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The Real Jesus is Not on TV

by Drew 2 Comments

During the lead up to Christmas and Easter each year, there is a spat of programming around biblical and theological themes – specifically about the life of Jesus.  (As I write this during Holy Week 2017, CNN and PBS are running especially grotesque examples of this genre.)  This is a pop culture equivalent of the fascination that many scholars and pseudo-scholars have shared throughout the centuries, from the earliest gnostics to the 20th century Jesus Seminar.  Unfortunately, most of these are attempts to reconstruct a “real” Jesus more adaptable and interesting to the popular culture of whatever time and place, rather than diving more deeply into the Biblical and patristic record.

From the first, the church has endorsed a variety of views on Jesus.  We have four gospels in the New Testament, when we might have had one.  Of course, many so-called gospels have been rejected by the church as well (these rejected gospels provide the grist for the mill of the biannual “NEW SECRETS OF JESUS” programming we continually endure).  In this morass of various Jesus’ on offer, how do we determine true from false savior?

The esteemed Emory professor Luke Timothy Johnson, recently retired, provides a helpful sieve in his polemic work The Real Jesus, which took ruthless aim at the specious scholarship of the Jesus Seminar.  According to Johnson, the real Jesus of the gospels and the tradition has a story with very clear lines:

When the witness of the New Testament is taken as a whole, a deep consistency can be detected beneath the surface diversity. The “real Jesus” is first of all the powerful, resurrected Lord whose transforming Spirit is active in the community….the one who through the Spirit replicates in the lives of believers faithful obedience to God and loving service to others. Everywhere in these writings the image of Jesus involves the tension-filled paradox of death and resurrection, suffering and glory.

Within the New Testament, no other pattern joins the story of Jesus and that of his followers. Discipleship does not consist in a countercultural critique of society. Discipleship does not consist in working overwhelming miracles. These elements of the Jesus tradition are not made normative in the way that the pattern of obedient suffering and loving service is.

In other words, the real Jesus cannot be known apart from the clear arc of his story in the New Testament: sacrificial service, radical love, death and resurrection.  Any other Jesus is a reconstruction – and, as Schweitzer noted almost a century ago – most likely a self-aggrandizing fiction.  This takes away the edge, the beauty, and the heart of the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.

I’ll let Johnson have the last word:

For our present age, in which the “wisdom of the world” is expressed in individualism, narcissism, preoccupation with private rights, and competition, the “wisdom of the cross” is the most profoundly countercultural message of all.  Instead of an effort to rectify the distorting effect of the Gospel narratives, the effort to reconstruct Jesus according to some other pattern appears increasingly as an attempt to flee the scandal of the gospel. (p. 166)

Do you agree with Johnson’s portrait of “the real Jesus?” Why are we continually attracted to visions of Jesus that outside of the earliest witnesses? Leave a comment below!

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John Wesley on “Continual Enjoyment” in the New Creation

Is the New Creation something we should welcome, or something we should grieve? For much of my life, my study of the last things or “end times” brought little more than terror. Taught that the rapture was surely coming soon and fed by the overwarmed and more-fictional-than-they-let-on narratives of the Left Behind series, I was led to believe that the second coming of Christ was something fearful.

I was so wrong.

In his sermon “The New Creation,” John Wesley concludes with what is not only my favorite quote in the Wesley corpus, but perhaps the best description I know (outside of the Bible) of God’s Kingdom in its fullness:

As there will be no more death, and no more pain or sickness preparatory thereto; as there will be no more grieving for, or parting with, friends; so there will be no more sorrow or crying. Nay, but there will be a greater deliverance than all this; for there will be no more sin. And, to crown all, there will be a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God; a constant communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit; a continual enjoyment of the Three-One God, and of all the creatures in him!

I was first exposed to this particular bit of Wesley thanks to my professor from Divinity School, Geoffrey Wainwright, in a lecture on the Kingdom of God and eternal life in Wesley. Some notable features:

  • Priorities. The end of death, sickness, and grief is a secondary joy to the end of sin, which he calls the “greater deliverance.” What would it mean if we lived as if we were more afraid of sin than illness, suffering, or death?
  • Communion. The theme of “constant communion” is used by various ways by Wesley. In a sermon by that name, he writes of the importance of the Eucharist as part of Christian piety.  Might it be that a constant communion via the sacrament is nearly the best we can do, this side of the parousia, to the constant communion of God’s unfettered presence in the Kingdom?
  • Father, Son, & Spirit. Wesley is unapologetically, explicitly Trinitarian.  The union that is the “crown” of all the New Creation is not with an ephemeral deity, some “force” or Ground of Being, but the particular God revealed in Scripture and confessed in the creeds and Councils of the Church.  Wesley is doubly clear that this communion is “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit,” whom he also describes via shorthand as the “Three-One God.”  In an age, at least in North America, of increasing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, it’s important to remember that the vision of the Kingdom that has animated Wesley and the church across time and space is solely dependent upon the Holy Trinity.
  • A joyful union.  Like other Arminians (and his grandchildren in the faith), Wesley is less focused on God’s glory (as Calvinists love to ponder) and far more interested in the joy of unbroken, perfect relationship to the Godhead.  It is not only a knowledge or worship of God, but a “continual enjoyment” of the Trinity, with all creatures in him. Many visions of heaven or of the Kingdom (see N.T. Wright for this critical distinction) are so dreary that one would hardly want to go: the Father has not wrought our salvation through Christ and in the Holy Spirit so we could play golf in perpetuity.  The end is rather, as the Westminster Catechism taught (and Wesley quoted frequently), to “enjoy Him forever.”  That’s why for Wesley, the bottom line of the New Creation is nothing less than the “continual enjoyment” of God without end.

Of course, for Christians, the enjoyment of the Kingdom is not simply a promise that we reach through the door of death, but a way of life here and now.  In his classic The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard defines the Kingdom as “the realm of God’s effective rule.” When Christ rules in our hearts, and with an increasing intensity as God’s ways hold sway over us through sanctification, we experience the joy of God’s reign.  This is why Wesley regularly insisted, contra the images of dour nuns and dull saints the media gives us, that holiness and happiness are joined at the hip.

That’s the unique enjoyment that only God’s rule in our lives and in our world can bring. That is the promise for which we hope. That is the longing – the one true desire – of which all others are only a pale imitation.

Why wait to experience that joy until the next life? We can enjoy God now, and, as Charles Wesley so beautifully put it, “anticipate that heaven below.”

When you think of God’s Kingdom, do you think of joy? Why do so many images of the last things focus on fear rather than the enjoyment of God? Leave a comment below!

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Time to Rethink the War Between the Science vs. Religion

We need to rethink the purported conflict between science and religion.  In his wonderful book Unapologetic Theology, William Placher makes the following observation:

Many of the “conflicts” between science and religion result from theologians trying to be scientists or scientists engaging in speculative philosophy, and it is important to get clear on the appropriate range of each field. The defenders of creation science, and Carl Sagan in his speculations about the meaning of it all, seem to me equally guilty, from opposite sides, of confusion in such matters.  Both are claiming professional authority to speak of matters beyond their professional competence. Still, here too it seems too simple to say that religious faith and science address totally different questions and therefore can never be in conflict and need never be in dialogue.

Placher is writing from a postliberal perspective that wants to take the internal logic of Christian language with utmost seriousness.  Thus, for him and others of this perspective, it is a first-order mistake to try and do science with the language of theology, or to bend Christian habits of speech to purely scientific discourse.  Science has its own methods and language, and to co-opt that language is to do damage to both (as creation science bastardizes both science and theology).  Likewise, when otherwise intelligent scientists like Richard Dawkins or Neil deGrasse Tyson begin to wax about theology and philosophy, using the tools of science to draw conclusions on questions outside their competency, they too misunderstand the limits of their own field.

Note that this isn’t as simple as an elitist argument or a “stay in your own lane” warning, but a recognition of different modes of discourse.  This is especially true in the ongoing, overblown, conflict between science and faith.  Because if Placher is correct, the conflict consists not so much in opposing worldviews or goals, but in simply talking past one another.

And really, isn’t there enough of that already in today’s world?

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The Shack is Not a Christian Movie

The recent film adaptation of William P. Young’s bestselling novel The Shack is an anomaly. The cast, including the Academy Award-winning Octavia Spencer (from such hits as The Help and Hidden Figures), is strong. Tim McGraw even successfully pulls off the role of the down-to-earth neighbor, who actually looks at home driving a truck and going to church. The direction and cinematography are effective; there are some truly beautiful shots in The Shack of mountains, gardens, and waterfront scenery.   The story follows the book quite closely, and delves deep into weighty themes like the Trinity, God’s sovereignty, and the question of innocent suffering. While no film can deal adequately with such topics in two hours, The Shack has a lot of meat on the bones and leaves room for mystery and questions. The cast handles all this with subtlety, avoiding the cheesiness which one often finds in religiously themed movies. In short, this is a well-made film.

That’s why The Shack is not a Christian movie.

Christian movies, by contrast, are generally poorly directed, low production-value affairs. They typically feature, if not a wholly unknown cast, mostly amateur acting. The writing is often heavy-handed, resolving complex questions with too much simplicity (see God’s Not Dead, for instance). The theology of most Christian films is a hybrid of thin evangelicalism with American family values, which maps neatly onto the worldview taught and preached in many large non-denominational churches in the US.  The theology of Christian films is usually “functionally Unitarian,” a term I owe to a seminary professor, Dr. Freeman, who helped me realize that most evangelicals can only talk about Jesus and rarely address the other persons of the Trinity, much less the Trinity as a whole. Christian films reflect this unfortunate habit.

[If you’ve never read the book and not yet seen the movie, consider this your spoiler warning.]

The Shack’s plot is fairly simple: a father and husband, Mack, experiences a horrific tragedy that changes the course of life. Sometime later, in the throes of what he calls The Great Sadness, Mack receives a mysterious letter in the mail from God inviting him to the shack where that tragedy had occurred. When Mack reluctantly goes, he meets the Trinity – except the three Persons are represented in largely unexpected ways. In the ensuing conversations and experiences, the movie deals with the nature of God, sovereignty, religion, the afterlife, and what philosophers and theologians call “the problem of evil.” As noted above, this is a lot for any single movie to tackle, and The Shack packs more actual theology into a film than any other mass-marketed feature I can call to mind.

Any depiction of the Trinity risks heresy, including the famous Rublev icon.

None of this is to suggest that The Shack is without problems. Most of the issues with the novel are present in this adaptation. Any portrayal of the Trinity is bound to be imperfect – for we cannot adequately portray a mystery via a finite medium like film. Even Rublev’s beloved icon could lead one to tritheism, if taken to the hilt. Young makes clear that the decision to portray God as an African-American woman has to do with Mack’s own family baggage.   While it is admirable – and, for many conservative readers, quite controversial – to portray the First Person of the Trinity in this way, it is not without its own problems. The novel, and to a lesser extent, the film adaptation run the risk of mammy stereotypes. The portrayal of the Holy Spirit in some ways also gets into stereotypical territory. These issues need to be taken seriously, but I still believe this is a valuable story. We are in a cultural moment where I find it difficult to imagine a white writer portraying non-white characters in such a way that it would be critique-proof. Young – and the film’s producers – took a risk here. While problems should be acknowledged, so should their boldness in attempting to help readers envision God as other than an old white man with a beard.

The bulk of the people who have major problems with the movie, like the book, are those (chiefly from the Reformed camp) who take issue with social Trinitarianism, patripassianism (the teaching that the Father suffered along with the Son on the cross), and God’s sovereignty. It is the third of these that likely causes the most headaches among its critics. If you believe that “everything happens for a reason,” that God’s hand is somehow behind everything that happens all the time, you will not like how this film addresses the problem of evil. On the other hand, if you are drawn to a kind of middle way about sovereignty – I personally can’t square either the micromanaging God of Reformed doctrine or the removed deity of Process thought – you’ll find The Shack compelling on this score. In not offering easy or trite answers here, the film is more brave and more honest than most popular Christian takes on these deep questions of faith. (Roger Olson’s book is worth a read if you want to dig into these questions more; coming from an evangelical Arminian perspective, his reading strikes the kind of critical but overall appreciative note that I would see as appropriate.)

Popular Christian books and films always draw a reaction from a wide swath of people, Christian and not, theologically trained and not. I’ve been disturbed at how many people I’ve noticed, who are otherwise broad-minded and fair critics, that have judged The Shack to be unworthy of Christian eyes without seeing or reading it. As we saw so prominently with Rob Bell’s Love Wins, the speed and vitriol with which some Christians will dismiss something without having actually read or viewed it is astonishing. On the whole, I would recommend The Shack – the movie and the book – before nearly all of its competition in the Christian publishing and Christian film industries. It is far from perfect: inelegant in some places, a bit on the nose in others. Don’t trust the reviews, though.  This movie fall into an unfortunate category almost all its own: it pushes the envelope far too much to be promoted by the usual folks who support movies like Courageous, but it is too Christian to pass critical muster.  All that said, I believe it succeeds much more than it fails. My own ministry experience has been that few other resources open up in-depth conversations about the Trinity and the problem of evil like Young’s imaginative and powerful parable.

The Shack actually addresses God as Trinity, tackles hard questions without offering easy answers, and does so with the acting skills and production values of an actual quality film. For all of these reasons, The Shack is not a Christian movie – and this is why it succeeds.

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Ashes-to-Go For One: Rethinking Liturgical Individualism

She walked in as I was in the sanctuary preparing for the service – checking the ashes, making sure I had some paper towels ready, marking my spot in the Book of Worship.  “Do you have an Ash Wednesday service tonight?” Yes ma’am, I replied, at 7:00 p.m.  It was about 6:20 at this point. “Has it been earlier in other years?” I’m not sure, I said, I just started in July.

It turned out that she had been to our Ash Wednesday service before, and was hoping to catch the service on her way home from work before meeting with her daughter.  I told her we had a community meal going on and we’d love for her to stay and eat before the service, but her daughter was expecting her and she couldn’t stay. I could tell she was disappointed.

Then I offered to do for her something I’ve never done, something I’ve argued against doing vigorously for years: if she wished, I would impose ashes on her personally and pray with her.  She gladly accepted, and, after giving her some time to pray at the altar, I prayed with her and placed ashes – that ancient sign of mortality and penitence – on her forehead.

Many of my colleagues have encounters somewhat like this annually. Increasingly, among liturgical Protestants, we hear each Lent about “Ashes-to-Go.”  Pastors and priests will go to a coffee shop, a farmer’s market, set up shown downtown, or go to some other public place for a time on Ash Wednesday and offer to pray with people and impose ashes on them.  An each year, I hear stories of significant encounters that would never happen unless the ashes were taken outside of the walls of the church and offered on the go.  My experience last night give me a sense of the meaningful connection that truly can occur in these one-on-one encounters outside of a communal worship context.

I still don’t believe in Ashes-to-Go.

I don’t regret offering ashes to the woman last night.  She made a good faith effort to “get her ash in church,” as we say, and simply made a mistake.  I don’t know my new community well enough to know what time nearby churches offer their services.  She was also the parishioner of a friend of mine and happened to be on my side of town, and I wanted to show hospitality to a fellow United Methodist, in the same way I would hope a colleague would treat one of my church members.

Protestants seem enamored with transplanting communal rites outside of both their ecclesial and liturgical contexts – that is, taking them out of a worship setting and offering them individually.  Whether it is communion at train stations or at home via skype, or Ash Wednesday around the dinner table because you’re snowed in, we seem to look for any excuse to take sacred rites to the secular.

Theologically, this is often tied to a sort of missional mindset, which observes (rightly) that Jesus didn’t spend all his time in the Temple, but went out to meet people on the road, at the city gate, and at the well.  In a North American context where fewer people are making worship a priority even once a week, it seems unreasonable to wait in church and simply hope people show up. In my own tribe, United Methodists, we will often cite John Wesley’s bold step of preaching outside to coal-miners and other working class people of England at the beginning of the Wesleyan revival.  This kind of sacred experience outside of church and among the people, the argument goes, is simply part of our Methodist DNA.

The problem remains the same, however, because there is a basic category mistake.  Ash Wednesday, like the Eucharist, is a corporate rite.  Even in situations of pastoral need – like, say, taking communion to the sick, or the woman who accidentally arrived early at my church last night – these are exceptions to the rule for those who cannot be present with the community.  That’s quite different than seeking out those who could be in corporate worship and offering them a facsimile of the real thing.  Ashes-to-Go is a capitulation to an individualistic culture that, however anecdotally meaningful to participants, ultimately undermines the creation of a Christian community in which worship is central.  It is satisfying in the way that eating ice cream before dinner is satisfying: it meets an immediate desire but ruins the real experience of the family meal.

I don’t regret offering ashes on the go last night, but it reinforced my belief that Ash Wednesday, like Holy Communion, is a community experience whose individualistic expressions should be an exception based on pastoral need and not on convenience.  I respect the desire to reach people outside of the walls of the church and the desire to try new things – and indeed, some of my closest colleagues do this annually – but I believe it ultimately misses the mark.

Let’s get, and give, our ash in church.

What has been your experience of Ashes-to-Go? What are other ways we can meet and serve people outside the walls of the church? Leave a comment below!

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A Wesleyan Searches the Solas: A Review of Biblical Authority After Babel

Much like Leithart’s The End of Protestantism, I leave Kevin Vanhoozer’s new work Biblical Authority After Babel wondering if Methodists make bad Protestants.  Vanhoozer’s tome is well written, meticulously researched, but it will ultimately be most convincing to those already enamored with Luther and Calvin.  Like Leithart’s Reformed Catholicism (I prefer “Roman Calvinism”), Vanhoozer invents a “Mere Protestant” species in which I, as an orthodox United Methodist with Anglican leanings who was never taught to be enamored with the solas, cannot see myself.  That said, I believe Vanhoozer’s new work is still worth a read.

In many ways, this book is a work of Protestant apologetics; that is, it is not defending Christian faith in general, but rather Protestantism (in the form of the 5 classic solas) against Catholic (but, sadly, not Orthodox) broadsides.  Vanhoozer is sensitive to claims (many of which, he rightly notes, are overblown) that Luther and Calvin opened a Pandora’s Box that ultimately made something like small-c catholic consensus impossible.  He names the driving questions thus: “Should the church repent or retrieve this dangerous Protestant idea? Can the Protestant principle sola scriptura ever produce consensus, or is the result always chaos?[…]Did the Reformation set loose interpretive anarchy upon the world, and, if so, should Christians everywhere file a class-action suit?” (9)  To help answer these questions and defend “Mere Protestantism,” he offers “the solas as seeds for a perennial reformation of the church.” (33)

While I remain unconvinced of Vanhoozer’s overall argument, there is a lot of meat on these bones that is worth pondering, even if one has doubts about his thesis.  This description of the Bible, for instance, is just pure gold: “Scripture is essentially a narrative account of God’s gracious self-communicative activity in the histories of Israel and Jesus Christ whereby the Father adopts a people by uniting them to his Son through his Spirit.” (62)  I also appreciate his definition of systematic theology: “simply the requirement to think biblical things through and to make sure that what one thinks about different biblical themes coheres.” (125)

There are times that Vanhoozer lapses into more Romish sentiments than he would wish.  Thus, in the chapter on “faith alone,” he asks how this “compensate[s] for the loss of external authority (the church magisterium) in biblical interpretation?” (72)  But surely the very solas which form the spine of his entire argument function as a kind of (Mere) Protestant magisterium? His defenders might claim that the solas are merely natural extrapolations of Scripture – but then, Catholics would say the same about the papacy or transubstantiation.

Speaking of Catholics, Vanhoozer leaves many of these centuries-old debates underdeveloped.  There is, of course, a rich literature from the Catholic counter-reformation and a long dialogue with Rome down through the years, and yet on the whole the reader does not get the sense that Vanhoozer is not interested in presenting the opposing view in a sympathetic light, but merely restating the oldest of the Reformers’ arguments.  In this vein, he quotes Ramm’s contention that “the Bible treated allegorically becomes putty in the hand of the exegete,” which uncritically presumes a Protestant hermeneutic – sans magisterium or catechism.  This, additionally, is the inverse of the caricature that Vanhoozer is so committed to fighting.    For surely we might just as easily say “the Bible treated literally” or “the Bible treated independent of other sources” becomes putty in the exegete’s hand?

The chapter I find most lacking explores sola scriptura.  Vanhoozer here sounds like theologians who collapse all of soteriology into justification, or all of the atonement into subsitutionary, in that he seeks to make “sola scriptura” a catch-all category for a nuanced, broad “Mere” Protestant hermeneutic.  He comes dangerous close to spouting alternative facts when he sums up his view: “it is not that Scripture is alone in the sense that it is the sole source of theology”; rather, “Scripture ‘alone’ is the primary or supreme authority in theology.” (111)  I was taught sola fide for a decade by Southern Baptists who revered Luther, and I promise that for them, “alone” meant just that – not primary.  Primary, in fact, is the language that United Methodists use when describing our unique take on the Anglican three-legged stool unfortunately named the “Wesleyan” Quadrilateral.  It is simply not possible that Sola Scriptura means Lutheran and Calvinist “Mere” Protestants have the same view of Scripture as Anglicans and Wesleyans, which would have to be true if Vanhoozer’s reading is correct.  Methinks the author has stretched the bounds of this particular definition; I’m not a perfect husband but I know that there is a significant difference in saying I love my wife “alone” and that I love my wife just more than other women.  Sola and prima are simply different concepts, and they get conflated by Vanhoozer (and I am unconvinced by his solo/sola distinction).

This is an important work for a particular tribe of Protestants, but alas, not mine.  As an ecclesial descendant of the Anglican via media, Vanhoozer’s thesis is simply too Protestant for this presbyter.  This would’ve been a stronger argument had it included more attempts to narrate Catholic beliefs from a Catholic position, and if it had referenced the East.  Many of Protestantism’s critiques of Rome are shared by the East, and yet the East comes to vastly different conclusions – and has done so for twice the life span of Protestantism.  Sadly, the East is wholly lacking here, including in places where it would have been quite helpful (for instance, on the nature of catholicity and the role of the Pope).

Vanhoozer even manages to offend my delicate Duke sensibilities, referring  to the Yale School of Frei and Lindbeck rather brusquely to the “postliberal cultural-linguistic bandwagon.”  I’m not sure what mainline seminaries Vanhoozer has been spending time in, but if postliberalism is a bandwagon, we will need to invent new terms for extreme popularity to describe how existentialist, liberation, process, and contextual theologies reign practically unchallenged in most denominational schools of theology.

Nevertheless, Vanhoozer’s new work will make you think and is worth the time to read.  Even when less than convincing, there is more than enough solid content to keep you interested along the way – even if you are a Wesleyan, like me, whose Protestantism is almost wholly lacking in this account of Protestantism’s view of Scripture as found in the solas.

A Final Note: This work is riddled with side comments that are intended to be humorous but which this reviewer found tedious and irksome.  For instance, “And the evening and the morning were the first day of the hermeneutics of suspicion,” (88) and, “For those who swim in Fish’s school…” (22), or, “…in the Father’s household there are many Protestant mansions…” (103). Additionally, an editor should have caught his reference to Trinitarian relations as “eternal intercourse.” (52)  This is, to say the least, a highly unfortunate turn of phrase.

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God’s Kingdom & Our Hands

by Drew 3 Comments

What role, if any, do our hands play in God’s Kingdom? In his collected essays and lectures titled Signs Amid the Rubble (edited by my former professor, Geoffrey Wainwright), bishop and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin describes the Kingdom of God as the realm of God’s rule in human society and all creation – a rule that will not be fully realized until the last things, the eschaton.  He elaborates on why God’s Reign cannot yet be fully realized:

The perfect society cannot lie this side of death. And moreover it cannot be the direct result of our efforts. We all rightly shrink from the phrase “building the Kingdom of God” not because the Kingdom does not call for our labor, but because we know that the best work of our hands and brains is too much marred by egotism and pride and impure ambition to be itself fit for the Kingdom. All our social institutions, even the very best that have been produced under Christian influence, have still the taint of sin about them. By their own horizontal development they cannot, as it were, become the Kingdom of God. There is no straight line of development from here to the Kingdom.

But if we, with all our our wisdom and sweat and blood, cannot help but fail in any effort to bring God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” does our effort still matter? Do we need to work towards the Kingdom in some capacity, or can we simply sit with legs folded and enjoy a latte while all creation languishes?

Newbigin describes how good ministry is reliant upon the resurrection for its meaning and purpose, and how in Christ even death does not completely swallow up our effort.  John Ortberg may be right that it all goes “back in the box” when the game is over, but as Easter people we also know that death does not get the last word. The work of our hands, directed towards God’s purposes, is not work done in vain:

Our faith as Christians is that just as God raised up Jesus from the dead, so will He raise up us from the dead. And that just as all that Jesus had done in the days of his flesh seemed on Easter Saturday to be buried in final failure and oblivion, yet was by God’s power raised to new life and power again, so all the faithful labor of God’s servants which time seems to bury in the dust o failure, will be raised up, will be found to be there, transfigured, in the new Kingdom.  Every faithful act of service, every honest labor to make the world a better place, which seemed to have been forever lost and forgotten in the rubble of history, will be seen on that day to have contributed to the perfect fellowship of God’s Kingdom. (46-47)

No act of faithfulness to God’s Kingdom is ultimately lost, just as no person who has turned to God will be lost, for God will raise us up and make us participants in the fullness of His Kingdom – a Kingdom which we have not built, but a Kingdom to which our work has pointed, longed for, and honored.

Rightly understood, Newbigin’s point undermines the regnant eschatologies (ideas re: the last things) of many conservative and liberal Christians.  This view of the Kingdom as God’s realm coming to earth mitigates against any view that our eternal life is some individualistic experience of pure spiritual being, which is really a sort of gnostic existence; the Reign of God is communal, embodied, glorious, and yet physical.  The Kingdom is not, as many conservative Christians name it, “going to heaven when we die.”

Newbigin’s insights also remind us that the Kingdom is not ours to build, contra the social gospel of the early 20th century and many liberal Protestants since then.  The most perfect society humans can build cannot and will never be God’s Kingdom.  Having the right people in power or the right system in place does not equal God’s perfect society.  And yet, with our hands we can move the needle here and there towards a better reflection of God’s purposes.  We participate in that perfect Reign that is inbreaking when we insist that the way things are is not the way things shall be or should be.

I’ll close with a prayer purportedly from Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Catholic martyr gunned down at the mass for his Kingdom stance on the widespread corruption at that time in El Salvador.  I believe this prayer strikes the balance that Newbigin names in the essay quoted above.  I hope, also, that you might find it meaningful for your life and ministry:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

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Learning to Speak Christian in Our First Family, the Church

Does it matter how Christians speak?

I recently had the opportunity to write for my own Western NC Conference blog, and this time I wrote a reflection on language and identity in the church.  My premise is that the church is our first family, and this identity is both established and maintained through language.  Just as a company, culture, or hobby has a particular language, so too does the church have its own distinct habits of speech and modes of thought.  If we give away the language, we give away everything.  To be a Christian is no less than to speak the language of the church.

Along the way, I draw on the work of Wabash theologian William Placher and his dialogue on postliberal theology with James Gustafson in this piece. You can find the full article here.  Thanks to Rev. Dr. Michael Rich in the WNCC Communications Office for the chance to join a great group of bloggers, and thanks to you for reading!

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The 1st Business of the Church After the Inauguration

Oliver O’Donovan

How should the church respond to the inauguration of Donald Trump?

Most of us in the US, assuming you aren’t completely isolated, know people who are:

  • elated
  • terrified
  • indifferent
  • angry

It’s probable that a mix of these reactions will be seen and heard from pulpits, in liturgy, and in music on Sundays across America and the world.  The inauguration looms large on social media and around water coolers across the US. Which approach is right for the church?

A good place to start is this guidance from eminent political theologian Oliver O’Donovan (we’ve looked at his work before), which I’ve borrowed, with an assist from Rev. Dr. Joy Moore, from the good folks over at Mere Orthodoxy thanks to a tweet from Matthew Lee Anderson. From a 2010 interview:

Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.

If O’Donovan is right that the forces of evil want most a kind of “feverish excitement” from God’s people, than evil must be winning.  The devil is an extremist, as Uncle Screwtape noted, and seems to be doing well in this extreme age.  This is why, O’Donovan notes, our “first business” as the church is to deny that adulterated worship.  This leads to his conclusion that, counterintuitively, “the most pointed political criticism” is to focus elsewhere.

For my own take, I don’t think this means completely ignoring momentous events like elections and inaugurations, but it does mean keeping the focus on where it should be – on the worship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is what Stephen Covey calls “keeping the main thing the main thing.”

To let something else – out of elation, or anxiety, or anger – take our eyes off of God is to succumb to the spirit of Antichrist.  It is to give Satan the “feverish excitement” that draws our energies and attention away from the One who alone gives life.

I once heard a quote attributed to Merton that gets at this nicely: “What the devil wants most is attention.”  I’ve wrestled with that for a while, and it came back to me when I read O’Donovan’s reflection above.  A laser is powerful because it is focused. If that focus dissipates even slightly, it is useless. So it is with our worship; in giving the forces of corruption and anxiety our energy, we capitulate our very identity in a fruitless endeavor to fight “feverish excitement” with more of the same.  We condescend to the same level as that which we contend against.

In a similar vein, author Andrew Vachss has left us the following poem:

Warrior, heed this
When you battle with demons
Aim not at their hearts

Don’t aim at their hearts, for it will only be wasted effort.  Don’t fight fire with fire.  As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”  The fact is that the greatest truth the Body of Christ has to proclaim is not a word about any thing, issue, cause, or controversy.  The truth we proclaim is a person named Jesus, who reveals the Good News of who God is, what God is doing, and what God will do.  In short, telling the truth about Jesus will always be more radically subversive than the angriest tweet, the most pointed Facebook post, or the signaliest of virtue signaling blog posts.  Likewise, a sermon “about” the election or a liturgy focused on the office of the President – aiming right at the heart of the demons – can only fall flat compared to the one truly subversive claim: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. (2 Cor. 5:19)

The first business of the church after the inauguration is no different than it was before the inauguration: to proclaim, in word and deed, hymn and sacrament, voice and silence, liturgy and service that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.

That is the truth on which our hope is based.  Whether we find ourselves angry, joyful, sad, or indifferent at this moment in our national life, our worship and proclamation should first reflect the gospel, not our own emotional state.  If every knee will bow and every tongue confess at the name of Jesus (Phil. 2:10-11), then our proclamation ought never stray from this, for no matter what the news of the day might be, the good news is greater.   This is the confession on which our very lives are staked.  This – and only this – is the first business of the church, no matter who sits on Caesar’s throne.

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Sabbath & Eucharist in Brueggemann

Sabbath as Resistance is one of those brief theological reflections that packs a punch.  It does more real work – exegesis, ethics, prophetic exhortation – in less than 100 pages than most theological works do in 300+.   For Brueggemann, the esteemed Old Testament don from Columbia Seminary, Sabbath is not merely Blue Laws and avoiding lawn work, it is both an act of resistance and alternative to the dominant culture.  To enter into Sabbath rest is to enact a counter-liturgy (here I am influenced by James K.A. Smith’s work on cultural liturgies) to the slavish existence that Pharoah brings.

In a remarkable passage from the Preface, Brueggemann links his vision of Sabbath with the Eucharist in a vivid image:

I have come to think that the moment of giving the bread of Eucharist as gift is the quintessential center of the notion of Sabbath rest in Christian tradition. It is gift! We receive in gratitude. Imagine having a sacrament named “thanks”! We are on the receiving end, without accomplishment, achievement, or qualification. It is a gift, and we are grateful! That moment of gift is a peaceable alternative that many who are “weary and heavy-laden, cumbered with a load of care” receive gladly. The offer of free gift, faithful to Judaism, might let us learn enough to halt the dramatic anti-neighborliness to which our society is madly and uncritically committed. (xvi-xvii)

Like the Eucharist, Sabbath is a gift of God that grows us in grace.  It is an alternative to the “earn and take” society we know too well, in that we can only receive this good gift and be glad in it.

Like the Eucharist, Sabbath invites us to a different world, a different narrative.  The “give us this day our daily bread” from the Lord’s Prayer might well hearken back to the manna that sustained God’s people in the wilderness, bread they were given each day – except the day before the Sabbath, in which they were given a double portion so they could experience rest.

Similarly, the bread of the Eucharist is a Sabbath bread, an invitation to receive from God’s own hand, and to rest (however briefly) in a world where abundance is not deserved or grabbed, but received and shared by all who desire it.  To participate in the Lord’s Supper is to gain a glimpse of the Kingdom feast, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, where all are fed and none go hungry.

As the author of Hebrews said, “there is a Sabbath rest for the people of God,” a rest that we envision every time we sit at table with Jesus and his friends.  We are not Superman, we are allowed a respite, and there is none more nourishing than this great feast of the church.

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