The Tyranny of Convenience

In a recent class, we discussed how the modern value of convenience works against the cultivation of rich community life in churches. We are rushed and hurried, and the frantic and harried pace of life shapes us in such ways that we see occasions where we can linger with one another as “wasted time.” We’re not accomplishing anything! We can do this more conveniently!

I was struck by the following passage in Michael Moss’s book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, a fascinating look at the processed food industry. It reveals just one way in which convenience as an obvious value of modern life was reinforced by advertising over the last half-century.

Every year in New York City, the top executives of companies that sold a wide range of goods gathered together under the auspices of the Conference Board, an august association best known today for conducting the “consumer confidence” survey. In 1955, the dinner speaker was Charles Mortimer, and he got right to the point. Food, clothing, and shelter were still important, he told the crowd. But now there was a fourth essential element of life that could be “expressed in a single word—convenience—spelled out with a capital ‘C.’”

“Convenience is the great additive which must be designed, built in, combined, blended, interwoven, injected, inserted, or otherwise added to or incorporated in products or services if they are to satisfy today’s demanding public. It is the new and controlling denominator of consumer acceptance or demand.”

There is convenience of form, he said, citing the Gaines-Burger dog food patties that Clausi had invented to be as soft as hamburger but so durable that they could sit on the pantry shelf until needed. There is convenience of time, like the grocery stores throughout American that were starting to stay open in the evenings to accommodate increasing numbers of women who worked outside the home. And there is convenience of packaging, like beer in bottles that used to have to be hauled back to the store but were now disposable, and aluminum foil pie pans that were showing up on the grocery shelves.

The original 50s TV dinner

Photograph: William Gottlieb/Corbis

“Modern Americans are willing to pay well for this additive to the products they purchase,” Mortimer told the executives. “Not because of any native laziness but because we are willing to use our greater wealth to buy fuller lives and we have, therefore, better things to do with our time than mixing, blending, sorting, trimming, measuring, cooking, serving, and all the other actions that have gone into the routine of living.”

As if on cue, time-saving gadgets and gizmos started arriving in the grocery store that year that helped the modern homemaker trade a little more of her new wealth for some extra time away from the kitchen. Ready-to-bake biscuits appeared in tubes that could be opened by merely tugging a string. Special detergents came out for electric dishwashers that had special compounds to get off the water spots. One entrepreneurial firm even made plastic lids with spouts that snapped on cans of milk or syrup for easier pouring (pp. 60-61).

What I find so sinister about convenience is that it is in the midst of “all the other actions that have gone into the routine of living” that we often find rich fellowship with one another and mutual sharing. And with the systematic elimination of such moments from our lives, we’ve inadvertently lost opportunities to cultivate and strengthen bonds of friendship and community, both in families and in churches.

The Beauty of Holy Week

This past Sunday Stephen Holmgren focused our attention on “Christ Carrying the Cross,” by Hieronymus Bosch (1515).


It’s an arrestingly beautiful work, and it’s been the occasion for much reflection over the past week. An excerpt from Stephen’s sermon:

With sustained attention to the composition of the painting you will notice a significant detail. The faces of seventeen people appear in the painting, not counting Jesus nor his image on the legendary Veronica’s towel. Seventeen people who are part of the crowd, and not one of them is looking at Jesus! Not even the man with the orange hat in the left center of the painting. Though he is facing Jesus, his eyes are turned upward toward the man with whom he is apparently talking. A crowd full of agitated people, with Jesus in the middle, and not one of them is focused on him. In other words, all of them are focused on their own concerns and purposes. Though Jesus came into a world so in need of him, and into a city filled with human problems, the people around him are heedless to his significance. And yet, for them, for those who are happy to push him to his death, he will carry his cross.

See here for the entire Palm Sunday sermon, and here for his blog post.

N. T. Wright, Evangelicals, and Tradition

Christianity Today’s recent cover story about N. T. Wright discusses both his broader contribution to the church and his most recent book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

One particular line in the article struck me, because it reflects a sentiment among evangelical critics of Wright that I find troubling.

Wright’s opponents ask, wisely: Did the Holy Spirit really let the Western church run entirely amok from the day Paul died until the day Wright took up his pen?

Now, Wright does indeed say things in such a way that “no one has ever seen this or said this before,” but it’s often the case that he’s truly bringing to light a neglected theme. Further, this is just good public speaking, reflecting his challenging of a dominant interpretation.


Photo Credit: Sophie Gerrard

It seems to me, however, that it is inappropriate for evangelicals to register this objection to Wright’s work (or, to anyone’s, for that matter).

It is part and parcel of evangelical identity to question received wisdom, tradition, and practice. We have no creed but the Bible and we question everything on the basis of further study of Scripture.

We quote constantly Luke’s commendation of the Berean Jews who “were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).

Our history reaches back to the reformers, who challenged corrupted church practice and its theological underpinnings. It includes the radical reformers, who continued to press the issue when the reformers didn’t reform enough. More recently, American evangelicals left institutions and denominations they viewed as corrupt.

Because of this history, it seems hypocritical to me for a movement that has challenged at every turn the received wisdom of the Western church to ask the question: “Did the Holy Spirit really let the Western church run entirely amok from the day Paul died until the day Wright took up his pen?

Further, it is naïve. Many of the theological and biblical issues treated by Wright, including justification by faith, imputation, Paul and the Mosaic Law, have been abiding difficulties for scholars. And there are fundamental disagreements over these issues among traditions in the Western church.

Lutherans and Calvinists differ over the relationship of the Law and the Gospel. I first learned about eschatological aspects of justification from good Calvinists, not from N. T. Wright. And when I found out that Wright didn’t affirm imputation as “righteousness transfer,” I shrugged. I had already changed my view on this after a Reformed friend who was also a good evangelical challenged me to find it in the Bible (Hint: it isn’t there).

This is just to say that I find it incomprehensible when evangelicals render this sort of objection.

After forging a history of questioning the received wisdom of the Western church, it is tragically ironic that evangelicals turn to Wright and ask how he can possibly question the received wisdom of the Western church.

Paul’s Big Story

One of N. T. Wright’s most significant contributions is situating Paul (and the rest of the NT writers, for that matter) within the larger narrative framework of Scripture.

Many Western Christians read their Bibles in terms of the larger interpretive framework of “my relationship with God” — I was previously a sinner; I’m now saved; and the Bible is “about” how I can grow in my relationship with God.

This sort of assumed posture toward Scripture gets some things right, but is too individually-focused and mistakes one aspect (a vital one) of what Scripture is all about for the larger, all-encompassing story. According to Wright, in Paul and the Faithfulness of God:

One regularly hears it said, or sees it written, that the implicit story goes like this:

1. Humans are made for fellowship with God;

2. Humans sin and refuse God’s love;

3. God acts to restore humans to a ‘right relationship’ with himself.

This drastic truncation of Paul’s narrative world – sometimes, indeed, supposed to be the sum total of Paul’s gospel! – then results in many puzzles which western theology has struggled unsuccessfully to solve, and many slippery arguments in which the idea of a ‘relationship’ can at one moment be almost forensic (the ‘relation’ in which the accused stands to the court) and at another almost familial (the ‘relationship’ between a parent and child). Please note, I am not saying that Paul is not concerned either with the ‘forensic’ situation or the ‘familial’. He is. Both of them are important. But all in their proper time. These problems are soluble if and only if we allow the main sub-plot, the story of God and humans, to be seen in its proper relation to the larger plot, the story of creation.

For Wright, the story of humankind, its plight and rescue, is often wrongly taken for the main plot. It’s important to recognize that this is only a sub-plot, part of a larger narrative. He summarizes this narrative as follows:

1. The creator’s intention was to bring fruitful order to the world through his image-bearing human creatures.

2. Humans fail to reflect God’s image into the world, and the world in consequence fails to attain its fruitful order; the result, instead, is corruption and decay.

3. God intends to restore humankind to its proper place, resulting in the rescue and restoration of creation itself (PFG, 489-90).

As Wright says elsewhere, in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, this re-reading of Paul requires a Copernican revolution in thinking about the Christian story within which Paul writes, a transformation of thought and imagination, a cultivation of a totally new, biblically-oriented vocabulary.

There’s so much to say about this — goodness, PFG is massive enough! — but Western Christians would do well to grapple with what Scripture is about in order to rightly situate their lives within the larger story of God’s redemptive pursuit of all things.

Sunday Semantic Snobbery

The proofreaders at the New York Times apparently failed columnist Ross Douthat today. I began reading his column, The Christian Penumbra, this morning but could proceed no further than the second sentence.

He opened with a common redundancy. “Here is a seeming paradox of American life.”

Now, a paradox is a seeming contradiction. One already refers to the apparently contradictory character of a state of affairs by calling it a paradox. “Seeming paradox” is a redundancy (a seeming seeming contradiction?). For this, we should report Mr. Douthat to the Department of Redundancy Department.

Dismissing this mistake with a condescending roll of the eyes, I kept reading. “One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods . . .”

This was too much.

While I was partially intrigued by the social critique Douthat offered, I was too distracted by the misspelling that initiated his second sentence to continue.

Do they not employ proofreaders!? Was I reading the New York Times or the Bloom Picayune!?

When Watchdogs Become Sinners

The reversals in Mark’s Gospel are fascinating. Throughout Mark 2, the Pharisees and scribes are checking Jesus out, scrutinizing his conduct in light of their own conceptions of Law-observance.

They query Jesus as to his eating with sinners (2:16) and his disciples’ conduct on the Sabbath (2:24). By Mark 3:1-6, however, they find themselves plotting evil on the Sabbath.

The motives and behavior of these self-appointed watchdogs reveal the truth:

The Pharisees are described as “watching closely” (paretēroun) to see if Jesus will heal on the Sabbath. This same verb is used in Ps 36:12 (one of only two LXX usages), where it is sinners who lie in wait for the righteous person to slay him (cf. Ps 129:3) – a portrayal similar to the description of the Pharisees’ plot at the end of our passage (3:6). Through the intertextual echo with Psalm 36, then, the same Pharisees who have objected to Jesus’ eating with “sinners” (2:16) are now revealed to belong in the camp of sinners themselves.

Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8, 252.

Mark’s Mysterious Gospel

The Evangelist does not psychoanalyze his characters. His focus remains on Jesus and on the mysterious, threatening, and threatened figure that he cuts. Jesus submits no credentials for his deeds and words; he simply speaks and acts, then allows his witnesses to draw their own conclusions (2:4-5, 10-12, 13-14, 27-28; 3:1-6). His claims for himself are circumlocutory: a physician (2:17), a bridegroom (2:19-20), the Son of Man (2:10, 28). His power (exousia) is undeniable (2:10-12; 3:5), but its source and interpretation are obscure almost to the point of inscrutability (2:9, 17b, 19-22, 25-26, 28: 3:4). Clearly, he is no hooligan: at his command withered limbs become whole (2:11-12; 3:5); by his actions the Sabbath is renewed (2:27-28) and society’s outcasts enjoy a place at the table (2:15). Feasting, not fasting, is the order of his day (2:19); it is time to glorify God (2:12). Why, then, is Jesus so troubling? What is it about the new that rips it from the old (2:21)? Why must the bridegroom be taken away (2:20)?

Clifton Black, Mark, p. 102.

Changing Perspectives

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright captures how a change in perspective can come about in reading Paul. His discussion resonated with my experience. When I was in seminary, I participated in a study of Romans that read the letter from the perspective of a Law-Gospel contrast. I could trace the moves they were making and how in some sense they tracked with what Paul was saying. But they needed to blow past a phrase here or a passage there that didn’t quite fit the paradigm.


Over the next few years, I came to realize that what Paul was talking about was not a Western, individualized narrative of how a person can move from “sinner” to “saint.” He was concerned about something larger, a concern that actually resonated with (rather than ran against the grain of, or departed from) the narrative of Israel’s Scriptures.

My change in perspective came over time, however, after reading and re-reading Paul and his use of terms like “salvation” within the interpretive field of the Scriptures.

Here’s how Wright describes this:

As C. S. Lewis pointed out about words, when we read old books we go to the dictionaries to look up the hard words, the ones we don’t know at all. The apparently easy words, the ones we use every day, pass by us without our realizing the very different meaning they may have carried five centuries ago. So it is with texts in general. If we do not make the effort to check out the underlying worldview, we will all too easily assume that the writer shared, on this or that point, a worldview (including an implicit narrative) we ourselves know well. The writer must really have been talking ‘about’ what we assume he was talking about, and we ignore the hints within the text of a different worldview, a different underlying narrative. Paul ‘must really’ have been talking about ‘how I can find a gracious God’, and the turns and twists of his argument must then be explained as his use of this pre-Pauline tradition, that hellenistic topos, these themes his opponents introduced into the argument – anything rather than a narrative about the larger purposes of the God of Israel.

What alerts us, often enough, to the fact that there is ‘something else going on’, something we had not bargained for, is the casual remark, the throw-away line on the edge of something else, which stands as a signpost down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened. So it is, often enough, with Paul. When he says that God promised Abraham that he would inherit ‘the world’; when he says that those who receive God’s gift of dikaiosyn will ‘reign’; when he says that the result of the Messiah’s curse-bearing death is that ‘the blessing of Abraham might come upon the gentiles’ – in these and many other places he is, quite simply, not saying what any of the major western theological traditions might have expected him to say. At such points, we either conclude that he has expressed himself imprecisely, or inaccurately – presuming, in the so-called method of Sachkritik, to know better than Paul did what he ‘really’ intended to say – or we stop in our tracks and re-examine our hypotheses about what he was in fact thinking and talking about (466-7).

These last few lines capture for me what it means to be a faithful Bible reader. Getting to grips with what the text is actually saying (at its several levels) and then letting that revise our assumptions and refine our thinking.

The Paradox of Jesus’ Presence & Absence

The Christian church is the people of God that live into the full range of reality as it is. It is broken and at the same time beautiful. And while we’ve been caught up into God’s saving reality, its fullness isn’t here yet.

In Mark 2:19-20, Jesus alludes to this paradox for his disciples.

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

Jesus’ followers don’t long for God’s salvation like others do, because it has already come. Jesus is with them (and us), so we celebrate!

But he’s not here like he should be and as he will be. Our current experience, then, includes lament and longing for God’s salvation to come.

Joel Marcus captures this paradox:

Thus both elements, absence/death and presence/life, are given their due weight within Markan Christology: Jesus has been physically absent since his death, but that absence is, paradoxically, the means by which his presence is achieved. For it is through the eschatological events of his death and exaltation to God’s right hand that he has gained the power to be dynamically present with his church everywhere (Mark 1-8, p. 238).

Paul the Pastor

I’ve been giving some thought to Paul as a pastoral theologian (or maybe a theologically-oriented pastor, or, more likely, a pastor who theologically interprets community conflict and offers counsel in accordance with resurrection realities). At any rate, this passage in N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God struck a chord:

Wright, Paul

Paul was a pastor. He tells the Thessalonians that he had been like a nurse with them; the Galatians, that he is like a mother going into labour once more. We can safely deduce from these, as we can from 1 Corinthians 13, that Paul really was that sort of person; and, as back-up evidence, we can see his personal concern writ large in the paragraphs about Timothy and Epaphroditus in Philippians, and above all in the letter to Philemon. He was a pastor, and a pastor’s pastor. It shines through: an armchair theologian would have told the Corinthians that it was better to be strong than to be weak, and that the weak should get over it, or get used to it. They should come into line. Paul, the ‘strong’, held all the cards, all the theological high ground. But the pastor’s insight, shaped and informed by the message of the cross, insists that human beings do not change their deep worldview-praxis (such as not eating certain foods) overnight. Conscience matters, and Paul will not squelch it. He might of course have learned that ‘principle’ from a book (which one?). Far more likely that he knew it in his bones, from years on the road, in the market-place, in the little room behind the tentmaker’s shop, agonizing with this person and that about what it meant, in real, practical terms, to follow Jesus the Messiah, to be part of the new monotheistic community, to live within a newly redefined worldview after the disappearance of most of the previous symbols, which would have helped one get one’s bearings (452-53).


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