Reading Countdown to Sunday by Chris Erdman felt like a blessed ambush. It's difficult to express just how timely this book is for me. I stumbled upon Countdown, seemingly by chance, from a recommendation on a pastor's blog. Little did I know that it would reinforce much of what God has been teaching me for nearly the last 6 years, and reinvigorate my passion for ministry.
I'm reading this book just before beginning the awe-inspiring task of church-planting. On the one hand, the confluence of all my experiences and passions in church-planting gives me confidence that it is precisely what God has been preparing both myself and Osheta for. On the other hand, it is also a terribly intimidating feat that no sane person embarks upon with immodest self-confidence. Therefore, this word of encouragement is no small blessing.
Preaching has been one of my life’s passions since I was seventeen and felt the call to serve as a leader in God's church. My pastor discipled me as a preacher, and preaching has characterized my life ever since. But since moving to Boston, preaching opportunities have not been as plentiful as they were in New Orleans. I have felt stifled, bottled up. Perhaps that is biggest reason I have taken to blogging. Communication is like air for me, and writing has replaced preaching as my primary means of expression. I'm not complaining; I've grown to love writing. Nevertheless, Erdman's book cut me to the heart in a most fantastic way. It brought me right back to my love for preaching, and energized that love. Erdman reframes preaching as the adventure, the risk, the challenge, and the joy that it once was for me. Erdman also reminds me that preaching is God's chosen method of remaking the world. And before anyone misunderstand what he means by that, I’d recommend you read the chapter in which Erdman writes about social justice as street preaching (chapter 24).
I'm not entirely sure I will be able to capture just how inspiring I've found this book in such a brief review, but it's my hope that I can highlight at least a few aspects of this book I found brilliantly compelling. And if you find yourself in need of energizing, I hope this review compels you to pick it up and read it—whether you're a preacher or not!
A Brief Preliminary Note on Note-making
There comes a point when underlining passages in a book becomes nearly pointless. I'm not entirely sure I didn't underline more lines than I left unmarked. Every sentence of this short book is carefully crafted to provide maximal impact—and it delivers! It's quite possible that I've added as much ink to my copy of Countdown as did the printer. Each time I'd underlined a thought worth returning to, I'd end up continuing to underline the next two or three or four lines. Before long, I'd underlined half the page, and it would have been easier to just draw a big bracket next to the whole section. If you do end up buying Countdown, just go ahead and buy yourself a couple highlighters too.
First off, I am not at all unbiased in the infamous Calvinism v. Arminianism debates. In fact, I've been more than a little complicit in making them contentious at times. In the past, I have spent many a night, up late, "debating" with both Calvinists and Arminians about the particulars of divine providence, human responsibility, divine foreknowledge, and the ontological status of the future—both in person and online. Therefore, I won't pretend that I come to Olson's book as a neutral third-party. However, the reality is, none of us do! We all come to Olson's book, all books, perhaps especially the Scriptures, with our preconceived notions firmly in hand, as much as we'd like to deny it.
Secondly, I am neither a Classical Arminian nor a Calvinist—nor any sort of "moderate" or "nuanced" Calvinist (whether such a thing actually exists is debatable). I'm more than happy to locate myself within the broad and historic Free Will tradition of Jesus Christ's Church that includes Christians from nearly every stripe (many Roman Catholics, many Greek Orthodox, Wesleyans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Anabaptists, many Baptists, and all who call themselves "Arminians"). And, by the way, this tradition predates both Calvin and Arminius. But, specifically, I will even further identify myself with the label "Open theist." Some will not gladly accept such a label, and as a result, I know many who I'd call "closet Open theists." As Olson himself has argued, a particularly militant and vocal coalition [wink] of Calvinists have succeeded in convincing a dishearteningly large group of gullible evangelicals in the US that Open theism is "controversial." They haven't proven that Open theism is heretical—far from it! Instead, their arguments have been blatant caricatures. They haven't been required to show Open theism's actual error. They have only needed to claim the view contains error loud enough to convince enough people not to investigating the view for themselves.
[Sidenote: In a course I took this semester on conflict in Christian organizations, one of the authors we read had a term for leaders who lead by creating a false enemy and produce group cohesiveness by vilifying the Other. He called them Demagogues. …So…there's that.]
Third, what drew me to Olson's book most wasn't his deliberate attempt to refute Calvinism. I've read lots of books and articles that refute Calvinism. Heck, I've written some! No, what drew me to Olson's book was his deliberate attempt to finally lay to rest a retort I hear constantly from Calvinists. I call it the "You-Just-Don't-Understand-Calvinism" retort. Calvinists are notorious for claiming to be victims of caricature. Even while they are also notorious for caricaturing other views. I can't tell you how many times, after backing a Calvinist into a philosophical corner, their response is: "You just don't understand Calvinism." Apparently, Calvinists are convinced their views are incredibly complex and esoteric. (In case you were wondering—they aren't.) But Olson leaves no room for this defense. He demonstrates on nearly every page that he has gone directly to the sources, read them, studied them, understood their arguments (often better than most Calvinists do), and nevertheless comes to many of the same conclusions we Free Will theists have held for centuries:
1) Calvinism is theological determinism
2) Calvinism relies solely upon carefully-crafted proof-texting
3) Calvinism renders God morally ambiguous
4) Calvinism does not reflect the character of Christ
Special thanks to Tom Oord for providing a review copy of this title.
The God Biographers is a fascinating book about the way God's story has been told in doctrines down through the centuries of religion and philosophy. Perhaps the grand irony is that the book itself becomes a biography of God as it attempts to tell this epic story. Larry Witham, the book's author, described as a veteran journalist on the book's jacket, sets out to, "[look] closely at the cultural and scientific context of each age and how these shaped the images of God." He argues that, "Each biographer labors under the influence of a particular cultural milieu." Therefore, the book becomes primarily a journey through historical theology dating from the Classical period in Greek thought to present day Open and Relational theisms. However, Witham's survey is not merely a general overview. The author specifically details the views of God's biographers as they relate to one of the single greatest tensions in theism: the relationship between divine providence and human volition. In the service of this very specific focus, the author employs the book, and figure, of Job as an overarching theme in which to ground the discussion. This odd yet often-cited ancient Hebrew text stands apart as one the clearest examples of this essential antinomy. Yet, for as many biographers as have attempted to tell God's story, at least as many interpretations of this book have accompanied them.
The God Biographers is also a book about two competing biographies of God that have remained enmeshed in a struggle for the hearts and minds of theists since the very beginnings of philosophical and religious thought. The first biography is that of an aloof and "unchangeable monarch," while the second tells of a God who participates in a “dynamic relationship [with] the universe." (p. 2) Astute readers will recognize these two biographies as classic summaries of the competing visions of God developed by the Greeks and the Hebrews. Early Greek philosophers warred against the oppressive myths of capricious gods, who meddled in the affairs of humanity, often for sport, and inflicted meaningless suffering upon helpless victims for their own amusement. In their place, Plato, Aristotle and the like exalted a view of the Supreme Being as an impersonal, static reality that neither felt "passions" nor "changed" in any way. By contrast, the Hebrews exalted a view of God as utterly personal: a living, dynamic presence who revealed himself to their people through the law and prophets, led them out of slavery in Egypt, and responded to their prayers. Over the millennia since humanity began to think and write about the divine, Greek, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian scholars have all had to grapple with these diametrically opposed biographies and account for the realities of daily life, advances in human understand of the world, and the sacred texts of the Bible (and Job in particular).
Job is a fitting theme since his story is one of a righteous man who is suddenly stripped of everything. He is depicted as an innocent victim of tragedy at the hands of an enemy: the satan. God's relationship to this calamity has always presented God's biographers with a primal trilemma often called the "problem of evil." And its exploration in relationship to God is called "theodicy." Attributed to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, the problem can be summarized thusly:
"willing but unable to take away evil (impotent)"
"able but unwilling (malevolent)"
"both willing and able—so why is there evil at all?" (p. 27)
Theists since Lactantius have felt compelled to address this “problem,” but perhaps no century has been more filled with reminders than the twentieth. Two World Wars and the explosive advancement of science brought theism and evil into sharp contrast. Appropriately, then, Witham spends a good portion of the book in this period.
Writing this review during Advent heightens my awareness of the critical role context plays when we approach the topic of Jesus. It is precisely the context of the birth narratives we read this time of year that make significant the many prophecies we see fulfilled in Jesus. The story just wouldn't make sense if the evangelists didn't set the stage with the words from the Hebrew prophets. Jesus isn't simply born "long ago" or "far, far way." Jesus is born at a very specific time in history, in a very specific place in the world. This matters tremendously for the story's impact. Were Jesus to have been born at any other time in history, in any other place, he could not have been Israel's Messiah and therefore he could not be the Jesus Christians worship; he would be neither "Jesus of Nazareth" nor "Jesus Christ."
N. T. Wright further sets the stage of Jesus' story by letting readers into many of the assumptions citizens of first-century Palestine (whether they be Jew or Gentile) would have made about Israel's Messiah due to the development of Judaism up to that point. This insight is critical for understanding Jesus because this is the understanding of the Gospel authors who wrote about Jesus—and the Gospels are our primary source of historical information about Jesus.
[Sidenote: Some observant readers will note my use of the qualifier "historical" in the previous sentence and might begin to question Wright's approach to the study of Jesus. This is to be expected. In recent US evangelicalism, many pages of ink, many pixels, and many mp3s have been used to campaign against any quest for the "historical Jesus". Wright is aware of the misgivings among US evangelicals toward such pursuits, and he is prepared to defend his methodology. For more on this, I'd recommend readers to his essay entitled, "A Grateful Dialogue: A Response" in Jesus & the Restoration of Israel edited by Carey C. Newman. Yet Wright even takes a moment in this book's preface to briefly comment on why we need both theological and historical study of Jesus. He writes,
"…writing about Jesus has never been, for me, a matter simply of 'neutral' historical study (actually, there is no such thing, whatever the topic, but we'll leave that aside for the moment); the Jesus whom I study historically is the Jesus I worship as part of the threefold unity of the one God. But, likewise, writing about Jesus has never been a matter simply of pastoral and homiletic intent; the Jesus whom I preach is the Jesus who lived and died as a real human being in first-century Palestine. Modern western culture, especially in America, has done its best to keep these two figures, the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith, from ever meeting. I have done my best to resist this trend, despite the howls of protest from both sides."]
This context which Wright provides is the socio-political-religious atmosphere of Jesus' day. What type of world does Jesus arrive in? Who did Jews expect him to be? Who did Romans fear he would be? These are important questions, without which we can scarcely piece together the story of Jesus, and therefore we cannot know if we are following him correctly.
Imagine I tell you to vote for Barack Obama in the 2012 election, but you've never heard of him or know anything about US presidential politics. You ask me to tell you his story. Now imagine trying to tell the story of Barack Obama's campaign for president in 2008 without mentioning George W. Bush, September 11th, or the war in Iraq. Imagine if you couldn't mention Islamic fundamentalism, conservative evangelicalism, socialism, or liberalism. Would his story make sense? Who would you think Barack Obama was? What about all the many references he makes to the previous administration, to presidents with whom he shares ideals, or to the US Constitution? If you had no clue what he was referring to when he mentioned these people, events, and so on, would you be able to determine what his campaign was all about? Would you be able to say definitively on what platform he ran?
So it is with Jesus. The context into which Jesus of Nazareth enters is a swirling, dangerous ball of energy. Therefore, Wright appropriately and brilliantly utilizes the analogy of "the perfect storm" throughout the book to describe the various pressures that surrounded Jesus. He also uses the analogy to describe the pressures we encounter approaching Jesus today. In both cases, I found this use of the analogy both helpful and memorable.
Last night I watched, via livestreaming video over the web, a debate hosted by the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity International University between Jim Wallis and Al Mohler on the topic of whether "social justice" is "integral" to the "mission of the church." If you are at all familiar with these two personas, you will immediately recognized which one represented the affirmative and which one advocated the negative. Jim Wallis is the best-selling author of God's Politics and President/CEO of Sojourners, which this year celebrates 40 years of "articulat[ing] the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world." Al Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—the "flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention"—and one of the largest seminaries in the world. Mohler is also an author of several books.
James Cone is a prophetic voice to US American Christians, and particularly to black and white church communities. Cone understands his social location as both a constraint on his viewpoint, and as an invaluable opportunity for unique insight. His insight draws upon his identity as both a Christian theologian and a black US American man.
In his lecture: "Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree", Cone utilizes the terrifying and soul-scaring reality of lynching in the US as a powerful symbol of the extreme, unjust victimization that characterized the cross—as well as a powerful symbol of the limitless hope and liberation that the cross provides for those who see God's suffering solidarity with humanity in it. Cone reminds us that we cannot ignore the reality of lynching and yet glamorize the cross; they are both symbols of gruesome violence wrought at the hands of evil empires. He also reminds us through both these symbols, millions of people around the globe have glimpsed the eschatological hope that characterizes the Christian faith, and have been compelled to seek justice in this world for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the stigmatized.
This evening I listened to two brief teachings by Shane Hipps that ushered in the conviction of the Holy Spirit. I immediately sensed the Spirit chastening me and leading me into a new way of engaging in online discussion. Here are some random thoughts I quickly typed up to share for public accountability.
1) The Medium of the Internet
I was reminded tonight why I no longer read the comments posted on YouTube beneath videos of controversial personalities. The level of vitriol condensed and delivered in short 200 character bursts is shockingly grotesque—to say nothing of the language.
This medium of the internet emboldens us with relative anonymity to say things most of us wouldn't dream of saying in a face-to-face conversation. And I think I have at times fallen prey to this temptation.
Open Theism has a serious PR problem. In fact, it has several. For starters, the name is terrible. It simply doesn't clearly communicate the view's central tenet: the partially indeterminate nature of the future. Which is understandable, since the central tenet is obscure and unsexy. However, good PR is designed to fix that. Instead the name "Open theism" invokes the idea that it is a type of theism (which already sounds way too general) that is "open" to other theisms. "Open theism" sounds like the perfect name for a type of religious pluralism that considers every possible theism valid—making it very "open." Secondly, with the exception of Greg Boyd and perhaps a few others, the theology scholars who have written in favor of Open theism are not charismatic personalities. Most are pure academics. Already this creates a disconnect between the intended audience—Christian laypersons—and the author. This is only exacerbated when the academic author communicates as if he (and they are almost entirely men too) is writing to his academic colleagues. Finally, the most prominent Open theist authors are by and large not very culturally or technologically savvy. Therefore, you don't see the proliferation of well-designed, strategically-marketed materials promoting their view. By contrast, Neo-Calvinism resources are extremely well-designed and strategically-marketed. Therefore, it isn't very difficult to understand why that view is gaining more and more ground in the US each day.
Church planters from the 'Bible Belt' and denominations that lean toward Fundamentalism are often moved bombastically to proclaim their mission to Boston in the starkest of terms. They view themselves as soldiers called to fight in a war against the forces of atheistic darkness or secular humanism [dun dun DUUUN]. Take this excerpt from a promotional video for church planting made by the Southern Baptists:
"The patriots' [who fought in the battle of Bunker Hill] Commander-in-Chief said, 'Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes'. They made a commitment to engage the enemy up close and personally. This epitomizes the church planting scene here in Boston, Massachusetts. We have been losing some battles, but we have decided we can win the war. Our supreme commander Jesus Christ is leading the charge in this spiritual battleground."
They sometimes describe themselves as pioneers braving the cruel frontier of a spiritual wasteland. They will cite skewed statistics that point to a bleak Christian presence and a defunct church. Now, I'm confident this sort of portrayal of Boston is highly effective at raising money from worrisome conservatives in Alabama and Mississippi, but I'd just like to publicly proclaim that IT ISN'T TRUE.
Theological Graffiti is a blog written by T. C. Moore @tc_moore ...a Jesus-disciple, husband, father, urban minister, sometimes designer, writer, preacher, and theology geek. For more about me, visit my Personal Website or my Online Profile. Otherwise, enjoy the graffiti.