being served?”

Christians are not supposed to get hung up on issues of flesh and blood but instead to combat the principalities and powers that reside in high places. It is a tragedy that so much of contemporary Christianity is consumed with culture wars obsessed with issues of flesh and blood … all the while neglecting the larger structures of power and control.

We think that we have really done something when we buy a Jesus-themed T-shirt at Walmart – or put a NoTW sticker on our SUV. We have purchased (within capitalism) and display (within consumerism) our branding that sets us apart (identity) and all the while ignore that we are participating in a larger system that doesn’t care if the $10 dollar shirt we bought has Jesus, Che, Bob Marley, Mother Theresa or Satan on it. The important thing is that we bought the shirt and reinforced the system as it is without asking who made that shirt or how in the world it only costs $10.

We say lofty things about Jesus. Jesus’ teachings were done in a way that undermined the established order and called into question the way things were.

The calling of the Christian is not to con/serve some former notion of a romanticized past – but to incarnate the life of God by the spirit of Christ in her time and in her place.

_____________

Yesterday I talked about the problem of the past and tomorrow will be part 3 of this series.

The Problem With The Future Is Its Past: Theology

Part 1 of a 3 part series I’m doing this week on Homebrewed

The Future Of Christian Theology was purchased with great anticipation. I had read David Ford before and appreciated his innovative and insightful perspective.

Gordon Kaufman’s Theology For A Nuclear Age has probably been the most influential book I have read outside my reading for school. Most of my reading for school is in Practical Theology, Post-Colonial Studies and Critical Race Theory. I am a big fan of going forward so The Future of Christian Theology was an exciting proposition.

Ford does an amazing job. In raising up the 20th century as the most prolific and creative era of Christian Theology he is masterful at articulating the diversity and accounting for the plurality in communities represented. I love his emphasis on Pentecostal, Liberation, Feminist, and Post-Modern approaches. He does a wonderful job addressing global-regional diversity as well as the full denominational spectrum.

Yet when it comes time to highlight the legends of the 20th century, in order to avoid perpetually reinventing the wheel, he picks the following six legendary theologians to lift up:

  • Karl Barth
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Paul Tillich
  • Karl Rahner
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar
  • Henri de Lubac

Lists can be fun – they can also be telling.

Around here we might want to supplement the list with John Cobb, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jurgen Moltmann or the Niebuhr brothers. Students at my former seminary might want to add Stanley Grenz. All of these have written prolifically and systematically.

Those who wanted to branch out from Systematic Theology might add voices like James Cone or Gustavo Gutierrez. Somewhere else you might get Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. Even in my master thesis on ‘contextual theology’ I utilized Robert Schreiter and Stephen Bevans.[1]

The trend is clear and problematic. That men do theology is not the problem – if only men are seen as doing theology, it is a problem. This stems from the habit of calling some theologies ‘particular’ or classifying them as “theology +” (race, gender, sexuality, etc.). We have inherited a long history that loves to compartmentalize, categorize and then control who is qualified (and who is not). MP9004065481-196x300

This situation results in classifying Feminist theologians in exactly that way: with a modifier. The result is that you have plain theology and particular theology, generic theology and specific theology, regular theology and something-other-than- regular theology.

The works of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Johnson, Sallie McFague, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Bonnie Miller-McLemore get qualified within a sub-discipline.

The future of theology has got to be better than its past in this way.

I have 3 suggestions for moving past theology’s past.

 1 – Get rid of the category – and very notion of – ‘particular theology’. It is all particular theology. There is no universal or timeless theology. All theology is contextual theology. It all comes from a time and place and utilizes the constructs of its era. The fact that we have not recognized this truth in the past is part of the problem.

2 – Or add modifiers to every theology. Pannenberg wasn’t just doing theology – he was doing German, 20th century, white male theology. You can see, however, that this might become a cumbersome and laborious way to proceed … which brings me to my third point.

3- Christian theology is not Identity Politics – it comes from and represents a community. Every time we adopt and adapt another way of doing things we compromise the central Christian reality that there is no ‘us/them’ – there is no ‘they’, it is all ‘we’. Christian theology is born out of and can only be done in community. Inherited notions of the ‘individual’ or the ‘autonomous self’ are both false and hurtful and need to be left behind as we move forward.

Yes, every author and thinker must be socially located, but while any specific author can be classified by their race/gender/class or geography … the future of theology is not about the social location of any particular voice but the community that formed them and in-forms their contribution to the greater whole.

When listening to podcast with Grace Ji-Sun Kim (coming out Thursday), it is not enough to say that she is doing Korean-American, Feminist, Liberationist Theology … she is doing Theology. She is a part of the Christian community and her work is the future of theology – as is mine – because she and I are part of the same global Christian community. Her work and my work are related in Christ.

I might employ methods from my field of Practical Theology but that doesn’t mean that Grace’s work is not practical.

This is how language both helps and hinders us. Her work and mine might come from different perspectives and be in-formed by different experiences – and it is all theology.

The future of theology is not to be found in individual voices but in collaborations and connections that form community.

The way that we have talked about theology and particular theologies in the past is going to be a problem in the future.

If Randy Woodley wants to locate himself and his work as Native American Contextual Theology because it brings some corrective to the past oversight and omission – that is wonderful. It becomes an important and illuminating distinction. It is not, however, merely a particular theology : it is theology.

Bring out the modifiers! Biblical, Historic, Systematic, Philosophical, and Practical are the Big 5 historically. Fine! Just as long as we are clear that no one is doing ‘plain old regular theology’.

In fact, Randy’s work is the future of theology. We are all socially located and contextually particular, which is why there is no ‘plain’ theology and ‘particular’ theology.

It is all particular theology in the same way that it is all theology.

The mistake of the past was thinking that there was ‘regular’ and ‘specific’. In reality, it is all specific. Which means that we are all ‘us’ and we are all contributing to the future of theology – together.

The trick is not to say ‘we have one of these theologies and one of these types of theologians represented’ – the change is to say that ‘in all of these we have theology’. Without ‘these’ we have something less than theology.

_______________

[1] One sees the problem even in the critics of theology when theologian Paul Ricouer talks about the ‘masters of suspicion’ in Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – a list that I would expand to include Feuerbach, Wittgenstein and Foucault.

Born Of A Virgin? It happened a lot back then

I posted this 2 years ago and thought it might be fun to revisit. 

As Christians we confess that Jesus was born to a virgin.  Some people doubt the accuracy of that – but they may not realize that it was not that uncommon back then.

Here are just 10 people born of a virgin in the ancient world: 

  • Buddha
  • Krishna – born without a sexual union, by “mental transmission” from the mind of Vasudeva into the womb of Devaki, his mother.
  • Odysseus
  • Romulus
  • Dionysus*
  • Heracles – Son of a god (Zeus)
  • Glycon – son of the God Apollo
  • Zoroaster/Zarathustra
  • Attis of Phrygia
  • Horus

One theory is that when somebody who led a deeply impactful life died, those who wrote about them later would attempt to say something special about them. One of the ways that they could do that was to say something extraordinary about their birth. It was a way of that there was something significant, even about they way that they were conceived.

Sometimes it was that they were born to people that were really old (past the age of child-bearing age).

Think of Issac born to Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament or John the Baptist born to Zechariah and Elizabeth in the New (Advent).

Now, If somebody wanted to take the origin of their hero up a notch, they could say that there was no human dad … it was a god!  (like Zeus)

This is why some think that Jesus’ autobiographers took it up even one more notch! Not only did a God not have sex with women … there was NO sex at all!

 Now some say “yeah, lots of people were said to be born of a virgin … but Jesus actually was.”

This is where the problem starts. As best as I can discern, there basically three ways to approach the problem: physics, meta-physics or linguistics. 

Physics:

Some people take an approach that is so certain that even science itself would be proved wrong. This usually comes up around issue like the Shroud of Turin (the cloth Jesus was buried in). I once heard a very confident person say that if we did DNA test on the blood on the shroud it would show that Jesus was fully human with 46 pairs of chromosomes – only instead of 23 from the female mother and 23 from the male father – Jesus would have 46 human ones from Mary.

I find this problematic for the same reason that I do not believe in the super-natural. It concedes the rules of the games to science (reductive naturalism) then tries to fill in the gaps with God.  That is a losing game-plan if ever I heard one.

Meta-Physics: 

Other people try to get around the whole reductive scientific debate by saying “Look, if God could make the world in 6 days out of nothing, then what is to make a virgin pregnant?  God does whatever God wants to do and who are we to question that?”

I am not a big fan of this approach either. It seems to say that revelation doesn’t have to report to reason and that God can not be evaluated on any reasonable standard conceived of by humans.

It seems just a short leap to say that God can elect who God wants for salvation God can pick favorites if that is what ‘He‘ wants to do.

It seems to retreat into the silo of ecclesiastic isolation and unaccountability. I think we have to look a little deeper ask some bigger questions.

 Linguistics:

This is an interesting approach that some in the post-liberal camp or comparable schools of thoughts might take.

The basic line is that it’s not the physics or meta-physics of the virgin birth that matters, its the way that it impacts us as people and forms us as a community. The importance of the language found in the gospels has to do with how it functions for us as a community and tradition.

Some folks don’t like this linguistic approach because it seems like theologically ‘thin soup’ to them. They look at the formulations that are quantified in the early creeds and they make definite and literal assumptions about what is behind them.

I am however nervous that all of this controversy is simply because we don’t know how to read a gospel. It’s like when we get sucked into debates about talking snakes in the garden of Eden or trying to prove scientifically how a man like Jonah could stay alive in the belly of a whale for 3 days and not be eaten by the stomach acid (or something).

It would be the equivalent of people 1,000 years from now arguing that we actually thought there was a place called Mudville and that a man named Casey was literally up to to bat.  It is because we don’t know how to read the genre of literature.

Jesus was born of a virgin – we confess that by faith, it is affirmed in our ancient creeds and it functions in our community to form us as people.    

* I even found one internet source that claims Dionysus was born of a virgin on December 25 and, as the Holy Child, was placed in a manger. He was a traveling teacher who performed miracles. He “rode in a triumphal procession on an ass.” He was a sacred king killed and eaten in an eucharistic ritual for fecundity and purification. Dionysus rose from the dead on March 25. He was the God of the Vine, and turned water into wine. He was called “King of Kings” and “God of Gods.” He was considered the “Only Begotten Son,” Savior,” “Redeemer,” “Sin Bearer,” Anointed One,” and the “Alpha and Omega.” He was identified with the Ram or Lamb. His sacrificial title of “Dendrites” or “Young Man of the Tree” intimates he was hung on a tree or crucified.

Wrapping Up Advent – as far as the curse is found

This has been the most interesting Advent I have ever participated in.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Between the High Gravity class following the lectionary texts and the Loft LA delving deep into the season, I have learned and experienced a lot of things that are heavy on my mind as we head into the final week of Advent.

Far As The Curse Is Found

The hymn ‘Joy To The World‘ has some amazing lines in it:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Far as the curse is found is one of the most poignant lines in any hymn ever. Think about it … Romans 5 is about the same theme:

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Unfortunately, many have been taught to read the Bible in a way that makes Adam way more powerful than Jesus. Ouch.

Far as the curse is found means that God is interested in redeeming the whole damned thing. 

There is no other way to say it.

In fact, this past weekend we tackled the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel and I was struck again with how shocking and scandalous Jesus’ family tree is. It’s not just the unorthodox inclusion of those with dubious reputations and questionable qualifications – and that’s not even including that women! It is the fact that God is involved in the whole damned thing.

It all belongs. God is active in redeeming the whole thing.

It’s not just that Jesus leaves behind his family tree or simply overcomes his heritage to become an exalted figure … he is both the outcome of God’s activity IN his family and the result OF his heritage.

Speaking of which: here is an amazing rendition of Jesus’ genealogy sung to the tune of R.E.M.’s ‘its the end of the world as we know it’ by Brad Hooks

Genealogy of Jesus (and I feel fine) from Bo Sanders on Vimeo.

Lyrics:

That’s great it starts with the birthday
Of the very first man, yeah his name was Adam
Skip a couple thousand years, there was a dude
Who was looking for the Promise Land,

call him Father Abraham, Abraham had a kid, Isaac had a kid
Judah had a kid, Perez he did too
No I’m not talking Perez Hilton
But the one who had a son named Hezron

Ram, Amminadab, Nashon, Salmon,
Boaz, Obed, Jesse, David, right, right
Don’t forget Solomon, He was a wise man,
Who had a son named Rehoboam

Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joram
Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, more then
That brings us to Hezekiah, Hezekiah
Manasseh, Amon, Josiah

Here is the good news and the bad: 

Good – God is interested in redeeming your family tree, heritage, history and the entire road that has led up to this point in your story!

Bad – God loves them too … the things you regret, the people you would distant yourself from, the choices you would change …. the whole damn thing.

There is no ‘us/them’. It is a facade – an illusion. We are all us. We are all in this together. The slave is our brother – we are all God’s family.

  • The good and the bad.
  • The oppressed and the privileged.
  • The sacred and the secular.
  • The holy and the profane.

The hard truth is that our apparent divisions are but an illusion. God is in the process of redeeming the whole damned thing.

Christianity Without a Cross?

On last week’s TNT I introduced a thought experiment: take the cross out of the Jesus story and see what you can still do.cross-150x150

This thought experiment appeals to me for two reasons:

  1. Modern Protestants have overdone it on the cross.
  2. The incarnation and resurrection hold far more interest and power.

I have started to get some great responses to my assertion that one could still come up with over 90% of Christianity without the cross.

I thought it would be good to give it more form here and open it up for conversation.

Keep in mind what I’m saying and what I am not saying:

  • Just because Jesus’ story went the way it did doesn’t mean that it had to go that way.
  • Just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean that they have to stay this way.
  • Jesus’ resurrection could have followed any death – not just the cross.
  • The incarnation is where the old formulation of divine/human or transcendent/imminent are breached or fused.
  • The Christianity that we have was formed in the aftermath of the cross and resurrection … that is not evidence of the cross’ necessity.
  • Had Jesus died some other way, he still would have died once for all.
  • The satisfaction, propitiation, expiation and reconciliation that so many focus on in atonement theories are still there without the cross.
  • The Christianity that would have emerged would have been slightly different but still largely the same.
  • Jesus’ jewishness, the incarnation, resurrection and Pentecost are the 4 things that still anchor the Christian church.
  • The cross really doesn’t play that important of a role – not like the previous 4 – it’s main purpose is decoration on our buildings, necklaces and t-shirts.

Those are some of my thoughts about the variable of the cross.

My final point is not included in the same manner as those above, but to be honest: once the Roman Empire co-opted christianity (the Constantinian Compromise) the cross has mostly been a hood-ornament on the machine of empire. Except for a few places on the periphery and during a few periods of severe oppression and domination … the powerful church has been better, as Tripp says, at building crosses than bearing them.

This point does not prove the thought-experiment, so I don’t want it to distract the conversation, but in the end … I’m not sure how much the cross really does for us.

This is one of the many reasons that I promote being an Incarnational Christian. That is where the power is – incarnation and resurrection!

  • Jesus could have died of sudden-infant-death-syndrome or of old age and still died once for all.
  • Jesus could have been stabbed or beaten to death and it is still the resurrection where God vindicates the victim.

I would go as far as to say what the cross was meant to expose – the scapegoating and victimization mechanism – is still firmly in place and actually still employed by those who sing ‘The wonderful cross’ and ‘on a hill far away’ on Sundays.

There ya go! I have tried to make a case with this thought experiment – I would love your feedback, concerns, and questions!

Let’s have some fun with this.

Y is for Y2K (apocalypse)

In December 1999 I got a call from a newspaper reporter. They were calling pastors and religious leaders in our city to see what they were telling their people about Y2K. Y-Y2K

When the article came out I was the only pastor who was telling their people not to worry and that the real fear was people panicking and doing stuff like pulling all of their money out of the banks.
This was especially odd because I was part of a denomination that majored on eschatology and was very end-times focused.
I had multiple friends in that group who made major purchases (like extra freezers) in preparation. One close friend went in with another family and bought a trailer full of food and supplies and had it parked in a remote location … but then they had to worry about guns in order to protect the trailer in case of societal breakdown.

The alarm and drastic measures are telling. There is something about the way that we have been taught to read the Bible that makes us especially susceptible to panic. By calling the Bible ‘the word of god’ and not distinguishing genres we end up creating a tight little system of end-times expectation that repeatedly fails us.

I became a bible-believing christian during the cold-war era. Communist Russia was our biggest threat and christian books and TV shows were filled with very specific projections about how current events lined up with biblical prophecy.
On the latest TNT I told Tripp that we were taught to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other – because they lined up!

Not understanding that apocalyptic literature in the Bible is a critique of the present order and a hope of future deliverance makes us vulnerable to panic.

We are taught that apocalyptic elements in the Bible are predictive instead of prophetic critique and this is creating the problem that leaves us so susceptible.

In my short lifetime I have seen so many predictions come and go. I have seen layers and layers of moving onto the next thing a passage means without even acknowledging that 6 months ago we were told it was something different.
There is a sort of amnesia required to stick with this way of reading the Bible for more than a couple of years.

I have seen more than 40 antichrists come and go. Everyone from foreign leaders to Popes to Presidents have been said to be the Antichrist.
This exposes a second problem with eschatological expectation.
Every time I hear the phrase ‘the Antichrist’ I know I am in trouble. The person has not done a close reading of the Bible.
If you read the 4 passages in the New Testament in which this phrase appears you will be left asking why we think that a world leader is this character. The answer is that in eschatological readings there is a great deal of amalgamation.

Amalgamation happens when you take a character like ‘antichrist’ and blend it with an Old Testament character like ‘the prince’ from Daniel 9 or a the bad-guy from Revelation 13. You take all of the villains in all of apocalyptic literature and meld them into one super-baddy.

I just had a talk this weekend with a denomination leader about how end-times expectations have changed in their lifetime. We talked about young leaders and how different their eschatology is from 50 years ago.

My hope is that in the next 3 decades that sincere people of faith get fatigued on this unfulfilling way to read the Bible and this next generation is released and empowered with an understanding of genre that does not leave them susceptible and vulnerable to panic over sensations like y2k and franchises like Left Behind.

The world is in too great a need for really great people to be distracted by thinking that apocalyptic is A) predictive and B) about the 21st century.

Link: previous post about the book of Revelation

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

 

X is for X-ray (technology)

Something a little different today. 

100 years ago was the beginning of what became known as World War I. X-Xray
I am fascinated by the changes that have come in that 100 year period.

The transition from the 19th to the 20th century houses a fascinating and rapid shift in both politics and technology (to name just two fields).

The build up to World War I is a study in what seems like not just a different time but wholly different world at points. Like learning the geography of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or the kingdoms and families in The Game of Thrones, the world before the great war seems alien.
You have to get up to speed on such things as the Habsburg Dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Eschatology is an interesting entry point to this conversation. At the beginning of the 20th century, Post-Millenial views were the overwhelming position for protestant churches and denominations. The optimistic view of human progress and societal transformation brought an expectation of ushering in the Kingdom of God and a reign of peace and prosperity that would fill the whole earth. The horrors of the war brought that to an end. There was no ‘war to end all wars’ and by the end of the 20th century (the Christian Century) Post-Milleninial views were as a rare as telegraphs.

The beginning of the 20th century also saw seismic shifts in technology. The telephone, the airplane, vaccines and the radio mark the the era. The Xray illustrates the point as well as any other from this era.

The ability to see into the human body is remarkable. It transforms not just how we practice medicine but how we conceptualize the human body.
I read a passage a while ago, which I can now not find, where an author wondered how the apostle Paul’s writing would have changed if he had been able to take a trans-Atlantic flight or if he had seen that famous picture of the earth as a little blue marble as seen from the moon.

Which brings us to the question at hand as we begin to wrap up this series:

If technology and medicine, communication and psychology, economics and politics – and every other field – get to (and are encouraged to) advance, evolve, adapt and transform … why is religion so bound to the thinking of the pre-moderns and the ancients?

There is something peculiar about religious thought that needs to be examined. I understand those who want to conserve the tradition – I don’t agree but I understand the conservative impulse.
I prefer an approach that is incarnational and contextual. I see christianity as embodied (in-body) in a time and a place. All theology is contextual theology (as folks like Bevans and Schreiter say) and our faith must be re-callibrated, re-formed and re-membered within our cultural context.
Faith, like language, does not happen in a vacuum. It is (in)hereted. There is a given-ness to it. But faith is also in-acted and em-bodied.

This is a delicate dance to both honor the tradition and express in our time and place the truth of what was passed on to us.

The 1500’s had both Copernicus and William Harvey. The former told us that the earth revolved around the sun, the latter that the heart was responsible for blood circulation. In science the telescope and the microscope changed everything.

We live in the nuclear age. The Xray, the nuclear bomb and the microwave are just the tip of the iceberg. I have not even touched on TV, cell-phones, no-fault divorces, Christian-Mingle websites and credit-card giving machines in the pews.

Why, when every area of our lives from medicine to politics to economics to psychology is updating and evolving … why would religion insist on holding to the cosmology, metaphysics and epistemology of the pre-modern world?

When we get sick, even conservative/traditional folks will take an aspirin and get an x-ray.
The Christian faith, based on the story of incarnation, is designed to be embodied in a time and place. To hamper this process of adaptation and adjustment is to not only miss the point of the entire story but to worship an idolized moment in the development of its trajectory.

I would love to address the formerly enchanted world (without supernaturalism)  and the concept of second naiveté – but here is what I really want to leave you with:

The gospel is designed to be (in)carnate and (em)bodied. We have no fear of losing the gospel’s essential character by appropriating it to our time and our place. We live in a world come of age. It is time for a response to nuclear theology.

 Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

W is for the Word of God (and the Wesleyan Quad)

There is no phrase that is more misused, or more contentious, than The Word of God. We might need to take a vacation from throwing the phrase around as a tight summary until we pull it apart and clarify its multiple uses. W-WordofGod

The Word of God, when used properly, carries three layers of meaning:

  1. Divine Communication. The prophets used the phrase in the Hebrew Testament to convey weight and authority. They had a message for the people of God that could be encouragement, directive, corrective, or illuminating.
  2. Logos – divine wisdom. New Testament believers are treated to a syncretistic twist when the Gospel of John prologue draws off the greek notion of logos and then shockingly says what no greek thinker could fathom saying: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”.
  3. Revelatory elements in the scriptures. When the Spirit who inspired the original works illuminates the message again for a contemporary audience, it is said to be ‘the word of God’. (Thanks be to God)

For clarity I will now refer to the first and third meanings as ‘the word of the Lord’ and the second as the ‘Logos made flesh’.

The pitfall that some fall into is that they take this last sense (revelatory elements within scripture) and attempt to make it concrete (or foundational). Doing so is to erroneously confuse the messenger and message, the vessel with the element, the sign for the object.

Calling the Bible the Word of God is as inaccurate as it is accurate. It is not exactly true … but it is true enough that it is tempting. The problem is that it confused the ‘curves ahead’ road sign on the mountain road for the road up the mountain. It is not that they are unrelated – it is that they are not equivalent. The map may be accurate, and trustworthy for the journey, but it is not the landscape itself.

Knowing the map well is not the same as going on the journey.

This is the important difference between a sign and symbol.

  • A sign points to a greater reality … even if it does so imperfectly. The yellow and black ‘curves ahead’ sign on the mountain road is not telling you the exact sequence of twists and turns ahead. It is not map. It is alerting you to something bigger than itself.
  • A symbol, when used theologically, is a sign that participate in the reality that it points to. In this sense, the Bible contains the potential for the word of the Lord, it records instances of the word of the Lord, and it tells us about the Logos made flesh. The Bible is thus not unrelated to the Word of God but is not exactly equivalent either. It records and points to a greater reality (like a sign) and under the influence of Holy Spirit inspiration participates in that reality to which it points (symbol).

One can see the problem in legal court and in Sunday school. It is ironic to place one’s hand on a Bible and swear ‘to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God’. The irony, for those who have actually read the Bible, is that it says in two New Testament passages not to do such things. We are not to swear by things but to simply let our yes be ‘yes’ and our no, ‘no’. That should be enough. We don’t need to swear by heaven or earth or anything like God. It is an odd practice.
Similarly we see things like this in the songs we learn as children:

The B-I-B-L-E,
that’s the books for me,
I stand alone on the Word of God

The Bible is not a book. It is a collection of 66 books by different authors in different centuries representing different histories, perspectives and opinions utilizing diverse genres of writing. This is part of why you can not say ‘the Bible says’.
When we say that ‘the word of God is living and active’ or that ‘all scripture is God breathed and useful’ we are right … but we must avoid the temptation of too quickly boiling those three into down into one interchangeable phrase lest we miss the awesome power and invitation provided by the interplay between them.

Now, if we mean that because of what we learn in the Bible, we hear the word of the Lord and believe in the Logos made flesh … that would be fantastic. ?If, however, we mean that the Bible is equivalent to the Word of God, then we have set our children up to be confounded, frustrated and spiritually impotent.
We have given them a road sign and told them it was the adventure. ?The word of the Lord propels us on a journey! To walk the way of the Logos made flesh, to know the truth of that which was in the beginning – with God and was God – and to live the life of the ages (eternal life).
To paraphrase a famous line – we are like children making mud-pies out of dirt in the back alley while there are real pies waiting in the kitchen.

Part of the problem is that we have try to cram too much into the phrase ‘the word of God’ and asked more from it than can be expected from any sign or symbol.
The most helpful thing I have found to address this problem is called the Wesleyan Quad. The quadrilateral is composed of 4 elements:

  1. Scripture
  2. Tradition
  3. Experience
  4. Reason

Those 4 elements also work best in that sequence.
– We go to scripture first for it records examples of the word of the Lord and points us to the Logos made flesh.
-We next consult the tradition, for religion has a given-ness to it. We inherent a living tradition and participate in its practices, rituals, ceremonies, train of the thought and teaching.
– We also recognize that importance of our community-experiences. No one is spiritual or religious on their own like no one uses language alone. We learn a language from others and use a language to communicate with others. It is not enough to know of a religion – one participates and thus experiences. We learn from and incorporate our community-experiences.
– Finally comes reason. We are made in the image of God and that divine Logos (reason) was given to us to exercise responsibly. We are not called to be robots who mechanically parrot the inherited sentences in rote repetition. There is a deep need to think about things so that our tradition does not become a dead artifact, or worse, a false idol.

The danger of what has been called ‘Bibliolotry’ is not simply that it makes the Bible ‘a paper pope’ or ‘the 4th member of the trinity’ (as bad as those seem). The danger is in missing the way, the truth, and the life that is available to us by instead settling for a road-sign instead of an adventure.

 

I would love to hear your thoughts about my distinction between the Word of God as the word of the Lord, the Logos made flesh and the Bible. 

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

For more read my earlier posts about Inspiration and about Revelation.

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