Monthly Archives: December 2013

For the New Year

Frank Bruni sounds a familiar note today about cultivating a practice in the new year that fosters consideration, empathy, and virtue. In the sped up world of social media, he commends reading fiction. “According to some researchers, people who settle into it are more empathetic — more attuned to what those around them think and feel — than people who don’t.”

But I’d bet big on real reading, fiction or nonfiction, as a prompt for empathy and a whole lot more: coolheadedness, maybe even open-mindedness, definitely deliberation. It doesn’t just yank you outside of yourself, making you consider other viewpoints without allowing for the incessant interjection and exaltation of your own. It slackens the pace. Forces a pause.

Last week I lingered over an excellent book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Published in 2012, it plumbs the relationship between emotion and reason.

And one of Haidt’s observations, relevant to an era in which partisans stake their ground and fortify their opinions at the start rather than the end of a discussion, is that people are more likely to be moved by information that challenges their prejudices if they’re prevented from responding to it straightaway and it has time to sink in, to steep.

Is there enough such time these days? Amid what’s trending on Twitter and swiftly going viral throughout cyberspace, is there an adequate premium on it?

I don’t doubt that he’s right about reading’s salutary effects on public discourse. But I’ve been considering spending less time online in the coming year and more time cultivating simple practices like reading (fiction & nonfiction) and taking walks.

N. T. Wright on Scholarly Fashion

In a discussion of sources for the study of Paul, N. T. Wright weighs in on the scholarly consensus that Paul wrote only seven of the thirteen letters attributed to him. He notes that it is odd that even though many of the considerations that drove this opinion have been overturned, it nonetheless remains the consensus.

Wright goes on to comment on scholarly fashion:

In addition – it is hard to say this, but perhaps it needs to be said – there is the matter of fashion and prejudice. Just as in Germany in the late nineteenth century you more or less had to be a follower of F. C. Baur, and in Oxford in the mid-twentieth century you more or less had to believe in the existence of Q, so in North America today you more or less have to say that you will regard Ephesians and Colossians as post-Pauline – unless, like Luke Timothy Johnson, you have so massively established your scholarly credibility on other grounds that your acceptance of the letters as fully Pauline can then be regarded, not as a serious scholarly fault, but as an allowable eccentricity.

Wright also has strong words for those who affirm Pauline authorship of Ephesians, but fail to integrate its theology into a holistic reading of Paul:

The irony emerges when those same ‘conservative’ readers allow Ephesians to be by Paul for reasons to do with their commitment to a particular view of scripture, but are careful not to let it affect their view of Paul lest they be forced to admit, not only a higher ecclesiology than they have usually wanted, but also the fact that Ephesians seems to offer rather a clear vindication of the ‘new perspective’ (these two points are not unrelated).

It’s unfortunate that Ephesians, after having played such a prominent role in depictions of Paul until 1800, has been so neglected. Perhaps Paul and the Faithfulness of God will help effect a change toward understanding Paul through the lens of Ephesians, though I suspect that this may be left to another generation of NT scholars.

The Heart of N. T. Wright’s Paul

In his book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright identifies the heart of Paul’s worldview as the unity of God’s people in Christ. For Wright, “Paul’s theology” is the sustained reflection on what God has done in Christ and how that relates integrally with the intentional practices of a profound unity in communities of Jesus-followers.

Wright, PFG

These two paragraphs, taken from the midst of a discussion of Paul’s worldview with reference to Philemon, sum up the heart of Wright’s project:

Paul’s over-mastering aim in this letter is what elsewhere he calls reconciliation. This is new. There is no sign that he is appealing to, or making use of, the symbols and praxis of his native Jewish world. Nor is he appealing to an implied world of social convention such as obtained in the world of Pliny. Nor is he drawing on any previously elaborated philosophical (in this case, ethical) schemes of thought. He has stepped out of the Jewish boat, but not onto any hidden stepping-stones offered from within the non-Jewish world. He appears to be walking on the water of a whole new worldview. Here, sharply focused within this tiny letter, we glimpse one of the large and central claims of this present book: that Paul’s worldview was a radically redrawn version of the Jewish worldview he had formerly held, with some elements (the symbolic praxis) radically reduced in significance and others (the narratives) radically rethought. The new symbolic praxis which stood at the heart of his renewed worldview was the unity of the Messiah’s people. In letter after letter he spells it out in more detail, but here in Philemon we see it up close: in this case, the unity of slave and free. Paul puts everything he has into making this unity a reality.

Why does he do this? Why would Philemon and Onesimus be motivated to go along with this costly and socially challenging plan? Answer: because of the implicit theology. Because of who God is. Because of the Messiah. Because of his death. Because of who ‘we’ are ‘in him’, or growing up together ‘into him’. Because of the hope. The study of Paul’s worldview leads to a striking, dramatic conclusion: this worldview not only requires a particular ‘theology’ to sustain it, but also requires that ‘theology’ itself play a new role, integrated with the worldview itself. Paradoxically in terms of the traditional division between social science and theology, it is by studying Paul within ‘worldview’ categories that we acquire a new way of seeing not only what was really important within his fully blown theology but also why theology as a whole became more important for him, and ever afterwards within the community of Jesus’ followers, than it was (and still is to this day) within the worlds of either Jews or pagans. In studying Paul in a more holistic fashion, we discover the roots of the discipline known as ‘Christian theology’, and why – from Paul’s perspective, at least! – it matters. This is the central subject of the present book (p. 30).


That Subversive Social Gospel

In chapter 2 of his fascinating book, Exodus and Liberation, John Coffey recounts the use of Exodus imagery in the English Civil War(s) and the American Revolution. English Parliamentarians, Protestants, and Puritans and American Patriots deployed it purposefully to link liberation from spiritual slavery with liberation from political slavery.


In the following chapter, Coffey describes how those who put the imagery and language of Exodus to such effective use quickly sought to limit its deployment by those arguing for the liberation of actual slaves—those held in bondage by the very same people who had achieved their political liberation.

Quoting another scholar, Coffey writes:

[T]he revolutionaries’ critique of political slavery created an “infectious” “contagion of liberty”: “The movement of thought was rapid, irreversible, and irresistible. It swept past boundaries few had set out to cross, into regions few had wished to enter.” Above all, it threw into question the legitimacy of black chattel slavery.

That is, the rhetoric of liberation from bondage was so pervasive and so effective that it was inevitable that slaves forcibly taken from Africa would put it to use to advocate for their own freedom.

Despite the obvious inconsistency, “[d]efenders of slavery worked very hard to quarantine the infectious biblical language of freedom by insisting that ‘the Liberty of Christianity is entirely spiritual’” (p. 80).

He then tells the story of the Quaker Anthony Benezet, of which the following is an excerpt:

It is telling that Benezet sought out allies who would share this prophetic ethos. He labored assiduously to establish a transatlantic antislavery movement, both by publishing tracts and writing letters to religious and political leaders. In particular, he targeted key Evangelicals, whose religious zeal and rising influence made them a strategic force. He republished Whitefield’s 1740 letter to the slaveholders of the South, but lamented the fact that “after residing in Georgia” the revivalist had become so “habituated to the sights & use of Slaves” that he had defended slaveholding. Despite challenging Whitefield “repeatedly, with brotherly freedom,” he made little headway. Whitefield’s patron, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, was no more responsive. Benezet told her that Christians had a duty to work for “the deliverance of their fellow-men, from outward as well as spiritual oppression and distress.” The countess, despite being the patron of several black writers on both sides of the Atlantic, was wary of this potentially subversive social gospel. The first generation of Evangelicals—led by Whitefield and the Moravians—helped to create a new black Christianity by taking the message of redemption to slaves, but like Luther they insisted that spiritual liberty would not undercut earthly subservience” (pp. 87-88).

Protestants instinctively felt that their Gospel was incompatible with political slavery; it would prove harder to persuade them that it was incompatible with black slavery (p. 86).

Coffey exposes the shameful hypocrisy (my word, not Coffey’s) of those who repeatedly pressed the implications of the Christian gospel for their own political gain, but then stressed its purely spiritual quality in order to prevent the liberation of others.

As the story continues, evangelicals soon became vigorous advocates for the abolition of slavery.

There’s much that can be said here, but I’ll simply note that I was struck by this historical parallel to contemporary American evangelical ambivalence when it comes to the social implications of the gospel.

N. T. Wright on Paul & the Unity of God’s People

It’s no secret that N. T. Wright has a new book out—Paul and the Faithfulness of God. It’s the latest installment in his larger project called “Christian Origins and the Question of God.”


In a discussion of his book in Baltimore last week, Wright said that central to Paul’s gospel is the unity and holiness of the people of God in Christ. I think this is exactly right. Across Paul’s letters, Christ’s Lordship and the work of God in Christ by the Spirit are vindicated and embodied in the unity of God’s holy people.

If the church breaks up into factions or becomes a worldly people (these two are nearly synonymous for Paul), then God’s victory in Christ is diminished.

Wright begins his project with a (very long) discussion of Philemon and he does so because Paul’s central appeal that Philemon “welcome” Onesimus is the same basic point in Romans (see chapters 14-15), and the same exhortation in Galatians and the Corinthian letters.

Here is how Wright relates this common theme:

Whatever precise reconstruction we offer of the situation Paul envisages in Rome, the point is clear: at the heart of his work is the yearning and striving for messianic unity across traditional boundaries, whether it be the unity of Jew and Gentile in the Messiah (the main point of Galatians), the unity of the church under the lordship of the Messiah in a pagan and imperial context (part of the main point of Philippians, coming to memorable expression in 2.1–4), or, as here in Philemon, the unity of master and slave, expressing again what it means to be en Christō. ‘So, if you reckon me a koinōnos, a partner, proslabou auton, welcome him as you would welcome me.’ Or, as he puts it in Galatians, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no “male and female”; you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus.’ That unity, as we shall argue in Part II of the present book, was for Paul the central symbol of the Christian worldview. And, as we shall argue in Part III, it could only be attained, and indeed maintained, through freshly worked theology, rooted in Jesus the Messiah and activated through the spirit (pp. 11-12).


The Season of Advent

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the season on the Christian calendar that climaxes at Christmas.  “Advent” means “something’s coming, something’s about to arrive.”

It is called “Advent season” because the Christian church takes this time of the year to intentionally do what all of creation is doing.  Creation is enslaved, held captive.  Sin and Death hold the world in their grip, and we all feel it.  Life hurts.  We get depressed.  Our bodies break down, or they just break.  People hurt us, reject us, people hurt themselves.  Families fall apart.

In this condition, what is creation doing?  It is waiting.  It is expecting.  A long time ago the people of God were waiting for their redeemer, the one who was promised, who would come and deliver God’s people from oppression and captivity.  God sent Jesus into the world to provide salvation, to make God’s initial move to redeem the world.  So we celebrate Christmas.

But we celebrate not only the singular day that commemorates the arrival of the Son of God, we participate in the entire Advent season, since we still find ourselves in a posture of waiting.  We are waiting for the return of Jesus to come and save, to redeem us from oppression and save us from our brokenness and sin.  We are waiting for God to come back and fix the world finally and forever.

This is the prayer from the lectionary for the first Sunday of Advent:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.