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!


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…

Exorcising Prophet King

When Jesus goes out to proclaim the good news in Mark’s Gospel, the power of his teaching is immediately put to the test. He is confronted by a man with an unclean spirit. The spirit knows that Jesus is God’s holy one, and fears for his life.

After Jesus expels the demon, the people remark at the power of Jesus’ teaching: even the unclean spirits obey.

I think that there are numerous points of OT resonance with this passage, perhaps something about Jesus exercising the God-given task of speaking for God that Adam abdicated in the Garden, for one thing.

But the language of “holy one of God” and the invitation so often issued in Mark to pursue the answer to the question of Jesus’ identity seems to push in a different direction.

The transition narrative of 1 Samuel tells how God’s Spirit is tied to kingship. The spirit of God had come upon Saul in prophesy and in the might needed to deliver God’s people. And, when Saul turns from God the spirit of God departs, and God sends an evil spirit to take its place.

Rembrant, Saul & David

At the same time as the Spirit departs from Saul, it is bestowed upon David. At the time, David seems to be a court musician for Saul. The songs of spirit-anointed, to-be-king David exorcise the evil spirit that torments the king whom David is destined to replace.

Jesus, it seems, fulfills the role of Davidic kingship as one who is anointed by the Spirit of God to be king over God’s people. In part, this means that as spirit-possessing king, Jesus plays the role of David as it has never been played before: Jesus is the one whose prophetic word has the power even to exorcise tormenting spirits, not merely temporarily, but even eternally.

God and Sex

Sometimes I do get worried that Christians are too uppity about sex. I worry that too often we look to who you are or aren’t having sex with as the defining factor of your faithfulness to the gospel message.

Reading through the Jesus narratives in particular, I find that he seemed to care about a number of other markers of fidelity to himself and the God of Israel, and in addition that sins of sexual commission were less likely to keep someone from the Kingdom of God than sins of religious power abuse, hypocrisy and the like.

But then there I go reading through Acts, and there’s this huge meeting in Jerusalem to figure out what the non-Jews have to do if they want to be faithful adherents to the way of Jesus. No, they don’t have to bear the unbearable yoke of Torah. No, they don’t have to become Jews by practice and ethnic affiliation. No, they don’t have to be circumcised.

What, then, will mark out the non-Jewish adherents of The Way if not the Law of God?

In essence: refraining from participation in idolatrous worship. And being sexually pure. No meat sacrificed to idols, and refraining from sexual immorality.

Perhaps I oversimplify. They are also to stay away from blood and strangled meat. If I may be permitted to riff a bit on this conglomeration, using other NT writers, the early church is depicted here as having a concern with how we are joined to the lives of gods, of other people, and of animals.

Having received life from the true and living God, we do not feed on the life-giving stuff marked out by and for other gods. We do not drink the life of animals and so become unnaturally one with them. We do not join ourselves to anyone other than a spouse because we are joined to them by physical union, and to the church by our union with Christ.

And, refusing to be profligately joined to other people in sexual unions marks the people of the Jesus way as distinct from the outside world. Though we err when we seem to make this a sufficient condition for Christian piety, it is a necessary one–and one that distinguished ancient Christians from the world around them as much as it would distinguish us from the world around us if we had the courage to live up to it.

So I will not be able to join the chorus of those who say that God is not so petty as to be concerned with what goes on behind our closed bedroom doors. Much the opposite, I will need to say that because the creation is good, because sex is good and sex is a gift, God cares tremendously about how we use it.

And walking in sexual purity is one defining marker of the people of God.

Back to the Grind

… well, tomorrow anyway.

In the fall I was on Sabbatical, a wonderful time to write and read and enjoy the “rest” of freedom from daily deadlines of teaching and meetings.

The past week has been a wonderful time of rest, wrapping up the year with a week in the lake areas north of Napa, hiking, reading, hiding, getting stuck in the snowy mud, playing games.

Today’s service of worship was, for us, about receiving the gifts needed to move back into the worlds to which we’re called with greater fidelity to the Jesus-narrative we’re called to story together.

It is Epiphany Sunday in our world. We remembered the arrival of the three kings and the gifts they gave the king. But in the spirit of Ephesians 4, we turned from he who came

Galette Des Rois

“to receive gifts from people” to the king who ascended on high and “gave gifts to people.”

In honor of the gifted king who became the gifting king, we each were given a crown with one part of the fruit of the Spirit on it: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Working out the implications of being given gifts that we only imperfectly aspire to manifest, we were reminded of the rest, rather than the work, entailed in being gifted with Spiritual virtues. These are not ours only to strive after as a desired possession, but the reality of the life already given to us in Christ that we are striving to make more manifest in the year ahead.

And so I am reminded, as my time of “rest” comes to a close and I step back into more concerted “work,” that even as I work I carry my rest with me–for the life that I live is the new creation that I have by virtue of my union with the resurrected Christ who has already entered into the eternal Sabbath rest.

Telling the story of the story-bound God