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ReKnewing Hermeneutics, Part 2: A Review of Crucifixion of the Warrior God by Greg Boyd

Crucifixion of the Warrior God (hereafter CWG) is a two-volume, 1,300-page tome written by Greg Boyd. It address the dilemma posed by the contradictory portrayals of God’s relationship to violence between the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament’s testimony to Jesus. In the Hebrew Bible, God is portrayed as committing and commanding violence. But in the New Testament, the crucified Messiah who eschewed violence is portrayed as the definitive and final revelation of God’s character and nature. This creates tension within the text itself for those, like Boyd, who are committed to both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as “God-breathed.” It is that tension that Boyd seeks to resolve by use of a Cruciform Hermeneutic and with his Cruciform Thesis, which form Volumes I and II of CWG.

In part one of this review, I summarized and commented on Volume I: The Cruciform Hermeneutic. In part two, I will summarize and comment on Volume II: The Cruciform Thesis. Then, part three will be my review of the book overall, including especially my thoughts on its most controversial aspects.

Navigating Volume II

To reiterate, with a book of this size, I’ve found it helpful to think of it in terms of its “parts”. There are seven parts total—three parts in Volume I and four parts in Volume II. The four parts of Volume II, which will be covered here, correspond to the four Principles of the Cruciform Thesis. This is important to keep in mind. Read together, the principles of the Cruciform Thesis inform the Cruciform Hermeneutic and vice versa. Taken together, they form a ground-breaking new way of understanding God’s relationship to violence in the Bible.

  • Part 4 corresponds to the Principle of Cruciform Accommodation
  • Part 5 corresponds to the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal
  • Part 6 corresponds to the Principle of Cosmic Conflict
  • Part 7 corresponds to the Principle of Semiautonomous Power

And, as with Volume I, there are also several chapters of bonus content. In the case of Volume I, there are four appendices:
Appendix I: The Alleged Anti-Judaic Attitude

  • Appendix II: Jesus and Violence
  • Appendix III: Violence in the Pauline Epistles
  • Appendix IV: Violence in the Book of Revelation
  • In the case of Volume II, there is a postscript and six more appendices:
    Postscript: Unlocking the Secret of the Scroll
  • Appendix V: The Escalation of Violence in the Promised Land
  • Appendix VI: Hardening People’s Hearts
  • Appendix VII: Can Satan’s Kingdom Be Divided Against Itself?
  • Appendix VIII: The Quail Plague
  • Appendix IX: The Testing of Abraham
  • Appendix X: The Issue of Supersessionism

The current three-part review will not include summaries of the ten appendices nor the postscript. But I did find them useful and am very glad Boyd chose to include them.

Shelley Boyd and Abductive Reasoning

When you read as many of Greg Boyd’s books as I have (which is most of them), one of the aspects of his writing that you come to appreciate the most are his meaningful metaphors, adept analogies, and imaginative imagery. Even though CWG is clearly geared more toward serious theology nerds like me—those who can and will devote time to reading a tome of this magnitude—Boyd nevertheless incorporates elements that capture readers’ imaginations so that they are able to appreciate complex concepts in a more straightforward way.

Boyd began Volume I with the analogy of the “Magic Eye.” Like the computer-generated visual puzzle, the Scriptures are multi-dimensional. And just as one must learn how to adjust their vision to see the “3D” aspect of the image, so too a person must learn how to think about the PDVs in the Hebrew Bible to “see” how they reflect the God who is cruciform love. This analogy helps to frame the message of Volume I so that readers can track with Boyd through some rather complex hermeneutical techniques. Volume II is no different. Boyd again begins with an analogy that will stick with readers. And to help the analogy stick, he incorporates his own wife of thirty-seven years, Shelley Boyd. I don’t know how enthused Shelley was about her depiction in this analogy, or even her incorporation into the book at all, but I find it both adorable and memorable.

The analogy goes like this: It’s safe to say Greg and Shelley know each other pretty well. Naturally, Greg thinks he knows how Shelley would be likely to respond to just about any situation, considering they’ve faced quite a few situations together over the course of their life together. But does he really?

One hypothetical day, Greg is out and about and happens to spot his wife on a public street before she spots him. For a brief moment, he’s able to observe her without her knowing that her husband is watching. As he watches her fondly, he notices her passing a homeless veteran in a wheelchair, panhandling. From his vantage point, he can see that this person seems to know Shelley. It seems as though she has addressed him by name. Greg can practically complete the scene in his mind before it happens, he thinks. He knows his wife and he knows she is a loving, compassionate person. So, he confidently anticipates how this scene will unfold—that Shelley will greet this man kindly and perhaps even give him some money. But, much to Greg’s surprise, instead of giving the man some money, or even greeting him kindly, she instead gives him a piece of her mind and a knuckle sandwich!

Now, here’s where the teeth of the analogy sink in. What is Greg to make of what he has just witnessed. It doesn’t make sense to him. On the one hand, he has had decades of experience with a person he knows to be a loving, compassionate, and nonviolent person. But, on the other hand, he has just witnessed that same person verbally and physically abuse a vulnerable person in a fit of rage. He seems to have to choose: Is Shelley still who he has known her to be? Or, based on this new evidence, is Shelley now a completely different person Greg no longer knows?

This is analogous to the place many Christians and Bible-readers find themselves when they have grown to know and love the God revealed in Jesus Christ—the God who stoops to take on our humanity, who stands up for justice, who embraces outcasts, who suffers for those he loves, who refuses to resort to violence, and who even lays down his own life for those who are murdering him. Then, these same Christians and Bible-readers are confronted by the PDVs in the Hebrew Bible and they find themselves asking, “Is this the same God?”

This is where Boyd introduces readers to an important exercise that will color his theological reasoning throughout this volume. Boyd proposes that we use “Abductive” reasoning. Abductive reasoning stands in contrast to the kind of reasoning we are likely more familiar with: “Deductive” reasoning. Here’s how Boyd relates this type of reasoning to the Shelley-and-the-Panhandler analogy:

“In contrast to deductive reasoning, which moves from assumed premises to necessary conclusions, as well as inductive logic, which draws generalized probable conclusions from specific observations, abductive logic postulates a hypothetical scenario that, if true, would render otherwise puzzling data intelligible. In my case, the puzzling data is my wife’s uncharacteristic violent behavior toward this disabled panhandler, and my goal is to render this behavior intelligible by adducting hypothetical scenarios about ‘what else might have been going on.’ ” (631)

The phrase “something else must be going on” will become an important one as readers continue into Volume II. This phrase captures the intention of Boyd’s theological reflections in the four principles. In other words, the four principles of the Cruciform Thesis are Boyd’s attempt to get to the bottom of “what else is going on” when it comes to uncharacteristic behavior of God we see in the Hebrew Bible’s PDVs, which clash with the characteristic nonviolent nature of God revealed in Jesus.

As with the “Magic Eye” analogy from Volume I, I also found the Shelley-and-the-Panhandler analogy helpful when I began to feel bogged down by complex theological concepts in this volume. I think it was very wise for Boyd to give this mental tool to readers up front so that they can use it throughout the rest of the book. It’d also be good for you to keep it in mind as you read the summary of Volume II that follows.

Part 4: The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation

The first principle of the Cruciform Thesis is the “Principle of Cruciform Accommodation.” Boyd covers this principle in two chapters, “The ‘Masks’ of a Humble God: Revelation and the Eternal Outpouring of the Triune God” (chapter 13) and “The Heavenly Missionary: Yahweh’s Accommodation of the Law, Nationalism, and Violence” (chapter 14).

Boyd kindly gives a definition of each of the four principles at the start of each part. In chapter 13, Boyd defines the Principle of Cruciform Accommodation this way:

“In the process of God ‘breathing’ the written witness to his covenantal faithfulness, God sometimes displayed his triune, cruciform agape-love by stooping to accommodate his self-revelation to the fallen and culturally conditioned state of his covenant people.” (644)

The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation is the best principle with which to start the Cruciform Thesis, since it is the principle which most closely relates to the Cruciform Hermeneutic. Boyd is showing that the way God works through the Bible (i.e. the dual nature of God’s “breathing”) corresponds to the very nature of God. In the same way God allows the authors of Scripture to act upon God, by attributing violence to God, God’s nature is actually susceptible to being acted upon. This nature of others-centered “stooping,” as Boyd describes it, is the nature of vulnerable love that Paul uses the word “kenosis” to describe in Philippians chapter 2. Like Moltmann and Gorman, Boyd believes this kenotic love revealed in Jesus is not at odds with the nature of God, but is precisely revelatory of God’s eternal nature.

“The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity states that from all eternity, God exists as three Divine Persons who fully pour themselves out for one another who fully dwell within one another in perfect, other-oriented agape-love. This triune pouring out and mutual indwelling was best expressed in the Cappadocian doctrine of the ‘perichoresis’ of the three divine Persons and, with Balthasar, Moltmann, and others, I contend that this divine perichoresis entails a sort of self-emptying (kenosis) in the very essence of the Trinity. That is, the very identity of each distinct divine Person is found in the unique way each selflessly and completely offers himself up in love to the other two. And this is precisely why the manner in which the Son selflessly and completely offers himself up in love to the Father’s will, and on behalf of humanity, by dying on the cross corresponds to, and thereby reveals, the eternal nature of the triune God (Phil 2:6).” (646)

This principle immediately runs into an obstacle when it encounters the Classical theological tradition since this tradition proposes God exists outside of and apart from any suffering, any change, or any sequence. So, Boyd must spend some space in the book confronting this tradition.

Starting Points are Crucial

In order to assess whether or not a portrait of God in Scripture is an accommodation of God’s nature, we must have some concept of God’s nature from which to start. This starting point is what is in dispute between Boyd’s cruciocentric model and the Classical theological tradition. In the Classical tradition, as exemplified by Thomas Aquinas, God’s nature Must be altogether unlike the world, altogether “necessary, simple, timeless, unchanging, and perfect.” (653) Boyd will spend several pages summarizing Aquinas’s argument for such a belief. None of Aquinas’s arguments are rooted in Scripture, nor especially in the crucified Christ. They are purely rationalistic. In fact, they are so disconnected from the Bible, Aquinas even discounts “revelation” in general, saying “revelation does not tell us what God is,” it can only “join us to him as if to an unknown.” (657) What a strikingly different picture of God than that which is painted by the Bible, and particularly the New Testament!

So, if Classical theism’s answer to the question of who God is amounts to a philosophical shrug, what then should be the criteria? Boyd’s answer is, very unsurprisingly, the crucified Christ!

“The only reason it was concluded that Jesus and Scripture have nothing to say about God’s transcendent nature is because classical theologians felt they needed to define ‘God’ before reflecting on Jesus and Scripture.” (666)

“If we anchored all our thinking in the cross, would it ever occur to us to suspect that God is altogether immutable or ‘above’ experiencing sequence? The Word was made flesh and became our sin and our curse. If we trust this revelation, God apparently can change and God apparently does experience a ‘before’ and ‘after.’ Along the same lines, if our complete trust was in this supreme revelation and not in our own reasoning processes, would we ever suspect that God cannot be impacted by what transpires in the world or that God cannot suffer? If we trust that the one who hung in agony on the cross reveals God’s true nature, would we not rather conclude that God is profoundly impacted by what transpires in the world and is capable of the greatest suffering imaginable?” (667, emphasis Boyd’s)

By starting with the crucified Christ, as Boyd suggests, all of the most challenging metaphysical conundrums posed by Classical theism are rendered irrelevant. Rather than focusing on the metaphysical nature of God, the Biblical witness calls us to focus on the functional and moral nature of God—particular God’s covenantal faithfulness. (674-675) And, more fundamentally, the Classical tradition twists the biblical concept of power from that which is rooted in others-oriented love to one that is concerned with unilateral control and determinism. (679-682)

Why then is God depicted in many other ways, ways that seem to be at odds with the revelation of God in the crucified Messiah? To explain this, Boyd turns to a rhetorical technique employed by the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther.

God Wearing ‘Masks’

In order to lovingly accommodate God’s people in the literature of the Old Testament, God often takes on an appearance that closely resembles the other gods of the Ancient Near East. Like all the other gods around Israel, YHWH seems to at times condone things like animal sacrifice, polygamy, and even ethnic cleansing. Martin Luther referred to this phenomenon as God “wearing masks.” Only later, in the New Testament, do we learn from Jesus that such masks were a concession due to the hardness of human hearts. In this section, Boyd quotes Goldingay who captures this sentiment succinctly:

“ ‘Since the framework of Deuteronomy’s laws so forcefully portrays Israel’s sinfulness,’ [Goldingay] writes, ‘it is not strange that the laws themselves presuppose acts and events which are less than ideal,’ For example, ‘they do not forbid slavery, monarchy, war, polygamy, or divorce.’ As such, Goldingay notes, all such laws are ‘open to the statement that Jesus makes regarding the last of them (Mark 10:6),’ which is that they ‘reflect God’s accommodation to the ‘hardness’ of human hearts, rather than God’s actual desire for how his people would live in the world.’ We find accommodations such as these running throughout the entire OT.” (715-716)

The Principle of Divine Accommodation means that, just as we see in the cross of Jesus, God is willing to “stoop” to look like someone or something God is not, out of love. In the case of the cross, God was willing to take on the appearance of a condemned criminal, someone deserving of death. In the case of the OT, God was willing to take on the appearance of an ANE tribal deity. Both the cross and these ‘masks’ in the OT reveal a God who loves people more than God’s own image—a humble God who is more self-giving than face-saving.

Part 5: The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal

Boyd second principle in the Cruciform Thesis has most certainly proved to be the most controversial for those on the left of the cultural spectrum. In this principle, Boyd’s use of the concept of withdrawal has angered those who do not wish to believe that God ever abandons or judges anyone. This was a predictable response, one I’m sure Boyd anticipated.
Boyd uses another metaphor to frame this principle—one that I’ve also used for years. Boyd compares God’s strategy of turning violence and evil against itself, thus defeating it without employing it, to the martial art of Aikido. Aikido is different from other martial arts such as Karate, since Aikido’s goal is “nonresistant combat, turning the force of aggressors back on themselves in order to neutralize their opponent and hopefully to enlighten them regarding the evil in their heart that fueled their aggression.” (768) The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal, as Boyd defines it is:

“God judges sin, defeats evil, and works for the redemption of creation by withdrawing his protective presence, thereby allowing evil to run its self-destructive course and ultimately to self-destruct.” (768)

How this relates to Jesus’s cross is this:

“God the Father did not act violently toward the Son when the Son bore the judgment of our sin that we deserved. Rather, with a grieving heart, the Father simply withdrew his protective hand, thereby delivering his Son over to wicked humans and fallen powers that were already ‘bent on destruction’ (Isa 51:13). Yet, by abandoning the Son to suffer the destructive consequences of sin that we deserved, the Father wisely turned the violent aggression of these evildoers back on themselves, causing evil to self-implode and thereby liberating creation.” (768)

The core of Boyd’s conviction about this principle stems from his interpretation of the “Cry of Abandonment” (hereafter simple “the Cry”). This is a hotly-contested point of contention among theologians. There are many lined up against Boyd who contend that the Cry did not signify genuine suffering or a truthful statement about the reality of that moment. Instead, many contend that Jesus was merely alluding to Psalm 22 in some teaching or preaching manner. However, I think Boyd sufficiently refutes such interpretations by showing that not only that such an intentional use of a subtle teaching technique would have been highly improbable considering Jesus’s present excruciating (from the word for crucifixion) agony and torturous pain, but also that were that the case, Mark’s effect of the Cry would be completely undermined. In fact, Boyd does not shy away from calling out the Nestorianist tendency of those who make this claim (772)—which was particular encouraging to me, since I too have recognized this tendency in some of my writings.

What, Then, of the Trinity?

Theologically-astute readers may be puzzled by Boyd’s insistence on the genuineness of Jesus’s abandonment on the cross. They may rightly question what effect such an event would have on the Trinity. From reading the complaints of critics, you’d think Boyd doesn’t specifically address this objection, but he does.

“[…]if God’s eternal essence is the perfect loving unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then any suggestion that this perfect unity could be ‘severed,’ even for a moment, would, by definition, entail that God’s eternal triune essence would have ceased to exist, which is to say that God would have ceased to exist! I consider this a metaphysical impossibility on both biblical and philosophical grounds. The existence of God, is a necessary, not a contingent, reality. Along the same lines, any suggestion that the triune essence of God could be conceivably severed presupposes either a rather tritheistic conception of three divine Persons who are only contingently united or a modalistic form of monotheism for which the three divine Persons are only a contingent expression. Either implication is obviously contrary to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.

Contrary to the thinking of some, I do not believe we need to downplay the reality of Jesus’s divine abandonment on the cross to avoid these logically impossible and theological heretical conclusions. For we can simultaneously affirm the ‘unbroken continuity of divine presence and activity between Christ and God,’ as Torrance puts it, while also affirming the authenticity of Christ’s abandonment if we simply remember that this horrific separation was entered into by all three divine Person’s [sic] as an expression of perfect agape-love for humanity. That is, since it was agape-love—the very essence of the triune God—that led the Father and Son to decide to experience this separation, the anguished experience of separation of the Father and the Son during the crucifixion constitutes the quintessential expression of the perfect love that constitutes the essential unity of the Father and the Son. Indeed, the unsurpassable cost of this divine separation expresses the unsurpassable perfection of the love of this divine union.” (776-777)

Or, more concisely, Boyd writes,

“[…]the three divine Person’s [sic] sacrificed their previously uninterrupted experience of perfect loving union in order to express the perfect loving union that defines them as God […] the Holy Spirit ‘unites Father and Son together in their extreme separation’ on the cross. […]Jesus’s despairing cry on the cross expresses rather than negates the real, perfect, eternal love that necessarily binds the three divine Persons.” (778)

Far from dissolving the Trinity, of which Boyd has been accused, Boyd specifically explains that the love demonstrated on the cross, by Jesus giving himself over and the Father giving Jesus over, demonstrates their loving unity, the same loving unity that defines God as Trinity. Another way of simplifying this is that Jesus was abandoned in one sense but not another. In the sense that Jesus was given over to evil persons to be destroyed he was abandoned to the consequences of sin. But in the sense that this giving over by the Father was an expression of the love that is the quintessential characteristic of both the Father and Jesus, Jesus was not abandoned. Nevertheless, Jesus’s experience of abandonment was real and genuine.

On Wrath…

This leads to Boyd discussion of “wrath.” What should be clear by this point is that Boyd does not believe God commits violence. That’s one of the central convictions of CWG. But there is a long tradition in Western Christianity of associating God’s wrath with direct violence, particular in the “Penal Substitution” theory of atonement. In this chapter, Boyd reframes wrath from the idea that God directly employs violence to the biblical motif of God’s “giving over” of persons to the consequences of sin and evil. The apostle Paul specifically makes this connection in Romans chapter one. God’s “wrath,” Paul writes is “revealed” against all ungodliness and suppression of the truth by God’s “giving over” (repeated three times) of persons to the consequences of sin.

Even more specifically, Boyd is saying the Father does not employ violence against the Son on the cross.

“[…]the suffering of the cross is shared, in different but equal ways, by all three divine Persons, and that none of the violence suffered by Jesus throughout his passion was caused by God. […]this expression of divine ‘wrath’ against sin involved no personal animosity on the part of the Father toward Jesus, let alone any act of violence on the part of the Father toward Jesus. It was wicked humans, under the influence of demonic powers, who carried out all the violence described in the passion accounts.” (781)

An important part of Boyd’s atonement theology that sets his view in contrast to Penal Substitution is that Boyd does not believe God needed to be appeased or satisfied in any way. Boyd emphatically states that God’s essence is love and only love and is never anything but love. The cross was not to change God, but to change us.

“The judgment Jesus endured was not a matter of setting God right by allowing him to vent his rage but a matter of God setting the world right by overcoming sin and evil with his self-sacrificial love.” (783)

Boyd thoroughly teaches readers that the withdrawal he is talking about is redemptive, not punitive. God gives over people to the consequences of sin and evil because ultimately this is how God defeats sin and evil—by turning it in on itself. Recall the Aikido metaphor. God redirects the coercive and destructive power of sin and evil back on itself without having to exert coercive or destructive power himself. God’s power is the power of self-giving, uncontrolling love.

One of the biblical areas where Boyd demonstrates this is through church discipline. If you did not understand the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal, you’d have to conclude that the apostle Paul is prescribing violent punishment upon sinful church members. But, the more one understands the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal, the more compassionate and merciful Paul’s instructions are revealed to be.

“While it certainly collides with the contemporary western world view, the assumption behind Paul’s instruction—and it arguably is behind Jesus’s instruction on church discipline as well—is that when a person is turned outside the kingdom community, they are, in effect, turned over to Satan, the destroyer, who lords over the entire domain outside the kingdom community (e.g. 2 Cor 4:4; 1 John 5:19; Rev 12:9). This further implies that there is a sort of protection afforded members of the kingdom community that is not available to outsiders. Hence, imitating God’s methods of redemptive withdrawal, Paul instructs this community to discipline this unrepentant man by withdrawing their fellowship from him, thereby turning him over to the destructive ‘god of this age’ (2 Cor 4:4).” (817)

There’s no doubt Boyd is correct when he says Paul’s instructions clash with certain Western sensibilities. Already, in the criticism of CWG, the bulk of the backlash is against this principle, however rooted in the revelation of Scripture it is shown to be. Nevertheless, Boyd is thorough. He spends the next 70+ pages showing that the Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal is a significant biblical motif. Yet, Boyd knows this will likely be his most controversial principle, so after the chapters of “Crime and Punishment” and “Doing and Allowing,” he includes a chapter wholly devoted to objections. Critics would be wise to read that chapter before leveling any accusations.

I think it’s especially important that people do not misrepresent Boyd as saying God is does not always love people or seek their good. That would be a mischaracterization of Boyd’s position. Boyd specifically teaches that God does always love and always seek the good of creatures. I’ll say more about my take on Boyd’s position in Part 3 of this review. For now, I’ll simply cite Boyd saying what critics won’t quote him saying,

“Scripture indicates that God is always working to influence people in various ways, including, most importantly, to search for him and possibly find him, whatever ‘finding him’ looks like in their particular culture and circumstances (Acts 17:27). Yet, so long as God’s influence remains noncoercive, it in no way threatens anyone’s freedom agency.” (908)

In Part 3, I’ll address one of the most common objections I’ve read against this principle. Namely, that it can be wielded like a weapon to judge and condemn others, especially those who are actually victims themselves. Many from the left who are protective of minority and vulnerable populations have leveled this objection. Unfortunately, few if any have actually interacted with Boyd’s written responses to this objection which he anticipated and included in the book itself. I couldn’t tell you why.

Part 6: The Principle of Cosmic Conflict

Not only does Boyd propose that all violence depicted in the Bible is attributable to agents other than God, he also proposes that some of those agents are entities (or forces) that are typically unseen. Now, if you’re at all familiar with Boyd’s body of scholarly work, you’d already know he has written extensively on this topic in the past. In 1997 and 2001, Boyd published the first two installments of his his trilogy introduction of the “Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy,” that is due to be completed some time before Jesus returns with a third book entitled The Myth of a Blueprint. In God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil, Boyd shows how the authors of Scripture held a “warfare worldview” that included the existence of typically unseen entities (or forces) that nevertheless exert influence over our dimension. The principle, succinctly stated is:

“The agents that carry out violence when God withdraws his protective presence to bring about a divine judgment include perpetually-threatening cosmic forces of destruction.”

This hypothesis is important for a number of reasons, not least of which it begins to fill in the picture of what else is really going on when the OT depicts God as committing or condoning violence. Boyd’s conviction that the biblical worldview is populated by typically unseen entities (or forces) led him to reexamine the texts of terror with a new lens. What he found surprised him. Not only could a case be made that what appears to be the work of YHWH in the text is actually the work of these other entities (or forces), it was everywhere!

Part six is made up of four chapters: “The Battle of the Gods,” “Caught in the Cross Fire,” “When Hell Breaks Loose,” and “The Dragon-Swallowing Dragon.” In what could have been a stand-alone book, Boyd summarizes and focuses massive amounts of biblical research and insight into just under 200 pages, to show that the biblical authors attribute violence to typically unseen entities or forces against which God is in conflict. Much of the violence humans experience is, according to the warfare worldview, the fallout of cosmic conflict between God and evil, not the result of God’s will.

In this section, Boyd isn’t primarily concerned with convincing readers of the existence of “demons,” as conceived of by many Modern, Western Evangelicals. Instead, Boyd is primarily concerned with convincing readers to adopt a hermeneutic that takes into consideration the worldview of Scripture’s authors—namely, one that takes seriously the existence of that which is typically unseen and working to undo creation.

“[…]the fact that we no longer conceive of demonic agents the way ANE people did (viz., by associating them with the earth, netherworld, sea, sea monsters, etc.) does not affect the theological meaning of this narrative. For our purposes, it suffices to simply note that it was a demonic agent, however conceived, and not God that carried out this violent judgment with the world of this biblical narrative.” (1165)

How Boyd’s Principle of Cosmic Warfare, as one part of the Cruciform Thesis, meets with the Cruciform Hermeneutic becomes a bit clearer when Boyd homes in on an important example from the New Testament. When Paul refers to Korah’s rebellion in I Corinthians 10, he replaces God with a destroying angel. What prompted Paul to reinterpret the OT narrative is the all-surpassing revelation of God in Christ. Boyd argues that in this instance, Paul illustrates both the Cruciform Hermeneutic and the Principle of Cosmic Conflict. Paul reasoned that “something else was going on,” and reinterpreted the text based on what he knew to be true about God because of Jesus.

Regardless of whether you approach the demonic the way Boyd does or not, the operative aspect of this principle is that there is something else going on besides God simply causing or condoning violence. The biblical narrative itself testifies to this principle through the warfare worldview of its authors. We moderns would do well not to mistakenly think we are more aware of what’s going on than the ancients. It is likely that our Enlightenment worldview has blinded us to as much as the ancients’ warfare worldview illuminated for them.

Part 7: The Principle of Semiautonomous Power

The fourth and final principle of the Cruciform Thesis is defined by Boyd this way:

“When God confers divine power on select people, he does not meticulously control how they use it.” (1196)

This principle is set out in only one chapter, entitled “Mauling Bears and a Lethal Palladium.” Boyd’s task with this principle is to explain why some stories from the OT seems to indict God in the use of violence by God’s agents or artifacts. Boyd’s basic argument is that God does not micromanage divine power God grants select people. Those agents are are free to use that power in ways at cross purposes with God.

Jesus is an apt example, considering Boyd argues extensively that Jesus is the all-surpassing revelation of God’s character and nature. At one point in the passion narrative, after Peter has presumptuously attempted to defend Jesus against arrest, Jesus makes a curious claim. He remarks that if he wanted he could “call twelve legions of angels.” The number is clearly not the point here. The point is that if Jesus had desired to defend himself against arrest, he certainly wouldn’t need Peter’s puny sword. But, this remark also betrays an important aspect of Jesus’s power. Jesus had the capacity to misuse it.

“Notice that this statement not only presupposes that Jesus believed he had the power to do this; it also presupposes that Jesus believed that, had he done so, the angeles would have obeyed. And yet, as I said, had Jesus used his authority in this way, it would have been contrary to the Father’s will. Indeed, had Jesus done this, the plan for Jesus to be delivered over and crucified would have been aborted. And this demonstrates that the way Jesus’s divine authority was used depended on what Jesus, as a full human, decided to do with it.” (1212)

Jesus is a model and example of a human being entrusted with divine power and authority. He is our model because he proved entirely trustworthy. He is an example because he had the capacity to use that power and authority in a way that was at cross purposes with the Father. Jesus willingly submitted his human-divine will to the Father.

This, however, isn’t the case for all human being entrusted with divine power and authority. Boyd spends the next nearly 50 pages giving examples of the way God has granted power and authority to agents other than Godself and those agents, not God, have used that power and authority to commit violence.

This principle draws upon much of the work Boyd has done in the area of Free Will Theism. Boyd is an ardent advocated for what is known as “Libertarian” free will. In contrast to “Compatibilism,” the Libertarian conception of free will holds that for an agent to be truly free, their choices must be at least partially unconstrained by the control of another agent resulting a choice that could have been otherwise. Boyd often calls this power of to create an outcome that could have been otherwise “say-so.” Here’s how Boyd explains it:

“Every time we deliberate about a choice we need to make, we are acting on the conviction that the Creator has given us the power to resolve possible courses of action into a single course of action. Whatever theoretical beliefs about free will and/or determinism we might espouse, we all act on the assumption that it is up to us to choose between options. And we do so for the simple reason that it is impossible to deliberate without assuming this. Not only this, but regardless of what we believe about free will and/or determinism, we all act on the assumption that we can use the ‘say-so’ God has given us in ways that either alight with or conflict with God’s will. Which is to say, we all act on the assumption that the power that God has given us to affect what comes to pass resides in us in a semiautonomous way.” (1217-1218, emphasis Boyd’s)

Free will, as an example of divine power and authority entrusted to us, can be misused. In the same way, many of the stories in the OT that contain agents committing violence in ways that seem only attributable to God, are actually stories of agents misusing power and authority granted by God.

Conclusion

CWG_Diagram1

In 1,300 pages, Greg Boyd has reframed biblical interpretation for a postmodern world so that Christ is magnified and faith is maximized. The frame Boyd provides has four sides. Each of the four principles of the Cruciform Thesis form a side to the frame. In the center of the frame is the biblical narrative, reinterpreted using the lens of the Cruciform Hermeneutic. When this frame and lens are applied, the Cross comes into focus like a 3D hologram rising out of the text.

God looks like Jesus. Jesus is the all-surpassing revelation of who God is. Jesus taught and modeled and revealed God’s cruciform character and nature. God is cruciform. As such, God takes upon Godself our violence and our projection of violence, taking on the appearance of a violent, tribal, warrior deity. Just as Jesus willingly took on the appearance of a shameful criminal insurrectionist, yet the reality was Jesus was innocent, God is innocent. And just as, viewed through the eyes of faith, the cross becomes the quintessential revelation of God’s self-giving love, so too, when viewed through the cruciform lens, do the portraits of divine violence in the OT become crucifixes that reveal the loving heart of the God who stooped to take on our sin and evil.

Boyd’s hermeneutic and thesis have already begun to be challenged. This was expected. Boyd is accustomed to being misunderstood and misrepresented. It’s not fair, but he has learned to cope. Nevertheless, CWG will, from now on, be represent a hermeneutic and thesis with which theologians and biblical scholars will be forced to wrestle. It marks a turning point in modern biblical interpretation that will likely characterize this period for decades to come. Any serious proposal that attempts to contend with the Bible’s portraits of violence will have to contend with Boyd’s proposal in CWG.

Be on the lookout for Part 3, where I will address common objections I’ve read and give my overall thoughts on CWG.

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3 Insights from The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Good Friday Sermon

Today is Good Friday, the day of the Christian year set aside for prayer, deep reflection, and contemplation upon the Cross of Jesus—his suffering and death. However, I must warn you that none of the activities we engage in today will divest the Cross entirely of its mystery. The crucifixion and death of Messiah Jesus, the Son of God, is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith, alongside the Incarnation (which we celebrate at Christmas), and the Resurrection (which we will celebrate on Easter Sunday). To our Modern ears, a “mystery” sounds like a challenge. Because of our conditioning as Modern people, we instinctually think something is only a mystery because we have not cracked it yet, put all the pieces together, figured it out. But the Cross, like the Incarnation and the Resurrection, is not that kind of mystery. It’s not a case waiting to be cracked; it’s not puzzle waiting to be solved. No, the Cross is an inexhaustible mystery. The Cross is a mystery like its a portal to the incomprehensible life of God. We can never fully comprehend it, though many of humanity’s most brilliant minds have tried. In fact, it’s a symptom of our Modern disease that we constantly try to reduce the Cross to a formula, a theory, and use punchy one-liners to define it. We constrain and reduce what God has done, by trying to explain what we are called to contemplate with awe and humility. The Cross is a mystery, not a mechanism for having our guilt removed or going to heaven. So, there won’t be any attempt at an exhaustive explanation for how the cross “works” this evening. Instead, my goal is merely to invite you to stand with me in awe and humility at this great mystery.

At the same time, while we can never fully explain the Cross, or fully comprehend the Cross, there are ways that God gives us insight into aspects or dimensions of the Cross that have profound implications for our lives. Simply because we cannot know all there is to know about the Cross, doesn’t mean we can know nothing.

During the season of Lent, I’ve read a book by the preeminent theologian Dr. James Cone, entitled The Cross and the Lynching Tree. As you can probably tell simply by the title, this book was a deeply challenging read emotionally. Dr. Cone does not hold back from describing in detail the horrific and grotesque practice of lynching which has characterized this country since Reconstruction after the Civil War until only recently. Reading this book during Lent was the most meaningful Lenten practice I’ve ever participated in. As I’ve read it, I’ve been praying. I’ve been attentive to my thoughts and emotions. That’s one of the ways we discern what God is saying to us and how God is at work in our lives—we pay attention to what’s going on, on the inside of us—how we’re being moved. We open an internal dialogue with God. What does this feeling mean, God? I’ve been asking God questions like that a lot lately. I want to invite you to do some of that discernment work this evening. As I share a few insights I’ve gleaned from Dr. Cone’s work. I want to invite you to pay attention to what’s going on, on the inside of you. Have an internal dialogue with God about what you’re feeling. I think that’s one of the ways we can make of the most of Holy Week and experience lasting transformation.

I want to share with you a few insights I’ll take away from The Cross and Lynching Tree, because I truly believe Dr. Cone’s thoughts on the Cross are incredibly timely for you and me in the United States in 2017. This American context we share right now is fraught with racial conflict and I believe that the Cross gives us lenses through which to see our world that will help us to make better sense of racial conflict and help us to see God at work.

1. De-sanitize the Cross

The first insight I’ve gleaned is that if we’re going to have any hope of making sense of racial conflict in our nation today, we’ve got to De-sanitize the Cross. Did you know we have sanitized the Cross? For tens of millions of people in the United States, the Cross is nothing more than a religious symbol that means forgiveness or grace or something like that. We make crosses out of dainty little pieces of gold and we wear them around our necks as jewelry. The Cross has become so innocuous that we hardly notice them when they are plastered everywhere! I’m a pastor and I hardly notice them!

When the Cross is plastered everywhere, and is thought of by nearly everyone as simply a religious symbol of grace and forgiveness, it’s easy to forget what the Cross originally was—Terrorism! Crucifixion was terrorism! Deliberate, calculated terrorism! Crucifixion was designed to send a death threat to all who saw it. Romans used crucifixion to terrorize Jewish people in Jesus’s day—to intimidate them, so that they would remain subservient to Rome. They used it to maintain their control over the minds of the Jewish people.

How many of you saw the movie Get Out? If you haven’t seen it, you have to. It’s an important film. I won’t give any spoilers, because I think you really need to see it. But I bring it up because of this point about mind control. It wasn’t just fear that made the terrorism of the Cross powerful—it was the sense of utter powerlessness that it rendered in any onlooker. That sense of utter powerlessness was brilliantly depicted in the movie as a “sunken place” from which a person can’t escape. When Jesus was still a small child, Jewish Galileans, Jesus’s neighbors, perhaps even some relatives, staged a revolt against Rome. The Romans decided to send Galilee a message, so they crucified 2,000 of the Galilean rebels. Crosses with people Jesus might have known, writhing in pain, along the road, as far as the eye can see. Think of the trauma that inflicted upon the Galilean onlookers. That’s a tactic designed to force people into a “sunken place.”

If we’re ever going to get insight into the racial conflict in our country, we’ve got to start by de-sanitizing the Cross. Dr. Cone puts it so well,

“As Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence, many African Americans were innocent victims of white mobs, thirsty for blood in the name of God and in defense of segregation, white supremacy, and the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race. Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists—the lowest of the low in society.” (p.31)

There was a political rally during the election season, in which a older white man violently attacked a younger black man as he was being escorted out of the stadium as a protester. Afterward, the man who attacked him was asked some questions on video. He was asked why he attacked the young man and he responded that the young man wasn’t acting “very American” and then he said that next time he “might have to kill him.” At another political rally, a man who was video recorded shouting obscenities at a protester was asked about it and he responded saying, “I can’t believe I did that. It was me, but I’m not a hateful man. I just got caught up. When I saw the video all over the news of me doing that to that young man, I was just disgusted with myself.” This is called “scapegoating,” putting all the blame and shame on a person or a group of people, and punishing or expelling them to free the community or society from their sense of their own sin. Make no mistake, scapegoating unifies people. But it doesn’t unify them in the Holy Spirit, it unifies them in the unholy spirit of accusation—the spirit of the accuser (ha-satan).

In the Gospels, we read of the crowds who cheered for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with shouts of “Hosanna” and “Son of David”. That very same crowd had turned into an angry, violent mob by Friday. They freely allowed themselves to be swept up in the spirit of hatred and violence.

The De-Sanitized Cross is a Lynching tree. We see reflected in it all the anti-creation, anti-human forces of evil that are work in our world converging on an innocent human being. That’s why Peter says to the ruling council in Acts, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (5.30)

The world-renowned historian and theologian N. T. Wright wrote,

“Anyone looking at the cross of Jesus with a normal understanding of the first-century world would think: the rulers and authorities stripped him naked and celebrated a public triumph over him. That’s what they normally did to such people.” (Paul for Everyone, p.170)

When we De-sanitize the Cross, we can see the Crosses in our own society. We can see the ways innocent people are victimized and scapegoated. We can see the powers at work, sweeping people up in hatred and violence.

Let’s do some of that attentiveness and discernment work now.  How’s your internal dialogue with God going? Are you being attentive to your emotions? Let me ask you some more general questions: Who are the scapegoated in our nation today? Who are those who the powerful have scapegoated? And now, how about some more personal questions: Who have you and I scapegoated? Who do we wish to heap all of the shame and blame and guilt upon?

While the De-sanitized Cross is an instrument of terror and a death threat, the second paradoxical insight I’ve gleaned from Dr. Cone’s book is how the Cross “Dis-arms the Powers.”

2. Disarm the Powers

Colossians 2.15 is one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture. “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, [Jesus] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Dr. Cone uses a powerful analogy in the book that stuck with me. In 1955, Emmett Till was brutally lynched at 14 years old in Mississippi. Dr. Cone writes,

“If anything was remarkable about the Till lynching, it was not so much the callousness of the deed as the militant response it evoked. If lynching was intended to instill silence and passivity, this event had the opposite effect, inspiring [African Americans] to rise in defiance, to cast off centuries of paralyzing fear. The signal of this change was marked by the actions of Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett’s mother, who refused to allow this heinous act, like so many similar cases, to remain in the shadows or to fade from public memory. When Emmett’s body was brought back to Chicago, she insisted that the sealed casket be opened for a three-day viewing, exposing ‘his battered and bloated corpse’ so that ‘everybody can see what they did to my boy.’ She exposed white brutality and black faith to the world and, significantly, expressed a parallel meaning between her son’s lynching and the crucifixion of Jesus. “Lord you gave your son to remedy a condition,” she cried out, “but who knows, but what the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching.” (p.66-67)

If the enemy thinks it has the atomic bomb, the ultimate weapon: Death, and it uses it, but it doesn’t work, what does it have left? Pontius Pilate said to Jesus “Don’t you know I have the power to kill you?” And Jesus essentially says back, “Is that all you got?”

The Cross is paradoxically the destruction of Jesus and the triumph of Jesus. On the Cross, Jesus somehow disarms the powers and authorities, rendered their ultimate weapon, not only useless, but uses it as a weapon against them! This is Divine Aikido! Somehow, God is able to fold the enemies’ attack back in on it. We don’t know how this works, we can’t explain it, but it has worked. For two-thousand years, Christians continue to follow Jesus even though it has often resulted in their death. Over 30 Christians were murdered by ISIS on Palm Sunday in Cairo, Egypt. But Coptic Christians will be back worshipping on Easter Sunday, because we don’t fear death.

Hebrews 2.14 says, “Since [God’s] children have flesh and blood, [Christ] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

Jesus was the scapegoat to end all scapegoating. Jesus took onto himself all the blame and shame and he absorbed it. Human beings violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and he took them. All the principalities and powers of the world tried to crush him, but he broke their power—the power of the fear of death—and he triumphed over them! The devil and the rulers and powers didn’t know their plan would backfire on them. Paul said, “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor. 2.8) Jesus took it all for us, and what he gave us in its place is forgiveness, purification, new life, new humanity, oneness with God.

Here’s how Dr. Cone puts it in his book,

“God’s word is paradoxical […] a mystery that one can neither control nor fully understand. It is here and not here, revealed and hidden at the same time. “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa 45.15) Nowhere is that paradox, that ‘inscrutability,’ more evident than in the cross. A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life.” (p.156)

You and I disarm the powers when we refuse to use the power of death, the power of the sword, coercive power.
You and I disarm the powers when we speak the truth to rulers and authorities prophetically without fear.
You and I disarm the powers when we embody the alternative new humanity created by Jesus in our communities of faith.

That’s one of the primary reasons I’m at New City Church. Because the way you and I disarm the power of racial hatred and violence is through intentionally forming and participating in interracial Christian community. The way you and I disarm the powers is by taking down the crucified ones of society from their crosses and joining with them as family. (p.161)

When we De-sanitize the Cross, we can see how it was an instrument of terror used by the powers. We can also see how the fear of death is the atomic bomb of the powers. But Jesus absorbs that blow and comes out the other side. He disarms the powers of their ultimate weapon and frees us from the fear of death.

Which leads me to the last insight I gleaned from Dr. Cone’s book I’d like to share with you. The Cross “Directs our Creativity.”

3. Direct our Creativity

One of my favorite aspects of Dr. Cone book is his commentary on black Christian art.

“The spirituals, gospel songs, and hymns focused on how Jesus achieved salvation for the least through his solidarity with them even unto death. There were more songs, sermons, prayers, and testimonies about the cross than any other theme. The cross was the foundation on which their faith was built. In the mystery of God’s revelation, black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.” (p.21-22)

Black preachers, artists, poets, musicians had a De-sanitized Cross. They saw its brutality reflected in their own lives and in the history of American racism. Part of Disarming the Powers for them was Directing their Creativity into artistic expression. Dr. Cone quotes Shawn Copeland, professor of theology at Boston College,

“If the makers of the spirituals gloried in singing of the cross of Jesus, it was not because they were masochistic and enjoyed suffering. Rather, [they] sang because they saw on the rugged wooden planks One who had endured what was their daily portion. The cross was treasured because it enthroned the One who went all the way with them and for them. [They] sang because they saw the results of the cross—triumph over the principalities and powers of death, triumph over evil in this world.” (p.151)

Art is also not the only way the Cross Directs our Creativity. Dr. King is one of the best examples of how the Cross Directs Creativity into nonviolent direct action. Cone writes,

“…for King nonviolence was more than a strategy; it was the way of life defined by love for others—the only way to heal broken humanity. Hate created more hate and violence more violence. King believed that the cycle of violence and hate could be broken only with nonviolence and love, as revealed in Jesus’ rejection of violence and his acceptance of a shameful death on a cruel cross.”

“King saw the cross as a source of strength and courage, the ultimate expression of God’s love for humanity.” (p.85)

As we meditate on what the Cross might have to say to our American context in 2017, I want to invite you to enter into this deep mystery with awe and humility. When we contemplate the de-sanitized Cross, we’re rightly disgusted by it; we’re rightly repelled by it. But when we see how Jesus turned what was an instrument of terrorism and torture into his own triumph over the powers, we are emboldened to confront the powers and authorities in our world. When we see how Jesus took the blow and absorbed it, overpowering death with love, we are freed from the fear of death and we can lives of hope even in the midst of a world still plagued by racism and violence. The de-sanitized Cross that disarms the powers directs our creativity into joining God in the renewal of all things. It beacons us to imagine that a new world is possible. We are empowered with courage to enter into the messy but beautiful work of seeking racial righteousness and justice in community.

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2016 Reading Recap & Recommendations

Recently, I saw that Missio Alliance has published an “Essential Reading List of 2016,” and was proud to see my friends Jessica Kelley, Drew Hart, and Lisa Sharon Harper’s books make the list. Represent!

So, Missio’s list got me thinking about the books I read this year. Here’s a brief reflection with recommendations.

In preparation for a sermon series, I started this year reading works on the New Testament book of Revelation. I re-read three of my favorites: 1. Reversed Thunder by Eugene Peterson; 2. Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael Gorman; and 3. Revelation For Everyone by N. T. Wright. In my opinion, these are still (hands down) the best three resources on Revelation. But, I also read a few new ones. David DeSilva’s book Unholy Allegiances was excellent. It’s an accessible and brief introduction with insights backed by archeological research and empire criticism. I also read Brian Blount’s Can I Get a Witness? which is in a league of its own. It was eye-opening in many ways. Darrell Johnson’s Discipleship on the Edge was a very helpful text for preaching and full of interesting insights.

In addition to sermon prep reading, I also read several other books I think are worth recommending. My top eight are:

Day_Revolution_Began1. The Day the Revolution Began by N. T. Wright

When the church looks back on this period in history, we will undoubtably speak of Wright’s scholarship the way we do those theologians who define an era like Augustine or Aquinas. His work is that important. He’s probably best known for deeply impacting historical Jesus studies and Pauline studies, two of the most contentious fields in modern Christian theology. But, in recent years, Wright’s work has coalesced into two discernible modes. He has his field-defining, 600+ page tomes like Jesus and the Victory of God. In these, he does extensive exegesis, engages with the work of best and brightest minds in the world, and details ground-breaking approaches to well-worn subjects. Then, his second mode are popular-level, ~200 page works for lay-persons. In this mode, he’s also made waves like with this books Surprised by Hope and Justification.

The Day the Revolution Began is a book on Jesus’s Cross in the latter (popular-level) mode. It’s around 400 pages, but it is written in his layperson-accessible style. He doesn’t name-drop dozens of scholars or parse Greek words. But he manages, in a relatively brief book, to provide readers with a high-level survey of the history and landscape of teaching on the atonement. Wright challenges sacred cows and yet remains intensely traditional. What sets apart Wright’s work from so many others is that he brings into focus the New Testament’s deep indebtedness to the Hebrew Bible and how fully immersed Jesus’s story is in the story of Israel. With Wright’s signature punchiness, he takes aim at distortions of “penal substitutionary atonement” that forsake the biblical narrative for an unbiblical one. In the end, Wright recovers all the best aspects of “PSA,” while both discarding its perversions, and providing the structure for a far better frame. That frame is Exodus and Exile; two of the most important aspects of the biblical narrative which arrive at their climax in the Cross.

This book is a must-read for theology nerds.

Roadmap_Reconciliation2. Roadmap to Reconciliation by Brenda Salter-McNeil

In Roadmap to Reconciliation, Brenda Salter-McNeil distills decades of wisdom gleaned from painstaking and miracle-producing work among Christian organizations wrestling with cross-cultural and interracial ministry into a highly-accessible, highly-practical, and brief book. On a subject as fraught with landmines as racial reconciliation, Dr. Salter-McNeil manages to both provoke and build bridges. She simultaneously confronts and comforts. She does this by masterfully weaving together powerful stories from her extensive body of work with profound biblical insights. While brief, this book is packed with potential to transform ministries who are seeking to be transformed.

This book is a must-read for any pastor or Christian leader courageous enough to engage in the Gospel work of racial reconciliation.

Water_to_Wine3. Water to Wine by Brian Zahnd

For his “sabbatical,” Brian Zahnd (and his wife Peri) recently walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage traveled by millions of Christians down through the centuries. But that six-week journey pales in comparison to the journey he has traversed in the last 15 years. He’s been transformed from a Charismatic (read: tongue-talkin’), prosperity-preaching, war-praying, bible-thumping, Americanized, “Evangelical,” Christian into a contemplative, liturgical, (probably still tongue-talkin’), nonviolent, sacramental, Jesus-follower. In Water to Wine, he details some of that journey and its one with which I deeply identify. I’m so grateful for how Zahnd articulates the Christian faith; it inspires and energizes me. (Read my full review)

This book is a must-read for any “Evangelical” who senses there is more to Christianity.

Lord_Willing4. Lord Willing? by Jessica Kelley

I’ve been waiting for and dreaming of a book like this one for years! Lord Willing? is a theodicy from the perspective of a thoughtful, intelligent woman who has personally experienced agonizing pain and loss. Far too many of the theodicies on tap today are written by men and are written to reinforce a picture of God that looks nothing like Jesus. Jessica Kelley allows us to see into the darkest moments of her life, as she profoundly struggled with God’s goodness and power in the midst of her son’s (Henry) battle with cancer. Matched only by her laser-focused, Jesus-centered theological insights are her engrossing accounts of how she experienced each excruciating moment. What sets this book apart from all others is that it doesn’t offer a “solution” to the problem of evil in the form of a doctrine—it offers a Jesus-centered framework that allows a mother watching her son slowing dying not to loser her faith. Kelley offers readers a way to see that the Jesus-looking God is at war against all evil—including cancer—and suffers alongside each of us, sustaining us in his unique love. She offers readers an alternative to the “blueprint” view of God, which makes God the cause of cancer and renders God’s character suspect. Kelley’s view is extremely well-researched and supported by Scripture. But make no mistake, Kelley’s story is also heartbreaking, so make sure you have tissues handy when you read it.

This book is must-read for everyone who wrestles with God’s goodness or power in the midst of pain and loss.

You_Are_What_You_Love5. You Are What You Love by James K. A. Smith

James K. A. Smith is my favorite “Reformed” thinker. I loved his book Desiring the Kingdom. And that’s why I also loved You Are What You Love. It felt to me like the lay-person’s version of Desiring the Kingdom, which I think is a brilliant move. While Desiring the Kingdom was aimed at transforming our conception of Christian education using an Augustinian anthropology and corresponding pedagogy, You Are What You Love widens the scope of his thesis to all Christian formation. Smith’s contention is that human beings aren’t primarily “thinking things,” shaped by our thoughts, but are desiring persons, formed by our deepest loves. In classic Augustinian fashion, Smith points to our “disordered loves” as the root cause of our distorted humanity. Therefore, the solution is properly ordered loves. This, Smith writes, is accomplished through the practices of Christian worship. This simple idea is power-packed. With it, Smith can diagnose all the ways our loves are being malformed by “secular liturgies,” the practices in which we thoughtlessly engage every day. Smith urges us to take back the power of habit to harness our formation and submit it to God’s will and way. Through the practices of Christian worship, we are being transformed by God’s Spirit and grace more and more into the image of Christ.

This book is a must-read for all Jesus-followers who want to be properly formed.

How_Jesus_Saves_World_From_Us6. How Jesus Saves the World From Us by Morgan Guyton

Morgan Guyton has been challenging toxic Christianity on his blog, “Mercy, Not Sacrifice” for quite a while now. So, while overdue, How Jesus Saves the World From Us was worth the wait. Each chapter highlights one way Morgan has conceptualized his journey out of toxic Christianity and into a deep relationship with Christ. (Read my full review)

This book is a must-read for anyone who has felt hurt by Christians or churches but still desires a relationship with Christ.

How_Survive_Shipwreck7. How to Survive a Shipwreck by Jonathan Martin

Jonathan Martin’s first book, Prototype, is a tough act to follow. But with his signature, vulnerable and poetic style, Martin offers a sequel that did not disappoint. Even though Prototype was deeply personal, somehow his second book manages to be even more personal. As Martin draws you into his story of personal loss and failure you can’t help but grow more and more introspective and contemplative. He’s a master at this. Before you know it, you are half-reading and half-praying. Martin’s pastoral ministry extends to every reader of this book and its a ministry of empowering grace.

This book is a must-read for everyone who has felt like a failure and needs to hear God’s voice speaking life over them.

Embrace8. Embrace by Leroy Barber

This was my first time reading a work by Leroy Barber and it was a great introduction. While I’ve followed some of his ministry through my involvement with the CCDA, this was the first time I’d read any of his extended story, and it’s amazing! I was very encouraged by this book, not only as a minister but also as a Jesus-follower. I also loved the emphasis on shalom. As some of you may know, my wife is writing a book that also focuses on shalom that is due out in 2017. This book opened my eyes to even more of God’s power among us.

This is a must-read for everyone trying to follow God’s call on their lives, even when it’s deeply challenging.

Here are some other good lists: Biologos, Kurt Willems’ Paul Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jonathan Martin writes,

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

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

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

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

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

__________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s recap:

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

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

_____________________

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

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”.
Bible_Database_Banner1

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 queries like the Bible is a database, what will come back is: “no results found.”

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