Paul trumps Jesus’ own apprentices in Western Christianity

It’s ironic, is it not, that the three guys who actually spent THREE YEARS WITH JESUS EVERYDAY as his very own right hand men, disciples of the rabbi, have been side-lined in Western Christianity as second-rate to the great Apostle Paul, a guy who never met Jesus except in ecstatic visions? It’s hilarious. The six letters written by these three immediate learners from Jesus are down-played while Paul’s thirteen are held up as the centerpiece of Christian doctrine and belief.

How can we deny it? Western Christianity, and certainly Protestant Christianity, is built lock, stock, and barrel on Pauline theology, not least because the Reformation was largely a movement built on Pauline doctrines.  Every single time in my entire life that I have ever heard someone quote a passage from Peter, James or John’s letters that disagreed with something Paul said, everyone within earshot scrambles to make sure that Pater, James or John conform to what Paul said. “Well, what they really mean is…” is what they say, and what follows is a way of explaining the passage so that it agrees with what we perceive as Pauline doctrine. Not once have I EVER heard someone read something in one of Paul’s letters and make it conform to the theology in Peter, James or John. And yet, logically, who would we think knew what Jesus intended better?

Well, we say, Paul was SO WELL EDUCATED! And Peter, James and John, well, you know, dumb blue collar fishermen and such. Country bumpkins. Paul’s the real theologian. These guys are more like someone telling fireside stories.

I’m not buying it.

The Reformation is long done. We don’t need to keep chanting it’s formulas and favorite verses for the next two thousand years. Meaning: we don’t need to act like the Reformation question is the centerpiece of Christianity. Do we really think the point of the Bible is “here’s how you get to heaven”? If so, we’ve got a really, really, thick set of 16th century European lenses on for glasses.

What if we took Peter, James and John just as seriously as we take Paul? What if we took them even more seriously than we take Paul, and made his theology fold into theirs? Saw theirs as prior since they were WITH Jesus all that time? I can answer that: our theology would look a lot different.

And that’s not even to mention the more obvious question: What if we read Paul through the lens of Jesus, instead of reading Jesus (as we have for 500 years) through the lens of Paul?

Time for some theology, bro.

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A Different Understanding of ‘Gospel’

Maybe we are witnessing a shift in what we understand ‘the Gospel’ to be about. I’m coming across more and more examples of orienting Christian theology around the Creation narratives and the question ‘What was God’s original intent for Creation?’ Instead of starting with 16th century questions regarding how to get to heaven, the questions center around what the Creation narratives, and subsequent Scriptures,  tell us about God’s desire for how the Creation/Earth should look now. What His will is NOW on Earth (aka the Lord’s prayer).

This gives us a different starting point than what we traditionally think of in Western Christianity. We usually characterize the starting point of the Gospel as “How do I get to heaven?” This shift starts us by asking “What is God’s will for Earth?”

Instead of the controlling question being about life after death, it’s about life before death.

Instead of the controlling question/metaphor being “there’s a hell to shun and a heaven to gain,” this is “heaven is vacation between death and resurrection BACK ON EARTH – which is the centerpoint of God’s interest and redemption.”

This also casts the point of Jesus’ coming differently:  In the first case ‘Why did Jesus come?’ is answered with: “to get me to heaven.” In the second: “to enact God’s will on Earth – to restore shalom and Original Intent of the Creator for his humans and world.”

This might be why some of my Reformed/Calvinist friends are so upset by some of today’s shifts. It changes the narrative entirely. And if you are holding onto the Reformation’s narrative with both hands as if it is the sine qua non of the Gospel, then this shift in perspective is not one you like. It may explain the Reformed antagonism vs NT Wright regarding his work on the meaning of justification – because Wright reaches for a much larger biblical narrative than the Reformation question of ‘how am I justified?’

I wonder if this is a shift in Christian theology in general?  If it is, it’s big.   It changes what the whole gospel is about! Instead of the whole point being ‘getting to heaven,’ this conceptualizes the Gospel to be about  restoring God’s will for life on Earth – bringing our lives, and every aspect of life on our planet (ecology, politics, human rights, relationships, etc etc etc), under the Lordship of Jesus and God’s original intent for life on our world.

Some people have called this a bigger Gospel than the one most of us have grown up with. It looks more and more to me that you can legitimately demonstrate this understanding of ‘Gospel’ in the New Testament when you take off the glasses of theological assumptions you’ve grown accustomed to reading with. I am very confident that this is how the Old Testament characterizes humanity’s problem.

 

Earthlike Planets

I was sitting in one of our church’s groups some weeks ago when someone asked what was the purpose of the cosmos and trillions of suns, and Earthlike planets? The closest example, is there a purpose in Mars being an Earthlike planet, within the range of supporting life with only a little tinkering. (Mars has plenty of water frozen as its North Pole and in its soil (regolith) etc.)  What if there were no other life anywhere in the universe – what would be the point of all that space?

Most of the answers coming back were saying God did it only to demonstrate “his glory.” The way the Bible was being quoted, I got the distinct impression that the way these verses were being interpreted  made it out as if God was a ball hog, a glory hound, someone wanting all the attention. Someone who had an inner need to show off so that people would boost his self-esteem and re-assure him that he was ok after all.

I don’t think that’s why God made everything, I said. First, He is obviously creative and loves to create – He is burgeoning with life and love. But secondly, as to Earthlike planets and all of that – I get my kids gifts all the time that they can’t use yet at this stage of their life. But as they get older and mature, they will be able to enjoy the gift. I get the gift ahead of time, looking down the road to when they will grow into it. People didn’t know how to fish for deepwater toothfish, light cities with whale oil or make electricity for most of human history, but we grew into it. Humanity has been too young (technologically) to make use of Mars (and farther places) up until now, but perhaps God made all those good places/gifts for us to enjoy once we’ve matured enough to know how. Of course, this requires a long, not short, view of human history both theologically and chronologically.

Some very fun reads on this subject include (from a large and growing amount of writing on the subject)

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz

The Case for Mars  and Entering Space by Robert Zubrin

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan

And the spectacular novels Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Evangelicals resisting environmental concern

In Genesis, man’s first vocation and directive is to be a steward of the Earth. It’s his job description – tend the garden and take care of it. Manage God’s creatures. It seems ironic that evangelicals, a group with a large number of people clamoring to take the whole Bible literally, (and especially Genesis 1 & 2), have a vocal and popular set of leaders who distance themselves from, and denigrate the idea, of deep concern for climate change or the environment. This is likely in part due to the fact that American evangelicals (and especially their leaders) wedded themselves to the Republican Party machine, and that platform is concerned that overly restrictive environmental regulations would crush American businesses and the economy, jobs, etc.

Genesis tells us humankind was made from the dirt of the ground. Science agrees. My Huron friend has said to me, ‘Calling the Earth our Mother, as my people do, is biblically sound.’ But modern American Christianity seems to have lost our sense of connectedness to the Earth, and acts as if, aside from utilitarian value, Earth is a place that doesn’t matter overmuch because our goal is to leave. (When actually the story that the Bible tells ends here on earth – with God living here with us – not us leaving to live somewhere else with God. Pay attention.)

Today I find it very common among evangelicals to downplay concern over the planet as a waste of time, since our main job should be converting people to Christianity. Considering this is the same group of people who often clamor for us to take Genesis 1 and 2 literally, I find it ironic that they don’t have much to say about  –literally – the only job description for humanity found in those two chapters: caring for the Earth, tending the garden. How in the world did we get to this point?

More, modern evangelicalism has actually spoken quite directly against environmental activism, calling it nature worship. I recently read a comment on a website where someone said ‘I will never send my kid to that Nazarene college because they have embraced environmentalism.’ Fascinating.  Being evangelical has been correlating to thinking human-caused Global Warming is a hoax – which I suspect means a healthy dose of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.  Evangelicals, of course, are people who often appreciate and enjoy the natural world in various ways, but have lost the sense that there is something theological and central regarding humanity and earth. They need to read the Christian farmer-poet-philosopher Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to help them regain the Biblical sense of living in Creation. Thankfully, the tide seems to be turning.  I don’t doubt that a few generations from now, Christians will look back on evangelicalism’s distancing itself from concern for the planet and view us as something strange and immoral like Holocaust deniers or Southern slave owners.

In 1928 Henry Beston spent a year living in solitude in a small one room cottage on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. Reflecting on his experience, he said this:

“It is the meditative perception of the relation of ‘Nature’ (and I include the whole cosmic picture in this term) to the human spirit. Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man. When the Pleiades and the wind in the grass are no longer a part of the human spirit, a part of very flesh and bone, man becomes, as it were, a kind of cosmic outlaw, having neither the completeness and integrity of the animal nor the birthright of a true humanity. As I once said elsewhere, Man can either be less than man or more than man, and both are monsters, the last the more dread” (The Outermost House, 1928; pg. x).

‘Noah’ and Evolution

Every time I hear Christians get upset about the theory of evolution, I am reminded of 1616 when the Church said you could not be Christian if you believed the Earth revolved around the sun. And then I think of the Christians during the American Civil War who accurately argued that the Bible explicitly portrays slavery as a normative part of human life and tells slaves to obey their masters. And then I think about C.S. Lewis’ comment that if we told someone in the Middle Ages that we did not believe the universe was made up of The Spheres nor did we believe in the Divine Right of Kings to rule, they would have said we couldn’t possibly be Christian.

I’m not sure why, outside a literalist reading of the poem/hymn/origin stories of Genesis 1 and 2, so many Christians are so upset by the idea that God could use evolution as one of his tools. Several Nazarenes have been working on this, and here’s a paragraph from the Church of the Nazarene’s page  on Wikipedia:

Consistent with the position of classical Nazarene theologian H. Orton Wiley, several contemporary Nazarene theologians, including Thomas Jay Oord, Michael Lodahl, and Samuel M. Powell, have endeavored to reconcile the general theory of evolution with theology. There are an increasing number of Nazarene scientists who support theistic evolution, among them Karl Giberson, Darrel R. Falk, and Richard G. Colling, whose 2004 book, Random Designer, has been controversial within the denomination since 2007. At the most recent General Assembly, held in Orlando, Florida in July 2009, there was extended debate on a resolution to adopt a more fundamentalist view of the doctrine of Creation based on a more literal view of the Bible, however this resolution was defeated.

One of my absolute favorite moments in the movie Noah is when Noah says to his family hunkered in the ark during the storm, “I am going to tell you the first story my father told me.” And then he extinguishes the candle he is holding, plunging the room into darkness, and begins reciting a close approximation to Genesis 1. Suddenly on screen, as you listen to Genesis 1 recited, you see the universe come to be, plant and animal life evolving in fast motion, in step with Noah’s recital of the creation of fish, birds, small creatures, etc – it’s an impressive display of the glory of God. For me, portraying animal life developing through evolution didn’t reduce the majesty of God’s Creation one bit. Intriguingly, the film does not portray humans evolving.

Theological Humility

I want theological humility, alongside appropriate humility in every other area of life. It goes without saying that portions of my theology are of course completely wrong – I just don’t know which portions! As Donald Miller remarked long ago, me understanding God is like an ant understanding me.

Thankfully God has revealed Himself through Scripture, nature and, preeminently, the Son, in ways  that we can understand. But the Christian experience of interpreting the Scriptures the last 20 centuries is diverse and multi-flavored. For any one of our traditions to take a stand and say “we are the only people who have this correct. Line up with our theology or you aren’t even Christian” is not only silly, but is also lacking severely in humility. Seriously? The odds that your particular branch of the Christian family tree nailed it, and everyone else is wrong, are hard to calculate, but let’s just say they are extremely low. And in any event, as I’ve remarked before, this boils salvation down to knowing all the answers on a theology test, and not our personal response to Jesus.

I think we all need (and perhaps especially some branches of the family that come to mind), a good, strong, healthy dose of humility about our theology. I would much rather us talk, learn from one another, learn from one another’s theology, work together and endeavor to live out the Gospel of the Kingdom better and better, instead of casting aspersions over the airwaves and in print, declaring that this or that group are no longer Christians, when in reality they hold to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds – it’s just that they don’t sign on to your church’s particular and favorite doctrines.

Humility. Priceless.