Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Paul Event

I had a thought recently that with all the justifiable attention we pay to the Christ event, we might well miss the potential significance of the Paul event.

Think of hierarchy. Think of succession. Think of disciples. Think of those entrusted with Christ's own teachings. And then think of a compleat interloper having the majority say on the meaning of all that happened in the presence of those same guardians! Such a thing flies directly in the face of the whole concept of succession. It should have called into question the whole fantasy of the rule on rule, the whole quasi-talmudic approach where everything is built on something else. But instead, the early church got around the issue by declaring the interloper an Apostle after all. And we have since based much of our teaching on his. There's a weird irony around the word "Apostle." It's supposed to be the same as missionary, which Paul obviously was. The irony is the historical assumption that it also means something akin to "benevolent dictator for life," which I just don't think was Jesus' intent.

But really, doesn't it blow everything wide open, that someone so from the outside of everything could have a personal revelation of Christ and leave such a deep mark on a movement that he had nothing to do with starting? It says to me that actually we are all equal partners in the New Testament conversation after all. God starkly and astonishingly ignores the fledgling hierarchy of the church right at its outset. Maybe he was trying to help the church set aside any idea of hierarchy. Such an action on God's part means that potentially we all have a voice. We are nobodies in the church but Paul was less than nobody -- he was, to borrow a biological term, an antibody. If such a one as he can look on the Christ event and commentate on its meaning, ought we not also to be able to do the same?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Missing the point with Mary

Somewhere in my bible school music training one of the instructors quoted something like the following, which, regrettably, I can't immediately source:
Christians are more likely to sing heresy than teach it.
Well this Christmas, I am guilty. I'm part of a group that will be performing a chant that extols Mary as "Virgo semper intacta" which renders in English as "virgin ever pure." Now in one sense, that of redemption through the death, resurrection, and return of her firstborn, I have no problem ascribing to her any amount of purity. But the literal sense of the Latin doesn't lead us in that direction at all. "Intacta" signifies untouched, by which we may assume that she never, through long years of 'marriage,' ever copulated with her husband Joseph. And that idea I find viciously problematic.

Now the Gospels clearly state that the couple abstained until the birth of Jesus. And I wonder how anyone could extrapolate "never" from such a statement. I mean, why include the limiting preposition "until" if you really mean "never?" But that is by the by. I have been sometimes accused of being a grammar cop, but I shall try to avoid that here.

It's not the misuse of the text that is so problematic, but the damage that the eternal "purity," and (let's go ahead and say it) 'Immaculate Conception' of Mary does to the whole story of Incarnation. To me the point of Jesus' coming was for God to come as an everyman and not have any advantages that could compromise the worth of his sinless life. Think how much easier he had it, if throughout his whole upbringing, his mother was without any faults. How is that fair? And take yourself back to the time he lived in and imagine that he was the only boy in his neighbourhood of probable one room dwellings who had not experienced the childhood trauma of waking up to the sound of his parents' revels at midnight. "Go back to sleep, son -- no, everything's alright, we'll explain in a few years..." Paul's idea is "tempted in every way that we are" and I think he's right. I think he gets the Incarnation in a way that those who wish to ascribe all sorts of fairy tale virtues to Mary just don't.

In black and white, then, the more we embellish the character of Mary, more we detract from the redemption. If Jesus had some unique advantage, he can't be our Saviour and he can't be our Example.

But the quote stands. I will, as agreed, sing this heresy. But not without comment.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rule on Rule

What do the Jewish Talmud, the teachings of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the teachings of Bill Gothard, and many of the teachings that come out of the Charismatic movement have in common? My take is that much of all of these are based on stuff that is based on other stuff that is based on some original information or saying from the Bible.

The story of the Talmud is well known. It's a commentary on a commentary on commentary. And the rabbinical culture which produced it, produced much of the legalism that Christ had such a dislike for. I hope I am not wrong in the understanding that much of the that legalism is contained in the Talmud.

I'll skip over to Bill Gothard, since so much of my childhood Christianity was framed by his teaching. A clever man, that Bill. Could keep you listening to him for hours. Lots of helpful material, too. But when it came to overarching theory, it got a little sketchy. Bill liked to derive principles from the Bible and then derive principles from other principles and that's where he falls into the same camp as the Pharisees. My favourite was the reasoning behind his idea that rock music is evil. The whole idea comes from the mention in Paul's letters of spirit, soul, and body. Now Paul doesn't say that much about those three; in fact he was probably expressing the totality of human existence. But Bill had lots to say. For Bill, they represented not a totality but a hierarchy. Spirit on top, soul in subjection to spirit, body in subjection to spirit and soul. Based on this Bill constructed a theory of music. As follows: the spirit corresponds to the melody, the harmony to the soul (think "mind"), and the beat to the body. So rock music is obviously wrong because the body component of the music is emphasized. I'm guessing he probably didn't have much time for vocal jazz either, because the soul (think "mind") component is too prevalent in all those harmonies.

Two months or so ago, I had an extended discussion on Facebook about Mary as theotokos, or Mother of God. I questioned the use of the title, because it has always seemed to me to make Mary the originator of God. One response I got was, was I setting myself up against the third ecumenical council that declared her to be that? Well I finally looked up the council that declared her to be theotokos, (on Wikipedia -- hardly a primary source, but...) and the sense I got was not that it was focused on elevating Mary to a permanent exalted position in the Kingdom, but on proclaiming Jesus as God instead of merely Christ. The council was choosing between God-bearer and Christ-bearer. (And yes, the use of "bearer" instead of "originator," deals with my scruples about "Mother of God," but that's still an aside.) Assigning that title, though, to Mary has had its consequences. For centuries after, Christian worship has, to my mind, counter-intuitively included her in regular liturgy.

The point I am trying to make is that teachings that are second or third generation (based on stuff that is based on other stuff) is suspect. A small amount of bias in a primary teaching is forgivable -- we are all human after all. But error compounds upon error and soon you have something that is not recognizable as stemming from the original.

Take the Trinity for example. The Trinity is, to my mind, a best-guess label for the mysterious relationship and identity Father Son and Holy Spirit have together. From the Bible, it's easily defensible as a good working concept. But it's never explicitly taught. We've derived it from what we read, honestly and humbly enough. But then someone the other day was telling me that he was meditating on the perichoresis, a deeper concept which describes of the intricacies of that mysterious relationship (read up in it yourself.) But how, I ask, can there even be a perichoresis, when we don't even really know if there is a Trinity? Our humble best-guess has exalted itself into being the basis for a whole other teaching. We've strayed into what we can't actually know.

How quickly this process occurs in the Church is evident in the some of the practises that have arisen among Charismatics. "Binding Satan" in prayers is surely based on stuff that is based on other stuff. (You never hear Jesus or the early church praying that way.) Catchphrases abound. "Come into alignment," "plead the blood," etc. All had some traction at one time in context of someone's inspiring teaching. But they are hardly central and should really be discarded before someone bases anything more on them.

I have an Orthodox co-worker, who justly accuses me of minimalism. Guilty as charged, I say. The enormous jurisprudence of canon law terrifies me. I read the intricate distinctions of who can have communion, what kind of marriages are legitimate, (divorce is unlawful, but you can get an annulment) etc. and wonder how any of that is foreshadowed by Jesus and his ministry here on earth. It's not. It's rule on rule, rule on rule, a little here, a little there. (And for those who think that that's a good thing, reread the Isaiah passage where that phrase occurs.)

So I propose a sort of hierarchy of teaching. The original sources are more authoritative. First generation teachings based on those sources are less so. Second generation teachings based on the first are suspect. Third generation teachings should probably be discarded. I'm probably wrong, but it's where I'm at right now.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Praying to Saints

Some twelve or thirteen years ago, when I was first presented by the conundrum of a scholarly friend and his family forsaking what I will loosely call the free churches (a very subjective label in this case -- by which, forgive me, I mean churches I more or less understand) for the Roman Catholic church, one of the more bewildering issues to me was the veneration of saints. As someone who has always believed that worship was for God alone, I would tend to condemn such a practise as idolatry if I ever thought of it all. But here was someone I respected embracing it along with all the other -- for me -- Martian ideas and practices of Rome. And having asked about it, I was supplied the following more or less plausible rationale for the whole practise.
  • The word prayer in the context of the saints is closer to simple asking than the included worship we subscribe to God when we pray to him. A little archaic in usage, but possible. In the past you might have in the same way asked something of your friend in the form of, "I pray thee."
  • Saints are part of the "Cloud of Witnesses" that surrounds us. And they don't just surround us as from stands in an arena. They're actually very close -- close enough to hear us and interact with our lives.
  • We already single out certain friends -- still alive friends, I mean -- who seem to have special faith for praying for specific things. Why not ask the various saints to intercede on our behalf in our diverse times of need?
So the above was, for me, an interesting excursion into another worldview. Veneration of Saints is a classic sticking point for Protestants to argue against the Roman church, a too-easy fault to write the whole thing off because no effort had been made to understand the practise from the inside. What I saw in the above was that here was practise rooted in a medieval paradigm that made some sense in that context, and as someone who tries to allow other cultures their worldviews, I had to make room for it as possible. The explanation I was given was an attempt to bring it forward into the present day. And in discussions with fellow non-Catholics I would try to downplay that particular issue, because, as members of another culture, we couldn't really judge what was in their hearts when they 'prayed' to the saints.

A couple of days ago, in the context of a random discussion -- we have lots of them in our family -- I did a web search for Saint Peregrine. I figured there had to be such a saint, because of the popular fruit juice soda brand 'San Pelegrino' and I guessed rightly that the English version of his name must be Peregrine. And I found the following. When I read it aloud, someone made the comment that he had always found the practise of praying to the saints somewhat idolatrous. And you can easily glean the same from the verbiage in the prayer, which seems to me to be a pretty standard sort of address to a saint. And it certainly doesn't fit into the made-for-protestants explanation given me by my friend. The formalism, the titles, the 'buttering up' of the saint, all point in the direction quite the opposite to the "asking a friend to pray for you" model. But I'm going to try give this the benefit of the doubt and try to update the prayer a bit. Bear with me.
  •  "Hey Peregrine, you've had some success praying for miracles, haven't you? And you also sacrificed a lot to serve God and I appreciate that and frankly, I look up to you. You're a real role model. I'd consider it a favour if you would pray for me that I could have the courage to be like you. So much for the long term. In the short term, there are a few miracles I need. Can you please pray for [fill in the blank] and [fill in another blank]. Like I said, I'd sure appreciate your help if you've got the time."
What do you think? If you can get your head around talking to people who are gone on to where we all will await resurrection, I think it might work. I've made a conscious effort to not address Peregrine the way I address God, to avoid assigning titles -- Forgive me,I still take the Matthew 23 passage very seriously-- and to include at least some of the material of the prayer on the above web page.

The resurrection thing is an interesting point about saints, though. Jesus himself was not glorified until he was resurrected, and none of us, not even the saints, have been resurrected. It possibly kind of calls into question us depending on them as if they were glorified. But I'm not going to push on any farther in that direction. The whole thing is still just so foreign to me and there are far bigger issues to resolve before I would ever follow in my friends footsteps.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Bible Study: Sometimes, It's not Love, but Honour

The Luke 11 "Ask, Seek, Knock," passage has been on my mind recently. Especially the story about the man who wakes his neighbour. And I think that strange mistranslation has crept into most of our bibles in this story. The point of the story is not the knocking friend's persistence. The story is not about persistence at all or repetition or even as one bible puts it, impudence(!)

As a non-scholar in Greek, how can I say this? Well, compare the story with that of the father giving scorpions for fish. The two stories are a unit, that much is obvious. And equally obvious is that the intent of the second story is to horrify the listener with the idea of a father who will not supply his children with that which good, sustaining and life-giving, but rather that which indigestible, unclean and poisonous.

So I would propose that the first story was also horrifying (probably slightly less horrifying -- we are leading to a climax here) to Jesus' listeners. The idea that a friend and fellow villager would not help to take care of the newly arrived traveller was received, by this line of reasoning, was to them a horrifying thought. And as an aside, I'm not being very original here. I've heard this elsewhere, in some sermon or Bible School lecture. And five minute's googling turned up ample evidence that my memory is not faulty and that wiser heads than mine have said the same about this passage. Historically, care of travellers was a matter of honour. The whole village's reputation was at stake. The selfishness of the so-called friend's reply in the first story is a rhetorical device. He is saying what would never be said! --in the very same way that the earthly father in the second is doing what what would never be done. So whatever the word ought to be, it can't be 'persistence.' Hopefully, Greek scholars will bear me out on this.

So where am I going with this? It's clear to me that ultimately these two parables are pointing to one idea, which is that it concerns God's honour to answer our prayers. And to complete the thought, it concerns his honour to give the Holy Spirit to his children when they ask. I have to say that this is my favourite part of the passage, that it all points to the availability of the Holy Spirit to us and that it would be as horrifying for him not to give the Spirit as a father giving a scorpion when asked for an egg. But that's not what I'm getting at here. There's no mention in this passage of his love for us, great though that is. It's his honour, that is, his righteousness, that is highlighted here.

God is not a one-dimensional character. Yes, I'm being a bit hobby-horse-ish here but I defend myself by saying that it's only in reaction to others hobby horses. I see very much posted these days that filters everything through an all-encompassing idea of God's love. And I'm saying that even that single idea, grand though it is, is just like every other single idea when made the only lens through which God and all his acts and commands are viewed. Distortion ensues. Here's a passage about asking and receiving good things from our Father. Surely, some mention would be made about his love for us. But Jesus even downplays the friendship -- the love -- in the first story and makes it about the honour of the village (or so I argue above.) Well, I could go on and on about what I've covered in earlier posts about the necessity of God's wrath along with his love, assaulting motherhood, yeah, and apple pie with all the orneriness in me but instead I'll say this: I'm personally glad God has pledged not only his love, but his honour to being our good Father. It's something to take to the bank.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

the return of jargon

Here's a fun one. Are you "washed in the blood?" Have you "stood against" a "Spirit of Religion." Does reading this make you want to bring me "before the throne of Grace?"

Conversely, have you ever been turned off by Christian jargon? You're not alone. For years now we've been trying to avoid this stuff so that we can be understood by those we we witness to. But it keeps coming back. For a while there, everything was Hebraic: shalom, tehillah. Yeah I did it too. Used to always replace the Greek Christ for the Hebraic Messiah. Somehow it's thought to be more meaningful. But I'm wondering now whether if you can't express your sacred concepts in your own language, it's sort of an epic fail. You haven't actually welcomed him into your own culture and you had to dabble in someone else's just to talk about him.

And it's come back again. Now we're borrowing from Greek as it's come into vogue. Like perchoresis, kenosis and oikonimos, which are perfectly non-English words that I've come across recently. Don't get me wrong, I love words, I love words from all kinds of languages. I'm only saying, "Didn't we recently just make the effort to de-jargon-ify our faith?" I know I did. And now suddenly there are essential, or at least partially essential concepts that cannot be expressed except by borrowing a word from Greek, a word that only an interested party like me will bother to look up. Sounds like jargon to me...

It's just a matter of discipleship

I've been led down a road I never thought to find myself on. Earlier in this blog, I have questioned everything to do with inerrancy, I have questioned Paul's approach to patriarchal authority based on Jesus' words as reported by Matthew, and I've argued against using the phrase "Word of God" as a way of referring to the Bible -- because the Bible itself almost always uses it to refer to prophecy or the Gospel and not to a writing in existence at the time when the phrase, "Word of God", is used. But now I find myself, in my cross-grained, ornery way, defending the Old Testament more than I ever thought I would. And of course it's because I'm taking an opposing view to a something I see as a popular trend. I have no defence for  this. I do not know what drives me to always take a different tack to arguments for this or that idea. I only know that I do it.

So here's the impetus for this particular post. During a previously mentioned Facebook discussion about God's wrath, a couple of propositions were put forward about how to treat parts of the Old Testament. One of them writes off all instances of wrath as a mere metaphor, implying that the perceptions of God of the people of the time of the Old Testament were frequently innately wrong. Another was that actually much of the writings generally attributed to Moses were actually created during the Babylonian exile, a bit of higher-critical legerdemain to absolve that great man of all those acts that we find distasteful and evil, but which I've argued make perfect sense in the times when they occurred. And ultimately we were enjoined to make the Gospels our lens to view all of the other writings of the Bible, a proposition that I thoroughly agree with, but the working out of which I find I differ wildly.

Because here's the deal. Jesus, the main player in the Gospels, our example, the Rabbi on whom the proper imitation of our discipleship is focused, really does not seem to treat the Old Testament in any similar way to these approaches. Take the Sermon on the Mount. After the Beatitudes, he introduces all the rest of it with a disclaimer, namely, "I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil them." And the people listening to those words would have heard that as meaning the same collection of writings that Christians refer to as the Old Testament. And in its context, this is not a throwaway statement, nor is it an idle threat. Jesus proceeds to examine, broaden and deepen various Old Testament concepts and laws. He even affirms the idea of just penalties for specific sins, and shockingly introduces the hyperbole (I hope it's hyperbole!) of preemptive and prophylactic penalties ("if your ___ causes you to sin, cut it off!")

I'd like to take this purpose statement ("I have... come... to fulfil [the law and the prophets]) out of its context, and ask the question, what does it mean to fulfil the Law and the Prophets. Three things come to mind: (and really none of this is original material.) 1) to actually successfully obey them, 2) to set them into their intended larger context and thus to 3) complete our understanding of them. And this is what I see Jesus doing throughout his teachings and works. It's not how the approaches I mention above strike me, at least not the write off of what we don't like and the higher criticism. They seem like abolishment. The third approach needs some further comment.

What does it mean that the Gospels are the lens through which we view the rest of the Bible? Well hopefully the Gospels will help us make actual sense of the rest of the Bible, but in the case of the Old Testament, it's a two way street. You see, I'm under the delusion that God was teaching the world about himself all through the Old Testament, and doing a good job of it, too. So when Jesus appears on the scene his task is not to undo all that has gone before, but to bring together all the threads and complete the task. By this I mean that no basic Old Testament concept is left on the cutting room floor. It all is part of the story. The mercy we receive through the cross is perfectly understood against the backdrop of the punishment we deserve, which we could only have known about from the Old Testament. To me (switching metaphors) it looks a contrast between two stages. One puts the cross in the centre of a new stage with a white backdrop and says "We didn't always know this, but now we know." The other (my preference, obviously) a stage with the cross at the centre and a backdrop which depicts all of that which has gone before, from which we can make sense of an entire flow of history in both directions -- the cross making sense of history and history making sense of the cross...

Well this at any rate, I think is what I think not abolishing but fulfilling the law looks like.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

One More Comment From the Edge

OK. It's obvious that if I continue to stand up for what I consider to be a valid viewpoint, that is that God can and does experience what we perceive as anger or wrath, that I am in danger of imbalance. God is love. His anger is, or would be, a merely situational thing. It's not a default. It's not a part of his nature. Yes, I've been arguing that any righteous being with the capacity for emotion will also be angry when presented with evil or wrong. But I would be doing God a disservice if I left everyone with the impression that that is what God is all the time. His declaration of his name, given to Moses on the mountain (and I do take the whole passage to be his name) compares maintaining love and forgiveness to a thousand generations with pursuing the guilt to a mere third or fourth generation. It's a ratio I should be observing to stay balanced -- a thousand words (posts?) about love to 3 or 4 about wrath.

In fact I was going to do just that. A comment on my last post, I thought very good (do go back and read it) was about the needlessness of God's wrath based on the order of magnitude difference between what he is and what we are. I'm not even going to disagree with it. I was going to repost it here and then the same commenter elsewhere posted this. It's a litany of what the article calls 'Dick Moves' committed by God in the Old Testament. I assume that the aforementioned phrase implies senseless arrogance and stupid maliciousness. So I've just got to put up my hand and say hang on a minute, before I leave behind the whole subject of 'wrath.' I have two things to say about this.

1) The people who wrote those things were proud of God for doing them. It meant a great deal to them that God would, unlike any god around them, step in and punish and stop evil.
2) Unlike today the world used to intuit that there were things that were worse than death. In fact many, many things topped the list before it. Things like (dare I say it?) blasphemy. Our 'death is the worst thing' ideal informs so much of this offence we have when we read the Old Testament. Do I agree with the past on this? I don't know. But I'm very shy about calling the O.T. stories (blech!) 'Dick Moves.'

Someone commented on my post about the continuing war between adult and child in me and said that even my intellectual pursuits had a childlike element to them. So here's my childlike response. I don't have the same view of inspiration in the Bible as many evangelicals do. That's obvious from my previous posts. But I do feel a kinship with the writers of the Bible. David, Moses, Paul, etc. are my family members. If I disagree with them, I disagree with what they say. But I'm not going to let them be called dupes. At the very least not without a rebuttal. And I've realized that's what I see in whole-hog attempts to reclassify the 'wrath' events in the Old Testament as either not actually God or mis-perceptions of God and my response to those attempts. It's all about family. These are my people and they're not stupid.

Addendum: After some processing of that comment about God never actually needing to be angry because of the difference between us, I realized that if he is angry with us, he is marking us out as peers, that is, his expectations of us are actually akin to the expectations he has of himself. It could be an evidence for "you have made him a little lower than God" as found somewhere in the Psalms.

But so much of my writing is in reaction to something else. And that fact has taken me to the edge on this one. Admitting that, hopefully I can inch my way away from it.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Jesus vs. the Wrathless God

I had a recent discussion on Facebook that has made me think harder about something than I have for quite a while. I've made related posts about this in the past but it seems I should take this one head on. A friend of mine has been on a quest to exonerate God of ever having what the Bible calls wrath. His argument seems to be as follows.
  1. Wrath, anger, etc. are dark, evil emotions and the idea that God would ever experience them conflicts with the premise that God is light and in him is no darkness at all -- here he borrows a quote from an Archbishop of Canterbury who says that God is Christlike and in him is no un-Christlike-ness at all.
  2. The ultimate revelation about God's true character comes in the Gospels from our encounters with Jesus there --  culminating in the Cross and because we can see no wrath there, only mercy, wrath is not part of God at all. 
  3. Any other data about this in the Bible is suspect because the writer had never encountered Jesus and even in the New Testament the rest of the books have to be seen through the lens of the Gospels.
  4. When the Bible refers to wrath, it's really a metaphor for God backing off his protection and allowing us to experience the consequences of our actions, and hence, he's not doing it to us -- we're doing it to ourselves.
And the thing is, I'm really tracking very close to all of this. This is generally the way I read the Bible too. The Gospels are the proper lens through which to view the rest of the Bible. If you're a long time reader you might remember that I've posted a rant much earlier on about how the completely arbitrary published order of the New Testament ostensibly gives Paul the last word over Jesus on so many issues.

So where is my problem? Mostly with 1) and 4). I think that to not allow for this aspect of God's character is to lessen his personhood. Wrath, anger, etc. are not intrinsically evil. Any and all righteous beings, if they have any emotions at all, ought to and ought to be allowed to disapprove of evil on an emotional level. That seems a limp-wristed  definition of wrath, but really, everything else is a matter of degree and perception. Presumably greater evil would evoke a greater response. Certain situations (say, being called to account) will amplify the perception of wrath. Secondly even if the wrath talked about outside of the Gospels was not clearly perceived by the writer, something was perceived. It can't be negated into a metaphor or written off as a complete mistake. I also feel that the whole discussion has an 'our time' feel to it, that it never would have occurred to earlier cultures, especially the culture of the times of the Bible's actual writing, to raise these issues. (But I've touched upon that elsewhere)

Another thing that has to be said is that we're all really on the very same side. We're even accepting the same task. Those who want to see God exonerated of all wrath are defending his character by saying that with wrath, he has a defective personality. I'm defending his character by saying that without wrath he doesn't even have a personality.

But, accepting the standard of the Gospels as the lens through which all else is understood, my task is clear. I have to find wrath in the Gospels. Maybe I have made things too easy for myself by defining wrath as disapproval on an emotional level, but really what else is there? I freely admit that the wrath of fallen humanity is tainted with evil, so if God and/or God in Jesus experiences righteous anger, it's going to be different at so many levels than our experience of even what we call righteous anger. Emotions-based disapproval might be the only commonality, so that is what I am looking for. So sternness, severity, anger are fair game as candidates for wrath because all are perceived the same by those on the receiving end. It could be that wrath is qualitatively different, and I'm just not understanding that aspect of the argument, but for purposes of this post I will shelve that idea and anyway, I haven't heard anyone say anything like that. Excuse me for a bit...

(passage of time while the 'Pilgrim' skims through the Gospels -- "talk amongst yourselves?")

So here's the most significant thing I've found. (I avoided the Cleansing of the Temple because that's gotten to be a cliche. "Jesus got angry and so can I.") What caught my attention was the parables. The 'God' figures in several of the parables express wrath fairly clearly. Some actually are said to be angry and acting in anger, and some, as evidenced by their words, are merely severe. And I think it's more, not less significant that these moments of wrath are in the parables. Thing is, parables are stories. The "master", the "king", the "wedding host" getting angry at evildoers rounds out the story because that makes the story more plausible, more understandable, more right. So back to our story. Doesn't it make sense that if we sin, we suffer his extreme displeasure? Is that not wrath in some form? And does wrath not round out our story too?

One last little note about 4). A near as I can guess, it's not a solution at all. It's time-shifting to beg the question away altogether. Consequences come to us for our actions because that is the way the world was made from the beginning. By whom? Um, God. It seems God designed the cosmos with consequences in mind -- the punishment for evil is built right in. And who removes his hand of protection? Um, God. So it's really moot. At the recipients end, the difference between wrathful punishment or impassive non-protection are really not distinguishable. Metaphor? I think not. The story makes more sense, if God, having a legitimate reason to be angry, actually is.

And having allowed God the prerogative of just anger, I am even more thankful that "he will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever..." (oops, that was from the Psalms, not the Gospels-- maybe the Psalmist should have said, "we won't experience this metaphor forever?")

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What Would You Do?

I have a more intellectual post waiting in the wings, but I am compelled to write this first. Earlier on in this pilgrimage, I wrote about the war in me between that which childlike and full of wonder and that which is more grown up and concerned with cold, hard realities, etc. Click on the link 'war' and read. I promise it's a short post.

This past year has been the year of the grown up. A year ago I left the church that I had had years of dreams for based on what I perceived as a trend of wrong headed decisions that wasn't going to be reversed in my lifetime. That's a very grown up move and flew right in the face of all the child had invested. Consequently the war has been in very great danger of being over. And the child might soon completely dead.

A couple of days ago while at home group, (house church, cell group, or whatever you want to call it) an inkling came to me that God might want to revive the child. "If you ask me, I'll give it back..." He was talking about life and passion, maybe even power. The child.

I won't insult your intelligence by laying out all that I risk by asking. Dreaming again will be as uncertain as an abyss. What glories or pains await me if I jump? It's not knowable till I do. I'll just ask this. What would you do?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Decline and Fall...

In his book, "The Great Divorce" C.S. Lewis tells the story of a group of 'ghosts' from a grey, paltry, dreary depiction of Hell on an excursion trip to the bright and overpowering reality of Heaven. They are met there by 'Spirits,' bright and real, former friends, relatives, and associates whose task it is to convince the ghosts to stay, although it will hurt at first (even the grass will not bend for the incorporeality of the ghosts' feet) and grow into the same blessed state that the spirits experience.

One of the conversations that occurs is that of two artists, one spirit and one ghost, that touches on there past lives as the avante garde of their time. Toward the end of their time together, the spirit shares with the ghost some information that obviously had not reached Hell yet, namely that the school of art their group had been up against (whatever it was) had won out in the popular arena and their own paintings were now not even selling in second hand stores. Shocked and angered, the ghost chooses to return to Hell to continue to build up the society of fellow art ideologues.

This story is well worth thinking about when it comes to present 'trends' in theological thinking. But first I need to take issue with the word 'trend' itself in this context. When a group describes their ideas as being part of a trend, what they're really doing is claiming something that is really beyond their grasp, namely that in future, their successors will build on their ideas and that their influence will continue past their deaths. It's something they really can't know. I realize that in taking issue with the use of this word I am being a bit obscure. I haven't actually heard anybody use it. But in formulating this blog post I realized that up till now, I have felt that I was part of a larger trend, but based on what follows, I am not so sure.

So what's this about anyway? Well it's this. We're going to lose. Those of us who desire to read the Bible intelligently, to be open to new ideas, (yes, even I want to be open to new ideas, though I my project is always to integrate them with what is already known), and to do the work of reasoning through what is now taken for granted so that the church and our faith will be based on consistent truth will all die out. We are not a movement that will continue into the future. We are a generation that will pass and be forgotten.

How can I say such a thing? First of all, the effort of theological thinking may feel like a calling but in reality it's a hobby shared by comparatively few. There are other interests, you know. Some people watch hockey games. So the truth is that there are roads in our minds that we have gone down completely alone and we have very few others who can understand or relate to what we can tell of those trips. So there's just not the critical mass out there for the church to forever change as a result of our ideas.

Secondly, based on the lack of intellectual interest (I'm not calling anyone dumb, you understand; just not interested in the same stuff) in the subject matter, nuanced thinking, nuanced reading of scripture, nuanced teaching about God, is very hard 1) to transmit and 2) (for the recipient) to remember. Take inerrancy for example. It's much easier to remember, store away, digest that the Bible never makes mistakes, than to have to come to each passage and process what it says on the basis of many varied inputs. But if you are not committed to that process, your choices are accept or reject the Bible on the whole. Like I said, it's much easier just to sign up under inerrancy. So if you have a teaching based on a nuanced reading of scripture, it's sure to die out with its nuances.

Thirdly, there's a population factor. Some years ago, as I understand, the Democrats in the U.S. were surprised and sort of outwitted by the fact that although they had all 'drank the Kool-Aid' of birth control, Republican supporters had not and suddenly (a generation later!) there were numerically more Republicans than Democrats -- simply based on biology. Similarly we have to face this. Christians with an intellectual bent do not reproduce (or evangelize, if you like) at the rate that non-Intellectuals do. Our focus is narrower and our apparent enthusiasm is less. We lose here too.

Fourthly, worst of all, I don't think God is on our side-- if there are sides. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the children and the childlike. Being acceptable to God comes from faith, not correct or well thought out doctrine. The champions in the church are not the theologians, but actually, or so I believe, the old ladies in prayer meetings, the Jesus people sorts who will sacrifice their lives to go to the ends of the earth, and the brand new Christians who, like John Wimber in his spiritual infancy, would lay their hands on their fridges to heal them when they broke down. These are just not the milieu that will naturally absorb or pass on our version of things, but they are the people God loves. If there was the revival some of us still pray for, there would be lots of them but hardly any more of 'us.' I used to help sometimes at a church service for the developmentally challenged and there was a girl that would pray every time in what seemed to me the strangest manner. It grated on me, to be honest. But then I had to accept that maybe, even likely, her prayers were more precious to God than mine. A conscious exercise in humility, maybe, but possibly even true.

Am I being pessimistic? Maybe. After homegroup this Thursday, when we decided to have a go at studying a favorite NT Wright book, (I think I have mentioned Surprised by Hope before) the thought struck me, "I wonder how old he is," and after that, "I wonder if we will still be talking about him after he dies." From there it was a short step to "I wonder whether anything I have said will last past the grave..."

Friday, January 24, 2014

In Defense of God's Violence

I'm reading a lot these days that judges God's apparent actions in the Old Testament as 'violent' and 'genocidal.' One of my earlier posts was in response to an article that did surgery on the whole of the OT by suggesting that, event by confusing event, if you didn't think it could be God, it was actually Satan in disguise and the writers were mistaken.

I'm finding the whole thing a bit strange. There used to be stuff we would intuit about God that meant that he could be what he was and not be judged by us. And we just accepted what we read. I thought I would rehash them here and see how they look.

Firstly, we seem to be losing the concept of God's rights as creator. And I'm not capitalizing 'creator' on purpose, because what I refer to are rights that every creator 'enjoys.' If you've ever made anything that didn't quite measure up or that wasn't working the way you wanted or just needed tweaking, you know what I mean. It's yours. You can axe it and start afresh. You can strip it down to essentials, You can make it whatever you want. And whether we like it or not, among all the relationships we have with God, we have to include this one. If he sees the need to wipe out whole continents of people for some big-picture reason of his own, he's in his rights to do so. And "no one can stay his hand or ask 'what are you doing?'"

Secondly, using an "argumentum ad narnium," (I picked this phrase up from some comments on Rachel Held Evan's blog -- someone was disgusted by an appeal to C.S. Lewis as an irrefutable authority -- I loved it.) it used to be completely acceptable that God is "not a tame lion." This doesn't mean that he is capricious or not to be trusted. It just means that whatever we see, he sees way more-- which means that he can do stuff that we don't like. Many's the time I've had to make parental decisions that upset my kids. Many's the time they could not understand or agree with me on something. And as they grew closer to adulthood they naturally started to question these. And still I treasure the future moment when they will be in the exact same situation and actually understand from the inside why things were done they way they were done. But we are in the same situation. We are growing up and starting to question our Father. "Why would you do such and such a thing? Was that really you...?" And still we really don't have the right to judge.

Thirdly, when it comes to some of the more bloody acts by the Israelites, apparently divinely sanctioned, they were always read with the understanding that that was that time, and this is this time. Final, temporal, physical judgement was exercised in the absence of the work of Jesus which has now changed everything. I always thought that there was a future purpose as well. It occurred and was written so that we would understand how serious sin is and from that understanding we would gain a deep appreciation for the forgiveness and mercy that has come to us via the Incarnation.

So when I approach the Old Testament, this is the sort of background I have in mind while I read. I don't think it all normative. And when God's using human instruments to exercise his judgements, they can be very blunt instruments indeed -- they can go too far. And later be chastised for it. There's nothing idyllic there. And we need to be in the habit of asking questions about everything. It's a helpful process. But here's my contribution. I think we do the narrative damage by bringing our this-era values and horrifications to the text, judging the events of the Old Testament by our worldview in a way that the original experiencers never would have done. So don't give up. Read on, it gets way better, later...

Friday, January 3, 2014


I have now completed a year of attendance at the church which my family and I tried after leaving behind a our previous twenty-year church home. The deal I made with myself was that I would do my best to function here and see if I could make an ongoing useful contribution. I want to be useful and feel significant. The second desire is admittedly selfish. But I'm not going to apologize for it. I hope it doesn't disqualify me for participation in the kingdom. There's a definite sense in me of having paid my dues whether or not anyone recognizes it. Anyway, something has appeared for me to do. And I'm enjoying it. So, because of that, along with a host of other factors, we're staying. It will probably be a year or two more before I start calling it my church.

One of the overarching mantras present in this new church home is the word community. This is not unique. The Church in general has adopted the same mantra. The church from which we came also used to use the term frequently. Now, however, it seems to be repeated around us with a greater intensity. Some further investigation is necessary.

Firstly, I have to say that this whole thing has the smell of apple pie. I mean it has the air of that with which, along with motherhood, no one must ever be in disagreement. It sounds distinctively like we are preaching something because it sounds like something we ought to be preaching, not because it's something we really believe or because it's manifestly central to our faith. But worry not if you disagree with me on this point. I'll give you an 'out.' That smell of apple pie, could just as well be the smell of my own distrust. Because I do distrust the concept of community. If we are really in community, then I don't merely have to be connected with you: I have to submit to you. And I'm not willing to do that. But neither are you willing to submit to me. And why should you? It's not what we do...

Which brings me to the main argument presented to bolster the idea of community. The New Testament writers, we are told, had no conception of writing to churches with the individual in mind (it just wasn't what they did), that there is always an implied y'all throughout the New Testament. We are told that we grow in community and not outside of it. We are told that "no man is an island." Again that whiff of pie. It certainly doesn't line up with life as I know it. Victories I have won have been ultimately private triumphs with God. The community may have been referred to on occasion, for minor help and guidance, But the communal ideal had been missed, because ownership of the victory did not belong the community. Again the out. Maybe I have never experienced true community. But if not, why not?

I suggest that if we are to truly experience true community, a whole bunch of stuff will have to be subordinated to that central value. We will need to err to excess until we achieve a balance that is meaningful. As it is we are too timid to try the thing properly. We are doing lots of talking but hardly any walking. Sunday morning and some Thursdays do not community make. Think of the Christmas, the Christ Mass, that we just went through. The Holiest Celebration after Easter in the church year. And what came first? Not the (church) community. Not we, the people of God, celebrating Christ's coming together. Nope. The nuclear and extended families get the prime time slot with the opening of presents as the main event. I should like to see us all meet for a shared Christmas dinner after a worship time on the day. That would build/test our ideal of community.

I have to say that ultimately yes, the ideal of community goes right to the heart of Jesus' teachings. "I will build my called-out-ones, my assembly, my raucous town hall, my ekklesia (Ray's amplified version, with thanks to Thomas Cahill)" certainly has the air of a plural relationship, one we all have together with the Saviour and Lord. And yes I accept that my experience cannot overrule his words. I just don't know how we ought to apply it in this time of isolated living, without being, even to ourselves, rather unconvincing.