Monthly Archives: April 2013

Passing on Praise

A colleague stopped me in the hallway last week and passed on a positive comment from a student about one of my classes.  It was a shot in the arm and I appreciated it.

It got me thinking about academic environments and passing on encouraging words.  In his memoir, Hannah’s Child, Stanley Hauerwas notes that academic departments are hives of professional envy—and he’s speaking of Religious Studies departments and divinity schools!  Academics often have fragile egos and tend toward self-importance.

These dynamics can produce competitive environments in which colleagues don’t encourage one another.

Several years ago a colleague relayed to me a positive comment he had heard about something I had written.  I thanked him and said that was really great to hear.

He then said that he thought about telling me when he had originally heard it, but declined because he didn’t want me to get a big head.  I still don’t know how to think about that sentiment.

It seems to me that we ought to be eager to pass on good reports to others.  It’s a practical way of encouraging one another and fostering an environment of mutual support.

Another colleague told me that he had heard good things from students about a professor in our department.  I asked if he had passed it on to him, and he shook his head, saying, “nah, he probably hears it enough.”

I’m always baffled when I hear about someone intentionally withholding praise.

These are strategic opportunities to foster fruitful community life, strengthen relationships, encourage others, and keep the destructive dynamics of envy at bay.

Further, it’s a good spiritual discipline.  Envy and destructive competition shrink our spirits and shrivel our souls, distorting our vision and corrupting our hearts.

Taking initiative to speak an encouraging word expands our hearts and enlarges our spirits.  We want to be the kind of people who love and honor one another, who seek the good of the wider learning community.  Encouraging one another is an excellent practice that makes us better people.


NIV on “Temple” in 1 Corinthians

I have so thoroughly enjoyed teaching 1 Corinthians this semester.  It’s been a blast to participate in wonderful discussions with students keen to kick around every aspect of the text and its theological implications.

At point after point, Paul stresses the unity of the church and the corporate character of Christian discipleship.

His statement in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 stands over many of the topics he addresses.  Those that divide the church or exploit the weaknesses of others run the risk of judgment.  It’s a stark warning.

In light of its importance, it’s unfortunate that many English translations don’t do it justice.  It ends up being synonymous with 1 Corinthians 6:19, where Paul states that individual bodies are temples of God’s Spirit.

In 3:16-17, however, Paul is speaking of the corporate body, the church.  The three appearances of “you” are plural:

Do you not know that you (plural) are a temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells among you (plural)?  If anyone destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him.  For the temple of God is holy, and that is what you (plural) are.

The NASB and ESV note this in the margin, but the translations don’t capture Paul’s sense and leave the impression that it’s singular.

The updated NIV, however, nails it:

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

One could quibble with the choices of “you yourselves,” “in your midst,” and “you together” (and I’m sure the translation committee considered several options), but they should be commended for rightly representing Paul’s corporate intention.

In light the prominence of this notion throughout the letter (and its importance for Paul’s thought in general), it’s crucial to get this right.  How much more so for those who read Scripture in a culture that can only imagine being Christian as an individual pursuit and that marginalizes the place of the church.


Cruciformity is Not Passivity

Several months ago, I reflected on teaching about cruciformity in various settings.  Some folks bristle at such talk because it sounds like passivity, resignation, surrender, or withdrawal.

I suspect this is the case because in a world dominated by violence, we can only imagine inflicting violence on others or being the objects of violence.  You’re either dishing it out or taking it.

It takes a thoroughgoing conversion of the imagination to discern and foster the cruciform patterns of life to which God calls his people.

It has nothing to do with passivity or resignation, but involves serious effort and sustained reflection on Scripture to forge new thought patterns, new ways of hoping, loving, imagining, and behaving.

Cultivating communities of cruciformity requires persevering creativity to adopt radically new relational postures and corporate dynamics that embody genuine eschatologically-oriented faith and gospel hope.

In Reading Revelation Responsibly, Michael Gorman states this beautifully:

Christian resistance to empire and idolatry conforms to the pattern of Jesus Christ and of his apostles, saints, prophets (like John), and martyrs: faithful, true, courageous, just, and nonviolent.  It is not passive but active, consisting of the formation of communities and individuals who pledge allegiance to God alone, who live in nonviolent love toward friends and enemies alike, who leave vengeance to God, and who, by God’s Spirit, create mini-cultures of life as alternatives to empire’s culture of death.  This is a Lamb-shaped or cross-shaped (cruciform) understanding of discipleship and mission (p. 76).

Revelation calls Christians to a difficult discipleship of discernment—a non-conformist cruciform faithfulness—that may lead to marginalization or even persecution now, but ultimately to a place in God’s new heaven and new earth.  Revelation calls believers to nonretaliation and nonviolence, and not to a literal war of any sort, present or future.  By its very nature as resistance, faithful nonconformity is not absolute withdrawal but rather critical engagement on very different terms from those of the status quo.  This is all birthed and nurtured in worship.  But we need to be diligent, because . . . we in the West are now largely like the Laodiceans, and many of us need to read Revelation as such.  [W]e are in very bad shape but do not know it, so conversion to true worship and discipleship will be a difficult journey (p. 79).

That lovely expression, “a difficult discipleship of discernment,” captures wonderfully the life-long communal conversion of the imagination to which God calls his people in the Book of Revelation.


Critique of Empire, Warning to the Church

In Reading Revelation Responsibly, Michael Gorman brilliantly captures Revelation’s critique of civil religion that undergirds empire:

Revelation is a critique of civil religion (first of all, but not only, Roman civil religion), that is, the sacralization of secular political, economic, and military power through various mythologies and practices—creeds and liturgies, we might say—and the corollary demand for allegiance to that power.

Because civil religion is so closely connected with power, it often appears in extreme forms in empires and empire-like states (e.g., modern superpowers), grounded in the assumption that expansion and victory (in war or otherwise) are signs of divine blessing and protection, and in the common belief that god is on the side of the powerful.  At the same time, however, civil religion is not exclusively the property of empires and superpowers; it is also to be found in former empires, would-be superpowers, ordinary states, and even poor, developing nations.  Human beings seem to have a need to attribute a sacred, or at least quasi-sacred character to their political bodies, their rulers, and the actions of those entities.  One tragic but frequent result is the sacralization of one’s own people, whether nation, race, or tribe, and the demonization of the other.  Out of such religion comes a culture of hatred and even violence.  We know far too many examples of this in modern times (pp. 47-48).

He concludes this section by focusing the critique of empire as a warning to the church as it faces the seductions of civil religion (p. 56):

Is Revelation a critique of empire?  Yes—but that is not its ultimate theopolitical function.  The fate of empire is certain; what is uncertain is the fate of those who currently participate in the cult of empire.  The more significant critique is the critique of the church, and specifically of its participation in the idolatry of the imperial cult, the civil or national religion.  Will the churches repent?  For the churches, one main question emerges: “Beast or Lamb?”

It’s impossible to read Gorman without sensing the power of Revelation for the contemporary American church–not as an object of fascination and speculation, but as urgent prophetic warning.


Revelation as Resistance Literature

Michael Gorman’s wonderful book on Revelation, Reading Revelation Responsibly, is a challenging and prophetic word to the American church, situated in the heart of a global empire and subject to the temptations of civil religion.

He regards Revelation as “anti-assimilationist, or anti-accommodationist, literature” (p. 24).  The Apocalypse of John calls the church to an ethic of resistance to the idolatrous corruptions of the prevailing culture.

Calling Revelation “resistance literature” is appropriate because one of the primary prophetic purposes of Revelation is to remind the church, both then and now, not to give in to the demands or practices of a system that is already judged by God and is about to come to its demise. But Revelation is not just a document that stands against something. Like all biblical prophecy, it promotes true worship of the one true God, expressed not merely in formal liturgy but also in faithful living, the practice of having no gods besides God. Put more positively, then, Revelation is a summons to first-commandment faithfulness, a call to faithful witness and worship in word and deed. In other words, its character as resistance literature is actually secondary to, and derivative of, its more fundamental character as worship literature, as a liturgical text (p. 25).


The Priority & Primacy of Love

Last Fall I taught a course on Galatians, so at home we read through Galatians 5:13-26 regularly.  This Spring I’m teaching 1 Corinthians, so we’ve read chapter 13 repeatedly over the last four months.

I must confess (and I’m sure I’m the only one like this) that I tend to think first about how others in my family need to change in order to heed Paul’s exhortations (it’s so obvious how they need to repent!).

But 1 Corinthians 13 has really worked me over, exposing corrupted motivations, attitudes, small habits of selfishness, and speech patterns in need of transformation.

It’s such a brilliantly lovely articulation of the grittiness of love and how it’s embodied in the mundane realities of everyday relationships.

I put the chapter into a document in four translations and have it in my office to read through regularly.  I’ve also been taking notes on some practical ways Paul’s description needs to find its way into my relationships with others in my family.

It’s been a fruitful exercise.

If you’d like it, here’s the document.


Resurrection in 1 Corinthians

 

Richard Hays on the centrality of the resurrection for Christian faith:

Paul saw that underneath all the dismaying problems of the Corinthians lay one massive theological fallacy: they denied the resurrection of the dead.  And by doing that, they denied the importance of the world that God created.  They denied—whether they meant to or not—that these flawed bodies of ours are loved by God and will be redeemed.  And therefore—whether they meant to or not—they denied that what we do with these bodies is of ultimate significance in God’s eyes.  So they lapsed into confusion, both moral and theological.

These are sobering observations for a Christian church that all too often denies the resurrection in one way or another. . .   [W]e find forms of otherworldly pietism that dream warmly of “going to heaven” but ignore the resurrection of the body—and thereby ignore the challenge of the gospel to the world we inhabit: such pietism falls unwittingly into the heresy that Justin Martyr decried as a “godless, impious” betrayal of the faith.  It would not be difficult to document the various moral failings that follow from each of these errors.

In such a situation, Paul’s treatment of the resurrection of the dead presents the church with a compelling word that needs to be heard again and again.  It is no accident that his teachings on the cross (1:18-2:16) and resurrection (15:1-58) stand like bookends—or sentinels—at beginning and end of the body of his letter to the Corinthians.  These are the fundamental themes of the gospel story.  All our theology and practice must find its place within the world framed by these truths.

Hays, First Corinthians, pp. 277-278 (emphases added).


Waiting . . .

I’m teaching 1 Corinthians this Spring and we’ve noted repeatedly how Paul’s pastoral theologizing is completely dominated by eschatology.

The coming judgment, the resurrection of the body, and the transformation of all things orient his approach to the life of the church and the character of being Christian.

Paul notes quite often that “waiting” for God’s restoration of all things is central to the life of faith:

Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:23-25).

For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness (Galatians 5:5).

These passages aren’t throwaway lines but rhetorically climactic texts in which Paul stresses core identity markers of Jesus-followers.

In most of these texts, Paul is contrasting former pagan behavior with current Christian conduct on the part of his converts.  Rather than lives of idolatry and the satisfaction of earthly appetites, Christians wait eagerly for God to send Jesus to save his people and transform them, along with the whole creation.

This contrast is present in the Galatians text cited above, and in two more texts:

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:17-21).

They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

Paul’s eschatological orientation doesn’t involve a desire to escape from creation nor does it involve fascination about the spectacular details of end-times events.

It involves an intense and eager longing for God to transform creation, healing it of its brokenness and freeing it from Sin’s domination and Death’s devastation.

It seems to me that the level of comfort Christians enjoy determines their resonance with Paul’s theological vision.

The more comfortable our lives become, the less we yearn for God to send a Savior to transform and redeem.

The closer we get to pain and suffering, however, the more we look forward eagerly to the Lord Jesus returning to make all things new.


New Books on Politics from IVP

In the wake of the Wheaton Theology Conference, I’ve been giving some thought to the church’s relation to politics.  IVP has several very interesting new books out along this line.

I just received my copy of Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not, edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica.  I wish I had it a few weeks back as I wrote my conference paper that touched on anti-imperial rhetoric in Paul, but I was pleased to see that my conclusions largely resonated with theirs.

The volume helpfully describes and evaluates the method whereby interpreters discern a critique of Rome or of the worship of the emperor in various NT documents.  It’s got a wonderful lineup of authors and I’m eager to get into it.

Kenneth J. Collins, in Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism, narrates how evangelicals have lost sight of the richness of their identity and their shared heritage by accommodating culturally to a fractured political landscape.  The dynamics of political and organizational power have tragically infected and affected evangelicalism, and it looks like Collins’ analysis gets right to the heart of this.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good speaks wisdom into the evangelical activist movement.

It provides sober analysis of how over-eager and well-intentioned efforts can often be counter-productive and lead to burnout.  This is indeed a serious problem that I’ve seen first-hand.  For those wanting to see real changes take place as the result of Christian activism, it’s a must-read.  It’s aimed at focusing efforts rather than discouraging gospel-driven initiatives.

Finally, on a somewhat related and very important issue, a volume that addresses the very thorny problem of “holy war” in the Bible, edited by Heath Thomas, Jeremy Evans and Paul Copan.

It’s called Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem.  From biblical, theological, philosophical, and ethical angles, it addresses the challenge to Christian witness of an apparently genocidal God who calls his people to warfare and slaughter.  It’s certainly worth checking out (not least for the essay on divine warfare in Paul!) as this troubling aspect of Scripture provides fuel for new atheist challenges to Christian faith.


Exegetes at Church

A few recent conversations have sparked some thoughts about going to church as a critically-engaged exegete.

Biblical exegesis is all about critical analysis of the details of a text and critical scrutiny of other exegetes’ work.  Several times after intense and involved class discussions, someone has commented that it must be tough to go to church.  If you’re analyzing the nitty-gritty of a text so closely, emphasizing each feature as crucial, how do you put up with sloppy preaching?

Good question.

Here are a few scattered thoughts, in no particular order.

First, there’s a world of difference between a critical mind and a critical spirit.  A critical mind is essential for the classroom and important for life.  A critical spirit, however, is soul-corrupting and community-destroying.  Hopefully, as I mature, I’m cultivating the first while avoiding the second.

Second, I don’t expect a classroom experience in church or an academic paper from a preacher.  Further, my attention span on a Sunday morning is about eight minutes.  The kid sitting in front of us usually reads Berenstain Bears books during the service, so I have to fight the urge to lean forward and find out what’s making Papa Bear freak out.  Rather than a complex treatment of interpretive options, I love hearing someone trace the broad contours of a text to provide a sweet and simple glimpse into the grace of God in Christ.

Third, when I hear something I haven’t heard before, or even something I’ve previously dismissed as unworkable, I don’t pass judgment and shut down.  I take it up and consider it.  I look again at the biblical text and ask if it fits.  Such opportunities force me to re-examine the text more closely and that’s always a good thing.

Fourth, ministry is hard.  It’s lonely.  Pastors hear far more criticisms than encouragements.  Rather than an exegetical critique on the way out, what a pastor needs to hear at the end of a service is, “thank you.  I appreciate that.  I hope you have a good week.”

Finally, I go to the weekly gathering of my church family as a Christian.  That is, my aim must be God’s aim, and his priority for my church is for it to grow in unity and love as a people called and brought together by the Spirit of God in Christ.  That aim must orient my behaviors.  So, when I’m at church, I try to have one or two good conversations, asking someone some good questions about how they’re doing.  I try to have some good laughs.

Criticizing the sermon simply is not on the agenda.

Exegetes, new and experienced, how do you approach the Sunday gathering?

Pastors, what are your experiences with professors in the pew?