Community and Belief

When I was younger, I remember hearing and talking as though the most important thing you could say about a Christian is what that person does when no one else, or at least no other Christians, were around. Once you leave that protective sphere, who are you really?

I have almost decided that the opposite is closer to the truth. To play a role in the Christian drama is to be an individual who is part of a body. I am most myself when I am functioning within the body of Christ, and those possible deficiencies that surface when I’m not in close connection with the community show me how much I need the community to help me manifest who I truly am in Christ.

This is a smaller piece of a larger puzzle. Who we are, what we believe, and what we do are all to varying degrees part of the communities in which we participate. Sometimes this will be by way of agreement, sometimes by way of disagreement–often the communities we’re in will shape our thinking in ways we’re not even aware of by nature of the very questions it’s asking or not asking, or the way it’s framing the options.

All of this gets me to the real point, which is that the state of our faith as followers of Jesus is rarely separable from the Christian community of which we are a part.

When I was going through some of the worst of my struggles to find a Christian community where I could thrive, my belief in the God of the Bible was at its weakest. Other stories I hear of people slipping away from the faith often have lengthy struggles of finding a community that can bear the questions someone is bringing to the table.

Some places will be asking questions or giving answers that resonate deeply with us–and that very affinity will become part of what makes the Christian story compelling and believable.

Some places will be pouring out their energies in debates that seem arcane and ridiculous to us–and that very dissonance will become part of what makes the Christian story flimsy and unbelievable.

Some places will demand that Christianity entail certain positions or actions that we cannot endorse, and so not only does that community take a hit in our estimation, but the Christian story as a whole loses its luster.

In the Christian narrative, salvation is a communal affair. This is why I strive to send people to churches that will serve them well–even if those aren’t churches that would so serve me. And that is part of why I keep up this blog.

For all the various disagreements we might have with each other, I am convinced that there is a kind of person out there–someone who lives between giving up the Christianity of their youth, often, but is still passionate about Jesus, someone who might find some peace with God if they were given space to acknowledge various data about the Bible, evolution, sex, –who will find here freedom to keep believing.

David and God

As I set myself to better understanding how Jesus and God are related in the Synoptic Gospels, I ponder in my heart how Israel’s kings of old were spoken of in relation to God.

One of the most basic things to realize is that the king is part of the divine family–perhaps adopted there, perhaps viewed as begotten to new life, but either way the king is the son of God who represents his father to the nation. The king is begotten of God at his enthronement (Psalm 2); he is God’s son and God is his father (2 Samuel 7).

The connection between God and the king is difficult to overstate. Without the king becoming divine in any sense, he is yet the embodiment of God on earth. To rebel against the king is to rebel against God; to honor the king is to maintain YHWH’s favor (Psalm 2).

This also explains the startling language Isaiah 9 uses to describe the king: a child who is called not only wonderful counselor and prince of peace, but even “almighty God” and “everlasting father.” God’s face is known in the face of Israel’s king. Perhaps better: God’s power is known in the reign of God’s own sovereign.

God’s own faithfulness and power (Psalm 89:1-18) is supposed to be made known through the maintenance of David’s line itself as well as the power with which David’s line acts (Psalm 89:19-37). In fact, when this king is spurned, it calls into question YHWH’s own praiseworthiness (89:52). This king is not only God’s son, but rules the world as God alone can do, reigning even over the hostile forces of the sea (89:25). Who is this, that even the winds and the waves obey him? It is the son of God, the king of Israel, the Davidic king.

This king reigns forever. This king is enthroned at the right hand of God. This king is the son of God. And so when the psalmist says to the king, “Your throne, o god, is permanent… You love justice and hate evil, therefore God, your God has anointed you…” the appellation of the title “god” to the king, while startling to us, is well within the purview of Israelite royal theology.

Who is this king? The son of God who rules the world on God’s behalf; the prince who offers sacrifices, the god who sits enthroned at the right hand of the one true and living God and therefore is identified with that God, bearing that God’s name and being, for [all] intents and purposes, the representative of that God upon the earth.

This is how “divine identity christology” works in the Old Testament: the human king bears the identity of God, carrying that name with him in his acts of righteousness or evil, of victory or defeat.

Christian Virtue Or…

… why eschatology is the most important thing you never talked about in youth group.

The language in which Ephesians 4 speaks of pursuing Christian virtue (or, if you prefer, “sanctification”) is the imagery of changing clothing. Sort of. Put off the old humanity so that you can be renewed by the Spirit and put on the new humanity.

This is not at root an exercise in self-actualization–it is an exercise in Spiritual Christization. The old self is not just the you with whom you wish to part company, it is the old humanity, in the first Adam, the humanity that has been given a new beginning with the second Adam.

New Self Squishes Old Self

That’s why the passage goes on to speak of the new human with whom we clothe ourselves as one created (note the language of creation–God is doing again what he once did at the beginning) according to God’s image (note the creation language again).

To be made holy, to be renewed after the image of God, is nothing less than to know now, in part, the future that awaits us in Christ. In other words, sanctification is inaugurated eschatology.

The end that yet awaits us has begun to make itself known as it reaches back to transform the present.

And to say this much is also to call us to a humility about who we are without the transforming work of the Spirit that is too often missing today. We seem, even in the church, quite prone to affirming our innate desires as the work of the Spirit of God.

But Ephesians 4 raises a warning flag for us.

Too often, the desires that drive us here on earth are the desires of old humanity, in need of its final death and resurrection. Too often we are driven by our desires to control, to possess–the enslaving lusts and darkness of mind from which the light of the world delivers us.

The yet-to-come Kingdom is good news–because we are a people in need of wholesale renovation.

And God has given this to us, and will give it to us, by the Spirit of the resurrected Christ renewing us after that same Messiah’s image.

The Seven: Not Exactly Deacons

Acts 6 is a classic go-to text for folks wrestling with what sort of church government we were meant to have. When an issue comes up about food distribution the apostles decide it’s not right for them to leave aside proclamation and prayer for the task of serving tables. Thus, several others are chosen and blessed. The office of service is introduced alongside the office of teaching.

Q.E.D.

Maybe…

The first thing I want to say is that this seems to have been a good arrangement. The story is followed by one of Acts’ characteristic summary statements indicating that the church moved from this controversy to a time of peace and growth (Acts 6:7).

But there are other indications that though this event was used to bring about peace for a time, the twelve might not have been as faithful leaders at this point as we might have hoped.

The first thing to notice is that this is a dispute that breaks out along cultural and/or ethnic lines. Yes, they all seem to be Jewish, but there are Hellenists and Hebrews–perhaps indicative of language and/or other cultural differences.

The response? Elevating some wise, spirit-filled Hellenists (so it would seem–all the names are Greek) to look after their own.

Throughout the book of Acts, one of the driving concerns is to see the fledgling Christian community embrace a diversity of social, cultural, and ethnic groups as one unified people of God. Does appointing seven guys with Greek names accomplish this? Or is it a perpetuation of a division while managing the presenting problem?

Then there’s the bit about the reasoning of the twelve.

In Acts the twelve in particular, but the church as a whole, is depicted as carrying forward and reembodying the earthly ministry of Jesus. Acts is not the acts of the apostles, it is the continuing acts of Jesus the resurrected messiah through his church.

It is significant, then, that when the dispute arises about greatness in Luke’s gospel that Jesus confronts the twelve’s desire for glory with these words: “Who is greater, the one who reclines at table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines? Yet I am among you as the one who serves.”

In Luke, Jesus describes the essence of his own mission (on which the twelve were to model their own) in the very terms that the twelve are unwilling to accept here: serving tables.

So what happens with these seven table-servers?

First, there is Stephen. We are told in the next story that he stands out due to the Spirit’s provision of mighty works, signs, and wonders–the very terms with which Jesus is described as God’s empowered representative in Acts 2.

This is the one whose words (word ministry!) are so powerful that the opponents of the church cannot resist him. And, he becomes the one whose death, in imitation of Jesus, leads not only to the persecution of the church but also, because of that persecution, to the gospel leaving Jerusalem and making its way to the ends of the earth. (A “leaving Jerusalem,” by the way, that the apostles to whom the charge had been given in Acts 1:8 did not participate in.)

The one who was willing to serve tables is described in the most obviously Jesus-like terms (even to being killed for speaking against the Temple and blessing those who killed him), and as having the most irrefutably powerful ministry of word.

A mercy-minister appointed to free the true teachers to stick to their true task? It doesn’t seem that way.

Then there’s the other “deacon,” Phillip. What does he do? Well, not much.

I mean, so long as you don’t think that fulfilling Jesus’ command to take the gospel beyond Judea to Samaria is important (Acts 1:8). Phillip did that (Acts 8).

I mean, really, he was a mercy ministry guy, caring for people’s physical needs. Well, except for that whole bit about proclaiming the good news to the Ethiopian eunuch, and then evangelizing the entire Mediterranean coast up to Caesarea.

The story in Acts 6 is pivotal. But perhaps for ways that we too often miss when we bring our “church governance” question to the text. Here is the installation not of mercy ministers, but of the evangelists who would uniquely embody the ministry of Jesus (Stephen) and fulfill the resurrected Christ’s mandate that the gospel leave the narrow confines of Judea and go out to the ends of the earth.

If the Story’s the Thing…

… then shouldn’t we be training ourselves how to tell compelling stories that communicate the Story?

My sometimes student Jon Huckins thinks so, and he’s written a book specifically geared toward youth ministers to help them cultivate that craft.

Why should we tell stories? How do we go about creating parables that communicate the message? What might such a story look like?

Though specifically geared toward youth ministers, Jon’s book raises a challenging question that is important for all of us to wrestle with in our increasingly story-driven culture: how do we communicate the “greatest story ever told” to our own world if not through stories of our own?

Barth 1.1 Kickoff!

UPDATED 1/7: MY THOUGHTS ON §1.1

Throughout §1.1 Barth is bent on locating the task of dogmatics. In particular, he wants to locate it within the speech of the church and allow that space where the Christian faith is a given be the context within which dogmatics are spoken and assessed.

One point at which I think this introduction opens discussion is the extent to which Barth is truly doing the “descriptive” task he claims rather than a constructive and creative theological project. I think there’s more of the latter in CD than Barth would lead us to believe here at the beginning. Not that he’s being dishonest about his goals, actions, or intentions, but that the work of a gifted theologian will inevitably push the confession of the church into new arenas given its new place and time.

And here, Barth’s famous claim comes to the fore: our task is not to say what the apostles say, but to say what we must say on the basis of what the apostles said.

I resonate strongly with Barth’s presuppositional approach to dogmatics. As something that takes place in the church, not only is the Christian faith assumed for dogmatics, but the more basic question of whether God can be known by people and communicate to us. Where we might get stuck forever if we begin with philosophy or in an attempt to conduct our theologizing in the terms acceptable to the other disciplines, we simply confess as Christians and get about our task based on what we believe to be true given the coming of Christ.

And this last piece draws me back, once again, to the issue I raised earlier this week. Barth’s declaration of theology as a self-contained discipline highlights the modern-day tensions felt at the Society of Biblical Literature, as some of the non-confessional scholars are getting nervous about the proliferation of faith-driven biblical studies, theological interpretation, and the like. Can there be a shared, assumed arena of conversation for those who study the Bible (et al) as historians or theoraticians or religion on the one hand and those who study while assuming the faith of the church on the other?

While I think the answer is yes, Barth problematizes such a position, in part by asking the would-be biblical theologian if agreeing to the terms of such a parlay isn’t somehow selling the farm.

So, all you co-readers: Are you left with any lingering or pressing questions after the intro? Or just feeling eased into things?//

You can peruse the list of synchroblogs over on the Barth homepage, but I’d also love for folks to post their links here so that people can easily find their way from blog to blog.

Please link to your post in the comments below so that folks can see what you have to say about this week’s reading.

If you Tweet: the Twitter hashtag for this adventure is #barthtogether.

If you’re still reading, here is something to think about: do you agree with Barth’s central claim that dogmatics is always, in a sense, an act of faith?

That claim is one that I resonate with.

But this week someone on Facebook, who also comments here regularly, chided me for not weighing people’s commitments to scripture as authoritative in my assessment of their biblical scholarship. In other words, I think that unbelievers are regularly as good and sometimes better readers of the Bible than Christians, especially in scholarly endeavors.

Is this a true hypocrisy, or is the differentiation that Barth makes between biblical theology (which can be a descriptive enterprise) and dogmatic theology enough to cover me?

You don’t have to answer that question, but it’s something to ponder as you read, if you are so inclined!

Back with more Barth thoughts tomorrow or Friday.

When Words Have No Meaning

Sometimes, you’re minding your own business, reading a book, and you stumble upon something truly wonderful. Behold:

On the Christian side, we have had the astonishing claim that Paul, the earliest Christian writer, did not regard Jesus as the messiah. The ecumenical intentions of such a claim are transparent and honorable, but also misguided, since the claim is so plainly false. Jesus is called Christos, anointed, the Greek equivalent of messiah, 270 times in the Pauline corpus. If this is not ample testimony that Paul regarded Jesus as messiah, then words have no meaning.
–John Collins, The Scepter and the Star

Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels

So depending on who you are, I have some good news or some bad news. For me, it’s good.

I have a contract in hand to publish The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels with Eerdmans.

Then, depending on who you are, I have some good news or some bad news. For those of you who wish I wouldn’t write the thing, the good news is that it won’t be done for another few years, with a likely 2014 appearance date.

For those of you who can’t get enough of what I write, I regret to inform you that you’ll have to wait until 2014 to enjoy the full fruits of my labors.

In the mean time, thanks for your continued reading and engagement here over the many issues that are going into my thinking for this project!

Science, Parascience, and Humanness

Modernity has innumerable means at its disposal for putting religion, human self-understanding, and even the mind itself into the rubbish bin of history. These means have been picked up by the vocal advocates of atheism, by the agnostics who are only certain about what religion has gotten wrong, and others who are annoyed by the quaint hold that religion seems to have on the populace when its reasons to be have been so thoroughly dismantled (so it is thought).

Enter Marilynne Robinson.

You may have heard the name in association with some of the great literary novels of the past 30 years: Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home.

What you might not know is that she is a first rate intellectual of rather broad compass, having also composed a set of essays on Calvinism in the 90s entitled, The Death of Adam. The engagement with modernism that she began in this book is continued in a new set of essays entitled, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self.

One might call Robinson an accidental apologist. While dismantling the deeply entrenched, but not for that reason compelling and powerful, arguments that are raised against the significance of altruism in understanding humanness, while dismantling Freud’s explanations of religious fixations by reading him as largely a product of his anti-Semitic world, by insisting that this thing we know as “the mind” cannot be dismissed by modernity on the basis of a pre-modern definition of the mind that no contemporary person is likely to hold, she creates space for humans to continue to affirm and explore reality as we know it.

Along the way, she chides science for its unscientific depreciation of the human: if we found a fossil of a fungus on some other planet it would be the great scientific discovery of our time, and yet the human mind is reduced to a boring, rather insignificant result of firing neurons. Robinson insists that the embodied nature of our mental activity does not make our experience of self any less real, but simply directs us toward the kind of self we truly are: embodied, yet self-aware, acting and yet conscious of an “I.”

This book is a thorough dismantling of positions that look compelling at first blush: evolution as our origin reduces the significance of our humanness; the possibility that there might be life elsewhere in this vast universe decenters humanity as worthy of special consideration; primal myths of unfulfilled sexual desire account for human propensities toward religious engagement.

The book is heavy going, but the effort expended pays high dividends if you can make it to the end.

In accordance with all that is holy, righteous, and good in the federal codes, I hereby disclose that I bought the book with my own money and am therefore offering this positive endorsement under no compulsion from a wily publisher.

[A] More [Definitive] Blog Ranking[s]

Things are getting better in the world of blog rankings (which means, of course, that I’m finding blogs in which I’m ranked higher than my Alexa rating would have me).

BibliobloggersTop10.wordpress.com is your source for voicing your preference for the glories of Storied Theology or whatsoever you should choose.

I have to concur with the people’s choice of Exploring Our Matrix as the #1 blog.

Of course, the whole thing has Bob Cargill calling for a BCS.

It’s a great time to be in Biblical Studies, my friends…

Telling the story of the story-bound God