The Bible: one reader’s perspective

Quote of the day:

There’s stuff that is just deeply weird and alien to us. At the same time, there are things which are utterly central to our own self-identity. And what’s remarkable is that we have both of those things at once in the book and that’s what makes it such a confusing and rich read.

David Plotz of Slate on bloggingheads.tv offers his assessment of the Good Book.

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A Burden Too Great (Amos 8:4-9)

I was in Peterborough this weekend, preaching at St. Andrews United Church — my parents’ congregation. St. Andrews is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. That’s a very long time, by Canadian standards:  stretching back to a time before Confederation (in 1867, when four of the provinces united to form a nation).

I don’t know whether anyone will be interested, but I decided to upload my sermon to the blog. I’m speaking on an environmental theme, grounding the message in a text from the prophet Amos.

The sermon is 25 minutes long, which is a rather long time for modern people to sit still and listen. But I’m not apologizing. I think it’s possible to hold people’s attention for that long, but a sermon has to be well crafted for it to work — no meandering.

The first voice you’ll hear is my father, reading a few verses from the Gospel of John. I’ve broken the recording into three segments. The middle section is longer than the other two.

Intro:

 
The land trembles:

 
Moral cause and effect:

The Problem of Headship part 1: The Beginning

…spawned from a series of comments on a previous post of mine, this post is the second in a larger debate going on between my father and I. The first was entitled “Where the women aren’t”, in which my father argued that it is possible to derive from scripture an understanding that women are equally suited to leadership and teaching roles. In this post, the first of my responses, I seek to discuss the relevancy of my more Complementarian understanding of gender roles in today’s age…

What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the word “leadership?” How about “leader?” I can’t speak for the world, but as a fairly young adult, the images that are conjured in my mind automatically are ones of great political figures, many grounded in relatively recent history. Hitler is a perfect example of our society’s image of a “great leader.” Videos and pictures of him, standing in front of a crowd, stirring up uncomparable fervour with a wave of his hand, or a single sentence, or even merely exiting his vehicle, all remind us of something very, very relevant to the discussion of leadership: Power. Hitler’s sense of command is one of the most powerful instances of leadership to ever blow through this world, and although his term in command was relatively short compared to others (such as his more paranoid counterpart, Stalin), his flame burned so brightly that he, above any other, is the figure that defines 20th century politics — for better or worse.

Of course, when we’re debating Biblical leadership, such images are left behind, and sometimes more of a distraction than an aide. The Bible — particularly the latter Testament — is more concerned with leadership on a daily basis than large-scale political decisions. The two most talked about forms of leadership in the New Testament are that within the household, and that within the Church. To mistake these for the leadership of a fascist country is to confuse an egg with a dinosaur, and, if the latter image is retained when discussing the first, one can come up with some very frightening propositions. But then, it’s probably self-explanatory that we don’t want to mistake a husband for Hitler.

However, the Hitlerian image brings up, as I said, the idea of power. This idea is very important for the sake of my discussion on headship, both of the household and the Church. I want Hitler to be kept in mind for the duration of this conversation, so that we can adequately compare today’s image of leadership with a Biblical one, and perhaps work out some sort of understanding of where Paul, Peter, and many others were coming from when they advocated the headship of the men — as in the gender, not the race — within the two aforementioned structures.

But first, let us swing back to a time long before Peter, Paul, Luke, or any of the other apostles. Let’s shift back an indefinite amount of time to come to a period which is viewed only through the mist of time. A mist which makes sense, really, since it’s also the beginning of time about which we will be talking:

Creation.

Yes. The dreaded word itself: Creation. One of the most hotly contested episodes in the Bible, which has been the source of much ado throughout most spheres of American life, from politics, to education, right through the household. Why is Creation important? Simply, because it tells us about the fundamental nature of the universe. Creation — that is, the source time from which all things on Earth spewed forth — necessarily affects our view of how the world around us operates, as well as the world within us.

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Pastor Hagee and Israel

This post is primarily for Random, with whom I’ve had a back-and-forth on this topic.

In my view, Pastor John Hagee’s theology is anti-Israel. Random responded with puzzlement, pointing out (accurately) that Pastor Hagee has significant support among Jews.

Before I turn my attention to Pastor Hagee specifically, here’s a bit of background.

The relationship between evangelical Christians and Jews is conflicted. Evangelical Christians (especially the subgroup which emphasizes end-times doctrines) are huge supporters of the state of Israel. They provide a large amount of both political and financial support.

On the other hand, evangelical Christians generally think Jews are unsaved unless and until they convert to Christ. Some expect the Jews to convert en masse at the time of Christ’s return.

There is also some history of arguing that the Jews brought their historical difficulties on themselves by rejecting the Messiah when he appeared to them. Indeed, the New Testament itself places most of the blame for Christ’s crucifixion on the Jewish leaders.1

The New Testament depicts the Roman destruction of Jerusalem as the immediate consequence of Israel’s rejection of Christ.

This political / financial / theological stew generates considerable ambivalence toward evangelical Christians among Jews, whether they reside in the USA or in Israel.

As for Pastor Hagee:  Ben Smith offered a brief exposé this week. The bottom line is, Pastor Hagee fits precisely within the scenario I have outlined:

When Sen. John McCain was forced to distance himself from Pastor John Hagee earlier this year, he denounced the pastor’s attacks on Catholicism. But asked why he wouldn’t “repudiate” Hagee’s endorsement of him, McCain found something to praise.

“I’m grateful for his commitment to the support of the state of Israel, and I’m very grateful for many of his commitments around the world, including to the independence and freedom of the state of Israel,” he told CNN’s Campbell Brown on April 29.

Hagee’s commitment to Israel, however, is itself controversial:  It’s rooted in the belief that the Jewish state will be the site — soon — of Armageddon.

Hagee, who leads the Evangelical group Christians United for Israel, is a proponent of U.S. aid and support for Israel, and he is a major ally of Israeli conservatives who reject any “land for peace” formula in dealing with the Palestinians. But Hagee is viewed with distrust by some Jews and Israelis because his brand of Christian Zionism closely links support for Israel to the end of the world and the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. …

Using geographical calculations based on the Book of Revelation, he writes that Israel will be covered in “a sea of human blood” in the final battle.

The Jews, however, will survive the battle, Hagee says, long enough to have “the opportunity to receive Messiah, who is a rabbi known to the world as Jesus of Nazareth.”

Hence my assertion that Pastor Hagee is, at bottom, no friend of Israel. And Jews know it, however much they may appreciate the political support of Hagee and his constituents. Smith quotes Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism:

“Christian Zionists, and especially Christians United for Israel, do not offer unconditional support for the Jewish state. They offer support for a particular religious vision, particular Israeli leaders, and particular political factions, all of which reflect their own prophecy-driven view of the Middle East,” Yoffie said in an April speech, calling Hagee and his group “extremists.”

Yoffie thinks that Hagee “is not the kind of friend that Israel needs,” a spokesman, Donald Cohen-Cutler, said yesterday.

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1The obvious alternative to the New Testament account is that the Romans were solely responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. Jews could not lawfully execute anyone. And it is significant that Jesus was crucified alongside insurrectionists — not “robbers”, the conventional interpretation — with the (mocking) label “King of the Jews” posted above his head. The implication is, the Romans decided to crucify Jesus because they feared that he, too, was an insurrectionist. His popular following could have led to a revolt against Roman rule, as happened with other messianic claimants in that era.

Christian faith and the politics of war

In 2007, I have been greatly preoccupied by Christian faith, the politics of war, and — above all — torture. I first started hammering away at the issue here, in March.

The Bush Administration, and the Republican Party in general, appeals to the Christian right to support its aggressive militarism, its use of torture, and its refusal to recognize the human and legal rights of detainees in the “war on terror”. The Bush Administration has thereby made its policies a matter of urgent concern for the Church:  arguably the issue for the Church in the present historical era.

An argument in support of American militarism

It is fitting, as 2007 draws to a close, that I have been debating the topic with John Hobbins at Ancient Hebrew Poetry. John laid out an argument, from a Christian perspective, for going to war. He supports not merely war in general, but preemptive war in specific.

Preventive wars and pre-emptive strikes are typical military strategies. It is ludicrous to suggest that proactive military action is by definition bad whereas reactive military action may be justifiable. There are plenty of reasons for questioning the wisdom of the US-led intervention in Iraq. By itself, its proactive nature is not one of them.

Much of the violence in Samuel-Kings and Chronicles is pre-emptive in nature. You smash them before they can smash you. The anger of the prophet Elisha on his deathbed says it all (2 Kings 13:14-19).

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A glimpse of Christmas yet to come

Isaiah 11:1-10, English Standard Version; except the middle section is my paraphrase.

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There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
   and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. …

With righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. …

            The sexual predator will be completely rehabilitated,
               she who once cowered will look him straight in the eye,
            Violence against women and children will be a distant memory;
               powerful men will use as little force as that of a small child.

            Palestinians and Israelis will break bread together,
               their children will intermarry to the great joy of their families;
               he who planted landmines will sow grain instead.

            The nursing child will not ingest chemicals with her mother’s milk,
               nor will the schoolyard be overrun by drug dealers.
            Multinational corporations no longer will ravage
               and degrade mother earth;

for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.

In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples
   — of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
lion with lamb

A generational shift in evangelicalism

This is a follow-up to a post from a couple of weeks ago.

Last week, Scot McKnight spoke at a convention which brought together three scholarly societies:  the Evangelical Theological Society, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Academy of Religion.

For those who don’t know, McKnight is a professor, the author of 20 books, and a blogger. He is solidly evangelical in his convictions. Nonetheless, he has embraced emerging Christianity, perhaps with some reservations about its postmodern orientation.

I was surprised to see that the meeting of academics included on its agenda a forum on the Emergent Church. And I’m grateful that Andy Rowell recorded the sessions he attended, including the Emergent Church Forum.

Here is a ten-minute excerpt. McKnight begins by telling a story about a blue parakeet (i.e., emerging Christians) stirring up the sparrows (i.e., evangelical / orthodox Christians) in his backyard. And then he identifies six uncomfortable questions that emerging Christians are asking.

You can listen to the audio, or read my summary (verbatim at some points, a free paraphrase at other points) below.

McKnight on emerging Christianity

  1. What kind of truth can be found in scripture?
    Emerging Christians are beginning to ask questions about scripture that an older generation thought it had answered. The questions include, Just how human is this book? and Is it possible that the story of Jonah and the whale is just a myth? Emerging Christians hear that there might have been three Isaiahs, and they aren’t too bothered about it — it isn’t even interesting to them.
     

  2. Questions about science:
    My students put it like this: If evolution isn’t true, I would like to ask God why he made a world that looks so much like evolution. This is a generation that isn’t even attracted to questions about proving that Genesis 1-11 is a historical record. They don’t care about creation science. They believe in evolution, and that’s just the way it is.
     

  3. Questions about Christians and how they behave:
    Emerging Christians grew up with the scandals of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker and the priests, and they just don’t trust institutional leaders. Behind closed doors, church leaders do things that are despicable. Emerging Christians ask this question:  If Paul says that those who are in Christ are a new creation, why are there so many old creatures in the Church?
     

  4. Questions about hell:
    I’ve had students say to me, Scott, my evangelical pastor tells me that people who haven’t heard the gospel are going to hell. Is he really telling me that everybody in North Korea who never has a chance to hear the gospel is going to hell? Well, I just can’t believe that’s true.
     

  5. A moral critique:
    I’ve had students say to me, Why is Jephtha in the Bible? And why is he valorized and heroized in Hebrews 11? That is a serious question. It’s easier to talk about how many Isaiahs there are than it is to answer that question.
     

  6. Questions about social location:
    Emerging Christians are aware that what we are interested in comes out of the world in which we live. There are other people in other parts of the world who don’t care about our questions.

    Social location matters to everything we talk about, the language we use to discuss it, the way we shape theology, the way we respond to the gospel, etc.

    Emerging Christians don’t just admit that, they delight in it. They’re not seeking a universal theology. They’re willing to live with a theology for the midwest, or the east coast.

I have a few comments of my own. First, none of the questions that McKnight points to are particularly new (except perhaps the last one, which brings us into the realm of postmodernism). What is new is the degree to which the traditional answers — answers which satisfied a previous generation of evangelicals — are now regarded with suspicion. As McKnight puts it at one point in his presentation,

This is not a question that evangelicals and orthodox Christians can simply give a traditional answer and get by with it anymore.

Second, the refusal to settle for easy answers may be related to McKnight’s third point, the distrust of institutional leaders. The traditional answers were never intellectually satisfying. They were accepted largely on the say-so of the priest or the Doctor of Theology, who was regarded as a trustworthy authority. Given the new cynicism about church leaders, emerging Christians aren’t taking things on authority; they’re waiting for an argument that they deem reasonable.

Third, I think emerging Christians within evangelicalism look particularly shocking in the US context. In Canada, you will find extremely few Christians, evangelical or otherwise, who insist that the earth was created in seven 24-hour days. Evolution is perhaps somewhat more controversial, but I think most Canadian believers accept, at the very least, that theistic evolution is a legitimate position.

Finally, the six “questions” of McKnight’s presentation do not touch on all the elements of emerging Christianity. McKnight knows that:  he has given a very different summary of the movement in a Christianity Today article.

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