Posted on: June 15th, 2012 Liturgy & “the Linguistic Turn” of the 20th Century

In his Literary Criticism Terry Eagleton summarizes (as he alone can do) broad swaths of intellectual development by writing:

The hallmark of the “linguistic revolution” of the 20th century from Saussure to Wittgenstein to contemporary literary theory, is the recognition that “meaning” is not something that is simply “expressed” or “reflected” in language: it is actually produced by it.

For several years now I have been preaching that the same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for liturgy and doctrine or belief.

This epiphany, for me a kind of “liturgical turn,” is a preeminent reason why I needed to leave evangelicalism (in my case, conservative Presbyterianism, which certainly thinks that liturgy should express right belief instead of form or produce right belief) and move to a thoroughly liturgical, sacramental tradition.

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Posted on: April 16th, 2012 Jeremy Taylor & Gay Issues

Yesterday in my Christian Formation class at Christ Church I made the case that the Bible is not as clear as I used to think on matters of “homosexuality.” Next week I will argue, however, on the basis of Romans 1 as well as the “narrative arc of Scripture,” in harmony with the consensus of catholic tradition, that same sex practice should not be sanctioned by the Church.

Hence, same sex issues are on my mind & heart today. It is in that context that I read this morning in my personal study time this excerpt from Jeremy Taylor‘s A Sermon on the Marriage Ring:

Nothing can sweeten felicity itself but love. But, when a man dwells in love, then the breasts of his wife are pleasant as the droppings of the hill of Hermon, her eyes are fair as the light of Heaven, she is a fountain sealed, and he can quench his thirst and ease his cares, and lay his sorrows down upon her lap, and can retire home to his sanctuary and refectory and his gardens of sweetness and chaste refreshments. No man can tell, but he that loves his children, how many delicious accents make a man’s heart dance in the pretty conversation of those dear pledges; their childishness, their stammering, their little angers, their innocence, their imperfections, their necessities, are so many emanations of joy and comfort to him that delights in their persons and society.

But he that loves not his wife and children feeds a lioness at home, and broods over a nest of sorrows; and blessing itself cannot make him happy; so that all the commandments of God enjoining a man to “love his wife” are nothing but so many necessities of capacity and joy. She that loves is safe, and he that loves is joyful. Love is a union of all things excellent; it contains in it proportion and satisfaction, and rest and confidence.

Could an analogous sermon be preached at a same sex “wedding?” Hard (for me) to imagine. Perhaps my horizons need to be broadened? I’m open. Skeptical, but open.

I also was reminded this morning that Taylor staunchly resisted the “pro-divorce” views of that Presbyterian Puritan John Milton.

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Posted on: March 19th, 2012 Lent & Learning the Language of Virtue

On Tuesdays at Christ Church during Lent we have been considering “The Virtuous Life: Learning to Love like Jesus,” a series rooted in I Corinthians 13.

In what the speakers have talked about I would venture that much more has been said about “love” than about “virtue.” I would suggest that there are several reasons for this, but one reason is that we think we know a thing or two about love, but when it comes to virtue (that ancient and medieval teaching about character formation) we are (to some extent, anyway) at a loss.

We live in a culture which has totally lost sight of this ancient tradition of virtue. Even in most quarters of the Church today we have basically no clue as to how someone like Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas (or, indeed, someone like St. Paul) would answer the question “How is Christian character actually formed in a person?”

Indeed, even in my senior ethics class at the evangelical seminary I attended to become a minister, the word “virtue” went unmentioned. Instead, the focus was on “What do the Scriptures teach about morality?” Now, that is a good question, but even when one figures that out, one is still left with the question, “OK, but how?”

How can I put God’s Ways into practice? Because sometimes I know the right thing to do, but I don’t do it. And it’s funny how I’ve noticed the same tendency in my children! We are well intentioned, but actually doing the right thing is something totally different.

To take matters a level deeper, the goal of Christian virtue is actually not even about “doing the right thing.” Much more important is the goal and the practice of becoming the right kind of person. The kind of person who can live well in this world and (therefore) in the world to come.

For these reasons and more I am grateful for our Neighborhood Groups at Christ Church where we are intentionally forming communities where virtue can be learned. So much of the work here (to allude to Dallas Willard and his disciple James Bryan Smith, whose book The Good & Beautiful God we are reading in our groups) has to do not only with “switching out our narratives” but also with adopting a new set of practices and disciplines.

Because without new disciplines, there can be no new habits. And without new habits, there can be no new virtue.

NT Wright gives a powerful illustration of virtue in his book After You Believe. On January 15, 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 flew into a large flock of geese, some of which were sucked into the jet engines of the plane, causing it to lose all power and hence to plunge downward toward the densely populated Bronx, New York. Captain Chesley Sullenburger III had less than two minutes to take action which would save the lives of hundreds of people. The problem is that with less than 120 seconds, there is not enough time to consult a pilot manual, to ask advice from your copilot, or even to formulate a plan. Good thing Capt. Sullenburger had formed unbreakable habits during his decades of flying. In less than two minutes he had to flip dozens of switches, disengage the auto pilot feature, get the nose of the plane down for maximum gliding, and perform dozens of other moves which eventually enabled the plane to land safely along the Hudson River, thus saving hundreds of lives.

Not everyone will be put in such a situation, but we are all faced, eventually, with tests of our character. When that time comes, virtuous habits are what God graciously uses to save us, and to save the day.

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Posted on: March 19th, 2012 Gender & Sex: Femininism

First, a couple of notes.

1. One can hear the audio recording of the beginning of this class (most of which is actually a review of the previous class on Ancient Near Eastern Sex Practices & Regulations), here.

2. The reason I chose to talk about feminism in a Christian Formation class: it can serve as a precedent for talking about same sex marriage type issues. That is, feminism is basically a discussion we have already had in our culture. I think that the Church in the main “dropped the ball” in that discussion (mainly simply by not engaging). Not only is it useful to review previous public debates about sex & gender as a precedent, but (particularly when it comes to the “third wave” of feminism) the issues in both “debates” are very similar.

Sex & Gender in Bible, World, & Church

Christ Church Christian Formation Class


Sun, March 18, 2012

The Rev. Matt Boulter

I. First Wave.

  • A. Representative Figure: Dorothy Sayers (Are Women Human?).
  • B. Main cause / agenda: basic recognition that women are not property.
  • C. Example: suffrage.

II. Second Wave.

  • A. Representative Figure: Gloria Steinem.
  • B. Main cause / agenda: Political Organization into a Movement-based “Special Interest Group.” (Note: this might have much to do with the rise of electronic media in the 20th century.)
  • C. Example: the Equal Rights Amendment.

III. Third Wave: Pushing the View that Gender is Constructed.

  • Representative Figure: Judith Butler (Gender Trouble).
  • Main cause / agenda: to promote the view that gender (identity) is constructed socially and linguistically.
  • Example: the rise of widespread acceptance of trans-gender as a viable and healthy “lifestyle choice.”

Q: what is right about this view?

Q: Construction vs. Abstraction and the role of language in culture making.

“Assymetrical Reciprocity?” Discussion.

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Posted on: December 12th, 2011 _The Dharma Bums_ & Marxism

Basic to Marxist thought is “relations of production,” referring to the webs of relationships which people must enter into in order to (re)produce their means of life (survival). The Dharma Bums tries (among many other things) to highlight the possibility of living life outside of this web, outside of these relations of production.

For example, most of the bhikkhus in the book consciously try to minimize their need for income, material possessions, etc., in an effort to avoid dependence upon others for their survival.

Near the end of the book when Ray goes to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest in order to work as a “fire-watchman,” he struggles initially at the need subserviently to submit to the orders of his supervisor at his new job at the “Parks and Wildlife” office. At this point in the story one begins to think that Ray is falling prey to the supposed violence of the relations of production. Not so, however: Ray is not enlisting in this new position out of a slavish need to survive, but rather as an excuse to meditate (as well as an attempted faithfulness to his friend / mentor, Japhy Smith).

At this level, then, one might see the Dharma Bums as providing an alternative to the Marxist insistence on the inevitability of the relations of production. However, upon deeper reflection sees that this is not the case. Most or all of the bhikkhus in the Dharma Bums come from a social / familial background of privilege: all are white and well educated. As Ann Douglas points out in her introduction, all are male. (Indeed, one pervasive criticism against Karouac many of his peers in this cultural milieu is their sexism.) Ray, for one, leans upon his mother & father for various forms of support. Something similar can no doubt be argued for in the case of Japhy.

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Posted on: December 2nd, 2011 PhD App: Intellectual Autobiography (rough draft)

Dear scholarly friends, I would invite your critique and assessment of this, below, as a part of my application to begin PhD studies in the Fall of 2012. Thanks in advance.

Had one asked me in the early 1990’s why I wanted to study philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Texas I probably would have responded (having been raised in a fundamentalist environment but having cut my teeth in high school on CS Lewis) with an answer having to do with wanting defend the truth of the Bible.

At some point, however, during my junior year of college, in the middle of Louis Mackey’s class on Kierkegaard and Derrida, I began to realize that my entire paradigm of truth and reality needed reframing. Up to that point I had assumed (or been taught to think) that “the good guys” where those who, like Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Kant, could be construed as affirming some theory of “absolute truth” … which meant that the “bad guys” were the detractors of absolute truth: those evil “relativists.”

What Mackey’s class showed me is that, in fact, both “absolutism” and “relativism” are human constructs, and, as such, are open to deconstruction. That is, both are susceptible to relativization in light of what Kierkegaard calls the Absolute Paradox. Both are equal and opposite instances of a false dichotomy, what Aristotle calls “contrary propositions within a common genus.” For this (at the time) 21-year old Texan, this was an earth-shattering realization, one which would serve as a “litmus test” for all subsequent philosophical and theological considerations.

My desire to “defend the truth of the Bible,” in other words, overlooked the necessity of interpretation as itself an issue. My stance was too simplistic.

In exposing this false dichotomy Professor Mackey (author of Kierkegaard: a Kind of Poet and Peregrinations of the Word: Essays in Medieval Philosophy) showed me the power of “tertium quid thinking.” As for relativism and absolutism so also for socialism and capitalism, idealism and realism, liberalism and conservatism, etc. In this way Mackey set me up perfectly for the study of both Reformed theology and Radical Orthodoxy, and by the end of his class I knew that was I needed to do next was to study theology.

At Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in the late 1990’s I was immersed in the biblical texts (in Greek and Hebrew) and in the venerable, rigorous tradition of Reformed theology. It was there and then that I began deeply to reflect on the relationship between diachronism and synchronism, between the “messiness” of biblical testimony and systematic theology, between God’s unfolding actions in history and God’s extra-temporal life. I am forever grateful for the Reformed emphasis on covenant as a structuring device for the relationship between God and God’s people. To this day I stand in deep respect of Calvin, while at the same time distancing myself from (historic) Presbyterianism’s affirmation of Augustine’s “soteriology” over his “ecclesiology.” Even at Westminster I was beginning to see that ecclesiology (and therefore liturgy and sacrament) are central.

Both in terms of covenant and ecclesiology I began to discern a certain priority of the corporate over the individual. John Zizioulias and others convinced me that, in fact, there is so such thing as a solitary human individual, but that, rather, we are all persons, by definition structured for relationship and community.

Near the end of my time at Westminster I was introduced to Radical Orthodoxy. Both as a non-fundamentalist critique of secular modernity and as a “non-identical repetition” of ancient and medieval tradition (most notably Augustine and Aquinas), this movement continues to display the necessary resources to move theology into the post-Christendom future, thereby creating the conditions (to invoke Alasdair MacIntyre) for a new Saint Benedict-like culture which could provide a beautiful and compelling alternative to the secular, market-driven nihilism of our disenchanted world.

Most of my grappling with Radical Orthodoxy has occurred in the context of pastoral ministry, thinking about the church’s role in the world we inhabit. I am convinced that what the world needs to see is a community whose life has been made more human by Christ. This involves what Milbank describes as “a more incarnate, more participatory, more aesthetic, more erotic, more socialized, even a more ‘Platonic’ Christianity.”

Over the decade (roughly) since seminary, I have stayed fresh intellectually, not only in an intentional effort to remain viable in light of desired PhD work, but also simply because it is the only way I know to live. I must be reading; I must be learning; I must be dialoging with others. Hence, in the intervening period since my M.Div. I have learned two classical languages (I find that language learning provides one with a certain heuristic insight into all sorts of connections in a way that few other endeavors do). I have studied at an Episcopal seminary as a part of my transition from Presbyterianism into Holy Orders as a Priest. I have read MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Milbank, Hadot, Foucault, Marion, Zizek, Peter Candler, and Judith Butler, along with many others. I have interacted, in person and electronically, with renowned scholars and movement leaders. All along the way, I have blogged, not so much to reach others but for my own cognitive wellbeing. My blog has proven a powerful way for me to process my thoughts, to chronicle my journey, and to interact with others who are grappling with similar issues.

Finally, I must stress my liturgical formation in the catholic tradition, particularly as a priest at the altar. If Catherine Pickstock is correct that, at the end of the day, liturgical language “saves” all human language, then surely the practice of the liturgy is paramount. Serving at the altar, performing the liturgy, celebrating the Eucharist over the last year has habituated my total person in deep and mysterious ways. It has allowed me to participate in the ecstatic life of God not only with my mind but also with my body. Liturgical language is “system” of signs performed in and with our bodies.

If Pierre Hadot is correct that – for an important stream of tradition which weaves its way from the pre-Socratics, through Plato and Aristotle, through Neo-platonism (Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblicus), and finally into the Church (East and West, ancient and medieval) – philosophy is “a way of life,”  then truly to be a philosopher commits one to concrete habits, material practices, and spiritual exercises. This, then, is the philosophico-liturgical life into which I have been called, from which I explore the world, and in which I continue my journey of fides quarens intellectum.

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Posted on: November 17th, 2011 Christian Nation? The Founders on Religion

I highly recommend James Hutson’s book of quotations, The Founders on Religion.

Reading it I realized (or rather, was reminded) that, of the six most influential founders of the US (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington), two were Unitarians (Adams and Jefferson), and one was a deist (James Madison), one was an all-out nonbeliever / non churchgoer (Franklin).

That leaves only two of the six as remotely resembling the historic Christian faith. (Note: of these six, four were Episcopalian!)

Is it any wonder that the landscape of American Christianity (to say nothing of the Episcopal Church!) today is so muddled? The more things change….

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Posted on: November 3rd, 2011 All Saints & The Greatest Pleasure on Earth

My wife (quite the Inklings scholar) reminds me that, while Tolkien wanted the circle of friendship between him, Lewis, and few others to remain small, Lewis wanted it to be large and expansive. It is tempting to want to read Anglican and Roman approaches to church into these postures.

Happy All Saints (the better to celebrate, I offer the following quotation)!

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles [Williams] is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a [specific kind of] joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true friendship is the least jealous of the loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend…. In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in his own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. (The Four Loves)

Perhaps this is why Lewis, in another All Saints quotation, asks “Is any pleasure on earth so great as a circle of Christian friends by a fire?” (Letters of CS Lewis)

Perhaps, too, this is why ++Rowan Williams says that “It takes the whole Church to know the whole truth.”

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Posted on: November 3rd, 2011 Becoming Like Jesus (Renovare & Spiritual Formation)

Note: this article is also on the Epiphany Tyler website.

Do you desire to be more holy? Do you have a longing to be more like Jesus?

My wife Bouquet is from a land locked country (Laos). I myself grew up in the Texas Panhandle, a region about as remote from the life of sea and sailing as I can possibly imagine. Therefore neither my wife nor I have much experience at all in sailing (although the idea of sailing quite intrigues me!).

When Canon John Newton (our Diocesan Canon for Lifelong Spiritual Formation) was at our parish a few weeks ago, he used an excellent analogy to describe the life of the Christian. He likened our spiritual life to sailing on the open sea. No matter how hard the captain of a vessel wishes that the wind would blow, there is absolutely nothing he can do to make it blow. So what does he do? The only thing he can do is to put of the sails, and create the right conditions for wind-propelled motion.

In the same way, Canon Newton reminded us, in our spiritual lives, we cannot force the Holy Spirit to do his work of transformation in our lives, changing us into the likeness of Christ. Rather all we can do is to “put up our sails” and let the Spirit blow. After all, it is the nature of the open sea for the wind to be blowing. It happens naturally, organically.

Now, of all the amazing speakers I heard at our diocesan clergy conference last week, none was more thought provoking, none more deeply encouraging, than Christopher Webb. Chris, the President of Renovare, spoke to us of the “means of grace.” After, all, in our office of Morning Prayer, we read “We bless thee for … the redemption of the world … the means of grace, and the hope of glory.”

What are these “means of grace?” Much like the action of “putting up our sails,” when we practice the means of grace (prayer, bible study, fellowship, worship, and various other disciplines) the wind of God, the breath of God, begins to move in our lives.

Webb clarified: “The means of grace are not disciplines that make us into more holy people. They are disciplines or practices that make our lives as open possible to the grace of God, so that we can stop trying to make ourselves into more holy people, and let God do it instead.”

Such is the deep, rich, practical theology behind spiritual formation. Would you like more of this? I have two invitations for you.

    1. Consider joining a Christ Church neighborhood group in the Spring. In those groups we will be going though the book of one of Chris Webb’s colleagues at Renovare: The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. These books are packed with wisdom and practical steps to make us more like Jesus. When read in community … sit back, and feel the Spirit blow.
    2. Consider attending (and bringing a friend or two!) my Christian Formation class on Sunday, November 13. The title of this event is  “Christian Spiritual Formation: Becoming Apprentices of Jesus – A Conversation with Fr. Matt and Lyle SmithGraybeal, the coordinator of Renovare, on small groups and the theology behindThe Good & Beautiful book series by James Bryan Smith.”


“Becoming Apprentices of Jesus.” This is what we are about at Christ Church, under the leadership of our Bishop and our Rector.

Our Sunday morning classes, our emerging small group ministry, our worship, our prayer, our fellowship … transformative means of grace which allow the Spirit “naturally” to blow through our lives!

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Posted on: October 15th, 2011 Rob Bell on Truth

From Velvet Elvis:

Truth always leads to more truth. Because truth is insight into God, and God is infinite, and God has no boundaries or edges. So truth always has layers and depth and texture. It’s like a pool that you dive into and you start swimming toward the bottom and soon you discover that no matter how hard and fast you swim downward, the pool keeps getting deeper. The bottom will always be out of reach.

Good stuff. To many modern (ie, fundamentalist … both  “conservative-fundamentalist” and “revisionist-fundamentalist) ears, this will be unpalatable. But to those who love the patristic tradition, it is profoundly correct (albeit stated in a contemporary manner).

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Posted on: September 6th, 2011 Prayer: a life-long conversation with God

What follows is the statement of purpose for my Christian Formation class at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Tyler, Texas which will be offered in the Fall of 2011.

A conversation requires two parties, whose roles alternate between speaker and listener.

The firm conviction out of which this Christian Formation class on prayer is based is that prayer, according to Scripture and Tradition, is intended to be a conversation or a dialogue between us and God.

All too often well-meaning Christians today assume that prayer is, by definition, solely a matter of the Christian talking to God instead of talking with God, instead of engaging in a conversation with God. And yet, the Scriptures are clear: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10) implies a listening posture of silence. That God is “a still, small voice” (cf 1 Kings 19:12) suggests that God speaks to his people, but that in order to hear him we must be quiet, refusing to let our own “noise” (literal and otherwise) drown out his voice.

In this class we will be asking the question “What is prayer?” and we will see that there are a great many answers to that question. For example, Sister Benedicta Ward, SLG (Anglican Order of the Sisters of the Love of God) writes that, for the desert fathers, “prayer was not an activity undertaken for a few hours each day; it was a life continually turned toward God.”

Indeed, prayer is so many things. And yet, the core conviction here is that as modern Christians we have lost the art, the practice, the holy discipline and comfort of listening for God. We are too busy, too anxious, too impatient, too distracted. And in the process of all this frenetic activity, we lose the joy of intimacy with the living God who speaks.

What should we do? It was the theoretical vision of John Calvin, and the practical vision of Thomas Cranmer, that all Christians were called to live the life of prayer which, in times past, was restriced to the monastery. That is part of the answer.

For the more of the answer we will listen to the wisdom of contemporary Christian leaders who have been particularly profound in their approach to prayer-as-listening. Among the writers and writings which have influenced me in this regard, and to whom we will be attentive in this class are:

  • Peter Kreeft, Prayer: The Great Conversation and Prayer for Beginners
  • James Finley, Christian Meditation
  • Henri Nouwen, various
  • Thomas Keeting, various

Join us this fall, as we consider how to listen for the voice of God in our daily lives.

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Posted on: August 30th, 2011 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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Posted on: August 25th, 2011 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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Posted on: August 25th, 2011 Grappling with Dallas Willard

I am being provoked over and over by The Divine Conspiracy, even as I (we, at Christ Church) attempt to discern if and how to implement his Renovare-based “Curriculum for Christlikeness” in our congregation. An apt passage from the book:

If I, as a recovering sinner myself, accept Jesus’ good news, I can go to the mass murderer and say, “You can be blessed in the kingdom of the heavens. There is forgiveness that knows no limits.” To the pederast and the perpetrator of incest. To the worshiper of Satan. To those who rob the aged and the weak. To the cheat and the liar, the bloodsucker and the vengeful: Blessed! Blessed! Blessed! As they flee into the arms of The Kingdom Among Us.

These are God’s grubby people. In their midst a Corrie Ten Boom takes the hand of a Nazi who killed her family members. The scene is strictly not of this earth. Any spiritually healthy congregation of believers in Jesus will more or less look like these “brands plucked from the burning.” If the group is totally nice, that is a sure sign that something has gone wrong. For here are the foolish, the weak, lowly, and despised of this world, whom God has chosen to cancel out the humanly great (1 Cor 1:26-31; 6).

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Posted on: July 18th, 2011 Breaking Down the “Gay Issue”

Are you trying to figure out what you think about how to respond to the challenge which our “progressive,” modern, enlightenment culture poses to the church in terms of the gay rights movement?

Here are three (of many) sub-issues which must be studied and mastered. I suggest that when these issues are understood (when it comes to dealing with this issue within the church, not in terms of our secular culture and our modern nation-state) the “gay issue” to some extent dissolves and vanishes.

1. The “buffered self” versus the “porous self.” See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, and also here.

2. The rhetoric of individual, “human rights.” See Milbank’s article “Against Human Rights,” here.

3. The idolatrous, vicious character of market-driven determination of individual preference and identity construction. See William Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed. Cavanaugh is also interviewed by Ken Myers here (much recommended).

Note that all three sub-issues above presuppose, on the “revisionist” side, a commitment to liberal philosophical individualism.

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Posted on: July 13th, 2011 Soul Friends (Belonging before Believing)

I recently reviewed George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism.

The Celtic way of evangelism was all about bringing people into a new kind of community, through such practices as radical hospitality as well as “soul friends” (anamchara). Soul friends would engage the visitor or stranger in “the ministry of conversation,” and involvement in small groups of fellowship. In all these ways and more, the Celtic Christians practiced evangelism in a way which many “postmodern” Christians have come to embrace, that is, in recognition that many times “belonging precedes belief,” that before many people can begin to believe in Jesus, they must feel that they belong to a community of his followers.

This kind of evangelism, based in a ministry of hospitality, is (among other things) what we are doing in the Epiphany Community of Tyler.

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Posted on: July 13th, 2011 Review: The Celtic Way of Evangelism (II)

In the second half of the book Hunter turns his attention to the ways and means of Celtic evangelism, and how such strategies might inform the way the church of the 21st century does evangelism in a western culture which is increasingly “post-Christian” (even here in Tyler … recall the Tyler Rose Marathon which was scheduled last year on a Sunday morning, a civic decision inconceivable a mere decade ago).

Hunter focuses on various ways in which the great Celtic missionaries (specifically Patrick, Columba, Aidan, and Cuthbert) and their communities planted and nurtured the Gospel in their respective pagan mission fields.

First, the Celtic communication of the Gospel took very seriously the ethos of the Gospel communicator (be it St. Patrick or the larger community of Celtic Christians), the pathos of the receiving communities, and the logos of the Gospel message. Patrick himself set the standard for a compelling ethos by providing the “authentic sign” (a phrase coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson) of risking danger and personal loss. Aidan continued this authentic Gospel witness by his lifestyle of selfless giving and his complete disinterestedness in material security. Additionally, the unique pathos of the Celtic people shaped the way Patrick and his followers shaped the Gospel message. The indigenous emotional intensity of the Celtic peoples, as well as their sensual way of approaching life molded the ways in which Patrick and his followers embodied and presented of the truth of Christ, as witnessed in the vibrant poetry and art which flourished in Celtic Christian culture. The logos of the Gospel to the Celts included aspects of biblical truth which would resonate powerfully with the imaginative Celts. For example, the former slave Patrick frequently spoke of how Jesus is the “ransom” price used to “purchase” the freedom of slaves … a different emphasis than the more “Roman” stress upon guilt and innocence.

“I have decided, after long deliberation about the English people … that the idol temples of that race should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them. For if the shrines are well built, it is essential that they be changed from the worship of devils to the service of the true God. When the people see that their shrines are not destroyed they will be able to … [worship] the true God.”

This directive from St. Gregory the Great, sent to his missionaries in Canterbury in the 6th century, captures well (even though written by a “Roman” leader!) a second Celtic aspect of evangelism: the instinct to built upon, rather than to destroy, the religious instincts of the people to whom they were bringing the good news about Jesus Christ. Citing the examples of the Celtic fascination with the number three, their practice of human sacrifice accompanying their obsession with death, of their deep sense of the divine presence within nature Hunter clearly shows how the ancient missionaries to the Celts built upon, rather than simply dismissed, many of the deep seeded drives, desires, and instincts of the Celtic people.

Finally, Hunter imaginatively speculates about the “Celtic future of the Christian movement in the West.” The upshot of this part of the book is that the contemporary church in the West must seek to understand and to befriend “the host of New Barbarians [who] substantially populate the West once again.” As we do that, and as we creatively adapt the ways in which our ancient mothers and fathers incarnated the Gospel to an analogous people in an analogous age, we will, by the grace of God, see “tens of millions risk opening their hearts to the God who understands them.”

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Posted on: July 13th, 2011 Review: The Celtic Way of Evangelism (I)

George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism, published by Abingdon Press in 2000, builds on Thomas Cahill’s provocative How the Irish Saved Civilization, traces the roots of the establishment of the Celtic Church first among the Celts in Ireland by the Romanized Briton St. Patrick; then among the Picts in Scotland by the Celt St. Columba (using the monastic community of Iona as a missionary base); then among the newly arrived Angles and Saxons (think of the Rescript of Honorius, beginning the abandonment of Britain by the Roman military in 410) in now pagan England by St. Aidan (the monastery of Lindisfarne this time serving as the base of missionary operations). Finally, under the leadership of St. Columbanus, the Celtic way of practicing the faith was extended to many corners of the now “barbarianized” continent as well.

Unique features of the Celtic Church, according to Hunter, include the refusal to separate “lay people” and “clergy” for the purposes of doing ministry (resonating with Fr. David’s recent emphasis on the “grassroots origins” of the English Church and by extension of the Celtic Church); the wholistic nature of Celtic monasteries (they were more like cities, teeming with all sorts of economic, cultural, and religious activity, complete with families and children, as opposed to the standard picture of austerity and solitary reverence we get from more “Roman” monasteries); and the evangelistic practice of “belonging before believing.”

It is with this last feature of the Celtic Church (the idea that, both in the ancient world of the pagans as well as in our increasingly post-Christian world of the West, many people must belong to a community of Jesus followers before they are able to believe) that Hunter begins to apply the wisdom of this missionary movement to the (post)modern Western Church in our day.

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Posted on: June 18th, 2011 Rob Bell’s _Love Wins_ in retrospect

So in my effort to review every chapter of Rob Bell’s _Love Wins_ I only succeeded in blogging about four of the chapters (although I did read the whole book).

This effort of mine took place in the context of a discussion group here in Tyler centered on the book, and on the issues raised by the book.

The discussions of this group of friends has enabled me to hit upon a “simplicity on the far side of complexity,” which, in some ways is what this blog is about in its entirety.

I’m not at all sure if believe in the salvation of _individuals_ at all. (Full disclosure: I’m not sure if I even believe in the _existence_ of individuals!)

What I DO believe in (sometimes this is the only thing I believe in) is THE CHURCH of Jesus Christ. The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

I believe that this community of members of the Body of Christ is the New Humanity, and in that sense, which I think is biblical and ancient (though not modern, not secular, and not “scientific”), I am a “universalist” in the sense that it is this “new human race” that God is saving.

I strongly suspect that this is how St. Paul thought;  I am certain that this is how a great many church fathers (Ireneaus, Origen, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa) thought.

I think that Rob Bell is sort of “groping” toward something like this way of thinking, and this is why, on the whole, I really appreciate (and largely agree with) _Love Wins_.

Now, this is actually a radically different worldview from what most people hear about or think about or consider to be “Christian,” but, really, this is where I am coming from, and I think this is rooted in the tradition.

It is from this perspective that I have trouble at times with concepts such as “heaven” and “hell” in the normal way people speak of such things.

If human beings are actually not “individuals” but rather (as John Zizioulas thinks) members of community (that is, without relational community we literally do not exist … exactly like the persons of the Trinity, which I suppose is my “starting point” for all thought) … then it makes no sense to speak of “going to heaven [or hell] when you die.”

Rather, what makes ALL KINDS of sense is to speak of “new creation,” and “new heavens and new earth,” which is actually what the New Testament (along with NT Wright) does in fact speak of, if only people would actually read it.

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Posted on: June 2nd, 2011 Summer Reading (2011)

Books I intend to to read this summer:

1. Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy

2. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

3. Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?

4. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

5. Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church

6. Andrew Davison & Alison Milbank, For the Parish

7. Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith & Fiction

8. Susan Howatch, The Wonder Worker

9. Phillip Blond, Red Tory

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Posted on: June 1st, 2011 Ancient Therapies & Human Suffering

In his Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot writes

In the view of all philosophical schools [Epicureanism, Stoicism, the
Schools of Plato and Aristotle, the Skeptics and the Cynics] mankind’s
principal cause of suffering, disorder, and unconsciousness were the
passions: that is, unregulated desires and exaggerated fears. People are
prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated
by worries. Philosophy thus appears, in the first place, as a
therapeutic of the passions. Each school had its own therapeutic
methods, but all of them linked their therapeutics to a profound
transformation of the individual’s mode of seeing and being. The object
of spiritual exercises is to bring about this transformation. (p 83)

A clear subtext of Hadot’s work is the analogous ways of functioning
between these ancient schools on the one hand, and the church (or
perhaps more specifically, monasteries) on the other.

If these schools were able to provide a measure of therapy to suffering
people through the transformation of their whole persons, how much more
the church, to whom has been given “the Spirit without measure” as
John’s Gospel says.

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Posted on: April 28th, 2011 “They’re just trying to sell you stuff.”

Last night I had some sweet time with my Bella, my seven year old daughter has who perhaps done more for my theology than anyone over the last few years. (See here and here.)

You see, Bella attends a private school locally which, while virtuous is so many ways (not least the truly rigorous education balanced with a good measure of fun and play) is populated with children and teenagers, who, quite frankly (and unlike what is the case at City School, where Bella attended in Austin), are on the upper-most rung of the socio-economic ladder.

Of course this is not all bad. We are unspeakably grateful for the opportunity to send our kids to All Saints, and often times money brings cultural richness. However, it does pose some real challenges.

Recently Bouquet and I have noticed that Bella is getting more pretentious, that her values are shifting a little, in some subtle (or not so subtle) ways.

Last night we spent some wonderful time in the backyard around our outside fire pit (it was cold last night in Tyler!) and talked about things like being rich and being poor, and how some Christians in the past (namely the Puritans) prayed that God would spare them from both extremes.

With that conversation ringing in my mind, I spent some time this morning in Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution.

The passage from Eagleton which really hit me aroused in me the intensity I often feel (I am tempted to use the word “anxiety,” but I believe that Jesus has risen from the dead!) when I think about Bella’s future in this culture of narcissism, nihilism, and non-sustainable consumerism.

It is difficult for me not to think that Bella (to say nothing of her own children) will grow up in the twilight of the western culture and civilization. Such cultural decline in the west is not bad, but it will be painful for many.

And it reminded me of a conversation she and I have had over the last couple of years about television, internet, and other forms of media. She has questioned Bouquet’s and my privleging of PBS over other television networks, including our decision not to purchase a version of cable TV service other than the bare minimum (which, by the way, we purchased for the sole reason of obtaining PBS, not available here without a basic cable package).

When explaining to her my suspicion and aversion to various forms of media and entertainment such as signing up for free videos from, etc., she found one argument particularly compelling:

“They’re just trying to sell you stuff.”

Through email marketing, pop-up ads, irritating and vile commercials … they are just trying to sell you stuff.

I’m so grateful that she found this argument compelling, and it made her question and begin to “see through” the glitz and glamor of Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers. Such attraction is full of illusion and deception, she began faintly to grasp.

Born in 1972, I still find it a rather novel concept that media entertainment is about profits, not art. And yet, this is more and more the case, and this is a part of the larger “narrative” I want to inculcate into my daughter.

If I were to take a month off to develop this narrative one text on which I would rely would be the following quotation from Eagleton, which reminds me that:

– Conservative American culture is frequently naively complicit in supporting some of the very worst tendencies and underlying forces in our culture, forces in which the principalities and the powers are utterly owning us. For example, the assumption that form and content are able to be separated without damaging content (examples: Wal-Mart, megachurches, contemporary music).

– Subtle mistakes at the beginning of the Enlightenment in the west are now rearing their full-grown, ugly heads, with demonic furor. (example: the nation-state is now a merely surveillance organization to promote the untrammeled profitability of global capitalism.)

– This narrative (which one might call post-modern) of resisting worldliness through a recognition of the baselessness of consumerism needs to be developed more and more rigorously families and churches, such that it is foundational to how we think and live. That is, only the church has the resources to withstand and resist the onslaught of late capitalist nihilism which will continue to come down the pike, until, to adapt a phrase from the late Neil Postman, we entertain and consume ourselves to death.

– Bouquet and I need to work hard to develop real, authentic relationships between our family and those who are economically struggling.

… the chief threat to enlightened values today springs not from feng shui, faith healing, postmodern relativism, or religious fundamentalism. As usual, it springs from some of the fruits of Enlightenment itself, which has always been its own worst enemy. The language of Enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy. The economic individualism of the early, enlightened middle classes has now spawned into the vast corporations which trample over group and individual rights, shaping our destinies without the slightest popular accountability. The liberal state, founded among other things to protect individual freedom, has burgeoned in out time into the surveillance state. Scientific rationality and freedom of inquiry have been harnessed to the ends of commercial profit and weapons of war. One vital reason why the United States has declared open-ended war on terror is to ensure a flow of open-ended profits for a large number of its corporations. An enlightened trust in dispassionate reason has declined to the hiring of scholars and experts to disseminate state and corporate propaganda. Freedom of cultural expression has culminated in the schlock, ideological rhetoric, and politically managed news of the profit-driven mass media.

Rational or enlightened self-interest brings in its wake the irrationality of waste, unemployment, obscene inequalities, manipulative advertising, the accumulation of capital for its own sake, and the dependence of whole livelihoods on the random fluctuation of the market. It also brings with it colonialism and imperialism, which scarcely sit easily with enlightened values. Political individualism, intended to safeguard us from the insolence of power, results in a drastic atrophying of social solidarities. The vital Enlightenment project of controlling Nature, which frees us from being the crushed and afflicted victims of our environment, has resulted in the wholesale pollution of the planet. In claiming the world as our own, we find that we have ended up possessing a lump of dead matter. In asserting our free spirits, we have reduced our own bodies to pieces of mechanism. – Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, p 71 – 72.

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Posted on: April 23rd, 2011 Tomorrow: Death (Maundy Thursday Sermon)

John 13:1-15

Maundy Thursday – A

“Tomorrow: Death”

If you knew that you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do?

Would you take the day off from work and be with your children? Would you clear your schedule so that you could be alone with your husband or wife for several hours? IF you are a single person, would you try to make some sort of statement, maybe create some art, paint a picture, of what is most important to you?

In tonight’s story from John 13, Jesus has realized that his hour has come. He realizes that the time has come for his exodus (as Luke’s Gospel puts it), his departure from the world and back to his father.

You see, from the beginning of John’s Gospel John has been telling us that God’s glory would be revealed in the climax of Jesus’ life.

In John 2, for example, right after Jesus turns water into wine (and note that both water & wine re-appear for us tonight, both in our Gospel lesson and in the rituals we perform tonight) his well-intentioned mother wants Jesus to display his glory.

And how does Jesus respond? He looks at his mother and tells her, “My hour has not yet come.”

My hour has not yet come. The hour for my glory, the glory of the Father, to be displayed and lit up for all to see … has not yet come.

This same thing happens again and again in John. People look at Jesus, and they begin to get a little glimpse of his glory, and then the text says, “but his hour had not yet come.”

Chapter 7: “No one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come.”

Chapter 8: “No one could arrest him, because his hour had not yet come.”

But then in chapter 12, right before tonight’s story, something new happens. Out of the blue, some Greeks, some Gentiles, show up and want to hang out with Jesus. Then, right at that moment, Jesus realizes that his hour has finally come.

And so we come to this fateful night. He knows his hour has come. He knows that his entire life and ministry and all the conflict which has been provoked … he knows that it is coming to a head, and he knows it is coming to a head, tomorrow.

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do?

His disciples were expecting a normal Passover meal. They had done this before, and here they were with their rabbi, and they were about to enjoy this annual ritual meal together.

And then Jesus does something completely unexpected. He gets up from the table, disrobes, puts a towel around his waste, and begins to wash their feet.

His disciples are dumbfounded: what is he doing? Not only is this not part of the Passover liturgy, but … um, rabbis don’t do this sort of thing. In fact, not even slaves do this!

In that world, slaves were the absolute bottom rung on the social ladder, but even they were given the dignity, even slaves had rights. It was unlawful for a man to require a slave to wash your feet. That was just too demeaning, too gross, too debasing.

And yet, this is precisely what Jesus does. And for his disciples, it does not compute. His action will not fit into their grid, it will not fit into their categories.

Why not? Why didn’t they get it? Why didn’t they get what Jesus was doing?

Yes, his behavior is unexpected for a Passover meal. Yes, this behavior is bizarre to say the least for a rabbi. And so they were sort of shocked & flabbergasted.

But the scriptures lead us to a deeper reason as well, a deeper reason for their lack of comprehension. In his book Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard John Nuehaus puts it this way:

“To those accustomed to living in a world turned upside down, setting it right cannot but appear to be turning it upside down.”
As Jesus began to perform the most grotesque act they could imagine, it looks like the world is being turned upside down.
But that is because they themselves are living upside down, living in an upside down world.
And so are we. You and I, like them, live in a world where might makes right, where the appearance of success matters most, where weakness and dependence are shunned and excluded and ridiculed.
But Jesus comes, he does this, and he is showing us true reality. He is showing us how things are in his family. He is showing us what life is like with his father and the spirit. He is showing us how to live.
If you knew you were going to die tomorrow night, what would you do?
Tomorrow night, Jesus is going to die.

And what does he do? He humbles himself, he lowers himself, to the level beneath the slave. He gives up his rights. He serves his friends. He serves you and me. He served us to the point of death.

And then he looked at them, he looks at us, and he says, “Go and do likewise.”

Tonight, we will ritually participate in this act of service. Even though it is not nearly as scandalous for us as it was for them, it’s still kind of awkward.

As you do this, join me in ask God to make us humble. Ask God to make you loving.

But more than that, I invite you to do something else. I invite you to thank him for his humility. Thank him for turning the world right side up.

Receive his love for you.

You know why? You can never serve others until you let him serve you. You can never love others until you let him love you.

What would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?

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Posted on: March 30th, 2011 Bell’s Hell (Rob Bell, Love Wins, ch. 3)

In the last chapter Bell’s main accomplishment was to show that heaven is something that starts now.

As for heaven, Bell argues, so also for hell.

First, though, Bell rightly begins with the several biblical words (in both Greek and Hebrew) which get translated or interpreted as “hell.”

He starts out with the Old Testament, and rightly points out that one won’t find much support for the “traditional” understanding of hell in the Old Testament, where, despite the common use of the word sheol (which means “the grave,” though admittedly in a more imaginative sense than we modern people are used to), “what happens after a person dies isn’t very well defined.”

Now, before we turn to the New Testament, it is important to be reminded that the New Testament is every bit as “Hebrew” or “Jewish” as the Old Testament is. Thus, if the OT is not really interested in the state of the human soul after death, then we probably should not expect the NT to be, either.

I  want to develop this point a bit. It is called “reading Scripture with Scripture,” and it allows us to illuminate obscure passages of Scripture with other passages which are more clear. That is, if we are confused or unsure about the meaning of various passages in the NT which seem to talk about hell, then what should we do? We should turn to the OT. We should let the obvious “Jewishness” of the OT shed light upon the (equally, but for us less obviously “Jewish”) NT.

This is what we would ordinarily do if we were reading in the NT about something obscure such as angels, or how to think about one’s enemies, or the relationship between suffering and obedience. In every case, it is tremendously helpful to turn to the OT and seek context and clarity.

However, when we do this with respect to the NT’s portrayal of “hell,” we find nothing in the OT but a reinforcement of the very Jewish understanding of sheol as a highly imaginative version of “the grave.”

What do we find when we turn to the NT? Two main words: Gehenna and Hades (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Sheol). (The exception to this is 2 Peter’s use of Tartarus, a term referring to a mythological abyss.)

Gehenna was the name of the city dump out side Jerusalem. Jesus speaks of it only while rebuking the religious leaders of his day, and never to folks we would ordinarily think of as “sinners.”

When Jesus speaks of Hades, it is in contexts such as Luke 16, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Some notes Bell makes about this parable:

1.     The rich man is a stand-in for Jesus’ hearers, the religious types.

2.     The “hell” which the rich man created was the result of not loving his neighbor, and even in “hell” refusing to serve his neighbor.

3.     Jesus’ mention of “resurrection” (pointing to the resurrection he himself was about to undergo) shows that the meaning of Jesus’ story was “directly related to what he was doing right there in their midst.”

4.     When we interpret hades in this parable in light of the OT (and its use of sheol) one thing we notice is that the rich man is alive in the midst of death. He is dead, but he is also alive. “He is in Hades … but he hasn’t died the kind of death that brings life.” (page 76-77)

The upshot of all this, for Bell, is that Jesus is talking about hell later (that is in the next life), but also about hell now, and that we should “take both seriously.”

Bell goes on (rightly, in my view) to interpret other passages (such as Matt 26 – “those who live by the sword will die by the sword”) as actually referring to the “hell” which would ensue if Israel continued to fight the Roman Empire with the weapons of the latter’s warfare: a hell which did ensue in 70 AD when Rome destroyed Jerusalem (as Bell rightly points out). (page 79ff)

Bell similarly (and rightly) dismisses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as having anything directly to do with Hell.

Then, in his last major point of the chapter, Bell argues the point that, so often in Scripture, the portrayals of God’s judgment so often include offers of restoration. This includes Jer 32; Jer 5; Lam 3; Hos 14; Zeph 2,3,9,10; Isa 47; Hos 6; Joel 3; Amos 9; Nahum 2; Micah 7.

In Isa 19, the prophet announces (in a passage resonant with Ps 87) that “in that day there will be an altar in the heart of Egypt” (Israel’s arch-enemy). “Things won’t be what they seem,” Bell writes. “The people who are opposed to God will worship God. The one who were far away will be brought near. The ones facing condemnation will be restored.”

Bell brilliantly then turns to the NT, reading Scripture with Scripture. He shows how this same dynamic of judgment leading to restoration is seen over and over in Paul, including in the passages in which he talks about people (such as Hymenaus and Alexander in 1 Timothy) “being handed over to Satan” in order that they might be restored.

Paul makes this explicit in 1 Cor 5 where he tells his friends to hand over a certain man to Satan “for the destruction of the sinful nature so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (page 90)

This “day of the Lord” imagery meshes perfectly, Bell suggests, with Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 (known as “The Great Assize”) when Jesus says that the “goats” will be sent into the aion of kalazo, translated by many English versions of the Bible as “eternal punishment,” but which can more accurately be understood as a period of pruning or trimming.

I want to point out two things at this point:

1.     Bell is not (at least not at this point) denying the existence of “hell-in-the-afterlife.”

2.     What he is denying here is that people “go to hell” against their will. That is actually the main point of the chapter, and this is absolutely consistent, for example, with the view of hell that CS Lewis imaginatively portrays in his book The Great Divorce. (And I don’t see an avalanche of controversy raging in the evangelical world about CS Lewis.)

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Posted on: March 24th, 2011 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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