Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Super Bowl Halftime Show

Sports Illustrated has an interesting article on the best and worst Super Bowl halftime shows. I’m looking forward to the game but probably won’t pay much attention to the halftime festivities. They’re more often than not disappointing and unremarkable, and it’s a great time to get up and replenish the hummus supply.

A few years ago, Sports Illustrated, in another article, ranked U2’s 2002 performance as the best ever. I’d argue the same.

Bono

That was the first Super Bowl since the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the country was still getting to grips with what had happened.

It’s only 12 minutes, but it was absolutely powerful.  Bono had a special jacket made up with football stitching and an American flag for the inside lining.

Just after a brief bit from the haunting “MLK,” you can hear Bono praying a line from Psalm 51: “Oh Lord, open my lips that I might show forth thy praise.”

What I love is that the performance unmistakably gathered the emotions of the country, but did so in a way that didn’t endorse any particular political viewpoint or foreign policy agenda.

It’s hard to believe it was 14 years ago.  Check it out.


My Thoughts on the Bill Nye & Ken Ham Debate

Oof...

 


Paul & Neo-Calvinism

Paul is one of the most familiar characters from the pages of the New Testament. Indeed, many Christians tend to read Scripture through a Pauline lens.

It’s easy to make him one of “us,” whatever group it is that is “us.” We all tend to shape Paul according to our own image and then read the rest of the Bible and speak of Christian faith from that perspective.

The Apostle Paul

For this reason, Paul is at the center of many controversies. Martin Marty hits this note in a recent column. He indicates that the Apostle has become a champion of the recent resurgence of a sort of Calvinism among evangelicals.

In looking to Paul as a main resource, this movement is certainly like many others that imagine that if Paul were to show up in our day, he’d encounter them and say, “finally, some Christians who are doing it right!”

I’ve always been amazed how revivalists can see Paul as the ultimate evangelist, theological pugilists see him as the exemplary contender for the faith, and para-church organizational leaders see him as the paradigmatic Christian executive.

I’ve written elsewhere on how we easily make Paul in our own image, and how he was different from most of our modern expectations.


Students, Teachers, Grades, & Idolatries

We’ve just begun a new academic semester, which means that last week I spent some time in class talking through syllabuses, explaining course content, describing textbooks, and the logic of various assignments.

A student inquired as to how much thought goes into choosing course texts. It was a great question, and I explained the process of experimentation that led me to select specific books and readings for this course, in addition to the logic of assignments and papers.

This question reminded me of other conversations I’ve had at the start of semesters.

When I was teaching undergraduates, I was unprepared for the level of negotiation and complaint I encountered.

After handing out the syllabus and describing course content, I would often have students approach me after the first class session stating flatly that they needed to get an ‘A’ in this class. They had a scholarship to maintain or had other seemingly important reasons to keep a high GPA.

I was taken aback. “Well, you now know the expectations, so you better work hard and earn your ‘A’, I guess,” was all I could say.

Others, standing behind them in agitated states, would complain that there was too much work in this course.

I would respond by saying that the course actually wasn’t too difficult and that I felt that the course had the right amount of work relative to its subject matter.

I would then ask such students how many hours they were taking and how many hours a week they were working. I was stunned that many of them were taking up to 20 hours of course work, working 10-15 hours a week, and involved in other activities that demanded even more of their time.

Early in my teaching career I was thrown by these conversations. I couldn’t imagine talking to my undergraduate professors like this.

I began to tell my classes that it was my responsibility to be faithful in designing for them a course that would match its description in the catalog. I was responsible to be faithful to the scholarly guild, representing the content of the course and helping them work through it at an appropriate level (i.e., introductory, intermediate, advanced).

It was their responsibility to assess their commitments over the subsequent 3-4 months to determine what they could handle.

If they over-committed, or were trying to double-major or pack too much into a four-year program, I suggested that they consider whether or not they were being idolatrous.

Were their desires to secure their futures so out of control that they were cultivating seriously unhealthy and imbalanced patterns of life during the most formative four years of their lives?

Would it not be a manifestation of trust in God to seek to be faithful with their time, energies, and efforts during their four-year university experience? Would it not be more important to make sure there is time for Sabbath rest, sleep in general, as well as a good balance between work, recreation, and fostering of friendships?

Finally, I informed them that they assumed all the short-term risk of packing too much into a semester. That is, if they ignored my warning and sought to do too much and crashed at some point in the semester and were unable to fulfill the course requirements, they alone would bear the consequences (i.e., a bad grade).

Sadly, because of various caffeine delivery systems and other sources of unnatural energy, it’s become the norm that students cultivate idolatrous and self-destructive modes of life during these formative years.

I haven’t had to have this conversation often in seminary-level teaching, but I’ve occasionally reminded students to make sure they carefully tend to their fundamental and (by far) more important commitments.

A grade isn’t worth neglecting a spouse or child.


An Entirely New Way

In an extended section of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright takes pains to draw out the significance of “religion” in the first century. It wasn’t a separate sphere of life, but pervaded everything, down to the details of day-to-day existence.

Because of the integral connection between “the gods” and the complex fabric of daily life, Paul’s proclamation of an alternative Lord and an alternative way of life was rightly understood as totalizing, subversive, and revolutionary.

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Wright sums it up this way: 

When Paul arrived in Ephesus, Philippi or anywhere else with his message about the one God and his crucified and risen son, he was not offering an alternative way of being ‘religious’ in the sense of a private hobby, something to do in a few hours at the weekend. He was offering a heart transplant for an entire community and its culture. If ‘the centrality of Artemis was part of what it meant to be an Ephesian,’ it is not surprising that Paul’s ministry there caused a riot (p. 255).


Cable News & Culture War

Charles Blow had a very interesting column in the NY Times the other day about the corrosive effect of pundits in our culture.

He cited Glenn Beck’s surprising recognition of his divisive behavior during his tenure at Fox News.

I remember it as an awful lot of fun, and that I made an awful lot of mistakes, and I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language. Because I think I played a role unfortunately in helping tear the country apart. And it’s not who we are. I didn’t realize how really fragile the people were. I thought we were kind of a little more in it together. And now I look back and I realize if we could have talked about the uniting principles a little more, instead of just the problems, I think I would look back on it a little more fondly. But that’s only my role.

There are many dynamics in play that create pressures for commentators in print and on cable “news” channels to be overly provocative, generating anger and inflaming hysteria.

Referring to talking heads across the liberal-to-conservative spectrum, Blow writes:

Many media personalities are far from noble. As in any field, there are those consumed by ambition and possessed of dubious ethical bearings.

And in an arena where influence is measured by ratings, views and followers, the pressure to increase those metrics can get the better even of men and women with weather vane convictions.

Part of the job of opinion makers is to be provocative. One could express it this way: illuminate, elucidate and agitate.

But chasing provocation is a dangerous thing. It often leads you further out on a limb than is wise or safe.

Beck is just one of a number whose fundamental job is to attract viewers so that networks can make money from advertisers. Truth is not their concern. What matters is attracting and retaining viewers.

Sadly, what achieves this goal is agitating, generating paranoia, stirring up viewers’ emotions through outright slander, half-truths, and the persistent suggestion that “they’re out to rip us off, rob us of our rights, and take our stuff.”

The effect of this on the wider culture – from both the right and the left – is the creation and generation of division and animosity. The rhetoric of cultural warfare shapes imaginations so that everything is interpreted in light of political combat.

It’s no secret that many American Christians have been affected by the culture wars and the hysterical rhetoric of popular media (on both the left and right). Their imaginations are shaped with a readiness to fight, debate, and argue rather than to listen, share, laugh, and sit down with others and scheme to do good.

Paul’s antidote to heal the culture war imagination:

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you (Phil. 4:8-9, CEB).

 


Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

According to the Christian calendar, today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. This is a meditation on the political character of Paul’s conversion.

Before he was arrested and transformed by the exalted Jesus on the Damascus Road, Paul (called Saul, at the time) was a Pharisee.  As such, he had a thoroughly political orientation and outlook.  He was passionate about the God of Israel bringing about the resurrection of the dead, which meant God’s restoration of Israel, his justification of the faithful, and his inauguration of the long-awaited Kingdom—God’s own religio-political and economic order on earth.

How did he imagine this was going to happen?

For the Pharisees, this involved a political effort.  They were seeking to present to God a nation that was passionately faithful to the Mosaic Law and its practices.  After all, if God sent Israel into exile because of unfaithfulness to the Law, then renewed faithfulness at the national level would move God to act to deliver the Jews from their enemies (the Romans) and bring about salvation—the renewed national religio-political order.

Paul’s political outlook led to political behaviors of coercion, power, and violence, toward others and toward God.

He violently persecuted the church because their confession that Jesus was the Christ was an affront to God.  Jesus was crucified by being hung on a cross, so he must have been cursed by God.  The church’s very existence, therefore, was preventing God from bringing about the resurrection of the dead.

And he was coercing God, manipulating him to save Israel through attempts to enforce national conformity to the Law.

Which brings us to the question: Politically speaking, what changed for Paul after his encounter with the exalted Lord Jesus?

The Conversion of St. Paul, Caravaggio

After his transformation, Paul was still a Pharisee (Acts 26:4-6).  He was still passionate about God effecting the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6).

That is, Paul’s political outlook didn’t change at all.  He was still consumed by the arrival of the Kingdom of God into the world—the in-breaking of God’s holistic religio-political and economic order of shalom.

What changed for Paul was the mode whereby this reality was brought into being.

It does not come by coercion, power, and violence.  It only comes through cruciformity.  Participation in the Kingdom of God and the realities of resurrection come by participating in the death of Jesus by the power of the Spirit.

This reality leads to cruciform postures of weakness and humility toward God.  We do not manipulate God into saving.  We put ourselves into God’s hands in weakness, confident of his overwhelming grace, overpowering forgiveness, and magnanimous love.

And we embody participation in the Kingdom of God through cruciform postures of non-coercion and non-violence toward others.

It seems to me that there are at least two ways that modern Christians wrongly conceive of Paul and politics.

First, we might miss entirely that Paul had a political outlook, imagining that he only cared about “spiritual” matters.  Paul is only concerned with each person’s relationship to God, not with the corporate church as a political organism that ought to behave in any purposeful way toward the wider culture.

A second error is made by those who might recognize Paul’s political outlook, but fail to grasp his political mode of cruciformity.  They believe that God’s restored order and reign of righteousness is brought about through power, coercion, and violence.

We see this error when Christians adopt angry public rhetoric, applaud aggressive strategies of control and domination, and assume that the Christian cause is furthered through the agenda or this or that political party.

Both of these errors are capitulations of Paul’s political vision to the political agendas of our culture—the marginalizing of the political in favor of “the spiritual,” and the perversion of the political through surrender to the world’s way of doing things.

Paul envisions a body politic that is different, holy, a corporate body that embodies the character of Jesus in the world, that behaves creatively and redemptively in the midst of wider bodies politic.

Those who have been baptized into Christ cannot relate to the wider culture in ways that are coercive, manipulative, or violent.  Christians enduring an election cycle would do well to keep in mind what our Christian identity requires of us.

We are people claimed by the cross and called to embody for the world the cross-shaped love of the exalted Lord Jesus.

That is a thoroughly political statement and ought to determine our political outlook and behaviors toward one another and others.


Suffering & Presence

David Brooks, in a lovely column called The Art of Presence, introduces a family that has reflected at length on suffering and how to care for and bring comfort to those traumatized by tragedy.

Brooks highlights a few of the most important lessons for bringing grace and comfort to those who suffer:

  • Be present. Don’t assume the traumatized need “space” to deal with pain.
  • Don’t compare. Don’t ever say, “I know how you feel.”
  • Small, silent gifts bring a world of relief and are never forgotten.
  • Don’t ever interpret or try to make sense. Ever.

Christians often have a hard time with this final point. The temptation is to explain how this tragedy makes sense, or will make sense, in the big scheme of things.

We forget that Job’s friends were brilliant when they were silent and began to dishonor God the moment they began to interpret what was going on.

Brooks’s closing paragraphs:

Ashley also warned against those who would overinterpret, and try to make sense of the inexplicable. Even devout Christians, as the Woodiwisses are, should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. Theology is a grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event.

I’d say that what these experiences call for is a sort of passive activism. We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take its course. Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct.


Evangelicals & N.T. Wright

I’m still in the midst of reading Paul and the Faithfulness of God, so I’m not yet certain that it will do in Pauline studies what Jesus and the Victory of God did in the study of Jesus and the Gospels. But while doing some digging for a writing project, I again came across these lines from Alister McGrath, writing with reference to JVG. I’m more interested in what he says about evangelical identity than about Wright, but this is certainly worth pondering regarding our relationship to Scripture:

Wright’s project is like a gadfly to evangelical theology.  It is an irritant, a stimulus, that demands we reexamine our ways of thinking and interpreting Scripture, particularly Paul’s writings, to see whether we have fallen into settled and lazy ways of thinking that, in the end, fail to do justice to the New Testament.  A favorite slogan of later-Reformation writers was that the Reformed church must be ecclesia semper reformanda—that is, a church that is always reforming itself.  Reformation, rightly understood, is not a once-for-all event whose ideas are to be set in stone but an ongoing process of reexamination and reconsideration, forced upon us by the priority of the biblical text over our provisional interpretations of that text.  Wright obliges us to read the New Testament again and to take the profound risk of allowing our most settled ideas to be challenged in the light of the biblical witness.  The price of being biblical is to constantly return to the Bible, sometimes with anticipation and at other times with trepidation, in that our present ideas may find themselves rendered questionable.  It is a price that I, for one, am glad to pay

From “Reality, Symbol & History: Theological Reflections on N. T. Wright’s Portrayal of Jesus,” in Jesus & the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (ed. Carey C. Newman; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1999), 178-79.


An Epiphany Prayer

Magi

Our Father in heaven, you guided the wise men to the worship of your Son by the light of a star.  Give us light, give us life, and draw us ever closer to you by the light of faith.  Enlighten and enliven our hearts to search after you just as they did.  Give us the grace to overcome the obstacles that keep us far from you.

Lord Jesus, may your light shine on our way, as it once guided the steps of the magi; that we too may be led into your presence and worship you, Son of Mary and Joseph, Word of the Father, King of the nations, Savior of humanity, to whom be glory forever.

Holy Spirit, who by a star led the three kings to the worship of Jesus; lead us to worship the Son of God, to whom every knee will bow, both the wise and the foolish, the great and the lowly of every land, from whom and to whom are all things.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.