Books_2016

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

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

— David Foster Wallace, “This is Water”

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

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

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

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

This brings me to “Chemical” by Jack Garratt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how N. T. Wright puts it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________________

  1. Michael J. Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness Following the Lamb Into the New Creation (Cascade Books, 2011), p.139.
  2. N. T. Wright, Revelation For Everyone (Westminster John Knox, 2011), p.92.
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That Time Wright Was Wrong: On Christians in the Military

Anyone who knows my theological steeze knows that I dig me some N. T. Wrizzle. I’ve lost track of how many books I’ve read by him—both his tomes and his popular-level work. And when he was in town (at Harvard), I got the perfunctory theogeek/fanboy selfie with the Bishop himself:

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See how happy I look!

So, naturally, on 99% of theological issues, I’m going to see eye-to-eye with Dr. Wright. But, it’s important to realize that even the theologians you admire most aren’t perfect. Everyone has their blind spots—even the Bishop!

Yesterday, my friend Erik (“Merks!”), hipped me to a Q&A response from Dr. Wright on “civil disobedience” and “Christians in the military.” Given that Dr. Wright is unabashedly Anglican, his responses shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone. Nevertheless, I find them too far flung to give him a pass on “tradition” alone.

Therefore, here, I will make three points in rebuttal to his second answer. But first, Dr. Wright’s answer to the question, “What would Paul say to a Christian serving in the military?”

Dr. N. T. Wright:

“This is a good question because the issues are I think finely balanced. First, let’s be clear that for the Jew and for the early Christian it is part of creational monotheism that the One God wants and intends that there should be human authorities. This is part of God’s making humans in his own image. He wants to run the world through human beings. Ultimately, anarchy is an unmaking of Genesis 1 and 2 – letting the monsters run the garden. (Hence Daniel 7 where the human figure is finally exalted over the monsters . . . but that’s another story.) However, granted universal sin, those to whom authority is given routinely abuse it and try to become tyrants. The answer to that is not anarchy, but fresh reassertion of order, holding rulers to account. (The failure of western democracies to do this is a major flaw in our present systems.) This is again straight Romans 13: God wants there to be human authorities, but they are answerable to him.

I assume that if there are authorities they sometimes have to use force to keep the peace, to protect the vulnerable from the bullies, to see that justice is done, etc etc. Of course this can be, and regularly was and is, abused in all sorts of ways. However, some kind of military force seems to me necessary precisely to back up the appropriate rule of law (which is there, to say it again, to protect the weak and the vulnerable – see Psalm 72!). It is therefore appropriate in principle for a Christian to serve in such a force, basically an extension of police work. HOWEVER, in the ancient world this caused all kinds of problems because Roman armies were routinely and substantially shaped by pagan belief and practice: worshipping their standards, offering sacrifices, inspecting auspices and so on, all things which a Christian couldn’t do (and if you didn’t do them you’d be suspected of subversive plotting or whatever)…. never mind the actions which the military would be required to undertake as part of the normal Roman style!

I don’t know enough about the second and third century to know at what point this became a major issue but it must have done quite soon. I think Paul would say to a soldier newly converted what he says to slaves in 1 Corinthians 7: OK, that’s where you are right now, but if you get a chance to get out, take it. Paul knew very well – this is what 1 Corinthians 8-10 is all about – that there are many ambiguities in Christian living within a pagan world and it’s best not to draw the lines too sharply at certain points, but to work at educating consciences, and not to judge one another while that’s going on.” [1]

1. The Early Church and Violence

In this brief response, Wright certainly doesn’t have space to rehearse a lengthy history of the early church’s engagement with violence and its relationship to the Roman military. That much is granted. Still, I find it entirely unacceptible to therefore summarize with:

“…Roman armies were routinely and substantially shaped by pagan belief and practice: worshipping their standards, offering sacrifices, inspecting auspices and so on, all things which a Christian couldn’t do (and if you didn’t do them you’d be suspected of subversive plotting or whatever)…. never mind the actions which the military would be required to undertake as part of the normal Roman style! I don’t know enough about the second and third century to know at what point this became a major issue but it must have done quite soon.”

The early church (pre-Constantine) most certainly did reject military service, but they did not do so exclusively on the grounds of Roman idolatry. Tertullian (c.160–225), who had the most to say about the incompatibility of the Roman military’s paganism with following Christ, also rejected military service on the grounds that followers of the Prince of Peace no longer practice war, and do not participate in “capital punishments.” He had as much to say about the violence of military service as its idolatry (as if the two did not share a symbiotic relationship).

“But now the question is whether a believer can become a soldier and whether a soldier can be admitted into the faith, even if he is a member only of the rank and file who are not required to take part in sacrifices or capital punishments. There can be no compatibility between the divine and the human sacrament (= military oath), the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters—God and Caesar.”

“Moses, to be sure, carried a rod; Aaron wore a military belt, and John (the Baptist) is girt with leather (i.e., like a soldier); and, if you really want to play around with the subject, Joshua the son of Nun led an army and the people waged war. But how will a Christian man go to war? Indeed how will he serve even in peacetime without a sword which the Lord has taken away? For even if soldiers came to John and received advice on how to act, and even if a centurion became a believer, the Lord, in subsequently disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier. No uniform is lawful among us if it is designated for an unlawful action.” [2]

Origen (c.185—251) too rejects military service on the grounds that a Christian’s role is pure and priestly, fighting in a spiritual battle against the demons that stir up war, which is ultimately of greater service to nations than those who physically fight!

“How much more so, that while others are engaged in battle, these tooshould engage as the priests and the ministers of God, keeping their hands pure,and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting… And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead us to the violationof oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kingsthan those who go into the field to fight for them.” [3]

Tertullian and Origen are two prominent voices from the pre-Constantinian Church. But what amplifies their voices even more is the deafening silence of any record of Christian soldiers from the time of the Cornelius, the centurian in Acts 10, and Marcus Aurelius (c.170), until Constantine’s reign in the Fourth century. Their voices echo loudly when you think of how rapidly and powerfully Christianity spread during this period, and yet…

…military service was expressly forbidden!

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Maybe the Bishop should revisit the testimony of early church martyr, St. Maximilian (295 AD).

In the consulate of Tuscus and Anulinus, on March 12, at Theveste in Numidia, Fabius Victor was brought before the court, together with Maximilian. The public prosecutor, Pompeian, opened the case, and said, ‘Fabius Victor is here with Caesar’s commissary, Valerian Quintian. I demand that Maximilian, son of Victor, a conscript suitable for service, be measured.’ The proconsul Dion asked the young man his name, and he answered, ‘What is the good of replying? I cannot enlist, for I am a Christian’; and added when the proconsul told the usher to take his height, ‘I cannot serve, I cannot do evil. I am a Christian.’ The proconsul repeated his order, and the usher reported that Maximilian measured five feet teninches. Then the proconsul said he was to be given the military badge, but Maximilian persisted, ‘Never! I cannot be a soldier.’

DION: You must serve or die.

MAXIMILIAN: I will never serve. You can cut off my head, but I will not be a soldier of this world, for I am a soldier of Christ.

DION: What has put these ideas into your head?

MAXIMILIAN: My conscience and He who has called me.

DION (to Fabius Victor): Put your son right.

VICTOR: He knows what he believes, and he will not change.

DION (to Maximilian): Be a soldier and accept the emperor’s badge.

MAXIMILIAN: Not at all. I carry the mark of Christ my God already.

DION: I shall send you to your Christ at once.

MAXIMILIAN: I ask nothing better. Do it quickly, for there is my glory.

DION (to the recruiting-officer): Give him his badge.

MAXIMILIAN: I will not take the badge. If you insist, I will deface it. I am a Christian, and I am not allowed to wear that leaden seal around my neck. For I already carry the sacred sign of the Christ, the Son of the living God, whom you know not, the Christ who suffered for our salvation, whom God gave to die for our sins. It is He whom all we Christians serve, it is He whom we follow, for He is the Lord of life, the Author of our salvation.

DION: Join the service and accept the sear, or else you will perish miserably.

MAXIMILIAN: I shall not perish: my name is even now before God. I refuse to serve.

DION: You are a young man and the profession of arms befits your years. Be a soldier.

MAXIMILIAN: My army is the army of God, and I cannot fight for this world. I tell you, I am a Christian.

DION: There are Christian soldiers serving our rulers Diocletian and Maximian, Constantius and Galerius.

MAXIMILIAN: That is their business. I also am a Christian, and I cannot serve.

DION: But what harm do soldiers do?

MAXIMILIAN: You know well enough.

DION: If you will not do your service I shall condemn you to death for contempt of the army.

MAXIMILIAN: I shall not die. If I go from this earth my soul will live with Christ my lord.

DION: Write his name down….Your impiety makes you refuse military service, and you shall be punished accordingly as a warning to others.

He then read the sentence: ‘Maximilian has refused the military oath through impiety. He is to be beheaded.’

MAXIMILIAN: God liveth!

Maximilian’s age was twenty-one years, three months and eighteen days. On his way to death he said to the assembled Christians, ‘Beloved brethren, make haste to attain the vision of God and to deserve a crown like mine with all your strength and with the deepest longing.’ He was radiant; and, turning to his father, he said, ‘That cloak you got ready for when I was a soldier, give it to the lictor. The fruits of this good work will be multiplied an hundredfold. May I welcome you in Heaven and glorify God with you!’

Almost at once his head was cut off.

A matron named Pompeiana obtained Maximilian’s body and had it carried in her litter to Carthage, where she buried it close to the holy Cyprian, not far from the palace. Victor went home joyfully, thanking God for having allowed him to send such a gift to Heaven, whither he was not long in following his son. Amen. [4]

2. Romans 13 Cannot be Divorced from Romans 12

The Bishop is certainly correct that God desires the world to have order, and rulers to rule justly, and the church to hold rulers to account. However, making a case for this on the grounds of Romans 13 without addressing the dependancy of that passage on the flow of Paul’s thought from Romans 12 is nearly inexcusable.

In Romans 12, Paul is empathic that Christians are not to be those who wield the sword of the rulers’ justice.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. [5]

It’s difficult to ignore how directly Paul cites Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount in this passage—and this is the passage which directly precedes chapter 13. Dr. Wright knows as well or better than anyone that the flow of Paul’s thought does not begin in chapter 13, but begins in chapter 12.

Romans 13 without Romans 12 creates Constantinianism, not Christian discipleship!

3. Jesus’s Church Breathes Kingdom Air

Yes the Creator God wants creation to have order. That much is clear, and on that much the Bishop and I are in full agreement! But the New Testament teaches that the community formed by Christ and the Spirit is an alternative polis to the present “order” of the world. While God certainly does desire his world to have order, he has created a special microcosm of the order that will one day characterize the whole world. That special order is the body of Christ, the Church.

In this order, God’s people will ”train for war no more”!

(Isaiah 2.4)

In this order, Jesus-disciples breath the Kingdom air of the eschaton, the already Shalom of the not-yet consummation!

(Romans 8)

In this order, justice looks like a Jewish preacher of righteousness dying on the Cross, not a military general waging war!

(Revelation 5)

In this order, triumph is achieved through weapons of mass reconciliation, not weapons of mass destruction!

(Colosians 2.13-15)

In this order, tanks are transformed into tractors! 

(Micah 4.3)

 [PS — For more on this subject, feel free to read an academic paper I wrote on the subject of violence, military service, and pacifism in the early church on Academia.edu titled “Christ, the Church & the Sword: Evidence for a Consistent Nonviolent Kingdom Ethic in the New Testament and the Early Church”

I also critique C. S. Lewis’s essay “Why I am Not a Pacifist” in The Weight of Glory in an essay titled “Why C. S. Lewis was Wrong about Pacifism”]

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  1. N. T. Wright, “Ask N. T. Wright: January Q & A Response” [www.facebook.com/notes/n-t-wright/ask-n-t-wright-january-q-a-response/606986489354412]
  2. Tertullian, Treatise on Idolatry 19; ANF 3:73.
  3. Origen, Against Celsus 8.73, as quoted in Christians in the Military: The Early Experience by Helgeland, Daly, and Burns, p. 142. [http://amzn.com/080061836X]
  4. The text of the passio is in Acta Sanctorum, March, vol. ii., and Ruinart, Acta sincera.*See Allard, Histoire des Persecutions, vol. iv; Delehaye, Les Passions des martyrs… pp. 104-110. In the third century the Roman army was recruited chiefly from volunteers, but the sons of veterans were under obligation to serve. In the Roman Martyrology, St Maximilian is called Mamilianus, and the place of his martyrdom is erroneously given as Rome.
  5. Romans 12.9-21 NIV

 

 

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Conquer Like the Lamb: Cruciform-centrism in Revelation (For Everyone) by N. T. Wright

For Christmas I was gifted with N. T. Wright’s “For Everyone” commentary set on the New Testament thanks to my wife and members of the New City Covenant church plant. THANK YOU!!! I’ve wanted this set of commentaries for my library for several years now, and it’s clear now that it was well worth the wait. Just as soon as all the shredded wrapping paper was collected and recycled, I was hard at work digesting the first book from the series I pulled from the shelf. I decided to start with Revelation. For one reason, I recently read Reversed Thunder by Eugene Peterson and loved it. 1 Also, having read a fair amount of Wright’s other work, I felt that Revelation might be where his theological insights would shine brightest—and I think I was right.

revelation_for_everyone_nt_wrightWright’s commentary on Revelation is excellent! It’s accessible, thorough yet brief, and clearly organized. Wright remains true to his signature areas of insight, expounding on the historical-cultural, as well as the socio-religio-political, contexts of the book; the Person of Jesus in relationship to Israel’s God (including, obviously, a healthy dose of insight from Second Temple Jewish theology); the nature of the Jesus Movement out of which this text emerges; and the nature of the ‘salvation’ this book (and the rest of the New Testament) proclaim. Wright’s unique perspective on justification makes a few important appearances, and his hallmark critique of Platonic dualism in Western visions of the afterlife also shows up from time to time. Even his now common exposés of violence and systemic injustice make their way into the book. This commentary has all the things which have made N. T. Wright one of my favorite theologians to read.

Above all, Wright’s commentary on Revelation is most praiseworthy for its explicit Cruciform-centrism. 2 Five discernible themes in Wright’s exposition of Revelation make this clear:

  1. Jesus is the Lamb at the Center of God’s Throne;
  2. The Powers War Against the Lamb, the Followers of the Lamb, and God’s Good Creation;
  3. The Lamb is Victorious Over the Powers in and Through the Cross;
  4. Jesus’s Bride Conquers Like the Lamb—Through Self-giving Love;
  5. God is Faithful to His Covenant Through the Lamb, the Followers of the Lamb, and New Creation

As Wright plainly states upfront: “…the whole point of the book. Jesus himself won the victory through his suffering, and so must his people.” – p.10

1. Jesus is the Lamb at the Center of God’s Throne

The first major theme Wright highlights in Revelation is John’s scandalous locating of Jesus within the divine identity. For John, Jesus is no demigod nor mere creature, Jesus is worthy of praise due only unto God Almighty. Commenting on chapter 1, verses 9 through 20, Wright writes,

“When we are looking at Jesus, [John] is saying, we are looking straight through him at the father himself.” – p.8

“Throughout the book the focus has been on the uninhibited worship offered by the whole creation to ‘the One on the throne and the lamb’ (5.13). Jesus shares the throne of God; Jesus shares the worship which is due to the one God and him alone.” – p.170

“The lamb shares the praise which belongs to the one and only God. This is John’s way of glimpsing and communicating the mind-challenging but central truth at the heart of Christian faith: Jesus, the lion-lamb, Israel’s Messiah, the true man — this Jesus shares the worship which belongs, and uniquely and only belongs, to the one creator God.” – p.58

In classic Wright fashion, however, Jesus’s divinity is not simply formulated in vanilla, systematic language. No, Wright sticks close to text of both chapters 4 and 5, drawing out from them a more robust and biblical explanation for how Jesus and the creator God of Israel share the one divine identity—and what that means for “followers of the lamb.”

“But notice what this means. The affirmation of the full, unequivocal divinity of the lion-lamb comes, and only comes, in the context of the victory of God, through the lion-lamb, over all the powers of evil. It isn’t enough just to agree with the idea, in the abstract, that Jesus is, in some sense or other, God. (People often ask me, ‘Is Jesus God?’, as though we knew who ‘God’ was ahead of time, and could simply fit Jesus in to that picture.) God, as we have already seen in Revelation, is the creator, who is intimately involved with his world, and worshipped by that world. God has plans and purposes to deliver his world from all that has spoiled it; in other words, to re-establish his sovereign rule, his ‘kingdom’, on earn as in heaven. It is at the heart of those plans, and only there, that we find the lion-lamb sharing the throne of the one God. The church has all too often split off a bare affirmation of Jesus’ ‘divinity’ from an acceptance of God’s kingdom-agenda. To do so is to miss the point, and to use a version of one part of the truth as a screen to stop oneself from having to face the full impact of the rest of the truth. We discover, and celebrate, the divinity of the lion-lamb Messiah only when we find ourselves caught up to share his work as the royal priesthood, summing up creation’s praises before him but also bringing his rescuing rule to bear on the world.” – p.58-59

Wright’s criticism hits home. It is far too easy to talk about Jesus’s “divinity” in an abstract sense—distancing ourselves from our responsibility to embody Jesus’s Kingdom Way in and through our lives. It’s not enough for us to simply acknowledge Jesus’s divinity in theory, Wright is saying, we must also acknowledge Jesus’s divinity in practice.

2. The Powers War Against the Lamb, the Followers of the Lamb, and God’s Good Creation

The second theme Wright draws out from Revelation is the reality of opposition to God’s purposes. Revelation is full of “monsters” (as Wright calls them). The satan is depicted as a dragon, there is a monster that rises up out of the sea, and there is also a land monster. Together they form what Wright calls, an “Unholy Trinity,” “the ghastly combined parody of God, Jesus and the spirit.” (p.120)

Wright skillfully draws out the meaning of these apocalyptic images, and gives us much-needed insight into both the ancient world, as well as our contemporary world.

“The profound problems within that creation mean that the creator must act decisively to put things right, not because creation is bad and he’s angry with it but because it’s good and he’s angry with the forces that have corrupted and defaced it, and which threaten to destroy it (11.18)” – p.49

“The monster is Rome. Or rather, as we shall see, the monster is the dark power of pagan empire… John sees behind the pomp and purple to the dark spiritual reality of satanic rule which has enabled the empire to impose itself across so much of the world.” – p.116

“As often in the world of realpolitik, or underworld dealings, so in the world of spiritual warfare: the ultimate powers prefer not to show themselves, but to act through others. They choose secondary and tertiary intermediaries; they give them some of their power; they back them up where necessary. We are today perhaps more aware than some of our forebears of how what we call ‘dark forces’ go to work.” – p.115

This is not just a history lesson either. Wright draws the connection from the message of Revelation to the application for Christians and churches today.

“…the abiding and overriding lesson for the church, then and now, should nevertheless be clear. The brutal but seductive ‘civilizations’ and national empires, which ensnare the world by promising luxury and delivering slavery, gain their power from the monster, the System of Imperial Power. Some have called this ‘the domination system’, a system which transcends geographical and historical limitations and reappears again in every century.” – p.157

As usual, Wright challenges readers to overcome the compartmentalization that is part and parcel with modern Western culture, seeing instead that the ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ realities of our world are interrelated. The message of Revelation applies just as much to the suburban U.S. homemaker unknowingly enslaved by the unseen system of materialistic idolatry as it is to the first-century pagan peasant consciously aware of her domination by Rome.

3. The Lamb is Victorious Over the Powers in and Through the Cross

The Good News is that the powers have been defeated! Try as they might to cling to the last vestiges of power, the forces of darkness have been conquered in principle by the powerful, self-sacrificial love of God demonstrated supremely in Jesus’s Cross.

“The reality is that the creator God and the lamb have already won the victory, the victory which means that those who follow the lamb are rescued from harm.” – p.73-74

“…the blood of the lamb, the sacrificial Passover-like death of Jesus himself, has rescued them from slavery to sin, making them able at once to stand in the presence of the living God.” – p.75

“John believed in the God of the Exodus, the God who sets slaves free. A huge amount of his book, as we have seen, was built up on the basis that what God did in Egypt he will do again, this time on a cosmic scale — and that the basic act of slave-freeing has already taken place with the sacrificial death of Jesus. ‘With your own blood you purchased a people for God’ (5.9). That’s Exodus-language, buying-slaves-to-set-them-free language. Now, John looks at Rome/Babylon and sees, with this mind’s eye, the slave-market.” – p.165

4. Jesus’s Bride Conquers Like the Lamb—Through Self-giving Love

God’s people, “followers of the lamb,” live like their Lamb-Shepherd, giving their lives away, courageous even unto death. Through their sacrifice, through their demonstrated love, they participate in the once-for-all victory of the lion-lamb, Jesus. This way of life is “cruciform”—a life shaped and molded by the power of Jesus’s Cross. In the same way Jesus humbled himself, served others, loved others, and gave his life for others, so too will his followers. And in so doing, they too will “conquer” the powers of death and hades. They too will participate in the victory of God over the dark forces of anti-creation!

“They are to ‘conquer,’ not by fighting back, but by following Jesus himself, who won the victory through his own patient suffering. Some in these churches will suffer. Some will die. All must bear patient witness to Jesus, thereby ‘conquering’ the evil forces that surround and threaten them.” – p.14

“We are told, again and again, that the lamb has conquered through his blood, his sacrificial death, and that his followers are to conquer in the same way.” – p.134

“The lamb has won the victory over the dragon and his sidekicks, through his own sacrificial death. Now he calls his people to put that victory into practice, by following him down the same path. Jesus had stressed this during his public ministry: if anyone wanted to come after him, they should deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. Somehow, the way to victory is the way of the cross. It was strange and challenging then, and it is just as strange and challenging today.” – p.124

“For some reason, all those talks and sermons I used to hear never got around to the second half of the verse: ‘I will come in to them and eat with them, and they with me.’ No early Christian could have heard those words without thinking of the regular meal, the bread-breaking, at which Jesus would come powerfully and personally and give himself to his people. Such meals anticipate the final messianic banquet (see 19.9). They are advance ‘comings’ of the one who will one day come fully and for ever. Those who share this meal, and who are thereby strengthened to ‘conquer’ as Jesus ‘conquered’ through this death, will have the most extraordinary privilege. It is already quite mind-blowing to think of Jesus sharing the throne of God — though the early Christians saw this as the fulfillment of Psalm 110 and Daniel 7. But now it appears that ‘those who conquer’ are going to share Jesus’ throne as well. They will (that is) share his strange, sovereign rule over the world, the rule to which he came not by force of arms but by the power of suffering love.” – p.40-41

“What we are dealing with is several different angles of vision on the one single great reality: that through the awful turmoil and trouble of the world, God is establishing through Jesus a people who, following the lamb, are to bear witness to God’s kingdom through their own suffering, through which the world will be brought to repentance and faith, so that ultimately God will be king over all.” – p.103

“[Revelation] is not about private spirituality in the present, or an escapist ‘salvation’ in the future. [Revelation] is about the living God confronting the powers of the world with the news that he is now in charge, and that the mode of his rule is that which was established by ‘his Messiah’, the lamb. ‘Suffering love conquers all’ is the message, as powerful as it is unwelcome (unwelcome, sadly, all too often in the church, as well as in the world).” – p.104

“The heavenly reality of the victorious battle is umbilically joined to the earthly reality of the martyrs’ deaths. As followers of the lamb, they believe that they have already been saved by his blood, and that his self-giving to death is the pattern which they must now follow. And that is what wins the battle.” – p.112

5. God is Faithful to His Covenant Through the Lamb, the Followers of the Lamb, and Through New Creation

Death is not the final word for the followers of the Lamb. The Lamb is the Word of God made flesh, and he will have the final word!

God’s judgment is against all the powers of anti-creation, every force that would seek to deface or destroy God’s good world. God will not abandon creation; God will be faithful to his covenant promises and will reign and rule in justice.

God has sovereignly chosen to fulfill his covenant in and through his Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and through Jesus’s disciples: the followers of the Lamb. In and through them, God will remake the world, he will re-establish his rule and reign on earth as it is in heaven.

“So many Christians have read John’s book expecting that the final scene will be a picture of ‘heaven’ that they fail completely to see the full glory of what he is saying. Plato was wrong. It isn’t a matter — it never was a matter — of ‘heaven’ being the perfect place to which we shall (perhaps) go one day, and ‘earth’ being the shabby, second-rate dwelling from which we shall be glad to depart for good. As we have seen throughout the book, ‘earth’ is a glorious part of God’s glorious creation, and ‘heaven’, though God’s own abode, is also the place where the ‘sea’ stands as a reminder of the power of evil, so much so that at one point there is ‘war in heaven’. God’s two-level world needs renewing in both its elements. But when that is done, we are left not with a new heaven only, but a new heaven and a new earth — and they are joined together completely for ever.” – p.187-188

“…the central reality of God’s future is Jesus himself, and because Jesus is not merely a future reality but the one who lived and died and rose again and even now reigns in glory and holds the seven stars in his hand, the reality of the new city, though still a matter of hope, is something to be glimpsed in the present, especially in the ways sketched throughout this book: worship and witness. The new city is not just a dream, a comforting future fantasy. Those who follow the lamb already belong in that city, and already have the right to walk its streets.” – p.195-196

“God’s generous love is the source and goal of all things. How can the city where he and the lamb are personally present be other than the great wellspring of life, flowing out to those who need it!” – p.199

“In the new creation, there is no room for anti-creation. In the world of life, there is no room for death.” – p.195

“It is from the city, the city where is the bride, the bride which is the lamb’s followers, that healing restorative stewardship is to flow. This is how the creator God will show, once and for all, that his creation was good, and that the himself is full of mercy.” – p.200-201

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all!

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1. Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination by Eugene Peterson.

2. “Cruciform-centrism” is a neologism combining “Cruciform” (shaped by or into the form of Jesus’s Cross) with “centrism” (to make central). By focusing his commentary around the centrality of the Church being formed into the image of Christ—particularly in his Cross-shaped, self-giving love—Wright’s book can aptly be called “Cruciform-centric.” For books on “cruciformity,” check out The Cruciform Church by C. Leonard Allen, Cruciformity and Inhabiting the Cruciform God by Michael Gorman. For more on “cruciform-centrism” check out my reflections on Revelation and Greg Boyd’s cruciform-centric hermeneutic, as well as Greg Boyd’s posts on making sense of the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament.

Photo credit for the lamb fountain: http://www.flickr.com/photos/twostoutmonks/ used in accordance with Creative Commons license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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The “Real” Jesus: Why Reza Aslan is Right! (…and Wrong)—Jesus, Revolution, and Objectivity

Reza_AslanFor those who are not familiar with Dr. Reza Aslan (like his Fox News interviewer, apparently), he is religion scholar (1) who has published several books on terrorism, Islam, and radical Islamic fundamentalism.(2) I became familiar with Aslan when he appeared twice on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, once in 2009 to promote his book How to Win a Cosmic War and again in 2010 to promote a different book: Beyond Fundamentalism. Both books deal with religion, globalization, and terrorism.(3)

Recently, Aslan has returned to The Daily Show, this time to promote his new book on Jesus, but not Christianity.(4) At the start of the interview, John Oliver (the interviewer) says:

“Let’s be clear, this book is about Jesus the man, not so much Jesus the Christ.”

To which Aslan responds, nodding his head in the affirmative:

“It’s about the historical Jesus, not the Christ of faith.”

The tricky thing about evaluating Aslan’s take on Jesus is that so much of what he says is exactly correct. But in the fine details, Aslan makes many critical errors that are both historical and theological. In this post, I’d like to give Aslan credit for what he gets correct, while also pointing out the mistakes he makes and offering a possible reason why he’s made them.

Who is the “Real” Jesus?

In the Daily Show interview, Aslan argues firstly that to understand Jesus—whether you are a Christian or not—you must understand Jesus’s historical, cultural context: first-century Palestine.

“[Jesus] lived in a specific time and place, and that time and place kinda matters. You know, I mean, it’s like, if you really want to know who he was, you’d have to put his words and his actions in the context of the world in which he lived. The teachings have to be seen according to the social ills that he confronted, and the political forces that he confronted.”

You’ll get no counter-argument from me. This is just plain true! To understand who Jesus was, we not only need the dogmas of the Church, but we also need the history of the Jewish people, of the Roman world, and the rest of his cultural context. One of the most important things we learn about Jesus from the New Testament evangelists is that Jesus didn’t live “long ago and far far away” but lived at a particular time in history, in a particular place in the world, as a particular man. Understanding those particularities is crucial to understanding Jesus and his Good News.

Aslan goes on to argue that, at the particular time when Jesus lived in the particular place he did (Palestine), that region was experienced unprecedented turmoil and tumult.

“[It was] a time of apocalyptic fervor. A time when we’re slowly moving toward this huge Jewish revolt against the Roman empire, that ultimately resulted in the leveling of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the Jews…”

I see nothing to argue with here either. The New Testament itself seems to not only confirm this, but to underscore it.

Aslan continues by pointing out that the one historical fact everyone agrees on—whether they are Christians or not—is that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. This, Aslan takes to be the common denominator between all historical accounts and all religious claims. Everyone agrees on this one thing. From there, Aslan argues that this form of execution was reserved for just one set of persons: revolutionaries. He argues that Rome exclusively crucified insurgents, brigands or “bandits”. (This is actually what the Greek word translated “thief” meant, says Aslan). Based on these facts, Aslan takes the next logical step to claim that Jesus was, in fact, a revolutionary leading a cultural uprising against his people’s oppressors: Rome.

Here’s where the waters begin to get muddied. Aslan is correct in one sense and incorrect in an important second sense. Aslan is correct that Jesus’s crucifixion is a historical fact on which we can hang our hats. And Aslan is correct that Jesus began a movement of people that threatened the established powers that be. But from there, he chooses to make this the sole historical fact by which he evaluates all other claims. Even more so, he makes all instances of crucifixion entirely uniform. By flattening out the cause for crucifixion, to the point that there was never any variation whatsoever, he can build an airtight historical reconstruction from the one fact that Jesus was crucified alone.

This is a clear example of historical reductionism. While it is certainly true that very few, if any, credible historians would argue that Jesus was not crucified, this is far from the only historical fact upon which a reconstruction can be built. It is clear that Aslan has drawn a line around the New Testament Gospels and placed them firmly in the realm of “religious claims,” allowing none of their narratives to enter his historical imagination. Instead, only what he deems universally accepted about Jesus, by secular and critical sources alike, can be admitted. This is a very extreme view.

To demonstrate just how extreme this view is, let’s compare this view with that of Bart Ehrman, an agnostic New Testament scholar who is critical of Christianity. His most recent book is titled Did Jesus Exist? A Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. In it, Ehrman dedicates an entire chapter to the Gospels as sources of reliable history. As a critical scholar, Ehrman believes it is wrong to treat the Gospels as privileged texts. Instead, he evaluates them on the same bases that he would any other ancient narrative account. He writes,

“Sometimes the Gospels of the New Testament are separated from all other pieces of historical evidence and given a different kind of treatment because they happen to be found in the Bible, the collection of books that Christians gathered together declared sacred scripture. The Gospels are treated this way by two fundamentally opposed camps of readers, and my contention is both are wrong.

“At one end of the spectrum, fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians often treat the Gospels as literature unlike anything else that has ever been produced because, in their opinion, these books were inspired by God.

“At the other end of the spectrum is another group insisting that that the books of the Bible need to be given separate treatment. These are certain agnostics or atheists who claim that since, say, the Gospels are part of the Christian sacred scripture, they have less value than other books for establishing historical information.

“[The] authors [of the Gospels] were human authors… they wrote in human languages and in human contexts; their books are recognizable as human books, written according to the rhetorical conventions of their historical period. They are human and historical, whatever else you may think about them, and to treat them differently is to mistreat them and to misunderstand them.

“To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly.” (5)

To read Ehrman, a vocal and prolific critic of Christianity’s claims about Jesus, prescribe a far more generous reading of the New Testament Gospels than affords Aslan, gives us a fixed point from which to place Aslan’s methodology. It is more than apparent that Aslan’s methodology is far beyond “left” or “liberal” and off into the void of profoundly spurious opinion.

So this raises the question: Why would Aslan be so dismissive of the Gospels as sources of true history?

The answer I propose is derived from Aslan’s repeated appeals to both controlled scholarship and objectivity. The facts, however, all point in the opposite direction. Not only are Aslan’s scholarly opinions not objective (which is always the case), he has at least one very good personal motive for creating a less-than-historical “historical Jesus”.

Reza Aslan’s De-Conversion from Evangelical Christianity

Perhaps the most revealing portion of Aslan’s Daily Show interview was when John Oliver began to share the powerful way he could relate to the humanity of Jesus, which for him as a child was most poignantly expressed in Jesus’s agonizing cry from the cross. For Oliver, this humanized Jesus and made him a person with whom he could relate. (It seems that more than ever, people who have not read the New Testament book of Hebrews, are desperately searching for a High Priest who “can empathize with

Aslan agrees, and then relates his own story of journeying from a convert to “evangelical Christianity” to an academic historian who admires his own historical reconstruction of Jesus. Aslan says,

“In college, when I began to study the New Testament, I became far more interested in this historical person, than I ever was of this (sort of) celestial ‘Christ’. This man who lived 2000 years ago, who defied the most powerful empire the world had ever know—and lost!—but nevertheless stood up for the weak and the powerless, the outcasts and the dispossessed, and ultimately sacrificed his life for those people.”

If he stopped here, I would be waving my Pentecostal hanky and shouting Amen! Aslan could be a Preacher!

But he goes on…

“Christians believe that he sacrificed his life to free us from sin. That’s a perfectly fine interpretation—for ‘the Christ’. But what we know about the man Jesus, is that he went to the cross on behalf these outcasts that he was fighting for.”

In part 2 of the extended interview, Aslan goes on to argue that Jesus was deeply involved in the politics of his day simply by virtue of assuming the Messianic role. Aslan correctly relates to viewers that “Messiah means ‘anointed one’. The entire purpose of the Messiah is to recreate the kingdom of David on earth, to usher in the reign of God. Well if you’re ushering in the reign of God, you’re ushering out the reign of Caesar”.

Aslan is precisely correct. The role of Messiah was a direct affront to the Roman empire, the assertion that a new empire was taking over. Simply by virtue of Jesus fulfilling the Messianic prophecies (e.g. entering Jerusalem on a donkey, etc.), Jesus’s actions proclaimed his purpose and telos.

The fundamental problem with Aslan’s assessment of Jesus is that he creates a very clear false dichotomy. One can either believe that Jesus was a revolutionary who went to the cross for his brothers and sisters fighting against the oppression of the Roman empire… OR… one can believe that Jesus went to the cross for the “sins” of all humanity. Aslan presents these options as mutually exclusive, but are they? Put simply, the answer is no.

Jesus most certainly was crucified under the charge of revolution, insurrection, revolt; Jesus most certainly did “fight for his people”; and Jesus most certainly did assume the highly political Messianic role that carried with it the implication that he would usher in the reign of God. On each one of these points, Aslan and the Church are in total agreement. The Church, however, understands something about history that Aslan does not. Namely, what the “reign of God” is actually all about.

For Aslan, the “reign of God” was merely coded Jewish language for a Jewish State, Jewish autonomy, Jewish sovereignty. But even a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible reveals that for the Jewish people, the “reign of God” was far more than a nationalistic victory. The “reign of God” was the ushering in of an entirely new world order—a new way of all people relating to one another in love. In fact, in the Hebrew worldview, the “reign of God” would culminate in a “new heave and a new earth” (Isaiah 65.17). The Hebrew prophets foretold of a day when the “lion will lay down with the lamb” (11.6) and when “swords will be beaten into plowshares” (2.4), when people will “train for war no more” (2.4) and when God’s perfect justice will flow like a river, and cover the whole earth (Amos 5.24).

Therefore, when Jesus comes on the scene, deliberately walking in the political, revolutionary role of Messiah, he’s not only “opposing Rome on behalf of his people,” but he’s also announcing the beginning of a new age—the very “reign of God!” For Aslan to acknowledge that Jesus was fulfilling the role of the Jewish Messiah without acknowledging that the “reign of God” the Messiah would usher in was as “spiritual” as it was “political” betrays a deep, deep misunderstanding of the ancient Hebrew worldview. Ancient Hebrews didn’t divide the world into neat compartments of “spiritual” and “political.” Ancient Hebrews didn’t see their nationalistic sovereignty as something separate from the new age of shalom the Messiah would bring. They saw them as one and the same! The type of dualism that Aslan is dealing in is a Platonic (Greek) way of viewing the world that the historical Jesus would not recognize!

Objectivity, Scholarship, and the Pain of Loosing the Jesus of Faith

In both his Daily Show and Fox News interviews, Dr. Reza Aslan has attempted to disclaim his historical reconstruction of Jesus in two ways. First, he goes out of his way to assure viewers that he is not “attacking Christianity” by letting us know that his own wife and mother are Christians, and that his brother-in-law is an “evangelical pastor.” This is what I’m calling the “control” defense. By making this claim, Aslan is essentially using another version of the “I have a black friend” defense for the accusation of racism. Instead of a “black friend,” Aslan has a “Christian mother,” a “Christian wife,” and an “evangelical pastor brother-in-law.” So he’s triple protected from anti-Christian bias—see how that works?!

The second way Aslan insulates himself from the accusation of bias is by claiming his education grants him scholarly objectivity. Aslan’s Fox News interview is a debacle for multiple reasons. The interviewer obviously did not do her homework, does not know who Aslan is, and for some reason assumes one must be a Christian to write about Jesus. Her biases are obvious and aren’t surprising in the least, considering where she works. But Aslan’s defensive posture also went overboard. The first time he countered her questioning about why a Muslim would choose to write a book on Jesus with his academic credentials, I applauded him. Aslan has more than adequate academic credentials to author a book on Jesus. It’s clear her questioning was purely out of fear of his Muslim faith. There’s no doubt the interviewer would not have started with the same line of question for a Christian author writing about Muhammed, for example. But, nevertheless, Aslan’s defense crossed the line when his insistence of his academic credentials then led him to deny any and all biases whatsoever. At that point, I felt disappointed in Dr. Aslan.

The beginning of scholarship is recognizing one’s limitations, preconceived notions, and biases, because every human being has them. None of our motives are pure, and none of us is perfectly capable of interpreting “facts.” Aslan insisted several times that he has been studying religion and Jesus in particular for 20 years. That is a long time to remain completely objective about a figure who has literally changed the world. I submit, it is impossible. Scholars with PhD are least of all objective. They have reached the end of an arduous program honing their focus tighter and tighter until it reaches a fine point. PhDs have more opinions than should be expected on subjects they have researched for decades, spending countless hours reading and writing. To remain objective on a subject onto which one has poured so much attention isn’t even feasible let alone expected. Of course Aslan is biased! Of course he has strong opinions! That’s completely normal, and doesn’t necessarily negate his scholarship. What does, however, besmirch his scholarship is adamant insistence that he is objective.

I want to suggest that there is no greater reason for Aslan’s bias than his own testimony of loosing the Jesus of Faith for himself. In his Daily Show interview he described himself when he became an evangelical Christian as a young person. He said, “I really burned with [Jesus’s] Gospel message. I really felt it deep in my life.” That’s not a dispassionate description at all. In fact, that sounds like the testimony of someone who deeply wanted to believe in Jesus. But as his testimony goes on, it’s clear that he felt he had to choose between the Christ of Faith whom he’d encountered and the Jesus of History whom he’d begun to study in school. That choice drove a wedge between Aslan and the Jesus who he’d encountered—the Risen Christ.

N. T. Wright, who is arguably the world’s foremost New Testament scholar and historian, has written an enormous amount about Jesus and his first-century context. In an article for Christianity Today from several years ago, Wright defending the need for history, but also discussed history’s limitations and our own vested interest in history. I wonder if Wright’s insight isn’t wholly relevant for Aslan.

“…history isn’t enough by itself. […] It isn’t enough to know that Jesus is the Savior; I must know that he is the Savior for me. History cannot tell me that. But it can reconstruct the framework within which it makes sense—the biblical framework that Jesus and his followers took for granted. If Jesus didn’t really exist, or was really a revolutionary Zealot, or a proto-Buddhist mystic, or an Egyptian freemason, the “for me” floats like a detached helium balloon on the thin, vulnerable air of subjectivism. It is when we put Jesus in his proper historical context that the Resurrection proposes that he was the Messiah, that the Messiah is Lord of the world, and that he died and was raised for me. History is challenging, but also reassuring.” (7)

___________________________
1. Alsan’s academic religion credentials start with a BA in Religions from Santa Clara University, an MTh from Harvard Divinity, and a PhD in Sociology of Religion from UC Santa Barbara. Sources: [http://rezaaslan.com/about/, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reza_Aslan#Background, http://www.drew.edu/crcc/programsinitiatives/wallerstein-distinguished-visiting-scholars/dr-reza-aslan]

2. http://www.amazon.com/Reza-Aslan/e/B001JONKIK

3. http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-april-20-2009/reza-aslan, http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-april-5-2010/reza-aslan

4. Aslan’s book on Jesus is titled: Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth [http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-july-17-2013/reza-aslan]

5. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart Ehrman (HarperOne, 2012), p.71-73 [http://amzn.com/0062204602]

6. https://twitter.com/ABlackFriend

7. “Abandon Studying the Historical Jesus? No, We Need History” by N. T. Wright
[http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/april/16.27.html?start=1]

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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: The Gospel, Keeping Torah, Power and Table Fellowship (A Tribute to Dr. King)

On this day of national remembrance for a minister of the Gospel, I thought it appropriate to write a piece that both honors Dr. King’s memory while also issuing a fresh challenge for today to the church in the US. I’d like to briefly reflect on the Gospel in the New Testament with an eye toward how it might have implications for race, power, and table fellowship in US churches.

Peter’s Prejudice

After Jesus’ ascension, and after the church was endued with the power of the Holy Spirit, God used Peter to share the Gospel with the Gentile centurion named Cornelius. Peter initially objected to this mission (Acts 10.9-23). He was a ”good Jew.” He obeyed the Torah, including the call to be undefiled, separate from “the nations.” Father Abraham was promised that his offspring would be a blessing, would reveal the Most High God, to the whole world—including the Gentiles. But by Jesus’ time, those who called themselves Abraham’s children saw the nations as enemies to be despised and avoided (Luke 10:25-37). Those who taught the Torah sought to justify themselves with the Scriptures (v. 29). But Jesus taught that even the despised Samaritans are ‘neighbors’ whom God’s people are to show mercy (v. 36-37).

Peter was slow to catch on to Jesus’ program, but eventually he got it. When he saw that the Spirit had led him to Cornelius, he said,

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10.34-35) 

And after he witnessed the Holy Spirit being given to Cornelius’ household, just as He had been given to Jesus’ Jewish disciples, he said,

“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (v. 47)

Peter’s declaration that these Gentiles should not be prevented from receiving water baptism is highly significant. Water baptism is initiation into the one Church of Jesus Christ. Peter was so thoroughly convinced that Cornelius and his family were true disciples of Jesus, that he was willing to welcome them into the church and join them around the Lord’s Table in fellowship.

The Truth of the Gospel

Old habits are hard to break, especially if they those habits have been formed within one’s religion-culture-ethnic identity. Some men “came from James” to Antioch—which is to say some Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem. Quickly, Peter forgot the lesson God taught him in the vision of the sheet full of “unclean” animals, and in the home of Cornelius. Just that quickly, Peter became ashamed of the Gospel for which he had previously praised God. All the sudden, it was no longer glorious of God to have open up the Gospel to all nations under heaven in Jesus—it was shameful. Peter didn’t want to be judged by his Jewish brethren. Peter wanted to please them, win their approval (Gal. 1.10).

Paul has risked his life for the Gospel on many occasions. Once, when the Jews heard a rumor he had brought Titus into the Temple courts, they were going to kill him! (Acts 21) Paul would not tolerate the Gospel’s perversion to uphold cultural taboos. For Paul, the cross means God has opened up the Kingdom to all people. For Paul, keeping Torah was a cowardly act of capitulation and fear of persecution (6.12). For Paul, keeping Torah meant being alienated from Christ, traveling beyond the realm of grace (5.4). Paul was pissed! (5.12)

Peter wasn’t just being “cliquey”, he wasn’t just being snobby; Peter was ashamed of the Gospel! Paul says Peter was not acting “in line with the truth of the Gospel.” (2.14) Instead, Peter had been deceived, thrown into confusion, and believed “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all”. (1.6-7)

Some groups of evangelical Christians in the US today would like you and me to believe that issues of race and ethnic identity are peripheral to “the Gospel.” For them, “the Gospel” is the forgiveness of their individual sins. For them, “the Gospel” is just between you and God—a “personal relationship with God.” Paul disagrees.

For Paul, those who advocated for the Judaizing of the Gentile believers rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ—that the Messiah of Israel is the Lord of All Nations!! For Paul, those who relied upon their ethnic identity as Jews who keep Torah, were not trusting in their New Identity as followers of the Way: the One New Humanity (Eph. 2.15).

Paul rebuked Peter saying,

“You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” – Galatians 2.14-16

Regarding Paul’s rebuke of Peter, N. T. Wright comments:

“The force his statement is clear: “Yes, you are Jewish; but as a Christian Jew you ought not to be separating on ethnic lines.” Reading Paul strictly in his own context—as John Piper rightly insists we must always ultimately do—we are forced to conclude, at least in a preliminary way, that ‘to be justified’ here does not mean ‘to be granted free forgiveness of your sins,’ to come into right relation with God’ or some other near-synonym of ‘to be reckoned “in the right” before God,’ but rather, and very specifically, ‘to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.’ […] for Paul, ‘justification,’ whatever else it included, always had in mind God’s declaration of membership, and that this always referred specifically to the coming together of Jews and Gentiles in faithful membership of the Christian family.

What, then are the ‘works of the law,’ by which one cannot be ‘justified’ in this sense? Again, the context is pretty clear. They are the ‘living like a Jew’ of Galatians 2:14, the separation from the ‘Gentile sinners’ of Galatians 2:15. They are not, in other words, the moral ‘good works’ which the Reformation tradition loves to hate. They are the things that divide Jew from Gentile: specially, in the context of this passage (and we have no right to read Galatians 2:16 other than in the context of Galatians 2:11-15) the ‘works of the law’ which specify, however different Jewish groups might have put it at the time, that ‘Jews do not eat with Gentiles.’ What one might gain by such ‘works of the law’ is not a treasury of moral merit, but the assured status of belonging to God’s people, separated from the rest of humankind.”
Justification, p. 116-117

Power and the Gospel: What does Race have to do with Power?

Table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians is the backdrop behind Galatians, and many (if not all) of Paul’s letters. But even the racial segregation and injustice that Torah-keeping secured in the church wasn’t the ultimate issue—Power was. Ethnic identity secured for the Jewish Christians their privileged position of power in the fledgling Christian community. As long as one had to become a Jew (be circumcised and keep the Torah) to be a full member of the Church, then Jewish Christians held all the power. How could Jewish Christians, who have the proud, holy tradition of being Abraham’s children, God’s “called-out ones,” give equal standing in the church to those “Gentile sinners” who often persecuted and oppressed them? This is the Gospel Paul was willing to die to protect:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”

– Philippians 2.5-11

Jesus had all the power in the universe: equality with God. Yet, it was precisely his divinity that compelled him to take on flesh, dwell among humanity like light exposing darkness, and lay down his life for his enemies. Jesus divested himself of power because he was God, not in spite of that fact!

Dr. King famously called Sunday mornings the most segregated time of the American week. While fighting for the civil rights of African Americans, he prophetically called the US church to account. He challenged us to consider the implications of the Gospel on race and power, economic oppression and war. He was a minister of the Gospel, and it is important for us not to let his legacy get hijacked or co-opted.

Power Dynamics in the Church: Then and Now

In the sixth chapter of Many Colors, Soong-Chan Rah helps us see the application of first-century Gospel power dynamics better, so that we can more easily discern how they are at work in the US church today. To establish the historical context of his exposition on Acts 15, he writes:

“The dramatic increase of Gentile believers into the Christian church surprised many of the Jewish believers, creating an unexpected and maybe even unwelcome diversity in the early church. Having formerly operated in a fairly rigid (Jewish customs and traditions) and strict single-ethnic cultural context, the early church was now becoming racially and ethnically pluralistic. Racial heterogeneity was becoming the norm.” (p 115)

Rah points out that Peter’s prejudice wasn’t uncommon. Jewish Christians in the first century had many reasons to distrust and discriminate against Gentiles. Is the US in the 21st century any different?

“A number of similarities exist between the context and ethos of the early church and the current context of American evangelicalism. First, the impact and history of racism and racist perspectives are evident in both contexts. The dramatic changes that form the backdrop for Acts 15 were complicated by the history of animosity between Jews and Gentiles. As an occupied power, Jews were antagonistic toward their Gentile conquerors.

The history of Jewish separatism had also led to a sense of racial segregation and hostility toward Gentiles. A common prayer of the Jewish male thanked God ‘for not making me a Gentile, a woman, or a slave.’ This perspective had historical roots that informed how the Jewish Christians would receive Gentile believers.

In the American church context, there also exists a history of animosity in race relations. There is no denying the long and well-documented history of racism in America[…]” (p. 116-117)

Racism existed in the first century, though they didn’t use the same categories we use today. Jews separated the world into two groups: themselves and everyone else. After all, they are God’s chosen people. But God’s chosen people had a long history of exile and oppression. They carried deep-seated resentment toward their Pagan oppressors. Keeping Torah wasn’t just the way first-century Jewish Christians maintained their ethnic identity, it was also the way they maintained power in the church. Theirs was the faith in the One True God, and theirs would be faith in His Messiah: Jesus.

To maintain this power dynamic in the church, the “agitators” Paul spoke of in Galatians (1.7, 5.12) were requiring Gentiles to become Jews to be accepted into the Christian church family. Rah writes,

“A way to define racism from a biblical-theological framework is the establishment of human standards that replace the standards of God. Racism, therefore, could be seen as the product of prejudice and power. [The agitators] sought to maintain their power by asserting their racial preferences above and beyond the standards set by God. [The agitators] believed that they had the right to demand a physical likeness (via circumcision) above the spiritual likeness demanded by God. [The agitators] were asking the Gentiles to ”become like us in order to belong to the church.” (p. 118)*

In Acts 15, the leaders of the church formally confront the issue of Gentiles entering the church. Rah’s comments on this monumental event are helpful for my purposes:

“…the early church leadership makes the correct choices that lead to the unleashing of the gospel to move beyond the confines of Jewish culture. They focus on the essentials of faith that served to unite the community. […]

Peter asserted that we are all saved by grace and that there is nothing distinctive about us that merits God’s love. Therefore, there is a unity and a commonality in our salvation experience. […]

The historical doctrinal clarification that ensued—salvation by [God’s grace] through [faith]—gave Jews and Gentiles unparalleled equality as members of His body and shifted the sharing of the power from issues of race and culture to those of interdependence and giftedness. […]

When a majority culture is dominant, it is that culture that determines how power is used and distributed. The danger in a multicultural church context  is that we would repeat the mistakes the early church was making prior to the Jerusalem Council. The dominant group in power was not yet willing to yield its cultural values for the sake of those who were marginalized or alienated from that power.” (p. 119-120)

Tumbling Today’s Cultural Taboos

The contemporary US church has a lot to learn from the Middle-Eastern church of the first-century. For starters, it could recognize that the church wasn’t Western, wasn’t white, and wasn’t “American.” Perhaps letting the context of the New Testament challenge our American exceptionalism and Western pride would serve us well. But more than that, letting the context of the New Testament speak for itself would allow us to see more precisely how the Holy Spirit moved in that community when racial and socioeconomic diversity descended upon it.

Today in the US, many churches fein a type of multi ethnicity or multiculturalism. But lurking just below the surface is a dominant culture fighting to preserve its privileged and powerful position. The only cure for such worldliness is for the church to look to Jesus the self-emptier, Jesus the power-divester. He did not see his privilege and power as something to be grasped, but instead took on the nature of a servant and laid down his life for others—even others who despised him.

There are groups in the US with power and privileged. The Gospel of Jesus calls on those groups to take on the nature of servants, laying down their power, even their lives. There are also groups in the US who are marginalized, alienated from power. The Gospel calls these groups into the church to be known and to know others. The Gospel comforts the powerless, even while it discomforts the powerful.

In your community, identify the weak, the vulnerable, those who are cast out. Who are they? Are they known to you? How has your church either excluded them due to cultural differences, or embraced them across boundaries? What could you do to divest yourselves of power, invite them into interdependent service along-side yourselves?

Praise be to the God of Abraham who threw open the way of salvation to all people by choosing for himself a people through whom he would demonstrate his covenant faithfulness. This God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the God of both Jews and Gentiles, African Americans, caucasians, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and people from every tribe and tongue. And one day we will all sit at His banqueting table together in glory. Let us strive to reflect that reality now.

* “Judaizers” was changed to “agitators.” As N. T. Wright points out, “[Paul] was, in short, under attack from people whom scholars have come to call by a variety of names, but perhaps most straightforwardly (and following what Paul himself says in Galatians 1:7), ‘agitators.’ They are not, we note, ‘Judaizers,’ despite often being called that; that word, properly, refers to Gentiles who are trying to become Jews—which is what the erstwhile pagan Galatians, having come to faith in Jesus the Messiah, were not being urged to do. The agitators, in other words, were trying to get the Galatians to ‘Judaize.'” (Justification, p. 113)