Sunday, August 31, 2008
N.B. This is an excerpt from the draft of the second volume of my forthcoming study of NT theology and ethics called The Indelible Image (Inter-Varsity Press)
RELATING THE OT AND NT THOUGHT WORLDS
While it would be possible to discuss the relationship of the OT to the NT at this juncture, that is actually a subject for a discussion of the canon, and canonical criticism, which actually is not the focus of this study, and in any case we have discussed it some in the first volume of this work. What we are interested in here is the relationship of OT theology and ethics to the theology and ethics we find in the NT. The reason for this distinction is simple-- the documents of the NT existed in the NT era and are expressions of the thought world of that era, long before there was a NT canon. The thought world of the NT speakers and writers was enormously influenced by the thought world exhibited in many books now found in the OT, though they were certainly also profoundly influenced by Intertestamental Jewish literature and thought as well.
I say ‘many’ books because some books of the OT seem to have exerted little or no influence on the early Christians. To take an obvious example, Esther seems to have made no impact at all, and this is perhaps not surprising since the OT canon was not fully closed in the NT era and one of the debated books was Esther. In fact several of the books which later made up the third part of TANAK, the Writings, are missing in action in the NT as are various other OT books (e.g. Nehemiah), and I don’t just mean they aren’t quoted. I mean they aren’t even alluded to. It is thus better on the whole to talk about the influence not of particular books though we could do this (the most cited in the NT are Isaiah and the Psalms) but rather of the influence of the thought world. And here we note a remarkable fact.
The OT taken as a whole has precious little to say about the afterlife, and only somewhat more about eschatology. And indeed it is mostly the very latest OT books, including especially the more apocalyptic prophets, that have anything of consequence to say on this subject. And yet the thought world of the NT writers is overwhelmingly eschatological in character. In this respect, the NT thought world is far more like the thought world of some of the Intertestamental Jewish literature than it is like the OT. This of course could be said to create a problem for canonical theologians, at least for those who want to limit the discussion within the parameters of what is found in the OT and NT. But there are red flags right within various NT books against taking this sort of approach as well.
For example, the tiny little document called Jude clearly draws on extra canonical material from the Enoch literature and probably from the Apocalypse of Moses as well. Or take Paul, who shows the influence of Wisdom of Solomon, or James who draws on Sirach. Thus while we can focus on the relationship of the thought world in the OT and that in the NT, the discussion should not be limited to such a discussion, not least because important ideas like bodily resurrection of the dead, while they did not germinate in the Intertestamental period, certainly gestated in that period. When it comes to the OT itself, the concept of resurrection is barely mentioned in Dan. 12.1-2, and as a metaphor in Ezekiel. In other words, some of the concepts most crucial and determinative for the early Christian thinkers are barely found in the OT at all. Christian theology and ethics could never be done purely on the basis of the careful interpretation of the OT.
Some will ask why is it so important to consider the theology and the ethics in the Bible in a processive and progressive manner? One answer is that we cannot judge the meaning of a story, and the character of its actors before we get to the end of it. Consider for a moment the example of the great trilogy the Lord of the Rings. One cannot tell whether Frodo will have the necessary character to do what is required with the ring until we get to right near the end of the story. Up to that point we do not know whether he will pass the test. Or even more tellingly, we cannot tell whether Gollum is going to end up being an adversary or an assistant in the process of saving the Shire and the world until right near the end. Or what of Gandalf? Will he return in time or at all to help the human race ward off evil? We don’t know until many hundreds of pages into the story. The Bible involves a similarly epic story from creation through fall through various acts of redemption to the final new creation. Viewing the whole story from the end changes the way we look at the character of God, the character of God’s people, how human history will play out, the nature of redemption, and a host of other subjects. The truth is—we don’t fully know God and the divine character sufficiently for eternal salvation before Jesus turns up to reveal it. We don’t fully understand the depths of human depravity until Jesus shows up and dies on the cross to reveal and overcome it. We don’t understand the importance of creation to God’s eternal plan until we hear near the end that God’s plan is that all of fallen creation be renewed and restored, and that resurrection be the talisman of the final stage of redemption for human beings themselves.
STICKING TO OUR STORY
It is precisely because Biblical history is told in the Bible as an ongoing story that a narratological approach to theology and ethics is not merely useful, it is required to fully understand what is being claimed and taught. The appropriate question to ask about any theological or ethical remark in the Bible is—where in the story do we find it? Is it near the outset, or in the middle or towards the end? During the administration of which covenant was this or that teaching given? Most fundamentally, is this or that theological or ethical remark before or after the Christ event? Does this point in the story reflect the partial revelations of the earlier period or the fuller revelation that comes in and after the Christ event?
These are the right sort of questions to ask when we are thinking about the theology and ethics we find in the Bible and this is precisely why we cannot do Biblical theology in a manner that treats the OT as though it provides as full a revelation of God’s character, plan, people as does the NT. It does not, and the NT writers did not think it did either, even though the OT was the only Bible they themselves had at all. They believed they were the people on whom the ends of the ages had come, and they believed that in fact the author of this whole story had finally stepped out on the stage in person to bring in the final chapters and explain the meaning of it all.
With this reminder about the narratological framework and nature of the thought world we are dealing with, it will be appropriate to say some final things about some of the major symbols in the symbolic universe that generates that sort of thought world and story, but first we must note that we have now found a clue or two as to why the early church completely rejected the so-called Gnostic Gospels when considering what would eventually be their canonical texts.
The first of these reasons is that the canonical Gospels do indeed focus on the passion and death of Christ, indeed they could be called Passion Narratives with a long introduction. The Gnostic Gospels by contrast not only do not focus on the death of Jesus, they avoid doing so. They see no great theological significance in that, or really any other event which depends on historical reality and particularity.
Equally importantly as Luke Johnson says “None of the Gnostic Gospels take the form of narrative. Rather they focus entirely on Jesus as revealer, and take the form of discrete sayings…with no narrative framework (Gospel of Thomas) or revelatory discourses in response to questions (Gospel of Mary, Dialogue of the Saviour). Two of the most important Gnostic Gospels (Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Philip) take the form of teaching about Jesus rather than any sort of story.” In other words, the sensibilities and symbolic universe which formed those documents are very different from those Jewish ones which formed our canonical Gospels. In fact, it is not too much to say that most of the Gnostic texts reject the God of the OT altogether, the God of material creation.
Luke Johnson puts it this way” “Insofar as the God of Israel is the God who creates the material world the Gnostic texts resist that God. A Gnostic sensibility that finds the world to be a corpse and blessedness in detachment and solitariness (see the Coptic Gospel of Thomas ) is far both from the sensibility of Torah and of the canonical Gospels.” The writers of the NT were all Jews, not Marcionites or Gnostics, and so we would not expect them to devalue the OT thought world, nor the OT vision of God and creation, and they do not disappoint us in this regard. The changes we find between the OT and the NT symbol system are Christologically, ecclesiologically, and eschatologically engendered—but all of those categories (the discussion of a messiah, the discussion of God’s people, the discussion of the future in connection with the messiah and God’s people) are Jewish and must be seen as a further development of OT and early Jewish thinking on such subjects in a particular direction in the light of the Christ event.
THE OT THOUGHT WORLD AND ITS RELEVANCE TO CHRISTIAN THOUGHT
At the center of the OT symbolic universe and narrative thought world lies a singular God, Yahweh. Scholars have come to call what they find in the OT ethical monotheism, and this is not an inappropriate label. Yahweh, the God of the Bible is a hands-on deity constantly involved in the affairs of the world and his people, and he is constantly making demands of them in regard to their behavior especially, but also in regard to their beliefs. The Shema has been frequently seen as the core credo in regard to the OT God—“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One”. ‘One’ here means as opposed to many gods presumably. In other words this is a statement against polytheism, not about the composition or complexity of the Biblical God.
What was believed about this God can be deduced reasonably easily from a close reading of the Pentateuch and the first few historical books. As the only real God in the cosmos, the Biblical God was believed to be the creator of all things and all beings. There was no other being or thing that existed before this God decided to create the universe and all that is within it. This view of course stands in stark contrast to other ANE views about how the universe was created out of a struggle between various deities. The OT writers will have none of that. There is only one God, and one universe that was created by this God and reflects the divine character. The way that is expressed of course in the beginning chapters of the Bible is that God created all things, and made them tov, indeed made them tov m’ov—very good. A good God made a good creation and good creatures to fill it.
This whole idea of monotheism of course created enormous problems when it came to the issue of the origins of evil, the study of theodicy. Polytheism could always explain that evil came about through one or another of the bad deities or through cosmic struggle, but monotheism could not go that route. Some other explanation for evil had to be suggested. What is most interesting in Gen. 1-3 is that we are not told where evil comes from—it simply lurks in the presence of the snake in the garden. It appears that the OT writers were more interested in talking about how to cope with evil than debate its source.
But one thing they were repeatedly emphatic about is that the one and only God was not evil, there was no dark side, no shadow of turning in God, nor did the Biblical God do evil things. The blame for the Fall, as it came to be called, is placed solely on human beings, not on God for making defective merchandise. This pattern of thinking can of course be seen not only in various places in the OT, but in the NT as well. As Paul puts it in Rom. 5 and 1 Cor. 15, Adam is the head of the human race and as a result all of us have sinned and died in Adam, and of course it is also true that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God all on our own as well. Never once in the Bible is there a discussion about their being some flaw or ethical defect in God. The blame for the human malaise is always laid at the door of human beings, however much they may have been beguiled or bamboozled by the powers of darkness in the universe. God is holy, just, good, and not responsible for sin and evil.
This of course raises questions about the sovereignty of God, and the OT does indeed repeatedly insist that God is almighty. Sometimes this takes the form of insisting that God is the maker and ruler of the universe, but more frequently since the OT is the story of God’s dealings with a fallen and imperfect people, it takes the form of insisting that God is almighty to save or rescue his people. God will not willingly let them go down the path of ruin and self-destruction (see Hos. 11). At the very heart of the Pentateuch is of course the story of the Exodus Sinai events which becomes the paradigm and indeed the litmus test of the character of God—Yahweh is a redeemer God, who rescues his people time and time again. This brings into the picture God’s love, compassion, mercy, for there is no suggestion in such stories, not even in Exodus, that these people earned God’s favor and deserved to be rescued, and thus a righteous God was obligated to extricate them.
True enough, it is stressed that the Hebrews were victims of horrible oppression, but there is no suggestion in these stories that God rescued them because their character was so much better than the Egyptians. Indeed, as the wilderness wandering traditions which followed were to demonstrate, they had some severe issues in regard to both their behavior and their beliefs about the true God. Golden calves and immorality did not come as a total accident or as a total surprise from these people. In other words, while God was just in punishing the Egyptians he was also gracious in rescuing the Hebrews. And here we come upon a crucial point.
Salvation in the OT is, almost exclusively, a this-worldly proposition. It is something God does in space and time to rescue, redeem, restore, aid the return of his people to their rightful place or condition or character. There really is hardly anything of a doctrine of heaven in the OT (though a few saints like Enoch and Elijah get beamed up into the living presence of God), and so whatever justice or redemption that happens must happen in the here and now, in space and time. To be sure, in the later and apocalyptic prophecies we begin to see an afterlife theology in second and third Isaiah, in Ezekiel., in Daniel, and perhaps elsewhere, but clearly enough Sheol is the dominant concept of the afterlife in most of the OT. But nowhere do we find any NT writers who merely conjure with Sheol after death for anyone, it would appear.
There is considerable insistence in the OT on God’s holiness and righteous character. This is of course one reason why we talk about ethical monotheism. The Biblical God is not running around committing immoral acts, or like various pagan deities, attempting to mate with mere mortals, and notably when we have a story like Gen. 6.1-4 in which angels (called sons of God) come down from above and do commit the creation order violation of mating with mortals, the heavens break lose and a flood judgment comes upon the earth. The Biblical God will not tolerate, much less perpetrate a breach of the creation order, much less blur the line between creator and creature in this regard. Thus when we hear in the Holiness Code (see Leviticus)—“be holy, as I am holy” we are beginning to get to the root of the matter in terms of the OT symbolic universe. God is one, and God is holy, and God’s people should be both one and holy as well.
And here is where we say that just as theology and ethics are bound up in the character of God and one could talk about the theological story of an ethical God acting ethically, so also theology and ethics are intertwined in what is expected of God’s people as well. The character of God is to be reflected in the behavior (and belief) of God’s people. Put another way—when one knows and believes in the true character of the Biblical God and has experienced God acting ‘in character’ on behalf of his people, then the only appropriate response is to mirror that character in one’s own community and life. ‘Be ye holy, as I am holy’ means not merely set yourself apart from the behavior patterns of the larger culture but model yourself on the divine character. And interestingly such imitation is never seen to violate the creator-creature distinction, or lead to a human being’s apotheosis. It is the voice of the snake, not God, who promises “you shall be as gods”.
A further feature of the OT thought world which really shapes its contours is of course covenanting. The God of the Bible is a God who cuts covenants with both individuals like Noah or Abraham, but also with a whole group of people—a chosen people. Covenants are of course agreements and the Biblical ones take the form of suzerain-vassal covenants, not parity treaties. Yahweh dictates the terms in these covenants and they have not only stipulations but curse and blessing sanctions. They are all ratified by a sacrifice and have a covenant sign as well—such as circumcision, or even a rainbow. It would be hard to overestimate how important covenanting was in the relationship between God and his people as described in the OT. God made demands, not merely ritualistic ones but also ethical demands of his people, in a fashion similar to an ancient dowry or betrothal agreement. To fail to live up to the stipulations resulted in the curse sanctions being enacted on God’s people.
And this brings up another crucial point. God’s people, either individually or collectively are not immune to judgment. Their chosenness does not exempt them from God’s justice, indeed judgment begins with the household of God according to the OT. It is a singular mistake to muddle up the concept of chosenness or election and the concept of salvation. As we have said, the OT has very little to say about ‘everlasting life’, and when it speaks of ‘chosenness’ it is not spoken of in terms of eternal benefits to particular individuals. Indeed, chosenness normally in the OT has to do with God picking someone or some group for a specific historical purpose—such as the choice of Cyrus to set free God’s people in Babylonian exile. But even when the concept is applied collectively to Israel, it normally has the sense that God has chosen this people to be a light to the nations, bearing witness to God’s character and demands and to be a blessing to the nations (see e.g. the promises to Abraham). Election then has historical purposes in the OT, and little or nothing is said about personal eternal fringe benefits. The corollary of this should be clear—later Christian concepts of election and salvation (especially as blended together into one idea) ought not to be read back into the OT willy nilly. One has to have a sense of progressive revelation and the progress of developing understanding of such concepts as election and salvation when dealing with the relationship of the OT thought world and the NT thought world.
NURTURING A SENSE OF PROGRESSIVE REVELATION
This brings us to an important, indeed a crucial point. Biblical theology, or canonical theology, or Biblical ethics or canonical ethics if they are even going to be attempted should not be done in an a-historical manner, as if the Bible could be treated flatly as a thesaurus of theological and ethical ideas in which ‘salvation’ in Exodus, means exactly the same thing as ‘saved by grace through faith in Christ’ means in Ephesians. If there is no sense or sensitivity to the way ideas develop over time, and concepts are modified and change across the Biblical witness, if there is no sense of understanding of progressive revelation, then Biblical or canonical theology or ethics should not even be attempted because one will run roughshod right over the historical character and givenness of these wonderful texts. Don Carson makes this helpful observation: “precisely because God’s self-disclosure has taken place over time, NT theology, as part of the larger discipline of biblical theology, is committed to understanding the constitutive documents within the temporal framework. In this respect, NT theology differs widely in emphasis from systematic theology, which tends to ask atemporal questions of the biblical texts, thereby eliciting atemporal answers.” But the question is—is the latter a legitimate exercise? If we denude NT theology of its historical givenness is such an exercise possible without serious distortion and transformation of the NT material into something other than it was intended to be and to say?
While it is of course true that it is the same God revealed in the OT and the NT, it is not true to say that God’s OT people and NT people had the same level of understanding or even the same understanding of that God. This is perfectly clear from a comparison of the Shema and the Christian modification of it found in 1 Cor. 8.5-6—Christians refer the term God to the Father, and the term Lord to a different person, namely Jesus, and yet paradoxically do not deny the oneness of God. What one could say is that these various witnesses had compatible understandings of God.
As the author of Hebrews reminds us in Heb. 1.1-2—the revelation was partial and piecemeal in the OT era, but now God has revealed himself fully in his Son. This means that any Biblical or canonical theology worth the paper it is written on will have a clear sense of development, of before and after, of partial and more fully revealed, of promise or prophecy and fulfillment, and of typology. In other words, one must have a historical way of thinking about these theological and ethical concepts and their development, and one must conjure with the fact that some things God revealed to and demanded of his people in one era were either partial, or took account of what Jesus calls “the hardness of human hearts”. This is what it means to think in a self-consciously Christian manner about the OT, to think Christologically and ecclesiologically about it, to think historically about it.
From the Christian point of view, Christ is the climax of all God’s revelation to humankind, and the hermeneutical key to understanding all of what has come before, which was only preparatory for the coming of the Christ. If a former Pharisee like Paul can even say of the Mosaic Law that it was only a child-minder (paiadagōgos) of God’s people until Christ came, but when Christ came God’s people reached their majority and moved on beyond the child-minder or tutor, and so on to a new covenant, you know that it will not be enough to either say that the new covenant is just the old one renewed, or to assume that the continuity with what came before is dominant whilst the new elements in the new covenant are subdominant. The whole discussion about the obsolescence of the Mosaic covenant in Galatians and Hebrews prevents us from over-stressing the continuity and underplaying the radical new character of the new covenant in so many ways—both theologically and ethically.
Let me be frank and say that I am assuming as a Christian the truth of the NT witness, and I am assuming as well that the hermeneutic of the NT writers and their way of viewing and handling the OT is the way we Christians should attempt to view it today—which is to say eschatologically, viewing what has come before in the light of the inbreaking Kingdom, the coming of the messiah and the like. And what that meant was not merely ‘new occasions teach new duties (and ethics)’. It meant a new understanding of God, reenvisioned in the light of the significance of the Christ event.
Christ cannot be found under every rock of the OT. Indeed, he cannot be found under many, for there are not many messianic texts in the OT. A generous guess would say that about 5% of the OT has to do with messianism, the longing for a future and more perfect ruler for God’s people. So when I say we must read the OT in the light of the Christ event, what I mean is not that we read Christ back into the OT at various junctures without a clear leading from the OT or NT itself (e.g. Christ is not the angel of the Lord, there was no incarnation of Christ before the incarnation), but rather we have the strong sense that that whole era was preparatory for the coming of the Christ to earth so that—“when the time had fully come God sent forth his Son”. We can learn much about the first person of the Trinity from the OT itself, but not much about the second and third persons of the Trinity—those persons do not come fully to light until and after the Christ event. This way of studying the Bible not only prevents Christian anachronism. It allows us to read the OT with our Jewish friends with profit and respect for the historical givenness and character of that text. It was after all the Word of God for Jews first, before it ever became part of the Christian Bible.
When a covenant’s stipulations were broken in antiquity and we are talking about a suzerain-vassal treaty, then it was entirely up to the ruler to decide what to do next, besides exact the curse sanctions of the original treaty which had to be put into play once the Law had been broken. If the ruler decided to relate in a positive way with a people again, then a new covenant would have to be drawn up, and of course various of the ideas and stipulations and sanctions of the new covenant could be a repetition or replay to one degree or another of various of the previous stipulations. For example honoring parents is affirmed in both the Mosaic Law, and in the Law of Christ, the imperatives that Christ gives. The reason why Christians obey such an imperative is because it is in the new covenant, not because it was once in an old one and the old one is still continuing.
When a new covenant is cut, the old one becomes obsolete. In fact, when the curse sanction of a covenant is enacted, that covenant is over. In the NT, some of its authors seem to see the death of Jesus as the absorbing of the curse sanction against sin in God’s people from the previous covenants and thus the end of that covenant. Paul in Colossians even calls Jesus’ death a circumcision, associating it with the covenant sign and Mark with his rending of the veil of the Temple signals the end of an era of God’s presence located in what was becoming the Temple of Doom. And one more thing—were it the case that election=eternal salvation in the NT how then do we explain the fact that Jesus, who is the one person whom God did not need to save from fallenness is the one who is viewed as the Elect One in Ephesians and elsewhere in the NT? Election and salvation, as it turns out are two different but related concepts in both testaments, but in no instance should we assume that the former idea simply implies eternal salvation.
One of the useful questions to ask about God’s sovereignty as depicted in the OT, is how does the OT depict the way he exercises that sovereignty? Does the OT suggest either that God so controls everything that nothing ever happens that is against his will or that everything that happens is part of his plan? Well certainly the answer to that must be no. God is not the ultimate author of sin, and the OT nowhere suggests such a view. One test case can be considered by reflecting on how God relates to his own people. There is no more poignant depiction of this than in Hosea 11—
When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them, the farther they went from me, Sacrificing to the Baals and burning incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, who took them in my arms; I drew them with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks; Yet, though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer. He shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be his king;
The sword shall begin with his cities and end by consuming his solitudes. Because they refused to repent, their own counsels shall devour them. His people are in suspense about returning to him; and God, though in unison they cry out to him, shall not raise them up.
How could I give you up, O Ephraim, or deliver you up, O Israel? How could I treat you as Admah, or make you like Zeboiim? My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred.
I will not give vent to my blazing anger, I will not destroy Ephraim again; For I am God and not man, the Holy One present among you; I will not let the flames consume you.
They shall follow the LORD, who roars like a lion; When he roars, his sons shall come frightened from the west, out of Egypt they shall come trembling, like sparrows, from the land of Assyria, like doves; And I will resettle them in their homes, says the LORD.
What should we conclude from this poignant prophetic poem? In this poem God is depicted as a parent who calls his children, but they do not automatically or always respond in the way God desires. They continue to behave sinfully over and over again, and with moral consequences as well such as being overcome by their enemies. But God, like a spurned lover, will not give up on Israel. God keeps calling them from exile, and does not express his wrath against Israel’s sin. Rather, like a mighty lion God roars, and his lion cubs finally recognize the sound of his voice and come running back to their parent.
Now I submit this reveals a great deal about God’s character. It reveals that God, while he could simply organize all things and all the behavior of his people in a pre-ordained way, for God has the power, chooses instead to relate to his children in love, and by means of love. He calls them back, he does not compel or pre-determine them to come back. There is something about a love relationship that could not be pre-determined anyway. Love can only be freely given and freely received between personal beings. Love cannot be coerced, compelled, or even just predetermined. And Yahweh had decided not to act like some humans would to compel a response or to destroy those who don’t respond according to the desired script. The power of contrary choice has been given to God’s people, and they do not always respond as they ought to do.
But even more impressively, God has chosen to relate to his people in a loving manner wooing and winning their response. This picture of God comports with texts like John 3.16-17 which tells us that God’s heart is big, and that he does not desire (and has not predetermined) that anyone should perish. It comports with texts like 1 Tim. 2.1-6 which tell us that not only did Jesus die as a ransom for all the world, but that God desires that all come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved. Thus, accordingly the concepts of election and salvation look differently when we understand that this is the character of the Biblical God, and that his M.O. is much as we find it to be in places like Hosea 11 or 1 Timothy 2.1-6.
This however brings us to a crucial point. The OT says very little about the coming messiah, and yet on almost every page of the NT, Jesus takes center stage. I would suggest that there could be no clearer proof that we are not merely dealing with the gestation of religious ideas over time. NT theology is not merely a natural development of OT theology, though there is considerable overlap, and the same can be said about the ethics in the NT compared to the ethics in the OT.
Something happened in space and time to change the thought world of numerous early Jews who ended up writing books of the NT. That something was the coming of the historical Jesus and the impact he had on these Jews. To study NT theology and ethics and leave Jesus out of the equation, or relegate him and his teaching to a presupposition for or addendum to NT thought is a huge mistake, and we strove to avoid that mistake in these volumes.
The person, work, and teaching of Jesus are the chief reasons for the differences between the OT and NT thought worlds. Of course the NT writers pick up the Jesus ball and run with it in several different creative directions, but it is Jesus who is the catalyst for all that is going on theologically and ethically in the NT. This is why, in my view, it is beyond comprehension that one would attempt to examine NT theology or ethics and leave Jesus and the Jesus tradition out of consideration or treat it last as Caird does, as if it had little impact on figures like Paul or James or Peter, and as if they were simply doing theologies all on their own after the fact, politely ignoring the teachings and life of their founder. While it is a challenge to show the relationship between the thought world of Jesus and that of his followers, it is not an impossible one as we have tried to show in this study.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Jesus Wants to Save Christians, by Rob Bell and Don Golden, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), $19.99 (224 pages) Due out in October.
I thoroughly enjoy the creative material that comes out of Rob Bell’s grace-filled and artistic brain. Even when I disagree with him, there is no denying he is tapping into a deep well of truth and riding the wave of a new movement of the Holy Spirit which the church, especially in America, so desperately needs. Rob Bell, and until recently, Don Golden have been doing this together at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, and undoubtedly this book comes out of some of their ministry together. This third of the Bell books, this time with collaboration from a partner in ministry has the same bite and passion as the first two, but mostly missing are the personal stories and anecdotes which peppered Velvet Elvis, and Sex God. This book is all business, and it is God’s business the writers are about. Whether the Evangelical world wants to hear this or not, these authors feel it needs to do so desperately. This book deserves a thorough review.
It is thus with some excitement that I recently discovered that my friends at Zondervan had sent me a pre-pub copy of Jesus Wants to Save Christians (and boy do many of them need it!), which as it turns out, is a good faith attempt to articulate a specific theology for our post-modern situation, articulating what the author’s call a New Exodus perspective. New Exodus theology is of course not totally new, though it will be new to many in the blogosphere, and in the Introduction our authors acknowledge right off the bat an indebtedness especially to the work of Professor Tom Holland who teaches Biblical Theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, and has focused in his writings on the Pauline corpus (e.g see his Contours of Pauline Theology). Thus we could say that Bell and Golden are attempting to turn some of that Welsh grape juice into vintage wine in this little book, or perhaps we should envisage the process the other way around, since Holland’s is the more technical scholarly work, and this book more the distillation and clarification. But let the buyer beware--- anyone brave enough to take on and milk the All American sacred cows of greed and sex are bound to get to some other nice little non-controversial golden calves like ‘Christians and politics, or Christians and war’, or Christians and social justice, or Christians and the oppressed and the poor-- right? Right.
One of the things I immediately resonate with about this book is its attempt to do theology out of the Grand Narrative or meta-narrative of the Bible. This is precisely what I have been arguing for, for a long time even when it comes to more didactic material such as Paul’s letters (see e.g. my Paul’s Narrative Thought World). What we discover pretty quickly in the first chapter is that this book is more than just a theological exercise by young theologians (to borrow a phrase from Helmut Thielicke’s classic little guide), it is something of a social manifesto, a probing of the necessary socio-political implications of the Gospel. Writing this is of course either a brave or a foolhardy thing to do in schizophrenic America which actually thinks you can keep religion and politics (and church and state) in hermetically sealed off comports in one’s brain, ones town, and one’s nation, and never the twain should meet. In short, this book comes at precisely the right time (due out October) in the latest political cycle of things.
The book begins with a retelling of the tragic tale of Cain and Abel which gives the authors the opportunity to suggest that this story is about all of us—somewhere East of Eden, trying to build a city and a civilization outside of Paradise and in a fallen world. Ain’t it the truth. But this book is especially about the indigenization of human falleness in America particularly, and how our behavior as an Empire, in some ways much like the Roman Empire, is a particular manifestation of what is deeply wrong with human society, something which is more like the behavior of Cain, than Abel.
One of the roots of the problem in America is pointed out at the very outset of the book is put in these terms—“A Christian should get very nervous when the flag and the cross start holding hands. This is not a romance we want to encourage”(p. 18). Indeed, if pushed far enough it becomes a form of idolatry, the ultimate fallen behavior. And of course Bell and Golden are right. When you are spending a trillion dollars in Iraq and untold billions here in America for Homeland In-Security, and invest 50 billion in one plane with helicopter features as a ‘better weapon of mass destruction’ and of course it still is not making us safe, indeed it makes us feel less secure in many cases not more, isn’t it time to ask—Is fear or faith dictating our dominant national behavior in such matters? What’s wrong with this picture from a Christian point of view? At least Bell and Golden are brave enough to ask the right questions about all of this, even though doubtless they are going to be slammed as unpatriotic, rather like Jews were by the Roman Empire when they refused to worship at the altars of the Emperor cult.
And interestingly, quoting Colin Powell no less they put their finger on it early on: “The only thing that can destroy us is us. We shouldn’t do it to ourselves, and we shouldn’t use fear for political purposes—scaring people to death so they will vote for you, or scaring people to death so that we create a terror-industrial complex”
(Colin Powell in interview in GQ October 2007 http://men.style.com/gq/features/landing?id=content_5900).
I knew I liked that Colin Powell. With this opening salvo, Bell and Golden turn to a retelling of our story, our meta-narrative, the story of salvation history.
CHAPTER ONE In the first major chapter of the book, the authors turn to Exodus and isolate a particular key motif. If we ask what it is that gets the ball rolling, the juices flowing, and more to the point what sets God into motion and into action, it is the cry of the oppressed. Whether it’s the blood of Abel crying out, or the oppressed Israelites laboring under Pharaoh’s hard yoke, it is the cry of the oppressed for help that sets the Biblical story in motion in regard to God’s divine intervention and redemption activity. God doesn’t just hear, he is a crisis intervention specialist. But not like an EMT team. More like someone who is rescuing his own bride to be, and longs to have a permanent binding covenantal relationship with them. And God has a mission for this bride, to become a priest, a mediator between God and humankind, a light-bearer to the nations.
Much is made by Bell and Golden of the word sa’aq which Walter Bruegemann has referred to as the primal scream of a wronged people. Not a lament or a cry of resignation but the strong voice of a person badly wrong crying out and believing it will be heard and remedied. God responds to the primal scream of humanity for liberation, freedom, rescue. The cry for release from injustice and oppression.
Egypt is viewed as the epitome of anti-kingdom. It is seen as what happens when sin becomes structured into society itself and its laws. “Egypt shows us how easily human nature bends towards using power to preserve privilege at the expense of the weak.” (p. 27). Pharaoh is “part of a larger system, a complex web of power and violence and industry and technology that exploits people for its expansion and profit.” (p. 26). Bell and Golden are enunciating a certain kind of non-Marxist liberation theology, but they have indeed drunk from the well of Horsley and Crossan as they trek across the desert towards the oasis they are looking for.
One of the more interesting points in this chapter is that God deliberately calls his people away from the city away from fallen civilization to a place where he can speak to them “And it happens in the wilderness, which has global implications. Because the Sinai event happened in the wilderness and not in the midst of a nation or city or province where someone could make ownership claims, it was for all the people of the world.” (p. 29).
This first chapter could be called a tale of going from Exodus to Exile. And there are many helpful and key points along the way. What does God do when his oppressed people, once they begin to prosper, turn around and oppress others? Does God stand idly by when that happens? No, he sends his very own people off into exile. There is both a helpful exposition of the ten commandments in this chapter and then an eye opening exposition on Solomon and how he became like Pharaoh, an oppressor.
In regard to the ten commandments the authors stress that this is an exegesis and a reminder of the Israelite experience in Egypt and thereafter. So for example, it reminded them they lived in Egypt in a polytheistic environment which was an insult to the one true God, as he was about the only God not honored there! The Sabbath commandment is said to remind the Israelites that Pharaoh made them work every day without rest, that is it reminds them of their life as slaves not allow shalom or restoration or a time to honor their God.
The ten commandments then are seen as a new way of being human, getting one’s life in proper order in relationship to God and others. God’s people are to go and hear the cry of other oppressed peoples—the widow, the orphan, the stranger in the land, the foreigner. “They’re commanded: Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan… Do not deny justice to your poor people….It is as if God is saying, ‘The thing that has happened to you—go make it happen for others….God measures their faith by how they treat the widows, orphans, strangers—the weak—among them God’s desire is that they would bring exodus to the weak, in the same way that God brought them exodus in their weakness.” (p. 35). And later when they speak about the perfidies of Solomon they remind us that it was the Queen of Sheba who said “Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.” (p. 37). But in fact Solomon failed in this enterprise and became a king like unto Pharaoh. The authors then chronicle not only the buildings based on slave labor, but the building up of homeland security at Megiddo and elsewhere. And Solomon becomes an arms merchant, buying chariots and horses from Egypt and selling weapons of war to the Hittites and the Aramaens. (p. 41). Solomon creates an anti-kingdom for his own pleasure and protection and honor, in direct violation of Deut. 17.16-17 telling a Israelite ruler what he must not do.
One of the gems of insight is that “The Bible is full of stories in which the ‘pagan’ characters seem to have better insight into the ways of God than the people who are supposed to have that insight. See Jethro in Exodus 18, Rahab in Joshua 2, the magi in the Gospels, and Numbers 22, we’re not sure about Balaam’s donkey” (p. 198). To this they add the telling example of the Queen of Sheba who reminds Solomon that his job as ruler is to uphold justice and righteousness, not build a glam temple on the backs of slave labor, and set up military bases in Megiddo, Hazor and elsewhere in the Holy Land, or have loads of concubines and wives, and thereby one’s heart is turned away from the Lord. The one oppressed has become the oppressor, and where this leads is straight to exile, do not pass go, do not collect any more shekelim (see 1 Kngs 11). What’s the point here? “God doesn’t have a problem with eating and drinking and owning things. Its when those things come at the expense of others having their basic needs met—that’s when the passionate rants of the prophets really kick in.” (p. 46). They are right on the money about this.
Another of the major themes of this chapter is that God wants or needs a body on earth. No, this is not Mormon theology coming out of the mouths of Bell and Golden. By body they mean a tangible people, a real people of flesh and blood to carry out God’s will and plan on earth. Herein we see the deep impact that Jewish scholars like Abraham Joshua Heschel have had on their theologizing (see p.200). God gives power and blessing so that justice and righteousness will be upheld for those who are denied it (p. 44).
CHAPTER TWO The second major chapter in this book is entitled ‘Get Down Your Harps’ and chronicles what it means to be in exile. One of the major leitmotivs in the first two chapters is that it seems that for a fallen people “take away the comforts of kingdom, deprive a person of the structures and institutions of empire, and they just might find the spine to envision a new tomorrow. Push a person to the limits of suffering, and they just might become a revolutionary.” (p. 54). No not a Che Guevara kind of revolutionary. A non-violent sort who is sold out for God, and whose bread is God’s Word, and whose hope is in the Lord, not in empire, or military protection or the like. As this chapter goes on to show, one Exodus was not enough. There needed to be an Exodus from Exile as well, and vision borne in exile that was big enough to include all of humanity—a cry for all of humanity to come home to their God.
‘The kings of the Babylonians, the prophets concluded wasn’t the real problem any more than Pharaoh the king of the Egyptians was the real problem for their ancestors…The real problem, the ultimate oppressor, is something that resides deep in every human heart. The real reason for their oppression is the human slavery to violence, sin, and death.” (p. 57). It is the Cain in all of us that is the real problem.
One of the stresses in both the first two chapters is the conditional nature of God’s promises in some respects—God had told Moses that if his people would be faithful and obey fully then they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. And on the other hand, if they did not. If they forgot their true identity and story, there would be consequences, called covenant curses (p. 59). Penalties happen when you break a contract. Exile is a consequence of a nation’s infidelity.
But the vision of return, the vision of remarriage would involve a new sort of marriage covenant, according to Jeremiah, one where truth was buried deep in the inward parts of the believing people. And they would not go back to the Solomonic days, they would go forward, according to Isaiah into a place of beating swords into plowshare—exchanging destruction for food production. Turning spears into pruning hooks—exchanging the implements of killing for the implements of rescuing the least the last and the lost. And then there is the word about one’s worst enemies coming to love the Lord and be one’s brothers.
Jerusalem would become a city without walls, Israel a country without borders, and human beings people without racial bias, ethnocentricity, or national bias. “In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria a blessing on the earth. The Lord almighty will bless them, saying ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance” Is. 19.24-25). Hmm…. This doesn’t sound anything like some TV preachers’ visions of the future.
Salvation to the ends of the earth, which Isaiah also forsees means no more partiality. God is the God of all people, he loves them all, and desires to redeem them all. The lion is going to lie down with the lamb and not dream of lambchops. The wolf is going to den with the sheep and not wolf him down. And we will study war no more…… “For the prophets in exile, no vision was too large, no dream too big, no hope too beyond what would happen in the new exodus….A movement bigger than any one nation, bigger than any one ethnic group, bigger than one religion” (pp. 67-68).
To their credit, Bell and Golden point out that when Isaiah talks about this new leader, they see that he was to be like Solomon, only wiser and better. One who would use power purely to help the oppressed and the poor. One who would in fact be a servant—a suffering servant. A righteous and just servant. The authors see the promises in Isaiah 7,9,11 pointing to a leader that not only has a miraculous conception but can rule forever, some sort of interesting servant who is both truly human and yet truly divine. A prince of peace who will bring shalom forever.
What if David had another son, like but much greater than Solomon? “What started as a promise of hope for a particular group of people beside a particular river turned into a universal hope for all of humanity, whatever river they find themselves beside.” (p. 71). But these dreams were deferred for a long time. These hopes were left hanging in air, and even the moment of Macabbean glory did not fulfill these dreams. What or who could? The Old Testament leaves us hanging like the last episode in season 4 of Lost.
CHAPTER THREE Bell and Golden subscribe to the theory that Jews of the first century in Israel saw themselves as still in a sort of exile since the Roman oppressors were in their land, and they were not free, since even their temple was abutted by a taller Roman installation like the Antonia Fortress. I would call this occupation which involved some oppression to be sure. But not exile. The portrayal of Jesus as the true Son of David, like Solomon was supposed to be, is poignant and accurate, beginning on p. 78. There is also a stress on how much the story of Jesus is seen in light of Isaiah 40ff. and further there is a stress on how the ministry of Jesus is seen as not just one more return from exile, one more exodus, but in fact a new genesis—the beginning of the kingdom on earth leading to the new heavens and the new earth. There is a stress on the universal intent and scope of Jesus’ ministry—“this new son of David isn’t just leading a new exodus for a specific group of people; he’s bringing liberation for everybody everywhere and ultimately for everything everywhere for all time.” (p. 83).
There is a helpful discussion, beginning on p. 85 of the Emmaus road story. The authors remind us that Jesus’ frustration with the two fellow travelers is not because they believed the prophets and Jesus’ death had dashed such hopes. It is because they had not believed the prophets that spoke of the servant suffering. “For the fellow traveler, Jesus’ death isn’t the end of hope; its actually the beginning of hope.” (p. 86). Jesus was not going to change the world by killing, but rather by dying. “If evil always takes some form of violence, then more violence isn’t going to solve anything.” Jesus came to change the paradigm for “those addicted to the myth of redemptive violence.” (p. 87, and here an indebtedness to Walter Wink is acknowledged). Instead there is the truth of redemptive suffering and death. Violence cannot bring peace, the death of the prince of peace can, for only by absorbing the world’s attempt to be Cain over and over again, can the paradigm be changed, and the world be changed, and even God’s people be changed.
CHAPTER FOUR This chapter begins with a bit of a historical problem. Apparently the authors think that Philip the Evangelist is the same person as the Philip mentioned in the Gospels. This is probably incorrect. The Philip of Acts 6-8 is not one of the apostles, but someone picked to relieve the apostles of their table waiting duties, and their duties to care for the widows. And a picture is painted of this Philip that he comes from an ultra orthodox region of northern Galilee including Bethsaida. This idea they got from Ray Van der Laan, and it is likely wrong as well as it is based on what that region was like long after A.D. 70 when it became a haven for Jews after the debacle and destruction of Jews in Jerusalem. Bethsaida was not known as part of the orthodox triangle in Jesus’ day. Indeed, it was known as a border town dangerously close to pagan influences from Gerasa and elsewhere.
In their retelling of the story of Pentecost they connect it with the Mt. Sinai experience of Moses, and the Jewish tradition that Moses got the Big Ten and these truths were then spoken in the languages of all nations. This story is more likely to be alluded to in Acts 2 than the usual suggestion that Babel is alluded to, for Acts 2 is quite specifically not about the return to one world, one language. It is about how the Good News can be indigenized in all languages and cultures.
One of the features of Bell’s approach to Scripture is to look for small correspondences between Biblical stories and then connect them—for example the mention of 3,000 killed at Sinai, and 3,000 added at Pentecost. Some of these connections are far more plausible than others and this one is just barely possible. The danger of course is to read too much into the use of specific numbers that were not particularly symbolic for Jews (though there were perhaps a dozen or so numbers that were symbolic) or specific terms, like the word ‘east’, as in east of Eden.
Another example occurs in this same chapter where the reference to too much wine is taken as an allusion to weddings and marriages, and then we are told that Pentecost is about the beginning of the new marriage with God. This is something Luke does not even remotely suggest, and indeed what is said by Peter rules it out--- the taverns are not open this early in the morning. He’s not thinking weddings, he’s thinking happy hour. Or again in this same chapter the fact that the Ethiopian eunuch is riding in a chariot is used to connect this story to the chariots of Pharaoh, never mind this eunuch is already a God-fearer reading an Isaiah scroll! Is the chariot seen here as a symbol of oppression and baptism a liberation from that sort of oppression? Luke does not say or imply that is his message here. He is concerned about Good News traveling to the ends of earth, by means of folk like the Ethiopian (see my Acts commentary).
We are then given the picture of ultra-orthodox Philip who would have qualms about baptizing a eunuch. But nothing in the story indicates this was an issue for Philip at all. And indeed, we are not given a scenario where Philip has a crisis of conscience before baptizing the eunuch. This is reading too much into the story, on the basis of dubious background info. Context is great when it’s the right contextual info, to illuminate the text.
There are however better connections made later in the chapter for example between Paul in Rom. 1 seeing himself as a servant and sort of priest to the nations, thus fulfilling what is said in Exod. 19 and elsewhere. Bell and Golden are right, that the new covenant did want to emphasize the more universalizable aspects of the prophets words, and indeed of the words of Moses.
If we wonder where the title of this book comes from it comes from insights like the following: “Paul is gathering with the religious leaders, trying to persuade them about Jesus. He doesn’t first go to the Gentiles, he goes to the religious faithful, he attends their gatherings, he speaks to them in their language. Paul does this because he knows that if the church gets converted, the whole world will follow.” (p. 115, emphasis added). Of course in Acts 28 Paul is talking to Jewish leaders, not Christians, and of course they are synagogue leaders, not church leaders, and it is not clear whether the whole world’s following is meant to be an allusion to Rom. 11.25 and context where the full number of the Gentiles and all Israel being saved are connected. This is the weakest chapter in this book in terms of sound exegesis at various points, but it does manage to stay on message and rightly emphasis the new creation theme and the new covenant character promised in Isaiah and Jeremiah. The early Christians did believe they already lived in the age of fulfillment. Indeed every conversion was already a new creation, at least in that life.
CHAPTER FIVE This chapter begins with a bang, the big bang of the bombing that began Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. As is reported here while we were busily lauding the precision of our new weapons, in fact the hospitals nearby were reporting almost entirely civilian casualties—women, children, the elderly, and men. Not soldiers, not a one, and not Saddam Hussein. The accurate report from that day of one Iraqi trying to overcome the disaster is given. He said “Due to this [inhuman] behavior. America will fail. She will fail completely among the countries. And another nation will rise and take America’s place. America will lose because her behavior is not the behavior of a great nation.” (p. 118). The bombs you see fell in the wrong place, and any one who calls innocent people killed ‘collateral damage’ has certainly forfeited the right to think they stand on the moral high ground.
Now Bell and Golden are well aware of all the good that Americans have done in so many corners of the globe. They are well aware of , and agree that the loyal service of someone to their nation, is often to be applauded and honored. They quite agree that those who actually sacrificed their lives so we could live in freedom deserve our respect. That is not the issue. The issue is that Jesus has called Christians to participate not in Empire and ‘military solutions’ but in the Gospel and the attempt to save the world for true freedom in a very different manner. To the questions about the unjust terrorist act called the Crucifixion which happened to Jesus, and how we should respond, Jesus’ suggests “those who live by the sword shall die by it”. In short, Christians are not called to participate in the ‘military solution’.
Jesus has “an entirely different understanding of what just took place in Jerusalem [to himself], an understanding that strikes at the core of their entire worldview [which looked for the military restoration of Israel], and in the process of explaining to them what really just happened [namely the fulfillment of God’s plan—see Lk. 24], he reaches out to save them from perpetuating the very thing he came to save them from.” (p. 121, emphasis added). That is he came to save them from, among other things, the ways of Cain, the ways of violence to try and solve our problems. This stress on the Christian call to non-violence is both welcome, and Biblical. Its what Jesus would do.
Bell and Golden are quite right that it is difficult to read the Bible from the posture of the oppressed when one is part of a nation that is not under oppression in the way ancient Jews were. When one is part of the world’s biggest super power it is hard to read the Bible with the eyes of the original writers of these stories that saw super-powers as the ultimate manifestation of evil, and even severely criticized their own nation when it briefly became a super power under Solomon. While it would be easy to put America on a guilt trip for how much it has and has done to obtain it and how much better we have it than any other country in the world (see pp. 122-23) Bell and Golden take the high road.
They do want to deconstruct the sense of smugness and entitlement, and make us realize we have indeed been blessed to be a blessing, and we need to get on with it, not being a curse to other nations. They stress that prosperity brings with it the temptation to forget not only one’s past poverty and exodus from it, but to forget one’s God who did the blessing and rescuing.
They stress that what so often is a telltale sign that you have in fact forgotten God is “you forget the people God cares about…the widow, the orphan, and the refugee.” (p. 124). They are right about this. One measure of the character of country is how it treats the foreigners and strangers in the land. They stress “Entitlement leads to becoming immune to the suffering of others, because ‘I got what I deserve’ and so, apparently, did they….In the empire of entitlement, when the fundamental awareness is lost that this is all a gift, luxuries can begin to seem like necessities. Excess can become normal. And it can be very easy to lose perspective on just how much we have.” (p. 125).
But Bell and Golden are not just critiquing luxury and excess. They are wanting Americans to see themselves in different places in the Bible than they usually see themselves. “If you are a citizen of an empire that has the most powerful army in the history of humanity and is currently on the way to spending a trillion dollars on a war, passages in the Bible about those who accumulate chariots and horses from Egypt are passages about you and your people.” (p. 128). It is no surprise that the Psalmist contrasts those who trust in chariots and those who trust in God.
One of the more key insights that Bell and Golden emphasize that makes the Bible a different sort of book is that the Bible records how God wanted God’s people to be self-critical. The Bible records both the good points about Solomon, but also the full critique of his attempt to make Israel like the other nations, an accumulating empire. This is a God thing, as not too many empires are self-critical. “This is a warning to us of the powerful impulse within an empire to tell only one version of the story, the version that glosses over the dark side and injustices in order to serve the larger story of continued supremacy and success.” (p. 130). When you begin believing your own rhetoric, you are self-deceived.
Not surprisingly in this chapter considerable time is spent on the book of Revelation, which is rightly seen as a profound critique of empire and the Emperor cult and the tendency of God’s people to compromise with the pagan culture and its values.
The critique of some popular forms of Dispensational interpretation of Revelation is trenchant: “Imagine how dangerous it would be if there were Christians who skipped over the first century meaning of John’s Letter [i.e. Revelation] and focused only on whatever it might be saying about future events, years and years away. There is always the chance that in missing the point, they may in the process be participating in and supporting and funding various kinds of systems that the letter warns against participating in, supporting and funding. That would be tragic. That wouldn’t be what Jesus had in mind. That would be anti-Jesus. That would be anti-Christ. Were the people in John’s church reading his letter for the first time, with Roman soldiers right outside their door thinking, ‘This is going to be really helpful for people two thousand years from now who don’t want to get left behind.”? (p. 135). They ask the pertinent question—how do the children of the empire hear a critique of the fallen tendencies toward and the existence of empires? They spend the final major chapter of this book trying to answer that question.
CHAPTER SIX The title of the final major chapter is striking—Blood on the Doorposts of the Universe. The image of course comes from the original Passover, which is seen as an occasion where the power of the Empire was rendered inert and the Pharaoh powerless to stop the angel of death because the God of the exodus was going to hear his people’s cry and rescue them. An extended comparison is drawn between the original Exodus which involved the sacrifice of a lamb, and its blood on the doorpost in lieu of the loss of the first born son, and the new Exodus in Jesus’ blood on the cross where in fact, by contrast God’s first born did lose his life. The lamb, and more specifically the sacrificed lamb becomes a symbol of freedom, of that which sets a people free. The authors then go on to discuss the Passover meal Jesus celebrated where he reinterpreted two of the elements, bread and wine, in light of himself, and his own coming sacrifice. When you change the referents of the symbols, you are changing the symbol system, and in this case that means new covenant, and not just a renewal of the old one.
On p. 150 much is made of the fact that Christ is called the firstborn of all creation, which is taken to mean that Jesus is the representative of all of creation. In fact Colossians is talking about his being preeminent over all creation, but they are right in general about the point they are making. Christ did die for all. God is reconciling all things unto himself through the blood of the cross. This is the language of estrangement overcome, not liberation from bondage, but it is said to be for all of creation. Probably preeminent over creation and preeminent and first in the new creation of resurrection is what Col. 1 is about, a statement about Christology, not so much about new exodus. In fact “making peace thru the blood of the cross” is more about cessation of hostilities between God and humankind, not about liberation from Egypt like oppression and bondage. The problem with paradigms is that when you try to read new Exodus into too many things, some texts get distorted like Col. 1.
The authors go on to stress that Paul apparently saw himself as, like Christ, a thank offering poured out for the world. They argue (see pp. 152-53) that we are all supposed to be offering ourselves as sacrifices and servants, for the world. One striking remark comes while they are discussing 1 Cor. 9, and notice that Paul does not say “to the strong I became strong” whereas he does say to the weak I became weak”. The reason this is notable is because of the previous antinomies (I became a Jew to the Jew, a Gentile to the Gentile etc.). Why not? Because a Eucharist is not about self-strengthening or identifying with the strong. “For someone to receive, someone has to give. For someone to be fed, someone has to provide the food. …if someone somewhere benefits, then someone somewhere has paid something” (p. 152). Eucharist is about self-giving, not self-aggrandizement or self-enhancement.
One of the things that is strongly critiqued in this last chapter is a consumer approach to church, especially when that makes a church an exercise in niche marketing for a specific subculture or cultural group. As Bell and Golden stress that doesn’t look like the new humanity talked about in Ephes. 2 that Christ died to create. They put it this way-- “A church is not a center for religious goods and services, where people pay a fee and receive a product in return. A church is not an organization that surveys its demographic to find out what the market is demanding at this particular moment and then adjusts its strategy to meet that consumer need.” (p. 161). The question is what does it look like to break ourselves open and pour ourselves out for the world, as Jesus did. A church’s authority in the world comes from its Christ’likeness is in essence what they are saying.
At this juncture, lest we think that Bell and Golden might be suggesting something ‘liberal’ about politics they make clear that is not their intent--- “This is why when Christians organize politically and start flexing their muscle, making threats about how they are going to impose their way on others, so many people turn away from Jesus. Jesus’ followers at that point are claiming to be the voice of God. But they are speaking the language of Caesar and using the methods of Rome, and for millions of us it has the stench of Solomon, its not the path of descent.” (p. 164).
In other words, they are all for Christians living out the radical demands of the Gospel, but they do not see this as a political program by which a Christian group weds itself to a particular political party or movement, and uses the world’s tactics to try and accomplish God’s ends. This would not be taking the way of the servant, the way of sacrifice, the way of eucharist. Giving unconditionally to others is different from demanding things of others, manipulating others, brow-beating others, and the like. Working for justice in the world does not just help the oppressed, it rescues us from becoming oppressors and forgetting we were once slaves who were set free by God. “The Eucharist is about people with the power empowering the powerless to make a better life for themselves.” (p. 168). The church is said to be an organization that exists for the sake of non-members.
”The church is the living, breathing, life-giving, system-confronting, empire-subverting picture of the new humanity.” (p. 172). Or at least it is supposed to be, but have you seen an American church much like this? I hope so.
EPILOGUE Perhaps the strongest plea from the end of this little book is that we are all indeed our brother’s keeper. And so “Jesus wants to save our church from the exile of irrelevance. If we have any resources, any power, any voice, any influence, any energy, we must convert them into blessing for those who have no power, no voice, no influence.” (p. 179). In other words, like God we are to hear the cry of those in need of help, relief, food, medicine, rescue, redemption because in fact all of this is the social outworking of salvation, and the spiritual and social dimensions of salvation should not be severed. God wants to save the whole person, body and soul, life and situation.
These two rather young men believe passionately in the whole Gospel for the whole person in the whole world. Listen to how they put it in the end, because indeed Jesus needs to and wants to save the American church from irrelevance—
“Jesus wants to save us from making the good news about another world and not this one. Jesus wants to save us from preaching a Gospel that is only about individuals and not about the systems that enslave them. Jesus wants to save us from shrinking the Gospel down to a transaction about the removal of sin and not about every single particle of creation being reconciled to its maker. Jesus wants to save us from religiously sanctioned despair, the kind that doesn’t believe the world can be made better, the kind that either blatantly or subtly teaches people to just be quiet and behave and wait for something big to happen ‘someday’.” (p. 185). In other words, “do not ask for whom this Golden Bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Charles Wesley is one of the most interesting of all the early Methodists, not least because of the kind of relationship he had with his older brother John. Some long time ago, Richard Heitzenrater and other fine Methodist scholars decoded and translated John Wesley's secret diary, and now the same has been done to Charles Wesley's diary. You can read the story in the Times, and here is the string----
A professor from Liverpool Hope University, Kenneth Newport, has done the decoding and translating of the some 1000 handwritten pages, that cover the years 1736-1756. The diary begins with his time in Georgia in Savannah and elswhere and it provides various clues as to why Charles so opposed John Wesley's marriage to Grace Murray, and how that whole mess (which included Charles kidnapping Grace and forcing her to marry another Methodist!) put an enormous strain on the relationship between the brothers. The work of John Tyson and others has opened up the study of Charles Wesley in recent decades and he deserves further scrutiny not only for his enormous hymn output (over 6,000 hymn texts)but for the role he played in birthing the Methodist movement. This diary will add grist to the mill and help us understand this crucial figure in the English revival of the 18th century.
Here is a juicy little sample of one page from the diary translated:
"Monday, March 22  While I was persuading Mr Welch not to concern himself in this disturbance, I heard Mrs Hawkins cry out: “Murder!” and walked away. Returning out of the woods, I was informed by Mr Welch that poor blockhead Mrs Welch had joined with Mrs Hawkins and the Devil in their slanders of me. I would not believe it till half the town told me the same, and exclaimed against her ingratitude."
Oh those Wesley boys and their tempestuous relationship with women!
Sunday, August 24, 2008
One of the best kept secrets in all of Chicago is the Smith Museum of Stained Glass on Navy Pier, which we visited a week ago. Its free, its spectacular, and here is just a sample. You will notice that many of these windows, which have been collected out of old churches and homes mostly are made by the famous Tiffany Glass manufacturers which began in the Victorian era. There is something especially moving about the combination of beauty and truth and craftsmanship, for example in the Tiffany window above of King Solomon, or the dark skinned Jesus. Enjoy, and see if you can figure out which of the windows depicts a famous Tar Heel who landed in Chicago for a while. BW3
Saturday, August 23, 2008
One of my all time favorite movies with a Christian theme is the 1981 film entitled 'Chariots of Fire' a story about two runners, one a Jewish Englishman named Harold Abrams, one a Scottish Evangelical named Eric Liddle who both did remarkable things at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. NBC and Mary Carillo this afternoon did a wonderful tribute to Liddle, which if you can find on their website you should watch it. What Carillo rightly points out, is that Liddle was the first athlete born in China (of missionary parents in 1902) to win a gold medal at any Olympics.
Eric Liddle lived a short life (1902-45), but the importance of a life cannot be measured in its quantity, rather it must be measured in its quality, and as Carillo movingly said, "most athletes come to the games desiring to be great and do great, Eric Liddle came to the Paris Olympics desiring to be good, and to do good." Liddle famously refused to run in the race that was his speciality because the heat was on Sunday, and he was a strict Scottish sabbitarian. Even the pleas from the royal family went on deaf ears. This was a great blow to Britain recovering from WWI as Liddle was undoubtedly the best in the world in 100M. But his old rival whom he had beaten in that very distance before, Harold Abrams, ran and won the race for Great Britain. Liddle however was persuaded to run the 400 meters. As his daughter Patrica Russell tells the story, the thing was he ran it as if it was the 100 meters. He ran it like an all out sprint, smashing the world record, winning by a comfortable margin. There is a famous line in the movie 'Chariots of Fire' where Eric's sister is arguing with him about his going to Paris instead of going instantly to the mission field in China. Eric's response was memorable, "God has made me to be a missionary, aye, but he has made me fast, and when I run, I feel God's pleasure". I know exactly what he means, having been a runner most of my life. When I ran the Boston Marathon in 1993 on an unusually hot muggy day in April, I came down to the last few miles on fumes, and kept saying to myself "are you running with me Jesus", "are you running with me".
Eric Liddle after the Paris Olympics did return to the country of his birth, China, where he was a missionary. Unfortunately, China was invaded by Japan, and Liddle had to send his family home to Canada (his wife was Canadian), and he himself ended up in a concentration camp with many others 300 miles south of Beijing. In the camp he pastored and taught and loved his fellow inmates. In the Carillo piece, one of the interees said that Liddle taught him that he must pray for the Japanese who had done this to them, for the NT says 'pray for those who persecute you'. Liddle was a genuinely Christian person from start to finish in his 43 years of life. Only six months before the liberation of China by the Allies in 1945, Eric Liddle became suddenly ill, and then died. He had a massive brain tumor. To this day, the Chinese do not erect monuments to foreigners on their soil, but they made an exception for an exceptional man who called two nations his home. Still today you can see the monument erected with an English script and a cross on it honoring Eric Liddle for his good work in China.
Though what Michael Phelps accomplished at this Olympics will long redound to his glory, what Eric Liddle did both at the 1924 Olympics and throughout his life will redound to God's glory, and, as those bonny Scots would say, "that's more than a wee bit greater."
Friday, August 22, 2008
One category we haven't much talked about are the balladeers or troubadours. Some of these artists would be categorized as folk, some as country, some as bluegrass, some as folk rock, but they are certainly all on the penumbra of rock n' roll and deserve some discussion. These are our master story tellers and lyrical writers. Here is a list of some quintessential examples:
Recently honored precisely for these sorts of skills, Paul Simon has to be at or near the top of this list. To get a sense of his lyrical gifts checkout:
1) from the Simon and Garfunkel era--- the Sounds of Silence, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Bookends, and the Bridge over Trouble Waters lps
2) from his solo career there are many to mention--- the Rhymin Simon, Still Crazy after all these Years, Graceland, and most recently the Surprise lps.
Equally talented as a songwriter, singer in this sort of tradition is of course the late lamented Dan Fogelberg. The best way to sample his work now is the Portrait box set which has most of his classic tunes. James Taylor absolutely falls into this category, but since I have already done a blog post on North Carolinian musicians, I will just mention from his early work, Sweet Baby James, Shower the People, and from more recent years lps like Hourglass or New Moon Shine. These sorts of artists are quite intentionally continuing a tradition of folk music that ultimately goes back to English, Irish and Scottish folk music brought over by the immigrants to this country.
There are midwestern versions of these sorts of artists, for example some of John Mellencamp's work especially Scarecrow or my favorite Lonesome Jubilee, and several of the important more folk oriented albums of Bruce Springsteen belong in this discussion--- The River, Devils and Dust (and the recent tribute lp to Pete Seeger), and especially The Ghost of Tom Joad. Of course some of these artists were capable of doing straight ahead rock n' roll as well, but my concern is here with the more folk side of things. Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead belong in this conversation when you think of lps like American Beauty or Working Man's Dead. If one wants a more urban version of a troubadour whose music was often stark and dark, and very influential in this whole sphere of music, check out Leonard Cohen.
Of course no discussion of this matter could even be undertaken without considering the overwhelming ouevre of Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan. In general, it is especially his early material that most would mention, and you already see what he is capable of in the Free Wheelin' lp. We could probably list ten lps, and notice that Bob has always been willing to push the envelope, dabbling in country briefly in the wonderful Nashville Skyline lp, or in more rootsy sounds like in his Time Out of Mind lp, and I would add that even his Gospel lps such as the marvelous Slow Train Comin' are essentially folk done in a Gospel mode.
Of the female troubadours early on Joan Baez had the best voice, but she was not the songwriter that Joni Mitchell was. Joan was at her best singing protest songs, and wonderful renditions of Bob Dylan tunes, but she did have some fine original numbers like 'Diamonds and Rust'. I love her tribute to William Blake lp on Vanguard, but unfortunately it and many other great old Vanguard lps are no longer available. The second best voice of this whole group of female troubadours was Judy Collins, no question, and I still get chills hearing her version of Amazing Grace. Wildflowers is perhaps her most lyrical lp. She did have some gift for songwriting for sure, but it was her versions of Joni Mitchell tunes (like 'Both Sides Now') that were most popular. I once saw her in the Kennedy Center in D.C. and she was just magical. To this I would add the wonderful work of Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman who belong in this discussion.
Joni Mitchell was by far the greatest of these female balladeers, and she also had the most scope to her work, even going into jazz and jazz rock (listen to her Mingus CD or Court and Spark and the Hissing of Summer Lawns), but her very firstlp, simply called Joni Mitchell (produced by David Crosby no less)is absolutely lightning in a bottle and proved what she could do. The Both Sides Now and Blue lps were natural developments of her more folk side. Most of her most recent work has combined the jazz and folk sides of her interests and she has many wonderful more recent Cds-- Try for example Taming the Tiger. On top of all this, she was a wonderful painter as well. I even love her recent ventures into singing old classic show and jazz tunes.
There are of course many more male and female folk artists that deserve mention in such a discussion, people like Leo Kottke, Tom Rush, and on the more country side of things John Prine, especially his early stuff.
Of the country folk rockers several artists stand out above the pack--- Poco for example. Check out the lp with the Big Orange on the front, or their live in Boston CD, or their Good Feelin to Know Cd. Even more country was NRPS, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the later incarnation of the Byrds ala Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Jimmy Messina was essentially a country rock artists, and one can see this in the wonderful Loggins and Messina 'Sittin' In' lp. I saw them with full band at Duke, and they blew us right on out of the building with songs like Vahevala, or Peace of Mind, or I Don't Want Nobody but You.
If one wants to push a bit further one has to talk about artists who were influenced by blues and early rock, but were essentially country artists, like Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash. Both of these artists had good gifts of singing and songwriting, especially Willie who is indeed mainly a ballad writer and acoustic guitar player in a Texas kind of mode.
If we move even further into Bluegrass then we have to talk about artists ranging from Doc and Merle Watson, to the more recent work of Allyson Krauss and Union Station, or Ricky Skaggs. Bluegrass Gospel is wonderful as well, as Allyson Kraus' early work with the Jones family shows. There are many more such talented folks, who could writer ballads and sing but this list will have to do.
If we look at all of this music from a broader perspective, what they all share in common is: 1) a commitment to acoustic music; 2) a commitment to quality song writing and close attention to the lyrics; 3) a commitment of harmonies; 4) a commitment to telling honest stories of real life. This is indeed blue collar music, vox populi, and it could be urban or rural in origins and focus but it reflected the wide open spaces of North America and the day to day tragedies and triumphs of ordinary people.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Over the weekend we went and visited our Russian daughter who is starting her PhD in Chicago. One of our main and favorite stop was at the Art Institute on Michigan Ave. What you see in these pictures includes figures such as John of Patmos, Job, Peter and the girl who recognized him at Caiphas' house, Adam and Eve, Moses sending the Red Sea onto Pharaoh's army, angels in stone, Marc Chagall's famous white crucifixion, and two El Grecos, one of James the Less, and one of St. Francis.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
In the wake of the huge response to the previous rock n' roll posts, I offer the list of the ten best concerts I have seen and would love to have captured on my reel to reel recorder. Of course everyone will have a different list since we haven't all gone to the same concerts. And of course it is also true that you might catch a band on an off day, or on a remarkably good day. The issue is-- were they in top form when you saw them, or not? A lot of things can factor into such a list: 1) the weather; 2) the equipment; 3) the performance; 4) the length and breadth of the performance; 5) who were the preliminary bands (if any)?
I am listing these in no particular order.
1) The Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder in the Charlotte Coliseum. The acoustics were o.k., but the performances could hardly have been more of a study in contrasts. I loved them both, but actually Stevie Wonder, who opened the showed, was better than the Stones in terms of actual performance.
2) Bob Dylan and the Band in Charlotte Coliseum. The Band came out and did a wonderful set of their own first, and then Bob came out and did an electric, and then an acoustic set. His voice actually sounded decent (ala Sarah vintage) and he did not mumble through things. Pure magic, especially the acoustic set.
3) The Eagles and Joni Mitchell in Cameron Indoor Stadium (at Duke)-- This was just after the first Eagles lp was released, and they were an 'item' as country rockers. This was also just after Mitchell's Blue lp hit the top of the charts. They were both in peak form, and all the cigarette lighters burned out asking for more encores this was so great.
4)The Moody Blues at Blossom Center (near Cleveland)-- This was later in their career but they came out smoking and did not slow down. I was amazed how good the vocals were, especially Justin Heyward, and they did a nice cross-section of their good stuff. The symphonic sound was even better than in the old Melletron days.
Question was the last encore and everyone was ready to enter the Kingdom at that point.
5)The Little River Band at House of Blues (Myrtle Beach)-- This was stunning, and I love concerts in small venues anyway. They did all their multitudinous hits singing with verve and playing immaculately. It was an evening to remember, and even my children loved it and sang along to the tunes.
6) Bruce Hornsby Solo (Kentucky Theater, Lexington)--- I have always liked his incorporation of southern folk music into his performances, and he is an amazing pianist. It was wonderful, and he sang well.
7) Joe Cocker and the Greaseband and Jefferson Airplane (at Fillmore East, N.Y.)-- This was my first introduction to what big time rock concerts were going to be lie, and I was simply blown away. "I got by with a little help from my friends"
8) Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young at the Kennedy Center (D.C.)-- We hitched a ride from Chapel Hill to see this one, and took the Sunday night all nighter bus back to the Hill for Monday classes. And it was worth all the lost sleep. Ronstadt had just released Heart Like a Wheel, and she blew everyone out of the building with her killer vocals and band. Neil needed to be completely up to snuff to beat that opening act, and he was--- playing both acostic and electric numbers with verve. Another magical night.
9) David Crosby and Graham Nash at Duke--- These guys could take you right on out of the building and into the sky with their immaculate harmonies and the wonderful 12 string guitar playing by Crosby. They did songs from the Byrds days (Hey Mr. Tamborine Man) the Hollies days, the CSN days, their solo lps. It was acoustically fabulous and enough to make anyone fall in love with their music unless they had a heart of stone. I later saw Crosby here with his son's band (CPR) in Lex. and he still has the juice. The CSN concert in Charlotte was good as well, and Still added a hard edge with his blues songs and great guitar licks.
10) Eric Clapton and Friends in the Greenboro Coliseum-- (the friends being Duane Allman, Ringo Starr, Pete Townsend). This was great, and we got a selection of all Clapton's ouevre, even from Yardbirds and Cream and Blind Faith days. Naturally, Layla was the encore that brought down the house. I did also see the Who much later do Quadrophenia, in Indiana of all places, and they were good, but it was long after the Moon and Entwhistle days, sadly.
Other concerts I loved just outside the top ten-- Dan Fogelberg, James Taylor, Uriah Heep, Poco, Foreigner, Collective Soul, the Allman Brothers, Seals and Croft, the Beach Boys, America with Christopher Cross, Elton John (in Boston Garden after I ran the Boston Marathon in 1993), Gordon Lightfoot, Howard Jones, Leo Kottke, Judy Collins, and the beat goes on.