Those Perplexing Artifacts

If our story is only the story of sinners whose souls are alienated from God, then preaching the gospel is nothing more, and nothing less, than urging people to put their faith in Jesus’ death on their behalf. Such a story has one conflict to resolve: the conflict of guilt as it stands in the way of the relationship the story holds out for its two great protagonists, God and humanity. And if that is the extent of our story, we are left with a rather perplexing collection of Christian artifacts known as “the Gospels,” which do not actually contain much of the gospel at all.

Baseball Is a Creeping Thing

I’m getting into the Giants’ playoff run. I’m not a “bandwagon” fan, but I am an “October fan” when it comes to baseball. I mean seriously, with 162 games, not even the players care about every one. I choose not to care about the first 145 or so.

But I digress.

Watching some games this week, I think I was finally able to pin down why baseball gives me the heebie jeebies. For a while I thought it was just the way that people talk about it: hushed, reverential tones, sometimes digging deep to tell us, for example, why baseball will be the game we play in ha-’olam ha-ba’. People who like to hear themselves talk like to talk about baseball.

But that’s not it, really.

You also have to be very patient to learn to appreciate baseball. This is like many sports: watching and appreciating is actually a skill. If you don’t have a good teacher, it won’t make sense. Take Tim Lincecum’s ridiculous outing the other night. Watching it, all I wanted to know was what the Giants put in the Braves’ KoolAid to make them take golf swings at pitches that were bowled across the plate. Then I heard it explained how he was pitching, why his release and delivery were deceptive. I needed someone to teach me how to appreciate the game.

But that’s not why baseball creeps me out, either. I mean, if it takes an education my tendency would be to learn better than everyone so that I could show everyone that I’m smarter than them.

No, what finally dawned on me was this: in baseball you score when the other team has the ball.

This, my friends, should not be.

When we read through the laws that separated the people of God from their neighbors, it becomes clear that what sets apart God’s people from those around them are things that  consistently display what they truly are. Are you a fish? Then you better not have feet. Are you a grass eater? Then chew your cud and split your hooves. Be consistent, please.

Baseball is ceremonially unclean because to be in possession of the ball is, in sports, the way in which one is given opportunity to score. It is therefore clear as clear can be that there will be no baseball in ha-’olam ha-ba’, for in the great city of God, nothing unclean may enter.

Baseball we will behold as we peer over the city walls at the undying flames in the Valley of Gehenna.

Mountain Goats Monday

Ok, I love the Mountain Goats.

And, most of the reason I think they’re so great is because of the way that their songs are redemptive, fraught with eschatology, clear sighted in their juxtaposition of hope and brokenness. But sometimes, their songs are just a testimony to the fact that we make bad mistakes. And sometimes these mistakes feed on each other. And sometimes we just find ourselves reveling in the downward spiral that we’ve become.

In the spirit of such, here is “No Children”:

I’m sure I never find myself needing to hear this song.


This is My Body… But Why?

I have a general take on the Lord’s/Last Supper: the Synoptic Gospels depict Jesus predicting his death as the pathway to his Messianic enthronement. This cross-shaped life is also the call to Jesus’ followers: take up the cross and follow.

In addition, you might start probing the significance of rewriting the Passover ceremony around Jesus, such that the “ransom saying,” (the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many) is illustrated in the meal. The body of Jesus is given in order that we might be set free and might become the New Covenant people of God. Taking and eating is our participation in [the people of] this deliverance.

All this from some combination of Matthew and Mark, perhaps with a little Paul thrown in if I’m honest.

But what’s going on in Luke?

One thing, at least, is definitely different in this telling of the story of the supper itself. A cup is passed before the bread.

Another interesting choice Luke makes is to put the disciples’ dispute about greatness here. Whereas in Mark this happens on the way to Jerusalem, after a passion prediction, Luke locates the fight in the upper room after they’ve taken the Supper.

This is even more interesting in that Jesus’ response to the disciples here is part of the talk he gives them that culminates in the ransom saying. But Luke eliminates the ransom saying. He substitutes a more generalized call to imitate him, who is in their midst as a servant.

Finally, this is followed by another lesson from Jesus: the disciples are the ones who remain with him in suffering, and therefore receive from Jesus the same kingdom that Jesus receives from the father–its food, its drink, and its rule (you will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel).

What are we to make of all this?

First, Bart Ehrman has famously argued that the interpretation of the bread (“which is given for you”) and the “second cup” are not original to Luke, but later insertions to bring the passage into conformity with the other Synoptic Gospels.

Although the manuscript evidence for this is weak, it works really well with the passage as a whole.

With the removal of the ransom saying in particular, the idea of Jesus dying “for you” is muted, and the notion that Jesus dies as an example and in order to bring about a surprising sort of divine reign is drawn to the forefront.

By placing here the saying about Jesus as servant to be imitated, without ransom, participation in the supper is drawn more in the direction of finding our own lives drawn to self-giving service.

By following that with the definition of the twelve as “those who remain with Jesus in his sufferings,” and thereby receive the kingdom, the imitative note is struck even more forcefully.

Why take the cup? Why drink the bread?

Here, the most clear reason is to remember that Jesus received the kingdom through suffering, and that self-giving life in service of others is the call of discipleship.

Jesus, Judaism, and Us

Yesterday I posted some thoughts on the importance of Jerusalem in Luke. In particular, I was struck by the ways that the Gospel locates Jerusalem at the center of God’s plan for redemption–but also its destruction at the center of God’s judgment on those who reject the son.

And it struck me that this is a dangerous thing to say.

Christianity has a dark history of anti-Semitism, a recurring pattern of heaping special scorn on non-Christian Judaism, an ever-present temptation to enact against Jewish people what see as in imitation of the judgment of God.

So the question: Is it possible to recognize this component of the biblical narrative, even to confess its interpretation of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and withstand the dangerous theological ramifications that have plagued Christian history?

I think there is a relatively simple reading strategy that will allow us to be good readers and read in such a way that our life becomes an embodiment, rather than denial, of the gospel of the Kingdom.

When we read we have to place ourselves in the role of the presumed insiders. This does not mean the side of Jesus, who comes as a prophetic voice calling the purported insiders to a new vision of the work of God. It means to place ourselves in the positions of the Jewish leaders among Jesus’ contemporaries. It means to expect that when Jesus calls forth repentance that we are the ones going astray.

It means that when Jesus erects himself, his power, and his suffering, as the means by which God is calling their entire way of seeking to please God into question that this same Jesus, this same administration of power, and this same suffering stand as measures against which our own attempts at God-pleasing are likely being shown to be wanting.

It means that when Jesus erects himself, his power, and his suffering, as the means by which God is calling their entire way of reading and applying the Bible that this same Jesus, this same administration of power, and this same suffering stand as measures against which our own attempts at faithfully applying the Bible are likely being shown to be wanting.

If we can learn to read the Bible again, to hear it not as word to the other people who are getting it wrong, but to our own propensity for creating our Jesus-following after our own image, then the world around us will have nothing to fear. By recognizing that Jesus was, in fact, speaking a word of judgment to the people of God, we who claim to be God’s people confess that this is a word of judgment spoken not to them but to us.

Judgment begins with the house of God. And we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit of God indwells us as its house.

So yes, these words were spoken about them, to them. And that’s precisely why they come back upon us.

Faith and Doubt

In a letter to young man in college who had written to her about losing his faith, Flannery O’Connor had this to say:

I think that this experience you are having of losing your faith, or as you think, of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this. (The Habit of Being, 476)

What do you think: is an experience of losing faith something that does, or at least can, belong to faith?

Jerusalem & Judgment in Luke

I’d say it’s common fare to point out the centrality of the Jerusalem in general, and the Temple in particular, in Luke’s writing. The whole thing begins with Zechariah in the Temple; Jesus’ parents bring him to the Temple when it’s time for Mary’s cleansing sacrifices; Jesus hangs out at the Temple when his parents leave him behind in Jerusalem as a boy. Each of these episodes is unique to Luke.

The other side of Jesus’ life is rather Jerusalem centered as well, with the resurrected Jesus appearing in Jerusalem rather than Galilee and the early followers worshiping in the Temple during their early days. As the narrative unfolds, the story spirals out from Jerusalem, with the action always coming back to that community. They don’t always go to the Temple, but the city is important as a hub of early Christianity.

In light of that, I find it fascinating that Luke takes a couple of steps to ensure that we don’t miss Jesus’ message of judgment on the city.

Luke  13:33-35 ties together Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, its praising of him at his arrival, their rejection of him, and the city’s destruction.

Jesus expresses a yearning to gather the children of Jerusalem, “but you would have none of it.” And so, he says “Your house is left desolate.” What house? Perhaps it is simply a metaphor indicating that the people of Jerusalem will be killed; perhaps it is an allusion to the house of God, being deserted by the divine presence.

Either way, Jesus shows up in Jerusalem as an agent of prophetic judgment. This part of the passage has always intrigued me. He says, “You will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

In Matthew, this saying material is placed in Jerusalem, while Jesus is teaching in the temple. Jesus had already been welcomed with the words, “Blessed is the one who comes…” and so this word of judgment is stored up for the future. Perhaps that time of acclamation is something that the community could look forward to in hope.

But in Luke’s Gospel, the prognostication is made in ch. 13, and the triumphal entry occurs several chapters later. In this way, the refusal to be gathered by Jesus comes together with their welcome of him into the city such that their affirmation of his divine mission becomes part of Jerusalem’s witness against itself.

Why is your house left to you desolate? Precisely because the one whom you acknowledged to be a blessed messenger of Israel’s God you then rejected and had crucified.

Incidentally, I think that this meshes quite well with the charges Peter lays out before the Jewish audience in Acts 2: God did great things and witnessed to this man Jesus, but you rejected him and handed him over to be killed.

You had enough to know his divine mandate, and you still rejected him. And this is why you must repent (Acts 2). This is why judgment is coming (Luke 13).

Luke 19 is where we hear the crowds taking blessing of Jesus to their own lips. While Jesus enters Jerusalem they say, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

In step with the pathos of Luke 13, here in Luke 19 Jesus weeps over the city: “If only you could see the things that make for peace! But they are hidden from your eyes!” Being gathered to Jesus as king makes for peace, but Jerusalem’s children were unwilling to be gathered.

And the result?

“Days are coming when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side!” (Luke 19:33, NRSV).

While Matthew and Mark have the cursing of the fig tree as an allegorical hint about the coming destruction of the city and/or Temple, Luke removes the fig tree episode and inserts this instead. No beating around the bush here. Jesus comes and lifts his prophetic voice to declare that the coming destruction of Jerusalem by Rome is a consequence of their rejection of the blessed king who has come.

One more change that Luke makes to his Markan source puts the final punctuation on this word of judgment. Where Mark 13invites his readers to interpret the cryptic saying that Daniel’s abominating sacrilege is standing where it should not, Luke spells things out.

When should those in Judea flee to the hills? “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (Luke 21:20-21).

The destruction of Jerusalem is, for Luke, the great post-script to the ministry of Jesus. Paradoxically, Jerusalem is the epicenter both of the life-giving gospel message and the judgment that ensues for those who will not acknowledge that God was at work in Christ.

Evangelicalism: McKnight Clears the Bases

Over at Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight has banked his response to the Christianity Today essay on Al Mohler. The article spurred my own thoughts about the future of evangelicalism earlier this week (Manifesto, & addendum).

Here’s the heart of McKnight’s post:

Here’s my big point:Evangelicalism is changing. What used to be called “fundamentalist” is now occupied by the word “evangelical” and we have in the case of Mohler a genuine fundamentalist — and I’m using this word analytically and not derisively — who is reshaping evangelicalism because he’s reshaping the SBC… What we also are witnessing is the end of generous evangelicalism, what I often call Big Tent Evangelicalism that has been noted by a coalition of gospel-oriented people.

This is the concern that I expressed in my follow up, when I argued for conviction without sectarianism. The challenge of keeping space at the table for a broad coalition of gospel confession Christians is not one that this new evangelicalism is interested in pursuing.

Quite the contrary, those with powerful voices of leadership, who are fighting for the term, are interested in making the evangelical world smaller. And those with moderate positions aren’t interested in fighting for anything. But if we don’t care, we also will have no right to complain when there is no more space for us in North American evangelicalism.

As I quipped to a colleague, who said she wasn’t concerned about the conservative activists such as the Al Mohlers of the world: “Neither were the moderate Southern Baptists in 1982.”

Thanks for adding your voice to this, Scot. I think that what’s happening is a pretty big deal.

The Righteousness of God (4 of 4)

Sorry to keep you in suspended animation on the Piper v. Wright thing. I promised 4 posts, ended up splitting post 3 into two, and never came back around to part 4. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3a, Part 3b).

I promised that part 4 would be some sort of summary, like “Why nobody cares about this in NT scholarship.” Let’s see what I can do on that front.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “What do you mean nobody cares? Isn’t a Piper vs. Wright debate the main event at the Evangelical Theological Society in November.” To which I would say, “Yes, and that’s just my point.” Maybe you’ll see what I mean by the end.

Several years ago, fall of 2007, I was part of planning a conference on Paul for Emergent-like people. As the New Testament scholars sat around chatting with more church and theology oriented people, we were talking through what we wanted to cover, how we wanted to approach Paul. Just batting around ideas, someone said, “What is the angle? New Perspective?” To this, one of the Paul scholars said, “No, I think we’re pretty much post-New Perspective now.”

Three years ago, New Testament scholarship had already moved on. And that doesn’t mean that 2007 was the year we decided to leave it behind. It means that Sanders had broached the issues in the late 70s, Jimmy Dunn had codified them in an early 80s lecture followed by his late 80s Romans commentary; Wright had written Climax of the Covenant that worked through some of the key texts, and so by the end of the 90s scholars had worked through the issues taken what they were going to take left what they were going to leave and moved on.

Enter the church (bless its heart) 15-30 years later, all excited and agitated over these new developments.

In some ways this makes sense. People outside the academy are often unaware of the programmatic nature of an argument being advanced in a 1,000+ page commentary, for example. But when Wright publishes a 120 page book on Paul in his accessible prose, and directly challenging many long-held ideas about justification, imputation, righteousness, and the like, then it is much easier for the ideas to spread broadly.

So what has the academy done with all this while the church was doing productive things like feeding the hungry and preaching the good news?

First, I think it is fair to say that in the academy in general Sanders’ view on Judaism is assumed. What I mean is this: people approach early Judaism assuming that it was not crassly legalistic, and therefore approach Paul as though he is trying to describe Christianity in contrast to what a modern religious scholar would call an accurate, Torah-centric Judaism, not in contrast to some degraded legalistic version that had lost its moorings.

I would also say, in general, that people see Judaism as an ethnic description; that is to say, it is a way to describe a people that includes their religious practices, but that also carries a host of other, at times equally important, connotations.

I’ve been talking with some folks recently about why religious studies scholars have started calling “Jews” “Judeans.” They’re telling me that the point is that Ioudaioi carries a host of “ethnic” connotations not limited to religious beliefs and practices. This ethnic move was the direction Dunn advocated when he started talking about “works of the Law” as ethnic boundary markers.

With respect to Paul himself, the New Perspective helped clear the ground of theological readings that were insufficiently attuned to the eschatological (or what Martyn calls “apocalyptic”) interpretations.

Once Judaism is not described as a gross degradation from pure OT biblical religion, one has to come up with another reason for Paul’s stark contrasts between “the Law” and “Christ”, between, “works of law” and “faith in Christ,” between “grace in Christ” and “works of Torah.” This has pushed New Testament scholars to see that Paul is only able to say what he says about the Old because of a new conviction about the New that was not possible before he met the resurrected Jesus.

So even though very few scholars want to get on board, wholesale, with Wright’s Paul program, the “New Perspective” debate as such is not a hot topic because some of the basic assumptions that separate the anti-NP people from Wright do not separate all that many people in the North American and British New Testament academy once you bracket out those conservative Evangelicals who seem to be arguing against the NP mostly to preserve traditional theological articulations.

Telling the story of the story-bound God