Category Archives: Uncategorized

Michael Gorman on Justice in Paul

I’ve encountered resistance from Christians in speaking about Paul’s conception of churches as communities of justice. I think that fears of a “social gospel” have made many readers of Paul’s texts blind to the sorts of social behaviors and intentionally-cultivated community dynamics to which Paul calls his churches.


In his new book, Becoming the Gospel, which I’m having a difficult time putting down, Michael Gorman addresses this crucial aspect of Paul’s vision:

The theme of justice has become increasingly central to my interpretation of Paul. Some readers, however, become nervous when they hear “justice” language associated with the apostle Paul. They fear that he is being turned into an advocate of nonpersonal, nonspiritual, progressive, or “liberal” theology that detracts from Paul’s true intentions. …[S]uch fears are misplaced. Paul’s theology and spirituality are a legitimate and substantive continuation of the prophetic ministry and message of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus. This does not make him “unspiritual” – or anything else one might fear – but rather interprets him properly as fully and covenantally spiritual: passionate about love of God and love of neighbor, filled with the Spirit of justice who filled Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Jesus. But Paul expresses this Spirit-filled prophetic reality in new ways in light of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, cruciformity and justice are inseparable from each other. The same can be said of peacemaking and reconciliation, which are related in the Bible (and specifically in Paul) not only to justice but also to love – all components of the Bible’s grand vision of shalom. These interrelated practices constitute the several sides, so to speak, of one coin, the missional identity of those who are in Christ (p. 9, n. 21).

Mark’s Disquieting Ending

I’ve just finished Donald Juel’s lovely little book, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted. He argues that Mark’s implied audience(s) are those that have grown complacent and comfortable. This accounts for Mark’s disturbing ending:

The surprise ending of the Gospel is intended for the implied audience. Its impact does not easily fit the image of an implied audience desperate and in need of comfort. The conclusion offers little comfort. The impact of the ending has more to do with expectations of satisfaction and control. Readers have been treated as insiders throughout the story, learning what none of the characters can know. It is not difficult to imagine an ending to the story that would reinforce that experience, providing readers with a sense of closure and satisfaction at the expense of the disciples. Yet the empty tomb and the silent women do not provide such satisfaction for those who have been led to expect such an ending, and the events do not leave resolution of the story in the hands of readers. There is something disquieting about that lack of control—a disquiet that usually drives interpreters to get what they need from the story by means of cunning or violence.

The surprise, the irony, work differently if directed at insiders whose problem is indifference or a tired lack of perception about the way things are. It may serve as a warning, as Paul’s reminders do in the opening chapters of his first letter to the Corinthians. The features of his message that initially moved that Corinthians from darkness to light, identifying the change that came at their conversion, now serve to illumine their Christian piety, which turns out to have much in common with their pagan past.

Viewing the audience as tired or indifferent is appropriate to the present situation of most Christians, weary of waiting, tempted to believe that the master of the house will never return, increasingly comfortable in a world capable of hiding from the truth, unaware of how easily the authority of the gospel is exchanged for ordinary power.

Careful attention to the implied audience in Mark’s story of Jesus may serve to remove barriers to a fruitful hearing of the Gospel for those whose problem is not persecution as much as the inability to be surprised by the God who is both more dangerous and more promising than they can have imagined (pp. 145-46).

Jesus Expects Disciples to Inhabit the Kingdom

I indicated yesterday that I’ve been puzzling over Mark 4:35-41 lately. Mark doesn’t indicate what the disciples should have done, so we can’t say with certainty. From the larger context, however, it appears that Jesus was expecting them to calm the storm themselves.

If this sounds outrageous, keep in mind that to this point Jesus has been announcing the kingdom of God, declaring that the reign of God has invaded the realm dominated by Satan and demonic powers. This invading and emerging realm is bringing with it the healing of creation and of humanity. God’s original commission to humanity was to exercise rule and dominion over creation, overseeing its flourishing and managing its life-giving and humanity-sustaining capacities.

Humanity has failed to rule creation for the glory of God, but this is precisely what Jesus has been doing in his ministry. Yes, he is God himself, but he is also the true human. He is overseeing the spread of God’s rule of shalom wherever he goes, freeing people from demons and sickness and calling everyone to enter the life-giving kingdom of God. And he has called the disciples to be “with him,” to partner with him in spreading God’s rule and calling others to enter it.


Rembrandt, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (source:


A clear instance of Jesus expecting his disciples to do the impossible comes in Mark 6. The miracle in which Jesus fed five thousand people with a few fish and loaves was supposed to be done by the disciples. Jesus challenges them in Mark 6:37 to feed the many thousands who have come to hear him.

And he is right to expect that his disciples could perform such a feat since they had just returned from a months-long mission during which they themselves cast out many demons and healed many who were sick (v. 12). Because they are with Jesus, they have access to the miracle-working power of the kingdom of God. They have seen it in action and Jesus here expects them to live into the fullness of it.

The disciples, like the rest of us, have well-worn patterns of responding to crises from within the realm of darkness and (self-)destruction, responses of fear and of failing to live into the reality of the kingdom. One of these responses to get out of the way and hope and pray that God will act. But God asserts his sovereign rule through humans whom he invites to embody his benevolent and life-giving rule through new creation oriented patterns of life. Mark narrates here how Jesus expects his disciples to begin to embody God’s rule by drawing on the power available to them.


Why Does Jesus Rebuke His Disciples?

Mark 4:35-41 is a fascinating passage. And, like many episodes in this Gospel, some aspects of it are head-scratchingly mystifying.

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Why does Jesus rebuke his disciples? It seems that they recognize clearly that they’re in trouble and that Jesus is the one who can do something about it. They call on him for help and he rescues them. But why does he then rebuke them? Didn’t they do what they should have? Didn’t they call on him to save them? From one perspective, it seems that he should have commended them!

Is it because they speak to him disrespectfully and sarcastically? I can see how some people might think this, especially since the question may imply that Jesus doesn’t care about their fate. But that seems to be a notion that stems from a post-Victorian conception of Christian piety in which politeness and placidity are supreme virtues. The psalmists and prophets of Israel are anything but polite and the disciples’ speech reflects how Scripture often portrays people wrestling with God, often in agitated fashion, as in Psalm 44:23-24:

Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?

Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.

Why do you hide your face

and forget our misery and oppression?

Does Jesus rebuke them merely for being afraid? Would he rather they be confident in some way as the boat continues to take on water, eventually sinking?

So, why does he rebuke them and what else did he expect them to do?

Preachers Behaving Like Brian Williams

Brian Williams has been in some trouble over the last few weeks for taking liberties with his experiences while on reporting assignments. He admitted that he exaggerated claims about being fired upon while in a helicopter in Iraq and NBC News suspended him for six months. The substance of objections to allowing Williams to remain in his post with NBC News is that he has lost credibility. If he is willing to embellish his personal narrative, can he be a trusted figure when delivering the news?

While considering this, a related question struck me: How should Christians regard pastors and preachers who embellish their personal narratives in sermons?

This phenomenon isn’t rare. When I was in college, I heard a speaker in chapel relate a very interesting anecdote about an interchange in a pre-marital counseling session. About a month later, another preacher used the very same anecdote with reference to himself! It struck me as very odd, but I didn’t give it much thought. A few years later, while on a ministry staff, someone shared an account about another pastor. A friend of mine sarcastically exclaimed, “hey, what a great story! Next time I preach I’m going to use that about myself!” We all laughed because we recognized that pastors did this sort of thing.

I can recall another time when a pastor I admired spoke of a situation that I had first-hand knowledge of, and I knew that it didn’t take place the way he reported it. But it served his rhetorical purpose from the pulpit. One final example: A small controversy erupted about eight years ago on our college campus regarding a chapel speaker. He preached an entire message from someone else’s online sermon, using even the same illustrations and personal anecdotes from the original as if they were his own.

Because so many sermons and preaching resources can be found online, I’m confident that such accounts could be multiplied many times over.

It seems to me that because credibility and integrity are so crucial for ministers, Christians ought to have serious objections when preachers embellish their personal narratives in sermons. Such embellishment is deceit. It’s a way of improving one’s image in the eyes of others, attempting to appear more virtuous.

Not only is this deceitful, it often leaves listeners deflated and discouraged. When pastors portray their lives as godlier than the average Christian, they make following Jesus something inaccessible to others. This mischaracterizes discipleship, making it something that only our pastor, the spiritual superhero, can do. The rest of us are stuck being second-class Christians, since our lives aren’t filled with such interesting and dramatic episodes of spiritual courage.

And this dynamic breeds inauthenticity. Pastors who portray themselves as above the fray and holier than the rest must maintain that image. They can’t risk being vulnerable and honest about their ordinary lives and mundane struggles. They can no longer afford to portray themselves as fairly average, their days filled with mostly unremarkable moments and sometimes awkward episodes. And the rest of us won’t be honest about our struggles, either, since we’re busy hiding how short we fall of the (supposedly) high standard set by the pastor and his manufactured anecdotes.

Discussions of what Brian Williams has done rightly include notions of credibility and integrity. This is also a good opportunity for pastors and preachers to reflect on how they can maintain integrity in reporting about their own lives.

Brooks on Rigorous Forgiveness

There are many interesting angles on the “scandal” involving Brian Williams of NBC News. But David Brooks took the opportunity to reflect on the character of forgiveness. It’s an excellent discussion. He notes that genuine forgiveness has nothing to do with sentiment. It faces down hard and harsh realities:

Forgiveness is often spoken of in sentimental terms — as gushy absolution for everything, regardless of right or wrong. But many writers — ranging from Hannah Arendt and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to modern figures like Jeffrie Murphy and L. Gregory Jones — have tried to think hard about rigorous forgiveness, which balances accountability with compassion.

His conclusion:

But the larger question is how we build community in the face of scandal. Do we exile the offender or heal the relationship? Would you rather become the sort of person who excludes, or one who offers tough but healing love?

I would add that forgiveness and reconciliation may involve strenuous efforts, but they are necessary to free both perpetrator and victim from enslaving guilt, desires for revenge, and the soul-corrupting bitterness of grudges.

Corruptions of a Frenetic Culture

There’s much to be said about our frenetic culture of immediacy and its attendant follies. In this introduction to his essay in yesterday’s NY Times called “Among the Disrupted,” Leon Wieseltier laments various media-driven digital age cultural corruptions in this furiously brilliant jeremiad:

Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.

Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are “metrics” for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: Economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data-generating capabilities of the new technology. The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past. Beyond its impact upon culture, the new technology penetrates even deeper levels of identity and experience, to cognition and to consciousness. Such transformations embolden certain high priests in the church of tech to espouse the doctrine of “transhumanism” and to suggest, without any recollection of the bankruptcy of utopia, without any consideration of the cost to human dignity, that our computational ability will carry us magnificently beyond our humanity and “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. . . . There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine.” (The author of that updated mechanistic nonsense is a director of engineering at Google.)

And even as technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new. The contrary insistence that the glories of art and thought are not evolutionary adaptations, or that the mind is not the brain, or that love is not just biology’s bait for sex, now amounts to a kind of heresy. So, too, does the view that the strongest defense of the humanities lies not in the appeal to their utility — that literature majors may find good jobs, that theaters may economically revitalize neighborhoods — but rather in the appeal to their defiantly nonutilitarian character, so that individuals can know more than how things work, and develop their powers of discernment and judgment, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty, to equip themselves adequately for the choices and the crucibles of private and public life.


Silencing Women

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote this interesting piece in the NY Times on Sunday on the experience of women speaking up in professional settings.

When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.

They cite several studies and share a number of anecdotes to support their contention. It ought to be considered widely, perhaps especially by church leadership teams made up of women and men.

I wonder what other women think about this. Have you or do you experience these kinds of dynamics? In what ways? Can you think of intentional practices you’d like to see leaders develop that would invite and encourage full participation?

Golf in 2015

There is indeed much about which to be excited in 2015 in the world of golf. The Open Championship returns to St. Andrews, Rory McIlroy is on a roll, and Tiger Woods apparently has things sorted out and will continue his quest to surpass Jack Nicklaus’s total of 18 major championships as a professional.

As Bob Harig notes, Woods is doing things a little differently this year. Rather than playing only tournaments at courses where he’s comfortable, he’s beginning his season at a course he’s not played for some time. It’s a good thing he’s challenging himself, though it’s not necessarily a sign of any sure success in the majors.

It will certainly be exciting to have a healthy Tiger Woods back in action, but as I’ve argued a few times (here, here, and here), even if he wins one or two more, he won’t catch or surpass Nicklaus.

Here’s an interesting article on the emerging rift between Phil Mickelson and Tom Watson leading up to the Ryder Cup debacle last September. For some mysterious reason, the Euros just absolutely own the Americans in this event. The U. S. won in 2008, but that was the year of the disastrous European captaincy of Nick Faldo. Tom Watson may not have been the ideal captain this last year, but in the end it’s up to the players.

Mystery & Hiddenness in Mark

Discussing Mark 6:45-52, Richard Hays sums up the hiddenness and mystery that surround Mark’s depiction of Jesus:

[T]hose who have picked up the clues Mark has offered will perceive that God is strangely present in Jesus, but their response—at least at this point in the story—will be one of reverent reticence. By refusing to trumpet the secret of Jesus’ identity, instead signifying it through mysterious symbol-laden narrative, Mark is teaching his readers to wonder and to listen more deeply before they start talking about things too wonderful for their understanding (Reading Backwards, p. 26).


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 288 other followers