Thursday, July 28, 2005

Let Your Conscience Be your Guide? Not Exactly

I am in the process of working on a commentary on the Pastorals and the Johannine Epistles both in one volume. While dealing with the latter I was looking at 1 Jn. 3.19-20 today -- "This is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence, whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything."

I came across a wonderful passage in a commentary by William Loader on the Johannine Epistles (pp. 43-44) on this text where he stresses that the writer of 1 John....

"assumes conscience [or heart] may deceive in much the same way as feelings may deceive. Faith means trusting in God’s love and making ourselves available for its action despite what we may feel. Faith cannot be based on feelings. Nor should its criterion of authenticity be absence of struggle. A troubled conscience or mind may coexist with a life of faith. By shifting the basis for confidence from human feelings and inner harmony to hard faith facts about God and behaviour, the author is boycotting a common religious trend, then and now, to make inner human experiences the criteria of spirituality…. It would [also] be wrong to read this passage as devaluing conscience or our thoughts and feelings altogether. They may be a guide, but their quality as guide will be determined by the quality of person who is being guided. The author is not operating with an idealistic notion of conscience as somehow representing the voice of God within….He operates rather with the notion that our thoughts and feelings are part of our own system of awareness which may be misinformed and misguided. There is also a touch of realism in the author’s obvious appreciation that Christians may well at times have to struggle with unresolved tensions within their personalities which have their origin somewhere other than God. There is a profound comfort in the assurance that God is greater than our conscience and knows all (3.20), because this God is the God of love and compassion and may be trusted."

This passage has many insights to be contemplated but I will share just three: 1) a troubled conscience may at times be a good thing (a sign that one is deeply concerned about an injustice), it may at times be a bad thing (a sign of something done wrong), but it is not an infallible thing. The Bible never suggests--- "let your conscience be your guide" or "to your own heart be true". The problem with this sort of advice is that our hearts or minds or consciences are just as fallen and prone to error as our feelings. 2) There are times when persons struggle with being sure they are Christians. They wrestle with feelings of not being good enough, and the like. This text should be a great comfort. God has the trump card--- he can over-rule your feelings or tender conscience and reassure you that you are in right relationship with God even if it does not feel that way; 3)the quality of the conscience depends on the character of the person in whom it resides, and just how sanctified that person truly is. Sometimes mass murderers sleep just fine at night, with no qualms of conscience. Sometimes some Christians have a weak conscience, and find offense in any little thing. Notice how Paul says that the overly scrupulous person in 1 Cor. 8-10 is the Christian who is weak in faith. In either case the conscience is not a good barometer of the truth or what is right. This is why at the end of the day the author of 1 John stresses that we must trust God and place our trust in the Gospel message, not trust ourselves as the last arbiters of truth, right, "and the godly way" and finally 4) the Pauline rule, whatever is not of faith, is sin for you, is a good one, when one is wrestling with one's conscience. As faulty as the conscience may be, it is sometimes a good nagging voice that approves or disapproves what you are contemplating doing. You should listen to the voice, but not give it the final say. That belongs to God and God's Word.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Durham Tradition and its Exegetes-- an Encomium

We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, especially when we are dealing with the life of the mind. And of course there have been many great schools of Christian thought and of Christian scholarship, but when it comes to Biblical Interpretation there are few if any institutions from the 19th century until now that can claim to have had a grander series of exegetes of the New Testament than the University of Durham, the resting place of the Venerable Bede and Cuthbert and many after them.

My own personal interest in the Durham exegetes began in the 1970s when I was doing my divinity degree in Massachusetts and kept running into the works of various of these scholars over and over again, scholars that my teachers kept referring to as the authorities on this or that or the other NT subject. It was one of the things that led me to study at Durham where I had the privilege of studying under C.K. Barrett, C.E.B. Cranfield, John Rogerson, T.H.L. Parker, Stephen Sykes and others. But before any of these scholars of the 1950s-1980s darkened the doors of Durham, there was B.F. Wescott, there was the amazing J.B. Lightfoot, there was Alfred Plummer, there was H.E.W Turner, and after my time at Durham there has been J.D.G. Dunn and now John Barclay in the Lightfoot Chair in the theology department. There are other names I could gladly mention as well. My point is this-- Good exegetes are not born, they are made and molded, and the process is more helpful and less painful if you are learning from the best.

If it is true that you become what you admire, then there can be little doubt of the great debt I owe to all of these persons whom I have named, and whose works I continue to read with profit long after my time in Durham, and long after many of these men have retired or died. There is a living legacy of scholarship nurtured over generations in the same place which like a clear stream which continues to have it specific places where fish can best be caught, continues to be a place to which I return again and again with profit to get clear answers, intellectual stimulus, spiritual succour, and food for thought.

Hail to Durham whose Norman Cathderal will reach its second millennium birthday perhaps in my son's lifetime, and hail to its new bishop-- my friend Tom Wright who himself now carries forward the wonderful rich tradition of Durham exegetes. To all of us who stand in this tradition I bring reminder of the words of J. Bengel, whom Wesley was wont to quote in his own notable Notes on the NT--- "apply the whole of the text to yourself, apply the whole of yourself to the text." I am proud to be a Durhamite.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Validity of Religious Experience

How many times have we heard the phrase "I cannot deny my experience"? This is all the more the cry when it comes to religious experience. But in fact the issue is not the reality or the clarity of the experience, the issue is the source, the content and trajectory of the experience. What distinguishes a good from a bad religious experience in part depends on whether it has come from the one true God, or from some other source. It also depends on what that experience leads, impells, or prompts you to do. 'You shall know the tree by the fruit it bears...." And according to the author of 1 John, there are even specific criteria by which we may be able to tell whether a particular religious experience is from God or comports with the Christian faith.

In his classic commentary on the Johannine Epistles, C.H. Dodd says this about the validity of religious experience:

"We may have the feeling of awareness of God, of union with Him, but how shall we know that such experience corresponds to reality? It is clear that no amount of clearness or strength in the experience itself can guarantee its validity, any more than the extreme vividness of a dream leads us to suppose that it is anything but a dream. If, however, we accept the revelation of God in Christ, then we must believe that any experience of God which is valid has an ethical quality defined by what we know of Christ. It will require with it a renewed fidelity to His teaching and example. The writer does not mean that only those who perfectly obey Christ and follow His example can be said to have the experience of God. That would be to affirm the sinlessness of Christians in a sense which he has repudiated [see 1 Jn. 1]. But unless the experience includes a setting of the affections and will in the direction of the moral principles of the Gospel, it is no true experience of God, in any Christian sense."

In 1 John 2 the Beloved Disciple suggests a series of moral tests to see if one's experience is of God, for example-- does it produce behavior like the behavior of Jesus? Does it lead one to love God with one's whole heart and one's neighbor as self, or is it narcissistic in character? Does it lead to holy living or does it lead to questionable beliefs and behavior? Does it lead to moving on faith, or does it lead to fear-based practices, since the experience of the real love of God casts out all fear? Does it lead to the belief that Jesus is the Son of God come in the flesh, as the Johannine Epistles put it, or to some sort of heterodox belief about Jesus?

At the end of the day what the author of the Johannine Epistles is suggesting is that there are some external tests, tests grounded in what God's Word says and what Christ's character manifests by which we may and should evaluate our experiences including even very genuine religious experiences. As it turns out, the way to tell the difference between heart burn and a heart strangely warmed, both genuine experiences, is by evaluating it by using external and objective criteria. In an affective age, this is all the more crucial because feelings are often deception and a notably bad guide to truth or the goodness of something.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Save Colossae

Having spent parts of the last two summers in Turkey, one of the dismaying things is seeing the Biblical sites which desperately need to be excavated but are untouched. One such site which has never been dug is Colossae. The city was destroyed by earthquake in the mid 60s A.D. and has lain pretty much untouched since then. It is a small but manageable sized mound and would not take years and years to uncover. You can see the outlines of an Odeon on one side of the tel, and farmers are still planting wheat on the other side of the tel. It is pristine and crying out for excavation. Something needs to be done and soon, because recently someone has tried to dig a trench or hole in the site to find antiquities and pilfer them. The site is fortunately now guarded at least part of the time, but the only way to really protect this precious site is to excavate it and bring it under the protection of the antiquities authorities in Turkey.

The Turkish government is happy to have a proper foreign team dig the site though they require quite naturally the supervision of a Turkish archaeologist, they charge a $50,000 for permission to dig, and of course the artifacts need to go to Turkish museums. I am wondering if there is someone or someones out there in cyberspace who would be willing to underwrite one season's worth of digging, to see what we can find and whether it is worth pursuing for a longer period of time. If there are such folks, I have the contacts in Turkey, and would be glad to help facilitate this. I would love to take a team from Asbury and elsewhere over there for a dig, and we have many students who would go and dig as long as they had sustenance to help with this project by providing cheap labor. If anyone is interested, contact me via my email address--- This is a project worth doing for sure, and who knows what lies beneath the surface of that mound? It could be, as Paul says in Colossians, a revelation.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Fantastic Four--Tripping the Light Fantastic

What can one expect from light summer movie faire--- only fast food of mind? Well, yes and no. Growing up, the Fantastic Four was my 'other' favorite comic book (my favorite being Spiderman of course). Therefore, I went into this movie expecting very little. One might say my attitude fell under the rubric--"Blessed are those who expect little, for they shall not be disappointed". However, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. This movie was well put together and time was taken for character development. It wasn't all shoot 'em up bang, bang. In fact the action was limited to the sequences where it needed to happen, and there was no gratuitous sex or violence.

What sets the Fantastic Four apart from most comic books, except for Spiderman perhaps, is there are actually characters who generate some pathos--- in this case Ben Grimm, 'the Thing'. If ever there was a reluctant super hero who is not comfortable in his own skin, this is the man (and what a skin it is, like something out of the mudflats of the Mahavi). He has lost his fiancee and his former life when he is transformed, and unlike the other three of the Fantastic Four, he is unable to change back into a normal form. What is especially fascinating about the Thing's character is that he is a walking critique of our culture's attitude that "image is everything" or that "beauty is only skin deep". In fact he is a walking critique of the other three of the Four, who are all amongst the 'beautiful people'. Grimm may often be grim, but he is a poignant person, and turns out to be loved by the perfect woman--- a blind lady named Alicia. This is not the sort of story one is used to finding in comic books, and it is one of the things that set Stan Lee's characters apart from some of the those at rival DC comics.

Reed Richards is likewise a vulnerable figure-- a geek or genius who is not good at all at acting on how he feels, but his character falls flat compared to Grimm's. More interesting is Victor Von Doom whose resemblance to Darth Vader, in terms of career trajectory is striking, as striking as the resemblance in costume. One wonders if George Lucas based his character on Stan Lee's. Von Doom wants power, but of course like all power junkies, he can never get enough of it, and it is his fatal flaw. What is especially interesting is that it takes all of the Fantastic Four to handle one Von Doom. Each of the four has a specific power or ability, but it is the team work which insures that good triumphs over evil. In other words, evil is too powerful for even one robust super hero to handle.

Marvel Comics have now generated enough of a movie track record (X Men, Spider Men, Daredevil, Electra, and now Fantastic Four) to evaluate them as a genre of movies, and as such they provide some interesting and occasionally thought provoking faire for families, while always remaining entertaining. All of them remind us that even if we had super powers, this would definitely not solve all of our problems--- indeed they would create a whole new set of problems. Perhaps the lesson for us is that after all what is really needed is not juiced up humans, but an incarnational deity to handle the Evil problem.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Disease of the Gospel of Conspicuous Consumption

It was an odd experience all around. I had just come from a large worship service in Moscow, and my host Sasha Tsoutserov was telling me about this prosperity Gospel preacher in Moscow claiming that Jesus and the disciples were all rich and that God intended for all who had enough faith to be rich. What was especially odd to me about this Gospel is that it is so clearly an American Gospel, one that has been born and nurtured in America where our cultural desires and our religion regularly get confused and fused. It was alarming to see this Gospel being transplanted to Russia in so flagrant a way.

So perhaps a few words about money and lifestyle and the basic of what the Bible says about these matters is in order. In the first place lets deal with historical facts--- it is simply not true that Jesus and most of his followers were well to do. No doubt some were, but they were in the minority and they were expected to provide the houses and hospitality for Jesus' followers so they could meet. To whom more is given, more is expected. And furthermore, there is no subject about which Jesus has more warnings than the dangers of wealth, and Paul is not far behind him.

For example, of course there is the famous story of the rich young man whom Jesus tells to sell everything, give to the poor and come and follow him (Mk. 10.17-31). When the man fails to follow Jesus instructions Jesus then serves up the famous aphorism about how it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. The reason for this is simple--- you cannot serve two masters--- God and money. God alone needs to be lord in the Christian's life whether they are rich or poor.

And in any case the proper place to start a conversation like this is to point out that as the psalmist says "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof". Put bluntly this means that human beings do not own anything, they are only stewards of God's property. There is no such thing as an affirmation of private property in the Bible. Indeed, we are often warned about the dangers of much possessions (see Lk. 12 the parable of the rich fool or Lk. 16 and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus). Jesus even says Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom (Lk. 6.20).

This hardly comports with a Gospel of conspicuous consumption, or even the assumption that if one is wealthy it must necessarily be a blessing of God and proof one has true faith. While sometimes wealth is a gift from God the real issue is what one does with it, and what one does with money reveals a lot about one's character. Paul made clear it was a matter of character and heart when he stressed that the "love of money is a root of all sorts of evil" (1. Tim. 6.10). In that same context Paul stresses that godliness with contentment should be our attitude, not the avaricious desire for more and more.

Since it is the case that Americans make up less than 15% of the world's population and yet we consume over 60% of the world's resources, and having things like obesity and heart disease caused by obesity as leading causes of death, what preachers in our country really ought to be stressing instead of a prosperity Gospel is a Gospel of simplifying one's lifestyle, as Jesus' early followers did, and generous giving to others, taking care of the least, last and the lost. What a country does with its most vulnerable and weakest members of its society most reveals that nation's character.

In my own faith tradition John Wesley took this matter very seriously. I would urge every Christian to read his famous sermon "On the Use of Money". It has three main points: 1) make all you can by moral means (not engaging in non-Christian ways of making money such as gambling, selling harmful products like cigrarettes etc.); 2) save all you can; and 3) give all you can. Wesley says if you do the first two but not the third, you may be a living person but you are a dead Christian. He would be urging us to de-enculturate ourselves from the values of our society when it comes to wealth and conspicuous consumption.

It is hard for me to imagine Jesus encouraging anyone to live in luxury while there are people starving right in our own nation. How is this a good witness to the world? I can't imagine any real Christian rationale for luxury cars, SUVs, luxry houses, luxury clothes etc. The basic Christian principle is simple--- another person's necessities should take priority over my luxuries.

For those looking for a good book that has often helped Christians work through this important issue I would urge reading Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger-- a classic treatment.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The Fireworks of the War of the Worlds

The 4th of July is an appropriate time for fireworks, and there are certainly plenty of those to be found in the new War of the Worlds movie. This movie is not for the faint of heart nor for small children, though the female lead is a child, and she steals the show (as she did in her duet with Denzel Washington in Man on Fire). War of the Worlds is in the true sense of the word a horrow movie with very realistic special effects, and even a good cameo appearance by Tim Robbins.

Of course we could debate how faithful to H.G. Well's original novel, Steven Spielberg's adaptation for the 21rst century movie audience is. We could also compare the impact of Orson Welles original radio broadcast of the story a sa newscast which caused considerable hysteria during the Depression, and even some suicides. By comparison with the original and its radio broadcast the react to Spielberg's show has been mild, if enthusiastic.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this movie is its presentation of malevolent blood-sucking aliens which stand at the other end of spectrum from Spielberg's earlier classics ET and Close Encounters of the First Kind.

Science Fiction has always dabbled with the idea that aliens would be super powerful, indeed there have even been those prone to read parts of the Bible as dealing with aliens instead of angels (see e.g. the throne chariot vision of Ezekiel in Ezek. 1). But it is equally possible that if there is life on other planets in some other galaxy it maybe far more primitive in form than what we find on earth, and may not even involve what we call sentient beings.

The question this movie provokes is--- why is apparently so much easier for modern persons to suspend their disbelief when it comes to the possible existence of super powerful aliens, all the while maintaining considerable skepticism about the supernatural in general, especially the concept of an all powerful God? Is this another example of those who will not stand for something are likely to fall for anything? Are human beings just selectively gullible? Or should we rather see the 'War of the Worlds' and its current appeal as more evidence that there is a very strong and deep seated desire humans have to believe there is more to existence than earthly life as we know it? I think the latter is definitely in play.

Of course 'War of the Worlds' in its modern movie version reassures us in the end that human beings can even overcome or outlast aliens, with a little help from amoeba and the like. But the truth is that Tom Cruise in this movie and his children survive so many potential disasters, that it is less a stretch to see him as an example of having benefited from extreme divine providence rather than human ingenuity or pluck and luck. He and his loved ones should have been dead at least five times in this movie, if secular science fiction's premises are accurate.

If the test of a good movie is that it raises more profound questions than it answers, then this Tom Cruise adventure is one of his better efforts. And in the end, the final quotation from H.G. Wells himself at the close of the movie (with voice over by Morgan Freeman) in fact suggests that the universe is as God has designed it for a reason--- and no aliens had better mess with the creation order, or they too will pay the price. Perhaps we should all sit down now and read Gen. 6.1-4 and ask--- 'what is that text really all about?'

To Be, rather than to Seem

Esse Quam Videre--- To Be, rather than to Seem

Take me to the just side of justice
And the right side of righteousness,
Not the vindictive side of vindication,
for otherwise--- I do not wish to go.

Lead me to the passionate side of compassion,
And the gracious side of grace,
Not the condescending side of mercy
for otherwise I remain remote--- for pity’s sake.

Push me past the truant side of trouble
And the pleasant side of pain
Not allowing me to wallow in it---
Lest I marvel at my martyrdom

Carry me to the service side of serving
And the sacrificial side of sacrifice
Not the calculating side of caring
for otherwise, my generosity remains too frugal.

Put me outside my selfish Eden
And beyond my creature comforts
Without raising Cain in my life
for I desire to be a remarkable, not a marked man.

Fill me with an inextinguishable blaze
A peerless and fearless love,
Not a faltering flame or a fumbling forgiveness
for I desire to be christened with real Christ-likeness.

May the Spirit make me spiritual
And the Son shine in my life
And the Father find me faithful,
Lest I miss the Kingdom’s goal.

JULY 4TH 2005