Wesley on our life

I’ve been reading a great book about Wesley and came across a great quote.  Not Wesley the Dread Pirate Roberts, but John Wesley, founder of the Methodists (1703-1791). The book is Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming, and Faith by William C. Guerrant, Jr and published by Seedbed, 2015. It’s very Wendell Berry-ish, and absolutely jam-packed with Wesley’s many thoughts on food justice. Wesley, who believed the Gospel to be about EVERYTHING (not just individual spiritual salvation) spoke quite a bit about food justice issues (distribution, animal treatment, industrialization, obesity, health, you name it) that are in the headlines all the time today.

So, the quote is in two parts, the first a statement he made in 1747 and the second he made in 1790. It’s a great image of God’s care for creation, our place in the scheme of things, and the implicit insight that God, Who has always been about relationship, is therefore all about synergism between Himself and humanity in the care of His world, and in, well everything. It summarizes our task very simply. Here it is:

“He who governed the world before I was born shall take care of it when I am dead. My part is to improve the present moment….  Do good. Do all the good thou canst.”

New book on Atonement

Nearly 70 years ago Nazarene scholars were saying that the penal substitution view of the atonement was counter to Wesleyan theological commitments and implied a God who had to kill someone (exacting justice) BEFORE he was free to forgive. Since not even we humans suffer that limitation, Wesleyan theology, has a very difficult time imagining that the God who is love is required, by His own sense of justice, to take it out on someone before He can forgive someone else. In penal substitution’s view, God is not free to forgive until He has punished someone; He is not free to be merciful, until he balances the scales of justice with retribution.atonement book vail

Despite this theological dissonance, no one in our tribe has gotten anything on paper to offer a better option. Until now. Eric Vail, professor of theology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, has penned ‘Atonement and Salvation: The Extravagance of God’s Love.’  A fabulous read. Kindly worded, readable, it takes in the pertinent scholarship and discusses the atonement and salvation in large, Biblical categories, rather than more narrow, 16th century European ones. I recommend it. Beacon Hill Press: 2016.

Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf on public faith

I’ve been reading Yale theologian Miroslav Volf’s  A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. (His former teaching home was Fuller Theological Seminary, among other places, for those of you for whom that means something). It’s a good read, a fairly academic argument about why and what the role of faith in the public square should look like in today’s secular, pluralistic world. One of the things I appreciate about Volf is that one of the themes in his career has been building bridges between communities and worldviews:  Christian and Muslim, Christian and secular, etc. Being from Croatia, I can only imagine Volf has a very agonizing sense of the disaster it is when a society comes apart at the seams due to divisions and factions (if you are too young to remember this well, Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia, a country which devolved into savagery and appalling crimes against humanity in the 1990s. I’m talking The Walking Dead – style violence.)

To give you the flavor a bit, one of his questions is ‘How should we go about realizing a vision for human flourishing in relation to other faiths and under the roof of a single state?’ While it would take more than one post to give a sense of his work in A Public Faith, some of his thoughts include:

‘a faith that does not seek to mend the world is a seriously malfunctioning faith.’

‘when it comes to life in the world, to follow Christ means to care for others… and work toward their flourishing, so that life would go well for all and so that all would learn how to lead their lives well.’

‘a vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing the Christian faith brings into the public debate’.

‘Christ’s command in everything do to others as you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12) entails that Christians grant to other religious communities the same religious and political freedoms that they claim for themselves. Christians… ought to embrace pluralism as a political project.’

Volf is interested ‘not on attenuating Christian convictions but on affirming them robustly and living them out joyously.’

Written by one of today’s highly respected academics, the book is still accessible and readable by non-specialists, and very much worth your time. I recommend it highly.

 

Reinhold Niebuhr on Economic Disparity

I admit that I tend, like most people, I suspect, to think of terms like economic inequality, social justice and social disparity as phrases growing out of the 1960s social movements. I understand why some of my friends roll their eyes at these terms, seeing as there has always been economic inequality among humans on Earth – for our entire history! – and that such terms are often favorite code words today for confiscating resources that someone worked diligently to earn to help their family, and redistributing them to people who are not working. In a culture built on the Protestant Work Ethic and Germanic ideals of work-hard-be-rewarded-well-prosperity, it’s easy to see why many people consider these terms less than useful.

However, Christians have been concerned about economic injustice and disparity since the beginning. Christianity’s emphasis on God’s concern for the poor is drawn from its constant appearance in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Preachers as far back as Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) not only railed about concern for the poor, but also were already analyzing contributing factors as to why they were poor in the first place (Gregory himself observed that rural poverty due to a poor harvest had a different genesis  than urban poverty where the societal structures in place kept rich people rich and poor people desperately poor.)* John Wesley, Anglican founder of the Methodists, argued that a Christian should make as much money in his business as he could – as long as it didn’t harm his neighbor’s business! (Sermon: On the Use of Money). For myself, I am not against a factory owner making more money than the factory worker. Having known those owners, and their story, including un-assisted rags-to-riches stories that, yes indeed, were done without crushing anyone, not even systemically, I don’t have a problem that they are enjoying the fruit of their hard work. The ancient scroll of Proverbs in the Old Testament celebrated the cause-and-effect benefits of diligent work 3000 years ago. Every time someone succeeds, it does not mean it was via injustice, however hidden. A seven-person broom business in Bangladesh started with a Muhammad Yunus micro-loan shouldn’t have to listen to the charge of systemic injustice. I know American businesses started by very poor people that succeeded the same way. Constant assumptions of systemic injustice whenever someone does well, are over-reaching on the subject.

What does strike me as a new conundrum, is that in the current way our transnational corporate world is organized, the factory owner now makes over 350 times what the worker does, whereas 60 years ago they made about 12 times more than the worker. The fact that the owner was from that same town and felt a sense of responsibility for his workers, created a context in which all-or-nothing short term profits were NOT the order of the day. This is one of the chief reasons thinkers like Fritz Schumacher argued for smaller businesses rather than mega. But I got thinking of all of this when I was reading The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr by E. Campbell today and came across this passage – using those terms like social injustice, in 1932! Here is Niebuhr’s quote, from Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932):

                “The sharpening of class antagonism within each modern industrial nation is increasingly destroying national unity and imperiling international comity as well. It may be that the constant growth of economic inequality and social injustice in our industrial civilization will force the nations into a final conflict… the disintegration of national loyalties through class antagonisms has proceeded so far in the more advanced nations, that they can hardly dare to permit the logic inherent in the present situation to take its course. Conditions in these nations, particularly in Germany… reveal what desperate devices are necessary for the preservation of even a semblance of national unity…

                If the possibilities and perils of the contemporary situation are to be fully understood it will be necessary to study the class antagonism within the nations carefully and estimate their importance for the future of civilization.”

Heightened disparity undermining civilization. This from a landmark Christian theologian back in 1932. Interesting.

*Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History) Susan R. Holman, editor. 2008.

We are not the New Testament church, and we aren’t supposed to be

I’ve been awol from the blog this past month, moving house, celebrating the holidays with a huge swath of family, and hunting deer (thank you, my sons, for killing four – the freezer is full!) Now I’m back. Let’s talk theology.

Our job is not to re-create the New Testament church. To do so would be to attempt to recreate the Hellentistic Jewish or Greco-Roman culture of first century Palestine/ Eurasia… which is precisely what the New Testament church chose NOT to do. James’ leadership to the Jerusalem church regarding the cultural practices of Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem was precisely not “recreate us” – it was to allow the Gentile churches to evolve within their cultures, not try to recreate the culture of the Jerusalem church.

So when folks often crank up conversations about whether or not a church practice is “biblical,” what you often find when you peel back the layers, is that they are actually talking about if the NT church actually practiced this or that. That’s utterly beside the point. Of course they didn’t drink coffee in foyers – they had neither coffee nor foyers, (but as soon as Christians discovered both, they latched on!) – they were busy eating communal meals in each others’ homes and selling their landed property to provide for the poor.

Their era was not our era, their context was not our context, their issues were not our issues. (Few people in North America are wondering if they should participate in ancestor worship or give homage sacrifice to the Emperor or figure out the relationship of Christian slaves to Christian masters who worship side by side as brothers in Christ). Their practices were a reflection of the era they lived in. Our task is not to recreate a theme park of first century Jewish or Galatian (et al) religious practices that Christians utilized. These were all drenched in their own culture’s practices so as to make sense of their worship of God.

So one church gets accused of not being Bible-believing for not using the term “born again” while another gets accused because they don’t speak in tongues meanwhile the other church is accused of because they do speak in tongues, while another is on the hook because they ordain women. This is all beside the point. I don’t know if I’ve heard of a church that was literally not Bible-believing. (It almost always translates that the other church doesn’t place as much directive value on, or interpret that particular VERSE, the way my church does!) It’s that we have different cultural practices in our worship, just like Ephesus differed from Antioch. It really doesn’t matter. In fact, the diversity is good – it allows people from diverse cultural backgrounds to choose a church that makes sense to them and nurtures their relationship with God. The Jerusalem elders’ letter to the Gentile churches in Acts is clear: we do not need to all practice church culturally the same.

What matters is that our practices –and God help us: our mission! – are theologically in tune with Jesus. You can do that a zillion different ways (and Christians do, all around the world) and the issue is not whether you light candles when you do it, for goodness sake. Whether it’s a “biblical” practice or not is NOT the question (the New Testament didn’t sacrifice bulls on altars anymore – a quintessential “biblical” practice!) The question is: is this practice utilized in such a way to bring glory to God, to advance His work in the world, to carry on the mission of Jesus in ways that God’s Spirit works through. To make it about whether a particular practice has historical or Scriptural precedent, is simply to fall into the argument going on within fundamentalist Islam today. And that’s not our schtick.

Ours… is (faith, hope, and) love.

N.T. Wright on Mark 4:26-34

World renowned New Testament theologian N.T. Wright makes the following comments on Jesus’ seed parables in Mark 4.

“When you audition for a choir, often the conductor will ask you to pick notes out of a chord. Here is a chord of three, four or five notes; you can hear it all together, but can you hear the notes individually, and sing each in turn? It’s often quite a test.

We can all see the surface meaning of the story: in this case, the secret growth of a seed, or the small seed that produces a big bush. But can you see the individual notes that go to make up these chords?

Answer: the seed is laid in the earth and then arises. The word for ‘get up’ is one of the regular words for the resurrection. And the resurrection, by this stage in Jewish thinking, wasn’t about how individuals would find ‘life after death’. It was about how God would dramatically restore Israel’s fortunes, even raising the saints of old to share in the new blessing.

Jesus asks: What shall we say God’s kingdom is like? What picture shall we give of it? In one of the best-known passages in the Jewish Bible, the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet asks a very similar question about God himself: To what will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him (Isaiah 40.18)? It’s not just an accidental echo. The passage is all about a fresh vision of God, the creator, coming to rescue his people, coming to restore Israel after her time of devastation.

…the other note in the chord, comes at the end of the story: the birds of the air make their nests in its shade. Ezekiel and Daniel both use this as an image of a great kingdom, growing like a tree until those around can shelter under it (Ezekiel 17.23; 31.6; Daniel 4.12, 21). Don’t worry, Jesus is saying. Remember who your God is and what he’s promised. Realize that this small beginning is the start of God’s intended kingdom – the kingdom that will eventually offer shade to the whole world. Jesus’ hearers, of course, probably knew their scriptures better than most of us do. They might be able to pick out the notes in the chord and at least begin to make some sense of it all. The challenge for us, as readers of Jesus’ parables in a very different world, is to think out what we have to do to be kingdom-workers, kingdom-explainers, in our own day. How can we strike fresh chords so that people will be teased into picking out the notes, and perhaps even into joining in the song?”

Wright, Tom (2001-01-19). Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (pgs. 47- 50). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Friday November 13: One of the best nights I have ever lived

This past Friday was one of the greatest nights of my life. I married my oldest daughter to her hometown sweetheart, a noble and heroic young man in the best and oldest senses of the words. The celebration afterwards, full of family and dear friends and dancing and a beautiful venue, was perfect, and I will forever treasure the conversation I had as I danced the father-daughter dance with my daughter, including when she asked me ‘do you remember when I was 8 years old and you told me we should dance to this song at my wedding?’ and I was able to know the very moment, and say ‘yes, I was kneeling at your bed at bedtime, praying and kissing you goodnight.’ As I danced with my wife afterwards, our hearts and conversation were full of contented joy at how happy our daughter is and what a wonderful experience our life with her has been. Speaking of dancing, my 72 year old mother, with purse on wrist and clasping two applesauce cups balanced on a small box between fingers, came out and danced a variety of the Twist with me (which she loved as a girl) and never lost the applesauce cups! She was beaming. (I come from a tradition that frowned pretty comprehensively on dancing in the past; though today I don’t know any Nazarene pastors who would refuse to dance with their daughter at her wedding; how dear it was to see couples married 25, 35 and 50 years, clasp one another tightly, her head on his chest, and dance slowly  and tenderly together during the ‘anniversary’ dance).

Only three months before, we had the same kind of day when our oldest son married his college sweetheart. Like our daughter and son-in-law, they are perfect for each other, it was a  joy-filled, incredible day, and we are delighted for them. In both cases, the families are huge, the all-inclusive family photos are fabulous, something a tenth century BC Jewish family could resonate with. (Later, we learned of the deep sorrow and suffering that had descended on many other families, in the events that unfolded in Paris during those very moments we were celebrating our daughter’s marriage.)

In the Scriptures, family is one of the central blessings of Yahweh on his people. What we call the Old Testament is full of reflection on what shalom means on a family. The New Testament picks up this construct and takes it in new directions with the new family now formed around Jesus (‘who are my mother and brothers?’/ ‘you are grafted in’ / 12 disciples; 12 tribes/ etc) and what God’s Kingdom looks like in terms of the family now breaking out of Jewish lineage, and embracing the nations.

In fact, because what God is doing in the world came through a family – Abraham’s – in the Bible, family is a central theological subject. Our dispersed family arrangements in the Western world (a family where one son lives in Indianapolis, one in Seattle, a daughter in Florida, etc), have caused us to largely forget how to think theologically about family, pared it down to mere reproductive biology, and to a significant extent we’ve dropped the subject from our theological imaginations, now only discussed in the realm of family dynamics, a la James Dobson, et al. I cannot think of a single serious theological work written on the subject in my tradition during my adult lifetime. We could use someone to do for the subject ‘family’ what Wendell Berry has done for the subjects ‘farming’ and ‘food’ theologically and culturally. Or what Anne Dillard did theologically with ‘nature’ back in her first foray Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.