September 30, 2002

Sorry, folks. Writer's block today. Let's see what just sitting in front of the keyboard will bring.

Having finished Curtis Chang's Engaging Unbelief, my seminar in the "doctrine of the world" is now moving on to Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism. This is an extremely influential book in Reformed evangelical circles. It proposes a Calvinist "life-system" that includes all features of life under God's common grace. Kuyper, who served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands, delivered the text as a lecture series at Princeton Seminary in 1898. Only one chapter into the project I can tell that Kuyper's vision is tightly bound up with nineteenth century progressivism and idealism, no small dose of European colonialism, and the Reformed doctrine of predestination. As all of these have been falling out of favor (the last as resurgent Arminianism and ascendant Barthianism eat away at the old Reformed consensus), it will be interesting to see whether theologically diverse evangelical schools that embrace Kuyper's vision experience growing and even intolerable tension. I'm not ready to post yet, since one chapter in is too shallow an exposure, but perhaps I will have something interesting to say as I progress.

I hope Congress doesn't kill Internet radio, because in the radio wasteland of Los Angeles I have resorted for about a month to listening to urban gospel on "Church Beat Radio." My big brother fed me R&B and soul when I was a kid – I was a Prince fan back in 1978 when nobody knew who he was – and my love of black music revived in my years at Duke. Say what you will about the South; it has America's most polite people and the world's best African-American music. Set the radio dial to Foxy 107-104 in Durham, go to sleep to disco on Saturday night, and wake up to gospel. Now that's eschatology.

Anyway, no matter how evangelical I am, I still can't get into white evangelical Christian music (with a few exceptions). But every decade the black Church pumps out more fabulous music. Thank you, Jesus.

Today's Church history lecture was a quick overview of how monasticism preserved the Church's otherness in the Constantinian wilderness, and saved civilization to boot. As faithful heirs of the Lutheran Pietist tradition, we evangelical Protestants are very sympathetic with the healthy strains of monasticism that arose beginning in the third century. My students' eyes lit up as I described communities of disciples who could not be satisfied with Christianity-as-usual and who gave away their possessions, ordered their days around prayer (even when they discovered it was structured prayer) and spiritual warfare, looked after the many poor in their midst rather than saving their own skins, and preserved the hard-won knowledge of a whole culture in the face of an empire's disintegration. They want faith like that. In fact, I think many of them have faith like that, or at least the seeds of it. It's just that no one ever showed them what they were capable of doing with it.

On my way back from class I spotted a Taco Bell sporting a poster for an "Extreme Quesadilla." Egyptian extremism looked like St. Anthony; American extremism looks like extra sour cream. No wonder something in these men and women wants to rise above consumerist Christianity. If churches would just stop competing with pop culture to bore our young people to death and would instead lead them in Christ's path of righteousness, believe me, they would follow.

8:51 PM

September 28, 2002

Here is a beta version of a new article explaining why I am committed to 3G theology.

I always appreciate your comments, especially if they help me improve the article.

6:01 PM

September 27, 2002

In my previous post I should have included a missionary Chang does not: St. Patrick, who translated the good news for Celtic sensibilities and turned Ireland from a nation of terrified human sacrificers into the savior of western civilization in its most precarious moment (according to Thomas Cahill's lovely account).

There are many more such translators of Christ's Kingdom. In their words the light still shines in the darkness. As peoples tremble at the "clash of civilizations" now allegedly underway, hear Cahill's words and consider the possibilities:

Even Augustine, whose synthesis of pagan and Christian attitudes is the most remarkable philosophical creation of Christianity's first five centuries, can come nowhere near Patrick's originality. True, Augustine's theories on sin will haunt the Middle Ages, and cast their shadows still. But from the celebratory spirit of the "Breastplate" will spring the characteristic art and poetry of the western world – the immense symbolic power of the medieval liturgy, the smiling angels of Gothic art, the laughable demons, the sweetness of poets like Francis of Assisi (whose "Canticle of the Sun" could almost be mistaken for a Celtic poem), Dante (who spoke of "the love that moves the sun and the other stars"), and Chaucer (whose "Creatour of every creature" is almost a line from the "Breastplate"). Nor did this spirit die at the close of the Middle Ages. For it remains a continuing tradition in British and Irish poetry that takes us down to the present.... (133)
What riches of the Muslim world lie waiting for liberation and empowerment by the One who offered himself to atone for all others?

Who knows, until someone out there tries as hard as Augustine, Patrick, and Thomas to find out?

12:00 AM

September 26, 2002

As part of a course I am teaching on the Christian "doctrine of the world," I am just completing a terrific book by Curtis Chang, Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine and Aquinas (IVP). It is an accessible introduction to two epic Christian re-narrations of the worlds of non-Christians: Augustine's City of God, which relocates the story of classical Rome in the metanarrative of the earthly and eternal cities, and Thomas' Summa Contra Gentiles, which relocates Islamized Aristotelianism in the metanarrative of God, creation, fall, and reconciliation. Both works were authored in times of crisis – City of God after Alaric's sack of Rome fueled pagan arguments that Christians had ruined the glory of Rome, and Summa Contra Gentiles after Europe's rediscovery of Aristotle introduced powerful evidence of an intellectually vigorous fusion of classical Greek philosophy and ascendant Islamic culture.

In both cases, Christians faced the temptation to disengage the wider world and either retreat into fideism or resort to force. Many did: Constantinian triumphalism had grown over the remarkable decades of the fourth century. Chang reproduces chilling medieval texts that called for military conquest of the "Saracens." Might makes right.

Yet not all disciples of Jesus denied his call. Augustine received a letter from his friend Marcellinus asking for help in responding to pagan attacks. Thomas received a letter from Ramon de Penyaforte, a missionary and fellow Dominican, asking for advice on how to communicate the good news to Muslims. (Dominicans were among the few who regarded Muslims as audiences for Christ's compassion rather than devil-worshippers.) In response, both these theological giants did something rare: They took their opponents seriously.

Perhaps this is because both theologians identified with the Church's opponents in unusual ways. Augustine was trained as a professor of rhetoric and admired the glories of classical Latin culture. Aquinas was a disciple of Albert the Great and a lover of Aristotle. Both were "edgy," "bilingual," comfortable in intellectual terrain that intimidated their fellow Christians.

Augustine is influential for his Platonistically flavored account of sin as the relative lack of good. So he was ready to see pagan Rome as a work of love – only love directed inappropriately at self before neighbor or God, rather than love of God and neighbor before self. The tragedy of Rome was that it craved the love of praise rather than the love of God. Such a view cultivates compassion rather than contempt.

Likewise, the thoroughly Augustinian Thomas was inclined to see both Aristotle and Islam as expressions of humanity's legitimate efforts to know its world, frustrated by the ineffability of divinity rather than the impropriety of the task. It takes an incarnation to make the ineffable effable and introduce the knowledge that philosophers seek for.

There is real love in these projects, and real love in Chang's application of them to the task facing Christians as they navigate a world of postmodern relativism and nihilism. Chang is a campus minister with InterVarsity, working on the campuses of Tufts, MIT, and Harvard. He sees what all of us academics see: Students who are intelligent but decentered by narcissism, hollowed out by consumerism, and passified by relativism. Rather than scorning them as enemies of the God of all creation, he loves them.

It is a blessing to be reading this book as I hear of seven Christian workers executed in Pakistan merely because they served the poor out of love for Jesus. Christian Scripture is not entirely free from an ethic of vengeance (e.g., Ps. 137, Rev. 6:9-11, Rom. 12:20), even though it radically reconstructs texts of vengeance into calls for patience and further mercy. I am not seeing cries of "never forget, never forgive" from Christian commentators; I am seeing mourning and respect for the saints who have just been added to the ever growing rolls of martyrs. Nevertheless, Chang helps me reflect on their murderers, those who scapegoat them (Musharraf is blaming Hindus?!), and the innocent Muslims whose tradition suffers yet another insult as candidates for mercy, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. That attitude alone truly honors the dead who imaged Christ in laying down their lives for a world full of friends.

We edgy Christians need to get to work making the good news intelligible to our persecutors. It is worth remembering that the chief beneficiaries of Augustine's and Thomas' projects were Christians whose worlds grew rather than shrank from their authors' faithful sojourns abroad. The wisdom of missionaries, both physical and intellectual, has much to offer both the wide world and the whole Church.

11:48 AM

September 24, 2002

Tony Woodlief of Sand in the Gears has a delightful new use for search engines:

I have a theory, which is that churches that talk about justice as much as they talk about Jesus have gone dreadfully wrong somewhere. Certainly Jesus preached against injustice, but he wasn't just a social worker in a robe. He had a clearer and more important message, which is the reason he addressed the behavior of slaves and owners, for example, without addressing slavery itself.

The Southern Baptist Convention leads the way here, scoring a very conservative justice (1851 hits) to Jesus (32,019 hits) ratio of 1:17 (Appropriately enough, John 1:17 reads: "For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ"). Unfortunately the SBC, like most conservative church bodies, also exhibits an obsession with some sins at the expense of other, perhaps more pernicious sins. A search for "homosexuality" turned up 1443 hits, "pornography" yielded 770, but "gossip" yielded only 109. Anyone who has spent time in a conservative church can tell you the latter is cancerous, but rarely addressed from the pulpit with the same vituperation reserved for the first two.

Two other church bodies appear to be in fair shape: The Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod – an important distinction) has a justice to Jesus ratio of 1:3.4, while the Presbyterian Church (USA) has a ratio of 1:2.4. Here's a prediction you can hold me too: expect the latter's ratio to decline as it follows the path being forged by the increasingly liberal Episcopal Church.

Speaking of which, the Episcopal Church has a justice to Jesus ratio of 1:1.2. Sadly, this is better than the 1:1.09 ratio of the United Methodist Church. The UMC's new marketing slogan is "Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors." – a beautiful sentiment that tends unfortunately to be uttered only by those without Open Bibles.

Of course, this methodology has limitations. Consider the numbers posted by Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal Church in San Francisco, which yields a justice (40 hits) to Jesus (87 hits) ratio of 1:2.18. This is all well and good – and to be honest, a tad surprising to anyone with a healthy disrespect for San Franciscan theology – until we learn that the topic of a recent sermon at Grace Cathedral was: "What would Jesus do if Jesus recognized that his was a closed mind?"

I haven't read anything else on his page, but I think I may start.

Incidentally, my justice to Jesus ratio is 45:329 files, or 1:7.3. Not too shabby, especially when you consider that the weblog only counts as one hit on each side of the ratio.

(Via someone; can't remember whom.)

10:26 PM

Sunday I posted a comment on Steven Den Beste's prescription that America forcibly reconstruct the Arab world. There I argued that

to each narrative the other is intrinsically threatening. Al Qaeda will not simply go away, nor will it ever be satisfied merely with reclaiming Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Spain. And neither will global democratic capitalism. I haven't read the book, but I've read the title, and this really is Jihad v. McWorld. For either side to plead that it really just wants to be left alone to pursue its own ends without interference is disingenuous. It is in the nature of each side not to leave well enough alone. This is another world war. This is another ideological Thunderdome.
Today reassuring words appear from Jonah Goldberg. He pleads that America is historically unique in being a society that chronically refuses to acquire the empire that it could. We just want to be left alone:

Trust me: It's not the awe-inspiring might of the Arab world's military juggernaut that has kept us from invading and conquering you guys. The only that stopped us is that we didn't want to do it. In fact, I often wonder if the Arab world would rewrite its entire worldview if only it got enough self-esteem to realize that we don't normally spend much time one way or another thinking about Arabs, the crusades, and the rest. We have better things to do.
Back in October, Goldberg's story sounded a little different:

A couple years ago, I argued that various Third World cultures should be smashed (See: "Smashing the Third World" (scroll down)). Predictably, a bunch of know-nothings called me a racist. But, I still believe that. As the fortune cookies say, that which doesn't bend must break. These cultures need to be shattered – through globalization, through trade, and through the justified application of force if necessary – into the modern world. We did it to militaristic Japan, and the Japanese are no less Japanese today for it. But they are democratic and peaceful (perhaps too peaceful). We did not depose the emperor, but we did destroy the culture that made him a threat.
Goldberg is referring to a column he wrote in 1999, back when history had ended:

It is time we stopped making excuses for the backward and fetishizing the stagnant. We need to help these people. If that means smashing a few cultures which are little more than 20th century, Southern Hemisphere versions of Vikings, so be it. How we smash them is the subject of another column.
The nation he was talking about was that vast and mortal enemy of the United States, Sierra Leone.

Now I sympathize with Goldberg's conviction that the "developing" world would be better off with the rule of law, property rights, and relatively free trade. I also realize that "smashing cultures" and remaking them more in America's image is not quite the same thing as classical imperialism. I even believe that the left's antiglobalism is just another form of culture-smashing, one that impoverishes and enslaves rather than enriching and liberating. But the next time I hear about how Americans just want to mind our own business, Goldberg will have helped remind me just what America's business really is.

9:51 PM

Yesterday was exhausting and today I'm finally catching up on inexcusably neglected tasks.

I was ready to skip blogging today too, until I came upon a recent Christianity Today article on new openness to evangelism in Muslim countries. I know some of the sources mentioned in the article, and they're reliable people. This is a big story.

For the uninitiated, some background: While the Church in the southern hemisphere has been exploding in the twentieth century (even while it has been dying in Europe), the so-called "10/40 Window" (these are latitudes) has proven resistant. Muslim countries are historically among the most resistant. Islam understands itself to be an improvement and supersession of Christian faith, and the Quran has built-in polemics against Christians. (That it argues against positions Christians have by and large considered heretical makes little difference.) The imperialistic and culturally western flavor of modern Christian missions to Muslims has proven a further impediment.

If this story is a reliable indicator, then this is changing, and not just because of the 9/11 attacks. Many of the sources indicate that the turnaround began years, even decades before.

This has all sorts of ramifications that should interest a wide audience of readers, not just wannabe missionaries like me:

It indicates what could prove to be a revolution in Muslim expectations. Muslims understand the threat of temptation, and narrate western cultural influence along those lines. Even so, frequently Muslims take the inevitability of world conversion to Islam for granted. History moves from paganism (jahiliyya) to Judaism, Christianity, and other prophetic faiths, then to the faith of Muhammad, the "seal of the prophets." For Muslims to revert to an "earlier" state of enlightenment does not fit the paradigm. Muslims may well experience the same shock that modern secularists have experienced when confronted with popular refusals to "progress" smoothly along the history-of-religions paradigm from animism to polytheism to monotheism to atheism. There are contrary traditions in Islam, for instance a tradition that apostasy will increase as the end nears. If the numbers of newly converted Christians increase, these will get more serious hearings.

If the trend continues, it will be a powerful disconfirmation (or perhaps reversal) of Muslim cultural protectionism and arrogance/insecurity. A society open to changes this sweeping is open to much. I have claimed earlier that societies that silence, punish, banish, and exterminate difference inevitably make themselves poorer and less competitive. (Example: Europe after World War II.) Societies that do not suppress religious dissent are readier to contribute to the global conversation as full partners.

Secularist regimes will be forced to respond to Muslim persecution of Christians in a more serious way. When there are only handfuls of new Christians, it is easy to keep them invisible. When there are thousands or tens of thousands of people who have not yet been conditioned into the passivity of dhimmitude, it is not nearly so easy.

New Christians in these areas will be more culturally Muslim. The missions mentioned in the article are free-church efforts, not old-style Constantinian efforts. Indigenization will create Christian communities that are not simply holdovers from the past or transplants from the west, but new cultural syntheses of the gospel. This is already happening with Christians who call themselves "Muslims" (since a muslim is simply one who has submitted to God). What happened in the Roman Empire and northern Europe and the Americas and Africa and south Asia and southeast Asia and Korea will be happening there too. This is part of the Plan.

Muslims will have to figure out how to handle growing numbers of converts. Kill them for apostasy? Reduce them to dhimmitude? Accept the fact of religious pluralism? Folk traditions, theological traditions, popular sensibilities, and political considerations will almost certainly collide.

Some will find surprising the dream and miracle stories accompanying Muslim conversions, but not I. These are widely reported among both responsible and irresponsible sources, and they fit the pattern for global Christianity, particularly but not exclusively outside the west. (I'm a Pentecostal, remember?)

The trend is young, and small enough that it might be significantly different than the article suggests; and God alone knows where it will lead. Nevertheless – wow.

1:16 PM

September 22, 2002

An interesting debate has sprung up from a post by Steven Den Beste in which he claims that

The existing Arab culture which is the source of this war is a total loss. It must be shattered, annihilated, leaving behind no more traces in the Arab lands than the Samurai left in Japan or the mounted knights left in Europe.
This has ignited all kinds of responses and led to further clarifications about what he meant:

We didn't remake Japan in our own image. What we did was to find people and cultural influences already present in Japan which were more to our liking, and work to let them become the dominant strain in Japanese culture. And despite minor carping about the current Japanese economic difficulties, I consider the result to be a major success, in as much as Japanese militarism has never returned....

The problem in Japan wasn't every single aspect of Japanese culture. It was the influence of the Samurai and their martial tradition. We didn't forbid the Shinto religion. We didn't force everyone to learn English and punish anyone who spoke Japanese. We didn't outlaw the kimono. That kind of thing would have been petty, but worse is that it would have been useless and counterproductive. We didn't do it in Japan and we equally won't do that in the Arab nations.

Den Beste is not advocating cultural genocide. However, he is forthrightly advocating cultural imperialism. This week others have been joining him as hawks have begun to contemplate the scale of the project of defusing militant Islamism. You will not hear this kind of candor coming from politicians, but I suspect the arguments are not new to them.

Den Beste understands this project not to be an old-style "white man's burden" to "civilize the savages." He understands it to be a defensive maneuver. Al Qaeda declared war on the United States, and this is his proposal for how the United States should join the battle. It is not enough even to pull up Al Qaeda by the roots, because Al Qaeda grows in a certain kind of soil. To solve the problem, America must salt the soil.

I think he's probably right. But that's not why I'm pointing it out.

The week after the attacks I contended that Christians were not Al Qaeda's primary targets; the most severe threat to Islamism is global democratic capitalism. This is an all-out battle between two totalizing ideologies. Each pleads "defense" when the other attacks: Bin Laden wants to overturn western incursions in Andalusia, Palestine, and Saudi soil polluted by Americans. Den Beste wants to defend America from further 9/11-style attacks. Yet in both cases, the appeals to defense mask an ulterior offensive agenda. Al Qaeda wants the world to be Muslim (which means submission only to its school of Islam). Global democratic capitalists want democratic capitalism to be global. They want to open markets, create consumers, and train voters. Sure, this desire is partly just greed. But it also arises from a deeply held conviction that it is more humane to be able to choose leaders and to live (and thus buy and sell) freely. (Well, relatively freely.)

Am I arguing moral equivalence? No, no, no. I just want to point out that to each narrative the other is intrinsically threatening. Al Qaeda will not simply go away, nor will it ever be satisfied merely with reclaiming Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Spain. And neither will global democratic capitalism. I haven't read the book, but I've read the title, and this really is Jihad v. McWorld. For either side to plead that it really just wants to be left alone to pursue its own ends without interference is disingenuous. It is in the nature of each side not to leave well enough alone. This is another world war. This is another ideological Thunderdome.

Furthermore, both ideologies are sufficiently self-justified that they will do what needs to be done to win. Islamists commit acts atrocious by historical standards of Islam because of a robust tradition going back at least to Ibn-Taymiyya that these ends justify these means. (Not all ends and all means, but these.) Global democratic capitalism has also justified acts in wartime that violated older convictions – Dresden and Hiroshima being famous examples – because the stakes were so high that "self defense" overrode the prior limits. Those limits may have shrunk back in the following decades, even to the point that they are lower today than they were before World War II. My point is that in a pinch, partisans will find compelling reasons to violate them, because the classical liberal tradition is at its heart a total ideology that sets its own standards. Look again at what Den Beste and others are advocating America do in the Middle East. It is self-consistent and well reasoned. But would it even have been thinkable in conservative-libertarian-leaning circles eighteen months ago?

I have no doubt that global democratic capitalism will win. I think Islamism will be a harder opponent than socialism, because it is an ideology of deeper historical roots and deeper convictions. But this is still a lopsided battle, and victories for Islamism will (as in Iran) in twenty years only be breeding grounds for dissent.

By point here is not to shake my finger at global democratic capitalism. Like all ideologies, it is doing what ideologies naturally do. It is finding self-consistent ways to achieve its ends. My point is to point out that its means and its ends are not Christian. It doesn't just threaten militant Islamists; it threatens Christians too. Indeed, in its several centuries its many benefits and subtle pressures have largely convinced us to mute our witness to the power of the gospel.

I am writing this to renew my warning: For Christians to enlist in this battle threatens – in fact, practically guarantees – further to compromise our identities as Christians. We are a third party here. As disciples of Jesus, we fight other battles, by other means. This is not because we are cowards, but because we wage the only war that brings real peace and freedom to the world. We alone could fight the war that has already been won, and that not from any violence but the blood of the cross. If we fight someone else's war, we give up our own. Like Simon Peter, we take the side of human beings, not of God (Mark 8:33), and thus we become Christ's enemies. We consign the world to its own hopes, which cannot help but fail.

Please don't give in.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak (Eph. 6:10-20).
The peace of Christ be with you this Lord's Day.

10:53 AM

September 21, 2002

Every so often a story appears in which people raise the hope for a "Reformation" or "Martin Luther" in Islam. Here is a recent specimen (via Kathy Shaidle; what must a Roman Catholic make of that thesis?!).

The assumptions behind this wish are many, the wish itself misleading. Consider:

1. The European reformations sought to overturn centuries of accumulated tradition to return to an earlier (and for some, a primitive) Christian vision. Wahhabism and Deobandi Islam are two Islamic parties carrying on such reformations. Bin Laden's school of Wahhabi Islam is close to the very early Kharijite faction which classified all besides themselves as "infidels" and terrorized everyone. The Turkish professor calling for an Islamic Martin Luther should watch what he asks for; he might already have gotten it.

Repeat after me: Bin Laden and his fellow Wahhabis are Muslim reformers.

2. Christianity resisted political alliances between ecclesiastical and civil authorities for three centuries. Even so, Menno Simons and William Penn were extreme exceptions to the Protestant rule of retaining or even strengthening Constantinianism. By contrast, Islam was "Constantinian" from the beginning and became less so over time. A reform inspired by the past will tend to repoliticize Islam, not depoliticize it. (This should be obvious to people who have followed the rise of Islamism.)

3. Europe's Christian reformers inevitably synthesized their favorite earlier era with their own era, coming up with something both old and new. Erasmus was a humanist and a pioneer of biblical criticism. Luther the monk was trained in the via moderna. Calvin the lawyer was a humanist, a fan of the classics (his first book was on Seneca) and at home in the cosmopolitan urban Europe that was emerging.

The rapidly urbanizing postcolonial LDCs are natural places for modernistic religious movements to flourish. Dismissing Wahhabism by calling it a form of modern fundamentalism misses the point that every reform effort is a product of its own age. The tradition quite naturally fuses its vision of primitive political Islam with the enhanced powers of a modern nation-state. Moreover, each religious tradition appropriates the specifics of its age in its own way and according to its own logic. While both liberal and fundamentalist Christianity are modernist, the same dynamics that favor charismatic free-church Christianity in the southern (and northern) hemisphere also favor Wahhabi Islam. Westerners who expect reformed Islam to resemble the innocuous suburban spirituality of Americans are liable to be disappointed.

4. Luther was not the sole reformer of the sixteenth century. His reformation was one of many, unleashing a torrent of differing visions of reform. So many reformers took so many different positions that the continent was in chaos for decades, and arguably remains in chaos today. Besides the major rival visions of Karlstadt (Germany and Switzerland), Zwingli (Switzerland), Calvin (France and Switzerland), and Cranmer and company (England) were many smaller communities, often misleadingly lumped together as "Anabaptists" (Muntzer, Simons, Hutter) and which Luther derisively termed the Schwarmer (the swarm). Likewise, as the old Sunni consensus breaks down, many visions of Islamic reform are emerging.

5. Medieval Catholicism had incorporated the sensitivities of European folk Christianity – relics, the cult of saints, mystics, monastic movements, and settled canon law. Protestants sought to strip these from the pure gospel. Islam has appropriated these folk sensitivities as well, and they have tended to mellow it over the centuries. A strict Muslim reformer would likely be not more but less charitable to the varieties of Islam western liberals favor – folk Islam, sufism, and classical jurisprudence.

6. From the sixteenth century to today, most Christians have been Roman Catholics. Because of a historical window in sixteenth century politics, Luther was protected from Roman power by his prince, Frederick the Wise. This gave Luther the leverage to be more than another John Hus, the fifteenth century reformer whose movement ended in martyrdom. It also locked Luther out of the corridors of Italian power and assured that southern Europe would be politically inhospitable to Lutheranism. Though Protestants like to pretend otherwise, the Protestant reformations were a marginal movement in Christianity.

The reform movements that did capture the Christian center had a very different flavor from the Protestant reformations. They were politically loyal, conservative yet liturgically revisionistic, and evangelistic. (Consider Ignatius Loyala and the Council of Trent. They brought the Church unprecedented papal power, resurgent Catholic missions, and the standardized Latin Mass.) Those who envision Muslim reformers leading Islam in Protestant-like directions are imagining a "Lutheran Pope." Luther couldn't have been a Pope; he would have been deposed. Moreover, Muslims don't even have bishops, let alone a Pope. Leadership doesn't work the same way.

There is a Muslim reform movement well connected to the power centers of the Muslim world: Wahhabism. It controls the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. It has access to tons of money. Like Luther, it knows how to use mass media. It appeals to Arabs, who though only 20% or so of Muslims still occupy Islam's geographic and cultural 'center.' As Catholic reform at the center came to characterize Catholic life worldwide, so from these centers Wahhabism is expanding its reach to Islam's borders: southeast Asia, sub-saharan Africa, Europe, and North America. Wahhabis are more Jesuit than Lutheran.

Wahhabism, the dominant form of 'reformed Islam', by definition does not represent the Muslim 'moderates' any more than Rome represented Lutherans, Calvinists, and Zwinglians. It regards its various rivals – Folk Muslims, high Muslims, liberal Muslims, and Muslim mystics – as either outdated nostalgia for the past or defective agendas for the future, and seeks to defeat them. As it occupies the center, it is in a good position to outmaneuver its divided opponents for some time.

This does not mean that marginal reform movements might arise and survive as Protestants did. It just means they are likely to be marginal. Those who typically call for a Muslim Luther imagine a reformer whose words will sweep the Muslim world, not just carve out a little niche.

7. Reformed Christianity was on balance a good thing (I'm a Protestant, remember?) because Catholic tradition had obscured and distorted the authentic apostolic tradition, and the authentic apostolic tradition is true and good (I'm a Christian, remember?). It does not follow that every religious tradition will improve as it returns to its roots. Many who view all religions as somehow equivalent often assume so; but their argument rests entirely on that breathtakingly sweeping generalization. They are taking for granted the axiom of liberal Western spiritual sentimentality that all religious belief has its origins in a common experience of universal transendence. This is both nonfalsifiable and widely rejected in many of the traditions it tries to describe. (Furthermore, it is conveniently overlooked when it yields suggestions contrary to liberal intuition. Would Mormonism be better returning to polygamy, exclusion of African-Americans from the priesthood, original Books of Mormon, and so on? Some believe so, but they sure aren't liberals; and one doesn't hear Mormon primitivism advocated and repeated uncritically in national newspapers.) Muslims will naturally advocate a return to the heart of Islam as a good thing. If non-Muslims want to make the same claim, they have to build their case on a lot more than the common classification of Islam as a religion.

8. Similarly, the idea that all world religions should follow some sort of transcendent paradigm where after fifteen centuries or so they reach a crisis and reformation is, when you think about it, odd. I first encountered this in The Economist some years ago: Islam is about as old today as Christianity was on the eve of the Reformation, so Islam is due for an overhaul. Huh? Is there some kind of universal religious playbook where every other historical contingency is unimportant?

9. Calls for a Muslim Martin Luther – especially coming from liberals, secularists, and Turkish academics – are more likely calls for a "Muslim" Descartes, Locke, or Hume (which is to say, someone whose modernity is more consistent than his or her Islam). That is a very different proposal. I have already discussed it here and elsewhere.

4:22 PM

September 19, 2002

In class yesterday a student asked a question that is perfect for an FAQ: Were Adam and Eve set up to fail?

UPDATE: A reader's comments prompted me to expand my answer. Thanks!!

1:34 PM

September 18, 2002

A reader likes the old me better:

"Laodicea, U.S.A." ... strikes me as having the most punch of anything you have written (that I have read). It gave a genuine prophetic warning in the only way many can receive prophecy, i.e., without labeling it as prophecy. Months before September 11 you wrote:

They're expecting a love-note from their warm, fuzzy upper-middle class Jesus, and instead they get an angel-gram: "I am about to spit you out of my mouth." ... Revelation is about the coming fall of the Church's greatest enemy: Imperial Rome, code-named 'Babylon.' And Rome looks a lot like America.
You warned about the subtle but powerfully corrupting influence of 'warm' persecution. You declared,
The United Nations is not the beast. When the angel throws Babylon into the sea, and the merchants and investors and politicians weep and wail, they're talking about California!
I take it that you spoke of California (because that's where you live) as representative of the U.S.A. That the wake-up call came on New York instead of California in no way lessens the accuracy of the warning.

Against this background I want to say: now that your faith has been resurrected, take up the trumpet of clear and decisive warning and blow it again in light of the disappointing aftermath of September 11. God has again extended kindness and forbearance to America, but what has been the result so far? Is it not primarily the same as Paul discerned in the Jewish nation that was then headed for judgment?

Or do you show contempt for the richess of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God "will give to each person according to what he has done" (Romans 2:4-6).
This passage came unbidden into my heart this morning. It came with a sense of being solid ground for understanding what our nation and much of the church needs to hear now.

What do you think?

I agree. I appreciate your reading of Romans 2 (so long as it recognizes the distinction between Israel and any other nation, including America). However, it may be better to blow a horn with a different tone than the one I blew back then. Moreover, I may need to warm up and practice first.

That sermon was delivered at a Westmont chapel service concentrating on the worldwide persecution of Christians. Most of the service focused on places like Sudan. We also wanted to highlight more subtle ways that Christians are persecuted here at home. Obviously Christians are not being enslaved, imprisoned, and killed here; the persecution is "warm" persecution rather than "hot" persecution. Nor did we want to wrap ourselves in victimhood; we wanted to be discerning, prepared, and proactive.

(Casual readers should know that there is solid ancient history beneath my analogy between Revelation's Rome/Babylon (the seat of imperial, cultural, and economic power and influence) and today's New York or California. For years I have quipped that Los Angeles is the new Rome. It is in that way that my comments should be taken.)

I don't think September 11 has disproved the message. I still stand by what I said. But the context has changed, and I wouldn't put the message the same way today.

The attacks raised a chorus of voices that I wouldn't want to be confused with. The antipatriotic left advocates other social arrangements as more just than the ones America now has. The patriotic right advocates the politics America has (or had) as more effective in defending and strengthening the country. Both camps have heated up the rhetoric in the last year. Each makes some discrete points that I agree with (though I have long been right of center), but each vision as a whole is a totalizing ideology. Since 9/11 I have tried to be careful to distinguish my Christian politics from either liberal or conservative politics, because since 9/11 liberal and conservative politics have naturally dominated our public discourse. All structures that seek to save the world by sidelining the Church – capitalism, socialism, Islamism – are false gods. All these are persecutors, today even more than when I delivered that sermon.

That day immediately cried out for Christian interpretation, and still does. Here I am with you emphatically: we need to "write what we see" (Rev. 1). But what do we really see? Jerry Falwell's and Pat Robertson's gaffes happened because they opened their mouths before bothering to have a word from God. (We bloggers never, ever do that.) We are so well trained in political discourse that it is easy for us to narrate 9/11 in terms of clashes of civilizations, international relations, military history, domestic politics, and culture wars. But we are (or at least I am) so poorly trained in Christian discourse that it is very difficult to narrate 9/11 in the language of Israel's and the Church's prophets. With such poor preparation and such a lousy track record, we need to be very careful. History only buries false prophets after headline writers are through with them.

September 11 was indeed a wake-up call. However I don't see it as an indicator that God is spitting out lukewarm Christians. It was an indicator that what we sleepy American Christians really want is our red, white, and blue security blanket. In terms of Revelation 1-3, that is more Ephesus or Thyatira or Sardis than Laodicia, more idolatry than apathy:

I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, or I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy.
You're right to find the Church disappointing since 9/11 (link requires registration). We hit the snooze button. I may not have been eloquent about that, but I haven't been quiet.

A last reason my prophesying has become more tearful and less fiery in the last year is that 9/11 stunned me as much as anyone. I was prophesying about a different problem. This one blindsided me, and I'm still struggling to work out what it all means. Perhaps in the meantime I should leave some of the prophesying to the sighted!

My faith's resurrection may be past, but I'm still waiting and praying for its Pentecost.

10:41 AM

September 17, 2002

Saturday morning at 8 a.m. our phone rang.

"Is this Telford Work?"

"Yes." [This was a mistake. Usually I ask, 'Who is calling?']

"Mr. Work, this is ... from ...."

"Look, we have a three-month-old baby and this is my family's one morning to sleep in. I'm not interested. Could you take us off your list, please?"

"What list?"

"Your list. Take us off your list, please."

"What do you mean?"




This was the rudest sales call I can remember. I want to use it to introduce the topic of structural evil.

Structural evil is a favorite category among the Christian left. It refers to ways in which our communities incorporate sin and institutionalize bondage. Slavery is a classic form of structural evil: When an economy is built around the expectation of slavery, owners seem to have no alternative besides practicing it or being forced out of business by competitors.

Where you fight in the culture wars helps determine your favorite forms of structural evil. Liberals like to criticize the banking system, in which share prices force creditors to market usury in the form of credit cards – financial bondage as status symbol. In the tobacco and alcohol industries, the need to create brand loyalty forces businesses to market to children, lest competitors get there first. The military-industrial complex goes without saying. Conservatives prefer to apply the same dynamics to the pornography industry. Nevertheless, these parties at least agree that sin sometimes takes structural form. It is not just a matter of personal surrender to temptation. Sin is a whole world gone wrong.

Walter Wink's work on "principalities and powers" is an extended project in diagnosing structural sin and showing how the reign of Jesus Christ liberates those in its grip. Deliverance is not merely personal freedom from guilt, but social liberation from oppression within the Kingdom of God realized in the community of disciples of Jesus Christ (and perhaps less completely in the wider society, for instance in the abolition of slavery). In a nutshell, deliverance today looks like it did during and immediately after Jesus' career. Check it out. (Disagreeing with Wink's politics is not an excuse to dismiss his argument.)

The woman who woke up my family and ruined my Saturday morning, and who was inexcusably rude on top of it, probably needs that terrible job to feed her family. There are a lot of things she would rather be doing for a living than cold-calling. She probably spends her Saturday mornings getting cussed out. Every call is an echo chamber of frustration. Her boss may well be driving everyone to maximize their response rates, and punishing those who underperform, adding to the pressure. The powers grow and grow.

This does not excuse her rudeness, but it does suggest that courtesy alone is not the real solution, and that people like her need grace. The peace of Jesus Christ defeats all powers and principalities.

I didn't rise to the occasion of offering that grace.

10:05 AM

September 15, 2002

As they say in black churches, "We had Church today."

One week every year our church's junior high ("Power Pack") and high school ("Vertical Reality") groups become our liturgists. This morning they fill our choir stands. There is a lava lamp on the Hammond organ. The backdrop is a banner with "Vertical Reality" in L.A.-style graffiti so thick it practically needs a graphologist to make it out. Sketches done by the junior highers cover the walls of the room, each telling a young witness' testimony to the Good News. Besides the usual guitar, bass, keys, and drums, there's a DJ scratching through the hymns. There are skits and interviews instead of a sermon.

The service starts off with Matt Redman's Holy Moment, which is as good as it gets as a 'procession' in a Church that doesn't have a procession:

Come, come, come

Let us worship God

With our hands held high

And our hearts bowed down

We will run, run, run

Through Your gates O God

With a shout of love

With a shout of love
The whole sanctuary, everyone, is doing sign language for every line, hands in the air, running in place, cupping their hands around their mouths and really shouting the last phrase. You have to see it to know how thrilling it is, how right, to be among hundreds of people running into the New Jerusalem with a cry of love.

The next song is called "Undignified." We shake our fists in the air, first like African-Americans at the '68 Olympics, then like Arsenio Hall with his audience, proclaiming that we are mad for our King of Kings and ready to shed our dignity to show it. King David would have been right there with us (2 Samuel 6). We love our Lord, and in America this is how young people show love. If we can be crazy for the Lakers, we can be crazy for the Author and Perfecter of our faith.

This is defiant worship, apocalyptic worship, a public bath in the light of Christ after (and before) a week's work in the darkness of American youth culture. It acknowledges the stark difference between Church and world that Constantinianism set out centuries ago to negate. But this is not the exercise in defensiveness and withdrawal that many mainline American Christians suppose of evangelical life. It is not one-half of a double-life. It is not an occasion for people who stay below the cultural radar to act differently now that it's safe. These kids are ambassadors, not just survivors. They act like this all the time, or at least want to. They love their lives, their friends, their families, their music, their schools, their futures. They love them like Jesus loves them. They love with the fire of the Holy Spirit.

The morning is an education in the distinction between fantasy and hope.

5:22 PM

What do I think about prophesying in Church (that is, what Pentecostals often call "words of knowledge")?

8:24 AM

September 14, 2002

I think I have finally fixed archiving and a few other formatting issues.

I should have done it in January, but I did not. Now that archiving is working, I can finally shorten the unforgiveable length of this page. (It had grown to over 340KB.)

Alas, this means that other people's links to posts more than 40 days old – that is, before my summer blackout – will no longer work. My apologies. You can find my archives here.

UPDATE: Nope. The path names aren't working right. Arrgghh.

UPDATE: Ahhhhh. Much better. I had not realized that Blogger didn't bother merging archive paths when generating pages. Live and learn.

5:57 PM

I love teaching new courses, because I learn new things. Sometimes the new things I learn are embarrassingly obvious in retrospect.

One of the most important dynamics in early Christianity is its growth rate. From zero (one if you count Mary as the first disciple, gained at the Annunciation), the Jesus movement grew rapidly over three centuries. When it became the official faith of Rome, Christians numbered perhaps one-tenth of the entire population. To quote Keith Hopkins' entertaining and mischievous A World Full of Gods (Plume, 2001), p. 82:

Early Christianity was tiny and scattered. No precise figures survive, but best estimates suggest that there were considerably fewer than ten thousand Christians in 100 CE, and only about two hundred thousand Christians in 200 CE, dispersed among several hundred towns. The late-second-century figure equals only 0.3 percent of the total population of the Roman empire (which was about 60 million). I should emphasize that these figures are guesses, only rough orders of magnitude.
Hopkins guesses that Christians grew at "over 3 percent per year compounded." Through the magic of compound interest, the eighth wonder of the world, this means "two-fifths of adult members would have joined in the previous ten years." That fact is of enormous significance.

A community growing through the rapid acquisition of converts is destined for cultural change. My local church is a case in point. Twelve years ago its members numbered in the hundreds. Then they adopted a congregational strategy of "worship evangelism" aimed at reaching unchurched and especially young people. Today we have over 2,000 regular attenders, most of which are relatively new. It is a happy arrangement: In an extraordinary act of cultural risk-taking, the old-timers put their identity at risk, and today they are a small minority in their own church. In many ways the flood of newcomers changed the character of 'their' Pentecostal church, bringing in Catholic, evangelical, fundamentalist, and other influences. Likewise, in a thousand small acts of trust, the newcomers joined a community in which the leaders (pastor, staff, elders) came from before, and today we have benefitted enormously from their wisdom. While there are of course newcomers in positions of leadership, the proportion quite naturally reflects the newcomers' desire to be more like those whose vision brought us to where we are. We are a hybrid something like the catholic Church of the Roman Empire.

This growth pattern's greatest risk is the loss of its original character. This happens slowly enough that it can go unnoticed until one looks back over many years. Growth among Gentiles fulfilled one pole of the commission – to make disciples of all nations, but impeded the other pole – to incorporate the nations into the commonwealth of Israel (politeia Israel, Eph. 2:12). Polarization, persecution, missionary zeal, and negligence all cost Christians our Jewish character. Even besides the danger this transformation soon posed to Jews, the Hellenization and Romanization of Christian sensibility has been one of the Church's most catastrophic losses. It was not so much a transformation as a deformation, and the whole world has paid the price. (Less catastrophic, but still troubling, would be the loss of my local church's Pentecostal character by the invasion of lots of people like me.)

A community growing through rapid reproduction has a different character. It reproduces as it were asexually. No flood of converts is bringing strange new ideas into its fold. Because it reproduces itself culturally, its challenges are fewer, its risks are smaller, and its stability is surer.

This pattern's greatest risk is maladaptation. Its homogeneity makes itself more vulnerable to isolation from other cultural forces and to the lethargy that isolation lets go unchecked. External forces are easily resisted at first, but when the forces of change become overwhelming, the community can find itself unprepared culturally to face it. When Christian communities grow in this way, they face the further problem of failing to honor the first pole in that missionary dialectic. Rather than making disciples of all peoples, they become a people unto themselves, a "third race" over against others.

Both these growth strategies introduce political challenges. They must find new ways to order themselves effectively. Both continuity and flexibility seem required of an apostolic Church. We are founded on the "sent ones" (apostoloi), and we are sent to Israel and the ends of the earth. The first Christians soon moved beyond the Jewish synagogue model and toward the more comfortably Roman monarchical episcopate. Most Christians still embrace that structure as traditional and even normative, but as a free-church Christian I remain open to further change as new cultural and political challenges loom. It seems natural that American democrats should find ways to order communities congregationally without betraying their apostolic character. Why should a Roman-style hierarchy be best for us? It may not be an accident that American bishops (Catholic, Protestant, and perhaps Orthodox too) like to meet together in councils and agree to say extraordinarily stupid things. The problem may not lie with bishops per se, but with maladaptation or even unsuitability of European episcopal structures in our cultural context. Likewise, as American presidents like to commend democratic capitalistic pluralism for all peoples, so congregationalists like to commend the radical autonomy of free churches on cultures everywhere. Among the results of our efforts are many little 'Christian' movements in newly evangelized countries who have dangerous group dynamics, funky theology, and no accountability. Are they really what the missionaries had in mind?

Now if either congregationalism or episcopacy is the only biblical church structure, then so be it. I don't think so, but many brothers and sisters do. We should all at least be ready to be surprised at how these programs will take root in unfamiliar soil.

A community that does not grow enjoys both political and cultural stability. In some ways it is uniquely suited to retrieving and refreshing the resources that have allowed it to survive to this day. Growing traditions tend to be young traditions, and young people tend to be clueless about the past. Static traditions tend to be older, wiser, more knowledgeable, and more discerning. They become rich in detail and nuance and deep in insight.

Of course, they face the cultural risk of all who do not reproduce much: marginalization and extinction. While they are dominant, all seems well. But once their hegemony is broken by the growth of rivals, their momentum becomes a double-edged sword. Their ways become unfamiliar and incomprehensible to strangers and difficult for newcomers to assimilate. Furthermore, they become hard to find and easy to forget.

It is worth pondering these dynamics when thinking of the decline of European Constantinianism, the innovations of American Christian pluralism, and the rise of third world Pentecostalism. It is also worth pondering them when thinking of Israeli, European, and American Judaism, youthful Arab and Iranian Islam, and so on.

The Church is grounded in truth and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, so competitive advantage and survival value are not governing forces. The good news is not just a meme, and the Great Commission not just a strategy. The story of the Church never reduces to sociology. Yet the Church is sociological, because the Church is a community. We do well to respect the earthiness of the vessels in which God has placed this treasure (2 Cor. 4:7).

As a teacher of Church history (not just history of Christianity), that means I have the responsibility of showing students both what is vessel and what is treasure. Pray that I rise to the challenge, would you?

3:45 PM

On Wednesday, probably after reading 'How September 12 Destroyed My Faith', one of my kind readers wished:

I hope the day went as well for you as could be hoped for, and keep the faith. Seriously.
Thanks, in two ways:

First, thanks for a sentence that shares the remarkable note of sympathy (the word literally means 'fellow-suffering') I sensed throughout the day on campus, on the radio, and on the weblogs. It reminded me of the weeks of kindness in America and throughout the world after the original attacks. Even Wednesday's meetings in London to celebrate and capitalize on the attacks, insults from Canada's prime minister, admonitions never to forgive, and calls to "roll" didn't quench it.

Imagine being Jesus, and being that way all the time. He suffered with us and for us, and suffers still.

That's what he calls us to:

I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church (Col. 1:24).
Second, thanks for your call to keep the faith. Lately I have the sense more of the faith keeping me than the other way around. Carrying me along, as in the classic parable of footprints in the sand.

Some parts of evangelicalism fail to distinguish between "faith" and "the faith." The old technical terms for these two are fides quae creditur, the faith which is believed, and fides qua creditur, the faith by which it is believed. Furthermore, some evangelicals act as if faith is something a believer or a preacher or a spiritual exercise can generate and maintain. Is belief something we can and should create in themselves?

Ever since catholic Christians rejected Pelagianism in the fifth century, the tradition has taught differently: Both the faith and personal faith are gifts. Moderate Augustinians such as Arminians think they can be returned (opened or unopened), while classic Augustinians such as Calvinists and Lutherans think them irresistible, but both agree that sometimes they carry us even when we would rather not carry them.

The story of footprints in the sand gets little respect from sophisticates, but I think it beautifully illustrates the Augustinian insight that sometimes, like a wise and patient parent, God holds his children while they struggle.

When a Pelagian doubts, it seems he or she is falling into a black hole. At some point, an event horizon is crossed, a point of no return, in which the flagging strength of the faith is no match for the growing strength of doubt. He or she tries harder and harder to slow down, and their fellow Christians try harder and harder to help, and everyone grows more and more terrified as the treasured possession slips away. It must be torture. Those who pass that point become ex-Christians, and make new lives for themselves without Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. Finally free from the torture, they feel relieved, free, and even at peace. (At a bookstore I came across and browsed This Dark World by Carolyn Briggs, which gave me that feeling, though I did not read it closely enough to know for sure.)

Among some evangelical students, particularly from the circles that have fallen into the Pelagianism that reigns here in the Land of the Free, I detect an unspoken, terrifying fear: What if all this stuff isn't true? What if I am not strong enough to believe it? What if the faith and my faith are just constructions of our churches and quiet times and study Bibles and worship music? What if we're just fooling themselves? What do we do to stay far enough away from that black hole that it never pulls us in?

That's not a faith I want to keep.

Those who respect God's priority in creating and maintaining the apostolic traditions of Jesus and in raising and supporting adherents to those traditions have it a lot easier. We can resist the Pelagian trivialization of the power of sin (including the sin of doubt) and the pain of death, because we admit that they are beyond our control. For us, the greatest attraction is God, not unbelief. So respecting the gravity of sin only magnifies our hope. The resurrection is real, not a construction. Only Jesus appearing to his disciples and restoring them could have turned them into his Church. The Lord is our shepherd, leaving the ninety-nine to recover the one. Doubt is worrying and painful, but it is not communal or personal torture. We work hard in the Spirit, but we are not consumed by trying. We allow faith to defend us, rather than trying to defend and strengthen and buttress it with our own efforts. The gospel doesn't need a life-support system, and so neither does the Church.

How this dynamic works in other traditions is really beyond me, but I have a feeling it is there. Islam has managed to be both more deterministic and more voluntaristic than catholic Christianity. It accommodates the contradiction by refusing to harmonize two perspectives: tanzih and tashbih, God's unlikeness to the creation and God's likeness to the creation. In one respect, all things are determined byy God alone. Inshallah! In the other respect, human beings share God's freedom, and it is in our power to accept or reject the call to submission. These two autonomies frame the mercy and compassion of God, so that mercy and compassion mean very different things to Muslims than they do to Christians. As the parable of the lost sheep interprets Jesus' Easter greeting, "peace be with you," so they rule the grammar of the Muslim salaam maalekum. This does not seem at all comforting to me, but I am not a Muslim, so I am not all that qualified to judge, and I expect that even in folk Islam the dialectic is nuanced. But I do wonder whether it produces tortures and terrors not unlike those of Christian Pelagians.

One of Augustine's arguments against Pelagius was liturgical. Christian worship services end with a 'benediction', a prayer modeled after prayers like these:

The LORD bless you and keep you: The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace (Num. 6:24-26).

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor. 13:14).

Amen. Sin is powerful, but Christ is its conqueror. The good news comes to us in the Spirit and in power. Nothing can separate us from God's love. Keeping the faith is a matter of the faith keeping me. So I accept your wish gratefully, as a prayer and benediction, and want to return the favor. Keep the faith!

10:54 AM

I egosurfed this morning and found a few listings of people who had renewed links to this page after discovering my return. Many thanks to all. Please feel free to write; it keeps me writing too.

10:47 AM

September 12, 2002

There is an old joke about a Calvinist who falls down the stairs, gets up, and mutters, "Thank goodness that's over."

Thank goodness yesterday is over. We all knew this impossible anniversary was coming, and none of us really knew how to remember the original event. How does one do justice to any one enormous thing that happened that Tuesday, let alone all of them? But we had to try.

This semester I am creating a course in Church history. As the gatekeeper for the class, that makes me a historian. Historians have an unenviable task of helping us remember faithfully. Whether the events they cover are large or small, the challenge is tremendous.

Usually historians are operating in the quiet of a library, in the obscurity of an archive, and in the insularity of an academic guild. Furthermore they are trained for their work. Their efforts are circulated for peer review before publication, so there are opportunities to reconsider, respond, and retreat.

The people of the world had no such luxuries yesterday. We were all amateur historians, speakers at the world's largest memorial service. Reporters, commentators, anchors, callers, preachers, teachers, poets, musicians, parents, friends, bloggers – we all stumbled to find the right words to say to God, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Mistakes were made. I made a few in writing, a few more in class, and many more in my heart. However, at a memorial service grace is the order of the day. Some comments are truly inappropriate, exposing the malevolent hearts of their speakers. These are best ignored, rejected, and censured. Others are cries of pain that deserve sympathy, forgiveness, and quiet correction. (Among these are the "Never forgive, never forget" slogans that peppered several websites. Out of respect, I won't link to them.) A rare few really fit, managing out of rhetorical skill or dumb luck to say what none of us knew how to say. These deserve our thanks.

By happy coincidence, my church history lecture yesterday described the ways the first Christians practiced historiography by the ways they worshipped. Like Jews, whose week and year remembered the indispensible moments of its history, Christians soon undertook to do the seemingly impossible: structuring their lives to help them remember the events that had saved them: Jesus' arrival, his ministry, his suffering, his exaltation, his ascension, and his return. Very quickly and naturally they settled on meeting together on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:2, Acts 20:7), which they renamed "Lord's Day" (Rev. 1:10). Passover, the backdrop of the crucifixion and resurrection, quickly became Pascha (Easter). Other remembrances took centuries to coalesce: new fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, and Lent, Christmas, Epiphany, Advent. The calendar keeps changing as the Church's liturgical historians adjust their remembrances to the needs of the day, penitance for past failures, and the sheer enormity of the events by which God in Christ reconciled the world to himself. It is out of such unavoidable daring and humility that Christian prayers typically end with Psalm 19:14: "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD."

It won't be too long before our cultures learn how to remember September 11. A consensus will develop. Some aspects will come sooner than others, and many details may never be worked out to everyone's satisfaction. I hope we settle this history by fidelity to its events rather than distortion, nostalgia, and forgetfulness. Soon the day will be like Pearl Harbor Day, fine print on a calendar noting a day on which we know what to do.

But not yet. Yesterday was a profoundly awkward day. The efforts themselves were more satisfying than the outcomes. I hope we remember that feeling too, as we struggle to remember everything else. Thank goodness it's over.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And the one who searches human hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom. 8:26-27).
Thank you, everyone. And thank you, Holy Spirit.

10:13 AM

September 10, 2002

This September 11 – what a strange phrase! – I want to offer something a little unconventional:

Instant worldwide exposure precipitated reactions even more shocking than the event itself. September 11 shattered my sensibilities, but September 12 scarred my conscience and destroyed my faith. Many today quite properly are remembering the anniversary of the event. I want to remember the aftermath.

10:09 PM

September 8, 2002

What exactly IS an evangelical?
Something like this.

11:20 PM

I am back from four wonderful, productive days working with a group of Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Methodist theologians. (I represent "the rest.") We are working on something exciting that will be unveiled sometime this year or early 2003.

I came home to another message:

Too often compassion can seem like a finite resource: I give some to my enemy, that means less for my friends. Yet Jesus (among others) has declared that compassion can expand infinitely. That takes a big soul, bigger than mine currently is, I must admit.
Yep. And you are right that practicing compassion is not a zero-sum game.

Yet it is even better than that. Jesus did more than declare infinite compassion. He had it on the world he came to save. This changes everything.

Consider Jesus on the cross. His civil and religious authorities (Sanhedrin, Herod, Pilate) have "eliminated" him. His people have rejected his leadership. His disciples (not just Iscariot and Peter, but all of them) have betrayed, deserted, and denied him. Yet concerning every enemy – that is, everyone – he prays, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). That is not a rhetorical move merely intended to convince the reader that Jesus is a really nice guy. It is a prayer authored by God himself absolving everyone. Its infinite compassion achieves infinite reconciliation.

Ironically, the centurion who proclaims the dead Jesus' innocence (Luke 23:47) could have gone on to proclaim his own.

One of my favorite parables shows how the crucifixion might bestow infinite compassion on hardened souls like me.

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him [fifteen years of a laborer's wages]; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him [a hundred days of wages]; and seizing him by the throat he said, 'Pay what you owe.' So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. ... Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers [torturers!], till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart (Matt. 18:23-35 RSV).
What could I have against another person that exceeds what God has against me? And how could I exhaust the mercy God has lavished upon me? In Christ, compassion depends not on the size of my soul, but only on the size of God's.

Without that resource, my compassion inevitably runs out, and violence only ends at extinction. With it, my compassion channels God's, and violence ends in peace.

11:18 PM

September 5, 2002

I'm off for a weekend of ecumenical ecclesiology at the Center for Theological Inquiry in New Jersey. Blessings!

1:16 PM

September 4, 2002

Thanks so much, readers, for every letter I get. Not only are they truly welcome, but they are very helpful in getting me to post more faithfully.

When I started reading [your blog] a few months ago, I realized it had been an appallingly long time since I'd heard anyone argue in favor of love and compassion. You reminded me that love is not a weakness, not a fuzzy-headed hippie thing, but something powerful and difficult that takes great strength. I hope you're right that there's a love out there that's bigger than ... bruising conservatism or the increasingly curdled secular liberalism I grew up in. And I'm also afraid that you're right. But who wouldn't be?
Amen about love, and very well said. Love takes strength. But that wisdom is reversible. At church Sunday we sang an old song ('old' in my church means it was written in 1992) whose refrain stopped me cold:

We praise your name, stand in awe
Of your never ending love
Love so great
That it covers all my sin and shame
No greater power
There is no greater force in all the earth
Than the strength of his love

I'm with you: I hope that such love is out there. (Not that I'm making this stuff up – Christians properly use the word "hope" as a synonym for confidence, not risk.) Jesus wants us to invest everything in his love, because only his love never fails. That's our only hope. The ancients hedged their bets by worshipping gods of every conceiveable blessing and threat. Nowadays we diversify, insure, regulate, and litigate. The Christian way is to stake the whole freaking thing on the Risen One. You're absolutely right: Who wouldn't be afraid of this being true? Jesus himself was afraid of it on the night before he suffered. It wasn't just his life he was putting utterly in God's hands, but his mission, his legacy, his whole world. Faith denies that anything but the love of Christ can reassure.

Yet nothing is more reassuring than such trust. "Perfect love casts out fear." Having faith is like telling the truth. It's difficult, but not nearly as difficult as lying.

After all, what's the alternative? Nationalism? Individualism? Tribalism? Globalism? Transnational progressivism? Ethical cynicism? Stopgaps, all of them. Tempting after a year of unspeakable evil, but finally void of hope. Hedges against the grave.

Well, Jesus has the keys to that grave. Alive again, he showed himself to disciples and transformed them forever. We don't need no stinking hedges.

At church Sunday our special preacher Jim Denison told us a story from our church's short-term mission to India, in which he met a woman who had grown up in a Muslim polygamist family. A brother grew jealous of her mother because his father favored her, and poisoned the mother. The father sold off that wife's children to someone who offered them a 'job' in the south, which turned out of course to be prostitution. So this girl went to the brothels, got HIV ... and there she met people from a Christian ministry that goes into the brothels to treat the women there as human beings and extend the peace of Jesus Christ. She followed Jesus and somehow found her way out. The story ended with the joy on her face as she dances in church today, working with the people who came to her, reaching out in compassion to the prostitutes and adoring the God who loves her and made her a sister of his Son and fellow citizen of his Kingdom. Someday I hope she can be to her family what Joseph son of Jacob was to his. (And I can't wait to meet her!!)

Now of course India needs the rule of law and transformed family structures and humane property rights and ethical leaders. America needs more of all those things too. And all kinds of people have abusive families, not just Muslims. The point of the story is that there is no greater force in all the earth than the strength of his love. That's why we Christians have better things to do than kill. We wield a greater force.

Boy, did I ever need to hear that story. I know this entry is getting preachy, but I'm preaching to myself. I've been spending too much time reading too much bad news. And there is a lot of bad news. The last year has turned the world into a much colder place, and "curdled secular liberalism" (great phrase, by the way!) is not going to warm it back up. "Bruising conservatism" looks more and more sensible, more and more inevitable. And it's breaking my heart.

It is standard issue theology in many evangelical churches that every disaster promises to become a catalyst for the Church's renewal. (So the information quickly circulated that churches were packed after 9/11. Revival!) But I don't think revival automatically follows from the next few years. If anything, the world looks set for another massive bout of World War I-style disillusionment. The cold logic of our day is tilting the whole world – and me too – toward nationalism and tribalism and all the other hedges, and pushing God's sacrificial love into an awkward corner. It's killing our faith. We're like Peter at Jesus' trial, torn between hard faithfulness and reflexive self-preservation. Or worse, Judas Iscariot, torn between discipleship and Realpolitik.

But following our 'natural' instincts just returns us to the day before Jesus came through town and freed us. It trades the strength of his love for the 'strength' of our self-love. It withholds the real hope from the world that desperately needs it. What so depresses me about the past year is that it has left so many of us free people pining for the fleshpots of Egypt, and so many slaves in heavier chains than ever.

Thank God for churches that still meet together to remember our freedom. Egypt is over there, not here, across baptismal water that only parts for eastward travelers. Love owns us now.


12:05 AM

September 2, 2002

Trying to get back in the habit of blogging regularly, here....

Roman Catholic blogger Joshua Treviño has gone and acted like a Southern Baptist, affirming the Christian mission to Jews.

My $.02: The Christian mission to Jews (a) is intrinsic to the Christian mission to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20) starting as Jesus did with Israel (Acts 1:8), and (b) must not be practiced in the ways it has pretty much been practiced since Christians were expelled from synagogues in the first century.

The Christian tradition richly deserves the increasing criticism it has received for its endemic anti-Judaism. European Christianity in particular has distinguished itself in this respect. Let nothing I say be mistaken as an excuse for that behavior, let alone a justification of it. Furthermore, the legacy of anti-Judaism is so broad and so deep that like modern racism it continues to manifest itself in subtle, even vestigial ways long after it has been formally rejected. Both of these aspects of anti-Judaism are reasons why the Church cannot simply absolve itself of millennia of abuses and return to business as usual. Business as usual is already abusive.

However, to refuse the good news of Jesus Christ to Jesus' own people is to add insult to injury. Jesus is God's agent of refreshing Israel (Acts 3:19). To serve Jesus, Christians must serve the refreshing of Israel.

Paul himself – rabbinic to the core, but long disrespected by Jews – seems to have understood his mission to the nations to be a means of blessing Jerusalem (Rom. 15:31 in context, 1 Cor. 16:1-4, and so on), fulfilling the prophets' promises that the nations would become a blessing to Israel. His followers turned their backs on this vision. They read the Scriptures tendentiously and re-centered the Church on the patriarchates of the Roman Empire as Judea and Samaria were eclipsed after Rome defeated them.

This could be my beginning for a long, sad history that continues to this day. But this is not the time, and others are better historians anyway. My point is to emphasize the intrinsic Jewishness of the apostolic Church, including the Pauline Church. When this is given up, the Church distorts itself. It ceases to be what it is called to be. In fighting Israel, it fights itself. Similarly, in neglecting Israel, it neglects itself.

So fast-forward to the present-day. Israel (here meaning the people, with or without the nation-state) suffers from two main threats: annihilation at the hands of enemies (Europe in the 1900's, Arab states today), and assimilation into the hands of friends (America today).

If Christian mission to Israel is an agent of cultural assimilation, then I think it is wrongly conceived. Both testaments appreciate Israel as distinct among the nations, even when the nations come together under the lordship of Christ, and even on the Last Day (Rev. 7). Christian Israel is still Israel. Other nations need not give up their cultural identities – meaning their families, their stories, and the many distinct ways of life by which they may glorify God –. How much more should the cultural identity of God's chosen people be affirmed! The first Christians were Jews; they worshipped at the Temple, attended the synagogue, kept the Scriptures, and remembered Jesus as David's Son and heir. We goyim are blessed to be numbered along with them, not the other way around.

"Messianic Judaism" is a big step in the right direction, but still it is not exactly what I have in mind here, for this twentieth century movement presently owes too much to the cultural romanticism of Gentile evangelicals. (Many Messianic Jews are in fact Gentiles. They are drawn into the movement from their (quite right) dissatisfaction with the absence of Jewish ways in most traditional churches.) I worry that Messianic appropriation of Jewish traditions approaches incoherence in its eclecticism. Both its Judaism and its Christianity need to go deeper before they will really harmonize. (In my stack of 'to-do' reading is an edited volume of theological conversation between Jews and Christians over Christian doctrines called Christianity in Jewish Terms, published by Westview. I hope that when I read it I will find it points in the right direction.)

Then again, Messianic Judaism is young, and the few Messianic Jews I know are wonderful disciples of Jesus who seek to be faithful both to him and to his people. Messianic congregations are agents of preserving Jewish culture among people with mixed Jewish heritage, who want to keep Israel's traditions even as they worship Israel's savior. As long as they do not become half-way houses transitioning people out of Judaism into mainstream Gentile Christianity, I have great hope for how God will use them in the difficult years ahead as Christianity and Judaism work out new relationships in the wake of the Holocaust, the American cultural matrix, and the perils facing political Israel.

Persecution and assimilation continue to be grave threats to Israel's long-term existence. Christians wanting to reach out to Jews need to do the math: There are 15 million Jews, up to two billion Christians, and two thousand years of blood and tears. Jews have every right to be queasy when they hear us saying "we're from the Church and we're here to help you." Even when we mean well, we are bulls in the china shop. Many Christians are so ignorant of Jewish history and culture that they don't even realize that our love poses almost as grave a threat as hate. For an idea of what I mean, look at the way American culture has been decimating Jewish practices even as it has grown to affirm them. And for a sensitive program of Christian embrace as an alternative to the stable opposites of cultural exclusion and cultural suffocation, see Exclusion and Embrace by my teacher, Miroslav Volf, now at Yale Divinity School. He wrote this while his own Croatian people were suffering under the Serbs, so this is no mere ivory tower exercise.

At minimum, I think Christian missionaries and evangelists to Jews should come disproportionately from peoples who have recently faced cultural annihilation themselves, and if possible from peoples who have recently faced cultural annihilation by 'Christian' colonialists.

Remember, Jewish distinctiveness isn't just some kind of nice multicultural thing. It is part of the Plan. I hope and pray that in fulfillment of the promises to the patriarchs and prophets God will make Christians agents of preserving and refreshing Jesus' literal brothers and sisters. But unless we Christians are very, very careful, we will only continue being agents of harm.

2:41 PM


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