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.

“We must go through many hardships…” Really?

Acts 14: 22 Paul and Barnabas encouraged the believers to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.

I have often heard this verse discussed as if Paul meant that in order to get to heaven, we would have to endure hard many difficulties and trials in life, as if what Jesus did on the cross isn’t enough to provide the way for us to enter heaven when we die. (By the way, that’s outrageous heresy – as far back as the Apostles’ Creed Christians would decry that kind of thought, not to mention Paul’s epistles themselves). Some translations make it out explicitly like that: “We must suffer a lot to enter the kingdom of God” (Names of God translation,) or “We have to suffer a lot before we can get into God’s kingdom” (Contemporary English Version).

There’s an unspoken (but sometimes spoken) theology-of-the-masses in contemporary Christianity that it will be hard to be a Christian and it is set up that way to see if we are worthy, blah blah blah.

I think there’s some very bad, unhealthy theology in there. “We MUST go through MANY hardships” to simply come home to where we were made for? What kind of Father would that make God? Certainly not the one in the story of the Prodigal Son! That Father (whom Jesus clearly means to be seen as a metaphor for God Himself)  is much more loving than that – he doesn’t require the Son to go through all kinds of stuff once he has been accepted and forgiven! When people experience hardship, they may comfort themselves with this verse, but I think that creates a warped view of what kind of god God is. I think there is a much better way to understand this verse.

Take it like this:  to cause God’s kingdom to happen on earth (something Jesus talked continually about), it will take effort and difficulty to push through and cause change. It’s long, slow, sometimes difficult work – just like gardening or farming, both images Jesus used for the Kingdom often. Gardening is sometimes easy and natural processes are rolling; other times, if you are going to succeed, you need to put some real effort into it… not give up if it gets strenuous. Like giving birth, – some of it happens once things get going, and other parts require hard pushing through. To work for the flowering of the Kingdom on earth, the leaven working its way through the whole batch of dough, we will sometimes face resistance and even counter-attack by systems and unjust social constructs, not to mention the people and philosophies entrenched in them, reflective even of the real presence of evil. But the quintessential Christian methods of love, mercy, forgiveness, and prayer (to mention some of the biggies) are the tools we reach for in the patient, sometimes difficult, working for God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And we know that God works through these methods to bring about change and new life. (And, thank God, sometimes it isn’t terribly hard, and people embrace the Kingdom with joy).

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.

The un-Gospel

To hear many evangelicals today, the Gospel goes something like this: “For God so hated the world that, in his white-hot fury, he sent his only Son to save a relatively few lucky souls out of it (the lucky mice who find Jesus the cheese in the maze), and then, when the oil runs out in the Middle East, Jesus is coming back with our grandmothers who already went to heaven. Up in heaven, our grandmas have developed quite a violent streak while spending time with Jesus, plus learned the arts of war, and Jesus will be done with all that talk of forgiving your enemies, so He is returning with our grandmothers to kill everyone who hasn’t figured it all out yet, probably starting with the Muslims, but maybe also the Soviets. Once the battlefield is six feet deep in his enemies’ blood, God will burn everything He ever created on this planet to a cinder, including everyone and every place and everything you’ve ever loved. You see, even God himself can’t fix his world without resorting to the same kind of violence used by Rome against his Son, and used by IS in Syria today. And all those people who didn’t hear about Jesus or figure out the truth about which religion was right are going to have their lives sustained over trillions of years while they burn on fire. But those of us in heaven won’t mind, because we will forget anything sad about Earth. The End.”

It’s stunning we’ve had the audacity to actually call this “good news” when in fact it’s bad news for almost every person God ever created, and terrible news for all the living beings in all the world. This isn’t the Gospel, it’s the un-Gospel. And it’s what tons of people in church in America actually think the Bible teaches.

It’s no wonder people in our culture today, both modern and postmodern, hear a story told like that and say “I want nothing to do with something as sick, toxic, and twisted as that. I want to be a better person than I am right now. And do good in the world. I want to believe a beautiful story, not a dark and awful one. I will go check out Buddhism.”

I’m so glad that’s not the gospel, although for many years I thought it was. Most of historic Christianity has not believed this dark, terrible tale. The Bible tells a much better story than this, we just need to take off the 19th-20th century American evangelical glasses and learn to read the Bible for what it says. God, it turns out, has a long range project going on to heal and restore and redeem the world. He is not going to burn it to a cinder, our translation of 2 Peter is terrible, check most commentaries. As is made clear across Scripture, God plans to rescue all creation, the planet Earth itself, as all creation longs for the day of its liberation. See John Wesley’s comments on Romans 8: 19-22. We have every reason to be optimistic about the future, because God is at work in the world, and Jesus has triumphed over sin, death, and hell. Everything: economic systems and governments, societal justice and the environment, individuals and nations, is called to be transformed under the Lordship of Jesus.

That’s the Gospel.

Mark 6 and N.T. Wright

I read commentaries and theology devotionally alongside Scripture, and one of the commentaries I enjoy are the popular “For Everyone” series by N.T. Wright.  Wright is regarded as one of (many of us would say the) world’s leading New Testament theologians; he has been at the front of both Historical Jesus research and Pauline theology for decades now, two fields he has contributed immensely, and sometimes controversially, to. Here are some of his thoughts on Mark 6, Jesus walking on the water and the disciples not getting the lesson of the loaves and fishes. In this spot he reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ words in That Hideous Strength; it is not that the world is natural and sometimes unnaturally invaded by the supernatural, rather that the world’s appointed master (humanity) has fallen, and been unable to wake the world and interact with it in certain ways we formerly had been. Recall Merlin’s words to Ransom “Let’s awaken the water and the wind and the earth and drive them out.” “No,” Ransom replies, “they have been asleep for far too long for us to do that…”

Here is the quote from Mark for Everyone:

“…we are invited to see something more mysterious by far: a dimension of our world which is normally hidden, which had indeed died, but which Jesus brings to new life. Mark is offering Jesus to our startled imagination as the world’s rightful king, long exiled, now returning. He is, in Paul’s language, the last Adam. From his time with the beasts in the wilderness (1.13), he is now striding the garden, putting things to rights.

Mark… is simply warning that to grasp all this will need more than suspension of disbelief, as though one were in the theatre for the evening. It will take a complete change of heart.   ….that is what (among other things) Jesus has come to bring… in our thinking, our imagining, our praying as well as in our bodily health  …we are invited to come, like the frantic crowds, and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, looking for salvation.”

Wright, Tom (2001-01-19). Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 84). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Postmodern Considerations of Original Sin, PART TWO

A facebook post by my son concerning whether Adam and Eve were literal historical figures, or mythic literary devices for teaching us something theological, evolved into a discussion of Original Sin. A beloved friend of ours asked the following questions:

1-if Adam and Eve were merely literary devices, and we all evolved, what is your doctrine of humanity, with specific regard to the biblical statement that we are created in the image of God, and thus the apex of creation (God clearly gives humans a place above all other creatures, but slightly lower than Angels). 
2-where does sin (specifically, original sin) enter the picture if there are no first parents to lead us in death?
3-if you can’t explain why we have sin, then you can’t explain why we need a Savior.
4-if you can’t explain why we need a savior, then why do we need Jesus?

These are questions that come to many peoples’ minds when we come to this subject. Here is part of my response:  I don’t have to have a cogent doctrine of Original Sin to know humanity has a sin problem. In fact, I don’t have to have Augustine’s doctrine at all, as neither the OT (according to the rabbis and the Calvinists) nor the Eastern church have. Eastern Orthodoxy has no problem explaining the need for a Savior to save us from sin, death, hell and ourselves without ascribing to Augustine’s idea, which I liken to punishing a kid for being born with Down’s Syndrome, morally repugnant. Humanity can certainly be made in the imago dei and God can yet do it via evolution if He wants. Augustine himself did not take Genesis 1-3 literally.

I don’t need “first parents” to lead me to sin, I figured it out pretty much on my own, which makes me ACTUALLY guilty, rather than something I inherited unsuspecting. Every OT scholar I can think of holds that the two creation stories in Genesis 1-3 appear to be hymns or poems, and surely  mythic origins stories designed to explain our dilemma. If Reformed guys complain that the OT is too Pelagian in dealing with sin, it’s all the more reason I think we need a serious re-write to our assumptions about ‘original’ sin. Neither Judaism nor Islam have a problem explaining human waywardness and guilt without a doctrine of Original Sin, and both recognize the need for God’s forgiveness. Atonement doctrines can survive without Augustine’s interpretation of Paul on inherited depravity.

So, OS and The Fall and all that work as motifs to explain what’s up. They’ve been tied virtually materialistically to various atonement theories. But of course we all know it’s not literally “seed” or we’d just laser that gene out of the genome, no big. All the various ways we could interpret Fall and OS and atonement aside, the part I am not clueing in on is the whole “gotta have this brick or the whole wall falls” piece. Everyone can look around and see we’re bad. Israel has a story that explains it. Paul uses those images to explain what Jesus did on the cross. It’s all good. Turning all those images into literal cosmic science seems unnecessary to me, as long as we “get” it. “It” being – we have a problem, we are estranged from God, we keep doing bad stuff, and Jesus sets us free and restores us, His Spirit enabling us to live new lives. From Isaiah on, there are all kinds of profound images for what that is… but taking any of those images, or picking a handful, and creating a 5 step doctrinal assembly line that starts with Fall or OS and ends with our accepting the atonement seems to, I don’t know, mistake the wineskin for the wine. We need set free by Jesus, we’ve done bad things (some worse than others), and need to stop and if the West’s particular arrangement of some of these doctrines gets in the way of people seeing Jesus (being confounded by some of the crazier aspects of Augustine on OS, etc) then I’m like why not do what Christians have been doing for 20 centuries… work out some new theology?

We’ll still end up with something that uses biblical images to explain what’s up, but it’ll end up with something that makes a bit more sense to people in this milieu. Instead of effectively saying “now to believe this, you’ve got to reformat your mind the way people were thinking in Geneva in 1550 or Hippo in 450.” Anyway, from where I’m currently sitting, since a being capable of morality and love has to have freedom, I think free will explains the presence of sin better than OS and the Fall. Adam chose to sin before the fall happened, and without being afflicted with original sin. We are all able to do that, just like Adam did. Perhaps Pelagius got a bad rap, railroaded politically. The Patriarch of Jerusalem heard him out and said “I got no problem with this.” Lest we suspect that the Church can’t overlook something for centuries, let’s not forget that neither the Apostles’ nor Nicene Creed mentions, for all their brilliance, that we believe in love!!!!! Iconography of Adam and Eve getting forgiven first  among humanity  is profound and beautiful, but that doesn’t make me take it literally.

More next time, in Part Three.