There Is No They

There is no they, only us.

I got a reminder of this today, an uncomfortable reminder that I probably needed to hear.

There is no “they.”

This is what I told the guy at the hardware store. More specifically, I told him, “YOU ARE True Value.”

I bought a hose storage unit at my local hardware store about a month ago. It worked well, for about two weeks. Then it started leaking.

Today was the day. I walked the half block, defective implement in hand, to ask for an exchange.

One guy said no, not before we try to fix it. He tried. It’s in worse condition now.

The other guy told me to send it back to the company, that they would replace it. “But I bought it here. How about we exchange it, and you send it back?”

“True Value won’t do that.”

“You’re True Value.”

There is no mystical “them” who is responsible. When you have a True Value store, you are True Value.

When you are part of a church, especially in leadership (but not only then), there is no “they” who will or will not do something.

In those moments when what needs to be done butts up against the policy, or when what they’ve done embarrasses us, deferring to “them” is not going to convince the person in front of you that you are not part of that “them.” That person will only be convinced that you are different when you act, when you do what is right.

I regularly need reminding of this. There is no “them” who is the church, or my employer, or my family, someone else to blame in that organization I’m a part of when I’m as frustrated as the outsider.

But probably the place where I need the reminder most is in dealing with Christians en mass. There is no “they” who are doing those things that drive me bat-poop crazy, only an “us.”

I can’t control “us,” but I can own us. I can take responsibility for how we are engaging, offending, alienating the person in front of me. I can take responsibility for apologizing for our brokenness and striving to rectify messed up situations.

Badmouthing “them,” or blaming “them” rings hollow when we are they. The person standing in front of us, or reading our blog post or our article or our book or our Facebook status knows that we are they, even though we’d like to distance ourselves and conveniently forget.

I need to realize it, too.

Divine Son of Man? (Boyarin review, part 1)

Daniel Boyarin has come out with a short, readable book arguing a provocative thesis.

The Jewish Gospels, The Story of the Jewish Christ sets out to demonstrate that early Christian ideas about Jesus are all Jewish ideas about a coming messiah figure.

Many Jews, argues Boyarin, believed that a divine being would come to rescue them. This is not a development of the later church, an explanation of what had just happened with Jesus, but a thoroughly Jewish idea.

This, says Boyarin, is what we find in texts looking for a coming Son of Man. This is a title indicating divinity.

Furthermore, early Jewish people were looking for a coming a king, a messiah. This is what “son of God” means: a human being anointed by God.

Today, I want to engage his chapter on Jesus as son of man.

Boyarin’s argument is this: the son of man in Daniel 7 is God. Therefore, early Christian depictions of Jesus as son of man indicate that the Gospel writers saw Jesus filling this role, expected by many Jews.

This leads Boyarin to make a couple of exegetical moves that I think are important: interpreting Mark 2, he says that Jesus is claiming to be the son of man figure from Daniel, the one who rules the world for God.


But I take considerable issue with Boyarin’s reading of Daniel 7. He argues that the son of man in Daniel 7 is “part of God” (p. 26), or a second God. A divine figure.

It is crucial that we realize what the reader has to agree to in order to arrive at such a conclusion. Three pillars uphold his argument.

First, Boyarin recognizes that his interpretation runs counter to the interpretation given by the author of Daniel. In Daniel, the explanation of the vision of the son of man is that the human figure represents the holy ones of the most high, or, the people of the holy ones of the most high–in context, the Maccabean martyrs.

Boyarin sees this interpretation as a later interpretation by the author of Daniel in which the redactor is attempting to silence the clear meaning of the vision by giving a contradictory meaning. Thus, for Boyarin, Daniel 7 itself embodies the question of whether a redeemer figure can be God or not as an intramural Jewish debate.

The idea that the visions and the explanation are from different redactional layers strikes me as special pleading. It is quite common in apocalyptic literature to have a confusion vision explained to the seer. Was this particular apocalyptic vision not interpreted in some non-extant older strand?

Questions of apocalyptic genre and the age of the vision persist in the other two planks of Boyarin’s argument.

Boyarin says that the human one being divine, and the interpretation being secondary, represent the clear and obvious reading of the vision as it stands.

But this is apocalyptic literature. In apocalyptic literature, the “clear” reading is a clear picture that points to something else.

Are we to assume that Daniel 7 teaches that the world is or has been run by lions with wings, man-eating bears, flying leopards, and iron-toothed monsters?

The son of man figure is the last in a series of rulers, of kingdoms, that exercise power over the earth, and over God’s people in particular.

Does all of this end when we get to the Son of Man and the vision suddenly shift into a “clear” vision telling us literally what happens? Such an argument depends upon a genre mistake, akin to many that Christians make in attempting to make sense of Revelation.

Third, Boyarin argues that we have here the remnants of an ancient Canaanite tradition in which there were two gods ruling the earth: El and Ba’al, who came into Israelite religion as El and YHWH before the latter two were joined into one.

Without questioning the evolutionary picture outlined by Boyarin, are we still to believe that a second century, post-exilic, post-Josianic, apocalyptic text reflects a genealogical antecedent from which it was separated by hundreds of years? This seems highly unlikely. What year would Daniel’s vision have had to be written to make such a Canaanite influence viable?

It is important for readers of Boyarin’s argument to recognize that the argument concerning Dan 7 is not an interpretation of the passage, but an interpretation of an alleged prehistory of the passage that stands in direct tension with Dan 7 as it now stands. Moreover, it is worthy of scrutiny even as offered.

To claim that the Gospels depict Jesus as the Danielic Son of Man is important. And, it is important for showing that Jesus occupies a special place of authority not generically given to all people. Boyarin makes these points well.

But the argument as offered in ch. 1 does not go very far toward demonstrating that Jewish people were looking for a divine messiah, and that this is the claim of the Gospels.

The book suffers from a bit of equivocation in terms of what Boyarin intends to demonstrate with respect to the son of man’s divinity. In a curious footnote, Boyarin says that one might distinguish between functional divinity–someone exercising divine activities such as ruling or judging human begins at the end times– and ontological divinity.

After exerting 55 pages of ink affirming Jewish people’s expectation of something that could only be construed as the latter, Boyarin inexplicably indicates in this note that he intends the former: functional divinity is what he means by someone “being” God. The remainder of the chapter is spent discussing how, in light of Daniel 7, we know some Jews anticipated a divine messiah.

Throughout, Boyain does not mean someone like Adam, ruling the world on God’s behalf (a functional divine christology) but someone like the early Christian confessions indicate: a preexistent God (ontological christology).

The early Jewish usage of the son of man figure might be more to Boyarin’s point than his reading of Daniel 7. We’ll discuss that next time.

Who Am I?

As a Christian, who am I? As Christians, who are we?

Lots of different answers are given to this one, many of which we don’t speak out loud, but simple assume.

Other answers are spoken out loud, at times, but perhaps they do not seep in deeply enough to come to the point of “unspoken assumption,” a bedrock presupposition that drives our lives without our knowing it.

A storied theology that places the story of the cross at the center of our story as God’s people should tell us some things about ourselves. We know these things. At least, we know many of them, but too many are allowed to fall away.

The cross is a story that tells us, among other things, that the world is in need of transformation in order to attain to the beauty and perfection that God wants for it.

It’s a story that tells us the way into God’s kingdom is through a self-renunciation, a receipt of forgiveness, a being set free.

But in the process, we discover that there is a beloved “I” who is engaged in this transformation. We are not a despised people who have to become someone else in order to be beloved of God. Instead, we are beloved people who are made more truly ourselves as we come to God in Jesus Christ.

But we don’t believe it.

In the Presbyterian liturgy there is a refrain I have, at times, found myself repeating every week:

Friends, believe the good news of the gospel.

In Jesus Christ we are forgiven. Thanks be to God!

At this moment, we have denied the economy by which most of us live our lives.

We offer an idea. We put ourselves out there. It is ours. And so when someone disagrees, it crushes us.

We get in a fight with our spouse, our friend, our sister, our brother. We believe that we were right. We feel that to let go of that, to admit that we were wrong, would be death. We have wrapped ourselves into what we have done.

And we’re right.

To admit we’re wrong would be death.

But it’s the death of those whose stories are defined by the cross of Christ–a death that resolves in resurrection.

In that moment, when we must. have. our. own. way. in that moment, we have left aside the fact that our defining narrative is the narrative of the cross. We have forgotten that who we are at the core of our being is not defined by our being right, awesome, powerful, amazing.

But, paradoxically, who we are most truly, the way in which we have found life, is not by clinging to the life we had, but in giving it up. In dying. In asking for forgiveness.

“I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”

This is not something that is to be lived out in vague generalities.

Because we are the cross people, we are the forgiveness people: embodying the equally difficult tasks of asking for forgiveness and of extending it to the people around us.

It feels like death to admit when we’re wrong. And, it probably is death, because we are wrapped up in the things we’ve done, the things we’ve said–they are part of our defining narrative.

But a greater narrative provides a greater definition. It is the narrative of the cross that says to all those things I either can’t or won’t or don’t want to turn from: These, too, are forgiven. Yours is a better story.

Thanks be to God.

Corporate Election

There is no election of individuals outside of the community. God has a chosen people, and chosen persons are part of that people.

This chosen people is, itself, the body of Jesus Christ, the elect one.

So Barth has moved in his exposition of election from election in Jesus Christ (§33) to election of the community (§34). I’ve been working on this section for a few weeks, holding off on blogging about it until I had gotten a bit deeper in. I’m experiencing the section simultaneously as some of the most insightful and the most troubling of the Church Dogmatics.

First, the good stuff.

Barth’s movement from the election of Christ to election of the community resonates with me deeply. To be in Christ is to be part of Christ’s body. There is no such thing as a person isolated in relationship to God. To be in relationship to God is to be part of the family of God, which is to be God’s child as one is in the Son.

This kept bringing back the kind of note I kept writing in the margins the first time I read Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul: Hays was arguing for an ecclesiocentric hermeneutic—that the community was the interpretive end of Paul’s use of scripture. But I kept wanting to say that this was only so because the community is in Christ. Thus, it is truly a Christological reading of scripture, first and foremost, with the communal dimension being the necessary consequence.

I think my critique of Hays was rather Barthian, now. (And I’m not sure but that Hays would agree to a certain extent with what I’ve said above.)

The heart of Barth’s discussion of the election of the community is his small-print exposition of Romans 9 and 10. Keeping in view the big question of Israel as a people, Barth works through Rom 9 with a recurring manta that the differentiations God makes are all about the election of a people.

Pressing against the notion of double-predestination, Barth wants to focus on the positive purpose of all the differentiations: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Israel, the remnant—any rejection is subordinate to the purpose of election and salvation of Israel as a people.

But the chapter was also troubling.

Perhaps I’m only now coming to be as troubled by Paul’s argument as I should always have been, feeling the weight of his assessment of ethnic Israel’s place in the story. Or, perhaps, Barth speaks with a directness that sets of the radar of a politically-correct era.

But I kept wincing at Barth’s differentiation among who is “in” and who is “out.” He speaks of the church as those who respond in obedience to the message, the synagogue as those who reject it, and Israel as this elect people whose rejection of the message can be overcome when they join with the church in confessing Christ.

I wondered, often, if Barth was losing sight of the fact that we gentiles, who by and large populate the church, are participating in the salvation narrative of Israel?

Throughout this section, Barth develops more of the notion that people might reject the election that is theirs in Christ. I think that this is in line with what we see in scripture, especially with respect to Israel, but it then raises the question of what good it is to lay out the argument he does in the previous section.

If the whole point of focusing election on Christ is so that we have a certain hope of our standing before God, but then he can go on to say that our election may be rejected, has he really accomplished the pastoral purpose of assuring people of God’s favor?

Perhaps it’s that last line that’s the key. We always have God’s favor. In Christ. As the overflow of the promise to Israel. As part of the church.

Ne’er Blooming

I love magnolia trees.

I owe this to my North Carolina connections generally, but to my two years at Wake Forest in particular.

There’s nothing quite like a tree that soars 50 feet (or more) into the air, with the prefect branch system for climbing and making mischief.

So, of course, I plant them at every opportunity.

I planted two at the first house we owned, in Durham, NC. And I planted one out front there in San Francisco.

Now, San Francisco is its own animal. We live close to the ocean, a foggy part of town. San Francisco is also basically desert, getting just a smidgeon too much water each year to officially rate as desert (from what I hear: circa 24 inches per year compared to deserts which typically get less than 16).

Thus, one must choose one’s flora with care.

I asked diligently after the fate of a magnolia tree in the Sunset District. I was assured that it would do just fine.

And it has.

Just as long as by “fine” we mean that it hasn’t died, has thickened up in the trunk, and has stayed green.

But then there’s the other part. Those promising buds.

I can keep the tree well watered. I can give it all the nutrients available in the leftover grain husks et al from my beer brewing. (Read: It’s well fertilized.)

But the one thing I can’t do is give it more sunlight.

And so, those buds arrive, full of promise. And then, eventually, they turn brown and fall off, failing to fulfill their beautiful potential.

Being objectively awesome isn’t enough.

Being well tended isn’t enough.

A magnolia tree has to be in the right place or it simply will not bloom.

Abba Chicken, Abba Egg

It is often asserted that Jesus’ cry abba, father, reflects the memory of the early church. This is how Jesus prayed.

Not only this, but several people have followed the line of argument that Jesus prayed like this not once, but every time he addressed God as “father”–referring to him as abba.

The prayer recurs in Paul. Twice.

Thus, the idea is that Paul’s churches participate in this historical memory, themselves participating in the unique form of prayer that Jesus himself taught.

But it strikes me that the opposite may explain the data just as well.

Jesus only says abba once in the Gospels. It’s in Mark. And, it’s in a context where there is no other character around to hear him. In other words, this is one of the least likely places in the Gospel for a historical remembrance to be informing the story.

What if, rather than abba father being a historical remembrance that influenced the Pauline churches, the practice of the Pauline churches influenced how Jesus is depicted as praying in Mark 14?

I have no doubt that Jesus addressed God as “Father” before Paul came on the scene. There is the Lord’s prayer, after all, and other examples of Jesus so addressing God.

But in my study of the abba prayer, I have some concern that too much historical weight is being placed on a passage that can’t bear it. Is abba Jesus’ way of praying? Well, it is in the garden of Gethsemane, and it is in those who are being renewed after the image of this suffering son (Rom 8).


Gleanings in Pacifism

I have a couple of thoughts about pacifism. The first is my own:

I am not a pacifist, but I do not believe that there is any killing which does not require forgiveness.

I would like to be a pacifist. But then there’s the real world. I hate living in this tension. I would like to be a pacifist, but I have an African American friend who won’t let me–because without that brutal war, nothing would have changed for the slaved.

I do believe that the Christian’s place in society is always to bear witness to another economy: an economy where defeat of the gravest powers of the world came by the defeat, rather than military victory, of a marginalized people’s prophet-king.

Within this story, I do not know that it is possible to ever claim that a war is just.

Claiming to be a part of this story, Christians must actively work for peace: blessed are the peacemakers. That should typify kingdom people.

Then sometimes you’ve got Russia and China keeping the Security Council from doing justice. What then?

Thought two. This time, a quote from Stanley Hauerwas:

I’m not a pacifist because I’m so nice. I’m a pacifist because I’m such a mean sonofabitch I need the community to keep me accountable.

Confessing the demands of the gospel story is not, at its best, to issue a claim that faithful expression of this religion is to be like I am. We confess the demands of the gospel story to set out the impossible, glorious vision of the Kingdom of God so that we can, as a people, work toward embodying that vision and seeing that vision reflected in the world.

I talk about the economy of the cross all the time–not because my life looks like one of self-denial, but because that’s how it should look in every relationship, every dollar spent, every minute blown in front of this computer screen.

Ok, so maybe that’s a good argument for being a pacifist after all…

The Story Beyond the Story

This weekend I reflected on the importance of narrative theology for keeping our theology from coming off the rails. A commenter drew attention to an article in this month’s Christianity Today to ask about those parts of the Bible that aren’t, in fact, narrative.

This is an important question to address. What’s all this talk about the Bible as “story” when we have these lovely psalms and proverbs and prophets and letters?

It’s an important question to wrestle with, but one that ultimately misses the point.

To say that the Bible is a story, and not just any story but the story of God’s revelation of himself in, and salvation of the world through, Jesus Christ, is to provide an overarching framework within which all the parts find their significance.

Let’s take the Psalms.

Psalm 1 begins like this:

The truly happy person
doesn’t follow wicked advice,
doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
Instead of doing those things,
these persons love the LORD ’s Instruction,
and they recite God’s Instruction day and night! (CEB)

Who is YHWH? What is this Instruction, this Torah, that YHWH has given? Why should someone who sings this song think that keeping such Torah will lead to happiness and flourishing?

The Psalm assumes the story of Israel, a particular God who has done particular things (such as giving Torah) and made particular promises.

I’m not just cherry picking.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.Net

Psalm 2 is an enthronement psalm, celebrating Israel’s king: “Why do the nations so furiously rage together? And why do the peoples imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up and rulers take counsel together against the Lord and his anointed” (Handel’s Messiah Version).

It assumes not only YHWH and Israel, but a particular place for the king, and a particular relationship between the king and YHWH. It even assumes Abrahamic promises of inherited land, now being focused on this royal emissary.

You can sing the psalms without the story, but you’ll be transforming their meaning.

This is one reason why the article in CT was not very helpful or profound in its critiques of narrative theology. In essence, the article was a complaint about people who had done a bad job telling the story, or who had not figured out what to do with psalms or proverbs or that dread beast Qoheleth.

Similar points could be raised about NT letters. One might say, rightly, that Paul did not write stories. Of course he didn’t. And this misses the point entirely.

Paul is writing as part of a religious world formed by the story of Israel and Israel’s God. When he speaks to churches and says, “Our fathers were all under the cloud,” he is writing them into the story of Israel. When he says, “Our unrighteousness will not nullify the righteousness of God, will it?” he is comparing two characters in a story the he recognizes himself to be part of–and that he recognizes Jesus to lie at the center of as well. (More here.)

Within this huge story of Israel and of creation heading to consummation, however, there is a smaller story, an inner story that determines the rest. For Israel, that story was the Exodus. For Christians, that story is the Christ-event.

When we want to know what it looks like for this story to be on track, for this story to–for once!–not run off the rails, we look to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

It’s in light of his instruction that we can sing Psalm 1 with its praise of Torah; it’s in light of his crucifixion and resurrection that we can sing Psalm 1 with its expectations of flourishing; it’s in light of his enthronement that we can sing Psalm 2 and know what it is to have a king who has asked, and is being given, the world as his inheritance (and, incidentally, sharing it with us).

So no, I don’t find the lack of narrative at points to be any argument against narrative theology. In fact, I would argue that those parts can only be read aright in light of the larger story within which they are given voice and thereby find their meaning.

It’s Still Easter, God

Dear God, it’s still Easter.

I know you know this, but… well… It doesn’t look like it so much.

This week the news feed indicated a world where the Curse was found far and wide, but all too little of the blessings flowing.

So here’s where I’m at in all this: you’ve got a bunch of us here who are telling the world, in faith, that you have raised Jesus from the dead.

That you have overcome the powers of sin and death.

That you have enthroned your Man at your right hand.

That there is a King reigning over the cosmos for the true and living God.

That Jesus is Lord.

It’s Easter!

So why should they say among the nations, “Where is this God of yours? Where is your Lord?”

We can confess that Jesus is Lord, but when we read about massacres in movie theaters, it makes our claim ring hollow.

We can confess that Jesus is Lord, but when we blow up the internet with our intramural disagreements one might well ask, “Where is this Spirit who is supposed to be leading them into all truth? Where is this Spirit who is supposed to be binding them as one?”

Where, indeed, is the Spirit sent by the Resurrected One?

It’s still Easter.

I know that you care about your reputation. You are the God who acts to demonstrate the goodness and power of your name upon the earth. You are the God who will not sit idly by while your name is blasphemed among the gentiles.

So I guess where I’m going with all this is here: I don’t mind saying audacious things. Really. In fact, I know several people who wish I minded a bit more!

But when it comes to the audacious things of God, well… I… actually, a lot of us… well… we’d like a little more backup.

You have your Man on the throne. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him.

So, do you think we could see a tidal wave of peace? An earth-shattering abundance of food for those who have none? A few minutes of clarity that there is a plan here, there is a God whose power can bring it about, there is a people who rightly confess the God who rules in righteousness by the hand of a Resurrected King?

Maybe what I’m getting at is this: May your Kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Because this wasn’t much of an “as it is in heaven” week.

So come quickly, Lord Jesus. You are the Resurrected Lord, after all.

Theologizing and Cultural Transformation

Why would I name a whole blog, “Storied Theology,” as if the most important thing I had to say deals with some new-fangled theological method?

Why would I care if someone starts with natural law or the story of Jesus when they begin speaking of God?

How could it be anything other than, mostly, a waste of time to invest a life trying to get people to read scripture in more faithful continuity with the biblical story?

One answer to this cluster of questions is shown, in the negative, by the work of Douglas Wilson that was quoted on the Gospel Coalition website this past week. (My thoughts about it here.)

That such a moment could surface depends on myriad pieces being in place. One of them is this: the Gospel Coalition promotes a reading strategy of scripture that demands of modern people that we accept and attempt to emulate the patriarchal cultures from which the biblical texts arise.

Without a narrative hermeneutic of the cross, they have no recourse for retreating from readings that reinforce use and abuse of power. Indeed, their readings quite often demand that we all submit to such.

Patriarchy isn’t a culture moment of separate but equal… although, come to think of it, “separate but equal” is helpful inasmuch as it conjures up America’s attempt to run a “separate but equal” system which demonstrated itself to be an enshrinement of inequality.

Patriarchy is a web of cultural expressions tied to the common assumption that men are better than women: smarter, more competent, stronger, morally superior, inherently more valuable.

Patriarchy is a web of cultural expressions designed to maintain people “in their place” by the exercise of power or passive submission appropriate to their inherent value.

The problem with appealing to “nature” in theological argumentation is that patriarchy arises from a world within which physical power is the means by which leadership is acquired and exercised. Patriarchy is the fruit of a world where being able to hunt, kill, subdue, colonize, conquer leads to prominence.

Patriarchy is the fruit of the reign of the world by Egypt and Babylon, by Assyria and Media, by Greece and by Rome.

I get it. Power and conquest lead to rule.

And that’s why it’s absolutely crucial that Christians learn, again and again, the story of the cross. Here we learn that there is true power, yes, but that it is had and gained by denying the power structures of the world. Paradoxically, it is gained by losing its power to theirs.

You cannot fill the role of the patriarch in a cruciform manner, because the patriarch is the crucifier, not the Crucified.

This is but one instance of how far we are, as evangelical Christians, from having our minds transformed by the gospel story.

The Gospel Coalition’s headline description on its blog reads as follows:

Equipping the next generation for gospel-faithful ministry and promote church reform and culture transformation. Led by Tim Keller and Don Carson.

I like the goal. But it calls into question what “culture” we’re hoping to transform from and what we’re trying to transform to.

If the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be poured into the wineskins of God-given Jewish practice and belief without blowing them up, how much less can we anticipate that pouring the gospel into anti-Kingdom power structures will “transform” those structures to be more like Jesus–rather than blowing them up?

Propping up an account of sex as conquest is an understanding that maleness, physical strength, even possession of a penis per se, reflects the cosmic reality that God desires men to rule through the power of their might.

This is the theology of the world’s kings.

But it is not the theology of the King over those kings.

The story of the cross upends the story of power that props up too many of the power structures that enable us to have a voice among the people who would follow Jesus.

The heart-searching that should follow in the wake of the “sex as male conquest” debacle is much farther reaching than what J. Wilson has admirably led in. It should call us all to reexamine the ways in which we think that God’s desire is to reaffirm the power that we happen to have, the power meted out to us by the rulers of this age–who crucified the Lord of glory.

Telling the story of the story-bound God