Category Archives: Bible Thoughts

Patriarchy and Worth

Last summer I gave a talk entitled, “Patriarchy and Worth: The Gospel’s Challenge to an Ancient System” at the Christians for Biblical Equality annual meeting in Pittsburgh.

The bottom line: once you’ve said that men and women are fundamentally equal, you have ceased to participate in the ancient worldview that undergirds male headship and every other incarnation of patriarchy.

And, of course, once you’ve said as a Christian that men and women are equal in the new life we participate in Christ, you’ve undermined the fundamental belief in inequality that demands male leadership in the church and in the home.

Here’s the video. About halfway through it moves from lecture to sermon. Enjoy.

Which God?

In working out what I’ve called here a storied or narrative theology, one invitation I issue repeatedly is to discover the identity of God through the things that God does.

When we talk about God in the classical Christian tradition, it is easy to fly off to heaven, to think deep thoughts about the Trinity, or articulate a list of attributes. But attributes alone don’t actually tell us very much (it would be amusing to do an internet search of all the contradictory claims made under the banner, “God is love”).

I prefer more of a Forrest Gump approach: “God is as God does.”

It seems I need to correct myself already. Flying off to heaven isn’t a bad thing, all told.

Psalm 113 is a song of praise, issuing its calls to celebrate God before claiming that this God, YHWH, will be praised across the whole face of the earth and for all time. In summoning people to join the song, it is inviting us to participate in the future toward which the world is heading.

The God whom the world is to praise is the God who reigns on high, whose glory is above the heavens (Ps 113:4).

But what is she doing there, this God of Israel?

The claim that a god, and our god in particular, is in charge of the cosmos can be, has been, and often still is a dangerous claim. It is a seductive claim, one that can lead us to the exercise of coercive or manipulative power on earth with the idea that the great and powerful God stands behind us.

That’s why the attributes should never be separated from the story.

This God who sits enthroned on high is the God who looks down to “raise the poor from the dust, “to lift the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes” (Ps 113:7-8).

This God who sits enthroned on high is the God who “gives the barren woman a home” (Ps 113:9).

How do we know the work of God when we see it? How do we know what it looks like to become like God in our engagements with the world God has made? How do we measure whether or not our actions are rightly signaling to the world the identity of the God in whose name we are acting in the world?

The God who reigns on high is seen in the stooping low to exalt the humble.

The God who reigns on high is seen in bypassing the mechanisms of power that are already in place and exalting the helpless to newness of life and flourishing.

This is the God whom the disciples could not bring themselves to follow. This is the God to whom Jesus entrusted himself.

This God is the one who gives life to the dead and calls into being the things that do not exist.

So where power is exploited, we can question whether this is the hand of God. Where advantage is gained through manipulation, we can doubt whether the hand of God is in play.

Where the instinct of self-preservation propels us forward, we always need to stop and ask, “Is this where I am being asked to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Jesus?”

The only reason to ask that question, the only reason to answer such a summons, is if there is a God who not only reigns on high but also raises the poor from the dust.

We can only follow a crucified messiah if there is a God who raises the dead.

World Vision and Being a Disciple

This week, as the World Vision kerffufel was unfolding, I saw a phrase from Denny Burk that caught my eye. He concluded from his survey of scripture:

Thus it is impossible to be a “follower of Christ” while endorsing or participating in a same-sex marriage.

The idea of being a follower of Christ caught my attention. Immediately I began to think of this in terms of discipleship. And I slowly began to see that it might truly be impossible to be a disciple and continue to support an agency that allows for homosexual marriage as it brings relief to needy children.

What does it look like to be a disciple? Three stories run almost back to back, demonstrating what being a disciple might look like in such a situation.

In Mark 9, Jesus has just predicted his death (vv. 30-32). Not understanding what Jesus was saying, what kind of Messiah they were following, the disciples rambled off on their own conversation.

An embarrassing conversation.

A conversation about which of them is greatest.

Not seeing the crucified messiah before them, they did not see the mirror of the Cruficied that was showing them what the life of following must entail.

And so Jesus had to show them. The kingdom of God is not like they think it is. “Being first,” says Jesus, “entails being last, and servant of all.”

Jesus then takes a child: the low person on the ancient totem pole of social hierarchy. His words are stunning: “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me isn’t welcoming me but God, who sent me.”

To reject World Vision is to play the part of the disciples: to place ourselves in the place of being rebuked by Jesus for pursuing greatness through power. To find ourselves rejecting the Jesus who is in the child for the sake of our own attempts to build the kingdom of God in our own image.

The story continues.

John hopes to clarify that the disciples as a group provide the boundary markers, protecting the name of Jesus, and the kingdom it brings.

“Teacher!” says John. (BTW: in Mark, if you want to find someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, look for the person who calls Jesus “teacher.”) “We saw someone casting out demons in your name, but we forbid him because he doesn’t follow us.”

To be a disciple is to think that our group circumscribes the sphere where God’s blessings are known. Clearly if you’re not with us, you cannot truly be a follower of Jesus.

Right?

Wrong.

Jesus says, “Don’t stop him! … Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”

To pull out of supporting an organization that is doing the work of God in the name of Jesus because they do not follow us in the particular way that we are following Jesus–this is to play the role of the disciples.

And the disciples are rebuked by Jesus for placing themselves at the center of the kingdom of God, remaking its upside down nature after their own image.

In the wake of these two rebukes, the third story is all the more shocking.

It’s only 20 verses later. In Mark 10.

The people are bringing children to Jesus for him to bless them (Mark 10:13-16). The children. The ones about whom Jesus has said, “If you receive one of these, you receive me, which isn’t receiving me, but the One who sent me.”

The disciples, the ones who were just rebuked for thinking that they form the wall of partition between Jesus and the world, they hindered the children.

The disciples missed their chance.

In striving to protect Jesus, they refused to embrace the children.

They missed Jesus.

And they placed themselves in the mortal danger of causing one of the little ones to stumble (that’s at the end of ch. 9).

Withdrawing from support of World Vision in order to faithfully follow Jesus, in order to keep those children from the mercy being offered in the name of Jesus, this might truly be the only way to be a disciple.

Because being a disciple looks like playing power games that blind us to the upside down nature of the kingdom of God.

Because being a disciple looks like establishing our own Jesus-follower bona fides while spurning the notion that Jesus is present in the children standing in front of us, coming through us to find the blessing of Christ.

The roller coaster of the week gone by will be forgotten by most of us in a few weeks time. But what it managed to do for a brief instant was lay bare the tendency that resides deep within us.

It laid bear the rut that is easiest to fall into for those of us who follow Jesus most closely.

It is the danger of being a disciple. It is the danger of being of the company of disciples who fail to see that the cross changes everything.

It is to bring ourselves under the words of Jesus’ rebuke.

It is to be sent out from the presence of Jesus with the calling to relearn to find him: not in the world circumscribed by people like ourselves, but in the face of the child who comes to us in order to find Jesus.

On Blowing Up the Narrative of Blowing Things Up

I was talking with a friend today. She relayed a conversation with another friend. The radical, change-the-world kind of friend. The kind of people I like. (Well, most of the time…)

They had been debating the ethics of destruction of property when the target in view is the bad guys: the animal torturers, the people killers.

Why not demonstrate that there is power arrayed against them?

I was reading a book the other day. It embodied a deep critique of male-dominated religious literature. It put starkly before my eyes the ways that the women in the Bible were assumed to be desirous of whatever man they were given to, that they were treated as appendages to stories and commodified for the boys’ power games.

And it put starkly before my eyes the ease with which we can take up the power we’d been excluded from and turn it on our oppressors. It’s easy to retell the story by reassigning the roles in the same script.

I was watching the Syria situation unfold. It was a situation of horror (actually, it has been for quite some time before chemical weapons were used).

Then we decided to get involved. Someone else was killing and torturing with weapons that we’re not allowed to use. Unless you kill and torture people in another hemisphere while seated in the comfort of Nevada, you’re not allowed to act that way.

So we were going to kill and destroy and torment. Not even for the purpose of changing the characters in the script, but only for the purpose of momentarily playing, “More able to kill than thou.” That was the intended message.

In each, the story of imposition of will by show of force was affirmed as the story by which value, virtue, and place are determined. The narrative of “if I can blow you up, destroy you, I will secure my place and the world be better off” seeps into every crevice because it’s the very water of the ocean in which we live.

When Christians place the cross at the front of our sanctuaries, it is supposed to be a reminder of those great words of Jesus:

It Shall Not Be So Among You

The cross was Rome’s little way of saying that it had sufficient force to keep its power.

The resurrection was God’s little way of saying that God has a different story to tell. God has a power story that overthrows the power stories of the world by refusing to retell them in God’s name.

In a beautiful refusal to play the “I can blow you up” game, the earliest Christians created a new standard of power: walking the way of the cross.

In a stunning escape from the “I can blow you up game,” they did not fall in the colonized people’s trap of striving for the same power and means to power but with themselves in charge.

They surrendered that game to Rome, and claimed different rules altogether. They blew up the narrative of blowing things up.

They saw in Christ the inscribing of a new narrative, and called others to join it: in faith, entrust yourself to God, even to the point of death. See our hopes fulfilled by the God who gives life to the dead.

The Christian calling is nothing if not a relearning in every generation how to tell the story of the Crucified in our personal lives, in our life together, and in the public sphere that will always, it seems, strive for its place by the power of the sword.

Doctrine of Scripture

I was mulling for a few minutes what I might say if I had to write a statement of faith that included something about scripture. I was thinking I’d go straight for the 2 Timothy 3 jugular and start with something like this:

I believe that scripture is God’s word, given for the purpose of giving us the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith, in Christ Jesus (1 Tim 3:15). Therefore, any interpretation of scripture that points to Christ (John 5; in particular to Christ’s suffering and subsequent glory, Luke 24, 1 Peter 1), demands that we understand God as God has been revealed in Christ, or that demands of us that we walk in the way of Christ, is to be received as the authoritative word of God that will lead us into faithful belief and practice.

Do you have some doctrine of scripture that you work with? How does it influence how you do or don’t read the biblical texts?

Does God Need You?

I remember the moment. The painful moment.

The pastor hadn’t been expecting the VBS coordinator to be giving a special announcement, but he looked up and saw her standing at the back of the sanctuary, waving her recruitment sign.

Vacation Bible Study was right around the corner, and she needed help.

So the pastor invited her up to make her announcement. After enumerating the myriad tasks that needed to be done, the VBS coordinator concluded: “We need you. The kids need you. And God needs you.”

The pastor was in a bind. He rightly hated manipulative appeals for help, and he was afraid we’d just been given one. And so, the theological reinterpretation commenced:

“God doesn’t need you. The kids might need you….” probably followed by a reframing of the plea to consider serving our kids.

It was a Presbyterian church, with strong Reformed theology. And at the heart of it lay this deep conviction about the sovereignty of God.

“God doesn’t need you.”

There is a sense in which I have to agree with the idea that God doesn’t need us. The crucifixion-resurrection complex stands as an eternal judgment upon the self-righteous religious who become so convinced that we are at the center of things that we rise up against God’s plans and inadvertently destroy them.

In that sense, then, God doesn’t need us, because God can raise the dead. God can call the things that are not so that they are.

“Don’t think to say to yourself, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!”

The Radical Vulnerability of God. Image courtesy of Artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Ah… there’s the rub. God might not need me to be a child of Abraham, but God still needs children of Abraham–or else God and God’s story are a failure.

God might not need the first century law-keeping religious leaders to bring about God’s promised salvation, but God still needs a faithful human king–and that risen king’s only remaining item of business before leaving the place was to send out a handful of folks on mission.

When I started writing this blog, I called it “Storied Theology: Telling the Story of the Story-Bound God.” The sub-title was a nod in the direction of deconstructing the idea that God’s “otherness” leaves God completely free to act as God will.

God has chosen a different path.

God has chosen humanity, Israel, David, and Christ. God has chosen the apostles, prophets, preachers, and servants.

Recently, Andy Crouch gave a talk in which he outlined the main thesis of his new book; namely, that right use of power only comes when we properly embrace both the gift of power and of vulnerability.

God, of course, embraced the vulnerability of power in not only becoming human but even in the death of the Beloved Son.

But I don’t think it ends there.

God continues to depend on people, to subject Godself to the vulnerability of the fact that people must recognize God’s work in the world, enact God’s work on the world’s behalf, and be the enactment of the saving story God is writing.

God can do whatever God wants.

What God has chosen to do is to enter into a gifting relationship with the world and the church that leaves open the real possibility of being ignored, even of (on the small scale) failure.

This is the vulnerability that is true expression of power in a relationship of love. This is why, I think the VBS coordinator was right.

God needs you. And so do the kids. And so do we.

God Crucified?

On Sunday we were listening to Nadia Bolz Weber doing her “Lutheran theology rocks” thing in an interview at Wild Goose. (Seriously, folks, she is living out the law/gospel, simul justus et peccator thing better than anyone else I’m familiar with in 2013.)

At one point she started talking about the atonement. So much of what she says is so great. She talks about how grace works in a community where we experience brokenness not just in community, but just because the community has wounded us.

Then, circa minute 37:45 or so, she starts talking about God in the midst of tragedy. And, again, she does such a great job because she brings people to Jesus, and God bearing our suffering on the cross.

Then she says this:

… that’s not “God’s little boy, like God is some kind of divine child abuser sending his son (and he only had one!).” Come on, give me a break! “God’s little boy and he only had one, and as this divine child abuser and as this cigar-chomping loan shark demanding a pound of flesh, sending his little boy…” What hogwash, right? That actually is God on the cross, God saying, “I’d rather die than be in the sin-accounting business you’ve put me in.”

I love the theology of this: it’s not God sending some other to die, but Godself doing it. And, I know that there is good, strong Trinitarian theology behind this. The eternal Son who is God dies upon the cross.

Image courtesy of nongpimmy / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nongpimmy / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The problem I keep coming back to is that everywhere and always in scripture, the son who dies is precisely the son who is not the father, and is nowhere the God who, as Godself, is dying to save us.

There is always the son who is not the father who is dying out of obedience to the father.

There is always the father who is not the son who is not sparing his son but delivering him up for us all.

And… “He only had one!”

I don’t dislike the divine on the cross interpretation, but I’m not exactly sure where it leaves us. The only way to get there is to abandon the theological logic of the NT writers and replace it with a particular way of working out the later theological logic of the Trinity.

Is the need for it to be God as such who dies so profound that we simply have to abandon the suffering Human One of the Synoptic Gospels, or the obedient Second Adam of Paul? Or do we simply need to return to the question of why Jesus died to shore up a better answer of why this man, man I say!, goes the way of the cross?

And if we put it all in the divinity, what then of the calling to take up our cross and follow Jesus? Does God love us less than the Son because what God would not call another to do, but does Godself, God nonetheless demands we do?

And what about this bit of the father not sparing? Do we chunk it? What about, “Not what I will but what you will?” do we chunk it?

But if we don’t, how do we articulate atonement in way that doesn’t leave us with a child-abusing loan shark?

I’d love to hear how folks are thinking about what the death of Jesus might teach us about God and/or how you’re working out atonement to deal with the scriptural tradition and concerns such as those NBW raises.

Me & Jesus: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Sometimes things aren’t bad or wrong, sometimes things are good and right in and of themselves, but they take so much of our attention that they have become bad things for us.

How can a good thing, something true about how the world works or how God is at work in the world, become bad?

It happens when one idea so captivates our imagination that it keeps us from even hearing other parts of the story.

One of the most important emphases in evangelical Christianity is the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus (or with God through Jesus, depending on whom you ask). It’s not enough to be around a church or a faith community, we have to own it.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

But then the “personal relationship with Jesus” metaphor starts sinking in its roots.

Once it does, it provides a built-in rubric for assessing our faithfulness to God: am I spending time in a 1-on-1 relationship with God? Am I praying? Am I reading my Bible? Am I feeling connected? Is Jesus Lord of my heart?

All good things, but also a one-dimensional line that does not accurately tell us the shape of the Christian life, precisely because it is insufficient.

Over the course of the next few months, I’m going to be co-teaching through the book of Philippians at a church gathering. As I’ve been reading the letter over the past few weeks, one idea keeps jumping out at me:

If we are reading Philippians waiting for Paul to shut his yapper about all his interpersonal relationships so that we can get to the point where I hear God’s word just for me, we are going to miss the entire point of the letter.

Yes, I did just say “entire” point. And I mean it.

Yes, of course, the letter is all about Jesus–the crucified and exalted Jesus. But here we are right up to the point where this personal relationship with Jesus starts to break down.

To be in “personal relationship with Jesus” is nothing other than to be “in Christ.” And to be “in Christ” is to be in a space occupied by others who are “in Christ.” Here is the place where there is to be encouragement, where there is consoling love, where there is like-mindedness, where we become parts of a body that is Christ’s–or is it Christ himself?

Joy is found not only in Christ, but in people who make each others’ joy complete.

Salvation is found not only in Christ’s death for us, but in people’s coming together to pray and God acting to send the saving Spirit and deliverance.

The ideal way of life is found not only in Jesus’ self-giving love, but in those who follow after Jesus along the same path and therefore can summon others, with integrity, to follow and imitate them.

And then, all of a sudden, whether or not I’m having my quiet time recedes in its ability to tell me whether I’m being a good Christian.

All of a sudden when I want to know how I’m doing with the Lord I’m called to look not simply “up” into the mystical heavens or “in” to the depths of my heart, but left and right to the people with whom I am supposed to be faithfully living in Christian community.

And now, whether or not I’m connecting with Jesus becomes tangible. Am I living in unity with the people in my community? Am I in reconciled relationship? Am I not thinking about myself, but embodying the cruciform life of Jesus in pursuit of the flourishing of my sister and brother?

Me and Jesus. It’s not bad. It’s not wrong. But it is a powerful metaphor that needs to be treated carefully. It might just make us look in all the wrong places, and it might keep us from finding the better life that Jesus has to offer, just because he delights to call me his friend.

The [choose 1: Eagle / Dove] Has Landed

Once upon a time there was a people of tremendous military might. Their strength and ferocity was marked by the king of birds–the eagle.

romanstandards 220px-USGreatSeal1904DieDrawing

This great people proclaimed itself to be the bringer of the Great Peace.

where they make a desert, they call it peace. (Tacitus)

e pluribus unum

The earliest Christians were not naïve about how power worked. They were not blind to the brutal realities of tyranny and the need to stand against it.

That’s precisely why the earliest followers of Jesus lived in eager anticipation of the time when Jesus would overthrow their Roman overlords. That’s precisely why they literally could not hear Jesus’ promise that he was going to die as messiah. That’s precisely why they wanted to call down fire from heaven on those who rejected them. That’s precisely why they thought Jesus a failure after he was crucified.

“But we had thought he was the one who was going to redeem Israel?”

The temptation didn’t go away. The temptation to imagine that true peace, true freedom, could only be had if someone came who acted like Rome but out Romed Rome–better deployment of troops, better handling of swords.

The next generation of Jesus followers faced it to.

That’s what Mark 13 is about: false Christs will arise saying, “I’m the guy!” What’s the context? The time when Jerusalem’s stones will be thrown down. The time when Rome executes its next devastating act of military victory over Judea in AD 70.

The time when Christians are not to get carried away, thinking that the way to the reign of God, of peace, of justice upon the earth is to be had by way of the sword.

The temptation didn’t go away.

The idea that the transformation of the economy of power in the world might happen by something other than the sword has never caught on. Rome’s been gone for over a thousand years, Jesus is still proclaimed as Lord long after such an acclamation has ever been given to a Caesar, but still we do not believe it.

The innocence of the dove alludes us, even as we call ourselves Christians.

The subversive alternative of the Dove to the Eagle alludes us, despite its descent upon Jesus at his anointing to his messianic office (HT: Peppard).

Dore, Baptism

The way of peace, the way of the cross, the way of Jesus, probably doesn’t make for good Empire building. But maybe Empire building isn’t our calling in the first place?

Maybe our calling is, instead, to embody a witness to an alternative economy, an economy in which self-giving love has a Divine power to overcome even the life-taking hatred of the world’s superpower.

“He rose again on the third day.”

To stand in the faith of the Christian church is to attest to this one great fact: the military power of the world cannot overcome the life-giving power of God.

Has military power been, can it ever be, the conduit of that life-giving power?

The disciples sure thought so…

Open Letter to New Testament Students

This is a repost of something I wrote a couple years ago. With a new academic year upon us, it seemed holy and righteous and good to trot it out again. If you’re taking a Bible class in college or seminary, this is for you

Dear NT Intro students,

Our quarter will be kicking off in a couple of weeks. I love the process of digging into the New Testament texts with students–you bring a passionate commitment to living out the Jesus story that is too often missing in the halls of the academy. You remind me why we study the Bible in the first place.

But there’s something you should know. Bible classes are often the hardest classes for seminary students. And I don’t mean that they’re the hardest academically. I mean that they’re often the hardest on students’ faith.

You’re coming to study a book that you love. You’re coming to delve into a book whose various verses and chapters have spoken directly to your heart–and transformed you. You’re coming to build on what you know and to enrich what you’ve already discovered.

But if I am doing my job, you are probably going to undergo a slow process of discovering that what you thought was a book is, in fact, a bunch of books; you’re going to find out that what you know is often incorrect; and what has spoken to you has been edifying, but that text may not ever be able to speak with that same voice again.

Bible professors are not the only ones whose classes hope to leave you with transformed knowledge. But rarely do you have as much invested in the assumptions that the professor is trying to deconstruct.

People lose their faith in Biblical studies courses, and grad school in particular, because they discover the pervasive extent to which the NT was written by humans and speaks differently from what they anticipated.

This can all sound terribly bleak. But I want you to enter the class with your eyes open.

And more than that, I am going to make you a promise.

Here is what I promise to do for you: I promise to leave you with a Jesus who is worth following, a Christian vocation that’s worth risking your life on, and a Bible that will guide you toward both.

In other words, I promise that I will not leave you empty-handed; I promise that my goal is to strengthen you as a faithful follower of Christ. I have not come to steal, kill, and destroy, but to help you better see the One who is the way of life, and how scripture is a witness to him.

So for my part, I promise to leave you with a faith worth believing.

For your part, I ask that you come to learn. Here, more than anywhere else, if you have come to have your prior understandings validated through high academic marks, you are likely to experience frustration. Hold loosely to what you’ve brought through the door, and learn what is coming from your reading, from our discussions, and from the lectures.

Learn what is really on offer, resist jumping to conclusions, press to find out how it all holds together. I promise that I am striving to be a faithful teacher, I need you to enter in with the goal of being a faithful learner.

At the end of the quarter, we will likely disagree about a few things. Or maybe we’ll disagree about almost everything. That’s fine. I won’t down-grade you for that. But I need to know that you’ve learned. And, I hope that in the process you have seen more clearly a Jesus who is worth following. I believe with all my heart that this is what I’m helping you discover.

So if you feel like things are falling apart or spinning out of control, let’s talk. That’s not the direction this should go, but it’s always part of the danger of discovering that the Bible isn’t what we thought it was–or that Jesus isn’t who we thought he was. But the fresh acts of faith that such discoveries engender can themselves be the stuff of newness of life.

I look forward to learning with you in the weeks ahead.

Peace,
jrdk