Saturday, February 28, 2009
It’s Lent and time to think about the things we should be repenting of. Of course too often we think in the narrow terms of sins with a capital S that we ought to abstain from, but in this post I am thinking about ordinary things which are not sins in themselves which nonetheless require some serious Christian critiquing as they become sins when done to excess. I am currently writing a book on work from a Christian perspective and it has been sobering and depressing doing the research on work and pastimes in America.
When we are not busy working, guess what our two favorite national pastimes are to pass the time--- TV watching and shopping, and of course the one feeds the other. The average American adult spends two years of their life watching commercials!!! No wonder we do so much shopping. For those born after 1980 however a slightly different form of pastime seems to have emerged--- spending time on the computer or cell phone… and shopping. With TV watching one can be completely passive, but texting or calling or doing things on the computer of course require a modicum of activity, but it is only a modicum. It is not a surprise that Americans are increasingly obese.
We do not generally spend our leisure time in something that could actually be called physical activity, much less exercise. And then there is the problem of the food we eat, in response to the stimulus of advertising--- fast food or junk food which only reinforces the disastrous cycle of passivity, inactivity, binge eating of bad food, followed by a spate of work. Of course the medical industry and the insurance industry has had an increase in business as a result of this disastrous turning away from good food and good exercise as well as good work. But I would hardly call that a good thing. America has the worst infant mortality rate of any developed nation, and the lowest average life expectancy, even though we have probably the best doctors, medicines and hospitals in the world. And it is all our own fault.
One of the most depressing things I have done in recent years is attend the Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro N.C. It was not depressing because it was the Southern Baptist Convention as those folks were gracious enough hosts and good Christian people. No, it was depressing because I got to see up close and personal the devastation of what obesity has done to southern ministers, their spouses and also leading southern lay persons. Though I certainly did not take a head count or do a scientific survey it was clear from scanning the audience on repeated occasion that at least 70% of the audience was overweight, and at least 50% was considerably overweight, with perhaps 30% of that group being to the point of morbid obesity. It was simply depressing. Very depressing. And before you remind me that some of obesity is hereditary, which is true in a distinct minority of cases, I would suggest you go spend time in an African country other than South Africa and see how many obese people you run into--- its only a tiny percentage of the population. This is not because they have better heredity! Heredity is not an excuse in the vast majority of cases.
Obesity is a horrible Christian witness to a culture already known for its conspicuous consumption, and its TV shows like ‘The Biggest Loser’ where we actually watch the death struggle of grossly overweight people as they try to get down to a manageable size. It is clear that here in the South we have entirely forgotten that gluttony is a sin, not to mention it is a further sin when we throw away enough food every day to feed various whole small countries. America consumes over 70% of the world’s consumable goods, but it amounts to only 310 million out of six billion people in the world! Sometimes the numbers do tell a story, so here are some U.S. numbers worth pondering as we head for the 2010 census—
Total population-- 303,824,640 (July 2008 est.)
0-14 years: 20.1% (male 31,257,108/female 29,889,645)
15-64 years: 67.1% (male 101,825,901/female 102,161,823)
65 years and over: 12.7% (male 16,263,255/female 22,426,914) (2008 est.)
total: 36.7 years
male: 35.4 years
female: 38.1 years (2008 est.)
Population growth rate:
0.883% (2008 est.)
14.18 births/1,000 population (2008 est.)
8.27 deaths/1,000 population (2008 est.)
Net migration rate:
2.92 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2008 est.)
at birth: 1.05 male(s)/female
under 15 years: 1.05 male(s)/female
15-64 years: 1 male(s)/female
65 years and over: 0.72 male(s)/female
total population: 0.97 male(s)/female (2008 est.)
Infant mortality rate:
total: 6.3 deaths/1,000 live births
male: 6.95 deaths/1,000 live births
female: 5.62 deaths/1,000 live births (2008 est.)
Life expectancy at birth:
total population: 78.14 years
male: 75.29 years
female: 81.13 years (2008 est.)
Total fertility rate:
2.1 children born/woman (2008 est.)
HIV/AIDS - adult prevalence rate:
0.6% (2003 est.)
HIV/AIDS - people living with HIV/AIDS:
950,000 (2003 est.)
HIV/AIDS - deaths:
17,011 (2005 est.)
white 79.96%, black 12.85%, Asian 4.43%, Amerindian and Alaska native 0.97%, native Hawaiian and other Pacific islander 0.18%, two or more races 1.61% (July 2007 estimate)
note: a separate listing for Hispanic is not included because the US Census Bureau considers Hispanic to mean a person of Latin American descent (including persons of Cuban, Mexican, or Puerto Rican origin) living in the US who may be of any race or ethnic group (white, black, Asian, etc.); about 15.1% of the total US population is Hispanic
Protestant 51.3%, Roman Catholic 23.9%, Mormon 1.7%, other Christian 1.6%, Jewish 1.7%, Buddhist 0.7%, Muslim 0.6%, other or unspecified 2.5%, unaffiliated 12.1%, none 4% (2007 est.)
English 82.1%, Spanish 10.7%, other Indo-European 3.8%, Asian and Pacific island 2.7%, other 0.7% (2000 census)
note: Hawaiian is an official language in the state of Hawaii
definition: age 15 and over can read and write
total population: 99%
female: 99% (2003 est.)
School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education):
total: 16 years
male: 15 years
female: 16 years (2006)
5.3% of GDP (2005)
Two things stand out to me from these numbers: 1) we spend less on education than any other industrialized nation; 2) we spend more on health care than any other industrialized nation, and yet our life expectancy and infant mortality rate is poor compared to other developed nations, and even compared to some third world nations.
In my view Christians could do something about this, if they cared to, by bearing witness to their culture by living a healthier lifestyle. Diet, exercise, and meaningful work that glorifies God and edifies other human beings is what we should strive for.
Maybe its time to stop eating so much of the Gospel bird at our church potluck dinners—by which I mean Southern Fried Chicken ya’ll. Too many of us are living to eat, rather than eating to live, and while what we consume may not make us ‘unclean’ (see Mk. 7 and what Jesus says), it can certainly make us unhealthy, unhelpful, and unproductive.
Let’s not be like the famous story about Oscar Wilde, who was noted for his lethargy and lavish lifestyle. When he was asked if he would like a bon bon at a London party with the words “Can I tempt you with a bon bon, Mr. Wilde?” His response was “Madam, I can resist anything but temptation.” On another occasion he was asked by a reporter—“Sir what do you do when the temptation to exercise comes upon you?” His retort was “I lie down until the temptation passes.” Oscar Wilde is not a role model for Christians in America, and its time we realized it.
Friday, February 27, 2009
Nelson Rangell is without question one of the most talented of all the so-called smooth jazz reed players, in addition to which he is a world-class flute and piccolo player as well. His sax playing is straight out of the David Sanborn school of smooth as this little night time number will attest--- enjoy. BW3
There are not a lot of books I find stimulating enough to deserve the 'full roll out' review and dialogue with, but Andy Crouch's new book Culture-Making is one of them. I am currently working on a little book in my Kingdom series for Eerdmans (the first is out next month and entitled Imminent Domain), and this third in the series I am working on is entitled 'Labora': Work in the Light of the Kingdom. The following is a draft of what will go into one of the chapters of this book. See what you think, and more importantly, see what you think about what Andy says, and interact. (N.B. Because of the nature of blogging, the footnotes, which exist in the chapter, get blotted out in the transfer to the blog, but they will be available in my book).
In his review of Andy Crouch’s recent study Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame says this: “American evangelicals in the last hundred years have found it easy to condemn culture, critique culture, copy culture and consume culture. It has been much harder for them to actively and imaginatively create culture. Andy Crouch is out to change that." I like this already.
Evangelical Christians have too often been guilty of various forms and degrees of tunnel vision. One such form which I will call ‘missional tunnel vision’ views the world as something out of which people need rescue. ‘Ministry’ then is rescuing the perishing from a world going to Hades in a handbasket. The problem with this vision is that it not merely promotes a lifeboat philosophy about church and Christian life (‘we must live within the safe haven!’) it grossly under-estimates the power of God and his role not merely in the church but in the world.
Yes, we sing, “this is my Father’s world” but we hardly mean it, or understand what that means. Some of this comes from what R. Niebuhr would have called either a Christ vs. culture approach to life, or perhaps a Christ beside culture (like an Amish community beside a secular one). Some of it comes from a belief that Christ transforms culture, and there is some truth in that approach as well. But what if Christ came to make all things new, what if he came to create culture, and calls us not merely to transform the culture that exists, but even to build new culture? What if it is in the DNA of the church and the original mission statement about our work indicates that we are supposed to be banqueting with the bad like Jesus did? What if it is true that ‘greater is he who is in us, than anything else in the world’? I am convinced Andy Crouch can help us gain a more holistic and wide-angle vision of work, vocation, ministry.
Let start with Crouch’s definition of culture—it is what we make of the world which God has created. Its not just about high art or architecture. Its whatever we make of the ‘stuff’ God created, ranging from an omelet to a Mona Lisa. Culture always bears the stamp of our creativity, even if, as so often is the case, it appears we are pretty derivative or unoriginal in what we make. We have, says Crouch this innate design and desire to make something more of what we have been given. It’s part of being in the Image of a God who is both Creator, and Ruler, both Sustainer, and Redeemer.
Crouch goes on to stress that culture is also about what we make of what there is, which is to say, what sense we make of what exists. The world requires some interpreting, some explanation. It would appear that we are the only creature on the planet that asks why, “Making sense of the world, interpreting its wonder and its terror, is left up to human beings alone…. We make sense of the world by making something of the world. The human quest for meaning is played out in human making: the finger-painting, omelet-stirring, chair-crafting, snow-swishing activities of culture. Meaning and making go together—culture, you could say, is the activity of making meaning.”
Thus far culture sounds like an exercise in hermeneutics, or interpreting things that already exist, like a movie critic, for example. But in fact Crouch will go on to insist that culture in fact shapes and reshapes the mere material world that exists. Humans do not merely observer or interpret the world, they construct it, they make it, in various senses of that term. “Culture, not just nature, has become the world that we must make something of.”
Crouch quite naturally asks us to consider the sort of work that goes into road building and how it changes things, and not merely the landscape. I have been watching this process for some weeks now for as I drive to work in Wilmore Kentucky a whole new four lane highway is being constructed, and in the process various bits of this or that horse farm is being torn up, vivisected, displaced. Pretty soon one of my favorite horse farms will no longer be beside Harrodsburg Road, because that road will now go well behind the farm. This will make travel to Wilmore quicker, and easier, and less windy, and so my trip into work will be different, my purview different, my outlook different. The making that we do, whether we call it work or not, is culture making, as it remakes our world, both the world out there usually called nature, and the world within my mind. Work changes the world, and imposes a new culture on what previously existed. Culture creating is inevitable for human beings, the only question is whether Christians will meaningfully and self-consciously engage in such activities as part of their ‘work’ and realize that in so doing they are creating a new world.
Crouch points out how the car and the highway system made impossible what had previously been taken for granted, namely traveling considerable distances on horseback. You can’t do that on a normal highway—its prohibited, and anyway, there are not enough inns and horse barns along the way to support such a mode of travel over any considerable distance. Furthermore, if you tried it, it would endanger the horse, and the fumes would probably overcome man and beast in due course. This is why even the Amish hitch rides in cars and on trains when they want to go any real distance. The world has been changed by culture making human work. It is thus no surprise that Crouch concludes: “without culture, literally nothing would be possible for human beings. To say that culture creates the horizons of possibility is to speak literal, not just figurative or metaphorical, truth.”
And what this means, in plain and simple terms is that work, our work, Christian work, creates a world, and without hard work, even the fulfilling of the Great Commission would be just a nice idea. Grace is conveyed to other human beings through work. Grace and works were not meant to be seen as sparing partners in an eternal theological boxing match. They were meant to be seen as partners in a row boat both pulling in the same direction. Likewise, Christianity should not be set over against culture, it should ever and always be set in motion to create culture and worlds.
One of the real problems with Christians is that they can be too insular, living in their own little bubble, and this trend has only accelerated with the enormous rise to prominence of home-schooling, or solely Christian schooling in this country. But if all you ever do is sing in the choir or preach to the choir, how is that culture making and world-changing in anything like a Christian sense when we are called to make disciples of all nations? Consider again what Andy Crouch says: “Culture requires a public: a group of people who have been sufficiently affected by a cultural good that their horizons of possibility and impossibility have in fact been altered, and their own cultural creativity has been spurred, by that good’s existence. This group of people does not necessarily have to be large. But without such a group the artifact remains exclusively personal and private.” In America we tend to think that things that are as deeply personal as religious beliefs ought to be private matters, but this will never do for an evangelistic religion. They have to become both Gospel sharers, but also culture makers, and the latter involves work. Indeed one’s work, if one is not a preacher, teaching or priest, may largely consist of culture making. Christianity, in order to be truly Christian, has to go public, or become a shared public good, not merely a private self-help program for the already convinced.
One of the most convincing points Andy Crouch makes is that family is perhaps the most elemental and crucial culture-making institution in a society. What goes on in a home, need not stay in a home, and in the milieu of a home and in the context of a family all sorts of positive cultural constructions happen. Cooking, for example, is a form of work that is not only culture making but Kingdom making, if you invite people over for dinner, or have some of your Christians meetings in homes, or even if you just engage in friendship evangelism in such a context. “ Family [including Christian family] is culture at its smallest—and most powerful.” If you don’t believe this, just watch the classic movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”.
It is of course true that any talk about changing a whole culture or changing a whole world is in most cases over-ambitious. When John Wesley, who had quite the work rate, said “the world is my parish”, interestingly enough, some people believed him, and not primarily because he had already been to Georgia and back. But when we talk about making our work something that is culture-making in a way that is glorifying to God and edifying to others, we have to talk about economies of scale. Here is how Crouch puts the matter:
"finding our place in the world as culture makers requires us to pay
attention to culture’s many dimensions. We will make something of the
world in a particular ethnic tradition, in particular spheres, at particular
scales. There is no such thing as “the Culture,” and any attempt to talk
about “the Culture,” especially in terms of “transforming the Culture,”
is misled and misleading. Real culture making, not to mention cultural
transformation, begins with a decision about which cultural world—or,
better, worlds—we will attempt to make something of."
One of the most important insights to be gained from the whole study of culture is the dawning recognition that those who chase the willow of the wisp called new/fresh/ trendy will be forever changing and not having much enduring impact. Crouch rightly warns “there is an inverse relationship between a cultural layer’s speed of change and its longevity of impact. The faster a given layer of culture changes, the less long-term effect it has on the horizons of possibility and impossibility.” Those who follow the fads will find that growth may happen in a church or in a business with hard work, but whether they are accomplishing something of lasting value is another question, a question a Christian must always ask about their work.
Is my work of some lasting value? Did it make a difference? Was it worth doing in the first place, or was it in vain? Did this work have some meaning, some purpose, and if so what was it? Of course answering such questions is not always easy, as the impact and/or quality of some piece of work may not be seen for years to come. When the tenement house collapsed in Miami Florida, without any apparent provocation or cause, the investigation led to the conclusion that twenty years earlier, though it looked alright on the outside, it was built with inferior materials, in a poor fashion, and most importantly was not built with an eye on safety and ongoing durability. It could not pass a stress test, had one been administered. Disposable culture in a disposable society with all too rapid change can be criticized for having little long term value. Crouch is willing to be emphatic about this--- “Nothing that matters, no matter how sudden, does not have a long history and take part in a long future.”
What is perhaps most eye-opening, and indeed depressing about our work is that it is possible to change things for the worse quickly, whereas making things of value or changing things for the better almost always takes considerable time. For example, think of 9-11 and the World Trade Towers, how rapidly they fell into dust. But how long did it take either to construct them in the first place or clean up after the devastation? Or consider a great work of art like Michelangelo’s David which took months to carve, but could be destroyed in the blink of an eye if someone took a hammer to the statue. It is not just works of art which are easily destroyed, almost anything of worth is, including human lives.
What must be stressed is that our culture is addicted to ‘the latest’, and assumes that the ‘latest is the greatest, the newest is the truest’. This is why in our culture it is called ‘news’. But alas, the latest is quickly yesterday’s story. “So hope in a future revolution, or revival, to solve the problems of our contemporary culture is usually misplaced. And such a hope makes us especially vulnerable to fashion, mistaking shifts in the wind for changes in the climate. Fads sweep across the cultural landscape and believers invest outsized portions of energy and commitment in furthering the fad, mistaking it for real change.”
Perhaps then more emphasis should be put on the work of culture-making by Christians, and less on the hope that a revival will change one’s milieu. Crouch quite rightly takes on those who think that the way to change the world is simply to change the worldview of the world, on the theory perhaps that “as a man thinks, so he is”. The problem with this is that thinking, even new thinking, is not the same as new doing, not the same as going to work and changing things. The thoughts must be embodied in deeds, and this takes hard work. If you merely change the thoughts going on inside the horse’s head you by no means have changed the direction the horse is heading in--- you have to turn the head itself! The problem with so much worldview talk is not merely that we suffer the paralysis of analysis, we hardly get beyond analysis, for the problem is not just wrong thoughts, its wrong behaviors. Culture is not just about thinking, its about doing and so it is about our work. Crouch reminds:
"embodiment may not flow as naturally from thinking as many
books on worldview imply. The cartoonist Sidney Harris’s most famous
drawing shows two scientists standing in front of a blackboard covered
with a series of equations. In the middle of the equations is written, “Then
a miracle occurs.” One scientist says to the other, “I think you need to be
more explicit here in step two.” When we say, “The Christian vision can transform our world,” something similar is happening. Is it really true that simply perceiving the radical comprehensiveness of the Christian worldview would “transform the world”? Or is there a middle step that is being skipped over all too lightly?... The danger of reducing culture to worldview is that we may miss the most distinctive thing about culture, which is that cultural goods have a life of their own. They reshape the world in unpredictable ways…. The language of worldview tends to imply, to paraphrase the Catholic writer Richard Rohr, that we can think ourselves into new ways of behaving. But that is not the way culture works. Culture helps us behave ourselves into new ways of thinking."
What Crouch is trying to make us see is that the only way to change the cultural landscape is to make more of it, of a variety you endorse. It is never enough simply to change people’s ideas about the culture, their worldviews, though that’s a start.
Consider the example of the Amish. They are pacifists especially famous for their dislike of hand guns of any sort. If you go and visit them in east Ohio or western Pennsylvania where they are particularly thick on the ground, you will discover that they don’t just sit around and discuss how bad it is to have hand guns around where children and others can be accidentally harmed, which discussion would be followed by various nodding heads. No, they’ve actually banned hand guns in their communities, a rule they enforce rigorously. Go be part of an Amish community and you will be in a culture and ethos and environment that is handgun free. Unless a ‘Yankee’ or total stranger shows up in their community toting a handgun, no one is going to get shot with such a thing, no strawberry stand is going to be robbed with such a thing, no Amish hardware store is going to be terrorized with such a thing. And anyone who made such an idle threat in an Amish hardware store who didn’t have a gun but believed in them, might well be taken and confined to the interior of a composting toilet for a while until they regained their senses. Ideas and worldviews alone don’t change the world, behavior and hard work does. Cultural change happens when a new way of doing things displaces the old way of doing things.
Crouch reminds us that merely condemning or critiquing culture seldom changes things much, unless someone has something better or more compelling to put in its place. Sometimes what Christians do is simply copy culture and think that will change the world. Consider the evolution of the Christian rock music industry. They are hardly ever out there leading the cultural trends, in fact mostly they are following them, only changing the lyrics. So, one of the more recent trends in Christian music is Christian hip hop and rap, or Christian Indie music, on the philosophy of if you can’t beat them, join them. The styles, the tunes, the clothes of the culture are very much adopted from the secular mainstream. When I used to be in the music business, as Christians we used to be thrilled when an artist like Amy Grant would ‘crossover’ into the mainstream. We thought maybe finally the mainstream could be transformed by the Christian message this way. Alas, it didn’t happen. In fact, Christians imitating mainstream music were more likely to be the one’s converted to a very different Gospel. One of the tasks Christians must take seriously in the 21rst century is culture-making, dedicating their work and energies to creating culture that will be winsome and habit forming to those not already a part of it. And as Crouch warns, creativity, not knock-off imitation is in the long run the only viable way to change a culture. Christians must work hard to produce the best art, the best movies, the best neighborhoods, the best restaurants, the best athletics possible, not merely by copying, but by coming up with something fresh, new, interesting, life-changing.
Crouch is not suggesting that we start de novo. Culture is of course cumulative, it keeps building on and recycling from the stuff that existed before. “When it comes to
cultural creativity, innocence is not a virtue. The more each of us knows about our cultural domain, the more likely we are to create something new and worthwhile.”
Thus Crouch says that real culture making begins with the cultivation of the good things a culture already has and does. One doesn’t need to completely reinvent the wheel to create good new culture. One needs to become fluent in the good aspects of the cultural tradition one is already a part of and nurture them. One also needs to sift the wheat from the chaff, and affirm the wheat.
Having spent a good deal of my life making music or listening to it, I can tell you that making music well requires an enormous amount of practice and discipline. Creativity that makes a lasting impact, work that makes a difference, is seldom a matter of sheer spontaneity or mere native talent. If Christians truly want to make an appealing and winsome culture that may actually attract people to Christ it will require hard work, discipline, and practice, practice, practice.
So underneath almost every act of culture making we find countless
small acts of culture keeping. That is why the good screenwriter has first
watched a thousand movies; why the surgeon who pioneers a new technique
has first performed a thousand routine surgeries; and why the investor
who provides funds to the next startup has first studied a thousand
balance sheets. Cultural creativity requires cultural maturity.
Are there options for Christians other than cultural capitulation, accommodation, or some modified form of rejection of culture? Crouch thinks there is are, and he reminds that even Christians who practice home schooling and generally avoid the more obviously objectionable forms of modern culture, are none the less cultural beings. Indeed, even the Amish don’t entire avoid mainstream culture. I have a wonderful picture from when I lived in Ashland Ohio of an Amish buggy stopped at the take out window at McDonalds. Indeed, many Christians with separatist tendencies do still drive cars, watch TVs, go to movies (not the X rated ones), attend sporting events and the like. This is not real rejection of a dominant or secular culture. That would look like a person who withdraws and lives in a hut in the Amazon rain forest for the rest of his life with no technological tools or toys to amuse him or keep him informed.
Nor can the church simply withdraw from the dominant culture, especially if it wants to continue to bear witness to that culture. Crouch reminds us that
fundamentalist Christians, like modernist ones, indulged in an attractive but specious distinction between the church and the culture. Their unspoken assumption was that “the culture” was something distinguishable from their own daily life
and enterprises, something that could be withdrawn from, rejected and
condemned. In this respect they were just as modern as everyone around
them, in accepting too uncritically an easy distinction between the “sacred”
and the “secular.” This distinction, which served liberals by carving
out a sphere of public life that did not have to entangle itself with religion
and religious controversies, served fundamentalists by assuring them that
it was possible to eschew “secular” pursuits altogether.
While there is a place and a time to condemn culture (think Nazi or apartheid culture), to critique culture (think art that promotes anti-Christian values), to copy culture (think of some of the good Contemporary Christian music has done, which largely follows and copies the larger musical trends), and to consume culture (participating in the good aspects of our culture), and all of these things can be part of our work and works as Christians, what Crouch is calling us to is creating culture, which is not simply identical with any of these aforementioned activities. In fact he offers a clarion call for us to be what God called Adam and Eve to be in the first place—creators and also cultivators of all that is good, true, beautiful in the world, wherever one finds it.
Most of the creativity Crouch is talking about is not ex nihilo or de novo, but a sort of making out of pre-existing materials. No one would mistake a beautiful salt peter glazed water pitcher for a mere lump of clay, but that is where it came from. The middle term was the potter who fashioned into something that wet lump of clay had no capacity to be left on its own. It takes, intelligence, skill, and yes imagination to create culture well, though all too often today we just stress the imaginative aspect when we use the word ‘creativity’. I often wonder what would happen if people approached their normal work with intelligence, skill, and creativity? Of course some do, and sometimes remarkable tasks are accomplished and remarkable things are made.
When I was in Singapore I was given a non-battery flashlight. No, it did not have a solar cell. No it did not have an electrical plug. It was in fact rather like one of those hand flexers you use to strengthen your hands. From time to time you just squeezed it, using mechanical energy to power the light bulb in it—no muss and no fuss.
God in fact expects creativity out of us, not least because we are created in God’s image. Andy Crouch points to the example in Gen. 2 of how God brings the animals to Adam and asks Adam to name them. Of course God could have named them and given Adam the zoological dictionary, but he doesn’t. He wants his human creatures to participate in the creative act. This was part of Adam’s initial work.
In order for humankind to flourish in their role as cultivators and
creators, God will have to voluntarily withdraw, in certain ways, from
his own creation. He makes space for the man to name the animals; he
makes room for the man and the woman to know one another and explore
the garden. He even gives them freedom, tragically but necessarily,
to misuse their creative and cultivating capacities….God’s first and best gift to humanity is culture, the realm in which human beings themselves will be the cultivators and creators, ultimately contributing to the cosmic purposes of the Cultivator and Creator of the natural world.
I remember the days before air conditioning. I remember sleeping on the wooden floor in front of the open front door on a hot humid summer night in Wilmington N.C. You hoped for a breath of a breeze in the morning, but this particular morning not only was there none, you could have cut out a piece of humidity from the air on the front porch and eaten it! When air conditioning came along to beat the heat, all manner of Southerners like myself said huzzah! The world can be a wilderness for humans unless we cultivate it, unless we create things to help us cope with it, unless we turn a tangled mess into a garden. This is what Crouch is calling us to, and he is saying that it is the primeval task, the Job One, God gave to us in the first place. We must make something out of our world, not merely admire it. Nature may abhor a vacuum, I do not abhor a vacuum cleaner, as ordering, cleaning, beautifying, creating is part of the human task.
In one of his more interesting insights, Crouch points out that while God meant Adam to be a gardener and ruler, the Snake tempted him to be a consumer, rather than a creator and cultivator. “We can only sigh with disappointment as Adam and Eve swallow, so to speak, the idea that a fruit could bring “wisdom,” even as we recognize how adroitly contemporary advertisers persuade us of equally unlikely results if we will just consume their cosmetics, cars or cigarettes.”
As it turns out, what being in the image of God means is not only that we have the capacity for personal relationship with God in a way that other creatures do not, we also, like God have the capacity to be mini-creators, makers of culture, cultivators of gardens, and equally creators of chaos (read the tower of Babel story in Gen. 11).
Perhaps the most helpful insight of all offered by Crouch is the following:
"Jesus had a profoundly cultural phrase for his mission: the kingdom of
God. It is hard to recapture the concept of kingdom in an age where monarchs
are often no more than ornamental fixtures in their societies, if they
exist at all. But for Jews of that time and place, the idea of a kingdom
would have meant much more. In announcing that the kingdom of God
was near, in telling parables of the kingdom, Jesus was not just delivering
“good news,” as if his only concern was to impart some new information.
His good news foretold a comprehensive restructuring of social life comparable
to that experienced by a people when one monarch was succeeded
by another. The kingdom of God would touch every sphere and every scale
of culture. It would reshape marriage and mealtimes, resistance to the Roman
occupiers and prayer in the temple, the social standing of prostitutes
and the piety of Pharisees, the meaning of cleanliness and the interpretation
of illness, integrity in business and honesty in prayer."
As it turns out, if we truly want to understand work from a Kingdom perspective, then we must look at it in the way that Jesus viewed the matter. If the Kingdom of God is coming to town this is ever so much more than saying a new ruler or sheriff is coming to town, to better reinforce pre-existing laws and rules. No this King is coming to town to clean house (i.e. the Temple), and to set up and cultivate a new way of structuring social life, and thus create a new culture—a culture of conversion, new creation, and all that that implies. The interesting thing is—the chief work, at least at the outset was the remaking of humankind. The cultural artifact Jesus was most interesting in remolding and retooling, and reforming was human beings themselves. He did not chiefly come to be a carpenter, or to build a new Temple, or to construct a new political system or party, or to introduce a new line of clothing or art, or food. He came to breath new life into human beings. No wonder Paul was to call him the new Adam, only this Adam was life-giving spirit. But after one becomes a new creature, what then? What does work, making culture look like after that transformation?
But lest we think this is all consider the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Cross. The work which Christ chiefly came to do, was not a doing, but a suffering. Unlike Adam in that first garden Jesus did not come to consume but to be consumed, did not come to do his own will, but the will of God, did not come to eat of a tree that would bring knowledge and death, but rather came to be impaled to a tree, the fruit of which would be death, but then life.
"Of all the creators and cultivators who have ever lived, Jesus was the most
capable of shaping culture through his own talents and power—and yet
the most culture-shaping event of his life is the result of his choice to
abandon his talents and power. The resurrection shows us the pattern for
culture making in the image of God. Not power, but trust. Not independence,
but dependence. The second Adam’s influence on culture comes
through his greatest act of dependence; the fulfillment of Israel’s calling
to demonstrate faith in the face of the great powers that threatened its existence
comes in the willing submission of Jesus to a Roman cross, broken
by but also breaking forever its power….In the kingdom of God a new kind of life and a new kind of culture becomes possible—not by abandoning the old but by transforming it. Even the cross, the worst that culture can do, is transformed into a sign of the kingdom of God—the realm of forgiveness, mercy, love and indestructible life."
One of the things Christians often seem oblivious to is that they are bearing witness, and making culture whether they realize it or not. Every people group has a presence, an ethos, a way of making something of the world and Christians are no different. They see themselves as a family of faith, and like any family they have their struggles and differences. Christians will be more often judged by the way they live in the world, and what they make of the world than by their overt witness. They will be judged by, among other things their work ethic—do they work hard, do they come to work on time, do they accept hardship without complaining, do they have honesty and integrity?
The world, the fellow workers, the foreman is watching. And Christ will be honored or not by how we perform and what we do with the world while watching eyes are upon us. If all we ever do is complain about things, including about our culture’s problems whilst at work, people will notice that as well. We might as well wear a tee shirt reading “Buzz kill for Jesus” if that’s what we make of and do with the world.
I suspect that one reason Christians don’t see themselves as makers of culture, even when they are at work, is that Christianity is supposed to be a universal religion, a one size fits all religion, a body of believers of every tribe and tongue and people and nation. A cultural religion with specific cultural practices would be Judaism or Hinduism. Christians seem to think real Christianity is trans-cultural just because it is multi-ethnic. This however is not so. The various different forms of Christianity all have their own ethos, their own way of making culture and making sense of the world, and creating an environment within their larger culture where things Christian can happen and prevail, including of course worship. And worship is supremely an expression of culture making. African American worship often looks very different from middle class suburban praise worship. What we need to understand is that whether we are at our job, or we are at worship in our church, we are at work constructing a culture, and helping to advance the cause of and bring in the Kingdom or not.
A key word for a Christian to understand is indigenization. Christianity has the ability to be indigenized in many different cultural expressions and still be Christian. Crouch puts it this way---
"As the scholar Lamin Sanneh has pointed out, this translatability sharply differentiates Christianity from Islam, which requires the Qur’an to be read in its original language. The gospel, even though it is deeply embedded in Jewish cultural history, is available in the “mother tongue” of every human being. There
is no culture beyond its reach—because the very specific cultural story of
Israel was never anything other than a rescue mission for all the cultures
of the world, initiated by the world’s Creator."
It is precisely ‘translatability’ and ‘indigenization’ which makes it possible for a Christ to assume most any good job worth doing, and work most anywhere. There is a freedom in being a Christian that other religious groups do not have, precisely because Christianity ‘works’ differently, it construct culture differently, and it is able to adopt and adapt the best of many cultures and still be true to the essence of its character and credo.
Suppose we did Christianity again the early church way, by which I mean we took seriously that we are family, and we took care of one another? What would happen in a culture of rising unemployment if the church took care of, shared the burden with its widows, its orphans, its unemployed. What if a community of Christians not only did this, but were welcoming to strangers, were prepared to go the extra mile to help them as well? Suppose once again church became a sanctuary and a safe haven, not just a place where we as God’s sheep meet, greet, bleat, eat, excrete, and retreat? Before and during the middle ages, Christians provided the doctoring and nursing to strangers during epidemics when the pagan priests and medic had fled the major cities during epidemics. Christians provided the food, clothing and shelter for the poor. They did not pass these responsibilities off on the government. They were proactive and created their own worlds of work and service. They stuck together, and lived and died together during the plagues, the famines, the natural disasters such as earthquakes. They had no governmental assistance, and waited for no insurance companies to bail them out or to rebuild. They simply rolled up their sleeves and did it.
"The church had no magic or medicine to cure the plague, but it turns
out that survival even of a terrible disease has a lot to do with one’s access
to the most basic elements of life. Simply by providing food, water and
friendship to their neighbors, Christians enabled many to remain strong
enough that their own immune systems could mount an effective defense.
[Rodney]Stark engages in some rather macabre algebra to calculate the “differential mortality” of Christians and their neighbors compared to pagans who
were not fortunate enough to have the same kind of care—and concludes
that “conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality
rate by two-thirds or even more.” The result was that after consecutive epidemics
had swept through a city, a very disproportionate number of those
remaining would either have been Christians or pagans who had been
nursed through their sickness by Christian neighbors. And with their
family and friends decimated by the plague, it is no wonder that many of
these neighbors, seeking new friends and family, would naturally convert
to Christian faith. The church would grow not just because it proclaimed
hope in the face of horror but because of the cultural effects of a new approach
to the sick and dying, a willingness to care for the sick even at risk
In our current economic crisis the church has once more the chance to make and change culture, to build a world, and to bear better witness to the Christ who said “inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me”.
What if what Revelation 20-22 is telling us is that in the Kingdom humans and their culture will be purified and rescued? What if we are being told that not just nature and human nature gets an upgrade, but also human culture? Crouch says that the fact that the story ends with a city, the ultimate cultural artifact, points in this direction. And notice it is a city that is built by taking the things of nature, and transforming them into cultural artifacts—gems become jewels in the kingdom, and the bounty and best of human products are brought into the city to celebrate the return of the King. I suspect Crouch is right that the world to come will not as drastically different from our own world as we might expect—its just that there will no longer be the shadow of sin, sickness and sorrow, disease, decay and death. And I would suggest there will be plenty to do as well--- for instance pick the fruit from all those trees along the central river which will require no more bug spray or artificial anything. We’re going all natural in the Kingdom, all glorious, and all the best of humanity and its culture. Notice how nature flourishes in the middle of the new Jerusalem, nature is incorporated into the eternal city.
We will not have to chose between urban and rural, here and there, now and then. It will all be present at once and available to all.
In his discussion of Revelation’s ending Crouch finally collects his thoughts on human work and its importance, and potential to last and make a difference. Listen to what he says:
"We should ask the same question about our own cultural creativity and
cultivating. Are we creating and cultivating things that have a chance of
furnishing the new Jerusalem? Will the cultural goods we devote our lives
to—the food we cook and consume, the music we purchase and practice,
the movies we watch and make, the enterprises we earn our paychecks
from and invest our wealth in—be identified as the glory and honor of our
cultural tradition? Or will they be remembered as mediocrities at best,
dead ends at worst? This is not the same as asking whether we are making
“Christian” culture. “Christian” cultural artifacts will surely go through
the same winnowing and judgment as “non-Christian” artifacts. Nor is
this entirely a matter of who is responsible for the cultural artifacts and
where their faith is placed, especially since every cultural good is a collective
effort. Clearly some of the cultural goods found in the new Jerusalem
will have been created and cultivated by people who may well not accept
the Lamb’s invitation to substitute his righteousness for their sin. Yet the
best of their work may survive. Can that be said of the goods that we are
devoting our lives to?"
"This is, it seems to me, a standard for cultural responsibility that is
both more demanding and more liberating than the ways Christians often
gauge our work’s significance. We tend to have altogether too short a time
frame for the worth of our work. We ask if this book will be noticed, this
store will have a profitable quarter, this contract will be accepted. Some of
these are useful intermediate steps for assessing whether our cultural work
is of lasting value, but our short-term evaluations can be misleading if our
work is not also held up to the long horizon of God’s redemptive purpose.
On the other hand, knowing that the new Jerusalem will be furnished
with the best of every culture frees us from having to give a “religious” or
evangelistic explanation for everything we do. We are free to simply make
the best we can of the world, in concert with our forebears and our neighbors.
If the ships of Tarshish and the camels of Midian can find a place in
the new Jerusalem, our work, no matter how “secular,” can too."
The issue of Christians and their work, and culture making can in one sense be boiled down to the issue of how Christians are to live in the world, without simply becoming ‘of’ the world. How is this nice little walk along a high wire, without falling off on either side achieved? One way Christians have done it in America, surprisingly enough is to simply baptize the American culture and call it good, and embrace it as their own—with liberty and justice and hot apple pie for some. This has led to odd distortions of the Gospel such as the prosperity Gospel or the health and wealth Gospel. It reminds me of the old Pogo cartoon strip when Pogo returns from a battle to his general, and things are not going well. His report is “I have seen the enemy sir. The enemy is us.” The church it seems has been more changed by, than done much changing of culture, no matter how hard we work at it.
This is one reason I love to take my students on cross-cultural trips to the lands of the Bible and deliberately take them to places where they will contract cultural vertigo—say for instance standing in the magnificent temple in Luxor staring at hieroglyphics whilst over-hearing the Moslem call to prayer from the nearby Mosque, and watching with one eye a group of Japanese tourists clicking photos on the right a group of Germans listening intently on the left. When cultural vertigo is suddenly contracted, most Americans look for comfort food, which is why our guide pointed my students to the other side of the road saying “and there is the American Cultural Embassy”. What we were looking, and some students were beginning to drool, at was McDonalds. No wonder we Christians having changed our culture—we love it too much just like it is, warts, wrinkles and all. But what a sad commentary on America that one of the few universal cultural objects we have managed to export to the world is the Big Mac. Sigh.
In order to upgrade things in a Christian way and become culture-makers in a positive sense we need to ask the right questions. Crouch suggests these to start with:
"What is God doing in culture?
What is his vision for the horizons of the possible and the impossible? Who are
the poor who are having good news preached to them? Who are the powerful
who are called to spend their power alongside the relatively powerless? Where is the impossible becoming possible?"
It is an old cliché that all politics is local, and in fact this is not quite true. But it is more true to say that all work is local, and most work actually accomplishes something when it is done in tandem with other people, sometimes only a few other people, sometimes a lot. Andy Crouch reminds us that most anything worth doing starts small, including if the work we are engaging in is culture making. Talking about the influence a circle of 3, then 12, then 120 can have, he puts it this way---
"The essential insight of 3 : 12 : 120 is that every cultural innovation,
no matter how far-reaching its consequences, is based on personal relationships
and personal commitment. Culture making is hard. It simply
doesn’t happen without the deep investment of absolutely and relatively
small groups of people. In culture making, size matters—in reverse. Only
a small group can sustain the attention, energy and perseverance to create
something that genuinely moves the horizons of possibility—because to
create that good requires an ability to suspend, at least for a time, the very
horizons within which everyone else is operating. Such “suspension of impossibility”
is tiring and taxing. The only thing strong enough to sustain
it is a community of people. To create a new cultural good, a small group
What is most striking about this point is that it describes the way that Jesus set about to change the world--- with an inner circle of three disciples (Peter, James, and John), and a slightly larger circle of 12, and then after Easter a group of 120 (Acts 1.15) when the church was about to be birthed. Now Crouch did not arrive at these three numbers on the basis of analysis of the Bible, but rather on the basis of his sociological analysis of how cultural change and culture making actually transpires in the vast majority of cases. It starts small and branches out, like the ripples in a pond from a small stone thrown in it. The good news about this is that all work that really matters and makes a difference starts small, and locally. Consider of course the example of Mother Teresa in Calcutta. And she did not advertise. Eventually the world beat a path to her door.
Perhaps you will remember the movie “Six Degrees of Separation” based in turn on the play and the theory that we are only six persons away from being in touch with all six billion people on the planet. There is considerable truth to this, and what it proves is that networking and work on the net can have influence right across the globe in ever widening circles. This of course is one of the reasons I am doing this blog, which involves no advertising dollars at all, but simply going directly to the world which can plug in to the internet. The Internet is of course the greatest culture changer and rearranger in my lifetime. It has been the ruination of my much beloved music shops, and it may be the ruination of major labels and the production of albums on CDs eventually, since increasingly people just download particular songs that they like.
Christian work, calling vocation, ministry which is oblivious to cultural change and is clueless about being a culture maker may not be labor in vain, but it is certainly labor that is not maximizing what can be accomplished for the Lord. This is one of the things which makes Crouch’s eye-opening book so crucial. He provides us with a window on how the world works, and doesn’t work, when it comes to culture making and cultural change. Crouch is right to stress however, lest we miss the point that it is not just all about networking, it is ultimately about creating community, the body of Christ.
The goal of all ministry and mission is to increase the size of the body of Christ, so more people will be in right relationship with God and fulfilling their destiny to love God and neighbor whole heartedly.
I completely agree with Crouch when he says that the sacred vs. secular dichotomy doesn’t work, when it comes to defining Christian work. Any work that is good and godly, any work worth doing can be done to the glory of God and for the help of humankind. And while we are at it, any such work is ‘full-time’ ministry.
"The religious or secular nature of our cultural creativity is simply the
wrong question. The right question is whether, when we undertake the
work we believe to be our vocation, we experience the joy and humility
that come only when God multiplies our work so that it bears thirty,
sixty and a hundredfold beyond what we could expect from our feeble
inputs. Vocation—calling—becomes another word for a continual process
of discernment, examining the fruits of our work to see whether they are
producing that kind of fruit, and doing all we can to scatter the next round
of seed in the most fruitful places."
This whole discussion brings to mind a quote from my friend Tom Wright who says
"If we are to be kingdom-announcers, modeling the new way of being human,
we are also to be cross bearers. This is a strange and dark theme that
is also our birthright as followers of Jesus. Shaping our world is never for a
Christian a matter of going out arrogantly thinking we can just get on with
the job, reorganizing the world according to some model we have in mind.
It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world
so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly
upon the world at exactly that point. . . . Because, as he himself said,
following him involves taking up the cross, we should expect, as the New
Testament tells us repeatedly, that to build on his foundation will be to find
the cross etched into the pattern of our life and work over and over again."
The psalmist has some good and sobering words to offer as we end this chapter on work and culture-making. He tells us that unless the Lord builds our house, our labor is in vain, or in the words of Ps. 90.17 we are told that we ought to pray that the Lord will establish the works of our hands, make them of lasting value. The true test of the value of something is not merely whether it stands the test of time but rather stands the testing of the Lord, a test which all of our works will one day undergo (see 1 Cor. 3). Work worth doing in the world, must we work about which the Word says—“well done good and faithful servant, inherit the kingdom.”
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
It is both true and fair to say that Constantine changed the world when he legalized Christianity, and allowed it to thrive. By the end of the 4th century A.D. when Theodosius was the Emperor (and in fact the last Emperor to preside over both the eastern and western halves of the Church), Constantinople (from which the name Istanbul probably is derived) was the center of a booming world economy which among other things was creating a rapidly expanding Christian Byzantine culture.
The Yenkapi dig, besides being hugely important in revealing the mercantile and seagoing character of that culture and Empire, open's a window on how Christianity spread so rapidly in that era. Here is the link to the full story about this dig (kindly sent by my friend Meltem Chiftchi).
It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Constantine's Palace will one day be found, and with it, many, many early Christian manuscripts which could revolutionize text critical studies of the NT. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Monday, February 23, 2009
The real progenitors of a whole genre of rock music called symphonic rock were the Moody Blues. After an early hit in the mid-60s ('Go Now') they hit their stride when Justin Heyward became their lead singer answering a want ad in the Times! By 1970 they had already had an enormous number one hit 'Night's in White Satin' ( a song that was to be no. 1 three separate times, including 20 years apart), which was the featured song on an album they recorded with the London Symphony. Both ELO and ElP not to mention King Crimson in its early years were deeply indebted to the Moodies who kept on putting out remarkable concept albums of symphonic rock. Without question something was lost when Mike Pender, the mellotron player (the precursor to the synthesizer, Moog or otherwise)quit the band, but the group has soldiered on into the present with a remarkable discography and lots of memorable songs. I have seen them on several occasions, and they were always marvelous, even if now they are a bit long in the tooth. The first few clips are from when they were just hitting their stride in 1970, taken from a long lost memorable concert they did in a little club in Paris. Enjoy.
Clearly the eschaton is at hand! The lion is lying down with the lamb and not thinking about lamb chops, or better said the Russian bear is lying down with the Finnish reindeer and not thinking of Christmas dinner! Kudos to Craig Beard for finding this. The Red Army Choir was a major showpiece of Russia's Communist regime. They still exist. However, they are polar worlds apart from Finland's music scene. Finland is about as liberal a European country as one could imagine. And one of their more interesting rock bands is the Leningrad Cowboys.
Yes rock n' roll is still alive in pockets of Europe, and it is definitely still alive in Russia. All you have to do is go to the Moscow flea market and notice all the dealers in rock CDs there or get in a cab and get blasted by a large dose of Led Zepplin.
Anywho, there has been a harmonic convergence between The Leningrad Cowboys and the Red Army Choir, in Moscow. And they chose to sing together that classic southern rock number from Lynard Skynard--- 'Sweet Home Alabama'. I suppose there is a certain appropriateness to the Red Army singing the redneck rock rebuttal to Neil Young's 'Alabama'. This made me wonder if in fact that Red Army Choir was really from Soviet Georgia-- inquiring minds want to know. Anyway, this harmonic conversion surely must be a Dispensational Top Ten Sign that the Antichrist is at hand, and with it the End of the World as we know it! Check it out. Oh yes, as a bonus they end with a bit of the Volga Boat Song. Enjoy the mind meld :)
Yes rock n' roll is still alive in pockets of Europe, and it is definitely still alive in Russia. All you have to do is go to the Moscow flea market and notice all the dealers in rock CDs there or get in a cab and get blasted by a large dose of Led Zepplin.
Anywho, there has been a harmonic convergence between The Leningrad Cowboys and the Red Army Choir, in Moscow. And they chose to sing together that classic southern rock number from Lynard Skynard--- 'Sweet Home Alabama'. I suppose there is a certain appropriateness to the Red Army singing the redneck rock rebuttal to Neil Young's 'Alabama'. This made me wonder if in fact that Red Army Choir was really from Soviet Georgia-- inquiring minds want to know. Anyway, this harmonic conversion surely must be a Dispensational Top Ten Sign that the Antichrist is at hand, and with it the End of the World as we know it! Check it out. Oh yes, as a bonus they end with a bit of the Volga Boat Song. Enjoy the mind meld :)
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Tom Wright working away in Bishop Auckland Palace
Here below (see the link) is an interesting but all too brief interview of Tom Wright as he talks about his forthcoming book on "Justification" (apparently out in May by IVP on this side of the water). What Tom is stressing is that final justification when the Christian stands before the judgment seat of Christ, does indeed involve the review of our moral actions inspired and empowered by the Spirit as well as our immoral acts as well. This contrasts with initial justification which is by grace and through faith. In addition he argues that Paul does not suggest that Christ's moral righteousness is imputed to the believer. Rather initial justification has to do with forensic or legal right standing with God, not the imputation of Christ's moral righteousness to the believer. I think Tom is 100% correct in this assessment, and I also agree that the whole discussion needs to be read more closely in light of the early Jewish context, not the much later Reformed systematic context. See what you think.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
You will enjoy this interview (find the link below) with President elect Tennent. One of the most interesting things about his background is that he is indeed a descendant of the famous Tennents William and Gilbert who were among the New Lights who led the First Great Awakening, and in one case helped start the famous Log College which led to Princeton.
I have just come from a movie which I did not expect to move me the way this film did, and it has not one but two Oscar worthy performances by Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. This is a dense morality drama which deals with moral consequences of actions, ranging from the immorality of a teenager being seduced by and having a triste with an older woman to the much more repulsive immorality of the Holocaust. For two hour and 3 minutes one is immersed in the world of post WWII Germany from the mid-50s to 1995, and its attempt to expunge or exorcism the demon of anti-Semitism and murder from its conscience through the vehicle of tribunals, sentences, imprisonments. It is not a pretty world, and if one ever needed further proof of original sin and its on going consequences and effects on human beings, this movie is a profound cautionary tale about this very subject. Here is the official synopsis from the producers of the film...
"Synopsis: Though THE READER may boast the typical pedigree of a Holocaust film--acclaimed actors, a literary source, and an Oscar-baiting end-of-the-year release date--this drama has a significant... Though THE READER may boast the typical pedigree of a Holocaust film--acclaimed actors, a literary source, and an Oscar-baiting end-of-the-year release date--this drama has a significant difference: it focuses on a perpetrator, rather than the victims. Kate Winslet takes on the hefty supporting role of Hanna Schmitz, a woman who has an affair with Michael Berg (German actor David Kross), a 15-year-old boy in 1950s Germany. They spend their brief romance alternately making love and focusing on literature, with Michael reading everything from Chekov to Homer to his lover. Soon, Hanna abruptly disappears, and Michael returns to his normal life. Almost a decade later, Michael is studying law, when he sees Hanna again; she is on trial for her crimes as an S.S. guard during the war. Michael is torn between a desire for justice and his knowledge of a secret that may save Hanna. THE READER makes full use of hindsight and historical perspective. Based on the bestselling novel by Bernhard Schlink, the story is framed by an older Michael (Ralph Fiennes) who deals with both his personal history and the collective past--and guilt--of the German people. This is a complex film that doesn't give the audience any easy answers; Hanna is undoubtedly guilty of horrific crimes, but she is a multilayered character who is always fascinating and always human, thanks to the terrific performance of Winslet, who plays Hanna over four decades. Director Stephen Daldry earned an Oscar nomination for his work on another literary adaptation, THE HOURS, and he deserves more praise for this polished film."
This film has been well reviewed and also fairly strongly critiqued, in particular for the issue of emotional distance and distancing. But in fact that is part of the subject matter of this film--- how we block out our previous sins from our conscious minds, how we seek to distance ourselves and anesthetize our feelings from the atrocities our culture or even we as individuals have been guilty of. To complain for example about the portrayal of Michael Berg by Ralph Fiennes when Berg is so damaged emotionally when he finds out what Hanna Schmidtz was really like that he has a hard time admitting or committing to anything is to not understand the character and message of this film.
Based on the German novel Der Vorlesser, "The Reader" in fact does a marvelous job of getting us involved in one of the great moral dilemmas and disasters of the twentieth century. How could it be possible that an advance literate generally well educated society like Germany could be dupped by Hitler and the Nazis and be led to perpetrate the crimes against the Jews that were indeed committed at Auschwitz and elsewhere? If you have any doubt about the extent of the atrocity, you should visit the Holocaust museum in either D.C. or Jerusalem, and take time to hear the stories of Holocaust survivors and read the works of Elie Wiesel, and make a trip to one or more of the camps in Germany. This is certainly the sort of education Mr. Ahmadinejad needs. But alas, even education is not enough of a protection against atrocity. Only a transformation of the human heart will finally do the job.
This movie starts as a story of a summer sexual dalliance between Hannah and Michael as a 15 year old. Michael is totally smitten, and Hannah is totally in control. There are scenes of nudity early on in this movie which earn it its R rating, but lest you think this movie will be a romance or tragedy about love lost and being love lorn thereafter for the remainder of one's life, you would be catching only one part of the nuance of this story. Why is that Hannah likes to be read to? Why is it that she seemingly can't read the menu at a restaurant? These questions, seemingly trivial to a young man in love, turn into vital evidence, evidence that could have affected Hannah's sentencing at the war crimes trial, when she is accused of writing the report that condemned various Jews to death, a report, she could never have written. This however does not absolve her since she participated in such atrocities, but it certainly complicates the moral calculus going on in Michael's mind. Does he help her get a lighter sentence? Does this make him a bad person? And later, does he help Hannah get reestablished in the real world after 20 years in jail, or not? It is precisely the issue of moral ambivalence and emotional distancing that this film is so poignantly exploring.
I found this movie moving and compelling, and wish it well at the Oscars. I suspect Kate Winslet will win for either this film or for Revolutionary Road. It is a cold and snowy movie about how cold and distant a soul can become even whilst sharing great intimacy, and it was the perfect film for this cold and snowy day here in Lexington as it suited the tenor of the time.
One of the real difficulties in collaborative volumes is adequately revealed in the old joke about whenever three rabbis get together you have four opinions on any given matter. Scholars, of whatever ilk, have been taught that they have, and ought to have their own individual voice, and should express it, otherwise, it is thought, they have little to add to the conversation. It is thus refreshing when you find a group of scholars such as those who have contributed to the volume edited by Drs. Gaventa and Hays who are earnestly looking for points of contact and convergence in the ways they view the identity of Jesus. What is particularly telling with this group of scholars is how they all agree that one cannot just assess the character of the historical Jesus if one is seeking the full identity of Jesus. The pre-existent Son of God and the exalted risen Christ must also be part of the discussion, and were part of the discussion from even before the time the canonical Gospels were written. This is obviously clear from one of the finest essays in this collection written by Richard Hays on the Pauline corpus, entitled "The Story of God's Son: The Identity of Jesus in the Letters of Paul". One of the most revealing parts of this essay is how Hays demonstrates that for Paul, Christ has an incorporative identity, by which I mean that the believer becomes somehow connected and taken up into the identity of Christ himself, being part of Christ's Body on earth such that not only can the apostle say that through his sufferings for the cause he is filling up or completing the sufferings of Christ, but also "we are always carrying around in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh" (2 Cor. 4.10-11). Not only is Paul claiming that Christ is in us, the hope of glory, he is also claiming that we are so in Christ, that what happens to us affects Christ himself. One can also see this in the famous threefold report of Paul's conversion on Damascus Road (see Acts 9,22,26) where the heavenly Christ asks a stunned Saul--- "why are you persecuting me?" not merely "why are you persecuting my people". Clearly Paul believes that the story of believers is not only connected to the story of Christ, but in some mysterious way is taken up into the story of Christ. And this is our earliest Christian witness to the identity of Jesus! Hays then rightly draws the conclusion: "the account of Jesus as Lord and Redeemer of the world is not--as is sometimes asserted--- a later doctrinal invention of the church in the second century; rather it belongs to the very earliest layers of the tradition to which we have access." (p. 199). This begs the question, since historians tend to think that the closer to the events themselves the more trustworthy the source of information is likely to be, why exactly it is that in drawing our picture of the identity of Jesus we don't start with Paul and work our way to the Gospels which were written later, and are no less or no more tendentious than Paul's presentation.
Hays then goes on to point out that if we follow Paul when he says "'one has died for all, therefore all have died', then his next move follows compellingly: we no longer know kata sarka [according to the flesh]; the old has passed away. We are living in the realm of new creation (2 Cor. 5.14-17). Our very concept of personal identity undergoes a mind-stretching transformation, including our own personal identities: we are transformed by the story of Jesus Christ, and we find ourselves living within that story rather than at a critical distance from it. If Paul's story of Jesus Christ is true, then we too have been crucified with Christ and will be raised with him. In the story of Jesus Christ we find our own." (p. 199). And this brings to light a crucial point. One of the reasons for the fascination with Jesus' identity surely is because it impinges on our own. If there could be a human being like Jesus, what does this say about us as a species, what does it tell us about human potential (or not). Jesus and his identity can even be seen as a threat to our autonomy and attempts at self definition, as he makes a claim on us, whether we accept that claim or not. This is of course one reason for all too frequent excuse that we hear when we sin or fall short, or fail, or are guilty of one type of transgression or another, namely "after all, I'm not Jesus am I". The distance between the character of Christ and our own character becomes the basis of excuse making.
Like any collection of essays, those in "Seeking the Identity of Jesus" are not all of the same probity, and will not all be of interest to everyone. Expressing a purely personal opinion the ones I found most revealing and helpful included William C. Placher's "How the Gospels Mean" where he points out that "These stories claim to offer a framework--- a beginning, an end, and a center--- for all of history, and they propose that our lives and all other events have meaning only to the extent that they fit into that framework. These stories proport to define reality." (p. 30). He goes on to point out that however much we may be truth seekers, at the end of the day, as Francis Watson has put it "We do not find out the truth, from our own resources; rather the truth finds us." (quoted on p. 41). It also included the very intriguing essay by Markus Boeckmuehl "God's Life as a Jew: Remembering the Son of God as Son of David" which includes a telling critique of Bruce Malina's approach to the social world of the NT (with further reference to a fuller critique of "The NT World" elsewhere), and the insistence that the Jewishness of Jesus must be given its full due (a view I entirely agree with).
Equally helpful is Francis Watson's "Veritas Christi" which helps us think more productively about the relationship between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith, ("The concrete traits of the historical Jesus belong within an account of the 'historic biblical Christ' and should not be allowed to take on an independent life of their own....The Gospels assume that we are to speak not of Jesus alone but of Jesus in relationship to God and God in relationship to Jesus; and there is no reason not to take that assumption seriously." (p.114).
There is a whole battery of what I would call survey essays on particular parts of the NT canon and what they reveal about the identity of Jesus as seen by these various writers. Dale C. Allison's "The Embodiment of God's Will: Jesus in Matthew" in some ways does the best job of all these essays of summing up what a particular NT witness has to say on the matter, but all of these essays are helpful and interesting. Marianne Meye Thompson stresses "From the Gospel of John we learn that Jesus cannot be reduced to a figure of the past of human history. Indeed, he is alive. Therefore, any attempt to understand Jesus that limits him to the past and assumes that 'historical' study can on its own produce adequate knowledge of him leads inevitably to a stunted grasp of who he is." (p. 178). Just so. It is also the Fourth Gospel that reminds us that to really know Jesus requires not just an intellectual quest, it requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit in one's life.
Of the essays by Biblical scholars, the most creative and intriguing and stimulating of the bunch is by Gary A. Anderson (OT scholar at Notre Dame) entitled "Moses and Jonah in Gethsemane: Representation and Impassibility in their Old Testament Inflections".
The notion of impassibility of course comes up for enormous challenges from OT texts which suggest that God changed, or could change his mind (and Anderson addresses some of these in intriguing ways), as well as NT texts which suggest that Christ's mind or will might be something different from that of his heavenly Father-- i.e. especially the Garden of Gethsemane story.
This has led to all sort of odd reflections by systematicians and others wanting to claim things like "Christ suffered impassibly" which is to say without any change in the divine reality, or that "Christ could not do otherwise than to submit to God's will, as he was pre-programmed so as not to mess up God's plan for human redemption", which leads to the odd conclusion that God the first person of the Trinity can predestine God the second person of the Trinity to no longer have the freedom that seems to be a sine qua non of the Biblical depiction of divine character! But if it is true, as Hebrews says, that Jesus was truly tempted like us in every respect, but he resisted and did not sin, that would seem to surely imply that he could have done otherwise. After all a temptation is not really tempting if there is no possibility of giving in to it. But what then would it have meant if Jesus actually sinned? Would the divine Son then have to separate himself from his Incarnate presence as Jesus? But of course that assumes that the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ, could be severed, just as it was originally joined at the incarnation. Would the Son then have had to incarnate himself in a different human manifestion that then passed the temptation test? These are the sorts of questions that one is led to raise because of accepting Greek philosophical notions like: 1) the impassibility of God; 2) the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ (see the formulations of Chalcedon and Nicaea). And what I find intriguing about all such discussions is that the Bible, including the NT, is entirely innocent of such discussions. It does not explain whether Jesus had the true freedom to sin or resist temptation or not, but it certainly seems that the Gospel writers and the authors of Hebrews and Paul's letters thought he did. While it is a constant lament of Biblical scholars that systematicians are too often guilty of anachronism, of reading back into the Biblical text ideas that not only aren't there, but do not entirely comport with the ideas which are there, I must say that in these kinds of matters, the lament is justified. Anderson's essay however makes the intriguing and persuasive case that in texts like Exodus 32 or Numbers 14 the book of Jonah the divine character is revealed not merely in what God says, but also in what a Moses or a Jonah says about God as well. God is not quixotic, but God is relational and complex in character, and one must do justice to not only God's justice but also his mercy and compassion if you want to understand the full character of God.
In his helpful survey of key patristic sources, Brian J. Daley (in "The Word and his Flesh: Human Weakness and the Identity of Jeuss in Patristic Christology") does us a considerable service in unveiling how several of the church fathers wrestled with the idea of Christ's suffering and impassibility, and with how God who is ontologically distinct from his human creatures could unite his divine nature to a human nature without compromising the former. Because there was also a strong impetus towards a stress on Christ as the moral exemplar and paradigm for human behavior it was always difficult to know how far to press the argument that Christ was 'like' us. Daley ends by stressing "The identity of Jesus, however we parse it, is meant to be the pattern and promise of our own." (p. 269). That being said, and since we mere mortals are not hypostatically united to a divine nature, this makes more acute the issue of the 'kenosis' or self-emptying of the Son when he took on human flesh. In my judgment these church fathers did not do full justice to the implications of Phil. 2.5-11. The Son, it is said there, emptied himself, but of what? I would suggest this means he put the omnis on hold without divesting himself of his divine nature. He did not take advantage of his full equality with the Father whilst on earth. In other words, divine condescension meant divine self-limitation. This is turn meant that omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence were not characteristics of how Jesus of Nazareth operated. Yes, he had access to such powers, but no, he resisted drawing on them precisely because he came to partake of our natural finitude and die for us on the cross. This, I would suggest is precisely what the stories of Jesus' temptations are trying to tell us. Notice that in the wilderness the temptation does not run "if you are a human being then..." No, what the Nefarious One says is "if you are the (divine) Son of God... then.... In other words Jesus was tempted to act in a fashion that mere mortals can't act, act in a fashion that would obliterate his true humanity and thus his oneness with us as human beings. This temptation Jesus successfully resisted. He had taken on the form of a human being and taken on the role of a servant of all human beings (Mk. 10.45) and he would resist the temptation to violate either of these roles. This in turn means that when Jesus says in Mk. 13.32 that he does not know the timing of the second coming--- he means it! Now could he have accessed that information by drawing on his divine prerogatives? Well, yes, but the moment he did so, he would cease to be truly human and cease to be our human paradigm. In short, the story of Jesus' life is not a story of a divine being play acting and pretending to have human limitations. Rather, it is the paradoxical story of how the divine Son of God truly took on human flesh, and became the last Adam, Adam gone right, Adam who lived by the power of the Word of God and the Spirit of God in his life, and not on the basis of his divine nature while on earth, though he could have done the latter. This is precisely why that temptation story in Lk. 4 and par. tells us that Jesus resisted the Devil not by saying "I'm God. God can't be tempted, ergo.. your done here." No Jesus resisted temptation by quoting the Scriptures. By using the very resources all human beings have available to resist temptation-- the Word of God and the Spirit of God. Thus, he continued to be our paradigm.
It is of course true however, as Paul says, that there was a difference about the true humanity of Jesus, and ours. We are all fallen creatures, he was not. He was Adam gone right. He appeared only in the 'likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom. 8), he did not appear in sinful flesh. His was an unfallen human nature, like ours in ever respect save without sin. This explains how he was able to make the perfect atoning sacrifice on the cross, when we cannot do so, and it also means that Jesus is the one person for whom Jesus did not have to die on the cross. Indeed, as some of the Fathers said, Jesus is the one person who did not deserve to be punished for the wages of sin. The substitutionary sacrifice theology of atonement in the NT requires some such reading of the way the human nature and divine nature of the Christ were related whilst he was on earth. I could have wished for more reflection in this volume on this very issue, that is on the issue of the relationship between the divine and human natures of the Christ while on earth.
David Steinmetz is one of the truly gifted teachers and scholars of our time in the area of Reformation theology of various sorts. We here at Asbury were privileged to have him come and lecture on the Eucharistic theology of Zwingli, Luther, Calvin and others some years ago, and much of those discussions are reprised in his "The Eucharist and the Identity of Jesus in the Early Reformation". What Steinmetz shows so clearly is that it was precisely in Eucharistic theology where the implications of a Reformer's Christology would most clearly come to light. Were the elements of the Eucharist really transformed into the body and blood of Christ, or perhaps attached to them? Zwingli insisted that the exalted risen material body of Christ had gone to heaven, QED it was no longer on earth, and so could not be found in, under, around, or attached to the Eucharistic elements. He even denied that the sacraments were means of grace, arguing that grace came separately and by means of the Spirit and that one needed grace in advance to take the Supper properly. Luther by contrast concluded that due to the commumnicatio idiomatum (the communication of properties of one nature of Christ to the other) that Christ's body was as ubiquitous as the omnipresent Christ's spirit was, therefore Zwingli was out to lunch on this one, or better said, not properly serving and theologizing about the Supper. I loved reading this essay, and it reminded me how far the Christological discussions effect all Christian theologizing, not to mention how far the Reformers were in some respects from what the NT says about Christology and the Supper (on which see my book "Making a Meal of It").
It is always good to conclude a series of stimulating essays with a bang, and this volume does so with Sarah Coakley's fine discussion entitled "The Identity of the Risen Jesus" Finding Jesus Christ in the Poor". In essence she wants to argue that the place where we find the continuing presence of Christ is not merely in the church but in the poor. Here, it seems to me that the line between Christ's identity, and Christ's identifying with a particular group is blurred through a questionable exegesis of Mt. 25.31-46. She discusses other texts as well, but at the end of the day, what she seems not to grasp is the language of Jewish agency found not only in this text but elsewhere also when the issue of the 12 being Christ's agents or apostles comes up. Jesus identifies with the poor in the same way he identifies with the child in Mk. 9-10, not because his presence or identity lies in the poor or in the child, but because he wants his disciples to have the same concern for, compassion for, serviced given to, such groups. In short he wants the disciples to continue the ministry he himself announced in Lk. 4 and engaged in, fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah.
As you can tell, I think this book is excellent, a real stimulus to helpful discussion about the Identity of Jesus, both the historical Jesus and the risen Christ, and I highly commend it. It is the best such collection of essays done in recent years on this subject, and deserves to be a textbook at Christian colleges and seminaries, and used by churches to prompt the discussion as well. What makes this book most interesting is that despite all its diversity of views and interests all these writers are professing Christians who have high regard for the Nicean and Chalcedonian formulations about Christ. This was clearly not another incarnation of the Jesus Seminar that produced this book. If I could have recommended a couple of things that would make this a more user friendly textbook, they would be: 1) a good summary of each of the articles either in the conclusions, or a synopsis appended to each of the articles themselves for quick reference. The conclusions of each article are not simply a synopsis of that sort, and should be retained as well. 2) it would have been useful to have had some of the actual back and forth dialogue about these papers that went on at the CTI. As it is, we just have essays revised in light of the dialogue. It would be helpful to know what they looked like before and after the discussion, or at least a page or two summary with each article of how the discussion went. 3) the conclusions at the end of the book as we have them are not substantial enough to show the broad range of agreement amongst these scholars, especially on the crucial issue of Christology. The point is not that they are trying to be an ecclesial body drawing up a confessional statement. The point is to show the broad range of agreement amongst diverse scholars which is an encouragement to the faithful and others to keep the conversation going.
I want to thank Richard and Beverly for assembling this collection of 'works in progress' and all the labor involved. It is and can accomplish its aim of advancing the discussion, and even advancing our knowledge of God as revealed in his Son.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
I have been recently working through the volume edited by Beverley Gaventa (Princeton) and Richard Hays (Duke), entitled "Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage" (Eerdmans 2008). The volume comes out of lengthy times of interaction and worship and presentations at the CTI (the Center of Theological Inquiry, which should surely be called the Center for Theological Inquiry) at Princeton. Here some sixteen scholars in the fields of Biblical Studies, Patristics, Systematics, Reformation History and Theology, Liturgy and other cognate fields got together to talk about the issue of the Identity of Jesus, in its various forms and facets, modes and meanings.
This volume can be seen as a sort of sequel to a previous such meeting of the minds at the CTI (some of the same minds and some different ones from the earlier project) which produced "The Art of Reading Scripture" (Eerdmans 2003), an equally interesting collaboration. This first post will be dealing with a central issue raised by this most recent collaboration, namely how do we get at the identity of Jesus, or better said, what is the identity of Jesus-- who is he, and what counts as knowing him? The second post will be a somewhat detailed review of this important book.
WHAT CONSTITUTES A PERSON'S IDENTITY?
Perhaps you will remember Jason Bourne, and "the Bourne Identity". What exactly was his problem? In short, he had lost almost entirely any memory of his earlier life, and had no idea who he was, or at least who he had been before he was completely and almost literally brainwashed. Or consider the case of the Altzheimer's victim. What happens to them? They lose their memory, and in extreme cases they lose all sense of who they are, their identity.
Identity, we are told is bound up in memory. But there is more involved as well. One's personality and also one's character have something to do with identity. When we ask however the question about Jesus' identity, things are by no means as straightforward as with the case of Mr. Bourne or the Altzheimer's victim. It is not surprising then that there have been over the course of church history enormous questions raised and discussed quite specifically dealing with the issue of the identity of Jesus, especially by those who believe he was both truly a human being and also truly divine.
Normally, when we talk about the identity of someone we are talking about a normal historical person and his or her life from womb to tomb, but in fact the story of Jesus begins before the virginal conception in Mary's womb and continues after his exaltation to the right hand of God. This is precisely why analyzing the historical Jesus would never be adequate to define the identity of that man. Information about him as a historical person is only at best a subset of the data for understanding who he was and is, for the same stories that tell us he was a man from Nazareth are also the stories that tell us he was so much more than that-- namely a pre-existent Son of God and a post- resurrection risen Lord.
The historian's Jesus, or the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar, or the Jesus reconstructed on the basis of normal historical study of ancient figures could at most only be a discussion about a part of who he was, if the Gospels and the rest of the NT are anywhere near to being right about him. And of course if there is one person about whom we cannot afford the blunder of mistaking the part for the whole, it is Jesus.
We live in a Jesus haunted culture that is Biblically illiterate, and so unfortunately at this point in time, almost anything can pass for knowledge of the historical Jesus from notions that he was a a Cynic sage to ideas that he was a Gnostic guru to fantasies that he didn't exist, to Dan Browne's Jesus of hysterical (rather than historical) fiction. The real value of actual historical research about Jesus is that it provides a hedge against the inflation and infatuation of giving free reign to one's imagination when it comes to the identity of Jesus. It is thus a good thing that the writers of "Seeking the Identity of Jesus' were all able to come to the conclusion that a non-Jewish Jesus is not the real Jesus at all, and this of course is precisely the problem with the Jesus of Gnosticism who is often anti-Semitic if not simply non-Semitic.
One of the problems of course for the historian in assessing Jesus is that the stories about him are suffused with theology. Theology is not something added to the Gospels like icing on a cake that could with some hard labor be removed from the surface and the substance of what was being investigated. No, the stories about the historical Jesus are inherently theological in character. This of course is because the author's believed that God was an actor in space and time, not merely an observor of history from a far.
More specifically they believed that Jesus was the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, and so history could hardly be parsed out from God talk-- theo-logia. Robert Jenson brings this up in an emphatic way in his essay "Identity, Jesus and Exegesis" in the aforementioned volume when he says "you cannot accurately pick out Jesus of Nazareth without simultaneously picking out the second person of the Trinity, and you cannot accurately pick out the second person of the Trinity without in fact simultaneously picking out Jesus of Nazareth...when we ask about the identity of Jesus, historical and systematic questions cannot be separated." (pp. 46-47). I would put it a little differently saying that historical and theological questions cannot be radically separated when it comes to Jesus.
Jenson points us to the sentence "Jesus is risen". As he stresses, the word risen refers to something that happened to Jesus in space and time. Resurrection is then not in the first instance about resurrection appearances which disciples saw, or thought they saw. Nor is it about visions of Jesus disciples such as Paul may or may not have had. In other words, resurrection is not and cannot be reduced to a purely human psychological category or phenomena.
What the early church proclaimed in the first instance was that Jesus was risen, and this was just as much apart of the historical story about Jesus, as for example the claim that Jesus was born. Its just that post-Enlightenment persons (sometimes called modern persons), have been used for too long to assume that there are certain things that cannot and do not happen in human history, in particular actual divine intervention, or as we call them miracles. But of course, since no one's knowledge of the human realm is exhaustive how could anyone prove the negative that "miracles cannot happen"? It is in fact impossible to prove such a negative assumption without exhaustive knowledge of the inner workings of history and space and time. And no one but God has such knowledge.
Jenson makes his point this way "The character of the predicate '...is risen'... is not only a concept predicated of Jesus' story [e.g. ex post facto], it is itself part of the story." (p. 47). Exactly so. What the Gospels are, are theological history writing. Not history without theology, and not mere theologizing added after the fact to history, or theologizing done in the form of narrative and history writing. No, what we have in the Gospels is theological history writing, which is simply one sort of history writing, a sort that was very common in antiquity (see e.g. Herodotus the father of history writing), and more rare in our day. Its rarity today is not because we are so much wiser than the ancients, or because the divine Elvis long since left the building. It is in fact because we are not as wise as the ancients when it comes to historical matters that are miraculous and theological in character.
Identity, is in fact a slippery term in English. The Gospel writers do not do a lot of overt editorializing about who Jesus is. They use the method of indirect portraiture, allowing Jesus' words and deeds to speak for themselves and reveal his true character. And there is a wisdom in this because it means they are attempting to step out of the way, for the most part, and let Jesus speak and act for himself. Did you notice they nowhere give a physical description of the man, but most moderns seem to be pretty sure they could pick him out of a line up at Pontius Pilate's police station? The ancients knew that it was the content of his character not the color of his skin or eyes or hair that truly mattered.
But these Evangelists are also wise enough to know that Jesus' identity is not just a matter of telling what he said and did. His identity is perhaps just as much revealed by what happens to the man quite apart from his conscious decisions and actions--- for example the virginal conception in Mary's womb, or when God raised him from the dead. Jesus is only the risen Lord because God raised him from the dead. If you do not realize that who you are is as much a matter of what happens to you quite beyond your control as well as the facets of your life you can control, then you have not plumbed the depths of the nature of human identity.
In my earlier work written 20 years ago "The Christology of Jesus" (Fortress Press), I focused on the issue of the identity of Jesus, and one thing I pointed out is of course not only that identity is something that develops over time, even in the case of Jesus (see e.g. Lk. 2.41-52), but I stressed that who a person is, who a person thinks they are, who a person claims to be, and who others think that person is, can all be distinguishable and different things.
Jesus could have been the savior of the world, and quietly set about the task of doing the job without ever having made public claims to that effect. Other people could have thought of Jesus as a Zealot, but their thinking or claiming it did not make it so. My point in stressing this, is that the public claims and acclaims and refutations about the identity of Jesus are at best one inadequate clue to who he was, and who he thought he was.
If you just focus on the Christological labels you will not sufficiently plumb the depths of who he was and is, not least because Jesus was a remarkably complex person, or as Eduard Schweizer said long ago... he was the man who fit no one formula, could not be pigeon holed. Just so. This is why a titles approach to discerning the identity of Jesus, while necessary, will never be sufficient, especially in regard to understanding his true and full humanity. Assessing the identity of a living person is less like assessing a marble statue and more like assessing the boundaries and character of a lake which while, it has some constant elements (e.g. water, and a generally given shape) nonetheless is constantly in motion and can be seen from ever fresh and new angles. (see Derek Parfit's comment on p. 310 of the book).
Of course the great problem in assessing Jesus' identity is that even given the conclusion that he is truly human and truly divine, figuring out what the Bible says about the relationship between those two natures has been the subject of no end of debate and church councils in church history. Unfortunately in conservative Christian circles we have tended to stress one side of the balance, namely the divine side, more than the other, seeing Jesus as sort of 90% divine and 10% human. Of course the Jesus seminar and others, seeking to redress the balance have wanted to stress the exact opposite proportions (Jesus lite, less filling but still tastes great!) if not denying Jesus any divinity at all.
Part of the problem with this debate was that the Greek notion of the impassability of the divine (i.e. that the Eternal does not change, and is not subject to change) has been interjected into the discussion. But the problem with using this notion to help get clarity about the identity of Jesus is that when the NT says things like "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever" it does not mean Jesus never suffered on the cross, or that Jesus never underwent any changes, or that Jesus had no emotions. It simply means that his character was consistent throughout and beyond time--- he was manifestly always the same person in the sense that he had the same character always. It requires real exegetical gymnastics with the NT text to try and conclude that the incarnation did not involve the second person of the Trinity incorporating some real, and indeed physical change into the Godhead. But this brings up another crucial point.
Jesus's identity cannot be adequately assessed by accounting for what can be said about him in distinction from and in isolation from all other beings. This is of course an important question-- asking what makes him unique. But what the Gospel writers say is that we understand him best when we understand whose he was (God's only begotten Son) which is to say, who he was in relationship to God (Son of God, God's Anointed one) and who he was in relationship to us (the Son of Man, the Lord of the church, the head of the Body of believers and so on).
Jesus' identity is as much revealed in his relationships as in isolation. And this brings up perhaps the most crucial point of this first post. What the Gospel writers insist is that Jesus cannot be understood or truly known apart from not only belief in God, but a certain knowledge of the relationship of God to Jesus, as well as of Jesus to God's people both Israel and the Church. This is precisely why the Fourth Evangelist writes at the end of his narrative. "these things are written so you might begin to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God". He presupposes that one already is at least open to believing in God before assessing the identity of Jesus. This means that truly seeing and knowing Jesus of course requires faith. While our world may use the cliche "seeing is, or leads to believing" what the Gospel say is that "believing leads to seeing" when it comes to the identity of Jesus.
In his helpful essay "The Historian's Jesus and the Church" Dale Allison concludes as follows: "Every piece of evidence we have indicates that from the beginning Jesus, whatever appellation he did or did not bestow on himself, was the leader, and everyone else a follower. He was the teacher, while everyone else usually listened; he was the main actor while everyone else for the most part observed. There is no tradition in which Jesus is not front and center. Moreover the primitive proclamation "God raised Jesus from the dead," however one accounts for it, was no reason to crown him Israel's king or to see him as a ruling lord-- unless he was antecedently hoped to be such.... The early interpretations of the Easter events presupposed Jesus' pivotal eschatological role; they were not its source." (pp. 92-93).
Just so. The Gospels stories are not examples of prophecy historicized (by which I mean faux history made up on the basis of a certain reading of OT prophecies), nor are they like Aesop's fables, or legendary material found in the Illiad and the Odyssey, much less like the stuff of Egyptian or Greco-Roman myths. No, these Gospel stories are tied down to specific times and places and persons who witnessed, experienced, were changed by encounters with Jesus both before and after Golgotha.
The Gospel writers set out then to reveal the faces, or multi-faceted identity of Jesus. As Fred Buechner said long ago, he had a face which was not a front behind which he hid, but rather a frontier, the outer most visible edge of who he was. In him was no shadow of turning, no dissembling, his character was authentic, honest, had integrity-- he was as advertised by the Evangelists. His was a face which has led millions to follow or flee him for all of their days for over 2,000 years. Its time for all of us to face up to that Face, and so be transformed and conformed to the image of the one whom we admire and love and serve. We have a choice-- shall we go on being a Jesus haunted culture, or a Christ like one.