Approaching Scripture

Since I’m a commuter (to both my jobs), I have plenty of time to listen as I drive. A few weeks ago I was listening again to one of Robert Jenson’s 2009 Burns Lectures at the University of Otago in New Zealand. You can watch the video online or consult this summary of “The Tanakh as Christian Scripture.”

Jenson observes that Christians and Jews share the text we call “Old Testament” and that they call “Tanakh.” Same text, but the two groups read that text in profoundly different ways. Jenson’s suggestion that Jews read Tanakh primarily as law, because they read it through the lens of what came next, the Talmudic literature, and that Christians read the Old Testament as narrative, because of what came next for us, the New Testament, got me to thinking along another tangent.

For at least some Christians today, the New Testament is no longer the primary lens through which the Old Testament is read. Rather, the Bible is taken as a whole, and read through another, more recent lens, a lens that shapes the way the whole Bible is read. I’m going to oversimplify and call this lens, modernity. Through the lens of modernity, the Bible isn’t primarily narrative, it’s religion. And it’s not just religion, it’s really old religion. This more recent lens encourages us to relativize both testaments and subordinate the teaching of both to our modern experience.

Christopher Seitz, in his The Character of Christian Scripture, points this direction also. He critiques the currently popular view of the Old Testament as too vested in a “history of religions” approach. What we read in the OT is old, really old. Now that we have science, now that we’ve progressed, we know more. What we see there is not to be taken as putative “revelation from God,” but as “what ancient Israel believed or did.”

Is it possible for the church to return to reading the OT from the standpoint of the NT? Well, taking Seitz into account, the better question is, can the church return to reading the OT from the perspective of the early Christian community, the community that lived and produced the NT? He argues that in submitting to historic worship and catechesis (and the Rule of Faith expressed therein), we have the resources we need.

From what I see, it’s a matter of enculturation. As long as our primary enculturation is in the ethos of modernity (or the reductio ad absurdum of modernity we sometimes call postmodernity – yes, I know there are multiple versions of postmodernity, but most of what ordinary people mean by that term looks like hypermodernity), our chances are slim. We just don’t have to tools to imagine anything else. But if we can recover a primary enculturation in the Christian tradition, an ability to read the OT (and even the NT) in a more Christian way ought to come along as well.

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Foreignness of Christianity

In a recent article, Nathan Sanders addressed the question, “Has Christianity Become Foreign to the Western World?” He sees a bidirectional strangeness: the Christian faith is strange to outsiders and the outside world is strange to Christians. This strangeness lies not only in beliefs but also in values and practices. The point of his piece is to explore ways for engagement to happen across this line of strangeness.

I’d like to discuss the phenomenon from a different perspective. My root assumption is that non-Christians, i.e., “the world,” ought to find Christianity strange. One of the advantages of living after the end of Christendom is that we can finally be honest (one of Sanders’ suggestions, incidentally) about the difference between being Christian and being American (or Western). Christians have long been hampered by the desire, nay, the expectation, that we fit into the world as it is. In fact, we’re not only supposed to fit in, but we’re supposed to excel on the world’s terms. If we excel in the world on the world’s terms (interesting new discussion here) it shows (a) that Christianity is relevant (and boy do we want to be relevant!), and (b) Christianity works.

On the one hand, if we live in a Christian nation, or if our society can be reckoned as “Christian” or “under God,” then one would expect little to difference between achieving the Christian telos and achieving the cultural telos. If you reach one, you reach the other. It’s not only the case that we’ve believed this for so long that it seems unquestionable (well, at least unChristian to question it), but also that Christianity has influenced the way the culture thinks about what is good. In other words, even when I want to make a strong claim distinguishing being a Christian from being at home in our culture, I cannot say that everything about our culture is bad or to be rejected (and lapse into what Roger Scuton calls “oikophobia”). So as you read my arguments for refusing to identify the Christian way with the American/Western/Modern way, don’t read them as a total repudiation of these other ways.

So there is a gap between the church and the world, a perceived strangeness of Christianity. What strikes me is that this gap bothers us. We think it’s a problem. But if we’re supposed to be different, why is this a problem? Well, that’s the thing: in the church we’ve so downplayed being different (that’s what the abysmally ignorant Fundamentalists do!), that we’ve forgotten our calling. Our models of discipleship have majored on creating nice people who are god citizens. We mold church members who are good Americans: they cooperate with civic institutions, they pay their taxes, they smile and have neighbors over for barbecues. But we’ve left behind too much of the substance of the Christian faith.

When we build discipleship around substantive Christian doctrines – I think here of the Incarnation, Trinity, and Resurrection, in particular – we begin to see some oddness. We also see particularity, and that’s a problem in a culture that worships universality and inclusion. If our discipleship practices build Christians whose identity is rooted in the what God has done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – and all that includes – we will doubtless have some rather odd looking beliefs, values, and practices.

If we Christians want to communicate with the watching world – Sanders’ worthy goal – then the exactly wrong thing to do is to minimize our differences. While saying we’re really all the same may be comforting, it is profoundly dishonest. Instead, I propose the strategy of intentionally maximizing differences. When our Christian identity is formed clearly and distinctly in Christ, then love (love like Jesus, not just some vague, feel-good emotion) will characterize our dealings with insiders and outsiders. Difference will not, in such a context be an excuse for violence or hatred. It will be seen as an invitation to sacrificial love.

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Responding to Enemies

What do we do with our enemies? Many of us in America don’t have any serious enemies. Sure, we have people who annoy us from time to time, maybe even rivals in sports, business, or relationships. But enemies who actively want to see us dead? Enemies who have beheaded our family members? We have it safe and easy here, however much we like to complain.

Egyptian Christians have it much harder. The 21 Christians executed by ISIS just over a week ago were their family members and friends. We, a Christian nation, call for war against ISIS to punish those evil miscreants. Egyptian Christians in this video call for forgiveness. Where would they get such an idea – forgiving those who kill and threaten? Forgiving unrepentant murderers makes no sense in the eyes of the world, whether we’re speaking of ordinary Americans or hardened members of ISIS.

While being crucified, Jesus famously said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” My first thought is, “What do you mean, Jesus? Of course they know what they’re doing. They have long experience and plenty of practice at torturing, humiliating, and executing those who cross their authority. Those guys know full well that they want to kill you. And Jesus – don’t you think repentance matters? Those guys who nailed you to the cross aren’t repentant in the least. They know full-well what they’re doing – and enjoying every bit of it.”

could say all that. I could judge that Jesus was just too much of a wimp, a softy, who didn’t know how to handle the hard parts of life. But what if I’m the one who’s wrong, the one who doesn’t understand life? After all, when I argue against Jesus’ position and for “giving them what they deserve,” my logic is just as impeccable as ISIS’s. I may not always like Jesus’ way, I may feel quite the contrary. But as long as I call myself a Jesus follower, I’ll need to submit to his way. I think I can learn something from these Egyptian Christians. Who knows? Maybe the next generation of Paul’s will come from those who currently call themselves part of the Islamic State.

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Andy Stanley on The New Rules for Love, Sex, and Dating

One of the strength’s of Andy Stanley’s teaching is is assumption that many in his audience are not committed to Christ. Too often in our United Methodist congregations we’ve been lulled into complacency. We don’t see any new people, so we assume everyone present is already a convinced believer. In my experience that is certainly not the fact. I’ve had regular attenders tell me over the years, “I’m not a believer. I come every Sunday because it’s a habit / I want to support my family.” If we assume that all present are already believers, we speak right past these folks. Additionally, even if all our regulars are convinced believers, a truly healthy church will have visitors, people who are not yet committed. We might not have them every Sunday, but by preaching as if we expect them, we’ll be better prepared to communicate with them when they do show up.

Stanley’s new book, The New Rules of Love, Sex, and Dating,  is an adaptation of sermons he’s preached in the past. Although written from a Christian perspective, he isn’t writing for the convinced Christian, but for anyone who (a) wants to settle into a lasting marriage relationship, and (b) is open to considering wisdom from the Bible. At no place in the book does he assume that life in Christ is essential to a happy and successful marriage. He doesn’t even assume that commitment to Christ is a magic solution to overcoming relational troubles. In this way, the book is clearly in the wisdom genre, rather than the gospel genre.

The core of Stanley’steaching is found in his helpful question: “Are you the kind of person the kind of person you’re looking for is looking for.” Through logical analysis of this question and accompanying stories, he applies this to the life of dating and relationships. We have no control over the behavior of others – but we do have control over ourselves. As we put our energy into changing ourselves we are more likely to build lasting and healthy relationships. These healthy relationships will be decision rather than emotion driven.

Some have rejected the Christian ideal for relationships in the past, seeing the Christian ideal as necessarily patriarchal and thus, for women, limiting at best and destructive at worst. Stanley frames the ideal relationship in terms of mutual submission. He says,

Perfect love is love expressed through mutual submission. Mutual submission is an expression of fearless love that, in turn, drives out fear. It is a decision to trust, to put the other person first, regardless.

Stanley’s most radical suggestion – well, radical in the light of current cultural practices – is for those who have been frustrated in the area of relationships – is to take a year long sabbatical from the effort. This year will be given over to “making yourself the kind of person the kind of person you’re looking for is looking for.” This effort will often, given widespread pathologies, include elements of detoxification. During this year one will abstain from sex, porn, and other practices that distort relational practice.

Though younger teens would profit from the basic teaching of this book, it would be more likely appreciated for those who are older. More experience in navigating relational troubles will likely allow the reader to see a need for the teaching. Though singles are the obvious audience, given their interest in dating, married people who want to improve their relationship will profit from the book as well, given its focus on changing your self, rather than trying to change your husband/wife.

I received this book from North Point Publishing (http://andystanley.com) in exchange for this review.

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Jesus, (Not a) Friend of Sinners?

Though our experience in church might incline us to think so, this is not how Jesus operated. Jesus intentionally, strategically, and lovingly, spent time with sinners. If we’re going to walk in the way of Jesus, i.e., be Christians, we’ll need to do the same.

The hard part with this is that our current culture thinks there is only two options. The first is what we see in this video, the Jesus, or by extension, the church, that goes around nailing each and every person for their sins. The other option is acting as if there is no sin, as if what has traditionally been called sin, is merely a matter of personal practice or normal human imperfection. The Christian tradition holds that there is another option: Sin is destructive. Sin is unhealthy. Sin separates us from God and others. Even more, we’re all implicated in it, not merely as innocent bystanders or as tragic sufferers from the sin of others, but as actual sinners. In the context of loving Christian community – and that context is essential! – the identification of sin as sin functions as a physician’s identification of a sickness. Identification is a first step toward deliverance.

If we’re going to be Christians, we must be friends of sinners. We must spend time with them. Unless we’re blind or self-deceptive Pollyannas, we’ll know that our friends are (like us) sinners. But we’ll be their friends nonetheless.

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Can We Be Good Without God?

The question of whether humans can be good without God comes up from time to time. Sometimes it arises as an accusation: “How can you Christians look at all the good people in the world, some of whom do not even believe in God, or who believe in some other God than you do, and judge that people cannot be good without God?” Other times the question arises more theoretically. “If humans can be good without God, why do we need God? What role does God play in human goodness?” My answer to the question, “Can we be good without God” is that it depends on what we mean by “be good” and “without God.”

In the first place, it seems obvious that humans have long said of people, regardless of whether they believe in God or not, something like “this person is good.” If we are considering merely human standards of goodness, even if these be high standards, it sure looks like at least some people can achieve those standards.

Secondly – and relatedly – if “be good” is tied to a current ethical theory, then it would seem that one could be good according to the standards of that theory even if one did not believe in God. For example, if Utilitarianism (of whatever sort) gives us the criteria for identifying a person as a “good human,” it would seem likely that at least some people can be adequate practitioners of any given brand of Utilitarianism to count as good within that system.

Thirdly, we might also bring in the problem of degree. Must a person be perfectly good, with no admixture of non-good, to be counted as good in the realm of this inquiry? Some people, moral rigorists in particular (at least some of whom are Christians), will say that to ascribe goodness to a person is a totalizing concept. One is either good, totally good, or one is not good. For my purposes here, I see no reason to go that far. I’m currently content to admit that on at least some of our theories about what it means to say of a person, “this person is good,” that goodness need not necessarily exclude all non-goodness. It is possible for a person who is mostly good to be reckoned as a good person. Now this “mostly good” status would usually not apply if we saw the person for whom it was suggested performing certain evils. A single evil act can make us unwilling to call a person good; numerous small acts (or non-acts) might merely lead us to say that a particular person is good, but “not perfect.” Since we don’t usually (at least in theory) expect people to be perfect, we can imagine that a non-perfect person can still be good. In this case “is good” will mean something like “is mostly good” or “is generally good.”

Finally on this clause of the claim, it is possible that we might be thinking merely in personal terms. It might be that we take ourselves to be generally good people (though given our beliefs about humility may not claim that status for ourselves unless we find ourselves provoked to do so), and, comparing others to ourselves, take them to have roughly the same amount of goodness that we do. Since we are good, by our own assessment, it seems only fair to reckon others who have (as far as we can tell) an equal amount of goodness as good also.

We also need to consider what we mean by “with God.” If we say that a person can be good without God, are we saying that a person can be good without belief in God, without a theory about God, without a the work of God in one’s life, or without a theory of God that defines the good with relation to God?

Again, if we are defining “is good” in relation to non-theistic moral categories, Utilitarianism for example, then as long as Utilitarianism is a non-theistic moral system, ascription of goodness without God would seem entirely unproblematic. Utilitarianism, as a moral theory, tells us to choose actions (or rules/practices) which produce the greatest good (whatever that may be) for the greatest number. There is no necessary belief about God in Utilitarianism so it is certainly possible to be good on Utilitarian standards without God.

It may be, of course, that a person is a Utilitarian and a believer in God, and that this person’s understanding of the “greatest good” includes some kind of relationship with God. If this is so, then such a Utilitarian would likely conclude that if a person wanted to be reckoned good, that person would need to act in such a way as to bring about the good associated with God. Possibly one could do this without belief in God.

Utilitarianism aside, what if our theory of the good specifies some kind of relationship to God? It might be that goodness refers to any of these possibilities:

  • Obeys God
  • Pleases God
  • Takes God’s commands as the proper standards for life
  • Loves God

If human goodness is defined in any of these ways, then it would seem that human goodness is impossible without at least belief in God or some theory of God. Again, we might modify this claim if goodness need not be total or perfect. Perhaps complete human goodness does require some particular stance toward God, but that partial human goodness, even to the point that we would be happy calling a person mostly good, would be possible when ones stance toward God is wrong or inappropriate in some way.

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A Problem of Communication

One of the books I’m reading now is Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. At the beginning of the second chapter, leading into a discussion of the much-misunderstood word “sin,” Spufford says:

“One of the major obstacles to communicating what belief feels like is that I’m not working with a blank slate. Our culture is smudged over with half-legible religious scribbling. The vocabulary that used to describe religious emotions hasn’t gone away, or sunk into an obscurity from which you could carefully reintroduce it, giving a little explanation as each unfamiliar new/old term emerged. Instead, it’s still in circulation, but repurposed, with new meanings generated by new usages, meanings that make people think that they know what believers are talking about when they really, really don’t.”

Part of this problem lies in the vast victory Christianity had in Western culture. The church was dominant for so long and over so much territory, that Christian vocabulary and concepts have filtered through the culture and language. The Christian faith, though tied to a vocabulary, is more than that vocabulary. A network of practices done in community sustain that vocabulary and make sense of it. As the practices have faded, the strength of the terms has become diluted. As Spufford notes, we continue to use the same words, but the broader culture, separated from the institutional home of those words, no longer understands those words the same way we do. Evangelism, the act of communicating the good news of Jesus so that people can hear it as good news, will require us to pay closer attention to language than we have in the past. We cannot simply assume that other English speakers understand what we say, even if they use the same words.

But the problem is larger than that. Word meanings have shifted not only between the Christian community and those outside the community, but within the Christian community as a whole. Words like “kingdom,” “salvation,” “sin,” “righteousness,” etc. are contested within the church as much as they are between the church and external interlocutors. In the United Methodist Church we say that our mission is to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Even within the narrow community of the United Methodist Church those words and the concepts they convey are contested. We no longer have a shared vision of what a disciple is, or of the end toward which we are transforming the world.

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