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Jesus Died So We Can Do “Good Works”: On Grace, Covenant, and Poor Protestant Biblical Interpretation

I want Covenant!

There was a short period of time between my graduation from Bible college and when my then-fiancé and I were to be married. Since I could no longer live in the dorms and couldn’t yet move in with my fiancé, this presented me with a bit of a dilemma. Thankfully, one of my favorite professors allowed me to temporarily live with her and her husband, since their grown children were off to college and they had spare bedrooms.

Growing up the only-child of a schizophrenic single mother, I never had to do chores. So, I remember how shocking it was when Dr. Reiger introduced me to the concept of family chores. One night after dinner she said something to the effect of, “T. C., you’re not a guest here anymore; you’re family now [said with a smile]. Now it’s time for you to learn our chore schedule, and it’s your turn.” (Also said with a smile).

What a powerful concept to someone like me! In a family, there are duties, responsibilities. I’d never felt that before, and it felt great! As a child I longed to be part of a family. So strong was my longing that I would risk my life for a sense of belonging in gang-life. What I so deeply desired was a family to whom I belonged and who belonged to me. What I would discover upon surrendering my life to Christ, was that what I so deeply craved was what the Bible calls “covenant.” Covenant isn’t just a contract between people, to be enforced by law if it’s violated. A covenant was a pledge of loyalty and fidelity from one party directly to the other party—no cops, no intermediary, no referee.  Covenant meant belonging, family.

Where is this concept in popular, American Protestant preaching? Absent. In far too much of our preaching “grace” is presented as a free handout given by a benevolent but supremely unaccountable deity who treats us as needy strangers panhandling on the street. God drops a dime in our cup and we’re to sing God’s praises until we die. This is how the “amazing” grace of God is portrayed. And if you baulk at such “grace,” you’re told you are too filled with pride.

Well, I’m okay with such accusations; I’ve been called worse. I don’t want a charitable handout from a detached, stranger god.

I don’t want cheap grace; I want covenant!

I want to be adopted into the family of God—the family in which God has a claim on me and I have a claim on God!

I want to be adopted into the family of God in which I have the confidence to boldly approach God’s throne of grace and make my requests—not as some pitiful beggar, but as a beloved son!

I want to be adopted into the family of God in which I can cry out to God, “How long will you let this go on, God?!” (Psalm 13; Revelation 6.10)

I want to be adopted into the family of God, given God’s chore list, put to work!

Those Dastardly “Good Works”

In far too much popular American Protestant preaching, “good works” are the foil against which “grace” is portrayed as “so amazing.” So disgusting are these “good works,” preachers tell us, that they are often described as an “enemy” of grace, the opposite of grace, as “prideful,” and so on. The apostle Paul helps us see that this is an unbiblical mistake.

8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

— Ephesians 2.8-10 NIV

How can Paul say that the salvation the Ephesians have experienced is “not by works, so that no one can boast,” and yet also say the Ephesians have been “created in Christ Jesus to do good works”? Isn’t that a contradiction?

Part of the reason this appears contradictory is because modern, American Protestants seem to have an allergy to historical and cultural context, not to mention the biblical narrative that forms the worldview out of which Paul lives, teaches, and proclaims the Gospel. A little context and knowledge of the biblical narrative sheds the appropriate light on this to avoid such an error.

The context many modern, Protestants are missing is what precisely Paul is talking about when he talks about “works” and “boasting.” American preachers make them out to be serving at church, or donating to charity. Or they are portrayed as being kind to people, working for justice in society. What horrible sins! Imagine if Christians were known as people who volunteer to serve, donate to charity, are kind to people, and work for justice in society. Instead, Christians in America are known as bigots, racists, hypocritical, and power-hungry. But at least we didn’t succumb to those horrible “good works”!

Paul has none of that nonsense in mind. What Paul actually has in mind are the specific “works” that mark off, over against all other human beings, ethnic Israel as God’s chosen (by grace) people. For a refresher on the biblical narrative that modern American Protestants desperately need, God launched God’s rescue plan of the whole creation (including all human beings) through the family of Abraham. That family would become ethnic Israel. Ethnic Israel was formed by a living pedagogy of liturgical rhythms and disciplines that marked them off from their neighbors (i.e. Gentiles). The ‘big three’ of these “works” were: 1) Circumcision; 2) Keeping Kosher; and 3) Keeping Sabbath. These were given to ethnic Israel by God to teach them God is holy and God’s people are to be holy too. For ethnic Israel to be used by God to rescue the world, God had to form them in God’s image (which was the plan from the beginning! More on this later)

But these pedagogical liturgies were never for “boasting.” They were never to give ethnic Israel as sense of superiority over and against “the nations” (i.e. Gentiles). Precisely the opposite, in fact. These “works” were to set apart Israel as the “light to the Gentiles.” It was by this formation, ethnic Israel was to become the microcosm of the new world God was birthing that would rescue humanity. And Israel did nothing to deserve this calling. In fact, God reminds them time and again, Israel was chosen not because they were particularly great—but because God is love. God chooses underdogs and does miracles through them so all the glory belongs to God.

6 For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 “The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt…

— Deut. 7.6-8 NIV

Israel’s calling to be the people through whom God will rescue the world is a calling of grace by grace. It is because God is love, that God’s love overflowed to Israel and through Israel to the rest of the world. Every time Israel falls into the sin of injustice it is because they have forgotten this calling of grace by grace. It is such “boasting” that Paul confronts, not serving or donating to charity.

Created to Do Good Works

In fact, it goes even deeper than this. God’s plan from the very beginning was that humanity would represent God in the world God created. Humanity was given a holy calling—a royal and priestly calling. On God’s behalf, humanity was called to reflect into the world God’s loving and sovereign reign. And on behalf of God’s good creation, humanity was called to gather up the praises of creation and sing them to God. This calling is both “royal,” in its reigning duties, and “priestly” in its liturgical and mediating functions. This is why over and over and over, scripture returns to these themes. This is precisely what is meant by the “image of God.”

And this is the “image” that Jesus restores. He is the One who perfectly reflects God’s loving reign into the world and perfectly mediates creation’s praises to God. He is the One who perfectly restores a broken creation into right relationship with God and itself.

Jesus is the Shalom-Restorer!

What does it mean to have the image of God restored in the Messiah? It means precisely what Paul teaches: It means that we cannot “boast” of being set apart from others by our calling—for our calling is for the sake of the world! Our calling is because God is love, and because God is love we are called by God’s grace. It also means that because we have been adopted into God’s family by grace, there are chores to be done. Those chores include, but aren’t limited to, serving one another, giving to charity, being kind to people, and working for justice in society.

These “good works” are what humanity was created for, what humanity was Re-created for in the Messiah, and why Jesus died.

Because we are adopted into God’s family by grace, we are given God’s Spirit to empower us to become like the God in whose image we were created and to fulfill our original royal and priestly calling. Like Jesus, we become Shalom-Restorers!

Jesus died so we can do “good works.” 

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The Stage that Divides Us: A Sermon on Luke 18.9-14

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is a parable of Jesus—perhaps a familiar one for many of us, perhaps not. On the surface, this parable is fairly easy to understand. But, today, you may see some themes from this text that aren’t so self-evident. You might see how you and I can live lives alienated from God’s love. And this state of alienation from God’s love leads to alienation within ourselves and from others.

Before I knew this text was the Gospel reading for this week, I had already been thinking about this state of alienation because of how it feels in America right now. Powerful forces of division are at work in our world. So, I believe this text is very timely and has a lot of important things to say to us today.

parable-of-the-pharisee-and-the-publican-basilica-di-santapollinare-nuovo-ravenna-italy-6th-centuryIn this text, Jesus tells a parable about two men praying at the Temple. The two main characters are very specifically chosen to be polar opposites with inherent conflict in their identities. One is a member of a group called the Pharisees. The other is one of many in Jesus’s day who have become tax-collectors for Rome. The two characters also represent these two groups.

The Pharisees were devout Jewish leaders in Jesus’s day. They had a particular understanding of how the Reign of God was going finally going to arrive in the midst of the present occupation of Israel by Rome—a foreign, Pagan, military empire. Their belief was that the only righteous response to God’s people being under the control of unclean Gentile overlords, was resistance through purity. If Jews in Israel would just maintain the purity of their Jewish identity by keeping the Mosaic Law meticulously, and especially remaining pure by not associating with ‘sinners’ like Gentiles or tax-collectors, then God would return to Zion in power through his Messiah and liberate Israel once again (like a new Exodus from Egypt).

But there were other Jewish approaches to the dilemma of Roman occupation besides resistance through purity. Other devout Jewish people felt equally strongly that the only way the Reign of God was going to arrive was if they met this invading, violent force called Rome with equal and opposite force. Only difference between Rome’s violence and the violence of these “Zealots” (as they were called), was that the violence of the Zealots was religiously-justified because “God is on their side”! (Ever heard anyone talk like that? I have!) Jesus Barabbas, the man who was released instead of Jesus of Nazareth on that first Good Friday, was this type of Jewish revolutionary—someone the Gospel authors say participated in a violent rebellion for which he was imprisoned awaiting execution when his life was exchanged for Jesus of Nazareth’s.

Then there were Jewish people whose approach to the Roman occupation was to compromise with them—even to get rich from their violent reign over Israel. That’s what a tax-collector was doing. I’m currently reading a book with New City’s men’s group in which the author compares first-century tax-collectors to modern-day IRS agents. That is an terrible misunderstand that makes me want to demand whatever seminary he went to give him his money back! First-century tax-collectors weren’t pencil-pushing bean-counters like IRS agents—they were ruthless extortionists who profited from the oppression of their own people! If you think that the Pharisees disliked tax-collectors the way we dislike paying our taxes, you don’t understand just how much of a betrayal it was for a Jewish person to become rich by taking even more money than a person owed Rome, under the threat of violence against their own fellow Jewish people. Tax-collectors weren’t like IRS agents at all. Tax-collectors were like gangsters who you had to pay protection money to, and you hated them because they were supposed to be your brothers! In fact, tax-collectors were so hated that the Zealots would often assassinate them.

Jesus chose these two types of Jewish men for his parable because their identities as members of their respective groups were in direct opposition to each other. They had polar opposite ideas about the Reign of God, their ruling Gentile overlords, and what righteousness looks like in response.

(This is a rhetorical question, so please don’t shout out any names of groups) Who do you think Jesus would choose for his parable if he were telling it to Americans today?  Without calling out any group names, think to yourself about who Jesus would have starring in his parable today?

There are dozens of fault lines in our society and world today, between groups who have as much hostility against one another as the Pharisees did with tax-collectors. It’s nearly impossible to tune in to any form of news or media without the headlines centering around the conflict between two of these groups.

Jesus’s choice of these two group representatives is very deliberate. Luke writes, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (v.9 NRSV) The Pharisees would fall into Jesus’s intended audience. They regarded tax-collectors as unclean “sinners,” formally excluded from the synagogue—the center of Jewish religious and social life. Pharisees regarded their way as the only righteous way.

So, what does Jesus do with this parable? He flips the script, of course! That’s what Jesus does!

It’s the despised tax-collector who throws himself upon the mercy of God who is counted righteous before God, not the self-righteous Pharisee!

This parable isn’t a challenge to those who you and I “regard with contempt;” it’s a challenge to us. You and I are in danger of considering ourselves part of the in-group, and those people we despise as part of the out-group. You and I have made up our minds who the “bad guys” are. You and I have already counted ourselves as part of the “good guys” group. And no one can tell us otherwise!

But Jesus’s parable challenges you and I directly, on how we view ourselves and our judgment of others.

Our view of ourselves and judgment of others is warped by something that may not be obvious in this parable. But a slight reframe might help us to see how this challenge applies to us, even now.

The setting of the parable appears obviously religious (the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem). But the setting beneath this setting is a Stage.

A place of worship like the Temple was a place where the focus is centered around God. But the Pharisee’s prayer betrays that he imagines himself as the main attraction, the star of the show. He’s putting on a performance.

Did you know that when Jesus called the Pharisees “hypocrites” in the Gospels, that term didn’t yet mean what it has come to mean for us today? “Hypocrite” was a term for an actor. It literally means “before the critics,” like someone on a stage performing for an audience. It describes someone who is putting on an act, or wearing a mask.

When Jesus calls out the Pharisees for being performers, he’s calling us all out! We’ve all grown up in a world where we’ve come to understand that people are watching us and judging us. So, in return, we watch them and judge them. We’re all critics and we’re all performers! We’re all hypocrites!

My friend Morgan Guyton is a campus minister in New Orleans. He recently wrote a book called How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. In a chapter called “Worship Not Performance,” he reframes the familiar Genesis story of humanity’s fall into sin as not about disobedience and punishment, but about the loss of authentic delight in God alone and the fall into self-conscious performance for God and others. He writes,

“Adam and Eve don’t gain the wisdom that the serpent promised as a result of eating the fruit [of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil]; the only ‘knowledge’ that they gain is the fear and shame of their nakedness. They receive the curse of self-consciousness, the death of innocent wonder, which turns a life of worship into a life of performance.” (1)

These two ways of living are in conflict with each other. We can’t live in authentic delight in God alone and also live in shame and fear, performing for God and others. What happens when we live in this performance mode, is that we become alienated from God, alienated from ourselves, and alienated from others. God calls out to us, “Where did you go?” And our only honest answer is, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” To which God asks, “Who told you that you were naked?” or, to put the question another way, “Who are these critics you’re performing for?

The fear and shame that comes from self-consciousness shows up in a lot of different forms. It can show up in self-righteousness like in the Pharisee in Jesus’s parable. For some people, it shows up in cynicism or self-destructive behavior designed to say to our critics, “You can tell me what to do!” Some people’s performance is in their morality. Others’ is their correct beliefs. Others in their correct political opinions (I’m sure no one here knows anyone who thinks they have the correct political opinions in this highly contentious election season). Others justify their existence through their aptitude, their productivity, their wealth, their status, or their celebrity. This life of performance under the critics is a curse!

Essena-ONeillNot too long ago, I heard of a young woman in Australia who got headlines for quitting Instagram, which to most of us is nothing newsworthy at all. But, what made it interesting to many people is that when she announced her decision to leave social media, she had over 600,000 followers. She had so many followers, that she was getting paid to post pictures of herself with products or in certain clothes. Here’s what she’s quoted as saying in one article I read, “I’m the girl who had it all and I want to tell you that having it all on social media means nothing to your real life … Everything I did was for likes and for followers.” “I was surrounded by all this wealth and all this fame and all this power and yet they were all miserable, and I had never been more miserable.” (2)

She was alienated from her own true self. She was wearing a mask, performing for her Instagram critics and dying inside. You and I don’t have to be Instagram models to understand what that feels like. We have our own ways we perform for the critics.

Let me ask you this: What does it profit us if our performance for God or others gains us everything we think we want, but the fear and shame of putting on an act cost us our very souls?

This performance life that we can live due to shame and fear not only alienates us from God, and alienates us from ourselves, it also alienates us from one another.

Part of the Pharisee’s performance is to heap contempt on the tax-collector as a way of reassuring himself that at least he’s better than someone else.

Did you know that “Satan” is not a proper name, but is instead a description of a role in a law court? Ha-Satan means “the Accuser”. It speaks of the person in an ancient law court who brings charges against another. When we heap scorn upon another person or group of people in a self-righteous attempt to justify ourselves, we are taking on the role of the Accuser. We have the attitude, or “spirit,” of the Accuser.

In the Genesis story of humanity’s fall into sin, Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they become afraid, ashamed, and hide themselves. Then God asks them if they’ve eaten of the fruit and their immediate response is to start accusing others. It’s Eve’s fault; it’s the serpent’s fault; it’s your fault, God!

The Performance Game we play when we live in the fear and shame of self-consciousness, “before the critics,” leads us to the Blame Game that divides us from one another. That’s why Jesus has the Pharisee self-righteously say “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (v.11)

forbidden_fruitThe curse of self-consciousness that we live under not only alienates us from God because we feel afraid and ashamed so we hide from God—and it not only alienates us from ourselves because that fear and shame leads us to perform for God and others, wearing masks, and seeking to justify ourselves—it also alienates us from one another because we use the knowledge of good and evil to judge and accuse one another. Self-consciousness and the compulsion to perform leads to accusation and division.

(Again, this is a rhetorical question, so please don’t shout out any names) What are some of the divisions we can see in our society, and our world today, that come from us judging and accusing one another?  I’m sure we can all think of several.

Recently, I began reading a new book by a pastor named Jonathan Martin called How to Survive a Shipwreck. In it, he talks about his own experience of “shipwreck”, when he had to step down from leading the church he planted and pastored for several years because of a moral failing. In one section of the book, he talks about how for so long he thought of himself as above such a failing, like it could never happen to him. He judged others and thought himself pretty righteous. But he discovered through his own shipwreck that we’re all in need of God’s mercy—like the tax collector in Jesus’s parable. Here’s what Martin writes,

“One way or the other, through illness, divorce, calamity, or death, we will be stripped away from the things that made us feel other than/apart from our fellow humans. And life itself will plunge us into the sea of our own shared humanity.

Ideally, the primary function of religion will be to loose us from our illusions of individuality and self-reliance and deliver us from the toxic fruit of ego development. But instead of equipping us to avoid the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we make entire religions out of worshipping around the tree instead. Rather than breaking down the illusory boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ insiders and outsiders, sacred and profane, religion often underwrites these boundaries, reinforces them, gives us a sense of being good guys over/against the bad guys. Instead of subverting the lie of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ religion is often a tool to make us feel special, set apart. No wonder Jesus tells the Pharisees of his time, practitioners of these kinds of judgments, that they make converts ‘twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.’ ‘Us and them’ religion is poison to the soul, and it often takes a lifetime of humiliation to detoxify us from it.” (3)

One of the ways this parable hits me right in the gut is in how I think about those with different political opinions from mine—especially my fellow Christian sisters and brothers. The temptation to judge and accuse them has been strong this election year. I know I’m probably the only one. I read an article the other day that didn’t necessarily present the arguments for why someone would support alternative policies or another candidate, but it presented how our nation has become so divided culturally between those who dwell in small towns, suburbs, and rural areas, and those who dwell in cities. And it gave me some much needed empathy for my sisters and brothers in Christ who have a different outlook on things because of where they’re from. I recognized that my outlook is also colored by where I’m from, and we all need God’s mercy.

This passage also challenges me to think about the ways I perform for the critics. It caused me to really recon with the reality that I have some critics I’m performing for from my past. Part of my drive in life is to show them I matter—to justify my existence.

How does this parable of Jesus challenge you? Take a moment to process these two questions between yourself and God. In what ways are you playing the Performance Game? And in what ways are you playing the Blame Game?

Humanity has a serious problem. We’re born into a self-conscious world. We’ve all eaten the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and so we’re afraid, ashamed, we hide, and we accuse one another. As a result we’ve become alienated from God, from ourselves, and from one another.

The Good News in this parable is the solution Jesus gives to this experience of alienation. By God’s grace, we can exercise courageous vulnerability, by throwing ourselves upon God’s mercy, and humbly accepting God’s unconditional, transforming love. No more hiding! No more performing! No more masks! No more accusation!

When we do this, we are freed from self-consciousness to live in wonder and worship of God like a child freely dancing—without any concern for how they appear.  Morgan Guyton writes,

“When we’re performing for the critics, we are living the opposite of belovedness. Belovedness means living under the gaze of a God who watches us with such warmth that we stop worrying about what to do with our hands when we dance. That warmth, if we allow ourselves to embrace it, can fill our hearts with the true, genuine worship that we lost when we were children.” (4)

And Jonathan Martin writes,

“You were created in the image of God. Before you knew anyone or did anything, everything was in you necessary to live at home in divine love. However buried that image of God is within you, that part of you that knows what it is to be perfectly loved, held, and known—it is still very much there.” (5)

That’s how Jesus ends his parable: with the tax-collector, the “sinner,” formally excluded from Jewish religious and social life, “going home” right with God.

Today, we can all “go home” right with God. The Good News is that God is making all things new, recreating the world through Jesus and the Spirit. Jesus has made a way for you and I to be reconciled to God, reconciled to ourselves, and reconciled to one another. That experience of being rescued from the domination of self-consciousness and invited to participate in God’s Reign on earth is what we call salvation and what we celebrate in this meal we share together called the Lord’s Supper, or “Communion,” or the “Eucharist” (which means thanksgiving).

May this meal be our coming home today, freed from the watching critics to live under God’s loving gaze of grace. If you are willing and able, please pray with me.

Most Merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against you and sinned against one another,
in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole hearts; we have not loved our neighbors or our brothers and sisters as ourselves.
We humbly repent.
Just as your Son Jesus did, have mercy on us and forgive us;
That we may delight in your will and walk in your ways,
To the glory of your Name.
Amen.

__________________

  1. Morgan Guyton, How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity (WJK, 2016), p.10.
  2. Rheana Murray, “Instagram star quits social media, reveals her ‘dream life’ was all a sham,” Today (Nov. 4, 2015) [ http://www.today.com/news/instagram-star-quits-social-media-reveals-her-dream-life-was-t53721 ] (accessed Oct. 19, 2016).
  3. Jonathan Martin, How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help is On the Way and Love is Already Here (Zondervan, 2016), p.48-49.
  4. Guyton, p.15.
  5. Martin, p.70.
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More Wrightian than McKnightian: Where Exactly is the Kingdom?

20 Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17 NRSV)

Lately, the Kingdom of God has been the subject of much discussion in Christian theological scholarship and local churches. Two biblical scholars in particular have been at the center of this discussion, with two very similar but slightly nuanced views. Those two are Tom Wright and Scot McKnight. As is evident from their names, either of their views is -ight, but which was one is right? (See what I did there?)

Space and time constraints permit only a brief and perhaps reductionistic survey of both scholars’ views. However, my ultimate aim is not merely to survey their views, but to present my own. I hope to show where I see the reign of God present and its relationship to the church.

Let’s start with McKnight. In books like Kingdom Conspiracy, McKnight puts forth a proposal that we might call “ecclesio-centric.” He makes it clear that he does not find it biblical at all to speak of God’s “kingdom” activity outside the people of God. For him, God’s Kingdom is the church.

An ecclesio-centric model of the Kingdom has some appeal. It squares with a lot of Scripture. The people of Israel are often equated with God’s kingdom. And Paul often speaks very highly of the church, as the fulfillment of God’s purposes and plan (e.g. Eph. 1.23, 3.10, etc.).

However, Wright’s position also has biblical support. For Wright, Jesus is God’s-Kingdom-in-person. That is why Jesus preached the Gospel as “The Kingdom of God is near.” (e.g. Mt. 3.2; Mk. 1.15; Lk. 10.9, etc.) The church had not yet been established by Jesus’s death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit. And yet, Jesus’s presence was the supreme sign of the Kingdom’s in-breaking. What’s more, the Risen Christ continues to be present in the world by his Spirit, revealing Christ and manifesting the Kingdom.

So, therein lies the primary point of departure. Both theologians believe that the Gospel is the announcement and enactment of the Kingdom of God. Both theologians believe that Jesus, the Spirit, and his church are central to that enactment. But there is a slight nuance in how they would view the relationship between the church and the Kingdom.

Perhaps it’s relevant to state that McKnight, though he has become Anglican of late, has for many years been one of the most prolific voices in the U.S. for what’s been called “Neo-Anabaptism.” Both the Anabaptist and Anglican traditions centralize the church in the work of God. But it may be relevant that the Anglican tradition has been more comfortable with recognizing God’s work outside the church in common grace.

In a rare, constructive dialogue with a friend on Facebook, I suggested that maybe pnuematology would have an impact on this discussion.

If one views the work of the Spirit (e.g. illumination, drawing of people to Christ, manifesting shalom, etc.) as the same work that is theologically described as the “in-breaking of the Kingdom,” then the presence of the Kingdom would overlap with everywhere the Spirit can been seen to be at work.

Pentecostals and Charismatics have been talking this way for a hundred years, of course. Where the Spirit heals and delivers, the Kingdom is present. This is also backed-up by Scripture. Jesus correlated the miraculous power of the Spirit with the in-breaking of the Kingdom.

20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” (Luke 11 NRSV)

Where the Spirit is at work, Jesus claims, the Kingdom is breaking in.

Another factor that may influence one’s view on this subject is one’s conception of a kingdom. If one associates a kingdom with an institution, one is more likely to side with McKnight. But, it’s important to note that “reign” is a more accurate translation than “kingdom” for the New Testament concept.1

The “reign” of a king is much more than an institution or a group of people—it is also the ethos of that king, the values, and way of life embodied in the era of that king’s rule.

The ethos of God’s reign is pictured throughout the Bible as the presence of peace, justice, right relationships between people and God and each other, as well as harmony with God’s creation. The prophets often picture this as the end of war and violence, or as the end of predator and prey, or God’s presence as in the Temple, only everywhere (e.g. Is. 2.4, 11.6; Rev. 21-22). This vision of God’s reign is also encapsulated in the complex Hebrew word: shalom.

Wherever God’s Spirit is at work wooing, drawing people to Christ, reconciling people to one another, fostering restorative justice; manifesting God’s love in physical healing, emotional healing, providing for physical needs like hunger, thirst, safety, and freedom, God’s reign is breaking into this world.

The church has a critical role to play in this in-breaking. The church are those who gather in that shalom, give glory to God in Christ through worship, and bear witness. The church are those who embody the reign of God through our lives.

This is how the church serves as a ‘colony of heaven’ (Phil. 3.20). We manifest the in-breaking of God’s reign in our communal life. We also spread God’s reign in our proclamation and embodiment of that reign in the world. The church is to be a microcosm of what will one day characterize the whole world.

Here’s a concrete example: the Conversion of Cornelius’s Household

In Acts chapter 10, we read of a man named Cornelius who is a Gentile Centurion. (That’s two strikes). But to his credit, he is described as a “god-fearer,” which likely means he is a Gentile convert to Judaism or just a Gentile who keeps the Law of Moses. (Note: Even if he has been in-grafted into Israel, he is not yet a member of ‘the Church of Jesus Christ’). And yet, this man’s generosity and devotion are recognized by God (cf. 10.4b). God is at work in this man’s life. How can God be at work in his life? By God’s Spirit, of course. God’s Spirit is the main character of Acts. The Spirit is the One through whom Jesus continues to be present to his disciples and to act in the world.

You know how the rest of the story goes: The angel who appears to Cornelius (who informs him that his devotion and generosity have been received by God) tells him to send for Peter. Meanwhile, Peter is getting a lesson from God about Gentile-inclusion. So that, by the time, Gentile messengers from Cornelius arrive, Peter is ready to go with them. Upon hearing the Gospel preached to them, Cornelius and his whole household received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was upon their reception of the Holy Spirit that Peter initiates them into the church by the sacrament of baptism.

Who would deny that the activity of the Spirit in Cornelius’s life was the reign of God breaking in? How did it happen? By the power of the Spirit. When does the church come into the equation? When Cornelius’s household hears the Gospel about Jesus and receives the Holy Spirit.

Let’s recap:

  1. God’s Spirit is at work everywhere in the world—even among those we would least expect (e.g. Gentile Centurions, etc.). God’s Spirit is drawing people to Christ, as evinced by the vision of the angel and the command to send for Peter.
  2. The preaching and embodiment of the Gospel by Peter is met by the reception of the Holy Spirit in those among whom God is at work. God’s reign is manifest in their midst.
  3. Then, those among whom God has been at work by God’s Spirit, manifesting God’s reign, are initiated into the church.

Therefore, the church is the culmination of the in-drawing work of the Spirit in the world, and the front lines of where God’s shalom-making reign is found.

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  1. basileia (transliteration of the Greek) means: royal power, kingship, dominion, rule—not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom; of the royal power of Jesus as the triumphant Messiah; of the royal power and dignity conferred on Christians in the Messiah’s kingdom.
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Bible Translation as Political Power Move: Social Location and the ESV

I’m currently teaching a three-part seminar among the congregation I serve on biblical interpretation. This is my second time teaching it. This time around, I couldn’t resist adding a few new slides and pages to the introductory section on translation. The occasion for this revision are the recent decisions made by the translation committee of the English Standard Version (ESV) translation of the Bible. I find them to be incredibly serendipitous, since they afford me the opportunity to show participants a powerful and relevant example of how not to translate the Bible.

Back in August, the ESV translation committee issued a statement declaring that they had completed the task entrusted to them by God of translating the Bible. They announced that there would be no more changes made to the ESV, ever. They called this the “Permanent Text.” As you can imagine, in many people’s minds this decision sounded eerily familiar. Was the ESV translation committee pulling a King James?

“The decision now to create the Permanent Text of the ESV was made with equally great care—so that people who love the ESV Bible can have full confidence in the ESV, knowing that it will continue to be published as is, without being changed, for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come.

The number of changes in the new ESV Permanent Text is limited to 52 words (out of more than 775,000 total words in ESV Bible) found in 29 verses (out of more than 31,000 verses in the ESV). […] Thus, with the work of translating the ESV Bible now completed, we would give our work back into the hands of the Lord […]” (1)

I only learned of the ESV Permanent Text when a Christianity Today article was shared by a friend on Facebook. Since Facebook is an infamous venue for satirical articles like those from The Onion or the new Christian satire site The Babylon Bee, I read the article’s headline and laughed out loud. “Since when does Christianity Today write satirical pieces?” I thought. But the headline wasn’t a joke. “After Tweaking 29 Verses, Bible Translation Becomes Unchanging Word of God.” (2) Here’s the humor: the word “translation” necessarily means that the product cannot be the unchanging word of God. So, even if inadvertent, the headline is incredibly ironic. And yet, what the article details is no laughing matter.

“One of the changes the ESV translation committee made, which they were making permanent, was a revision of Genesis 3.16. Christianity Today reported: “Genesis 3:16 was changed from “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” to “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” (3)

Scot McKnight was the first Evangelical theologian I read who addresses this translation choice.

“…in this final revision they have sneaked in a translation that is not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong. […] I refer to Genesis 3:16’s use of “contrary to” for the Hebrew el. In the Permanent ESV we have “contrary to” while in the Protestant-like Semper Reformanda ESV we had “for” with “and.” […] This translation turns women and men into contrarians by divine design. The fall means women are to submit to men and men are to rule women, but women will resist the rule. This has moved from subordinationism to female resistance to subordinationism. […] If I read the ESV aright, there is prescription here: women are at war with their men; men are to rule their wives. It is not description but prescription.” (4)

One of the things I teach in my seminar is that who is doing the translating matters. No one reads, interprets, or translates the Bible objectively. Each of us is necessarily and irrevocably subjective. Every person has a “Social Location.”

In my seminar, I projected a slide with photos of each member of the ESV translation committee and asked this question: Notice anything odd?

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How do you think the fact that every member of the translation committee is a white male Complementarian affects their translation choices? Their race, gender, and presuppositions about gender roles affects their translation of the Bible exactly as you’d expect it would.

A few scholars even found their entire sentiment regarding translation laughable and incredibly arrogant.

“Finally, this whole enterprise smacks of incredible arrogance. For a committee to say that they have done the work of translation and that there is no room to improve or change their product means that they think of themselves as infallible translators, creating a “new standard” as the KJV once was. For them to say “Thus, with the work of translating the ESV Bible now completed, we would give our work back into the hands of the Lord…” is to use spiritual language to couch the fact that they think of themselves more highly than they ought to and have falsely given themselves this high honor. Perhaps there will arise a generation of ESV Only people, but in this case they will need a lesson or two on scholarship, textual criticism, translation, and humility.

It’s a disgrace to use God’s name and his honor to promote this translation as a final word. God is not honored by that “gift.” We can only wait to see if the ESV establishes itself as the literary and cultural icon that the KJV became and is—but we strongly doubt it.” (5)

Less than a month after issuing their statement that the ESV would never change again, the committee released a statement completely reversing their course. They apologized for the mistake of trying to make a “permanent text,” but they didn’t comment at all on the verses in question. They simply admitted that translation is a task that is never-ending.

“We have become convinced that this decision [to make the ESV Permanent Text] was a mistake. […] [our goal] …we now see, is not to establish a permanent text but rather to allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.” (6)

Some Evangelical leaders have applauded the ESV translation committee for this reversal. I’m seeing a lot of that lately. A group of white men with horrible judgment defend their horrible decisions against all opposing opinions and when a critical mass of people are convinced they are wrong, they reverse their decision with a surface-level apology and people applaud them as if they are morally courageous.

Let me be clear: the ESV translation committee has done nothing worthy of praise. Nothing. They have horrible judgment and made a horrible decision and when they were sufficiently condemned and ridiculed for it, reversed their decision to what it should have been all along. That is the opposite of commendable; it’s shameful.

They have done nothing to date to address direct insights like those offered by McKnight that their translation is dangerously wrong. Nothing. Zero. Nada.

I refuse to applaud a bunch of white men who conspired to use their power and privilege to influence millions of American Christians toward their view of gender roles using their significant publishing resources and distribution networks, and when they were embarrassed, decided to walk it back …some. Nope. Not praiseworthy. Shameful.

The ESV is not an example of a pious offering of scholarship unto the Lord. The ESV is a political power move made by white men fighting the culture wars against their foes, the “progressives.”

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  1. ESV Translation Committee, “ESV Permanent Text Edition (2016)” (accessed August 20th, 2016)
    [ https://web.archive.org/web/20160820002244/http://www.esv.org/about/pt-changes ]
  2. Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “After Tweaking 29 Verses, Bible Translation Becomes Unchanging Word of God,” Christianity Today (September 9th, 2016) [ http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/september/after-tweaking-29-verses-bible-esv-english-standard-version.html ]
  3. Ibid.
  4. Scot McKnight, “A New Stealth Translation: ESV,” Jesus Creed (September 12th, 2016) [ http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/09/12/the-new-stealth-translation-esv ]
  5. Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon, “A Permanent Text of the ESV Bible?
    They Must Be Joking,” Domain Thirty-Three (September 13th, 2016) [ https://domainthirtythree.com/2016/09/13/a-permanent-text-of-the-esv-bible-they-must-be-joking ]
  6. ESV Translation Committee, “Crossway Statement on the ESV Bible Text” (accessed September 12th) [ https://www.crossway.org/blog/2016/09/crossway-statement-on-the-esv-bible-text ]
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Hetero-planty: New Calvinism and Church Planting in Boston

There is an observable phenomenon taking place in America’s major cities that has to do with a particular theological perspective dominating and perverting the church planting enterprise, causing destruction wherever it goes. The theological perspective is New Calvinism (more on what that means shortly). And the destruction it causes is multifaceted, but some of which entails: a distorted picture of God, subordination of women, perpetuation of white supremacy, and spiritual abuse. These alone should give the broader church in America cause for alarm, but many don’t have the vision to see its destructiveness. So it has been allowed to take over.

I’ve been calling attention to the destructiveness of this movement for well over a decade. But only now are a few more voices stepping forward to join me. I welcome the added attention this phenomenon is attracting, but lament that it has taken this long. In particular, I find it outrageous that has taken long enough to allow these church planters to cause the destruction they have in precious urban communities I love. Which brings me to the city of Boston.

Urban Ministry in Boston

My family and I moved to Boston in 2005, after evacuating from New Orleans due to hurricane Katrina. After several years of urban ministry in New Orleans, we lost nearly everything to the storm. We had to almost completely start over in Boston. But, we took the opportunity God afforded us in Boston to build a new life and pursue God’s call on our lives. I enrolled in seminary and we became members of a small but wonderful Baptist church in Cambridge. It was through the wise and loving leaders and members of that church that I became connected with many other wise and loving Christian leaders in Boston—many of whom were (and still are) connected to the Emmanuel Gospel Center (hereafter EGC).

EGC factors prominently in this story because of their unique perspective on this phenomenon. EGC has been serving the church in Boston since at least the 70s, and by “the church” I mean the entire body of Christ in Boston—Catholic, Protestant; Conservative, Liberal; Complementarian, Egalitarian; Charismatic, Ceasationist; Orthodox, Heterodox; Asian American, Hispanic American, Latino American, African American, etc. etc.. EGC is a ministry in Boston that strives to serve every part of Christ’s Body. This is important detail because who gets to decide who is counted as part of the Body of Christ is an important part of this story.

As I settled into seminary and my family settled into life in Boston, I vividly remember how difficult it was to gain the trust of long-time Boston residents. Those who have been born and raised in Boston and those who have generations of family members from Boston, are a breed like none other I’ve met. They are keenly suspicious of the hundreds of thousands of outsiders who invade their city each year to consume its historical and educational bounty and then retreat to their respective regions with the trophy of a Boston education. They are also incredibly adept at recognizing inauthenticity. A mentor-professor in seminary told me matter-of-factly that it would take five years before Boston feels like home and others begin to accept me as part of their city. I laughed then, but it proved far more true than I could have imagined.

This complexity—the complexity of a living, urban system like Boston—is one of the primary things I was taught in seminary by veteran urban ministers like Dr. Doug and Judy Hall, Jeff Bass, Dr. Eldin Villafañe, and Dr. Soong-Chan Rah. They taught me that all cities, including Boston, are living systems that are better approached like a surgeon than a mechanic. Mechanical things can be taken apart, examined, and put back together without damaging the system. But living systems cannot be treated that way. Cities are more like a cat than a toaster.

And yet, not everyone gets this kind of teaching about urban ministry in seminary. Many, if not most, Conservative, “Evangelical,” seminaries in the United States treat urban ministry no different than ministry in rural or suburban areas. And, these seminaries emphasize the teaching of doctrine and apologetics over systems thinking or even community development—to say nothing of critical race theory or sociology or social psychology! Knowing this, it was no surprise to me that when “church planting” became a hot trend among young, mostly white, 20-somethings to 30-somethings, the approach they took was mechanical and doctrinal. Here’s where New Calvinism comes in.

New Calvinism and Church Planting

Around the same time that “church planting” as a systematic enterprise, economically-advantageous to denominations and “church planting networks,” was taking off, another movement was also gaining steam: New Calvinism. New Calvinism is distinct from the “Neo-Calvinism” of such luminaries as Dr. Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Seminary, or even the “Neo-Calvinism” of Abraham Kuyper. New Calvinism could be more accurately called “Neo-Puritanism,” since it is more like a revival of Jonathan Edwards’s brand of Calvinism than Kuyper’s or even Calvin’s. While Calvin and other “Reformed” theologians have emphasized christology (doctrine of Christ), ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), and the sacraments (baptism and communion), these New Calvinists emphasize only soteriology (doctrine of salvation). There is even a crude little acronym for their succinct beliefs about how human beings are “saved”: T.U.L.I.P.—which stands for Total Depravity (people are fundamentally and inescapably sinful); Unconditional Election (so God chooses, before creation, who will be saved); Limited Atonement (therefore, Jesus only died to save the “elect”); Irresistible Grace (God’s calling of election is “effectual”, meaning it can’t be resisted); Perseverance of the Saints (Those whom God has eternally elected and effectually called will necessarily be saved, i.e. there is no “falling away”)

From over a decade of interaction with this camp and their beliefs I know that whenever someone catalogs their beliefs as I just have, the excuses and obfuscation begin. New Calvinists want to believe that they clearly communicate their beliefs and yet when you repeat back to them what they claim to believe, they often object to being caricatured. But, despite their protests, T.U.L.I.P. is no caricature whatsoever. Popular, best-selling authors, celebrity pastors, and conference favorites like John MacArthur and John Piper proudly proclaim it from their pulpits. It is taught as dogma in many, if not most, Conservative, “Evangelical,” seminaries. Conservative Presbyterians (e.g. the Presbyterian Church in America) affirm it; many, if not most, Conservative Southern Baptists (e.g. Dr. Albert Mohler) affirm it, and many other Conservative, “Evangelicals” affirm it. This theological perspective has even produced church planting “networks” like Acts 29 (among several others), that aren’t connected to any one particular ecclesial tradition, but are united by their shared investment in New Calvinism.

When this theological perspective started to become normalized in the American church and networks like Acts 29 began emerging as powerful players in American church planting, I warned of the dangers of their theology, but I was often told I was overreacting. But, today, I’m not alone in recognizing its danger anymore. One important contributing factor was the fall of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He was the poster boy for New Calvinism. He co-founded Acts 29; he was a (we were led to believe) best-selling author, and he was a favorite conference speaker. Many in the American church celebrated his rise to prominence. Then came the fall. Stories of spiritual abuse emerged from both women and men under his care at Mars Hill. Reports that he used church funds to purchase his own books to make them best-sellers. Reports of plagiarism also surfaced. Suddenly, all his macho Christianity didn’t seem so benign anymore. Suddenly, people started paying attention to his theology.

The presenting symptoms of New Calvinism are often associated with its low view and mistreatment of women. Unfortunately, once that’s ruled unacceptable, few ever probe deeper into the disease which produces those symptoms. I have consistently maintained that the kind of patriarchy that triggers red flags in so many is indicative of the New Calvinism that produces it. The unilaterally-controlling god conceptualized in New Calvinism is the very god that produces controlling pastors and husbands. The concept of “sovereignty” that New Calvinism promotes produces churches that embody the same hierarchical form of power. And the exclusionary and callous doctrines of unconditional election and double predestination produce the same exclusionary and callous practices in their churches. In New Calvinism, before creation was brought into being, God had already “sovereignly” chosen who will be “saved” and who will be “damned.” (Also, many, if not most, New Calvinists hold a view of hell as a literal place of eternal, conscious, torment.) Nothing a person does or doesn’t do in his or her life has any bearing on this decree from all eternity. If one’s choices did have some affect on their election, it could no longer be “unconditional,” and New Calvinists vehemently object to any hint of cooperation between God and humanity in salvation. So, this vision of a god who decrees damnation irrespective of any wrong-doing or righteousness is the starting place of their theology. This has serious ramifications for all other aspects of their ministry, such as gender roles and racial justice.

An aspect of New Calvinism that is rarely ever talked about is its perpetuation of white supremacy. New Calvinism venerates the slave-owning preacher Jonathan Edwards and tries to justify it by saying he was a “man of his time.” New Calvinists attempt so disconnect their doctrine from their practice, saying that there is no “genetic link” between New Calvinism and the doctrines that produce it, and oppressive practices like slavery and the subordination of women. But this goes directly against what the church has taught since Jesus, and what God revealed through Israel long before the church was birthed. A person is formed into the image of that which he or she worships. We become what we behold. Thomas Paine once wrote, “Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.” And this is what it means to be formed into the image of Christ by beholding the glory of God in Christ and Christ’s body (cf. II Corinthians 3-4).

Orthodoxy—worship that conforms with the Way of Jesus—forms people so that they carry out Orthopraxy—lives that embody the Way of Jesus.

Heterodoxy—worship that cuts against the Way of Jesus—forms people so that they carry out Heteropraxy—lives that are out of step with the Way of Jesus.

New Calvinism is Heterodoxy that produces Hetero-planty—church planting that is out of step with the Way of Jesus.

New Calvinist Church Planting in Boston

This brings me back to Boston and the New Calvinist church planting taking place there. Recall that a wise, veteran urban minister in Boston told me it would take five years before Boston felt like home and Boston residents began to trust me. He was right. And his understanding of urban ministry comes from sound understanding of how the Kingdom of God grows as modeled by Jesus. Jesus didn’t appear in first-century Palestine a grown man and begin preaching. No, the Incarnation entails deep connection with human life and society. Jesus grew up from childhood as a member of his community. He lived among us and experienced a full human life—including sorrow, suffering, and death. When he began preaching he was not an outsider; Jesus was an indigenous leader.

But so often New Calvinism produces leaders who care more about the dissemination of their doctrine than identification with those among whom they serve. One example of this is what has been called “parachute drop” church planting. This is when a church planter from an entirely different region (like the South) is moved to a very different region like Boston and begins planting a church immediately. This can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. A church planter coming from a region of the U.S. like the South, where Christianity is a more common part of public life, to a region like the Northeast, where pluralism is more celebrated and it is thought inappropriate to assume Christianity is the norm, can lead some church planters to believe that the Northeast is somehow in greater need than the South. In fact, it has led to some very negative stereotypes about Boston in particular—that it is overrun by ‘secular humanism’ and that the church is in decline. These sorts of stories are great for fundraising if you’re a church planter moving from the South to the Northeast. But it has been proved patently untrue and also smacks of racism. Allow me to explain.

Several church planters and church planting networks have targeted Boston for new church planting efforts. Boston is an understandable target considering it has such a high concentration of college students, many of whom are coming from other countries. So it’s naturally for church planters to see their mission as “reaching the nations” in a great city like Boston where the nations gather. However, when telling that story, the statistics these church planters draw upon are often highly biased and skewed to present a more bleak picture than is the reality. One church planter based his fundraising campaign in part on low church attendance statistics he culled from a research source that is known to be discriminatory. When citing the statistic that less than 2% of Boston residents attend church regularly, the statistic was flawed from the beginning because it discounted traditions that the researches did not think to include. Furthermore, it only included data from national, denominational databases, which are notoriously incomplete. Jeff Bass, Executive Director of EGC, has sat down with church planters who peddle these stats in their campaigns and tried to kindly correct them. EGC has been doing on-the-ground surveys of churches in Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline for decades. They have a far more accurate picture of what the church looks like in Boston. But, unfortunately, young, white, male and Reformed church planters don’t like to be corrected. They, like their god, are beyond questioning.

The reality of the church in Boston is nothing like the New Calvinists imagine. Rather than being a wasteland, it’s a well-spring of life. Literally hundreds of church plants have been formed from congregations within the city—without needing “parachute drop” planters. Rather than declining, the church in Boston has outpaced the population growth for the last 30 plus years. EGC calls this “The Quiet Revival,” because so often the churches that are growing organically from Boston locals aren’t white, male, or Reformed. So, they aren’t counted in the statistics that fuel New Calvinist church plant fundraising. Ethnic minority churches are rarely counted; churches in historically Black traditions like the African Methodist Episcopal church aren’t counted; Spanish-speaking, non-denominational or Pentecostal churches aren’t counted; and Roman Catholic churches definitely aren’t counted.

What a sad, narrow view of the broad, beautiful Body of Christ.

Some Concluding Thoughts

New Calvinism is the ideology behind many of the destructive affects church planting is having in Boston. There has long been a community of churches that have worked together to see God’s Kingdom arrive, across racial and denominational lines and with no regard for a minister’s gender. But, because of New Calvinism, many churches are not even being considered part of the Body of Christ because they are not “Reformed,” woman ministers are overlooked or worse, discredited, and white cultural dominance is perpetuated. The city of Boston deserves better! But until more churches and ministers have the courage to confront this ideology, the Gospel in Boston will continue to be associated with young, white, “Reformed” males who come from other regions. And much damage will be done to the church’s witness as a result.

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A Deeper Look at The Get Down: An Interview with Pastor Efrain “Brother E” Alicea

The Get Down is a Netflix series set in NYC during the late 70s/early 80s. It touches on many interrelated aspects of life in NYC during that time—from Disco to the rise of Hip Hop culture to political corruption. It also features a portrait of religious opposition to secular music in the form of Latino Pentecostalism.

Pastor Efrain “Brother E” Alicea grew up in NYC during that era, was immersed in Hip Hop culture, and his story also intersects with Latino Pentecostalism. So, in this interview, Brother E tells some of his story, reflects on the show, and shares about the ministry he’s doing with Elements Church in the Bronx.

Check out the interview:

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ToWayne Tantrums

Idolizing Greg Boyd

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Many years ago, two men named Tom Belt and Dwayne Polk (I initially elected to keep these men anonymous, but have been told they would consider it “brave” of me to name them, so I’ll oblige them) became enamored with a theologian named Greg Boyd. It’s easy to understand their admiration. Boyd is a brilliant scholar and an accomplished minister. And since their admiration was not only for Boyd’s theology, but also how he was applying it in the local church, they both moved to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area where Boyd’s church, Woodland Hills, was and remains. One of them even joined the church’s staff for a time, but later left the staff.

Of particular interest for these two men, was Boyd’s criticism of both Classical theism and Process theism in his 1992 PhD dissertation “Trinity and Process.” In this thesis, Boyd describes God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction”. (A phrase Tom and Dwayne have latched onto like it’s the Apostles’ Creed) This, Tom and Dwayne interpret as God’s “experience of imperturbable triune beatitude”. What this translates to is: God doesn’t experience any suffering or death in God’s self. Suffering or death cannot be attributed to God. God’s “bliss” in God’s self is never interrupted by suffering of any kind, not even sadness or pain over sin and injustice. Therefore, Tom and Dwayne abhor (for example) Moltmann’s theology of “God crucified.”

Homer_prancePart of their rejection of divine suffering is personal for these two. For different but similar reasons, each one finds it psychologically preferable to believe in a conception of God who does not suffer. Each finds it an indispensable part of their own personal psychological health. But another part of their rejection of divine suffering is their theological journey into Eastern Orthodox faith and belief. In this pursuit, they have adopted an interpretation of the patristic fathers’ theology that excludes divine suffering. Historical theology scholars continue to debate how much influence Greek philosophy exerted over the early theological development of Christian theology. And Open theists like Boyd (and many non-Open theists) have argued that Greek philosophy exerted undue influence on the development of early Christian theology, resulting in paradoxical statements about both “impassibility” and divine suffering. For Tom and Dwayne, there can be only one interpretation of patristic theology: Greek philosophy was right, and those streams of early Christian theology (or their interpretations of them) which embraced divine impassibility were right.

When Shattered Illusions Lead to Scapegoating

However, their project encountered a devastating blow a few years ago. Boyd, in his continued studies since 1992, came to repudiate his earlier rejections of divine suffering and began writing and preaching on God’s suffering and death on the Cross. Boyd was not saying anything new in Christian theology; he was merely teaching what Scripture reveals and other theologians interested in the liberation of the oppressed and God’s response to injustice have been saying for eons. Tom and Dwayne associated Boyd’s position with “Kenoticism” and were utterly heartbroken. Their idol had fallen. Or, as they put it, “stepped off the edge.”

Boyd steps off the edge — Part 1
Boyd steps off the edge — Part 2

Simpsons_wrathThis is the genesis of the current debate in which I’ve been implicated. I dared to defend Boyd’s position and have become the sole scapegoat of their wrath. They can’t take on Boyd, for obvious reasons, so they choose instead to vent their rage at me. They hurl insults at me because they continue to be disappointed in their theological hero who now thinks they are out to lunch.

Here’s their most recent attack against me.

In the process, these two have cut off direct communication with me and rejected any olive branch offerings of peace and reconciliation I’ve extended. Instead, they only mention me to insult me in their blog posts.

A few of the things this sad saga demonstrates are:

  1. The higher you place your theological heroes on a pedestal, the further they fall when they disappoint you. Don’t make idols of pastors or scholars; they’re human. God will shatter your illusions that any man (or woman) can fulfill the role only God should have in our lives.
  2. When you allow your psychological needs to drive your pursuit of theological truth, you will inevitably run aground of the biblical witness, reason, and even tradition. The truth is not subject to our desires for psychological comfort. Often the truth disrupts our comfort for our own good. When this happens, the emotionally mature accept the truth and adjust. The emotional immature plug their ears and bury their heads in the sand.
  3. It’s a tragedy when Christian men are willing to place their own egos before the call to peace and reconciliation. Tom and Dwayne profess faith in Christ yet have rejected all attempts at peace and reconciliation. Their profound sadness over the end of the their illusions about the perfection of Boyd’s theology has led to a breach of their ethical integrity.
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Calling Out Crypto-Nestorianism Among Wannabe Orthodox Evangelicals

There are many aspects of Eastern Orthodox faith and belief that are quite beautiful and there are many aspects of American Evangelical faith and belief that are quite ugly. So, I don’t begrudge anyone who has grown dissatisfied with American Evangelicalism’s utilitarianism, individualism, or dualism (for example) and longs instead for something more mystical, more rooted in the heritage of the Church. In fact, I too have grown in my appreciation for what Robert Webber called “Ancient-Future Faith.”

Nevertheless, for a few, this lust for the exotic faith of the Eastern church has degenerated into self-righteous doctrinal certitude and arrogance that has left them blind to their own radically unfaithful views of Jesus’s life and work. In other words, in their manic attempt to strain out the gnat of Evangelical shallowness, they have swallowed the camel of Christological heresy. Namely, these Wannabe Orthodox Evangelicals (hereafter WOE) have rejected divine suffering and in its place have resurrected a long-dead heresy called Nestorianism, repackaging it as “orthodox” Christology.

Nestorianism was a heresy condemned by the Church in the fifth century. It was a vain attempt to preserve the purity of the divine nature from such foul and ungodly experiences as suffering or death—(you know, that stuff Jesus did to save us). The way it does this is by separating the “human nature” of Jesus from his “divine nature”. If something seems to a Nestorian to be unfitting of God (because of their own presuppositions as to what is “fitting” of God) then that only happened to the “human nature” of Jesus. So, for example, only Jesus’s “human nature” died on the Cross. WOEs clutch their pearls at the thought of the divine nature suffering or dying. By no means! Their god is hermetically sealed off from ‘bad things’ like that. Their god is safely untouched by “human” suffering and happily pollyannaish. Their god is above all such circumstances, like a pampered aristocrat who holds his nose while passing a smelly homeless person.

But this aversion to the messiness of the Incarnate life of the Son of God is not “orthodox,” as Robin Phillips demonstrates. In part 5 of a series of posts about his exodus from Calvinism, Phillips destroys both Calvinism and Nestorianism at the same time! But, for the purposes of exposing the error of WOEs, attention will be focused on his destruction of what he calls “crypto-Nestorianism” (a very apt name indeed!). He writes,

“According to standard Chalcedonian Christology, it was not a nature that suffered on the cross (whether divine or human) but an actual divine person: the Word; the second person of the Trinity; God himself incarnate in the flesh.” [1]

Here’s where the blindness of the WOEs is exposed. While they scramble to protect the “divine nature” from suffering and death, the biblical witness is screaming that the Son of God died for sins! The Word became flesh and laid down his life for us!

“Natures” don’t suffer and die; Persons do!

Since Phillips is focusing on Calvinism, he critiques R. C. Sproul. But, contrary to the WOEs objections, the same criticisms are equally applicable to them.

“Sproul maintains that the second person of the Trinity did not die on the cross. In his book The Truth of the Cross, Sproul condemns the statement “It was the second person of the Trinity Who died” and adds “We should shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross. The atonement was made by the human nature of Christ.”

But we should not shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross because God did actually die on the cross. Human nature itself cannot suffer; only persons can suffer, and in this case it was the person of the God-man who suffered and was buried and rose again on the third day. To be consistent with his extraction of the God-man from the cross, Sproul would also have to say that Mary was not really the God-bearer, but that she simply gave birth to a human nature that was then used by a divine person in a determining fashion.

This radical separation of nature and person acts as a convenient buffer for modern-day Calvinists to separate God from the pain of the world, so that the Person of the Word is not actually experiencing humiliation on the cross, only an abstract “human nature.” The scandal of the incarnation and crucifixion that created so much discomfort for the Gnostics is equally difficult for Calvinists today. The Gnostics tried to solve the problem with a Docetism that detached Christ from materiality while Calvinists in the tradition of Sproul try to resolve the problem by a crypto-Nestorianism that sequesters the Second Person of the Trinity from the human nature going through birth and death (as Sproul says, “death is something that is experienced only by the human nature…”). However, extricating the human nature of Christ from the divine person, so that the central acts of the incarnation can be predicated of the former without touching the latter, denies the Nicene Creed’s explicit affirmation that it was “very God of very God” who was crucified, suffered and buried. The Second Council of Constantinople was even more explicit in affirming that it was “true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity” who was born and died on the cross.” [2]

Orthodox Christology proclaims loud and clear that the death of Jesus of Nazareth on the Cross is one and the same as the death of the Son of God, the Second Member of the Trinity. In the same way that Mary is the “God-bearer,” the Cross is where God died.

Here’s how one WOE responded:

“The question is whether these human experiences are attributable not only to this ‘person’ (all Orthodox agree they are) but also to this person’s divine nature, which the Orthodox do not do. If  the Son suffers humanly (in terms of his human nature), does it follow that he suffers in his divinity? If God dies in and as Christ, does the divine nature die? Does the unity of the person as subject of both natures require that we attribute to the divine nature all the experiences had by the Son in terms of his human nature (i.e., coming into existence, being nothing more than a zygote in gestation, being ignorant, suffering, dying, etc.)? No Orthodox would think so, and to accuse those who believe the person of the Son has divine experiences (in terms of his divine nature) transcendent of and so not reducible to his human experiences of asserting that ‘only his human nature and not his person’ is having these experiences is such a grievous misunderstanding of Orthodoxy it pretty much writes you out of the conversation.” [3]

This polemic is a smokescreen. Did you see the sleight of hand? It’s easy to miss. The same WOE had previously said this in the same post:

“As Robin rightly notes in his piece, ‘natures’ don’t have experiences independently of their subjects. It is ‘persons’ who suffer (or who are delighted, or what have you), not stand-alone ‘natures’.” [4]

There’s the contradiction.

Mary is “Theotokos” (“God-bearer”) because she birthed the Person of the Son of God, not because she birthed a “divine nature”. Neither did she birth merely a “human nature.” The birth that the Person of the Son of God experienced, was experienced by God—because the Son of God is God the Son. In the exact same way, contra-Nestorianism, the death that the Person of the Son of God experienced, was experienced by God—because the Son of God died and the Son of God is God the Son.

Or, as the Christian church has put it:

“X. If anyone does not confess that our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh is true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity; let him be anathema.” [5]

QED
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  1. http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxyandheterodoxy/2014/01/23/why-i-stopped-being-a-calvinist-part-5-a-deformed-christology/
  2. Ibid.
  3. https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2016/07/07/clarifying-chalcedon/
  4. Ibid.
  5. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.xii.vii.html

 

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Chemical & Idolatry: Reflections on a Jack Garratt Track and the Apocalypse of John

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

— David Foster Wallace, “This is Water”

Late last year, I fell headlong into the music of Jack Garratt. It started with his EP, Remnants, and continued with the release of his first full album, Phase. There’s too much to say about my love for his music. Suffice to say I find it enchanting.

Meanwhile, in my teaching capacity as a pastor, I’ve been immersed in the study of Revelation. Rather than charting the Great Tribulation, or attempting to decipher which rogue agent on the world’s stage is the “antichrist,” or some such quixotic project (as Dispensationalists are want to do), I’ve been teaching John’s Apocalypse using the cruciform-centric hermeneutic that has been developed by such scholars as Richard Bauckham, Michael J. Gorman, N. T. Wright, and Greg Boyd. I’ve also been learning from works by both David DeSilva and Brian Blount, who read it through the lenses of postcolonial empire criticism and the experience of the African American church in America, respectively. And I also have to give props to Brian Zahnd’s excellent teaching ministry via the Word of Life podcast. He’s spent some extensive time in Revelation in recent months/years and it has been highly formative.

A second lens through which I’ve been reading Revelation is pedagogical. For this I blame the works of James K. A. Smith—particularly his book Desiring the Kingdom, of which he has recently published a layman’s version called You Are What You Love. Smith has succeeded in shifting my focus as a teacher from the dissemination of information to the inspiration of imaginations for the purpose of spiritual formation. (Not that I’ve mastered this; I’ve still got a lot of pedagogical baggage to overcome.)

One of the unexpected discoveries I’ve made thus far has been just how much of Revelation is pastorally concerned with spiritual formation. This should have been more obvious to me, considering that the book is so clearly addressed to seven churches from their bishop. However, I’ve spent so much of my Christian life surrounded by those who read this book as a roadmap to the “end times,” that the pastoral value of the book has rarely been presented as anything more than its ability to predict the future.

This brings me to “Chemical” by Jack Garratt.

Phase has become the soundtrack to my life for the past several months. I listen to it in the car and I listen to it while I write sermons. “Chemical” is one of the tracks that has fascinated me the most. What initially captured my attention was this:

And when you pray, he will not answer
Although you may hear voices on your mind
They won’t be kind

And when you pray, he will not answer
I know this for I ask him all the time
To reassure my mind  

Naturally, my pastoral ears perk up when prayer is mentioned. But this is clearly not a positive assessment. I’m almost ashamed to admit I didn’t understand what this track was about until I watched the video—and then the brilliance of this track blew my mind.

John of Patmos does something unparalleled in the New Testament. Instead of writing in the didactic style of the epistles, which Evangelical Modernists love, or the narrative style of the Gospels and Acts, he writes in the apocalyptic mode of a Hebrew prophet. He writes a book that takes many of the things Jesus preached in his famous “Olivet Discourse” and expands them into something that resembles a Greek drama more than a sermon. Relentlessly paraded before the eyes of our imaginations is a graphic and often grotesque onslaught of nightmarishly disturbing pictures. But as the cruciform-centric hermeneutic has taught us, these images are not meant to be taken as a journalistic, if phenomenological, account of future events. Instead, they are symbols of realities as true today as they were nineteen hundred years ago.

The Seer’s primary pastoral concern is the vision of ‘the good life’ toward which these fledgling churches (and by extension our churches today) were living. Every day, in a thousand different ways, they and we are tempted to place our trust in a story that is not the story of Jesus’s incarnation, self-giving death, and resurrection. The story in John’s day was the “Pax Romana”; the story for many of us today is the “American Dream.” The way John combats this lie is with the truth that empire is beastly and to follow its way is adultery for the people whom God has redeemed. John gives his congregations a new imagining of what ‘the good life’ is all about. Instead of conquest as violent domination, conquest becomes giving faithful witness to God’s grace in and through Jesus. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Messiah Jesus, is revealed as the little, slaughtered Lamb who yet stands and reigns from the very center of the God’s throne. True power is not located in the military might of Rome’s armies but in the self-giving love and wisdom of God demonstrated on the Cross and in the Resurrection.

“Revelation does not contain two competing Christologies and theologies—one of power and one of weakness—symbolized by the Lion and the Lamb, respectively. Rather, Revelation presents Christ as the Lion who reigns as the Lamb, not in spite of being the Lamb. […] ‘Lamb power’ is ‘God power,’ and ‘God power’ is ‘Lamb power.’ If these claims are untrue, then Jesus is not in any meaningful way a faithful witness.” [1]

The New Heaven and New Earth is a vision the world gone wrong finally made right. It is a reimagining of the vision of shalom ubiquitous among the writings of the Hebrew prophets—not just some tranquil “peace,” but the world as it should be. This is the vision the churches are to be proleptically embodying now in part as a foretaste of what’s to come.

But, like a fish in water, we unconsciously swim in the current of our surrounding culture and the desires of our hearts are molded and shaped by our environment. We are indoctrinated into believing that ‘the good life’ is found in the acquisition of power, wealth, and pleasure. We surrender our agency to the pursuit of these ends and we become instruments of the powers that be. This is what the psalmist is describing when he warns that placing our trust in human-made idols numbs us to the life-giving Spirit of the Creator God.

The idols of the nations are merely things of silver and gold, shaped by human hands. They have mouths but cannot speak, and eyes but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear, and mouths but cannot breathe. And those who make idols are just like them, as are all who trust in them. — Psalm 135.15-18 NLT

Here’s how N. T. Wright puts it:

“You become what you worship: so, if you worship that which is not God, you become something other than the image-bearing human being you were meant and made to be. […] Worship idols—blind, deaf, lifeless things—and you become blind, deaf and lifeless yourself. Murder, magic, fornication and theft are all forms of blindness, deafness and deadliness, snatching at the quick fix for gain, power or pleasure while forfeiting another bit of genuine humanness.” [2]

“Chemical” is about the power we give our idols—with which they mercilessly destroy our humanity. The “love” idols have for us is the “love” of an abusive master. It is not a relationship of mutuality, interdependence, nor understanding; it is a relationship of utter domination. As David Foster Wallace put it, “[they] will eat you alive.”

My love is overdone, selfish and domineering
It won’t sit up on the shelf
So don’t try to reason with my love
My love is powerful, ruthless and unforgiving
It won’t think beyond itself
So don’t try to reason with my love

My love is chemical, shallow and chauvinistic
It’s an arrogant display
So don’t try to reason with my love

The apostle Paul famously describes love in a letter to the Jesus-disciples of Corinth. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you probably know at least this much Scripture.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. — I Corinthians 13.4-8 NIV

Our idols aren’t patient or kind; they aren’t self-giving or forgiving. Our idols demand subservience at all costs—especially the loss of our humanity.

The pastoral mission of John of Patmos is to inspire the imaginations of God’s people—to place before them the vision of the Lamb Who Was Slain—the only One worthy to reign in heaven—because he is the embodiment of self-giving love. The Lamb moves us to worship not because of some ‘shock and awe’ display of brute force. No, the Lamb moves us to worship because the self-giving love of God smites our hearts with a power that could never be possessed by tanks or bombs. The image of God being restored in God’s redeemed people is the vocation of serving as priestly rulers on God’s behalf, reflecting God’s loving reign into the world God loves.

The questions with which John of Patmos confronts us are of allegiance and trajectory.

What vision of ‘the good life’ is forming the desires of our hearts—the shape and aim of our lives—through the everyday practices in which we often unconsciously participate?

__________________

  1. Michael J. Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness Following the Lamb Into the New Creation (Cascade Books, 2011), p.139.
  2. N. T. Wright, Revelation For Everyone (Westminster John Knox, 2011), p.92.
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Prophetic Detox: A Review of Morgan Guyton’s book How Jesus Saves the World From Us

Morgan Guyton is a husband, father, writer, Methodist campus minister serving the students of Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans, and he also might be the inventor of the “rave sermon” [1]. I’ve been reading his blog, Mercy Not Sacrifice, for many years and a few years ago we took a run at starting an online collective of writers called “The Despised Ones”. Over all the years I’ve known Morgan, he has challenged and encouraged my thinking with both pastoral and prophetic wisdom. And he continues to do so with his first book, How Jesus Saves the World From Us.

In this book, Morgan takes on 12 of the most toxic aspects of Christianity in the U.S., which include, but aren’t limited to: performance, biblicism, separatism, judgment, and hierarchical power. While Morgan clearly approaches these subjects from firmly within the “progressive” wing of Christianity in the U.S., I was pleasantly surprised at just what an equal opportunity offender he was. There’s no doubt in my mind some of Morgan’s criticisms will not be well-received by his own progressive comrades.

For example, I remember when we were co-leading “The Despised Ones,” it was understood that anyone and everyone was welcome. That’s progressive Christianity 101, after all! Well, that didn’t last long. Even progressives have their own “unclean” communities: “abusers” and “unsafe” persons, are just a couple examples. So, quickly the discussion in our group shifted from how inclusive we were of anyone and everyone, to how there was no hope of redemption for “oppressors.” And few recognized the irony. That’s why I thought it was wonderful to read this passage in Morgan’s book:

“Jesus’ meal with Zacchaeus committed the cardinal sin of today’s progressive activist culture: centering the oppressor. Did Jesus betray everyone who had been oppressed by Zacchaeus by eating dinner with him? What would Twitter say? […]

The goal of Jesus’ solidarity with all sinners and victims of their sin is to dismantle our divisions so that all humanity can be reconciled together.” (p.116-117)

This will definitely offend Morgan’s progressive friends who will no doubt accuse him of revictimizing them. But Morgan demonstrates that he’s not interested in toeing any theological camp’s “party line.” He’s perfectly willing to call attention to the hypocrisy of both the Right and the Left! For this courage, I applaud him.

But that certainly doesn’t mean Morgan is unwilling to boldly confront the ubiquitous abuses of the conservative, Fundamentalist Right in the U.S.. He most assuredly does that. However, unlike other progressive Christian authors who have practically made this style of writing into its own genre, I think Morgan critiques this favored target with more pastoral sensitivity and personal reflection than usual. Morgan is nothing if not first self-critical. He locates himself directly within the demographic most often responsible for abuses of power, racial insensitivity, denigration of women, etc. Part of Morgan’s genius is using his own highly reflective journey as a guide for others who share his social location. He doesn’t stand outside and hurl stones at white, cis-gendered, straight males—he stands within that space and calls attention to his own failings and how he’s seen God’s grace transform him. This might actually be the only Christ-like way to challenge people who are like you in so many ways, but nevertheless hold a significantly divergent worldview. Two of my favorite chapters were “Worship Not Performance” and “Poetry Not Math.”

Redeeming Justification

In “Worship Not Performance,” Morgan reframes the essential human problem from guilt to self-consciousness. I think this is brilliant. Today, in the U.S., when I hear sermons or read writing that calls attention to God’s power to forgive the guilty, I hear chirping crickets. I’m not sure I ever felt “guilty” for my sins, and that certainly wasn’t what turned my heart toward God. Instead, I was chiefly aware of my alienation from God, from others, and even from myself. I felt like I was wearing a mask all the time, trying to live up to a mysterious and often shifting set of expectations. And I always felt like there was a gap between who I knew I was and who I was for other people. Self-consciousness is a better description of that experience than “guilt.”

White Westerners like “guilt” as a descriptor of sin because they like to conceptualize God as a judge who wants law and order above all. When you’re on top of the world in terms of political power and wealth, it’s to your benefit to conceptualize God as a “law and order” God. It keeps the riff-raff in check. But, if, as Morgan puts it, we have been “transformed from curious delightful worshippers into anxious, self-obsessed performers,” (p.8) then everyone on any spectrum of political power or wealth is implicated. In fact, the most “anxious” and “self-obsessed” people might be those who “break commandments” the least. Those who are most “anxious” and “self-obsessed” might even be those who are very religious and very wealthy. Such a reframe is not advantageous to the rich and powerful. It necessarily levels the sin playing field. And that’s precisely why I think it’s such a brilliant and biblical reconceptualization. Here’s a little taste to whet your appetite:

“We are not saved from God’s disapproval. We are saved from the self-isolation of believing the serpent’s lie and hiding in the bushes from God. Faith isn’t the performance that passes God’s test to earn us a ticket to heaven; it’s the abolition of performance that liberates us from the hell of self-justification and restores us to a life of authentic worship.” (p.17)

Another reason I love this chapter so much, is that it rescues the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith” from those who peddle it as a replacement for sanctification. There is a wealthy and politically powerful contingent of American Christians who love, love, love them some “justification by grace through faith” because it promises to free them from the “legalism” of “works.” What then happens is, “the Gospel” is equated with a message that we “don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation,” and everyone who already didn’t want to “do anything” erupts in joy. But Morgan’s reframe on this cherished Protestant doctrine actually ups the ante. There is nothing more challenging than to daily resist the pressure to self-justify and to perform for the expectations of others, or even ourselves. This take on justification by grace through faith actually requires me to daily relinquish my own nagging need for status, recognition, and value to God as a “work” that is far more strenuous than following some list of “dos and don’ts”. This reframe of justification makes sanctification essential rather than dismissing it as an optional addition to the Christian life. And that’s a message Christians in the U.S. desperately need to hear.

Deepening Hermeneutics

In “Poetry Not Math,” Morgan takes aim at toxic hermeneutics in a beautifully-brief yet powerfully-poignant chapter. So much of my own journey of faith has included grappling with biblical interpretation. I was incredibly impressed by how succinctly Morgan captured concepts it has taken me over a decade to work through thoughtfully. (Where was this book when I was 17?!)

By describing our relationship to biblical interpretation as more akin to one with poetry than one with math, Morgan takes the legs out from underneath those who would accuse him of undervaluing the Bible. Poetry is not “less valuable” than math. In fact, viewed one way, poetry may be more valuable than math, since math has very defined limits, while poetry is potentially limitless. Also, by comparing our interpretation of Scripture to interpretation of poetry, Morgan sneakily teaches a post-colonial and post-modern hermeneutic. Who we are has as much to do with our interpretations of the Bible as the text itself. Again, this is a message the church in the U.S. desperately needs to hear.

For far too long, Fundamentalists in particular, but also many, if not most, conservative evangelicals, have put forth a conception of Scripture that is little more than a facade behind which they hide their own bids for wealth and political power. The certainty with which they’ve spoken about what is an “abomination” to God and the certainty with which they’ve spoken about the divine purpose of geo-political events could only be supported by a “mathematical” conception of Scripture. To admit that hermeneutics is more of an art than a science would be to admit that they could be wrong, and that just wouldn’t be good for fundraising nor fear-mongering. And that’s why this chapter is so necessary. Here’s another sample:

“Poetry has a unique truth about it. Arguments that you might lose in logic can be won through poetry. It does justice to realities that cannot be captured by scientific explanation. It gets under your skin in a way that strictly rational communication cannot. Most importantly, good poetry is never finished being interpreted. No one can say the final word on a good poem, because its meaning defies any conclusive explanation.” (p.70)

As a pastor in a highly diverse congregation, I am routinely faced with questions about biblical interpretation from every possible starting point. Morgan’s take on biblical interpretation is one that will aid me immensely as I lead both Fundamentalists and progressives toward a more faithful immersion in the biblical narrative.

Conclusion

How Jesus Saves the World from Us is a gift to the church. In particular, it is a gift to those who, like Morgan, are open to God’s leading of them on a journey of exploration, adventure, and delight. This book is not for those who are so confident in their own views that they do not want to have them challenged. Reviews from those folks have already been predictably defensive. Rather, this book is for those who are humble or want to be humble. This book is for those who want to peer into the life of a Christian writer in the U.S. as he processes with depth and wisdom several of the most challenging subjects of the Christian life. As for me, I’ll be revisiting and recommending this book often. And I’m tremendously grateful to Morgan for writing it.

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1. Jonathan Martin, who wrote the forward to How Jesus Saves the World from Us was the preacher behind whose sermon Morgan performed his modified “progressive trance” music.