What Makes War?

April 8, 2014

War is mysterious behavior. This reflection comes as I read the third, massive volume on WWII in western Europe, The Guns at Last Light, by Rick Atkinson. What strikes me most is the sheer scale of that war. America and Britain mass literally millions of men, turning their entire economy over to producing weapons. Tanks are treated as though they are as disposable as Kleenex–any skirmish at all will go through 20 or 30 of them. For that matter, men are essentially disposable. Masses of them are thrown this way and that. In battle scenes of extraordinary confusion troops swarm like ants–and are killed and maimed like ants too.

On a smaller scale–say, Syria today–war is more-or-less understandable. People are fighting for their homes, or for their clan, or to create some kind of ideological space in their own town. There is some direct connect between what they are doing and their aims.

And maybe you could claim the same for many of the participants in WWII–especially the British and the Russians who defended their homes from invasion. But the Americans? Or for that matter the Canadians? It takes an extraordinary idealism to go to war for democracy–not in your own home, but in a country thousands of miles away, across an ocean. Those men who died like ants–what an extraordinary thing, that they would drop all pretense of personal autonomy or individual hope, and submit to be part of a slaughter-or-be-slaughtered mass. What an extraordinary thing for a country to turn its entire economy–its production of cars, socks, furniture, toys–to supporting the exercise.

I do believe it was right. When I read about Germany I thank God those in charge were violently stripped of their power. But when I try to conceive of it–when I imagine myself like my father, willingly converted into a nondescript unit–it’s very difficult. When I try to imagine America, now so fraught we can’t even agree to fix our roads, putting everything behind such a cause, it’s equally hard to conceive.

Yet! I know from all of history that war is the one cause that can inspire and unite a nation, and that gives individual men a sense of glory–whether or not it makes any sense. (Remember that the Germans were as motivated as the Americans, for reasons at least as abstracted from their lives.) Why? Somehow war reveals the perverse and dangerous greatness of humanity. It is not mere animal behavior at all. We know that animals prey on each other, but not en masse. The last time animals were observed in such behavior was Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” And that, of course, was only a movie. “The Birds” were really standing in for us.

Preparing for Palm Sunday

April 3, 2014

To prepare you for Palm Sunday, I offer this study of three psalms about The King. Take your time, these are not easy psalms to understand. I predict that your understanding of Psalm 45 will change forever.

The King
The psalms that translate easily into our modern life are personal cries: “help,” “thanks,” “praise God.” Others are not so easy to relate to–for example, those that call for judgment on enemies, those that remember the history of Israel, those that revere Jerusalem and the Temple, and those that revere the king.
The king is crucial to Israel’s hopes. The psalms make it obvious that Israelites think not only individually, as we do, but as a nation. The king embodies their national identity. In that simple fact, you have the kernel of the expectation of the messiah. For “messiah” is simply another way to say, “king.”

Psalm 132
1. In 1-9, what is David (the great king) remembered for? Why is this significant?
2. From the prayer of verse 10, what can you speculate about the situation that propels this psalm?
3. What promises of God are remembered in 11-18? Which are for the king? Which are for the nation?
4. How is the king’s welfare related to the nation’s welfare?
5. If Jesus is the promised Messiah, how does this relate to us?

Psalm 2
1. What is the problem presented in vv. 1-2? Does this have any contemporary reality?
2. What are the kings of the earth calling for?
3. What is God’s response?
4. What has God done? What will he do?
5. What is his relationship to the king of Israel?
6. What should the kings of the earth do? (Note that they can maintain a continued existence.)
7. Has anything changed from the time this psalm was written to today?

Psalm 45
1. What is the occasion of this psalm?
2. In the description of the king (vv. 2-9) what strikes you most?
3. Does it seem odd that the king is addressed as God and that his throne is said to last forever? (v. 6a) Is this just highfalutin’ rhetoric?
4. If the description of the king is climbing higher and higher, why does it end with the gold-decked bride? (v. 9)
5. What advice for the bride on her wedding day? (vv. 10-11) Is that good advice? Why or why not?
6. What is the bride told her future is like? What has she done to deserve this?
7. What New Testament passages does this illuminate for you?
8. In particular, what does it say about the church as the bride of the messiah?

Two Kinds of People

March 25, 2014

As somebody once said, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

When you read the psalms, you encounter the first kind of people. It’s a mindset quite at odds with the modern assumption that everybody is a mixture of good and bad, all behavior is on a spectrum, and you should never judge anybody.

I’ve been reading the psalms trying to understand the architecture of their thoughts, which is a way to unmask the architecture of my thoughts. The psalms were written within a very ancient culture very remote from us. Yes, some of it has flowed down through the transmission of Bible-based religion, but a lot has not. There’s some truly alien material, and perhaps nothing more alien to our times than the treatment of the righteous and the wicked.

Really, people don’t use words like that any more, or words like them. If we refer to “bad guys” we do it elliptically, or maybe ironically. We take pleasure in the “bad guys” on our TV shows and movies. We don’t think they are real.

Possibly if we lived in Syria today, we would think differently. Perhaps even if we lived in a really rough neighborhood, we would know that there are good people and bad people. However, we generally don’t see them at all. As several people in my Bible study group pointed out, we are likely to see the “wicked” as portrayed in the psalms–heartless, cruel–closely aligned with the behavior of some corporation executives. But we don’t talk about them as wicked leaders, or others as righteous. The terminology is repellant to us.

“The righteous and the wicked.” Is there any place in our modern vocabulary for words like these? Should there be?

As I’ve studied the psalms, I’ve had several surprises. One is, everybody is a mixture of good and bad. At least, nobody stands up to close scrutiny as perfectly good.

Yet the alignment of righteous and wicked stands, and it is an important frame for looking at the world. The psalmists often claim–while asking God to help–that they are the good people who have not betrayed God or their neighbors. And they also claim that they know who the bad people are.

Another surprise is that, though God is often called on to punish the wicked and vindicate the righteous, there are few signs that he does so in the present. What seems to stand in the present is God’s presence. He knows his people. He watches closely what goes on. He is a presence in the life of the righteous, and they are attentive to him. (In Psalm 1, they delight in the Torah.) Whereas the wicked think God is nothing to worry about. Their destiny will, at some point, catch up with them. Either they will be caught in their own traps, or (what may amount to the same thing) God will judge them.

Therein lies the chief distinction: how the righteous and wicked attend to God, and where their pathway leads. This may be a subtle difference. Perhaps looking from the outside, one could not even be sure of it. But it is a crucial difference, and in the long run it will show itself so.

In case you are interested in this subject, here is a Bible study that my group used last Sunday. You are welcome to copy it and pass it along.


The Righteous and the Wicked

We are accustomed to thinking of people in shades of gray. Nobody is all good, nobody is all bad. For the psalmists, and for the Bible writers in general, however, there is a fundamental division between the righteous and the wicked. The two kinds are at odds with each other, and ultimately God is on the side of the righteous and will destroy the wicked. How do we gray thinkers understand this?

Psalm 1

  1. What does the blessed person not do? Why?
  2. What does the blessed person do? Why?
  3. What is the law (Torah) of the Lord? What does it mean to delight in the law? Why should it be the key mark of the blessed person?
  4. The opposite of a well-watered tree would seem to be a drought-stricken tree. How is chaff different?
  5. How does v. 5 explain/illustrate that? What can the wicked not do?
  6. According to v. 6 what is God’s role?

Psalm 10

  1. According to v. 1, what is God’s role? Does this accord with 1:6?
  2. The description of the wicked in vv. 2-11 is very strong. What strikes you most?
  3. Do you know anybody who meets this description? Where in the world might you expect to find people like this?
  4. Does verse 11 accord with v. 1? What is the difference?
  5. What, according to the psalmist, does God do? List the activities attributed to him.
  6. According to verse 18, what is the aim of what God does? What does this say about God’ interventionist goals? How closely does he want to be involved in everyday affairs?

Psalm 11

  1. Assuming the NIV is right, that vv 1b-3 quote a skeptic, what is this skeptic’s view of the righteous and the wicked?
  2. What is God actually doing?
  3. What will God do?
  4. What does it mean that God is righteous? (v. 7)
  5. Given what we have discussed, what does it mean that he loves justice?
  6. What is the reward for the righteous?



Philemon Bible study

March 19, 2014

In case you are interested, here is a one-shot Bible study on Philemon. It can inspire some serious discussion about how to bring social change.

Questions on Philemon

Philemon is a remarkable little letter, providing the best window we have into the mind of Paul as he confronts the institution of slavery. The unavoidable question with Paul, regarding slavery or male-female oppression, or indeed regarding Roman imperialism over Israel (and every other nation), is why he seems to support these systems by encouraging slaves to be obedient, wives to be submissive, and citizens to respect the government. And yet, this same man wrote, more than once, that in Christ there is no slave and free, male and female, Jew or gentile, Greek or barbarian. How does he put that together?

1. As usual Paul begins with prayerful thanks. (4-7) Is there a theme?

2. What is Paul’s relationship with Philemon? What can you piece together of their history?

3. What is Paul’s relationship with Onesimus? How did they meet? What is his present role in Paul’s life? What are some of the key words Paul uses to describe his feelings for Onesimus?

4. What has been Onesimus’ relationship with Philemon? What has happened between them? What might Onesimus expect from Philemon as he goes back to him at Paul’s behest?

5. What does Paul say he wants to see happen between the two men? What exactly is he asking Philemon to do? (see v. 15-17)

6. Paul says he could order Philemon to obey him, and given what we know about the sense of obligation people felt in Roman society, that seems likely to be true. But he chooses not to give orders. Why not? A man’s life is at stake.

7. Is Paul for or against slavery? Is there any indication that he wants to destroy slavery? Any indication that he could tolerate slavery? What does Paul want regarding Onesimus’ status as a slave?

8. What end result does Paul seek in this 3-cornered relationship of Onesimus, Philemon and Paul? Practically, what social positions will they hold? And, more deeply, what kind of feeling relationships will they have?

9. If you asked Paul how to change Roman or Jewish society, what would be his answer?

10. What would Paul think of democracy?


How to End Slavery

March 14, 2014

Last week I went to see 12 Years a Slave, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s a harrowing portrayal of slavery in the American South. One of the galling features is the repeated church services in which Paul’s instructions to slaves to obey are read. Although there seems to be some historical exaggeration in the movie version–Master Ford was, according to the real Solomon Northrup, an exceedingly kind master–there’s no question that those verses were  regularly repeated to slaves. Their Christian sensibilities were used to control them.

For those who see Christianity as inherently conservative and repressive, Paul’s views on slave obedience are of a piece with the whole. For those of us who understand Christianity as fundamentally liberating and pro-justice, those verses are a puzzle–one that I, for one, generally prefer not to think about.

Any close reading of Paul will show that he is not actually pro-slavery, any more than he is anti-woman or pro-emperor. For example, he tells the Galatians that “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith…. There is neither slave nor free… for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3:26-28, also Colossians 3:11) He warns slave masters not to threaten their slaves, for both slave and master serve a Master in heaven “and there is no favoritism with him.” (Ephesians 6:9, also Colossians 3:25) In 1 Timothy 1:10 he puts slave traders in the same list with murderers, the sexually immoral, liars and perjurers.

If slaves and free are all one in the Messiah; if God shows no favoritism one over another; and if trading in slaves is the worst kind of immorality, then the highly hierarchical Roman way of thinking about slavery (and many other things) is undermined, to say the least. How can you own your brother or sister? How can you sell them? Tom Wright says that Romans could no more imagine life without slavery than we can imagine life without electricity–it was the way things got done. Yet there is clearly subversion going on. And it goes on even more powerfully whenever the church gathers. For, walking down the Roman street on the way to the ekklesia, the difference between slave and free is a chasm like the Grand Canyon. But once inside, there is no difference. They sit together, eat together, pray together, lay hands on each other, learn together as complete equals. They would never do this outside, but they always do it inside. When you have that kind of experience inside the church, how can you help thinking differently about the slave or master who walks out with you and down the street? In class-ridden, honor-obsessed Rome, the ekklesia was a revolutionary institution.

Yet Paul, while showing no respect for slavery, equally shows no interest in overthrowing it. Even if he thinks institutional change is impossible, he could at least betray the wish. He doesn’t. He tells slaves to obey, in very strong language. He tells masters to treat their slaves well. If they both do what they are told, slavery may last forever.

Is Paul conservative, then? Well, no. He believes that the present world is being turned upside down, and that it is being replaced by a new order that is ruled by the Messiah. In that order there is no slave or free. The God who freed the slaves from Egypt is not going to leave some of them in slavery in Rome’s outposts. All slaves will be freed under the new government. The question is, how do you get from here to there?

I think it is fair to say that Paul’s attention is focused on what happens within the ekklesia. It seems as though everything happening outside of that fellowship is just a passing and ephemeral reality for him. He, Paul, goes to prison unjustly, some of his friends are tortured or put to death, there are shipwrecks and famines and other mishaps, but he can barely be bothered to talk about all that because he wants to talk about the church. When its members are fighting or mistreating each other, that is a disaster worth discussing at length.

So Paul is miles away from our present-day approach to change. He believes in change completely, but seems disinterested in change that is based on institutional or coercive power. He believes in change that is implicit in the Messiah’s execution and resurrection, that has begun within the walls of the ekklesia, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit, that will spread as those walls open out to cover the entire world. Not to mention that the Messiah will come back to call out those ekklesia to himself and then, with them, to rule.

That vision of change is precisely the pattern we see in Philemon, in which Paul writes his old friend in a letter carried by that friend’s runaway slave, Onesimus. Onesimus has become a Christian, and (in the process?) a very precious aide to Paul. But there is this little matter of his legal status. Paul sends him back–what courage and trust Onesimus shows, to go carrying the letter. Paul wants Philemon to free Onesimus and send him back to Paul unfettered. (Alternatively, he might want Philemon to give Onesimus to Paul, whereupon Paul would free him.) But that legal transaction–which Paul never actually mentions–is not at the urgent heart of Paul’s appeal. He wants the slave and his master to become brothers, exactly as Paul and Philemon are brothers. He begs Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “as you would welcome me.” (v. 17) He wants them to become partners (v. 6)–as unthinkable a relationship for slaves and masters as anyone could name. He wants them to share in the ekklesia.

And interestingly, he also himself longs to have that kind of relationship with Philemon. For just as a master controls his slave, so Paul, as Philemon’s benefactor (“not to mention that you owe me your very self” (v. 19)), could in Roman society order Philemon to do whatever he asks. He will not make that power play. It would be simpler and more direct, but it would bypass the more needful thing: love. (v. 9)

What about us, today? Can we, in the name of Christ, work to change institutional injustice? As reformers can we fight modern-day slavery, with its allies in sex trafficking, police and courtroom corruption, labor abuse? I feel sure Paul would say yes. For one, we are no longer in the Roman empire. Political power is widely democratized, and there are laws protecting human rights. “If you can gain your freedom, do so,” Paul advises slaves in 1 Corinthians 7:21. As opportunity is given to do good, we are certainly meant to do it. Regarding slavery, Christians did. It was abolished. A little late, but nonetheless.

All the same, Paul’s theory of change ought to challenge us to think bigger. We tend to think that practical and institutional reform is the only way to bring change. But Paul would surely want to enlarge our hopes.

After all, social reformers (many of them Christians, or inspired by Christian ideas) have been working hard for hundreds of years. Have they made progress? Yes. Are there signs that we will ever–let alone soon–reach our destination? No. We will never become the society we are meant to be by that route.

Paul’s grand hopes shine through his letters repeatedly. He believes in the coming kingdom of Jesus, and he knows he has been called to help found the ekklesia that presage it. That ekklesia in principle contains the material both for reform–for its members have their ideals stretched upwards and outwards–and something ultimate. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters….Just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man…. We will be changed. ‘” (Romans 8: 28, 29; 1 Corinthians 15: 49-52)

Small Light

March 12, 2014

“It is easy to feel hopeless, but Syrians who were once an occupation army controlling Lebanon are now needy refugees in Lebanon, and Lebanese Christians have swallowed their resentment to serve them. This is God’s people growing to be more like God. It is a small light in the darkness.”

–Frances Fuller, publisher in Lebanon, asked about her hopes for the Middle East since the Arab Spring.



The Future of Books

February 28, 2014

In the February 17 & 24 edition of The New Yorker George Packer has a long, well-reported piece on Amazon and its impact on books. It’s an article every book junkie will love, full of angst over the future of book publishing, independent bookstores, and mid-level authors who need support (big advances) to do their work. Also lots of publishing gossip, some quite juicy.

The internet in general and Amazon in particular have greatly disrupted book publishers and bookstores. Packer contends that the highly secretive Amazon never thought that much of books in the first place, but saw the book industry as an opportunity waiting to be plucked, a gateway into internet commerce (and a rich database of customers). Amazon always wanted to be the everything store, and books were merely a convenient place to begin.

The thing about books was that they store well and are easy to ship, and there are far too many of them for any physical location to stock. Thus the internet is a far more efficient vehicle for selling them than are bookstores. (Even though the internet will never match the cozy environment that the best bookstores offer. But what are you buying, books or atmosphere? Amazon bet on books.)

The thing about publishing was that it was too comfortable. There was a lot of inefficiency. Book prices were padded, salaries were padded, expenses accounts were padded, Manhattan office rents were padded, egos were padded. It was ripe for serious challenge, or so Amazon thought, according to Packer.

One can blame Amazon for the changes in bookselling and publishing, but in my opinion Amazon simply accelerated the inevitable. The internet is a more efficient way to distribute books, and bookstores were bound to suffer. The publishing industry has, quite apart from the internet, been under competitive pressures that have led to huge consolidation, increased fascination with blockbuster bestsellers, less interest in editing, less loyalty to writers who are developing their craft, and other crass aspects of modern publishing that may be blamed on Amazon but are fundamentally part of the corporatization of publishing.

Nevertheless, Amazon has been and continues to be a force that has aided and abetted the decline of bookstores and of publishing, and these are surely to be regretted.

However, there are two other parties involved: readers and writers–and arguably, they are the parties that matter.

Start with readers. As a reader I love Amazon. I don’t buy many books for pleasure, I get them from the library. But in my work I am often buying books that would be practically impossible to find at even the best bookstore: books on biblical studies, history, philosophy, obscure and out-of-print books. I find them easily and instantly from Amazon. I also use Amazon as a tool of reference to see what is available on a particular topic. I send gifts of favorite books to family and friends–a huge savings of time, since I don’t have to go to the bookstore and the post office. When I travel, I load up my Kindle with e-books, some free, some not, so that I can have a small library available without breaking my shoulder every time I have to carry my suitcase upstairs. As a reader, I love Amazon.

Some people worry that an Amazon book universe is a flat universe, with uncountable books published with nothing to distinguish them:  no thoughtful editors selecting and promoting the best books, and few critics publishing book reviews enabling us to find and buy the best. So, they suggest, it will be a vast plain in which good books simply disappear in a swamp of self-promotion and drivel. I’m not sure. There are some pretty good blogs already reviewing books–my niece Jenny Brown, for example, publishes shelflove.wordpress.com in her spare time, check it out. And with the enhancement of peer-review sites like goodreads.com there are a lot of eyes out there reading and commenting. Also, the prize committees–Pulitzer, Booker, etc.–seem to be as active as ever and there are new prizes every time I turn around. The situation is far from perfect but I don’t think it’s hopeless, either. I still manage to find good books to read, don’t you?

As a writer, my feelings are more ambiguous. The destruction of the publishing industry and the bookstore industry has meant that my book sales are down. I don’t write blockbusters or best-sellers. (Wish I did.) For books like mine there’s little money for marketing, and anyway, marketing is now dominated by self-promotion on social media. If you’re good at this–and some authors are very good promoters–it’s all to the good. For me it’s more a disaster. I dislike self-promotion, and I don’t care to spend my life on Twitter. If a tree falls in the forest, is there any sound? That’s a parable for my books on the open market.

Also, I love good editing, but it’s become a very scarce commodity. Though truthfully, I’ve never found it very plentiful.

On the other hand, digital publishing in general and Amazon in particular have freed me from the gatekeepers. I found this very helpful in publishing Birmingham. I couldn’t get agents, let alone publishers, to read a single chapter. I think it was because my track record included several novels that didn’t sell. (You never really know why you don’t get a response to your emails.) In earlier times, Birmingham would have been put in a drawer and never seen again, until the grandchildren cleaned out the house. But I was able to publish it for minimal expense. I’m very proud of it. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written. I’m glad that it’s available for people to read.

That is what writers ought to want, more than anything. Money is great, and celebrity is naturally desired, but a writer’s ambition has got to begin with the desire to be published. There’s a great line at the end of “Babette’s Feast,” the film based on the Isak Dinesen story: “Throughout the whole world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best.” For Babette, you may recall, that involved cooking one great thanksgiving meal for an audience that had no taste in food at all.

I gain some solace from the reminder that in the history of civilizations, there have been few times when a writer could make a living as a writer. Even as late as the nineteenth century some of the really astonishingly great writers scraped by on poverty wages or depended on their family. (George Eliot, for example.) Book publishers were also booksellers and they were hardly authors’ friends. Yet great literature was written, and great literature was published.

(So was drivel. In Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now Lady Carbury’s writing abilities are described as follows: “She could write after a glib, commonplace, sprightly fashion, and had already acquired the knack of spreading all she knew very thin, so that it might cover a vast surface. She had no ambition to write a good book, but was painfully anxious to write a book that the critics should say was good.”)

Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely grateful that I make a living as a writer. I am also grateful that I have been able to invest significant time and money in research, for The Adam Quest most recently, thanks to a good advance and the support of a foundation. Without time and money for interviews and research, some books just can’t be written. If publishing ends up utterly dominated by Amazon and its kin, those who make a living as writers will be those who are good at self-promotion and write books for wide audiences (romance, anyone? parenting?). Others will have to make a living in another way, by teaching, for example.

I would hate to have that choice put to me. But–do you know any poets? I do. They have been operating by these rules for all eternity. And there are some extraordinary poets.


Paul’s World: #3 Quotations from N.T. Wright

February 25, 2014

 Here are more quotes from N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. These have to do with the symbolic world that the apostle Paul sees as replacing the symbolic world of the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus.

Theology itself plays a new symbolic role in Paul’s worldview. It takes the place, within his revised worldview/symbolic universe/social imaginary (or whatever we want to call it), that had been occupied by more tangible things in the world from which he came.  [352]

First, the Temple….You are the temple of the living God, he says,: not to the Philippians he loved so much, not to the Thessalonians in the midst of their suffering and danger, but precisely to the recalcitrant, muddled, problem-ridden Corinthians. This is not, in other words, a sober judgment based on the noticeable holiness, or gospel-inspired love or joy, of this or that ekklesia. It is simply, for Paul, a fact: the living God, who had said he would put his name in the great House in Jerusalem, has put that name upon and within these little, surprised communities, dotted about the world of the north-eastern Mediterranean. Unless we are shocked by this, we have not seen the point. [355]

Their point was not so much that the old Temple was corrupt or wicked, though those who were running it might be, but precisely that the one God was doing the new thing he had always promised…. This, I believe, is at the heart of the theology of Acts itself, in which Jesus himself has become the place where, and the means by which, heaven and earth are brought together, so that the Pentecost-scene in Acts 2 takes the long-awaited place of a second-Temple scene in which Israel’s God comes back at last to live with and among his people. [356]

The holiness of the ekklesia comes to be, in itself, a central part of Paul’s positive symbolic world, and here is the reason: this community is the transformed new reality to which Paul saw the Jerusalem Temple itself as the advance signpost. [357]

…Paul’s point was not that there was anything wrong with the original promise or symbol. Far from it. When you have arrived at your destination, you switch off the engine and park the car, not because it has not done its proper job but because it has. It is eschatology, not religious superiority, that forms the key to Paul the apostle’s radical revision of the symbolic world of Saul of Tarsus. [367]

The final Jewish symbol to be examined here…. is scripture itself. ….Though scripture was of course put to many different kinds of use by the many varieties of Jewish life in this period, one central strand of these uses was to see scripture as the great, controlling story through which Israel understood its own existence: to see it, indeed, as a story in search of an ending, an ending whose shape and content would not be in doubt (the fulfillment of the promises, the coming of the Messiah and so forth) but whose conditions and hence whose timing, were open not just to doubt but to centuries of agonized searching and questioning. [373]

…Paul’s always-astonished awareness that when he worshipped the God of Israel he now knew that this God had a human face, that he had lived a human life and died a human death. The resacralization of the world begins with Jesus.

But it doesn’t stop there…. whereas the Stoic aimed at living “in accordance with nature,” what Paul envisaged was a radical transformation of “nature” itself–human nature, and the entire cosmos–by the powerful indwelling of the divine spirit. [378]

It turns out that some of the greatest, most central themes of Paul’s deepest teaching–those to do with Jesus the Messiah as the revelation of Israel’s God, as the place where God’s people were summed up and their story brought to fruition, as the one before whom, now, every knee was summoned to bow–grew visibly out of Jewish traditions; they were not, in other words, invented to match or to square off against, the imperial rhetoric. And yet they did in fact confront that imperial rhetoric at point after point. Jesus is “son of God”; he is “lord of the world;” he is “savior;” the worldwide revelation of his rule is “good news,” because through it “justice” and “peace” are brought to birth at last. He is the one who “rises to rule the nations.”

…As far as I can discover, one of the extraordinary innovations in the imperial claims of the Caesars was the production of a “salvation-history,” a thousand-year narrative designed, like the new streets in Ephesus, to lead the eye inexorably upward to the imperial glory. All those years of the republic were a preparation for… this! For the first time, the great Jewish narrative which had lain at the heart of the worldview of Saul of Tarsus, and still lay at the heart of that of the apostle Paul, found a story which matched it, so it seemed, and backed up its claim with an impressive public record. Paul does not mention this story explicitly, any more than he speaks of the imperial claim made by coins, statues and other obvious imagery. Yet we should not ignore the subversive nature of the retold Jewish story which undergirds so much of his writing. If this–the story of Adam, Abraham and Israel, climaxing in the Messiah!–is the grand narrative of the creator’s design for his world, then the grand narrative of Virgil, Horace and Livy, and the visual symbolism which went with those writings, cannot be true, or the ultimate truth. [382-3]

We are simply asking the question: what were the main symbols, and symbols-in-action, of Paul’s newly envisaged and constructed world? And we are about to find, large as life, on the basis not of a theological a priori but simply by asking this question, scratching our heads, and looking around, that the primary answer is the ekklesia: its unity, holiness and witness. [385]

The Messiah’s people are a single family, and must strain every nerve to make that a reality that goes all the way down into their hearts and minds. The way they will do that is by allowing the Messiah’s own “mind,” as worked out in his own astonishing career-path of “giving up” status and rights, to shape their own. [390]

Christian America

February 24, 2014

This excerpt from historian George Marsden’s latest book is worth reading if you want to understand the Christian right. He traces in a fairly brief fashion how an apolitical group became, during the Reagan era, highly politicized. The most interesting part, I think, is his analysis of how the Christian right mixes an absolutist puritanism with classic liberalism–usually without acknowledging or perhaps even understanding that the two streams do not really fit together. Thus the rhetoric may sound scarily autocratic, but actually works to defend certain freedoms. This rather dense paragraph sums it up:

The complex heritage of the evangelical religious right, as shaped, among other things, both by biblicist bornagain revivalism and broader principles developed during the eighteenth-century American enlightenment, helps to explain some of its paradoxes, apparent contradictions, and blind spots. The biblicist side is often absolutist and militant, invoking stark choices between serving the Lord of Hosts or the Baal of secular humanism. The enlightenment heritage allows militantly conservative fundamentalists to in fact affiliate with the wide coalition represented in the Republican Party and to participate in the give-and-take of practical politics, despite all the compromises that inevitably requires. In the strict biblicist view, the American nation can be seen as having forfeited any claim to God’s blessings and as being under judgment for its open sins, so that the only hope is to trust in Jesus to return to set things right. But the enlightenment heritage tells the evangelical religious right that the American principles of civil freedom, self-determination, and free enterprise are the best there are, and that evangelicals can therefore unreservedly embrace the American civil religion and condemn anyone who questions that America has a special place in God’s plan. The strictly biblicist heritage fosters a rhetoric that sounds theocratic and culturally imperialist, and in which a Christian consensus would seem to allow little room for secularists or their rights. The enlightenment heritage means that the leading motif in their politics is the necessity of protecting freedoms, especially the personal and economic freedoms of the classically liberal tradition. So when members of the evangelical religious right speak about returning to a “Christian” America, they may sound as though they would return to days of the early Puritans; yet, practically speaking, the ideal they are invoking is tempered by the American enlightenment and is reminiscent of the days of the informal Protestant establishment, when Christianity was respected, but most of the culture operated on more secular terms.

Fox News!

February 15, 2014

Another milestone in life: I appeared on Fox News this morning, talking in an interview format with Michael Behe, one of the scientists I profile in The Adam Quest. I think it went pretty well: I didn’t drool, nod off, or forget my thought in mid-sentence.

Here’s the clip–almost ten minutes:



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