Why Leap Day is Special to Me

On Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2004, I went to go see The Passion of the Christ. I didn’t go because I cared that much about a movie about Jesus. I didn’t go because that’s what church people did. At this time I didn’t go to church and hadn’t for a long time.

I had become friends with a guy in my geometry class. He invited me to go see this because Crosspointe Baptist in Millington, TN was taking teenagers by the busload to go see it. I agreed because it was a chance to hang out with a new friend. Didn’t expect much of anything to happen that was of any significance.

This was back when Peabody Place in downtown Memphis was still open and home to the best movie theater in the region. So there I was in Peabody Place’s jumbo screen theater, watching a movie about Jesus.

I don’t remember what I knew going into it, but I know it didn’t include having the names of all the characters down or being familiar with the finer details of how the story was going to play out. I didn’t read the Bible then.

And then the movie was over. And when it was over, I was a different person. I hadn’t felt that way before and I haven’t felt that way since. I had known something about how Jesus died for humanity and was raised, but I hadn’t ever truly reckoned with the reality of this. Somehow, this film left me feeling like I had been kicked in the stomach because it somehow had shown me that what happened to this utterly perfect and loving man was because of me. I had never considered it before, I guess, but we are totally messed up as a human race.

If you’ve seen the movie, or if you know the story, it has a happy ending. Jesus doesn’t stay dead. He doesn’t remain defeated. But I didn’t feel the ending. I was stuck, fixated on what happened before that and why.

I’ll never forget the bus ride home. I felt like the veil had been lifted, and what was revealed was ugly. Other kids in the bus (those who had been going to church) acted like not much had happened, or not much had changed, and all I could do was sit in silence and try to make sense of what I was feeling and thinking. I felt frustration because I had thought that every single person that watches the movie would have the same exact same experience I had. Why wouldn’t they? But it didn’t take long for me to realize that the world was keeping on the same way, when I had changed.

The next couple days I had a loss of appetite. Trouble sleeping. I couldn’t shake it. I remember at one point sitting down at the computer and rapidly typing out without any organization or paragraph breaks the feelings and thoughts I had as a result of watching the movie. Just a page of thoughts. I passed that out to people when they asked how the movie was. I didn’t know what else to say or what to do.

But there was something unresolved. Maybe I didn’t even know that until the next Sunday morning, when I went to the church that took the teenagers to see the movie because my friend invited me, and I thought it’d be a good thing to do, in light of everything.

I don’t remember the sermon, or who I met that day. I remember two things: what I wore (for some reason), and going forward when the pastor, Steven Flockhart, said I could give my life to Christ and invited me to do so. So that’s what I did. Thinking that it was just the resolution to the problem of how I was feeling, I guess I felt that now that I had that  settled things could now get back to normal.

Little did I know. That day I signed on to my entire life being changed. These years have been the hardest and most challenging of my life, but they have by far been the most victorious and enjoyable at the same time. I love life now. I delight in wonder, I engage my intellect, I appreciate the cool spring breezes like I never had before. I now live with the hope of a loving God bringing all of creation to a renewed and redeemed end. It’s all different, and I sincerely don’t know how I lived any other way. It’s been an amazing journey so far.

That Sunday after I saw the movie was February 29, 2004. So today marks the second time that I have been able to recognize the calendar anniversary when I began to live as a person who, while I continually fail to live up to it faithfully, nonetheless surrenders to the reality of Jesus as the Lord of my life.

And it wasn’t just the movie. The movie was just the way that I got the message, which was all the more appropriate because at the time I had hopes of going into filmmaking. Films were for all practical purposes the god of my life, and if I wasn’t going to sit down and take the biblical witness itself into serious account, God was fine replacing the god of my life with himself by using it to reveal himself.



“Bible” means “books”

Ta biblia. This is the way the early Greek-speaking church referred to what we call the Bible. Translated, it is “the books.” 

ImageThe fact that the Bible is really a collection of books instead of a single book has been obscured since the early days of the church. This is complicated further by the fact that in regards to biblical times we are dealing with a world of scrolls. One scroll could only hold one lengthy book of the Bible (or not even that). Nowadays we have the codex form, which is a bunch of pages stuck together on a spine, pretty standard for the way we do things, but for centuries biblical books were divided up among separate scrolls. 

So when we pick up our bound copies of the Old and New Testaments these days we are not as inclined to view the good Book as an anthology. But that is probably a reasonable way to approach the Scriptures.

Fred B. Craddock, Bandy Distinguished Professor of Preaching and New Testament, Emeritus, at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, agrees in his book Preaching that the Bible really is an anthology. And the danger of an anthology, as a collection of works by different authors, is that each author’s distinct message, styles, and thoughts tend to be blurred as the reader flips through the pages (116).

Now already we may have a problem. I am well-aware that for many Christians there is no distinct message or style according to each book of the Bible. Indeed, for many Christians the Bible is for all practical purposes not an anthology. For them it is absolutely and only a single book, with a single clear message on every topic, and if you dare talk about differences among the Gospels, for instance, or within the letters or between the books of Samuel and Kings and the Chronicler’s account–then you are misrepresenting the Bible.

However, Craddock points out the truth. Scripture actually does offer “many perspectives” on such topics as “suffering, poverty, eternal life, obedience to civil government, prayer, miracles, or the meaning of Jesus’ death” (117). We don’t respect the Bible by denying its polyvalence and diversity; we in fact do the opposite when we squeeze it into a wholly unified and monolithic mold.

And Craddock believes that the Bible should be taught while respecting it in this way. He asserts, one should no more ask “What does the Bible say?” than one would ask “What does the anthology say?” Maybe this a bit hyperbolic on Craddock’s part, but his point is fair. Much of the time a lesson from the Bible on a given topic consists of a bunch of references assembled without regard for their different contexts, i.e., ignoring the fact that we are dealing with different authors addressing different situations. While he acknowledges that “a general unity does characterize the whole canon,” he says that “the tallying of Scripture references in support of a point hardly qualifies as biblical preaching, nor does it honor the integrity of each writer and the ways in which the community of faith has argued with itself over matters of crucial importance” (116).  

So how does teaching the Bible’s diverse witness go over with the people? Craddock believes that this will not lead to puzzlement; on the contrary, it “will quicken and enrich faith rather than confuse and checkmate at every point” (117). Sounds good to me.

In a book on preaching, of course, Craddock’s main concern is with the pulpit. What does this look like, then?

“In concrete terms, then, the preacher will respect and seek to share with understanding the fact that Ezra-Nehemiah look differently upon foreigners; that the chronicler and the author of Samuel and Kings have their own assessments of David; that Paul’s call to faith and James’ exhortation to works are not addressed to each other or to the same congregation, but to persons needing different corrections to their life-styles. The preacher will permit John to display the many signs Jesus performed as revelations of God without pressing Mark to change his mind about the demand for signs as the quest of an evil and non-trusting generation. The preacher will listen to both Mark and John tell their stories of Jesus healing the blind without getting into the pulpit the next Sunday and telling them as one story. The preacher will celebrate all the visions and miracles with which Luke fills his two volumes, and yet appreciate Paul’s caution about the whole business, and his inability even to speak of his one ecstatic experience of the third heaven. Nor will the preacher who respects the theological integrity of each writer overstaff the Christmas sermon with all of Luke’s poor shepherds plus Matthew’s rich Wise Men from the East. After all, there will be another Sunday and another sermon” (117).

Augustine and the Jews, chapter 1

I introduced the discussion of Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism by Paula Fredriksen here.

Part I: The Legacy of Alexander, Chapter 1: Gods and their Humans

“The roots of Christianity run deep in Judaism. And the roots of anti-Judaism run deep in Christianity.” Thus begins Fredriksen’s introduction to the first part of her book. To flesh out in fullness the relationship of Augustine to these two facts, Fredriksen provides the scope to her book as she begins her first chapter: “Understanding the traditions of Christian anti-Judaism, in order to see how Augustine’s ideas on Jews and Judaism ultimately challenged them, begins with an understanding of the world in the wake of Alexander the Great” (1).

But first, back to Augustine. Contrary to popular belief, Fredriksen notes that Augustine’s father was Christian, though not baptized until the end of his life. Usually it is said that Augustine’s father was a pagan. His mother was a “fervent believer” (3).

With a father who was pagan or not, Augustine definitely grew up in a thoroughly pagan world in North Africa in the middle of the 4th century. Fredriksen highlights how he would’ve learned much about classical gods such as Juno, Zeus, and Athena in his formal education.

Turns out, the nature of this pagan education is quite pertinent to the matter at hand: “How did Augustine learn to read and to think with pagan literature, and how did this education ultimately affect his reading of the Bible and this his interpretation of Judaism?” (3)

This question is answered by looking at the world that gave rise to this form of education, i.e., the world of Alexander the Great (3).

Nearly seven centuries before Augustine, Alexander conquered a vast stretch of the eastern world. The international culture he instilled alongside his reign is known as Hellenism, a system of Greek thought, language, religion/politics, etc: “the West’s first great experience of globalization” (4).

It is this very system that gave rise to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament which the New Testament writers most often quote and allude to, and apart from which it would be hard to imagine how Christianity could have gotten off the ground as a largely Gentile (i.e., Greek-speaking) movement.

Hellenism brought many different types of people together, and different peoples had their different gods. These gods were therefore brought together into closer and more common contact (5-6).

Fredriksen describes the ancient world populated by two populations: gods and humans. These gods lived in heaven much of the time, yes, but they also lived on the earth, localizing around holy sites whether natural or manmade. A primary manmade example being a temple. A god dwells in his temple, and Fredriksen directs us to Matthew 23:21 as a handy Jewish example of this view (6).

In or around this holy site of the god’s presence would that god meet with his people, and often they would “eat” together. Satisfying the god in proper cultic piety, the worshiper would bring an animal, cereals, wine, etc. before the god.

But this was not the only way gods were located within a certain sphere; they were also located among their peoples. In other words, a person would receive a certain god by being born in a certain family. “In antiquity, gods ran in the blood” (7).

In talking about all this ancient stuff, Fredriksen notes her hesitance to refer to it as “religion.” She uses that word in scare quotes because of the way that the typical reader of her book, the modern Westerner, would understand it. For our culture, Fredriksen writes, “religion is a detachable aspect of individual identity. Largely personal or private, modern religion seems first of all a question of beliefs. And beliefs themselves often relate to individual psychological states, the sincerity of commitment or conviction or inner disposition of the believer” (7).

She continues: “In the ancient Mediterranean, by contrast, the closest social analogue to our concept of religion would be cult, those protocols and practices whereby humans enacted their respect for and devotion to the deity, thereby securing heaven’s good will. Cult focused on deeds. It was communal” (7).

Probably without even meaning to, Fredriksen has brought up an important lesson for contemporary Christians in the Western world. Many of us think of religion as being made up those things that we believe in our privacy, or worse, those things that we may somehow believe but don’t affect to any respectable degree what we do out in the world. Now, modern religion (most of the time) has no cultic aspect to it–I don’t think people are out there sacrificing animals. But, I think that we mistake religion, and most importantly for me and my context, Christianity, as being private. Personal yes, but private, no. Religion has historically not been something that you do by yourself. It is not just belief, it is deed. It is not just private, it is communal.

This communal aspect doesn’t just reflect how gods would be worshiped publicly, which they would’ve been, but also how, as she says, “gods ran in the blood.” Gods were then ethnic, just as their respective peoples were ethnic. Entire cities, then, whose citizens were descendants of a certain god could benefit in their relationships with other cities from “invoking newly discovered bonds through ancient divine-human relationship” (9).

Fredriksen contrasts this idea of being offspring of gods that was common among pagans with the Jewish God, who in no way coupled with humans. Still, “He had children nonetheless.” Those called children of the Jewish God are those who are intimate with him in a completely non-sexual relationship. Still, the Jewish God ran in the blood. So much so that his people composed an entire race known as the Jews (9-10).

In this ancient world, therefore, just as all sorts of different people ran into each other at different times, so did their gods. However, don’t make the mistake of seeing the nature of their interaction as “tolerance,” Fredriksen warns. It’s not mere tolerance; it’s pluralism. Related to this point is a vital one for moderns to face if they are to understand the religious world of antiquity: “the existence or nonexistence of the gods of outsiders … was not at issue. Ancient peoples generally assumed that various gods existed, just as their humans did” (10).

If I remember right, it was Larry Hurtado (a Christian New Testament scholar at Edinburgh) said at a SBL conference session on monotheism I attended that ancients knew when gods existed if there people sacrificing to them. Not only does this underline the basic importance of the cultic aspect of ancient religion that Fredriksen highlights, it also shows that existence of gods in antiquity was generally assumed.

Now this is not now modern Westerners are accustomed to thinking about the issue of the existence of gods, and it rightfully comes as a shock to those who realize for the first time the distance that is in place between ourselves and the ancients in this regard. More shock comes when we see it in the Bible.

“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?” praises Moses in Exodus 15:11. God commands “You shall have no other gods before me,” in Exodus 20:3. Fredriksen cites these texts and others like them such as Micah 4:5 as evidence that Israel accepted the existence of other gods. This came to them as part of their culture. It’s simply the way people thought back then. Though Fredriksen believes this belief persists well into the New Testament period and can be seen even in the writings of Paul, I discern a transition period where Israel began to believe that other gods weren’t just lower than YHWH their God–they didn’t even exist. I differ with her on this point but I have no problem granting that the ancient Israelites believed that other gods existed. I think God speaks with us in light of our situations, be they historical or cultural or religious. His revelation is unveiled progressively, and so I don’t see any reason why we should reject the idea that God would grant for the sake of argument, as it were, that other gods existed in order to tell his people that they shouldn’t worship them. Whether it was existing gods or non-existing gods or tree fungus–Israel was to worship YHWH their God who brought them out of Egypt and him alone.

So back to the idea of pluralism. This was the nature of ancient religion. And ancient civilization reflects such a religious idea. Whereas moderns tend to think of cities as areas of big secular space, it was exactly the opposite in antiquity. Ancient Mediterranean cities were, Fredriksen notes, “religious institutions” (13). Displays of religious devotion–remember, this means sacrifice–were public and demonstrated one’s responsibility to one’s city. Happy gods = prosperous cities. If there was horrific drought, or disastrous floods, this meant the gods were not happy and were therefore not being treated properly by the citizens (14).

Another aspect to this civil-religious-public-cult thing of the ancient world, is the cult of the ruler which was introduced by Alexander and perfected by Rome in its emperor cult. The Roman emperors were seen as heaven’s special divine agents on earth. When they died, they were translated to heaven (in antiquity not everyone went to heaven after death) where they continued to serve the empire (14). The cultic treatment they received helped to bind together not only the citizens of the empire but heaven and earth as well (15).

 Next chapter: “Gods and the One God.”

Salvation is like a Baseball Bat

Here’s Richard Bauckham being onto something yet again in his book on Revelation (The Theology of the Book of Revelation. New Testament Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Commenting on the new revelation of the scroll which only the Lamb is worthy to open (5:1-9) Bauckham writes:

“The content of the scroll is not that faithful Christians are to suffer martyrdom or that their martyrdom will be their victory: these things are already clear in 6:9-11; 7:9-14.”

Indeed, Bauckham points out that rather:

“The new revelation is that their faithful witness and death is to be instrumental in the conversion of the nations of the world. Their victory is not simply their own salvation from a world doomed to judgment, as might appear from chapter 7, but the salvation of the nations.”

Ahh. In case you need further clarification, Bauckham continues:

“God’s kingdom is to come not simply by saving an elect people who acknowledge his rule from a rebellious world over which his kingdom prevails merely by extinguishing the rebels.”

(How often is this the way the story is told?) Bauckham provides the appropriate, (i.e., biblical) alternative:

“It is to come as the sacrificial witness of the elect people who already acknowledge God’s rule brings the rebellious nations also to acknowledge his rule. The people of God have been redeemed from all the nations (5:9; emphasis from Bauckham) in order to bear prophetic witness to all the nations (11:3-13; his emphasis again)” (84).

In you, yes. God wishes to save you because he wants to work his love and grace and mercy in you. But a coin has two sides–God wishes to save you because he wants to work his love and grace and mercy through you as well.

Many of us have the habit of not articulating this other side of the coin so well when we’re talking about what it means to be a Christian. We emphasize the matter of personal salvation, which is important, as a resolution to a legitimate problem and a satisfaction of an urgent need, but we don’t emphasize strongly enough (or mention at all) that this is about signing on board to be the way God in turn saves the entire world. 

Facing this problem head on, another brilliant British New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, in his Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009), makes this comparison:

“The theological equivalent of supposing that the sun goes round the earth is the belief that the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation” (23; emphasis Wright’s).

In other words, believing “that the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation” is self-centered, naive, short-sighted, and .. wrong.

Wright says on the next page:

“God is rescuing [saving(!)] us from the shipwreck of the world, not so that we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so that we can be part of his plan to remake the world” (24).

Here’s an illustration of this point that Wright provides in another book, my single favorite book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the MIssion of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008):

“To suppose that we are saved, as it were, for our own private benefit, for the restoration of our own relationship with God (vital though that is!), and for our eventual homecoming and peace in heaven (misleading though that is!) is like a boy being given a baseball bat as a present and insisting that since it belongs to him, he must always and only play with it in Imageprivate. But of course you can only do what you’re meant to do with a baseball bat when you’re playing with other people. And salvation only does what it’s meant to do when those who have been saved, are being saved, and will one day fully be saved realize that they are saved not as souls but as wholes and not for themselves alone but what for God now longs to do through them” (199-200).

That’ll preach.

Resurrection kata Richard Bauckham

Sometimes scholars are so good they’re worth just quoting and letting that be it. It certainly makes my job easier.Image

The following is from Richard Bauckham’s excellent little book The Theology of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament Theology series published by Cambridge University Press

“The understanding of God as Creator was not only integral to Jewish and Christian monotheism; it was also essential to the development of Jewish and Christian eschatology.

If God was the transcendent source of all things, he could also be the source of quite new possibilities for his creation in the future. Creation is not confined for ever to its own immanent possibilities. It is open to the fresh creative possibilities of its Creator. 

This is how the hope of resurrection was possible. 

The Jewish hope of resurrection was not based on belief in the inherent capacity of human nature to survive death (although some kind of survival was often assumed). It was fundamentally a form of trust in God the Creator, who, as he gave the life that ends in death, can also give life back to the dead. 

More than that, he can give new life–eschatologically new life raised forever beyond the threat of death. Whereas mortal life, cut off from its source, ends in death, God can give new life which is so united to his own eternal life that it can share his own eternity” (48-9).

For Us, not To Us

I’m in the process of finally doing some deep personal study of Revelation (I’ve been putting this off for some reason) and so I was reading that portion of Luke Timothy Johnson’s intro The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Third ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010). One good thing about scholars is that not only can they teach you things you don’t know but they can also help you say things you would like to say.

Johnson says this:

“The conviction that God’s Word speaks directly to every age has not been accompanied by the appreciation that it does so as mediated through its initial historical expression. The contemporary significance of any NT writing does not derive from the fact that it was written expressly for our age but from the conviction that a truth spoken to the first age of Christians can and does remain a truth for every age of believers” (508).

I would like to say that, too.

I don’t think there’s anything more important–and perhaps anything more lacking–in properly interpreting Scripture than this. My entire higher education has been in biblical studies, so I have been trained to think about the original historical contexts of the biblical writings without even thinking about it. This isn’t something that should be true of only people with the same sort of education as me, however.

Many readers without any formal education on how to interpret ancient texts simply don’t know that what is needed is a close look at who wrote, to whom, when, why, where, etc. Instead interpreting a word or idea first through the lens of whatever information we have about its original author and reader, the natural move for many is to simply receive that word or idea into their own context. It’s like an American going to England and being asked if she wants a biscuit. She says yes, taking the word “biscuit” directly into her own American context (which is a foreign context in England) and she receives something almost totally different from what she expected to receive. What she actually receives she has a word for, but it comes from her own, American, foreign context; to her, it is a “cookie.”

It is this practice of not considering (or being unaware) of the differences between one’s own context and the context from which a text comes that has led to the myriad of strange conclusions as to what Revelation, for instance, is actually talking about. It is reading a text as if its words apply directly to your own linguistic, cultural, historical, situation. 

And It’s even trickier for readers, not just of any ancient text, but those who consult the Bible as an authoritative revelation of God. We don’t even want to think about the idea that the Bible was not written to us. Of course it was! It’s what we memorize, meditate over, pray with, it’s what informs us, encourages us, disciplines us, guides us. The Bible was written to us! Stop being heretical, Nathan.

Well, no, I actually don’t think that’s the best way to think about it. I think the best way to think about it is as if the Bible was written for us (and that’s not heretical so you can relax). Paul’s letter to Titus was written to, wait for it, Titus. In God’s grand scheme, it was written for us, but Paul most likely never envisioned that he was also writing to 21st-century believers. And we take Paul most seriously, and we treat the Bible most respectfully, when we listen first to Paul writing to Titus. And only as a second order to that, what it means for us.

And it’s the same way with the entire rest of the Bible.

Even in a portion of Scripture regarded most highly by Christians like the Sermon on the Mount for how it illustrates the proper Christian ethical life—we cannot say that it was composed and delivered to the church. Because, it was not written to be immediately understood and applied by Christian believers made mostly of Gentiles who worship the risen and ascended Lord. It was written to be immediately understood and applied by first-century Palestinian Jews still waiting for a Messiah and still curious about how and when the future age of peace and justice will be established.

What was true for those ancient Jews, in some ways is true for us, but that truth is not directly communicated to us. We have to engage in interpretation, in the principled system of inquiry known as hermeneutics, i.e., properly interpreting and applying the Bible. We have to respect context, both our own, and foreign ones. To do so is to honor the way that God has chosen to make himself known–through history, through events, through conversation, through argument, through language, culture, irony, suspense, characters, rhetoric, and so on. And not to us, but for us.


Why You Don’t Have to Believe Your Intuitions Are the Holy Spirit

This is the title of the second chapter of Phillip Cary’s book Good News for Ancient Christians, which I’ve been discussing chapter by chapter.

“Or, How the Spirit Shapes Our Hearts” Is the chapter’s subtitle.

Cary relates what he says here to the previous chapter about hearing God’s voice in your heart, by pointing out that another way people tend to think of God speaking them is through intuition. This type of intuition he defines as that moment when you “just know something” even though you may not know how you know it (19).

It is this being unable to explain the origin or source of a belief that leads many Christians to conclude that what they’re sensing is the voice of the Holy Spirit (19).

However natural this tendency may be (I know I’ve done it several times), Cary points out the fallibility of constructing some sort of doctrine on this just by reminding us that sometimes our intuitions are wrong (20-21).

And Cary pinpoints what it is about these intuitions that lead us to attribute them to God, to outside ourselves. And it has to do with vocabulary. I was on the way to Atlanta once and listened to this long program on the radio about how crucial vocabulary is not for just expressing our experiences but actually experiencing those experiences themselves. Cary says that it is the lack of vocabulary to describe a feeling or thought that makes it feel like, i.e., it is experienced as, it is coming from God (23). I think he’s on to something. Because when we don’t know how to explain something, or we don’t have the word for it, it’s not that we just experience it as not having the words to describe but that we experience as it as something coming from outside of us, in a sense. And the most natural place for Christians to attribute something coming from outside themselves but within their own minds, is God.

When seen as a lack of vocabulary to explain the intuition, the “unexplainability” actually becomes explainable. There are several reasons, as Cary points out, we have the intuitions we have (23-24).

The damage that is done? “… one of the deepest errors of the new evangelical theology. It teaches people to identify their intuitions as the Spirit speaking, without teaching them the virtues that are the real fruit of the Spirit working within. It tries to find the voice of God in the intuitions of the unsanctified heart” (32).

In light of this, Cary offers the same sort of advice he offered in the last chapter about hearing God’s voice in your heart. Our focus should not be on the revelation from inside but from outside. “It may seem surprising,” he says, “that we should listen for the Spirit by listening to God’s word outside us. But that’s how the Bible talks about it. That’s because the Bible does not have the notion that’s so common in the modern world of looking inside yourself to find the spiritual help you need” (33).

But the Spirit does work in us, doesn’t he?? Well, yes. But, inquiring minds want an answer to this question: “How do we know the Spirit is working in us?” Especially, if Cary is on to something, that we should not be searching for an inner voice as often as we tend to do as contemporary western evangelicals. Cary says this is a particularly modern obsession, which results more in searching our hearts than in searching the Scriptures (34).

Not sure what else to say about this chapter. I think it’s a good illustration of the book’s major weakness, namely that it would’ve been well-served by some editing primarily in the form of cutting. This would’ve worked well as another part of the previous chapter. There’s a good deal of fluff in this chapter that I moved right over. However, it gets better. Cary still has some worthwhile lessons to teach. Picks up big time with his excellent chapter “Why You Don’t Have to ‘Let God Take Control” which we’ll discuss next time.

? American=Christian ? Christian=American ?

It becomes clear to me especially when we elect our government officials that for many Americans, being Christian and being American are two sides of the same coin.

I was consulting the great Gordon D. Fee’s Philippians commentary a couple of days ago [Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. NICNT. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.)]. He makes this observation while discussing 3:4b-6:

“A passage like this one, especially in light of Paul’s language of renunciation in vv. 7-8, should perhaps call into question … the confusion of Christian faith with pride in nation. … Confusion of being Christian with being a member of a given nation has a long history in the church; it is one of the pernicious bequests of the conversion of Constantine, which plagues not only the officially ‘Christian’ states, but perhaps even more insidiously a country like the United States, where the American flag often holds pride of place in Christian sanctuaries and where patriotic holidays are sometimes more significant days in the American church calendar” (310).

I’ve aware of circles of American Christians where the 4th of July and other national holidays are given much more attention than, say, Epiphany, or Pentecost. Admittedly many of these church groups have chosen not to follow the traditional church calendar, but they do make up for it with American holidays.

Many adhere to a system of thought which intertwines their convictions as Americans and their convictions as Christians to the point where they are indistinguishable, and it’s probably safe to say that both sets of convictions are warped as a result.

So I’m advocating keeping our political and religious convictions entirely distinct from one another? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that we should be able to recognize that we believe certain things because we are Christians. No in the sense that I believe that a proper Christian faith isn’t compartmentalized, as if we can act and think and feel as Christians in some aspects of our lives but not all of them. Faith in Christ is holistic.

So I perceive an abiding tension when I think about how political and religious beliefs should go together. This blog will not often get this political, but I tend to vote for Republican candidates. And this tension between politics and religion can be seen in how I responded to Ron Paul’s comment in a recent debate. When the candidates were asked how their religious convictions would affect their decisions in the Presidential office, Paul responded “They wouldn’t.”

My most immediate response was negative (I actually like most things Paul says), because of how I see the Christian faith (which Paul claims as well) as ideally holistic, so that one couldn’t claim a clean divorce between what one thinks and feels as a Christian and thinks and feels as a politician. But then again, Paul doesn’t appear to make the mistake that to be an American is to be a Christian, and to be a Christian is to be an American.

Contrast Paul’s response to this debate question with some recent remarks by President Obama during the National Prayer Breakfast. The President was forthright in his admission that his Christian faith clearly and directly influences his political decisions, citing Luke 12:48 for justification of his proposal to raise taxes for the wealthy in order to provide for the less wealthy.

Aside from the fact that this is a poor application of this Scripture (coming back to this in a moment), at first my response is positive to Obama’s position that one’s principles cannot be cleanly divided between the religious and the political. But my response is also negative, because Obama inappropriately fuses his religious beliefs to his political ideology without an observable measure of care. I’m very confident that the President doesn’t think this way, but it gives the impression that he is like those who think that to be American is to be Christian. He will use the Bible to justify his policy to basically force people to help the poor, but would he tolerate others using the Bible to define what marriage is for all Americans, Christian or not?

Back to the fact that the President’s quotation of Luke 12:48 is not sound support for raising taxes for the rich to help the poor. Nowhere in Scripture, at least in what I can see, is there a basis for providing for the poor through government force. As a Christian, I agree with Obama that the poor should be provided for by those who have the resources to provide for them. Our difference is that I am American but I recognize that this is something different from being a Christian. It is not the place of government to take from all people, Christian or not, to provide for others, based on a Christian principle. That Obama seems to think so implies that he sees the pockets of all Americans as his pool of resources from which to draw from to provide for those who lack. This does not work. Giving is an act of love. Love is voluntary and cannot be coerced. A voluntary deed is not voluntary when it is required. The government functions through requirement. There’s no voluntary tax that I know of.

So I don’t think it works to take a political stance based explicitly on a Christian principle alone, but then again I can’t say that if I were to take a political stance based not only on my Christian principles that it was not affected by my Christian principles. To be an American is not to be Christian and to be Christian is not to be American, but I am an American Christian.

Tensions remain.

I have mostly rambled and I don’t know what else to say. Good thing it costs me absolutely nothing to publish this on a blog.

Augustine and the Jews

In my discussions of Good News for Anxious Christians, we are looking at a book meant to offer an immediately practical benefit for believers. I think it would be good for my brain, and for the tone of the blog, if I also kept a running discussion with a book of a more academic nature. Because, you know, I’m all about sophistication.

(There will be no method to coordinate which books I’m discussing at the same time nor to explicitly draw any connection of any sort between them. This is also good for my brain. Or at least it feels good.)

Well, the academic book I’m reading now that I’ve decided to discuss (I read many books at a time)  is Paula Fredriksen’s Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). I’ve anticipated reading this book for about a year now, and there’s several reasons why I think it will be such an interesting read for me.

One is that I’m a big fan of the author. Fredriksen is the William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture Emerita at Boston University. I certainly have significant disagreements with her positions on some topics, but her books, articles, and lectures (at least the ones I have gained access to) continue to provide me with a valuable model for how to engage in respectable scholarship of the Bible and early Christianity. She displays an insatiable interest, brutal honesty, lucid reasoning, fresh readings of the text (albeit informed by the work of previous scholars), a great degree of familiarity with historical/cultural contexts–and does not lose track of the larger and most important question of why we even try to understand early Christianity in the first place.

However, her answer to this question would probably differ from mine. Fredriksen is a Jewish convert from Roman Catholicism. Though I don’t know for sure if this comes as a direct correlation, her most insightful contributions to our knowledge of the New Testament and early Christianity stem from her niche as serving as a sort of conscience for scholars by keeping them on track when they’ve veered off by either misunderstanding or mischaracterizing ancient Judaism.

This is the other reason why I’m excited to learn from this book. The academy has been getting better at this for the past several decades, but the church (even its leaders) still largely lags behind at gaining a proper grasp of ancient Judaism (and modern Judaism, for that matter). I know its title conceals this, but the book actually has a good deal to teach us about ancient Judaism and Christianity and one of its practical outworkings, Jewish-Christian relations.

Augustine and the Jews. It was mainly Fredriksen’s observations of Augustine that spurred my recent interest in him and in turn helped me realize how much the church fathers have to offer us all these centuries later. This book’s potential for teaching us a few things about Augustine actually looks promising.

Augustine. Jews. I can already tell though, that this 380 page book has much more in it than just the bare facts on these two topics. Fredriksen is distinguished by the fact that she can claim expertise in what are essentially two fields: New Testament, and early Christianity through the conversion of Constantine in the 4th century. This book is probably going to be a wide representation of her learning, and I could tell from a glance at the table of contents that she establishes her basic case about Augustine and his value to the Jews with a broad scope. She also wraps up her prologue with the statement that she wanted to recount decades of research “in one sweeping story” (xxiii). Prepare to learn.

As a side note, Fredriksen was also impressively nice to me when I took the opportunity to introduce myself to her at SBL conference about a year ago as a lowly master’s student. Kindness is always a good thing.

Let’s take a look at the prologue (from the Greek preposition pro [before] and the noun logos [word, saying, matter]) to complete this post. Right at the get-go Fredriksen lays out the main point of the book. During the 12th century Crusades, Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn records the contribution of Bernard of Clairvaux, in his eyes a “decent” priest who allowed Christians to battle Muslims, but stated that “‘whoever touches a Jew to take his life is like one who harms Jesus himself …, for in the book of Psalms if is written of them, “Slay them not, lest my people forget.” All the Gentiles regarded this priests as one of their saints. … When our enemies heard his words, many of them ceased plotting to kill us.'”

This instruction from Bernard however, originates not from his own appropriation of this portion of Psalm 59 but came about 7 centuries sooner in the work of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (xi). In Augustine’s eyes, the Jews were to be respected because their religious practices were authored by the same God the Christians claimed as Father. Not only that, but they aid Christians by serving as witnesses that they have not made up the prophecies concerning Christ. This is why, in Augustine’s understanding, we have the Psalter’s prophecy: “Slay them not, lest they forget your law; scatter them by your might” (City of God 18.46) (xii).

Herein lies Fredriksen’s big conclusion: that this legacy of Augustine’s positive view of the Jews was passed down to the Crusades and helped to prevent violence against Jews at the hands of Christians. “Augustine and the Jews,” Fredriksen writes, “tells the story of how Augustine came to conceive this unique teaching, which was original to him” (xii).

Fredriksen then provides a paragraph about Augustine, and you can hear how much she admires him. After calling his works “brilliant and original,” she says “Augustine’s writing is so vivid, his intellectual energy so fierce, the force of his personality so present, that we can practically hear him thinking” (xiii).

First things first, though. Before we talk about how Augustine helped protect Jewish lives centuries after he lived, we must consider the question of how did the relationship between Christians and Jews become so hostile in the first place? (xiii)

The answer is complicated. For one thing, much of Christianity, though it would quickly become dominated by Gentiles, is “quintessentially Jewish,” such as in its ideas of resurrection of the body, divine judgment, and a messianic age (xiii).

Early Christianity was essentially a Jewish movement, and so this rough relationship seems to begin in the second century, when Christianity and Judaism became distinct movements. In-house arguments between Jews over a potential Messiah then became arguments against Judaism itself (xiv). Unfortunately, this adversus Iudaeos or contra Iudeaos position took considerable root in the form of Christianity’s teachings “against the Jews” (xv).

Fredriksen’s goal is to provide us with a grasp of the history and role of this anti-Jewish rhetoric in Augustine’s time so that we can appreciate with greater clarity how he challenged this tradition. This is why her book covers the expanse of time from Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C. to the Christian empire of the 5th century A.D.

Part I, “The Legacy of Alexander,” describes the background for approaching the interaction of pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman world (xviii). Part II, “The Prodigal Son,” deals with the context of Augustine’s teachings on Jews, i.e., his own intellectual and spiritual development. Part III, “The God of Israel,” draws the threads together to observe how Augustine arrived at his noteworthy view of Judaism (xix-xx).

The final section of her prologue provides some other preliminary remarks before she begins. One, and I know she takes this position based on her other works, is that she views orthodox Christianity as just one kind of Christianity that won out in the end and became the standard against which all other different forms of Christianity were seen as heretical (xxi). This view is not at all uncommon among scholars, though it is found much more in the thoughts of non-Christian scholars. This reveals my bias when I say I don’t take this position. I don’t think that orthodox Christianity was just as valid as any other group that claimed the name “Christian”; I think that the Christianity that became known as “orthodox” more or less corresponds most directly with the theological and ecclesiastical conclusions we can draw from the records we have from those who experienced Jesus. And, I might add, it is “orthodox” Christianity which in my view coheres with 1st century Judaism and the story of Israel rather than the alternatives such as gnostic Christianity.

But that’s a side note. I think this is going to be great. Next post we begin to look at Part I, “The Legacy of Alexander.”

“Why You Don’t Have to Hear God’s Voice in Your Heart”

This is the title of the first chapter of Phillip Cary’s book Good News for Ancient Christians, introduced in the previous post.

“Or, How God Really Speaks Today” Is the chapter’s subtitle.

Cary discusses a comment in one of his student’s papers. The problem with revelation, this comment said, was that you can’t tell if it’s the voice of God. How do you know the voice you hear is the voice of God? One problem is that this student didn’t think of revelation in terms of Scripture but in terms of something resembling an audible voice arising within one’s heart or mind (1).

Cary’s response to this student: “I have good news for you: the voices in your heart are all your own. So you don’t have to get all anxious about figuring out which one of your voices is God. None of them is. The revelation of God comes in another way, through the word of God in the Bible, and this is something you can find outside your heart” (2).

I know I wouldn’t have answered this student in quite the same way; for one, I couldn’t tell someone else that a voice they hear is not the voice of God without allowing that it could possibly have been God’s. But I agree with his major point. God does not ordinarily speak to us through what we would call a voice, i.e., what we hear when we hear another person talk out loud. You might say, well what about all the times in the Bible (particularly in the Old Testament) that God does speak to people in what we have every indication to believe is some sort of voice? In most cases, however, the text simply says that God said to — and there are typically no details about its audibility or any question/confusion whether it was one’s own thoughts or the voice of God. However God spoke in those instances, it is certainly different in some way than how is he said to speak in people’s hearts today.

To be honest, we all know that this is a problem. I would bet most of us at least have heard some one describe what God has said to them, and we are quite confident based on our understanding of that person or our understanding of God, or both, that God did not actually tell them that. (Cary gives the example of guys at his college telling girls “I think God is telling us he wants us to get together” [5]).

But how do we address this? Do we know for sure that God didn’t talk to this person directly? In most cases, we can’t know for sure, the one exception being when God is reported to have said something that is known to be an error or even a lie. Something to think about.

Anyway, as Cary later asserts, listening for God’s voice in the heart has only recently (new evangelical theology) displaced Scripture as the most important way God makes himself known (2). (He also admits that this way of hearing God speak has become so dominant in American evangelicalism that his students are not aware that it was ever any different [4]). Again, even in the groups I’ve been a part of in which hearing God’s voice in your heart was held in high regard, I’m not sure it eclipsed Scripture. But the point still stands. The canon of Holy Scripture is the solid, reliable revelatory source of God’s nature and his will. It is what has historical grounding as providing the authoritative word on these matters–not what an individual thinks God is telling them in their hearts.

So, just as Scripture is external and hearing God’s voice is internal, Scripture is somewhat more objective whereas hearing a voice is much more subjective. God speaks to us a person, i.e., some one else other than us. “And you can’t listen to another person just by hearing what’s in your heart” (3). Acknowledging the clear biblical teaching of the indwelling of Christ and the Holy Spirit, Cary responds, on the basis of texts like Romans 10:15, 17, “Christ gets into our hearts precisely as we put our faith in the word of Christ that we hear preached to us. He is a person who is inside us because we find him outside us. That’s how it always goes with persons” (3).

Another problem Cary points out is that sometimes we fail to take our own voice seriously. He gives the example of a girl who is crazy about a guy but at the same time is uneasy about him and about the way he treats her. The voice that says “I don’t feel right about this” she attributes to God, because “she’s never thought of her own voice as something worth listening to.” She has to label this wise thought the voice of God because she can’t take it seriously any other way (5). If it’s a wise thought, in her thinking, it must be God’s. This “new evangelical theology” which puts a priority on hearing an actual voice from God “undermines her sense of morality, her responsibility, and her adulthood, not to mention her self-knowledge” (6).

This is why, Cary, concludes that the new practice of “hearing God speak” “is doubly bad for us. By trying to identify which voice in our hearts is God’s, we not only misidentify God, we fail to know ourselves for who we really are” (8).

If this idea is not biblically based and is a very recent development in church history, then where did it come from? Well, wherever it came from, Cary points out that none of us came up with it on our own; it is something that we are taught: “We are told to listen to God in our hearts and make it an ongoing part of our lives. And we are made to feel guilty if we don’t put it into practice” (10). People wonder, If I don’t hear God’s voice, do I not really have a relationship with God? (11)

“The good news about self-knowledge is that it’s ok for your feelings and thoughts to be your own, not to be the voice of God. For the good news about God is that he makes himself known the way a real person does, by speaking to us from outside our hearts” (14).

Speaking about the prophets Cary says, they never talk about hearing God in their hearts. They talk about dreams and visions, but they “know nothing of the practice we have been taught today where you try to quiet yourself and hear God’s voice in your heart” (16).  “The word of God still comes out of human mouths and resounds in the ears and hearts of his people. That’s where you go to hear God–you dwell in the community of his people, because that is where his word is” (14).

Though he doesn’t pursue it, this is where Cary deals a searing blow to the flaw of individualism in contemporary Christianity. Reflecting on the church’s activity of praying and singing the Scriptures, Cary says “That’s how it works, because the place to look for God’s word is not in your heart but in the gathering of God’s people in worship, prayer, preaching, and teaching” (15). And he provides examples of Paul’s admonitions to second-person plurals as indications of this (e.g., Col 3:16; Eph 5:18). One pitfall of modern English translations of Greek is that Greek uses different forms for “you” as it refers to an individual and “you” as it refers to two or more people. With the Bible in the hands of individual readers reading to themselves, an English “you” which actually corresponds to a Greek “ya’ll” leads to the misconception that the epistle writer is addressing you and only you.

Now the epistle writers do use the single “you” at times, but even when he does so, an individual is never addressed in such a way that what is said is irrelevant to the group. I’m sure at some point I’ll write more on this issue, but as personal is it is, Christianity is not private. Other religious options may allow for you to engage them as what you belief in your own privacy, and that’s ok; but Christianity does not fit into that mold without being warped beyond recognition.

Indeed, as Cary asserts, the Spirit “does not come to give people private instructions.” That was never the purpose of prophecy, which was instead for the sake of the community of God’s people (16). So what is the best place to hear God’s “voice”? “… in a gathered congregation of the Body of Christ, where he is present to teach, comfort, warn, and guide all who believe” (16).

For Cary, of course God speaks today. But we must correct the common view that the only, or even primary, way God speaks today is in the privacy of individual hearts. Cary makes the point that many haven’t been taught to hear the gospel as God’s word. Once people are saved (most of the time thinking that the main thing they have done is avoid a negative post-death eternity), “they think the gospel of Christ has nothing more to say to them about their Christian lives” (17).

Also, of course, God can speak in a voice to an individual heart, but Cary wishes to face the question of what God actually does rather than actually what he can do (17).

This chapter features a clever conclusion paragraph about the Lord’s face being a human face and his voice being a human voice. This is what makes it “okay that our voices, too, are our own human voices–even the voices of our heart. They don’t have to be God’s voice to be worth listening to, or even to speak the word of God” (18). This is a fine point. From the incarnation, to eating and drinking and weeping and rebuking, to dying and rising and ascending, Jesus is God’s prime illustration of just how much he meant it when he created us and called it good.

So we should listen to our hearts. I agree with that. But the main criticism I have of Cary’s chapter is that he does not discuss the danger that is associated with doing so. As much as we should listen to our hearts, we should follow the biblical patten and speak to our hearts. The heart basically a way of talking about the entire inner person, emotions, thoughts, all of it. And our inner person (like our outer person) is messed up. Jeremiah says “The heart is devious above all else” (17:9). Yes, listen to your heart. Don’t ignore yourself. But as you do, pray “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Psalm 51:10). And Cary makes a good point: to hear God we turn away from our hearts (8).

As one would perhaps expect since Cary is more of a philosopher/theologian, the biblical texts aren’t consulted to the extent that they could be and probably should be if we are to discuss the biblical validity of these ideas. This is the book’s major weakness. Still, even if Cary approaches these ideas from a primary philosophical/theological point of view, his arguments should be acknowledged and dealt with according to the testimony of Scripture (even if we have to do much of that biblical searching on our own). And, as I’ve said, I don’t think we should dismiss the possibility of God speaking to us through a voice, but there is much value in recognizing that if he does speak through a voice, it’s likely in the form of the words of your neighbor, or the testimony of Scripture, or the message of a work of art, or whatever. God is that big. You don’t have hear God’s voice in your heart.

Next chapter:  “Why You Don’t Have to Believe Your Intuitions Are the Holy Spirit”