No, I’m not “fine” (Lent)

Back in the day, when I was a little crazier than I am today, I preached a sermon at Emanuel Presbyterian Mission, a multi-ethnic church plant in which I was a founding co-pastor, in which I said this:

 When you walk up to me and ask me, “How are you doing?” don’t expect me say, “Just fine.” I’m not “just fine.” I’m worse than that, and I’m better than that. In fact, when you come up and ask me how I’m doing, don’t be surprised if I respond, “I’m dying and being resurrected.”

Turns out that this sermon created quite a reaction in our young and growing diverse congregation, and from that point onward, when someone would approach a member of our community and ask them how they were doing, it was not uncommon to hear, “I’m dying and being resurrected … it’s the only way to fly.”

The gospel lesson from this last Sunday (Lent III), Luke 13:1-9, is an unusual passage. There are a great number of passages in the four gospels which are intended to encourage the downtrodden, the comfort the afflicted, and to encourage the down and out. Indeed we have a Lord who is constantly drawn to the outcast, whose heart beats to lift up the lowly.

But the Gospel lesson for Lent III (in Year C) is no such passage. If you are feeling discouraged today, this passage is not for you, for this passage (one of a small number of such passages in the Gospels) is aimed at the upbeat, the successful, those who are meeting their goals.

Jesus looks at these people, and tells them to repent. What?! Repent from what? These folks are not like the woman caught in adultery (John 8) who is suffering some rather nasty consequences of her sin. These people have not robbed a bank; they have not even kicked the cat or uttered a four letter word!

So why does Jesus Christ tell them to repent? In this passage we realize that sin is not breaking the rules. When one breaks the rules (whether it in terms of drink, sex, anger, or whatever), this is a mere symptom of something deeper. It is this “something deeper” from which we are called to repent. As Soren Kierkegaard said, “Sin is the attempt to build my life on any foundation other than God.” It is from this tendency that we are called to repent.

And, indeed, this is the point of Lent. Lent is the practice of weaning ourselves off of our dependence on false foundations. Lent is about repenting as a way of life, in the spirit of Martin Luther, the first of whose famous 95 Theses was “All of life is repentance.”

I’m reminded of what Richard Foster shared with some of us in his talk at the Renovation Tyler conference this last weekend. First thing in the morning, he lies on the ground, facing upward. He spreads his arms out in the cruciform shape of the cross, and recites Galatians 2:20 out loud:

 I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and delivered himself up for me.

What a powerful way to learn repentance not just when we are feeling down and desperate but in every day, every moment, of our lives.

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Lent: Saying “No” to the Divider

The following is an article I wrote for the newsletter of my church.

In the great 19th century German legend Faust, we meet the scholarly Dr. Faust in his study, struggling to figure something out, to discover some great scientific breakthrough. And then all of the sudden, a sinister and mysterious being called Mephistopheles appears out of nowhere in his study. Now, in the previous scene of the story Mephistopheles – a kind of Satanic or demonic figure – is seen in heaven dialoging with God, engaging God in a wager that he, Mephistopheles, can tempt God’s favorite human, Dr. Faust, and cause Dr. Faust to enter into a pact with himself, thereby betraying God.

And so here Mephistopheles is, in Dr. Faust’s study, and sure enough, Dr. Faust gives in: he agrees, by actually signing a contract with a few drops of his own blood. The terms of the contract? Faust will serve Mephistopheles for all eternity in hell, if Mephistopheles will just give him everything he wants before he dies.

Now, I won’t ruin the story for you by telling you how it turns out, but suffice to say that something similar is going in the story from Luke’s Gospel (chapter 4) about the temptation of Jesus, but with one key difference: the great tempter in this story today is not named “Mephistopheles;” he is named simply “The Devil.”

At first glance that might not seem too terribly important to you, but then you might notice that this character is explicitly named in this little story not once, not twice, but three times. It’s as if he is named three times, once for each of the three temptations which confront the famished Jesus … Jesus who is full of the power of the Spirit (having just been baptized in chapter 3) and who has just been led into the desert by that same spirit for the explicit purpose of being tempted.

What’s going on in these three temptations? Well, I think that by mentioning “the devil” 3 times, Luke is actually giving us a big hint, for the word “devil” in Greek has a very simple meaning: it means “the one who divides;” “the divider.” Who or what is the devil? Well, there’s a lot about the devil I’m not too sure about, but this I know: the devil is one who divides the things and the people that God has put together, and that, my friends, is a huge clue as to the nature of these temptations here in this desert in Luke chapter 4.

What is Jesus tempted with here? Three things: bread, power, and health. Now, let me ask you question: are these 3 things – bread, power, and health – are these bad things? No! They are good things! And it’s the very same for you & me this Lenten season. The things you are giving up: chocolate, beer, coffee, whatever … these are not bad things.

We are not called to give up sinful things for Lent; we are called to give up sinful things all the time. We are called to give up bad things in our baptism: this is the normal Christian life. During Lent, what we are called to “say no” to is good things: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health. But the question remains, “Why?” Why should we say “no” to these things if they are so good?

And the answer is the same for us as it was for Jesus. God wants us to have all of these things in abundance: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health … but he wants to give them to us as gifts, not as things grasped. And so you see, we’re not actually saying “no” to them; we are saying “not yet.”

Jesus understood “the logic of the gift” — that God was always going to give him the bread, the power, the health anyway … so why grasp after it? Why do what Adam did in the garden? Better to have a little patience and humility now, and then receive all good things as a free gift from the giver of all good things.

In Lent we are refusing the false dichotomies, the short cuts, and the cheap thrills of the Divider. We are saying “yes” to God, and saying “yes” to God’s gifts. We are saying “God, I want you now, and I really like chocolate and beer and all that good stuff, but I am willing to wait for it in your time, and in your way.” (And you know what? Chocolate tastes so much better when it comes as a gift and not something grasped. And it’s the same way with sex, with power, with health, and with everything else God has made.)

Don’t choose between God and God’s good gifts. Say “yes” to both, and wait for the gifts in God’s good time.

What God has joined together, let no one divide.

 

 

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Let It Slide (Everything But Christ)

The following is an article I wrote for the newsletter of my church.

Last night while driving home to Dallas I got a call from a dear parishioner who is struggling mightily with a personal situation. “Father, Matt,” he said through the tears, “you are my only friend. I need to talk to you.”

Now, last Sunday in the nave I preached a sermon based on Jesus’ interaction with the rich man in Mark 10. Jesus, the Great Diagnostician, immediately and astutely puts his finger on the one thing which is keeping this law keeper out of the Kingdom. For this man, the barrier happens to be money. His money is the thing, the idol, the “precious,” which is displacing the “one thing needful,” the Lord Jesus Christ, from the center of his life.

In the face of all this, Jesus lovingly (Mark is at pains to point out) looks at him and calls him to let his money slide. Just let it slide. For me the tragedy of this story is that, given the opportunity for true freedom, this law keeping rich man walks away in bondage. He is unable to the let the Lord of the Whirlwind turn his life upside down, thereby restoring true order to his life.

He is unable to let Jesus center and structure his life. He does not understand what our Old Testament less from Amos last Sunday says: “Seek the Lord and live.” He does not understand that God’s ways are the best ways because we were designed to “run” on God, like a car is built to run on gasoline (not chocolate milk). He fails to see that when we “seek the morning star,” to quote CS Lewis, we get “all things thrown in” like a gift.[1] Gifts, which are free, are given to (and by) free men & women, but this man walks away from Jesus in bondage.

What I did not have time to address in my sermon on Sunday was the “how.” How do we let Jesus de-center and re-center our lives?

Here is, again, where, I think of CS Lewis. You see, what we need to do is to fall in love with Jesus, and this happens by a kind of “good infection.” The whole reason we are developing a network of neighborhood groups at Christ Church (I continue to think that his is the most important work we are doing) is to create the environment for people to “get infected.” It happens, often over a period of time, in community centered on love.

Have you ever noticed that when you fall in love with someone (if you are married think about your spouse) your whole life is turned upside down? You begin to see everything in light of the loved person. He or she is not an activity or a task that you squeeze into your already-over-committed schedule. Instead, certain things slide, but everything gets better.

This is how it is with Jesus, and this, really, is what my friend who called last night truly needs. It is what we all need. A relationship with Christ, catching flame in the context of a community of friends centered on love.

Be careful, though: your world might be turned upside down. Such is the life of true freedom.



[1] This quotation comes from the book A Severe Mercy by Sheldon van Aucken.

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Dark Roast & Dieties in Small Town Texas

“F*&K YOUR GOD.”

As I strolled up to the patio door of the local Starbucks this morning, these are the words, graffiti’d onto the brick wall, which greeted me.

Now, this kind of thing would never happen in Austin, or, for that matter, in most quarters of the western world. But in Tyler cultural “Christianity” is still identified with the status quo.

I used to think that the status quo had been endlessly deconstructed. Then I moved to Tyler. (The first thought that popped into my mind upon focusing on the graffiti, juxtaposed as it was with the ominous “666,” was, “Really? People still do that?”)

Now make no mistake: the “street urchin” teenagers (for that is how they are known in these parts — for me this is sort of a term of endearment) who scribbled this intended blasphemy on those coffee fortress ramparts are to be pitied and chastened, not least for their immaturity and brazen arrogance.

I must admit, though, that I agree with them. And so do all the Old Testament prophets, St. Paul, Pseudo Dionysius the Aereopagite, Thomas Aquinas, and many others.

Because the god of Green Acres Baptist Church is not the God which Moses encountered in the bush that was burning, yet not consumed. The god of Green Acres, more often than not, is the god wrapped in the American flag, the god who backs the Republican party, the god who sanctions suburban middle class values.

Indeed, the god of Christ Church is, all too often, not the God which appeared to Abraham in the middle of a dream as a smoking cauldron and promised, in essence, that if he were to break covenant with his people he would be torn from limb to limb. The god of Christ Church is the god who prefers the country club to the Salvation Army and the county jail, the god who discourages any kind of emotional outbreak of praise, the god who prefers establishment to marginalization.

The god of liberal protestantism (embraced, for example, by many of my clergy friends in town) is not the God who is both loving and holy, in both the Old and New Testaments. The god of liberal protestantism is the god who equates christian discipleship with secular revolutions and arbitrary, ideological notions of “justice.”

In fact, the god of Matt Boulter — so would say Denys the Areopagite and many others throughout Christian history — is not the God who is both a “still small voice” and a “mighty rushing wind.” The god of Matt Boulter is the god of intellectual curiosity, the god of theory over practice, the god of convenience. For these, if I am honest, are what I worship.

And so therefore Green Acres Baptist, Christ Episcopal, purveyors of liberal theology, and Matt Boulter all must repent. We must repent of breaking the first commandment by multiplying the number of gods we exalt above God. Deeper still, we must repent of breaking the second and third commandments by claiming that those gods are God.

The Buddhist tradition beckons toward the apophatic Christian tradition (that is, the “way of negation” or the via negativa) by saying “If you find the Buddha, kill it.” In the same way, the God of Scripture and Tradition is the God who is always above and beyond: beyond language, beyond being, beyond our reach (intellectual or otherwise). If you think you have grasped God, you be can be certain that you are wrong. We can speak of God only indirectly or “sideways,” and that for two reasons: incarnation and worship.

Incarnation: the Word became flesh and lived among us. The Logos became man, so we can speak of this Man Jesus Christ. In speaking of him, so Christians claim, we are speaking about God.

Worship: it is true that our language about God is problematic, but these complications, slippages, and false motives evaporate in true worship. When we worship God, we are not so much speaking about God. We are speaking to him.

“I love you. I worship you. You are my everything.” This is the language of praise. This is the heart’s deepest desire.

Then and only then, when we sing and speak to God, can we finally speak truthfully about him.

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Benedict’s Rule: Children vs. “Hired Hands”

In her commentary on The Rule of St. Benedict, Joan Chittister writes,

To be a member of a Roman family, the family whose structures Benedict understood, was to be under the religious, financial, and disciplinary power of the father until the father died, whatever the age of the children. To be disinherited by the father was to be stranded in a culture in which paid employment was looked down upon. To be punished by him was to lose the security of family, outside of which there was no security at all. To lose relationship with the father was then, literally, to lose one’s life [italics mine]. Chittister, OSB, Joan. The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 2008), 21.

There is a connection here with the story of the “prodigal son,” from Luke 15. In that passage the to-be-inherited-land which is coveted by both sons is referred to as “bios,” or the Greek word for biological life.

The implications here for the manifold biblical teaching on “inheritance” (Gen 48:6; Nu 16:14; Nu 18:23; Dt 15:4; Ps 16:6; Eph 1:11; Col 1:12; Heb 11:8; 1 Pet 1:4) are vast. (Too vast for me to begin to write about here!)

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Tragedy & Comedy, Intertwined: Thoughts on _Bernie_

I don’t know if you have seen the film Bernie yet, directed by renowned Austin film maker Richard Linklater. (I’m grateful to two Christ Church parishioners in particular for urging me to see the movie, despite the fact that Bouquet and I had not seen a movie in a theater by ourselves for four years!). If you have not seen it, I urge you to do so.

When you see this movie, which tells the story of an infamous 1996 crime in Carthage, Texas, you will see a work of art which, though at times uncomfortably dark and dry (be warned!), is a masterful exhibit of “comedy and tragedy, all intertwined.”

These words – “art and tragedy, all intertwined” – are, according to a May 2012 Texas Monthly article about the film by journalist / screen writer Skip Hollandsworth, the words uttered by Linklater right after witnessing the trial and conviction of Bernie Tiede in San Agustine, Texas in 1998. The story of Bernie’s life and times in Carthage is just that: comedy and tragedy, all intertwined, as the film and its dozens of real-life East Texas locals wittily and subtly portrays.

As Christians who gather regularly to confess our faith in the words of the Creed, we, too, have our own story of comedy and tragedy, of tragedy and comedy. Like Bernie Tiede, the man Jesus Christ was delighted to serve others. Like Bernie Tiede, the man Jesus Christ was drawn particularly to the down and out, the destitute, the marginalized. Like Bernie Tiede, the man Jesus Christ knew what it was like to be tried, found guilty, and punished under the law.

Unlike Bernie, however, the man Jesus Christ was no people pleaser. He knew the difference between niceness, which is not a fruit of the spirit, and kindness, which is (Galatians 5). Unlike Bernie Jesus walked around his city as a free man who was not in bondage to the conventions and mores which others assume to be “normal” and “natural.” Unlike Bernie, Jesus was innocently convicted of a trumped up charge, levied against him by a kangaroo court. Unlike Bernie Jesus could not be held in the chains of bondage, but instead rose victorious over death and imprisonment.

I never expected to be living in Tyler watching a film by Linklater (who directed some of my favorite films, some of which take place in Austin) about East Texas. What is most profound about the film is that he allows us to laugh at our East Texas selves without falling into cynicism or despair. There is something about life in Carthage (and Tyler) which is sad and superficial, and at the same time precious and profound.

In this way the film and life are like the story of Scripture. For here nothing is sugar-coated, Nothing is glamourized. Instead human life and culture are taken for what they are.

And what are they? They are tragic and comic. They are good, fallen, and redeemed. They are bound up not with the life of Bernie, but with the life – and the death – of Jesus Christ.

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The Ups & Downs of Scripture & Liturgy

Many people are familiar with the saying “What goes up must come down.”

Fewer, however, have deeply meditated on the upward & downward motion which pervades the Christian narrative. For example, only after Christ is “lifted up” on the cross is he then is he lowered down into the depths of the earth, into Hades or Sheol, which many interpret as a kind of descent into Hell. And then, three days later, he is up again, risen victorious, for his disciples and (according to 1 Corinthians 15) a great multitude of 500 to see.

Now I am not one of those Episcopalians who seems to think that Eastern religions such as Buddhism are something we Christians should emulate. However, it does seem to me that this “down – up” pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ constitutes two halves of a larger whole, kind of like the pattern of the yin and the yang. The are stiched together, metaphysically, so to speak. You can’t have one without the other. They infuse and saturate each other with meaning.

This down – up pattern has been given the name of “Paschal Mystery” by the Church: what goes down must come up. And what comes up must first have gone down. Without death there is no resurrection life. Without the dark night there can be no sunrise. Without pruning no beautiful rose blossoms.

But as we approach the Feast of the Ascension (in our tradition considered one of the seven principal feasts of the Church) and the Day of Pentecost, it seems to me that there is another “yin-yang” pattern here, as well. Another “up – down” reality which is worthy of contemplation. In the Ascension Christ ascended up into the heavens and vanished from our view / presence. Why did he do this? Why did he go up?

In John 16:7 Jesus tells his disciples, “Unless I go away the Paraclete will not come to you.” Unless he leaves, that is, the Holy Spirit will not be poured down upon all flesh. In a similar vein in John’s resurrection story when Mary Magdalene tries to hold on to her risen Lord, he rebukes her saying, “Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). It is as if he is saying, “Mary, don’t try to tie me down; I must go up. It is good for you and for the world that I go up. Only if I go up, can something even better come down.”

We who benefit from the entirety of the Christian canon realize that this “something better” is the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured down onto the Church on the Day of Pentecost. This Spirit, St. Paul tells us, is “the Spirit is the Lord” himself (2 Cor 3:17) and the Book of Acts speaks of the Holy Spirit as “The Spirit of the Lord.” That is, when the Spirit descended onto the Church, it was also Christ himself descending onto the Church, coming down and entering our hearts in a fresh, new, powerful way.

Without the downward descent of Good Friday, there can be no victorious burst of Easter resurrection. Without the upward vanishing of Ascension, there can be no downward outpouring of the Spirit of Life.

So here’s a “homework assignment.” The next time you are at church, look for this “up down” imagery in the liturgy. How many times in the Liturgy are things of various kinds elevated and or brought down?

Everything from the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts / we lift them up unto the Lord”) to the manual actions of the Presider at the Table (notice how many times things are elevated or raised) contributes to this pattern in our lives. Look for it. Study it. It is worthy of contemplation.

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Gender & Sex: Ancient Near Eastern Sex

Sex & Gender in Bible, World, & Church

Christ Church Christian Formation Class

“Patriarchy & Ancient Near Eastern Sex Regulations”

Sun, March 11, 2012

The Rev. Matt Boulter

 I. How Israelite sex practices & regulations were like its neighbors.

  • A. In both cultures (Israelite & non-Israelite) women were left out of the levirate system of inheritance. (Ie, daughters did not inherit anything from the father
  • B. In both cultures (Israelite and non-Israelite) it appears that women were thought of as the property of the man, the head of the household.

Note, however, that there are certainly tensions here. For instance, we have the examples of Miriam (Exod 15:20,21), Deborah (Judges 4 & 5), Esther, and others.

II. How Israelite sex practices & regulations were different from its neighbors.

  • A.  “Lex Talionis” (an “eye for an eye”) in the case of “ravaging a virgin.”[1]
  • B. Prohibition of Prostitution. Dt 23:17-18. Because the marital relation is seen as analogous to the love between Yahweh and his covenant people.[2] Ezek 16, Ezek 23, Prov 7, Jer 5:7, Isa 23:16, I Kings 3.

Conclusions.

  1. Old Covenant Israel was a cultural product of its time, although we can see the “inbreaking” of justice and grace in ways which a) forshadow the New Covenant, and b) improve the quality of life for women, in comparison to Israel’s neighbors.
  2. We should distinguish between Israel’s torah and Israel’s behavior. For example, polygamy is never sanctioned by the torah, and yet it was obviously rampant in ancient Israel.
  3. In the case of Israel’s neighbors, sexual activity is regulated on the basis merely of economic and social stability, but in the case of Israel, there is clearly a theological component in view.


[1] Hurley notes, 4.

[2] In Assyria and Babylonia there is a legally sanctioned way for a man to engage in extramarital sex without damaging another man’s property. What is prohibited is the damaging of another man’s goods. But in Israel this is not the case. There is no “sexual escape” for men. Hence, it is about more than property.

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Spirit-Infused Dirt (Lenten Reflection)

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It was only my third Ash Wednesday service ever (I was confirmed three short years ago), but the words have been ringing in my ears for almost two weeks now.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Why dust?

The other thing I can’t seem to expunge from my mind, along with these “words of imposition,” is Genesis 2:7, very near the beginning of our story (the Old Testament, or what the earliest Christians referred to as our family archive,).

The rabbis would have told the story something like this:

God comes, and God begins to roll up his sleeves and takes off his watch, placing it to the side so that it won’t get dirty. God takes his hands (strong, gentle hands which have just finished the work of creation in Genesis one) and he plunges them down into the fresh soil. (I wonder if he got dirt under his fingernails?) He drives his hands down into the dirt and scoops up a hunk of earth, dust, ashes. He elevates that hunk of dirt up to his face, and he breathes into that clod of earth his ruach elohim, the Spirit of God. And that hunk of earth begins to pulse with new life. It becomes a nephesh hayim, a living creature, alive with an energy the world had never known….

This is the basic pattern of spiritual formation. When God forms a creature spiritually, he elevates it. Just as he elevates or lifts up that hunk of dirt up to his face (in Hebrew and in Greek “face” implies personal presence) so also he elevates earthly things to the realm of heavenly things (see Colossians 3:1-17). Just as God elevates that hunk of dirt to become a living creature, so also he elevates “fleshy things” to become “spiritual things” (see Galatians 5).  This is the pattern: nature is elevated (not left behind) to become grace.

Because, you see, dirt is good, but a pulsing, living creature is far better. The things of the earth are good, but the things of heaven are far better. Bodies are good (after all, God made them!) but a spiritual man or woman (fully embodied for all eternity) is far better.

Now, one might want to move directly from the hunk of dirt to the Christian individual, thinking, “Oh, I get it … just as God elevated the hunk of dirt and perfects it, so also he does that with me!”

This is where a closer look at our narrative helps us. Because when you study the story, what you begin to realize is that the hunk of dirt does not foreshadow you and me as individuals. Rather, it points to Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:45-47 we are told (paraphrasing slightly) that “the first man Adam became a living creature, but the second man Christ became a life-giving Spirit.”

Jesus is the ultimate creature (Colossians 1:15 calls him “the first born of all creation”) who was elevated. He is the ultimate spiritual formee. This is why Hebrews 5:8 says that Jesus “learned obedience through the things that he suffered.” He did not “pop” out of the womb totally obedient. He had to learn obedience through suffering, rejection, and death.

He was elevated beyond all imagination. Like Neo at the end of the first Matrix he has “busted into a new world.” He is the “Pioneer of our Faith” (Heb 12:2). He has broken through the veil, the barrier with holds you and me down (fear, sin, death).  He was elevated beyond all imagination, going where no man or woman had gone before.

But not until after he was “de-elevated,” demoted. Not until he went down, like a seed falling into the earth, the dirt, the ashes to die.

Why “dust?” This is why.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

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The Gospel According to (the Feast of the) Epiphany

If ever there were a perfect text for the meaning behind the feast of the Epiphany, surely it is the Third Song of Isaiah (Canticle 11, BCP p. 87), taken from Isaiah 60.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.

For behold, darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples.

But over you the Lord will rise,  and his glory will appear upon you.

Nations will stream to your light,  and kings to the brightness of your dawning.

Your gates will always be open; by day or night they will never be shut.

They will call you, The City of the Lord,  The Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Violence will no more be heard in your land, ruin or destruction within your borders.

You will call your walls, Salvation, and all your portals, Praise.

The sun will no more be your light by day; by night you will not need the brightness of the moon.

The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.

Darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples. When Mary and Joseph were en route from Nazareth to Bethlehem it was surely the case that darkness and gloom were in control. God’s people sensed that they were still in exile, that “restoration” was a cruel joke, that the false gods and oppressive powers had the upper hand. Into this milieu a totally new kind of king was born.

Nations will stream to your light; kings to the brightness of your dawning. As Anglican New Testament scholar NT Wright ceaselessly points out, this “business” about the “nations” began way back with Abraham. It was then, with Abram (as he was then called) that YHWH first announced that his work in and through his covenant people was to bless the whole world, all nations on the earth. “In you,” God promised the Father of our Faith, “all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” And so it is, that when we see these strange magician-kings bearing gifts to and worshipping the babe in the manger, we are literally seeing the fulfillment of that prophetic thread which is woven throughout the Old Covenant Scriptures.

They will call you the City of the Lord, the Holy One of Israel. Duke New Testament Scholar Richard Hays, in his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, writes persuasively that the fulfillment of the Old Covenant occurs not simply in the man Jesus Christ but also in his Body, the Church. The New Covenant ecclesia (the Greek word for “church”) in which God’s people meet, no longer in Central Zion Proper, but now decentralized  all over the globe, is this “City of the Lord.” When black people, white people, rich people, poor people, conservative people, liberal people, etc. etc. gather in Eucharistic fellowship with the Baptized Faithful, it is then that the “nations [are streaming] to your light.”

The Sun will no more be your light by day; by night you will not need the brightness of the moon. When I tuck Bella and Ellie into bed each night, just after we finish our prayers, they always remind me to turn on the nightlight (which sometimes turns out to be the light in the bathroom next to their room). However, on those rare occasions when these little girlies persuade me (or their Mommy) to sleep with them all night, this infantile need for a nightlight disappears. In the very same way, St. John tells us in his Apocalypse, “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 22:5, ESV)

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The Three Comings of Christ (Advent, 2011)

Have you ever noticed how, in the Christian Faith, so many things come in “three’s”? Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Peter, James, and John.  Faith, hope, and love.

Another “Trinitarian triad” which is especially relevant at this point in our church year is found in the Memorial Acclamation of our Eucharistic Prayer:

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

I’ve long reflected on our confession of this “triple event” in terms of Advent, a time when we prepare for the coming of Christ. (Note that, in Latin, the verb venire means “ to come,” and the prefix ad means “to” or “toward.”) It points, I think, to the reality of the three “comings” of Christ, all of which require our preparation. Christ came; Christ comes; Christ will come again.

First, Christ came. He came to our hurting and broken world 2000 years ago as baby boy, born to a young teenage girl in Palestine. He came to an afflicted people, in desperate need of something, someone, to put their hope in. This first coming, when the God-man walked upon the pages of historical time and space, is something catholic Christians actively re-member every year in Advent. We relive it, we reimagine it, we prepare for it. When it comes to this, the “first coming” of Christ, what is going on is that we are preparing for the remembrance of a past event (not unlike the annual preparation for one’s wedding anniversary).

But, second, Christ comes. Every Eucharist, every time the Word is read, in fact every moment of our lives, God in Christ approaches us in loving relationship. This is true on so many levels we scarcely have time or space to discuss it. In my Christian formation class this year during Ordinary Time we spent many weeks discussing and practicing a form of prayerful reading called lectio divina, and this is why: Christ is always present, and yet the challenge and need is for us to develop and cultivate an awareness of that presence. Hence, we pray. We meditate. We contemplate. We wait. We listen. “Be still,” the Psalms instruct, “and know that I am God.”

Finally, Christ will come again. This we confess at every Eucharist in the words of the Nicene Creed: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” No man knows the hour, and few should claim to know the manner, but that he will return, we are absolutely certain. And though the details are hazy, we are told that he will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thes 5:2) Therefore, St. Paul admonishes, “let us not sleep, as others do, but keep awake, and be sober.” (1 Thes 5:5) Sounds like preparation to me.

All of this reminds me of a quotation from Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes: “We imagine the past, and we remember the future.” The past, the first coming of Christ, is an event which renews and redeems the world, simultaneously bringing Israel’s story (for us, the Old Testament) to its anticipated climax. It is no ordinary event. It is the “axis mundi,” the pivot of history. It is, at the same time, the climax of our story, yours and mine. When we read about God’s people in the Old Testament, we are reading about our community, our selves. This is an event we are imaginatively to re-inhabit.

The future, in turn, is something we “remember,” for we have already been told how it will end. Putting aside all of those dense, thick commentaries on the Book of Revelation for a moment, we do see in the last two chapters of our Story a renewed community, celebrating the ultimate victory of God and his Lamb. We know, in other words, “who wins” in the end, and we know that our destiny is sure: to rest in and to enjoy our Three Person God forever with all his Saints.

We imagine the past; we remember the future. In so doing we are enabled more and more to live fully into the present moment, in which Christ comes to us continually and without reservation.

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The Fecundity of Walter Ong

I am currently in the final stages of discerning a possible opportunity to begin doctoral work at the University of Dallas under the esteemed postmodern medievalist Phillip Rosemann. As a part of our ongoing dialogue designed to culminate in a final decision (mutually discerned) to apply to this program or not, Professor Rosemann invited me to read Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong. In so doing he correctly perceived, on the basis of our discussions so far, a great interest on my part for texts and authors related to genealogy, or the intellectual developments which have led western society and culture down the road it has taken in particular toward secularism and modernity.

I must say that the Ong book is among the most original books I have read in a while in its fecundity and heuristic value, rivaling even Pierre Hadot’s work in its ability to shed light upon our cultural and intellectual predecessors, showing how they viewed the world and why.

Whereas much of Hadot’s work focuses on the “schools” of ancient philosophy (Stoicism, Epicureanism, etc.) and shows how they organically lead to major historical strands within Christianity, Ong takes as his point of departure the “pre-literate” culture makers of the Homeric poets and bards, whose description of the world, as is the case with all pre-literate (ie, oral) thought leaders, is decisively shaped and determined by the form of their discourse. In a world which knew nothing of writing (let alone an alphabet or still less moveable type and the printing press) their description of the world was cast in terms of formulaic units of text (eg, repeated patterns of subjects, verbs, and objects), repetition of events, epithets (eg, “crafty Odysseus,” “the wine-dark sea,” “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”). Just as important, their “genre” (to be horribly anachronistic) was epic narrative, which we would identify as closely related to poetry, given its conformity to strict patterns of meter or scansion.

This book reminds me of the phrase of Alfred North Whitehead who spoke of the “simplicity on the far side of complexity.” The explanatory power of Ong’s thesis (which builds on the work of, among others, Marshall McLuhan, Eric Havelock, and Milman Parry) to explain why the ancients described their world they way they did is staggering. For example, there is the simple matter of memory (a topic given ample attention by Ong). Why did the ancients rely so heavily of formulaic expressions, epithets and repetition in their rendition of important events? (Why, for example, is there so much repetition, say, in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 or in the Abraham cycle of the same book?) Why, further, did they not cast their reports in ways more amenable to the modern, “scientific” mindset? Before one delves into complex matters of historical development, there is the simple fact that they were just trying to remember the account being given. Think about life with no writing at all: of course “tools” such as repetition, formula, and epithet would be of great value. (Note that I am here presupposing that the Bible has an oral provenance which precedes its being committed to writing in the Hebrew language. This is an assumption shared by Ong.)

To take this a bit further, consider again the structure of the creation account of Genesis 1. Why is it structured in terms of six days? Given Ong’s thesis, it would be a great mistake not to include in one’s answer to this question that the communal guardians of the story were simply trying to remember an ancient narrative, to continue the story in the living memory of the people. This is the case regardless of whatever else one might want to argue about the creation story of Genesis 1, any account of Genesis 1 (seeking either to undermine it or to bolster its validity) must take these factors into account.

Briefly I want to list some other areas to which this book is particularly relevant:

I have already hinted at the area of Biblical criticism.

I have already alluded to the genealogical import of the book.

Plato. Ong highlights the deep ambiguity in Plato’s posture toward writing as opposed to orality: in the Republic he banishes poets from the city but then in the Phaedrus and elsewhere he extols the beauty and value of oral dialogue, complaining that writing will lead to a loss of memory.

Rhetoric. Ong shows how, paradoxically, rhetoric both presupposes writing (Aristotle could have never developed the loci communes without the mental structure afforded him by writing) and is eclipsed by (that especially intense form of) writing (known as alphabet-based moveable type). The Romantic movement, itself utterly dependent upon moveable type as well as a level of interiority which only a deeply literate culture could achieve, was the nail in the coffin of rhetoric.

Depth Psychology. In a fascinating discussion of Freud, Ong shows how the depth psychology which he spawned is utterly dependent upon literary developments which could only be achieved in a highly literate culture, for example the development of the round character. (The characters of oral narrative are by necessity “flat,” eg, Odysseus, Adam, Abraham.)

Derrida. In addition to interacting with Derrida’s reading of Plato viz a viz speech and writing (a crucial issue explored in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing), Ong masterfully, provocatively, and simply shows that what Derrida does is to downgrade oral discourse so that he does not have to deal with it. If orality is stricken with the metaphysics of presence, then Derrida is liberated to deal only with the written text, and to attempt to argue that the text is all there is. Page 162 is the best (and most concise) summary of Derrida I’ve seen.

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Scythian

Don’t know why I never noticed this before. As with many Christian leaders, Galatians 3:28 (“In Christ there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male or female, for all are one in Christ.”) is an important verse for me.

However, I had never really noticed that is the parallel passage to this in Colossians, Paul adds the language of “barbarian,” including a reference to the Scythian, to these pairs: “no distinction is drawn between Greek or Jew, between those who are circumcised and those who are not, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, because the Christ is in each one is the only thing that matters (Col 3:1-10).”

To quote Dallas Willard (from The Divine Conspiracy, page 126):

Inclusion of the Scythian here is instructive and should be understood to refer to the very lowest possibility of humanity. The Scythian was the barbarian’s barbarian, thought of as an utterly brutal savage – largely because he was.

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Now is the new Then (Rob Bell, Love Wins, ch. 2)

In this chapter, Bell continues with his (quite right) insistence that our popular understandings of heaven are far removed from the thought-world of the Bible, of first-century Judaism (of which Jesus and his first followers were a part).

Again, in doing this he is popularizing a similar line of work as that of NT Wright, massively prominent biblical scholar and Anglican bishop. (See here, and here.)

Again, I will list & briefly comment on the points Bell makes.

1.     There is something wrong with the idea that the Christian life is about going to heaven when we die. Basically, this would imply that this world, my life, my family, my body, my work, simply does not matter, and that the “main point” is to “get the heck out of Dodge.” Even before we turn to the Bible, we can sense in our bones that this picture of bailing out, leaving the world behind, is just wrong.

2.     Bell points out that Jesus, like all other first century Jews, had no concept of “eternity” as in “eternal life.” Bell does a good job of showing that this is not what the rich man meant in Matt 19 (see verse 16 and following) when he asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Rather, this man and Jesus both would have been thinking of “the age to come” (Hebrew olam habah; Greek zoe aionion). That is, to the Hebrew mind (including in the Second Temple period) “eternal life” the way we think of it was not a big deal. “The age to come,” however, was a big deal. History is going somewhere. God is up to something. He is going to fix this broken world. He is going to do this, they would have thought, “in the age to come.” This is what the following Old Testament passages are about: Isa 2, Isa 11, Isa 25, Ezek 36, Amos 9.

3.     These passages point to three realities w.r.t. this “age to come.” First, the age to come will include all nations; it will be inclusive and universal in scope. Second, the picture we get is very earthy: it consists of grain, crops, wine, people, feasts, homes, and buildings (p34). Third, we can see that this vision is something deeply rooted in the creation narratives of Gen 1 & 2. That is, this vision for the way creation is supposed to be was not new. God has always been looking for partners who will work with him (think of Tolien’s “subcreation” and “subcreators”) to extend the garden, and to cultivate the whole earth. I like this paragraph (35 – 36):

For there to be new wine, someone has to crush the grapes. For the city to be built, someone has to chop down the trees to make the beams to construct the houses. For there to be no more wars, someone has to take the sword and get it hot enough to melt it down into the shape of a plow.

That is, bringing about God’s creative purposes takes work.

4.     When things don’t work the way God intended, he gets angry and he becomes full of hate. When modern western people say that they can’t believe in a god of hate or anger, remember this (37):

Yes, they can. Often, we can think of little else. Every oil spill; every report of another woman sexually assaulted; every news report that another political leader has silenced the opposition through torture, imprisonment, and execution; every we see someone stepped on by an institution or corporation more interested in profit than people every time we stumble upon one more instance of the human heart gone wrong, we shake our fist and cry out, “Will someone please do something about this?”

5.     What did Jesus mean by “heaven?” First, he meant “God.” Bell is correct here: Matthew’s “Kingdom of Heaven” is tantamount to Luke’s “Kingdom of God.”

6.     Second, “Heaven” is where God’s will is being done, in real time and in real space. Again, Bell is correct here. The Kingdom of God “happens” wherever Jesus is worshipped and made Lord.

7.     Third, Since our time & place is so often not where God’s will is done, what this means is that, right now, heaven and earth are not one. To gloss this in NT Wright language, “God’s dimension” and “man’s dimension” are not presently overlapping, but (as Bell points out on pp 43 ff) the whole story of the Bible (Old & New Testaments together) is the story of God’s dimension & man’s dimension beginning to overlap & to become one. (My note: this most fully happens in Jesus Christ & his body, the Church, but one day it – the union between God & world – will be “all in all.”)

8.     If this is true, then “right now counts forever,” and digging wells for clean water now matters since in “heaven” there will be clean water for all. This is the future breaking into the present, getting dragged into the present. (Fancy word for this: eschatology.)

9.     What Jesus’ encounter with the rich man in Matthew 19 shows us is that not only does heaven comfort, but it also confronts. That is, heaven

“has teeth, flames, edges, sharp points” and that “certain things simply will not survive in the age to come. Like greed. And coveting. The one thing people won’t be wanting in the perfect peace and presence of God is someone else’s life. The man is clearly attached to his wealth and possessions, so much so that when Jesus invites him to leave them behind, he can’t do it.” (p 49).

This meshes perfectly with what Paul says in I Cor 3:10ff: that certain deeds, practices, words and attitudes will on “the Day” (the prophets spoke of, see above) will be burned away, but that “the builder” (ie, the one with these attitudes) will be saved.

10. As CS Lewis points out, heaven is a place so real, solid, and good that it will take a lot to get used to. In a paragraph in which Bell (knowingly or not) is pretty much arguing for something like Purgatory, he points out that things like habits and character take time, so it is an unrealistic (if widespread) assumption that in “heaven” people will be changed in an instant. What this means is that a single mom who struggles to pay bills and squeeze child support out of her ex-husband who use to beat her and to keep her kids in school, and who does all this without giving up or despairing is likely “the first who will be last,” is likely the kind of person about (or to) whom God will say “You are the kind of person with whom I can partner to build my new world.”

Heaven is more real, not less, than this world, and so it is full of surprises.

Summary. For Rob Bell, heaven

a.     is coterminous with “God.”

b.     Wherever, in this world agreed with and served.

c.      Aion, that is to say: the intensification of reality beyond our present, normal awareness of things (ie, “three dimensions”) which is charged with God and the reality of his new world, which begins here and now, and continues into the world to come.

Again, in my opinion, all of this is utterly biblical, and utterly orthodox, and utterly exciting!

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Which God? Which Jesus? (Rob Bell, Love Wins, ch. 1)

In chapter 1 of Love Wins Bell makes several points, all of which are spot on, and all of which many intelligent pastors and teachers have been making for a very long time. I’m going to list the points / questions and elaborate briefly on them.

1.     There is a widespread phenomenon in the modern, western church (what this really means is the evangelical church, which no doubt has analogues in contemporary Roman Catholicism) and it is driving many people away from the community of Jesus-followers. It is the phenomenon of confusing and polluting the Jesus story with our corrupted stories. A prominent version of this is to adopt a mode of threat in our telling of the story, and then to assume that, of course, my community is on the “inside” of those who are favored by God.

2.     Often, our sub-stories totally lack hope for the world and for people, and this is light years away from the tone and direction of the Jesus story.

3.   To make matters worse, we bandy around the idea of salvation with no real understanding of what that idea means, much less how the Bible actually uses that word. Examples: is salvation a conversion experience? Is it having correct ideas in your head about God? Is it being zapped in your heart? Is it having a emotional feeling? Is there an “age of accountability?” If so, what is it, and how do we know? Is salvation something that happens to me as an individual or something that happens to a community (such as Israel in Rom 11)? Bell suggests the sobering truth that, again, more often than not the way we speak of salvation is light years away from the biblical story of Jesus.

4.     Which God? Which Jesus? Bell rightly points out that, when people say they reject Jesus (or God), we need to ask, “Which Jesus (or God) do you reject?” Frequently, the Jesus being rejected is a Jesus who ought to be rejected. Maybe the Jesus being rejected is an unbiblical Jesus. Maybe the Jesus being rejected is a Jesus who was associated in a five-year-old’s imagination with a man who was molesting her. Bell gives the example (p 7) of a woman whose father raped her while saying the Lord’s Prayer, from Renee Alston’s Stumbling Toward Faith:

I grew up in an abusive household. Much of my abuse was spiritual. When I say spiritual I don’t mean new age, esoteric, random mumblings from half-Wiccan, hippie parents…. I mean that my father raped me while saying the Lord’s Prayer. I mean that my father molested me while singing Christian hymns.

Surely, to reject this “Jesus” can be seen as a step in the right direction (as CS Lewis would firmly agree).

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Bell, Wright, MacIntyre (Love Wins, intro)

In his introduction to Love Wins Bell clearly says that he does not take himself to have all the answers. Rather, he is asking some questions, rooting his thought in the categories the Bible itself gives us. In this he is doing the very same thing that NT Wright has been doing, and in fact, a great many (even most?) of the “bombshells” he is dropping, particularly in chapter 1 (dealing with “heaven”), are nothing more that what NT Wright has been teaching for years. Thus, Bell is traveling nowhere that Bp. Wright has not travelled before.

The second big claim Bell rightly makes in the introduction is that, to the extent that he has a “position” on this “issue,” this position of his is nothing new, and is well included within the mainstream of the “ongoing discussion” (p xi) that the church has been having for centuries. In this he is utterly correct. In fact, he is essentially espousing a view of Christian tradition which has been articulated by Alisdair MacIntyre:

The traditions through which particular practices are transmitted and reshaped never exist in isolation for larger social traditions. What constitutes such traditions? We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

So when an institution–a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital–is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead.

– Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 221

In this sense tradition is an ongoing dialogue that takes place over large periods of time within particular communities.

In conclusion, Love Wins (in the introduction at least) is in the very good company of NT Wright and Alisdair MacIntyre, and, thus, is a welcome and much needed articulation of theology especially since it is written at a much more popular level.

A final critique, however. Bell clearly has a “catholic” way of understanding tradition. It is too bad, therefore, that he does not have (or has not expressed, or has not acted on) a catholic ecclesiology.

That is, what is the church? Would that Bell were in a communion of churches, an actually embodied tradition (note what MacIntyre says above about communities: these are concrete communities of bodies & souls. Indeed, they are eucharistic communities (at least for scripture & tradition).

Here again, the emergent church slouches toward catholicity, but still lacking the actual ability to embrace the catholic church of history.

Here again (as has been the case for about a decade) “eccleiology!” is my mantra.

Oh how I wish Rob Bell would read John Milbank & Radical Orthodoxy.

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Galatians: New Freedom, New Family

Those of you familiar with the teachings of Tim Keller will see realize that the title of this post is “stolen” from him, as is the basic point of the Epiphany teachings we are doing as we delve into Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Where we’ve been in Galatians so far:

1. We started out by looking at the so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son as a “lens” through which we view Galatians (thus “reading Scripture with Scripture”). This parable from Luke 15 is really about two sons, and not just the sinful, lost, younger son. As we have seen, the older brother is just as much in need of repentance as the younger brother who wasted his father’s inheritance in Las Vegas living it up, gambling, drinking, carousing, and (as the text says) sleeping with prostitutes. The elder brother is just as much as in need of repentance: just as much as the younger brother, he is using his father as a means to an end. Just as much as the younger brother, he is trying to control his father, the only difference being that the elder brother is trying to control the father through his obedience, through doing what’s right, through “the works of the law.”

2. Who is Jesus always getting upset with in the Gospel stories? Elder brother types: scribes, Pharisees, teachers of the law. The squeaky clean types, the cultural and religious conservatives, the ones who believe in absolute truth, the morally upstanding types, the ones who would be much happier living in red states.

3. What is Galatians about? It is a polemic levied against the “elder brother types,” but in this context they are not called “Pharisees;” they are called “the Circumcision.” Different characters from the Gospel stories, but the plot remains fundamentally the same.

4. Now, what’s crazy is that Paul himself is, by nature and by nurture, an “elder brother type.” As he states in Galatians 1, he had been a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” more zealous than his contemporaries for the purity of the law.

5. However Paul is a man who has been changed by grace! The risen Christ appeared to him (see the book of Acts), knocking him off his horse and onto his can. And after a season of meditation in the desert, trying to figure out what in the world had happened to him on that road to Damascus, trying to make sense of the Scriptures (for us, the “Old Testament”) in light of this shocking revelation of Christ, he begins to reach out in love to the very ones he had so murderously despised: the Gentiles! The Gentiles: the unclean ones, the sinners, the younger brother types.

6. This is the heart of Galatians: the life of Christ is not one of status quo religion, whereby we assume our own superiority over those who are different from us (this is the basic posture of the human heart, and the basic nature of so much of what passes for “religion”).

7. OK, then, what is the Christian life about? Two things (which we will consider together on Thursday nights for the next few weeks):

a. A New Law of Freedom (ch 5).

b. A New Community or Family (ch 6).

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Good Guys & Bad Guys?

Bella: “Daddy, I don’t want to go outside and play in the front yard because I’m afraid that the bad guys will get me.”

Daddy: “Sweetheart, who are these ‘bad guys’ you’re talking about?”

Bella: “You know, the bad guys Auntie M. told me about, the bad guys on the news who kidnapped and did real bad things to that little boy last night. I saw it on the news, Daddy.”

Daddy: “Sweetheart, those people should not have done those bad things, and we must be careful and aware of our surroundings, but do you remember last week in the playground that you spit on your friend when she took your Hello Kitty ball away from you?”

Bella: “Yeah, I’m sorry I did that, Daddy.”

Daddy: “I totally forgive you, Sweetie, but since you did that, I mean, since you hit her and spit on her, does this make you a ‘bad guy?’”

Bella: “No, Daddy! I’m a good girl!”

Daddy: “But at that moment your heart was just as angry and hurtful as some of the people you see on the news.”

Bella: “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Daddy: “And, guess what else, Bella?”

Bella: “What, Daddy?”

Daddy: “I once knew a man who got thrown into jail for stealing a lot of money. That’s bad, right?”

Bella: “Right.”

Daddy: “Well, did you know that that same man loves his little daughter just like I love you?”

Bella: “How do you know, Daddy?”

Daddy: “Because that man is your Uncle ‘S.’”

This dialogue is typical of ones I have with my seven year old daughter, Bella. What I’m trying to do here is to show her that, in a sense, there is no such thing as “good guys” and “bad guys.”

With one exception, I tell her, and that is the case of characters in stories. Characters in stories can be good or bad. So for example, Saruman in the Lord of the Rings is truly bad, with no qualifications.

I would argue that something similar holds for the story of Holy Scripture which finds its climax or fulillment in (the paschal mystery of) Christ, which is one reason I have a different take on the role of narrative for the Christian understanding of violence than those who argue that there is no place for violence in the Christian story or in Christian theology.

What I want to show in the rest of this essay, however, is that, in another sense, there is such a thing as “bad guys.” The moral tradition of Christian virtue teaches that man is a functional concept. That is, the human being, created by God for a concrete and specific end or telos, is analogous to a human-made tool, for example, a hammer. A hammer can be said to be a good hammer if it successfully drives nails into pieces of wood. Alternatively a hammer (or a clock or a chair) may be said to be a poor hammer (or clock or chair) if it fails to fulfill its telos, the purpose for which it was made, properly.

According to the Christian tradition, rooted in Holy Scripture, the telos of humanity is to glorify God or (alternatively stated) to participate in the mystery of the triune God. To the extent that a person does this well and properly, she is a good woman. To the extent that a little boy or girl or grown-up fails to do this, he or she is a bad person.

Where does this leave us? It leaves me with a tension, a dilemma which might be undecideable. When forming the character of my seven year old, I want to discourage her from viewing the other (in particular those who are different from her) as “bad guys.” I want her to examine her heart and to verify the biblical truth that “all have sinned,” that “the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, who can know it?”. I want her to pluck the beam out of her own eye first.

I think this posture is biblical and consistent with the spirit of Jesus, for whom the only “bad guys” were the power-mongers of religiosity of his day.

Since, like my seven year old, I have the capacity (even the tendency) for violence in my own life, I’m not really justified in speaking of others as bad guys.

And yet, I must admit that the moral tradition of Christian virtue ethics also maintains that there is such a thing a “good guys” and “bad guys.”

At the end of the day, am I myself a bad guy? In my view, that is for my (Christian) community to judge.

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Augustine on _Totus Christus_

From Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John:

Then let us rejoice and give thanks that we are made not only Christians, but Christ. Do you understand, brothers, and apprehend the grace of God upon us? Marvel, be glad, we are made Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members: the whole man is he and we… The fullness of Christ, then, is head and members. Head and members, what is that? Christ and the Church (In. Io. XXI.8).

Thanks, David Thomas.

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“Belief Systems”

Yesterday, in my first week “on the ground” here in Tyler (see here), I went on an 8-mile run with some amazing members of the community here, ranging from age 55 to 28.

At one point during the run, the 28 year old man mentioned that he has been impressed by the teaching ministry of Ravi Zacharias (who also greatly influenced Bouquet and me in our college years at UT).

Of course, I said nothing disparaging about Ravi on that run, and I do have tremendous respect for him.

And yet, one of the interesting things about being here in Tyler is that I find myself in a new community, who have no idea what motivates me in ministry, or, for example, why I chose to become an Episcopal priest, thus having to leave the more “conservative” Presbyterian Church, the PCA.

So this afternoon I was re-reading Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity, and it hit me in fresh way: this is the real difficuIty I have with folks like Ravi: the church plays a very little role in their teaching, certainly not a central role, as it did for the Apostle Paul. Here’s the quotation:

“The Bible gives no hint that a Christian “belief system” might be isolated from the life of the Church, subjected to scientific analysis, and have its truth compared with competing “belief systems.”- Peter Leithart, Against Christianity, page 14.

The point is not at all that what we believe does not matter (2 Pet 3:15). Rather the point is that the enemies of the faith (colluding with gnosticism) have succeeded in disembodying what the book of Acts describes as “the Way.” Being a Christian is not simply about believing the right set of propositions, but rather about living a life in solidarity with the community of faith: confessing the faith with them, serving and being served by them, sharpening them, etc.

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Saying “No” to the Divider

A Sermon by Matt Boulter

St. Richard’s Episcopal Church

February 21, 2010

Lent I C

In the great 19th century German legend Faust, we meet the scholarly Dr. Faust in his study, struggling to figure something out, to discover some great scientific breakthrough. And then all of the sudden, a sinister and mysterious being called Mephistopheles appears out of nowhere in his study. Now, in the previous scene of the story Mephistopheles – a kind of Satanic or demonic figure – is seen in heaven dialoging with God, engaging God in a wager that he, Mephistopheles, can tempt God’s favorite human, Dr. Faust, and cause Dr. Faust to enter into a pact with himself, thereby betraying God.

And so here Mephistopheles is, in Dr. Faust’s study, and sure enough, Dr. Faust gives in: he agrees, by actually signing a contract with a few drops of his own blood. The terms of the contract? Faust will serve Mephistopheles for all eternity in hell, if Mephistopheles will just give him everything he wants before he dies.

Now, I won’t ruin the story for you by telling you how it turns out, but suffice to say that something similar is going in today’s Gospel lesson from the 4th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, but with one key difference: the great tempter in our story today is not named “Mephistopheles;” he is named simply “The Devil.”

Now at first glance that might not seem too terribly important to you, but then you might notice that this character is explicitly named in this little story not once, not twice, but three times. It’s as if he is named three times, once for each of the three temptations which confront the famished Jesus … Jesus who is full of the power of the Spirit (having just been baptized in chapter 3) and who has just been led into the desert by that same spirit for the explicit purpose of being tempted.

Now what’s going on in these three temptations? Well, I think that by mentioning “the devil” 3 times, Luke is actually giving us a big hint, for the word “devil” in Greek has a very simple meaning: it means “the one who divides;” “the divider.” Who or what is the devil? Well, there’s a lot about the devil I’m not too sure about, but this I know: the devil is one who divides the things and the people that God has put together, and that, my friends, is a huge clue as to the nature of these temptations here in this desert in Luke chapter 4.

What is Jesus tempted with here? Three things: bread, power, and health. Now, let me ask you question: are these 3 things – bread, power, and health – are these bad things? No! They are good things! And it’s the very same for you & me this Lenten season. The things you are giving up: chocolate, beer, coffee, whatever … these are not bad things.

We are not called to give up sinful things for Lent; we are called to give up sinful things all the time.  During Lent, what we are called to “say no” to is good things: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health. But the question remains, “Why?” Why should we say “no” to these things if they are so good?

And the answer is the same for us as it was for Jesus: the short answer is that we are not so much saying “no” as “not yet.” God wants us to have all of these things in abundance: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health … but he wants to give them to us as gifts, not as things grasped. And so you see, we’re not actually saying “no” to them; we are saying “not yet.”

See, all of these things being offered  to Jesus by Satan … in each case, the “carrot” being dangled before Jesus was something which was already his by God’s promise.

When the Divider offers bread to the famished Jesus, imagine what was running through Jesus’ mind. “Hmmm … what would a kingdom based on feeding miracles look like? A ministry of providing bread out of nothing could blaze a trail right to the king’s throne, with throngs of followers supporting me. Then I could finally restore the fortunes of Israel and God’s people.” See, Satan was offering Jesus a shortcut to the Kingdom. But Jesus said “no.” By faith & the HS – the very same resources you & I have, by the way – Jesus determined not to grasp his kingship, but to wait for it as a gift.

The very same thing is going on in the 2nd & 3rd temptations: in each case the Devil is tempting Jesus to choose: “you can choose God, or you can choose the bread. You can choose God, or you can choose the chocolate. You can choose God, or you can choose the power of the king’s throne.”

But, you see, in every case, this is a false dichotomy, b/c what Jesus understood is what St. Paul tells us: that God has promised us all good things; that he holds nothing back from those who love him; that if we trust him, we will live in the promised land flowing with milk and honey, and we will receive the most lavish inheritance you can imagine. This is why Paul, in today’s Epistle lesson from Romans 10 has the audacity to say that “the Lord bestows his riches on all who call on him.” (RSV; NRSV has “… is generous to all who call on him.”) Paul has the audacity to say that God gives us riches. What is that!? Is it a warm feeling in your heart? No: it is all good things; it is your inheritance in Christ from the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. It is life in the new heavens and the new earth.

This is does not mean that Christians are not called to suffer. On the contrary suffering is the prerequisite to all of this. Death must come before resurrection life. What happens to Jesus here in the wilderness is just a foretaste of his cross experience. We are called to follow Jesus into the wilderness, and we are called to follow him to the cross.

But, still Jesus understood “the logic of the gift” — that God was always going to give him the bread, the power, the health anyway … so why grasp after it? Why do what Adam did in the garden? Better to have a little patience and humility now, and then receive all good things as a free gift from the giver of all good things.

In the book A Severe Mercy, the story includes 18 real-life letters which CS Lewis wrote to the author after the author had lost his wife to cancer. The story – it’s an autobiography of faith, if you will – is really about the struggles and temptations of romantic love. And in one of these letters CS Lewis is trying to comfort and encourage this widower who has lost the love of his life and who is suffering from a loss of romantic and sexual love and affection. And CS Lewis quotes some ancient poem and one of the lines is this: “Worship the Morning Star, and then take your earthly love thrown in.”

See, that is really what is going on in Lent. It is not an “either / or.” “Worship God, and take everything else thrown in.” “Seek first the Kingdom, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, and all of these things will be added unto you.” The false dichotomies are just that: false. We don’t have to choose. By saying no to chocolate I am not really saying no to chocolate. I am saying “not now” to chocolate. And by saying “not now” to chocolate, I am saying “yes” to God, and I am waiting on his good gifts. I am “seeking the morning star and taking all earthly delights thrown in.”

I am refusing the false dichotomies and the short cuts of the Divider. I am saying “yes” to God, and saying “yes” to God’s gifts. I am saying “God, I want you now, and I really like chocolate and beer and all that good stuff, but I am willing to wait for it in your time, and in your way.” (And you know what? Chocolate tastes so much better when it comes as a gift and not something grasped. And it’s the same way with sex, with power, with health, and with everything else God has made.)

Don’t choose between God and God’s good gifts. Say “yes” to both, and wait for the gifts in God’s good time.

What we are really saying “no” to in Lent, is “no” to the Divider. That’s what Adam failed to do in the Garden, And it’s what the New Adam succeeded in doing in the desert.

What God has joined together, let no one divide.

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

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Questioning our Worship (I): Why go to Church?

This article is part of a larger series, the introduction to which is here.

I recently had a conversation with a neighbor of mine about going to church on Sunday.

When he found out that I am a “pastor type” he apparently felt the need to justify why he does not really believe in going to church on Sunday. “I can have ‘church’ at home,” he said. “Don’t you agree?”

“Well,” I responded, “certainly lots of people feel that way, and it kind of makes sense, I guess. But I think it is important to consider what the Bible says about things like that.” I went on to allude to I Peter chapter 2 by saying, “One of the images that the Bible gives us of God’s people is that of living stones.”

I continued by saying that if you look at a stone wall of a building one of the interesting things is that the stones are resting upon one another. That is, the stones need each other. A single stone cannot make a wall.

A similar dynamic comes into play when we consider the biblical image of “many members, one body.” Here the many members come together to form a whole organic unity, a complete body. An eye, or a spleen, cannot hope to constitute a healthy human body in all its complexity, as St. Paul teaches in places like I Corinthians 12.

It is the same way with “going to church” and the Christian life. In general is not possible for only one person to worship God by herself, if she never gathers with the community. Our private devotion and meditation (“in your prayer closet”) flows out from the worship of the gathered community, from the “work of the people” (which, as we saw last month, is what “liturgy” literally is).

The bottom line here is that in the Christian life, we need each other. “There are no ‘lone ranger’ Christians.”

I want to bring out, however, a second aspect to all this. There is another reason why staying at home on Sunday to read our Bible (or to watch a “televangelist” on TV) is not full Christian worship in the way the Bible describes it.

What are we doing when we worship God? The collects in our Prayer Book which we say over and over every Sunday give us a strong hint. Almost every one of them ends with some version of “through Jesus Christ … who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit….” You see, worship, at its heart, at its core essence, is a participation in the life and love of the Holy Trinity. It is as if in worship we are entering into a stimulating conversation or a beautiful dance which has already been going on between three Persons who deeply love each other. This loving community hospitably invites us into their joy, into their peace, into their glorious life.

But reading the Bible in my armchair at home, as important as that is, is not conducive to this kind of fellowship with the Divine community, if separated from the worshipping life of the people of God. When I read words on a page in my armchair at home, there is no conversation there: it is just “me, myself, and I” with static words on a page. But in worship on Sunday it is all about conversation, dialogue with God in and through other people. In the responsive psalm the people dialogue with the choir. In the confession and absolution we dialogue with Christ. After Jesus summons us by his Word in the sermon, we respond in conversation in the word of the Creed.

In this way, we are caught up into a Great Conversation with the Divine Community in a way that just cannot happen in my armchair at home. The real purpose of my armchair at home, and the real purpose of my Bible reading, is to re-member and to extend the Great Conversation in which I was caught up last Sunday.

In a sense, then, worship is prior to Scripture in that worship provides the context for Scripture. This makes sense historically, as well, when we realize that the continuous worship of the new covenant church actually predates the writings of the New Testament Scriptures.

The Bible is tremendously important, but its true home, if you will, is not primarily my armchair at home or my home office or study, but rather in the liturgical worship of the church. Out of this fountain, the rest of our Christian life flows.

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A Brief History of Translation: _arsenokoitai_

It is now clear to me that, in fact, there has been a significant shift in the translation of this Greek term in I Cor 6:9 and in I Tim 1:10. Wyclif’s translation in 1380 is “thei that don lecherie with men” (Webster’s definition of “lechery” is “free indulgence of lust; selfish pleasure”). Tyndale (1534), Coverdale (1535), Cranmer (1539), the Geneva Bible (1557), the KJV (1611), and the ASV (1901) render it “abusers of themselves with [the] mankind.”

In 1946 the RSV changed to “sexual perverts” and in 1973 the NIV translates it as “homosexual offenders.”

Dale B. Martin rightly describes this shift from a “reference to an action that any man [I would say “any person”] might well perform … to a perversion, either an action or a propensity taken to be self-evidently abnormal and diseased.” (Sex and the Single Savior, ch 3)

I think it is horrible to say that male-female sex & sexual desire is “normal,” while (fe)male-(fe)male sex & sexual desire is “abnormal.” This is not a theological statement. What is a theological statementis to say that male-female sex & sexual desire is creational in the sense of God’s creation-intent, while (fe)male-(fe)male sex & sexual desire is anti-creational, in the sense that, as a result of the fall, it runs counter to God’s creational intent.

Thus, I think that this 20th century shift in the translation of this term is deplorable, since it buys into the late 19th century view (documented by Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality) that same-sex attraction is a disease. It is wrong to allow such secular assumptions to creep into our translation of the Church’s sacred text(s).

 

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_Sex & the Single Savior_: Historical-Critical Method

 

This year (2010) I am redoubling my efforts to better develop (and justify) my convictions on same-sex issues. In addition to that, I strongly suspect that part and parcel with this process is a deeper grasp of the nature of Scripture in the Christian Tradition.

Therefore, I am reading Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior (2006) with great interest. Martin identifies himself as both a “reader-response” theorist and as a post-structuralist. He thus roots himself within two schools of thought from which I have learned much over the years, and which I think ought to be incorporated into theology in a non-reductive way. That is, theology ought to be open (as Radical Orthodoxy is) to both of these ways of thinking without granting them complete hegemony over Scripture, turning it into something which they alone can define and describe. For example, reader response theory rightly points out the role of the reader’s (or the community of readers’) interpretation for meaning. However to reduce the meaning of the text down to just this aspect (thus ignoring authorial intent and the text itself) does violence to meaning.

When it comes to the biblical hermeneutics of historical criticism, whereas I would want to recognize the legitimacy of this approach as a part of the total meaning of the text (seeing a pre-modern precedent in the sensus literalis), Martin wants to discard it completely.

Only thus can Martin deny that Scripture affirms the immorality of same-sex practice, which is one of the central goals of his book.

 

Martin rejects all attempts to justify the use of this hermeneutic approach theologically. For example, he rejects the argument that, due to the historical nature of the Christian religion (seen for example in the doctrine of the Incarnation), historical criticism is necessary or helpful for determining the meaning of a text.

That God took on flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazereth is unverifiable by historical study, says Martin. And I agree with him on this. However, the point of the historical – critical method (rightly used) is not to verify the claims of Scripture or theology. This would be to subsume theology under the standards of modern science. Rather, the historical – critical method is rightly used to shed light upon the original meaning of a text (be it author’s intent or original audience’s understanding).

So the Incarnation’s unverifiability (and resultant unfalsifiability) by the canons of modern scientific study is irrelevant to the validity of the use of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation.

For Origen, by way of contrast, the meaning of the terms employed by the ancient author (or authors, or redactor(s)) is helpful for understanding the original meaning of the text. This is not at all to say that the sensus literalis, was the most important sense for someone like Origen. On the contrary, Martin rightly points out that this is not the case. However, it is a crucial aspect of the full meaning of the text, and it is also first in order of sequence, serving as a foundation for other senses such as the allegorical sense.

Nothing Martin says in this book undermines such an approach.

 

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Advent & Spiritual Sobriety

Why is it that Advent is not merely a time of mirthful exuberance? After all, the event we are anticipating and waiting for – the birth of Jesus – is a happy event.

Advent is, to be sure, a time of joyful expectation, but it is not just that. It is much, much more. It is tinged, it is colored with a certain sense of “Lord, have mercy on me.” Why?

To realize why this is, consider the attitudes of the two main figures which Christians have associated with Advent for the last 1600 years. First, consider John the Baptist, known in the Eastern tradition as “John the Forerunner.”

Was John exuberantly excited about Jesus? I am sure that at one level he was, but the impression we get is that John was also deeply shaken by the coming of this Jesus. He said, “When he comes, I will not even to worthy to relate to him as a slave would to his master: I will not even be worthy to untie his sandals.” He echoed the cataclysmic picture painted by Isaiah, a picture which is breathless in its anticipation of justice and salvation, but which also senses the shaking of the foundations of everything we think we know. When this Messiah comes, he will turn our worlds upside down; he will cut us to the quick.

Profound joy, mixed with deep and sober penitence.

Consider the Virgin Mary. Was Mary excited about the Redeemer of her people whose arrival was imminent? I am sure that at one level she was. But she was also barreled over with penitent humility. “How can these things be? … Here I am, your slave; have your way with me, according to your word.” Sure Mary was prostrate as she uttered these words to St. Gabriel.

Why this sober aspect of Advent? Because, to paraphrase Rowan Williams, when Jesus comes into the world it is unplanned, overwhelming, making a colossal difference. It satisfies out deepest longings, but we don’t know what it will involve, other than risk and pain, along with the restoration.

And so we can respond to Jesus by saying “No, thanks. I prefer my own darkness,” or we can say “Yes, I will take you, along with the risk and the pain.”

Either way, this is sobering if not scary stuff.

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