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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
_____________________

  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.

_______________________
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.

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Palm Sunday: Two “Triumphs”

Palm Sunday is the occasion on the Christian calendar when we commemorate Jesus’s “triumphal entry” in Jerusalem. The concept of a triumph requires some explanation because it’s foreign to modern Americans.

A triumph was a ceremonial and celebratory procession through the streets of a city. When the Romans wanted to celebrate their latest conquest, they celebrated with a triumph. In fact, in 70AD the Roman general Titus destroyed the very city into which Jesus entered that first Palm Sunday. Titus’s triumph, with the spoils from the Jerusalem Temple, is depicted on a monument which remains to this day in Rome.

Roman_Triumph_Jesus_TriumphThat first Palm Sunday, Jesus wasn’t the only person leading a procession into Jerusalem. There was a second. From the opposite side of the city, Pontius Pilate was entering Jerusalem from his home in Caesarea. His procession was in the Roman style—complete with a terrifying display of Rome’s military might. Pilate was perched atop a majestic stallion with all the trappings of Roman wealth and prestige. His procession was a proclamation of his and Rome’s superiority. The message was directed to the pilgrims who had gathered in the city from near and far for the Passover festivities. “Don’t let things get out of control. Or these soldiers you see here, they will cut you down!” (1)

But Jesus’s “triumph” was of an altogether different kind. His victory would not be won by military might. His status would not secured by wealth or prestige. And he isn’t interested in asserting his superiority. By direct contrast, Jesus enters Jerusalem in humility, on a donkey.

Mark’s Gospel makes it clear Jesus deliberately staged his “triumphal entry” to fulfill the prophesy of Zechariah:

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (9.9)

Jesus sent his disciples to bring him a donkey colt for him to ride. Jesus staged his procession as a prophetic lampoon of Roman imperial pomp and circumstance. He meant it to expose the pretensions that exalt themselves.

York.DonkeysAndKings.89408When my children were a little smaller than they are now, I used to read them stories from this book called Donkeys and Kings by Tripp York. He tells eight Bible stories from the perspectives of the animals in the stories. But the star of the book is the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. In this story, the donkey Jesus rode into the city, George, finds himself stabled with the royal horses of the Caesar’s court. And they are not happy at all at the ruckus his rider has caused. In fact, they’re outraged at his presumptuousness to be in a procession at all. Here’s what the arrogant royal stallion, named Constantine, says to George, the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem:

“…your kind does not get to make history. History is made by the strong, the powerful—those in charge. It si made by kings, Caesars, warriors, government officials, nobility, and stallions. It is not made by the weak, the lowly, those filled with resentment for their small and insignificant place in life. It is not made by creatures like you or the one you gave a ride into the city.” (2)

Today we celebrate Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem because it reveals to us an altogether different way of being-in-the-world from the arrogance and violence of empires.

In Luke’s account, when Jesus sees the city of Jerusalem he foresees its destruction in 70 AD and he weeps over the city. He said,

“Would that you, Jerusalem, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Lk. 19.42 ESV)

May we not make the same mistake. May we see the way of Jesus and his way of peace!

Responsive Reading:

One: Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Today we celebrate the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of our King, Jesus!

All: Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

One: Humble, riding on a donkey, King Jesus entered the city as the crowds prepared the way for his victorious arrival.

All: Rejoice! Rejoice! The triumphant King has come!

One: On the journey to liberation from sin, we celebrate Christ’s victory, we sorrowfully contemplate his sacrifice, and we revel in his resurrection.

All: We remember the long road to freedom that our ancestors traveled, filled with triumphs, death, and new life.

One: Ride on, King Jesus! Ride on, conquering King!

All: Jesus came “to bring Good News to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; and to set the oppressed free.” (Lk. 4.18)

One: With excitement and joy we welcome you into our lives. With loud shouts of hosanna we joy you on your march toward liberation, justice, and love for all people.

All: Rejoice! Rejoice! The triumphant King has come! (3)

Prayer:

We praise you, O God,
For your redemption of the world through Jesus Christ.
Today he entered the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph
and was proclaimed Messiah and King,
by those who spread garments and branches along his way.
Let these branches be signs of his victory,
and grant that we who carry them
may follow him in the way of the Cross,
that, dying and rising with him, we may enter into your Kingdom;
Through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.
Amen. (4)

______________________

  1. Marcus Borg, “Holy Week: Two Different Meanings” [http://www.marcusjborg.com/2011/05/07/holy-week-two-different-meanings]
  2. Tripp York, Donkeys and Kings: And Other “Tails” of the Bible, p. 43 [http://astore.amazon.com/theolograffi-20/detail/1606089404]
  3. Adapted from “Triumphant Entry (Palm Sunday)” Litany in African American Heritage Hymnal,
    p.66.
  4. Adapted from the Book of Common Worship, “Palm Sunday”.
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Treasures in the Attic: A Brief Review of Water to Wine by Brian Zahnd

When Old Wineskins are New Again

In Mark 2.22, Jesus said,

And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.

I’m no wine aficionado, but I think it’s common knowledge that wine gets better with age. Maybe there is something about the aging process that brings out the wine’s flavor and texture. But Jesus is clearly doing a new thing among the people in Judea. He teaches with authority, unlike the scribes and Pharisees. He takes authority over demons, heals people of their diseases, and even commands the wind and waves. Jesus welcomes sinners to his table and forgives people of their sins. This is “new wine” indeed! So, people need renewed thinking to understand what God is doing in and through Jesus. They need new “wineskins.”

But, what if you’re not a first-century Judean witnessing the ministry of Jesus firsthand? What if you’re a twenty-first century Westerner who has been immersed in an Americanized form of Christianity that looks very little like the faith of Jesus. Well, in that event, the “old” wineskins of an ancient faith might feel quite “new” to you. And, in fact, many Christians today are discovering just that. They are discovering for the first time what Christianity has been for hundreds of years and to them it tastes as rich as aged wine.

In Water to Wine, pastor Zahnd tells “some of [his] story” around cultivating a richer Christian faith. But this journey hasn’t let Zahnd to some novel form of Christianity. No, it has led Zahnd to recover much of what has characterized Christian faith since the time of the early church. Water to Wine is about an American evangelical pastor who had been successful at being an American evangelical, but not at being a faithful Christian. The beauty and power of Water to Wine is seeing snapshots of Zahnd rediscovering Christianity like a man who finds priceless treasures in his own attic.

One way of reading Water to Wine is to see in it a prophetic indictment of Americanized Christianity. Another way is to read it as an invitation into a journey that Zahnd and many others have embarked upon. It’s a journey for those Christians who have grown dissatisfied with grape juice Christianity, are craving “new wine,” and are discovering it in “old wineskins.”

Potter’s Wheel Prayer

One of the most profound transitions Zahnd has underwent is out of consumer Christianity and into the Spiritual Formation movement made popular by authors and thinkers like Dallas Willard and Eugene Peterson. In “Jerusalem Bells,” Zahnd recounts how God began to teach him how, after being a pastor for several decades, to finally pray well. It was similar to a movement I’ve described as going from wielding prayer like a tool, to viewing prayer as a potter’s wheel on which one is being formed. At first, Zahnd is annoyed by the Muslim call to prayer he hears in Middle Eastern countries in which he’s led pilgrims. But God’s Spirit uses this occasion of discomfort to lead Zahnd into the ancient practice of formative prayer. This was one of my favorite sections of the book. Like Zahnd, formative prayer has breathed new life into my Christian faith. It has caused me to rely more on God and to situate myself in the global and historic body of Christ. I love what Zahnd says here,

“If we think of prayer as ‘just talking to God’ and that it consists mostly in asking God to do this or that, then we don’t need to be given prayers to pray. Just tell God what we want. But if prayer is spiritual formation and not God-management, then we cannot depend on our self to pray properly. If we trust our self to pray, we just end up recycling our own issues—mostly anger and anxiety—without experiencing any transformation. We pray in circles. We pray and stay put. We pray prayers that begin and end in our own little self. When it comes to spiritual formation, we are what we pray. Without wise input that comes from outside ourselves, we will never change. We will just keep praying what we already are. A selfish person prays selfish prayers. An angry person prays angry prayers. A greedy person prays greedy prayers. A manipulative person prays manipulative prayers. Nothing changes. We make no progress. But it’s worse than that. Not only do we not make progress, we actually harden our heart. To consistently pray in a wrong way reinforces a wrong spiritual formation.” (p.75)

Due to this insight, Zahnd has now made teaching Jesus-disciples how to be properly formed in prayer a pillar of his ministry. He regularly teaches a “prayer school” at Word of Life, the church he leads as pastor and he says it’s the best thing he does as a pastor. Even though he staunchly refuses to bottle up his teaching on prayer and sell it or give it away in video form online, he nevertheless includes a central component of his prayer insight in Water to Wine. “Jerusalem Bells” concludes with a morning liturgy of prayer Zahnd himself uses and teaches others to use. It’s a wonderful collection of Psalms, prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, passages of Scripture, and prayers from a wide variety of Christian traditions. When one prays this liturgy, she can be assured she is being properly formed.

A Journey into Maturity

Overall, Water to Wine is about growing up in the faith. It’s about being weaned off milk and learning to eat meat. Many American Christians have been taught that milk is all there is, or that milk is actually the stuff of maturity. But Zahnd exposes the immaturity of consumeristic, militaristic, tribalist, dualistic, and secular Christianity. And instead of merely replacing them with an equal and opposite list of -isms, Zahnd invites readers into an experiential practice of discipleship that is rooted in the global and historic church. Zahnd’s gift is helping readers taste the richness of a Christianity that’s been aged to maturity through his eyes of wonder and joy as he discovers it anew. His pastoral gift comes through as he invites us to join him on his journey.

This is a wonderful and timely little book that I would recommend to just about anyone. For many it will rekindle a faith that has laid dormant. For others it will kick open the doors to new rooms of Christianity that haven’t yet been explored. For others still, this may be the best introduction to Christianity they’ve ever read. For all who read it, it offers a fascinating glimpse at the spirituality of an American Christianity that is discovering treasures in the attic of the church.

_______________

PDF available at Academia.edu

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Evil and the God Who is Love: A Review of The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord

When Blueprints Fail

In 15 years of full-time Christian ministry, I had not presided over a funeral service until yesterday. The funeral was for a 24 year old man who was brutally stabbed to death a few days before Christmas by a complete stranger.

He died mere hours before he was due to enter an expensive in-patient rehab program, to which he’d miraculously gained admission, after years of battling alcoholism. And from what I can gather from the police report given to the family, the young man’s murderer was an L.A. school teacher.

The sheer absurdity and brutality of his murder continues to deeply sadden and confound me. How could something like this have even happened?

The day before the funeral, I met with and listened to the victim’s mother as she told me just how completely devastating his death has been for her. She is a single mother of three and he was her oldest son. While I was listening and praying with her, she asked me a critical question that should give any sincere minister pause. She asked, “Do you think he was destined to die this way or do you think it was just bad luck?”

How would you have answered her?

As I imagine how pastors and ministers all over the United States would engage with that question, I’m deeply concerned that many are shamefully ill-equipped. They’ve been sold a model of divine providence that is not only biblical unfounded but also ethically bankrupt. Far too many well-meaning Christian ministers in the United States today would actually tell this grieving mother it was God’s will that her son die the way he did. Others, aware of how cruel such a statement would be, would attempt to find some creative way to avoid answering her directly, while secretly believing her son was predestined to be murdered.

John Piper, a famous Calvinist pastor revered by thousands of American Christians, was once asked his thoughts on the brutal violence depicted in the Hebrew Bible—particular the killing of women and children noncombatants in holy wars. His response was chilling and grotesque:

“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.”

Yes, pastor Piper claims that when someone dies because they’ve been murdered (shot to death, for example), that is necessarily God’s will because, well, “God governs.”

Some will write Piper’s statement off as an extreme example. But, I’m afraid the reality is, this type of theological determinism is far more common than many American Christians are either aware of or willing to admit. This type of “blueprint theology,” the conception of divine providence as meticulous omni-causality, has grown in popularity due to the ministries of Neo-Puritans like John Piper, John MacArthur, and Mark Driscoll. And, if the next generation of ministers are trained with this view, the pastoral ramifications are potentially disastrous.

A Timely Book from a Well-qualified Thinker

It’s tragedies like the murder of this 24 year old man that make Dr. Thomas Jay Oord’s latest book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (hereafter, ULG), so important and timely. Dr. Oord is one of the most well-known and prolific American theologians in the Wesleyan tradition. He has written and contributed to over twenty books on philosophy, theology, science, and more. He has served in academic moderator roles and consulted for groups including the American Academy of Religion (AAR), Biologos, and the Wesleyan Philosophical Society.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing Tom since 2007, when we met at a conference he co-directed in Quincy, MA (just outside of Boston) called the “Open Theology and Science” conference. I was a bright-eyed seminary student excited to meet the authors of the ground-breaking 1994 book The Openness of God. Since then, I was honored to co-direct an Open theology conference with Tom that focused on the implications of Open theology for the church in 2013.

I haven’t always agreed with all his views, but Tom has consistently challenged and inspired my thinking over the years and I am very grateful for his scholarship and friendship.

Seeking a Better Solution to the Problem of Evil

ULG opens with several accounts of events Oord calls “genuine evil.”

Oord recounts the story of a woman who was killed when a stone was flung from a truck, came through the windshield of her car, and killed her instantly. He also tells the story of a Congolese woman who was raped and brutalized by militiamen who also killed her husband and children in front of her.

One of these chilling stories hit particularly close to home for me. In 2013, I lived in West Cambridge and saw the police in paramilitary uniforms and armored personnel units rolling through Watertown during the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. It terrified my wife and children. We also personally knew runners who missed being in the blast radius of the bombings by minutes, if not seconds.

Oord uses these chilling accounts to establish the reality of evil, and the urgency of a more plausible solution to the problem of evil. As an Open and Relational theologian, he’s already part of a tradition of thought that has made significant progress in this regard. The “Free Will Defense,” as it’s sometimes called, provides a not insignificant amount of relief. However, Oord contends it remains nevertheless insufficient. In this book, he will propose a more radical solution—one that will make many uncomfortable, but will provide much needed comfort to others.

The Science of Randomness and Free Will

One of the best features of ULG is it’s integration of science, philosophy, theology and pastoral sensibilities. When I was a seminary student in Boston, I learned an approach to urban ministry that differs from the traditional approach taught in many evangelical seminaries. Instead of viewing the city as a machine, like a toaster, that can be disassembled and reassembled without harm, the city is conceptualized as an organic, “living system” more like a cat. While a toaster may be able to be repaired with conventional mechanical tools, a cat must be operated on by a surgeon using delicate instruments, because the subject is alive.

What this approach did for me was provided a framework for understanding the complexities of the city. Linear, cause-and-effect approaches to urban ministry are relics of a bygone era. We now know that the world is far more complex than we previously thought.

This is where Oord’s thinking future-proofs Open and Relational theology. It combines the latest in philosophy and science on the subjects of randomness and indeterminacy. While Newtonian physics was easily compatible with “blueprint theology,” it falls flat when confronted with the “world of true becoming” that has been discovered by quantum physics.

Oord has worked with some of the world’s leading thinkers in this area, including Sir Dr. John Polkinghorne, who is perhaps the most prolific and profound thinker on science and faith alive today.

Oord argues that randomness is real. Indeterminacy is not a lack of sufficient data, but an actual aspect of reality. This is an important part of Open and Relational theology. In this broad category of theologies, the world is conceptualized not a static place, but a dynamic one. Dr. Polkinghorne calls it a “world of true becoming.”

If this is the case, as Oord argues, then the way is opened for genuine agency—“free will.” The conception of free will Oord, as an Open and Relational theologian, proposes is called “Libertarian.” It contrasts with “Compatibilist” free will. Libertarian free will is the power of choosing agents to deliberate between and actualize real options which emerge in a world populate by moral, rational, and sentient beings. Compatibilist free will does not recognize the power of contrary choice, that options are legitimately open to choosing agents other than what they in fact actualize. As he succinctly writes, “A free being is an agent who chooses among options.”

In ULG, Oord argues that the world is made up of both choices and constraints on our freedom. Agents are not free to choose anything they can imagine, but agents are free to choose between the available options. This conception of free will, and only this one, provides the necessary framework for moral and ethical outcomes. Once again pinpoint precise in his language, he writes, “We cannot be morally responsible unless we are freely response-able.”

This is a cornerstone of Ood’s argument. Unless we understand moral responsibility, we will misunderstand God’s providence.

Problematizing Divine Permission

When God is brought into the puzzle of evil, often this formula is used to make providence problematic: if evil is real, either God is not all-loving or God is not all-powerful. Classical theism has snubbed its nose at this problem in one way or another and continued to assert both the omni-benevolence and omnipotence of God. Some simply say that evil is necessary for God’s goodness and power to be displayed. This would be John Piper’s answer. Evil is as much under the control of God as goodness. God decrees evil. Problem solved, he thinks. Others construct appeals to mystery. Oord cites the Bible verse commonly quoted out of context, “God’s ways are not our ways.”

But Oord, like many others, is unsatisfied with either approach.

Oord is perhaps just as unsatisfied with the language of divine “permission.” Some theologies, in an attempt to salvage God’s omni-benevolence, have proposed that God is not responsible for evil because creaturely agents have free will. God merely “permits” evil to exist. But one of Oord’s main goals in this book is to show that even this approach is ethically dubious and problematic. He sets out to problematize even the “permissive” approach to providence to which many in his own Open and Relational camp ascribe. He writes,

“Careful readers may have also noticed I have often talked about God failing to prevent evil. Some people think they solve the problem by simply saying God gives freedom and agency to creatures, and, therefore, God does not cause evil. Creatures effect evil, they say, so God should not be blamed.

I also believe God is not the primary cause of evil. But to solve the problem of evil, we must say more than this. After all, a perfectly loving individual would do whatever possible to prevent—not just fail to cause—genuine evil. A person does not have to cause evil directly to be morally culpable for failing to prevent it.”

By holding the feet of those who use “permission” language to the fire, Oord has upped the ante. This sets a much higher standard of moral righteousness on our model of providence. This was what actually made the book exciting for this reader.

How will Oord solve the problem?

The Landscape of Providence

Every attempt to “solve” the problem of evil entails an implicit model of providence. In ULG, Oord makes explicit his model of providence in his proposal for a solution to the problem of evil. But, before he does that, he provides readers with a very helpful overview of the theological landscape. “Models of Providence” is perhaps the most helpful chapter in all of ULG.

Besides being a gifted philosopher and teacher, Dr. Oord is also a very talented photographer.

From surveying his work over many years, it appears that one of his favorite things to capture is a beaming sunset over an beautifully textured landscape. He goes on long hikes into deserts and mountains to compose the perfect shot at the perfect moment. Dr. Oord’s photographic instincts mirror his theological proposal in ULG in many ways. In a timely and winsome way, he has composed a snapshot of providence that is a shining ray of light in the very textured landscape of theologies of divine providence. Chapter four frames the terrain in a way that allows Oord to distinguish his model from its closest comrades. On one end of the landscape are the rocky mountains of omnicausality. They are jagged, treacherous, and inhospitable for human residence. Besides the obvious way this model calls into question the goodness of God since it makes God the “ultimate cause over every rape, torture, disease and terrorist attack,”

Oord also points out its logical inconsistency. He writes, “…it makes no sense to say that God totally causes something and that creatures also cause it.”

On the other side of the frame are the Weeping Willow trees of appeals to mystery. Appeals to mystery are comparable to Weeping Willows because they appear sad and are frail. I loved what Oord said about this model: “…we should be wary of worshipping the entirely inscrutable God because we never know who the devil he may be!”

Most models of providence occupy the center of the frame. But even toward the center of the shot, there is much texture. The closest comrade to Oord’s proposal is the one employed by most Open theists. It is the model of divine providence Oord calls “God is voluntarily self-limited.”

Oord helpfully summarizes the pros and cons of this model:

“In sum, I find the model of providence as voluntarily self-limited attractive in many ways. I like that it says love motivates God to give freedom/agency to others and to uphold the regularities/laws of the universe. But I can’t embrace the model fully because its view of voluntary divine self-limitation leads to a major problem: If God has the ability not to give freedom/agency or not to uphold the regularities/laws of the universe, God should sometimes use those abilities, in the name of love, to prevent genuine evil. A loving God would become un-self-limited, if God were able, in order to stop evil. Claiming that a God capable of control nevertheless permits evil leaves crucial questions unanswered.”

This criticism of the voluntary divine self-limitation view is powerfully damning. How can one claim that God is love, has the ability to prevent evil if God so chose, and yet has not prevented such horrifying evil as have been described? As Oord indicates, this model leaves too many people scratching their heads asking, “what kind of love is that?”

A Friendly, Open Debate

One proponent of the voluntary divine self-limitation model of providence is a friend of Oord’s. He and Oord have collaborated on a number of projects, including the OPEN 2013 theology conference at which Oord and I were co-directors. Dr. John Sanders was a fellow keynote speaker with Oord (along with Greg Boyd) at that conference, and has was also a participant in the 2007 Open Theology and Science conference where I first met both of them. Dr. Sanders is one of the few Open theists who have written a full-length monograph on Open theology. His is entitled The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, and it’s one of the most comprehensive.

Both Sanders and Oord are committed to a conception of God that is centered around God’s dynamic relational love for the world. Both Sanders and Oord also agree that the future is partly ‘open,’ meaning partly made up of possibilities/contingencies that are yet to be actualized. Both Sanders and Oord agree that God’s nature is love and that Jesus reveals God fully. However, as Oord shows in chapter six, “Does Love Come First?”, Sanders and he differ on the logical priority of God’s nature of love and God’s sovereign will.

“Up to this point in my summary of Sanders’s version of open and relational theology, I completely agree with him. I might articulate some points slightly differently, but we both endorse main themes of open and relational theology. We agree on so much!

I disagree, however, with Sanders’s view of how God’s love and power relate. I also disagree when Sanders says God allows or permits genuine evil. These disagreements matter when it comes to thinking about how God acts providentially in a world of randomness and evil.”

Oord’s critique of Sanders’s view is weighty. He follows Sanders’s logic to its end and arrives at the conclusion Sanders excludes. Both Oord and Sanders agree that God’s nature of love is the kind of love that does not coerce. As Sanders puts it, “love does not force its own way on the beloved.”

Oord agrees. But Oord questions why Sanders is unwilling to follow his own logic to its end. If God’s nature is love, and love does not “force its own way on the beloved,” then how can Sanders conclude that God sometimes intervenes to control creatures against their will? Would this not be an action precluded by the constraints of God’s nature? Here’s how Oord puts it:

“If God’s preeminent attribute is love and love invites cooperation without forcing its own way, however, it makes little sense to say ‘sovereign freedom’ allows God to create in an unloving way. It makes little sense, for instance, to say that God voluntarily decided against ‘exercising meticulous providence.’ If love comes first and love does not force others to comply, it makes little sense to say ‘God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything.’ If love comes first, God cannot exercise meticulous providence or determine everything.

To put it in question form using Sander’s [sic] own language, why should we think  a loving God who ‘does not force the beloved’ is truly free ‘to tightly control every event that happens’? Why should we think a loving God is free to control others entirely, even if God never exercised that freedom? If love doesn’t force the beloved and God is love, God can’t force the beloved.”

Oord has a strong point. What value has it to say God is love, and that love is noncoercive, if we also say that God can be coercive any time God wants? The proposition that “God is love” is stripped of all meaningfulness. What kind of “love” would that be?

God’s Kenotic Essence

While the voluntary divine self-limitation model of providence is the closest to Oord’s own, he nevertheless makes it clear where the two differ. In his model, God’s nature is in fact the constraint on God’s power and will. God is essentially kenotic. So, understandably Oord calls his model of providence “Essential Kenosis.”

While those already familiar with kenosis may recognize it as a subject confined to christology, the history of theological exploration does not bear that out. For example, in his book The Paradox of a Suffering God,

African theologian Amuluche Gregory Nnamani highlights the development of kenotic theology throughout church history. In particular, Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov, American philosopher Geddes MacGregor, Catholic theologians Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, and even German theologian Jürgen Moltmann espoused forms of the “essential kenosis” view. Each affirm Oord’s central thesis, that God’s nature is “uncontrolling” (i.e. kenotic) love, and that God cannot deny God’s own kenotic essence.

However, Oord does offer a unique formulation of this view and makes it far more accessible to the layperson. Oord uses common parlance to explain esoteric theological concepts better than most theologians. For example, he writes,

“God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will. This means that God’s self-limiting kenosis derives primarily from God’s eternal and unchanging nature of love and not from voluntary divine decisions. Because God’s nature is love, God always gives freedom, agency and self-organization to creatures, and God sustains the regularities of nature.”

What’s important to note about the logic of Oord’s proposal is that God’s nature of love constrains what God is capable of doing. This is where those with leanings toward classical theism will begin to feel very uncomfortable. They will want God to be unlimited, even by God’s own nature. But Oord’s case is sound biblically and logically.

What the Bible Says God Can’t Do

It may come as a shock to classical theists, but it’s true that Scripture says God’s actions are constrained by God’s nature. Scripture says that God cannot lie because God’s nature is truth (Numbers 23.19; Hebrews 6.18; John 1.14, 14.6, 17.17). Scripture also says that God cannot be capricious because God’s nature is faithful (I Samuel 15.29; Psalm 89.35). Scripture also says that God cannot change like shifting shadows because God is light (James 1.17; I John 1.5). What all these constrains imply is what Oord makes explicit: “God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will.”

In fact, as Oord makes explicit, Open theism, like all Christian theology, looks to Jesus as the fullest revelation of God’s character and nature. Oord quotes the late Clark Pinnock, whose Open and Relational theology was explicitly Christ-centered and Cross-centered.

“ ‘God’s true power is revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ,’ says Pinnock. ‘In this act of self-sacrificing, God deploys power in the mode of servanthood, overcoming enemies not by annihilating them but by loving them.’ This means that ‘the power of love is the power that wills genuine relationships.’ and this view ‘is certainly not a diminished or inferior view of power.’ ”

Oord’s proposal follows in the tradition of postconservative evangelical theologians like Pinnock in allowing Scripture to challenge the models of providence that have been constructed by classical theism. Jesus breaks these models wide open.

“…theologians today use kenosis primarily to describe how Jesus reveals God’s nature. Instead of imagining how God may have relinquished attributes when becoming incarnate, many now think Jesus’ kenosis tells us who God is and how God acts.”

And, once again, Oord points to the cross of Jesus as God’s supreme self-disclosure in history:

“We especially see God’s noncoercive power revealed in the cross of Christ, which suggests that God’s power is cruciform…”

Oord’s model of providence is cruciform-centric, and that makes Oord’s model both thoroughly biblical and thoroughly Christian.

The Distance from Process

Some of Oord’s more well-read and studied readers will wonder what, if anything, separates Oord’s “Essential Kenosis” view from Process theology, which is adamantly rejected by conservative evangelicals who believe it limits God to an unbiblical extent. Oord answers this concern in a very brief statement—perhaps too brief.

“The other view standing near essential kenosis says external forces or worlds essentially limit God. This view gives the impression that outside actors and powers not of God’s making hinder divine power. Or it says God is subject to laws of nature, imposed on God from without. God is caught in the clutches of exterior authorities and dominions, and these superpowers restrict sovereignty.

This view seems to describe God as a helpless victim to external realities. Some criticize this view as presenting a ‘finite God’ because outside forces or imposed laws curb divine activity. While I think we have good reasons to think God’s power is limited in certain respects, this view places God under foreign authority. This God is too small.

Essential kenosis stands between these two views. It rejects both voluntary self-limitation of God and the view that external powers, gods, worlds or laws limit God. Essential kenosis says limitations to divine freedom derive from God’s nature of love.”

Conservative evangelical readers who find Process theology repulsive may not find Oord’s disclaimer sufficient. They may demand more distance. However, I think Oord does sufficiently detail the specific distinction between his view and Process: from where derives the limitations on divine sovereignty. Process says the laws of nature external to God; Essential kenosis says from God’s own nature.

Those Pesky Miracles

All of this talk of constraints on the sovereign will of God and limitations on God’s ability to intervene in the world naturally lead to the question that will be stirring in the minds of any knowledgable reader by this point: What about miracles?

Traditionally, miracles have been conceptualized as divine “intervention” in the world. In fact, some have defined a miracle as the violation of the laws of nature by God. But Oord’s model of providence will not allow such definitions. But neither are such definitions logically necessary or biblically warranted. Theologians like N. T. Wright constantly remind us that the distinction between what is called the “natural” world and the “supernatural” is an artificial divide invented during the so-called Enlightenment. Scriptural theology knows no such distinction. In fact, Wright and others would argue that such a distinction is a heresy in the same vein as Gnosticism. It is dualistic, and runs the risk of denying the goodness of creation or the reality of the Incarnation. However, Oord does not heavily lean on this kind of argumentation. Instead, he chooses to argue positively for the cooperative nature of miracles by pointing out that all the miracles detailed in the Bible involved willing agents who cooperated with God. Even the miracle of the Incarnation famously involves the “yes” of Mary to God’s plan.

In chapter eight, “Miracles and God’s Providence,” Oord works hard to assuage readers’ fears that he has cut miracles out of his model of providence. He clearly hasn’t. However, when it comes to how God providentially works with inanimate matter, it was not always clear why God could not coercively control it. In all the strong argumentation this book provides, this chapter felt the least strong.

Conclusion: Deepening the Discussion

Open and Relational theology has long provided adherents a more coherent model of divine providence than theologically deterministic models. In fact, Open theism in particular has provided many Arminians with a much need dose of logical consistency. However, Open theism has long struggled with its familial relationship to conservative evangelical theology, which has caused it to seem defensive at times. Perhaps this is an expected response to the alarmist classical theists who loudly condemned it as heresy. But Tom Oord’s project is not defensive. He is willing to follow the logic and the biblical data to the most consistent conclusion. He will no doubt receive criticism from both conservative evangelicals who wish to preserve their view of divine sovereignty as unilateral coercive force, and from Process theologians who will find his proposal insufficient for other reasons. Regardless, what is clear is that The Uncontrolling Love of God furthers the conversations and confronts all sides with important questions about our models of divine providence and their implications for the problem of evil. I’m very grateful for this contribution to that on-going discussion, and highly recommend this book to anyone exploring these subjects.

If I had one criticism for Oord, it would be that Open and Relational theologies like this “Essential Kenosis” continue to conceptualize providence and the problem of evil apart from important aspects of human life like community (ecclesiology), politics, missions, and social justice. I would have liked to see Oord at least point in those directions. Essential kenosis has the potential to be a liberating model for those who have all too often been the victims of societies that are emulating a “sovereignty” of coercive and violent control.

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PDF version available at Academia.edu

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The Bible is Not a Database: 
A Very Brief Reflection on Biblical Interpretation 
in the Digital Age

A few years back, I misplaced something, and instead of thinking, “Where did I last see it?” I unconsciously thought, “I’ll just run a Spotlight search for it” …as if every item in my house (and presumably the rest of my life) was indexed in Mac OS X. That was the moment I realized using computers had literally changed the way I think. Even though I’m the furthest thing from a luddite, I was forced to acknowledge that the affect technology was having on me (especially on how I think) was not entirely positive. I was becoming more aware of a specific example of how the practices in which we participate form the way we think. And this new way of thinking, in turn, affects all we think about—including the Bible.

When it comes to our understanding of Scripture, how we access the Bible matters a lot. Technological changes in the way we read and interact with Scripture change our conception of Scripture’s purpose.

“The medium is the message.”

For example, in the fifteenth century, a revolutionary new technology fundamentally changed the way people we able to engage with Scripture. The printing press made it possible for an individual to possess their own, personal copy of a Bible translation. This fundamentally shifted the way people interacted with Scripture. Scripture transitioned from being heard in corporate worship to being read in private. When that happened, our expectations of Scripture changed too. Rather than expecting the community to interpret the Text together, the new expectation that emerged was that the individual will interpret the Text, well, individually. This new expectation of private interpretation radically transformed the way we understand the Bible.

Today, another technological advancement is shifting our expectations of the Bible. And it’s just subtle enough that we may not notice it. Because of the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of web servers, we’ve now moved on from merely approaching the Bible as a book to be read (and therefore interpreted) privately, to approaching the Bible like a Database.

The database is a fixture of our digital lives, whether we realize it or not. It’s running in the background of all our most beloved online destinations. It powers our digital quests for both enlightenment and entertainment. This hidden dimension of the Web is what enables us to quickly access information that we would otherwise never unearth. We no longer have to read off long URLs when we want to direct people to a particular page of a website. We simply direct them to the site’s home page and recommend some concise keywords (e.g. “For more information, go to NPR.org keyword ‘Fresh Air’ ”). Many people don’t even bother using a website’s own search feature to find the information they’re looking for, they just use a search engine like Google. In fact, we no longer ‘search’ for pages on the Internet, we “google” them.

What formative power does this new practice (empowered by the database) have on our way of thinking?

For one thing, it makes us “queriers”.  When a person submits their keyword search into the search field of a database-driven website, they are “running a query.” The user has a question and the magical database elves run around finding the answer. You and I come to the Database with your questions, and we have faith that the Database has the answer.

This new way of thinking poses a serious problem for how we understand the purpose of the Bible. Approaching the Bible like a database fundamentally misunderstands Scripture’s nature. The Bible does not promise to answer our every question. In fact, the Bible has its own agenda and isn’t particularly interested in catering to our whims.

Imagine someone picking up a novel and looking for the search field. They then think to themselves, “I don’t want to read this whole book. I’m not interested in the plot, or the story the author is trying to tell. I just want to know the age of the main character. Why can’t I just ‘google’ the answer to my question?”

Well, the reason one cannot simply ‘google’ the answers to one’s Bible queries is because the Bible is a Story, with a plot, and the particular Story the Author is telling is what matters, not our questions. When we fail to recognize this, we will inevitably misuse the Bible.

To understand what the Bible teaches, one has to understand the Story the Bible is telling.

To know the answers the Bible supplies, one has to know the questions the Bible is addressing.

The Story of the Bible is about God and God’s Kingdom.

The Bible is the Story of how the Creator God is restoring the whole creation.

The Bible is the Story of the how the Rescuing God is redeeming all of humanity.

The Bible is the Story of the God of Israel’s relationship to a particular people (Israel+Church) in a particular time and place (the ancient Near East).

The Bible is NOT the story of modern, Western people.

The Bible is NOT the story of the material origins of the universe.

The Bible is NOT the story of human sexuality and its rules.

The Bible is NOT the story of the United States of America and its exceptionalism.

If you run those queries, what will come back is: “no results found.”

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