My Aha

Over at Peter Enns’ blog I have a guest post. When did my understanding of the Bible begin to shift?

I sat there on the shore for about three hours a day with nothing to do.
So one day I decided that the logical way to spend my time would be to create a chart of what each Gospel says about the last week of Jesus’ life.

Read the rest: My “Aha moment”.

Vines: God and the Gay Christian

Matthew Vines is out to show that the Christian case in favor of same-sex relationships is not the exclusive purview of the liberals.

As an Evangelical, who seems to me to hold a view of scripture that is something akin to inerrancy, Vines writes God and the Gay Christian in order to establish what he calls, in his subtitle, “The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.”matthew-vines

The way in which Vines is committed to scripture means that the whole thrust of the book is to open up new ways of understanding passages that people have long taken to stand in condemnation of same-sex relationships. The problem, in short, is not what the Bible says, but how we have been interpreting it.

Vines precedes his scriptural argument by making three important appeals: (1) the “fruit” of the traditional position on sexuality has been destructive to people who know themselves to be gay; (2) in the ancient world, the idea of sexual orientation was not the same as our idea–in Rome people assumed most men would be attracted to both men and women; and, sexual rules assumed a patriarchal view of the superiority of men; and (3) the church’s understanding of celibacy has always been that it is a state entered into voluntarily by those who know themselves so gifted and called.

Point 2 is important, and I anticipated awhile ago that it would come to take an increasingly central place in debates about homosexuality.

Point 3 also needs to be weighed: are we “changing the definition of celibacy” by demanding such a way of life for those who are not so gifted, and feel no call to such a life?

Vines’ first two chapters of biblical exegesis examine the Sodom and Gomorrah story and the prohibitions against same-sex intercourse in Leviticus. He rightly distances the Sodom story from specific connotations of homosexual attraction or desire and does a fine job contextualizing Leviticus within a framework of laws and of cultural ideas that we no longer see binding.

Vines’ exegesis of Romans 1 is a mixed bag.

He brings in a number of important points, including some cultural considerations. The “unnaturalness” of same-sex intercourse might well be seen as a problem of “excess desire” rather than “wrongly directed” desire as such.

The problem, however, is in showing that “excess” desire is what Paul himself had in mind. And here’s where we get to a running undercurrent of the book that I did not find persuasive.

Vines regularly distinguishes between Paul’s understanding of homosexuality as expressive of “lustful” desire and our modern ideas of it as something that can be expressed in love, even within relationships of fidelity and commitment.

The implication seems to be throughout that if Paul had only known about the kind of homosexuality we’re talking about he would have been on board. I’m not sure that this argument holds. It might very well be that he would continue to say that there is an inherent problem here, that it is by definition an expression of lust due to the fact that it is wrongly ordered.

Vines says, “We have to remember: what Paul was describing is fundamentally different from what we are discussing” (italics original). I’m not sure that works. Or, if it does, we have to be very careful how we wield such an instrument–we might find that it’s so blunt that it destroys the Bible’s capacity to address us about much of anything. God-Gay-Christian-Book-Cover-Matthew-Vines1

In this chapter, and the following on 1 Cor 6, Vines puts some important pieces in place. We often read “nature” in Rom 1 as referring to an order of creation; however, in 1 Cor 11 that same word is used to talk about appropriate length of hair. One of the best pieces of interpretive advice I received came from a classicist who said, “For ‘nature,’ read ‘culture.'” Vines opens up the importance of recognizing how cultural mores are possibly shaping Paul’s discourse in ways we would fundamentally disagree with.

But Vines’ argument has a number of weaknesses. While it is true that we have an idea of homosexual orientation that the ancients did not share, it is also the case that Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6 largely delineate actions that typify people’s behavior. He complains about translations that capture this, such as “men who have sex with men,” but the complaint seems to arise largely from his wanting to have room to say that same-sex sex itself isn’t the issue.

This seems to be the point at which Vines is never quite able to pin down the biblical writers. There is a gap between the cultural milieu he establishes and what the scriptures say, and his argument is not quite up to the task of demonstrating that this gap is filled by the former being the reason for the latter.

Matthew Vines has put a good deal of important information on the table. And his is one of a number of significant voices in the new chorus of evangelicals who are committed to scripture while advocating for the full inclusion of same-sex relationships. In many ways, I see this volume as indicative of where the argument for same-sex relationships is moving among more conservative Christians.

And, Vines frames the argument with some issues that might, in the long run, be the sorts of questions that help create a culture in which Evangelicals read the Bible differently.

For those who are waiting for a book to come along and tell them what to do with irksome passages that seem opposed to same-sex relations, this will no doubt be received as a God-send. For those demanding a higher degree of argumentation, this book will not likely persuade, but it might outline a way that others (such as James Brownson) have or will yet fill in with greater skill.

**In compliance with Federal guidelines, I hereby disclose to you, the unsuspecting reader, that I was supplied a free copy of this book by the publisher.**

Loving Our Job-Seeking Muslim Neighbors as Ourselves

In this month’s Christianity Today there is an article by Bradley R. E. Wright (a sociologist at UConn) summarizing his study of religious discrimination by potential employers.

The results of the study, in brief, were that any religious affiliation at all being indicated on the résumé (even a fictitious affiliation) could significantly hurt one’s chances of being called back about a job. “Pagan” affiliation cost potential applicants the least, and then Jewish, Evangelical, Catholic, and the fictitious “Wallonian” cost applicants a bit more. Atheist affiliation fwas more costly still.

But the most impressive drop came from Muslim affiliation. Whereas the control group had a 20% call back rate, and Jews, Evangelicals, and Catholics were all in the 16% range, Muslim résumés were only called back 12.6% of the time.

The beauty of this article, run in an Evangelical Christian magazine, was its final section, where it called attention to this disparity as an opportunity for discipleship–for Christians to ask the question what it means to love our Muslim neighbors.

Wright pinpoints Islamophobia as a present reality that we need to become more aware of. And this “awareness” should lead us to engage the issue in Christ-like love: we do not grasp and cling to religious freedom just for ourselves, but we demand it for our neighbor.

I would put it like this: the way of Jesus is the way of the cross, which means refusing to secure power and freedom at the expense of the other; and, instead, securing power and freedom for the other (even my enemy) even if, in the process, it costs me my life.

Wright says:

We weren’t saved to make special deals for fellow believers but to bless the entire world. Christianity shines bright when it is looking out for the interests of the socially marginalized, and our research suggests that American Muslims are the most marginalized in hiring.

Or, as Jesus said: “Let your light so shine before people that they can see your good deeds and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” And that by “Loving your [Muslim] neighbor as yourself.”

“Your faith might cost you your next job.” That’s what the headline said. But inside was a more important story: it might cost your Muslim neighbor her next job. That’s where the call to follow Jesus came through.

Does Jesus Know It’s Judas?

Here’s a question: in the Gospel of Mark, does Jesus know which disciple is going to betray him?

Here’s the prediction of a betrayer in Mark 14:17-21:

judas-iscariot

17 That evening, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18 During the meal, Jesus said, “I assure you that one of you will betray me—someone eating with me.” 19 Deeply saddened, they asked him, one by one, “It’s not me, is it?” 20 Jesus answered, “It’s one of the Twelve, one who is dipping bread with me into this bowl. 21 The Human One goes to his death just as it is written about him. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays the Human One! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.” (CEB)

He knows it is going to be one of the twelve.

These twelve are gathered with him, sharing his bowl, dipping bread with him.

But he doesn’t say any more than that.

When Judas arrives with the mob to arrest Jesus (Mark 14:43-50), Jesus does not address Judas at all, though he sees when he is about to arrive (Mark 14:42).

Clearly, in later Gospels there are clear signals that Jesus knows it to be Judas, and perhaps even lets Judas know he knows.

But in Mark?

What do you think? Am I missing something?

Never Pray Again

I have grown up hearing language of “mobilizing” God’s people through prayer, of prayer being like the gas that fills up our spiritual vehicles so that we can run off in service of God.

But what if…

What if prayer isn’t the great mobilizer of God’s people, but the great immobilizer?

What if worship and contemplation aren’t the centrifuges that throw us out into the world, but the centripetal forces that suck us only and ever deeper into ourselves?

Those are the questions we’re asked to entertain in Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get To Work by Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson.

This post is part of a blog tour for the book (for which I was provided with a free electronic copy).NeverPrayAgain

Though the provocative title suggests that leaving behind prayer provides the book with its energy, in reality the gravitas is its insistence that we move into faithful practice. Rather than sleepwalking through life, numbed by our pious practices, they invite us to wake up and engage.

Interestingly, the chapter titles could often be interpreted as postures of prayer.

“Thank”

The chapter entitled “Thank” caught me most strongly. There I found much of the language of “economy,” and a stern warning against living our lives in accordance with the economy of scarcity rather than in accordance with God’s economy of “enough.” (I prefer calling God’s an economy of “abundance,” but perhaps that’s a quarrel for another day.)

“Scarcity” demands that some win, some lose. “Enough” proclaims “abundant life for all.”

They rightly warn about how easy it is to “lazily import” the economies of scarcity in which we find ourselves into our Christian communal life. Taking the Corinthians as a prime example, we discover that an alternative economy demands that we not privilege those who are privileged in the world’s economy, that we invite and honor the outsiders, the unwashed masses, as we sit at our tables and eat together.

In another profoundly insightful word, they warn that the anxiety created by scarcity causes us to grasp and cling.

Eucharist reorients us, and demands of us that we be a thankful people. Thankfulness is the posture of those who have “enough,” know it to be enough, and therefore express the reality of “enough” by sharing on an even playing field.

“Love”

I struggled more with the “Love” chapter than the “Thank” chapter. It started off with the assumption that God calls us to love ourselves.

I’ve never resonated with this claim.

It seems to me, instead, that the biblical writers simply assumed that most people love themselves, and this is the baseline reality (or even problem) that needs to be corrected through our love of others.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” isn’t a command to love yourself, it assumes that you pour out most of your energies on loving yourself, and that escaping such self-obsession is the way toward a surprising discovery of true humanness. (See also: “No one ever hated his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it,” Eph 5:28-29).

We’ll come back to self love in a bit.

The Three Amigos assert that it is neither self love nor neighbor love that makes Christian love unique. Instead, it is enemy love.

In a surprise move, but one that fits what I’ve already engaged, they speak of “Loving the Enemy Within.” That is, they recognize that for many of us our fiercest enemy is the criticism in our heads. The voice of hatred and vitriol that most often accuses us—it’s our own. There is a powerful recognition here, and perhaps one that, in its psychological and theological insight, chastens my objections above.

They then turn to more traditional enemy love. Here they are at the heart of things.

If there is one datum to point to that demonstrates how our insular practices have cut us off from the life to which God calls us in Christ, it is the fact that no one, ever, when hearing that someone is a Christian, first thinks, “Wow, that person must really love her enemies!”

Love. That kind of love, should be our hallmark.

The exposition of enemy love then begins to take a bold turn.

A section entitled, “Our Enemy Who Art In Heaven” talks about loving God when the world around us is going to crap. It asserts that God is our enemy when we beg for healing and find none, when we are left alone in the darkness, betrayed by God, crying out with Christ on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In the section entitled, “Jesus is the Enemy,” the turn is more subtle and perhaps more palatable for many readers as well: Jesus identifies himself with the world in need of salvation. Jesus is the one made sin for us. Jesus is the one present in the person of the person in need. Jesus died for our enemy, making our love for enemy nothing less than love for the Christ who gave his life for them—an extension of the love that we have been given.

“Experiments”

Throughout the book, each chapter ends with suggested experiments: ways to begin moving toward the practices commended. These help put feet on the ideas so that we can begin to catch a glimpse of what they might look like in practice.

The need for practice is reiterated at the end, as the final admonition of the book is summed up as “Go and Do!”

Here, the leaving off of prayer is given one final commendation:

We noticed as we looked at the ancient liturgical structure of worship, and examined each type of prayer usually found there, that if we simply removed the word “prayer” we unleashed something vital and compelling… Prayer itself serves too easily as that thing we do instead of acting more directly and more powerfully.

Of course, this will be seen by many, perhaps most, traditional Christians as precisely the point. We pray to signal that God is in charge and we are not. We pray to confirm that we are incapable of bringing about the movement of the Spirit requisite for the tasks to which we have been called.

But, if we’re honest, do we not often pray in order to commend into the hands of God the very things for which God has placed on us on earth, and for which God has placed God’s own name on us and sent us out into the world?

That’s the question we are rightly haunted by when we leave the pages of this book… even if we choose to keep on praying.

The Problem with Rich

The problem with “rich” is that I know, instinctively, that it doesn’t apply to me.

My dad would sometimes pull the sly smile as he claimed wealth: the love of the family, the rewarding life, you know, the revisionist definition of rich. But I knew all to well that the financial pressures that had our family on a cycle of spending less and less as payday approached, the debt of a mortgage we couldn’t afford, and the disparity between a Navy income and the cost of living in the D.C. area all added up to one thing: we were far from rich.

It doesn’t matter that we always had electricity and a warm house and food on the table, that we had a clunker that the kids could drive in addition to a nicer car for the grown ups. We were far from rich.

It doesn’t matter that we know in our minds, or sometimes see with our eyes, what real poverty looks like. It doesn’t matter that we know that we have more than 95% of the people in the world. We just know that we are not rich.

And this is why “rich” is a problem.

It is a word that I have learned, deep down, experientially, does not apply to me.

We have all been taught how to look up, to see the people with more, to identify them as rich.

While we are not.

And so, when we come across “the rich,” the warnings to “the rich,” or “the rich man” on the pages of scripture, we dissociate. “Wow, if I were rich, that would be a pretty convicting story.” Or, “Wow, I wonder, if I were rich, would I be able to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Jesus?” “Wow, it will be hard for those folks to get into the Kingdom of God. I should pray for them.”

That’s why, in my judgment, the Gospel of Mark does us a great favor.

In Mark 10:17, a man runs up to Jesus. We’re not told anything about him, except that he bows and asks about what must be done to inherit life.

Jesus feels for this man. Loves him. And so, Jesus ends up inviting him into the life-giving way: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come! follow me!”

But the man becomes gloomy, and goes way sad. Because he was…

Because he was what?

“Because he was someone who had a lot of stuff.”

Uh oh.

“Has a lot of stuff” (ἔχων κτήματα πολλά).

Now that sounds familiar. Mark’s warning is not here embodied in “the rich” (ὁ πλούσιος) but in “one who has a lot of stuff.”

Now that hits home.

It hits home in garages cluttered with too many bicycles. It hits home in bookshelves with too many books. It hits home in houses loaded up with phones and retired phones and iPads and computers and televisions and multiple sets of serving dishes and overflowing closets and basketfulls of toys.

It is not to “the rich” that Jesus goes on to issue his warning–those ethereal others!–but to us:

“Oh, with how much difficulty with those who have a ton of crap (ok, more literally, “a lot of stuff”) enter the kingdom of God!”

This is not for some mysterious “them.” It is for us.

Jesus will use the word for “rich” a little later, but let’s live with him in the delay. Let’s recognize that none of us is willing to bear that label rich. And let’s recognize that this is perhaps the most important story we could hear and respond to. We are the “stuff havers.”

Let’s leave behind the word “rich.” It is too full of problems for us. Let’s dwell on the challenge for those non-rich who still have too much.

How difficult it will be for those… for us… for me… who have a ton of crap to enter the kingdom of God.

Strike the Shepherd–And God Becomes King

This morning’s musings had me in Zechariah. Zechariah 9-14 depicts a time of failure, punishment, and restoration.

The movement, the hopes, and the casting of the roles have the power to shape our imaginations about what God’s promised salvation looks like.

First, the hope of the people is thoroughly messianic. They will be given a king. This is the source of the people’s hope and joy. The king will bring peace. The king will reign over the whole earth.

It is from these hopes of a coming, Davidic messiah that Matthew draws his interpretation of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem: “He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey” (Zech 9:9, CEB).

Second, this is a time when the people are exalted. When YHWH protects Jerusalem, “anyone who stumbles will become like David, and David’s house will become like God, like YHWH’s messenger in front of them” (Zech 12:8).

This time of exaltation is one where people “play up”: they are assigned roles that do not fit them by nature, but to which they are exalted because of God’s great act of salvation.

Everyone is like a king.

David is like God.

Third, the great act of Israel’s salvation is the time when God becomes king.

This is the genius in the title of N. T. Wright’s book, How God Became King. It recognizes that for God to actualize God’s kingship over the earth, certain earthly realities have to be in place.

YHWH will become king over all the land. (Zech 14:9)

The people all come to Jerusalem to honor the king–who is YHWH (Zech 14:16).

Now, I’m sure my friends who are scholars of the Hebrew Bible will tell me that the varied visions of Zech 9-14 represent different theological strands and corresponding expectations for the future. O.k.

But in the book of Zechariah they all sit there next to each other: God becomes king precisely when the Davidic kingship is restored and the faithful king on earth becomes like God, leading the people in peace and righteousness.

We need to have our minds shaped by this fusion of heaven and earth: the claims scripture invites us to make about earthly events such as the coronation of a messiah are woven together with claims about God.

This is because, from the beginning, the role of people is to play the role of God upon the earth (Gen 1:26-28). To play roles typically assigned to God, or to say that God is at work, is not to say that a person is divine, but to say that God is present precisely in the way that God has always intended to be–through a faithful humanity.

In order to rediscover how it is that Jesus brings the biblical story to its fulfillment, we have to recognize that an absolute narratological necessity is this: a human king must be the agent of God’s salvation, so that God may be king through the reign of a faithful messiah.

On Being Son of God

There once was a person who received the Spirit of God.

With the reception of this Spirit, the man became something he was not before: God’s own son.

Knowing that God was father, and protector, and deliverer, he implored God for deliverance in the face of suffering: Abba! Father!

But deliverance, and entry into glory, would only come after suffering.

This person, of course, is any person who has been united to Christ. This biography of adoption, hope, importunity, suffering, and glory, is Paul’s description of people who have received the Spirit (Rom 8:12-17).

Every Christian.

But perhaps you heard another story?

Perhaps you heard the story of Jesus?

Perhaps you heard the story of Jesus at his baptism being given the Spirit, and the voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved son?”

Perhaps you got annoyed that I said this was a becoming, rather than an affirmation of what Jesus had been all along?

Perhaps you knew that Abba! Father! was Jesus’ prayer?

Perhaps you recognized that it is Jesus’ suffering that resolves in glory, first of all?

Perhaps we need to be so confused on a more regular basis. Perhaps we have gotten so in the habit of recognizing the bits of Jesus that we imagine to be unrepeatable, utterly unique, that we have missed the opportunities we’re given to recognize that Jesus’ life in relationship to God is a picture of a human life perfectly in step with the Creator.

We receive the Spirit of sonship, because Jesus first was appointed son (cf. Rom 1:4). We are led by the Spirit that led, indeed drove, Jesus into the wilderness and empowered him in a life of kingdom-bringing, death-defeating power. We cry abba, father because we are sons bearing the likeness of the firstborn son. We are heirs of this father because we share our elder brother’s inheritance.

The God who only said “very good” over the creation after the creation of people to mediate God’s own presence to it, did not give up on that plan. It is renewed in “the human, Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).

Telling the story of the story-bound God