January 31, 2003

I come to know a surprising number of people who can't really believe that God has really forgiven them for what they have done. Their memories of the past haunt them, despite others' assurances. They think the words of forgiveness they keep hearing in Church are hollow, at least when it comes to them.

Why? Perhaps some of them have overwrought consciences, or a double-standard that makes their own trespasses more grave than those of others. Perhaps some just enjoy feeling guilty. Or perhaps they harbor a lingering suspicion that God has just entrapped them into confessing in order to condemn them – that the forgiveness was just an act, that God's goodness is just a cover for God's power.

Joseph's brothers fall into the last category. Ever since reuniting with Joseph, they have apparently been afraid that the mercy he showed them came from nothing more than respect for his father. Once Jacob is dead, they fear that Joseph will finally avenge his honor (Gen. 50:15). So they invent a lie to try to secure the safety they already have (50:16-17).

I have been blessed to be part of a family and a series of communities that has made these worries unthinkable. Reading this chapter makes me shudder to imagine the kind of life that would be ruled by suspicion of my family, my neighbors, my authorities, my business relations, my colleagues, and even my God.

In this world, the appearance of trust is just a cover. Actual trust just brings greater vulnerability. Just because you're not paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you.

Since 9/11 I've been reading about how the Arab world is a "low-trust society" in which this kind of suspicion and duplicity comes naturally. Perhaps that is just propaganda; perhaps not. I know too little about the Arab world to judge. However, I know America well enough, and America is full of little circles of hypocrisy where confession turns into gossip and gossip turns into blackmail. I haven't run into many of them personally, thank God, but I know they're there.

It must be easy in these circles to project human hypocrisy onto God's character – especially when the human hypocrisy is Christian hypocrisy practiced in God's own name. Easy, and wrong. As well as enormously painful to the God who is entirely and infinitely trustworthy.

But God bears even the pain of his disciples' lingering suspicion. Joseph wept at their horrifying display of mental slavery (50:17), as the newly risen Jesus must have cringed at the fear he saw in his disciples' eyes. As he will cringe again someday when we meet him again at his return. But then Joseph reassures them of his forgiveness, not by going along with their pathetic ruse but by appealing to God as the one who intends good rather than evil (50:19-20).

For they, and we, are truly forgiven. Joseph's subsequent actions prove it. So do Jesus'. Forgiveness is not a strategy for them; it is a life (50:21).

Blogging Genesis has been a blast for me. I hope readers haven't found it too tedious. I have just one last scene to show you: Joseph's last words promise a future divine visitation that will bring both him and his brothers and their families out of Egypt (50:24-26).

Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

Shabbat shalom, brothers and sisters.

11:45 AM

Connect the dots:

Then Jacob called his sons, and said, "Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in days to come. ...

"The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler's staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
Binding his foal to the vine
and his ass's colt to the choice vine,
he washes his garments in wine
and his vesture in the blood of grapes;
his eyes shall be red with wine,
and his teeth white with milk" (Gen. 49:1, 10-12).

Jesus was ... the son of Perez, the son of Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham (Luke 3:23, 33-34).

11:07 AM

In Gen. 47, Joseph's shrewd management of scarce food in a severe famine (we would call it "profiteering") gains safety and prosperity for his people in the land of Goshen, and immense power for Pharaoh. Nevertheless he longs to be buried with his fathers in Canaan. The savior of Egypt is still an alien.

This is to say that this immigrant can be trusted, even though his highest loyalty is not to his new home. He harbors no secret plans to overthrow Egypt or turn it into a vassal state.

Through Joseph an entire foreign people is brought into Egypt, and both peoples are blessed – until the prosperity of the Hebrews arouses the suspicion of a new Pharaoh "who did not know Joseph" (Ex. 1:8).

I wonder what Jewish Americans think when they read this parsha in synagogue and consider the ways they have blessed the peoples that have hosted them, only to be repaid with suspicion, ghettoization, and persecution.

I hope they are thinking what Christians should be thinking: Citizenship in another kingdom inevitably makes us 'others' (1 Pet. 1:1). Being 'resident aliens' and 'exiles' (1 Pet. 2:11) does not make us disloyal to the kingdoms of this age (1 Pet. 2:13-17). Nevertheless, the attractions of all the blessings of our lives 'in the Diaspora' must not tempt us to assimilate, for we are a chosen line, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9) which longs for and serves the age that is coming. Our refusal to assimilate will inevitably arouse suspicion and even persecution from people who misunderstand it (1 Pet. 2:12). But if we remain blameless – if we do not yield to the temptations of the blessings and curses of our hosts/captors – we will win both our freedom and their salvation (1 Pet. 2:15-16).

That is an even better promise than a replay of Israel's exodus, for it assures us that Egypt will be saved too! Yet Egypt/the world will be transformed only if Israel/Church stays true to itself and resists the pressures to conform.

If America is to become anything other than it already is, America's Christians will have to remain members of another, holy, nation. We will have to be like Joseph – winning astounding blessings for our hosts and for our own people, enduring the trials and injustices that come our way from both, and always longing for be gathered elsewhere.

Genesis is almost over, and the next book in our sequence is Luke. While it is frustrating to set aside the Torah, it is fitting to turn to the Gospel. For both Torah and Gospel teach us how to train ourselves to meet Joseph's challenge, if we will hear their words and do them.

8:18 AM

January 29, 2003

In many seminaries evangelical students learn something they often miss growing up: The Church's centrality to the work of personal salvation. It is not an easy lesson to learn, but it is a very satisfying one.

I have been having a spirited discussion with some of the more individualistic students in one of my classes over the indispensability of Christian community in Christian life. "Prove it!" one of them challenged – referring to a text I assigned because I thought it had been doing just that, and splendidly.

How do I prove something that's on practically every page of the Bible, but which cultural ideology and hyperprotestant revisionism have made invisible to many of us?

One thing I would like to do is introduce my students to Miriam Adeney, a professor of anthropology at Seattle Pacific University and Regent College who authored an article on Islamic-Christian relations called "Rajah Sulayman Was No Water Buffalo." (That title takes longer to explain than I have.) When I read these words recently, I realized that the American dismissal of church life is basically just disobedience, arrogance, solipsistic pride, sin:

How profoundly Muslim-background believers yearn for inclusion in the people of Christ! They long for brothers and sisters. They ache to be members of that great company of faith that has stretched down through the ages. Aisha came to Christ twelve years ago and has been an active evangelical. Now she is considering becoming a nun. The sisterhood's community attracts her, as well as its order, zeal, and intelligent service. Christians dare not being a gospel of individualism. ...

... When I was in the Muslim region of the Philippines several years ago, a woman evangelist asked me, "Ma'am, should women baptize?" Half-Muslim by birth, Yasmin had spoken widely of her faith in Christ. Now she cared for small congregations in four rural Muslim communities. Where she worked, foreign missionaries rarely were permitted. Few Filipino pastors had the connections, sustained interest, time, money,and courage to come. Year after year, therefore, believers went unbaptized. Their need echoed poignantly when Yasmin stared at me with fiery black eyes that had flashed through many an apologetic debate and, like Jacob wrestling, would not let me go. "Ma'am, should women baptize?"

Half a world away, Saulati, who grew up in a strong Muslim family in East Africa, came to Christ as a graduate student at the University of British Columbia. After she believed, she grew as Christ's disciple. Several of us who knew her asked each other, "Should she be baptized?" But none of us broached the subject. She took the initiative two months before she went home. In a semiprivate ceremony in a church, she was baptized, tears running down her face. Six months after she went home, she was dead. I believe that when she went to her baptism, she was preparing for her death. She hoped it would be many years in the future. Whenever it came, however, she wanted to die as a baptized believer. And she did. Baptism matters.

Tempted to follow Jesus but not to Church? Good luck. There's a reason the Nicene Creed ends this way: "We believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."

If you won't take my word for it, why don't you take Saulati's?

10:39 PM

I'm playing catch-up with the daily readings. A detail that has remained with me is the convoluted back-and-forth Joseph makes his brothers go through on his way to bringing them into Egypt. I should have noticed long ago that by framing Benjamin (Gen. 44), Joseph sets his brothers up to do precisely what they do not do with him: stick up for one of their own for the sake of the father who favors them (Gen. 44:33-34). Only after Judah does so does Joseph end the charade, reveal himself, and forgive them all.

The narrative shows us Joseph weeping, but bravely refuses to say why. Is it for relief at brothers who have finally grown consciences? Is it for dejection at being the brother who wasn't worth saving?

Does the Man of Sorrows feel the same way when his countrymen cry for Barabbas' release (Mark 15:6-15)?

Now risen and exalted, does he feel the same way today when we sinners cut each other slack that we refused to cut him?

One thing we know: Judah's willingness to stand in for Benjamin, innocent or not, is what finally opens the door of reconciliation and safety for all. Are you desperate for God's mercy on you and those you love? Then perhaps the thing to do is show mercy to others – even when it's costly. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Matt. 5:7). The alternative is far costlier: starvation in the land of promise rather than survival in the land of Goshen.

As I am writing these words, God is putting someone on my heart who is just as desperate as Judah and the rest. I've been wondering for days what I can do on his behalf. If this is a clue, I still need more details.

I definitely need to think about this. For his sake, would you pray for clarity?

10:10 PM

January 26, 2003

I'm home from church today with three sick kids while Kim and Daniel go before the Throne to represent the family.

In attending to some overdue e-mails, I've decided to blog an answer to an interesting message from a former student:

Tonight we watched What Dreams May Come – I’m sure you know the content.... We had a discussion afterward based off two questions. First, though, the leader asked for thoughts on the movie. Some people spouted off the usual stuff about heaven and hell not being as, well, extreme as the Christian worldview makes them out to be (heaven’s too boring and hell’s not gory enough).
It has been a long time since I saw the film, so my memories may be inaccurate. As I remember, I thought hell was rather well done, but heaven as a place we construct according to our desires is, by Christian standards, rather hellish too.

Here’s the disturbing part. Some (well, two) people wanted to pull as much good out of the movie as possible – I think to an extreme. They saw it as a portrayal of Christ (or Christy in the movie) coming down into a horrible place to save one he loves. He would sacrifice the goodness of heaven to bring someone out of hell. The question was posed: "Why can’t God be that pinpoint that leads Christy through to be able to redeem his wife?" (The overt reference to God was earlier in the movie ... something like "Where's God in all this?" "He's up there somewhere, shouting down that he loves us, and wondering why we can’t hear him.") Which is the main reason why I don’t see God as a pinpoint, or string, helping Christy along. He (God) had already been discarded.
As had Jesus, in his tomb.

It has been too long since I saw this to make me a responsible commentator, but from what you've reported I could still construct a vision of salvation compatible with orthodox Christianity.

I'll say more of the optimism of those two viewers when you raise the issue again at the end of your note.

The second reason it bothered me was that it implied we can save others – or ourselves. Self-explanatory, I hope, as to why that’s a problem.

Here’s something else – the fact that "all suicides go to hell" in the movie. Problems there as well.

Not to mention the part where, when Christy gets to heaven, his kids show up in the body-forms of people they wanted to be like to please him. (Implication that we are not good enough and we can make ourselves someone else by choice.... God’s work isn’t good enough for us. ...)


And then of course there’s reincarnation. (Hello, Eastern mysticism and Pantheistic Monism ... with a twist. Karma allows you to reincarnate yourselves any way you want.)

As you count up departures from Christian orthodoxy, remember, this is Hollywood we are talking about. Topper, Heaven Can Wait, Ghost ... the whole idea of an afterlife movie is that the protagonists are still protagonists; they can still change course. Otherwise there's not only no hook, there's no plot.

But what’s really profoundly (or profanely, almost) disturbing to me is that Christians can look at a movie that clearly comes from a very skewed worldview (that’s the nice description) and pull out a gospel message. The entire point of the movie was to mock the gospel message. Or perhaps, it was po-mo culture’s critique on the way today’s church shoves heaven this and hell that down the throats of non-believers. That, I think, is the only positive critique of the film. (If we are sending those messages about heaven and hell to the world, how can we change our approach?) But even that is a bit of a stretch.
Well, the main point of the movie is box-office, but that's another discussion. Certainly the film seeks to present a vision of the afterlife that is compelling for at least two hours, preferably more. I don't know that the vision particularly cares about the gospel message or the Church. We Christians need to understand that post-Christian America cares about us a lot less than we would like to think. Before fifty years ago antagonistic philosophers and others did indeed level sharp attacks at the Christian tradition. Nowadays few take the Christian tradition even seriously enough to try to defeat it.

It might seem as if there is an exception to that rule – scary Christian fundamentalism – but I think its opponents subsume that into a generalized category of religious "fundamentalism", "fanaticism", and the like. Antagonists fight the Christian right by fighting their construction of fundamentalism (bigotry, ignorance, lower class culture, mind control, lust for power, etc.) rather than arguing against the actual claims of Christian faith.

This is an attractive strategy because it avoids alienating liberal Christians and frees Christianity's cultural critics from the hard work of actually understanding whom they are talking about.

There are obvious overtones of Platonic, Hindu, and New Age thought throughout the movie, and personally, I thought a better question to ask would be "How can I use this media to help people understand the gospel?" Of course, that sounds sterile and leads to the same problem of shoving stuff down throats ("so this is what I think of the movie – it bashes Christianity and uplifts pagan worldviews" – wouldn't go over too well). Rather, what have I learned about culture through its film, how does it skew the message of Christ, and how can I internalize the message I have learned and portray the gospel correctly for in future encounters?
All good questions. My advice is that you look for both harmony and discord with Christian faith. Fundamentalists (technical term!!) prefer to concentrate on difference, while liberals prefer to concentrate on similarity. Both can appeal to healthy biblical and historical traditions of doing just that. So why don't you look for both?

... what really bothers me is a deep feeling of "something's not sitting right," especially in regard to how Christians can take a non-Christocentric message and try to turn it into one.
When I led a movie series at my church, I noticed the same phenomenon. Christians will endure all kinds of deviations from the good news to pull out a message that is basically friendly.

I can think of several reasons for this, most (but not all) of them bad.

First, Christianity is still getting over Constantinianism. We want to identify vestiges of Christianness in the wider culture that we can read as signs of America's glorious Christian past and/or America's imminent Christian revival. So Christians put up with the horrible theology of, say, Touched by an Angel for years and years. Any artist who invokes "God" is automatically baptized. And so on.

Second, American evangelicalism is increasingly liberal. (This is a technical term, folks, not a label describing party politics.) Schleiermacher, the father of liberal Christianity, speculated that all religious traditions come from different ways of articulating a common prelinguistic experience of dependence upon God. Despite it being both philosophically nonfalsifiable and empirically contraindicated by the fact that people in many rival traditions deny that they are essentially equivalent to their rivals, Schleiermacher's speculation won the day. Evangelicals once opposed liberalism, but Schleiermacher's claim is now widely shared not only by liberals but by the many evangelicals who have absorbed it from the culture or from liberal Christians. From a liberal perspective, 'spirituality' is basically Christian. Features of films that resemble Christianity in any way are read as charitably as possible.

Third, many Christians are simply ignorant of our own tradition. We affirm anything that "feels" Christian as authentically Christian not just because of wishful thinking and experiential expressivism, but because we don't know any better. What we really are is Americans of Christian heritage, like the Israelites of Mosaic heritage who in the reign of Josiah were shocked to discover how far they had wandered from their own faith (cf. 2 Kings 22-23).

Fourth (and this is the good one), we want to affirm what Karl Barth called "parables of the Kingdom" even when they come from outside our own confession. Israel affirmed some central features of Canaanite religion when it used the Canaanite "el" to refer to YHWH, and some central features of pagan Hellenism when it used the Greek "theos" in the same way. There are resemblances between the good news of Jesus Christ and the claims of others. If you don't trust practitioners of interreligious dialogue to confirm that, just ask missionaries. Sometimes these resemblances are so profound that acceptance of the good news becomes more of a modification than a substitution of prior convictions. (Not all the time, but sometimes.) Christians ignore these resemblances at our peril; we don't want to deny what God may have been doing in advance of Christian mission, because that would basically be blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

So there are both responsible and irresponsible reasons for reading these kinds of texts charitably, and both responsible and irresponsible ways to do it.

I'm reading a volume you might find accessible and helpful as you work through these questions: John G. Stackhouse, ed., No Other Gods Before Me? Evangelicals and the Challenge of World Religions (Baker, 2001). Check it out.

Happy Lord's Day.

11:00 AM

January 25, 2003

Gen. 37 chronicles the dreams of Joseph that his family would bow down to him. Joseph's jealous brothers fake his death and sell him into slavery, in which he is brought to Egypt and becomes a ranking court official. In that capacity, we will soon read that he will save his family Israel from terrible famine. When he confronts the brothers who betrayed him, Joseph offers an amazing interpretation: "it was not you who sent me here, but God" (Gen. 45:8).

So is God the author of these 'evils', perhaps even making the oppression and lies not evil after all? Did God make Joseph's brothers sin (or 'sin') against him? The case comes up in a lot of the popular defenses for what I like to call 'Christian fatalism' that I hear around school and church. (Often Christian fatalists confuse their own position for Calvinism; in fact Calvin denies that his theology is fatalistic. But that is another topic for another time.) Joseph would then be a kind of Hebrew Oedipus, at the mercy of fates that conspire against him but for their own inscrutible purposes. The main difference would be that one is a tragedy and the other a comedy. The fates are just plain cruel to Oedipus, while the apparent sins of the sovereign God of Israel are actually acts of mercy.

That common appeal to Joseph's story brings me back to my daily reading in Gen. 37. There Joseph has his dreams and shares them with his family. And what I noticed this week for the first time is that the visions attest merely to his coming exaltation, not to his brothers' sins (37:6-8, 9-11). It is as if only the good stuff comes from God, not the bad stuff.

This is not the same as an Oracle's decree that one shall kill his father and marry his mother. Here God's sovereignty promises good, but it does it without explicitly authorizing evil.

It is true that Joseph's brothers seek to frustrate the prophecy and only end up as means of its fulfillment. It is not true that Joseph's brothers can only fulfill it by trying to frustrate it. Joseph's visions are open to other interpretations. For instance, Egyptian records indicate that Egyptians regularly fed Asiatics in times of famine. An appreciative family could have taken Joseph's sheaf (37:7) as prophetic of his special role in feeding the family, and asked for its interpretation rather than interpreting it as domination and hating him for it (37:8). His family could even have taken the second vision as an invitation to obey the discerning one in their midst. (Joseph, for his part, might have thought about how to deliver them with greater humility.)

Of course, his hearers do not. They interpret God's messages in the most self-serving way they can. Nevertheless, God's special mercy keeps working, finally against their own wills, to bring the dreams' intended blessings. Like parents who teach through punishment what they would prefer to teach through gentleness, God delivers blessings even when their recipients would rather refuse them.

Joseph's story is supposed to remind you of another moment when kinsmen refuse to hear good news of a brother's coming exaltation (Mark 14:53-64), hand the dreamer over to fickle foreigners (Mark 15:1-39), leave him to die (14:66-72 and 15:40-47) ... then encounter him again in the very exaltation they resisted (16:1-8). The original text of Mark ends before we can hear Jesus offer the words of Joseph: "Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life" (Gen. 45:5-7).

Who are you in these stories?

Have you seen such moments in your own life, where God's love has been more powerful than you ever thought possible in turning others' evil toward his good? Friend, that was no oracle manipulating your future. That was God's absurdly generous grace.

Are you in a pit feeling left for dead, or in a prison feeling betrayed and utterly victimized? Well, that's how Jesus would have felt on Holy Saturday, had he any feeling at all. Take heart: if God can turn that around, God can turn anything around.

Are you one of Joseph's brothers, or one of Jesus' wretched disciples? Have you had a hand in his demise? Get ready for a very uncomfortable meeting – and get ready for a very pleasant surprise.

Or are you just an onlooker? Do you keep yourself at a distance? Jacob "keeps the saying in mind" but doesn't do anything about either his brothers' mounting anger or his favored son's arrogance, and this only increases the danger (Gen. 37:11-14). Are you among the crowds or the disciples who watch Jesus die from far away, thrilled or angry or sick at the spectacle? Well, now that he is exalted, you have your chance to be more than an extra in the cast.

I've identified with all of these characters – though least of all with Joseph. I am not much of a victim, and more a perpetrator than a saint. Whoever I am, I am quite a beneficiary. In Christ, I am even granted a share in the humility and the exaltation of the one in whom all these stories find their redemption. The privilege of Joseph's role is now ours to play.

More on Joseph to come. Shabbat shalom.

11:53 AM

January 23, 2003

A while ago Anthony Easton wrote me back. I've been pondering what he told me:

i think that i want to believe or not believe.


i hate the middle.

Me too. We theologians end up in the middle more than you might think. The middle means two stories are warring for your loyalty. When I taught a class on Augustine, the class went from early excitement to sudden shock when we encountered book 10 of the Confessions, where after Augustine's triumphant journey into Christian faith he expressed worries about his own perseverance.

As I've said earlier, when I'm in the middle (or worse) I have stopped trying to carry myself back to belief. It doesn't work. Not for long, anyway. But I have started seeking what I would need to have my faith restored, in case God is providing it. I don't just wait for God to come into my head to make the case, because that might be asking for more than God gives. I do go out and look for where God may have come and made the case. "Seek and you will find" then means "seek and you will find what God has already put there."

So here are some places you might want to visit, Anthony.

Are you in the middle on the resurrection? Why don't you investigate it? This is where it all stands or falls. If this is legitimate, then the question shifts to whether you want to follow the God who is there, not whether God is anywhere to follow. If the resurrection isn't legitimate, then (God or no God) following Jesus is a pitiable waste of time.

Are you in the middle on the career of Jesus that led to his death and resurrection, and the career that follows it? Jesus' resurrection is like a moment of crystal clarity on everything that precedes and follows it (and vice versa). It's the page that makes sense of the whole epic. Where are you not only on that page, but on the whole epic? For good reading when you're in the middle, I recommend the work of E.P. Sanders (a historicist not inclined to take the biblical writings as inspired), N.T. Wright (a historically investigative churchman), and Living Jesus by Luke Timothy Johnson (a New Testament scholar who unpacks the ramifications of the resurrection on Jesus' present, not just his past).

Are you still in the middle on the God who authored this career and invites you to share in its benefits? Here I recommend the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg, Walter Kasper, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar ... if you get this far, ask me and I'll give you specifics.

Then – and here the place you need to search is your own conscience – are you still in the middle on accepting God's invitation? I know people for whom the resurrection and its significance are intellectual realities, but who would rather sit on the fence than allow themselves to be moved and changed by God's love for them and those they love.

At every step, even the last, others can help. Stay in church. Stay in fellowship. My family prays for you and, while I can be inexcusably late in getting back to your messages, I'm happy to keep counseling.

If you would rather not believe, I have suggestions for things you can do to weaken your faith, but I am not at all convinced that you can kill something God wants to keep alive.

On the other hand, the pomo stuff you've gotten into is tailor made to keep you in the middle. If you want some better philosophy, I have recommendations there too. Mainly Austin, Wittgenstein, and some of their better interpreters.

Blessings, brother.

8:20 AM

January 22, 2003

Last night a colleague and I led a discussion over Christian responses to war. Here are two meditations arising from our exchange:

First, one of the most energizing qualities of this discussion was that my colleague comes out of hippie culture and I come out of conservative Republican culture. In Christ we are one, even though politically we're still miles apart. As I told her afterwards, this must have been how Levi the tax collector and Simon the Zealot felt, staring at each other incredulously as they sat at the same table. I love this faith!

At any rate, my colleague prefers to narrate the situation in terms of 'root causes' (e.g., American injustices in the Middle East that drive anti-Americanism) while I prefer to narrate the situation in terms of the present (e.g., Iraqi refusals to abide in good faith by the terms of the UN resolutions at the end of Gulf War I). Both of us accept John Howard Yoder's criticism of just-war theory that what is defensive or offensive, just or unjust, depends in part on how far back the chain of causation one wishes to go. And both logically stable opposites – the infinite regress of root causes and the zero regress of current actions – are liable to abuse. Infinite regress leads to ethical paralysis, while zero regress leads to opportunistic aggression. Every parent of small children knows these logics well.

So is there a statute of limitations on injustice? And if so, what is it?

After our discussion a rule came to my mind:

"I YHWH your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands [of generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Deut. 5:9-10, in the midst of Moses' performance of the Ten Commandments).
I'm still toying with the idea that divine justice limits 'root causes' in this way, but it makes sense to me. Responsibility dwindles over time, but not so quickly to reward opportunistic aggression, and not so slowly to cycle violence indefinitely or permit grudges that endure. Children inherit the consequences of their parents' hatred (that is, their disobedience); it is up to them whether to continue the cycle and pass the curse on to the third generation, or extinguish it in the repentance and reconciliation that begins a new and potentially endless cycle of blessing.

The 4G rule has the advantage, and not just in its original patriarchal culture, of discouraging disobedience on the grounds that the perpetrator is not the only sufferer, but those most dear to him or her; indeed, those who hold in their hands the perpetrator's memory. My children do suffer from my folly; and so my remembrance suffers as well. Yet, even apart from anyone's repentance, the curse is limited – and in a way that the blessings of obedience are not.

Restitution for segregation respects the 4G rule, but not reparations for slavery. Demands that the United States end the terrible conditions on Native American reservations respect the 4G rule, but not demands that the U.S. somehow atone for the colonization of the Americas. Dressing the fresher wounds throughout the postcolonial Middle East respects the 4G rule, but not campaigns that dredge up the original Muslim conquests, the Crusades, the fall of Andalucia in 1492, or European colonialism as pretexts for either compensatory wars, action against militant Islamism and Arab fascism, or inaction.

Second, I have been pondering the role of a responsible Christian voice in this conflict. For over a year my position has been that Christians can act prophetically (but always according to the Kingdom, e.g., nonviolently) to prod civil authorities into keeping their violence just. Now I want to get more specific than that.

Recent American history features many episodes in which America acted in ways we have come to be proud of, and many episodes in which America did not. Forty-some years ago, the civil rights movement changed America's course. Today a lot more people want to 'own' that movement retroactively than did at the time. Those who oppose it are reduced to code words and backroom mutterings. By and large, America is ashamed of her racist past and proud of the prophet whose birthday we just celebrated. Sixty-some years ago, the internment of Japanese Americans was considered militarily necessary. Today, the country is ashamed of that policy and no one wants to own it. Both forms of life were unjust and injurious not just to those who suffered directly from them; they injured all Americans and continue to haunt us today.

A church that knows the character of God's justice and is well trained in exercising its Spirit-given faculty of discernment is in a unique position to see injustice and call civil authorities to account prophetically. If its voice is heeded, the regime is saved from taking a course it would later regret. That is what the Church should do: train itself to see the justice of God and call attention to actions that fall short of it, so that neither it nor its neighbors, strangers, nor civil authorities do things they will come to regret.

Of course a host culture not so well acquainted with God's justice – perhaps hardly acquainted with it at all – will probably not appreciate that call at the time it is delivered. Until the Church gains the trust of outsiders, its calls will go unheeded, mocked, even punished. But if the Church's discernment functions properly and its prophetic voices do not lose their nerve (and I admit that in the Church's present state of disrepair, this is a big 'if'), then over time we will win over the trust of those for whom we alone seem able to interpret the times – as prophets in the Scriptures once won over the kings who controlled their precarious existences and thereby blessed their reigns.

After all, someday the kings of the earth will be held accountable for what they have done with their God-given authority, and then they too will wish the real prophets had spoken up and shown these things to them.

A long time ago in this weblog, I responded to a writer's objection that Christian pacifism 'free-rides' on the blood of American warriors with the hope that America could come to see its peace churches as blessings that are worth the trouble, rather than as free-riders that must be endured as the price of religious freedom. I want non-Christians to find themselves thankful for us – thankful even, somehow, to a God they had not before realized was there. Thankful as Nebuchadnezzar found himself thankful for Daniel and reverential to Daniel's god for performing a service no one else could (Daniel 2:46-49).

This is easier said than done. Both American triumphalism and sixties anti-Americanism have so infected the Church that our prophecies are usually just false. So I don't think this is a goal that can be realized without great effort. We have to train and discipline our gifts in ways we have refused to do. Until then, we are just the babbling (and free-riding!) court magicians that make Nebuchadnezzar so cynical and furious (Daniel 2:1-16). Those who have had to put up with our prattling are quite rightly ready to slay us along with the rest of the 'wise men of Babylon'. If they do, we will have only have ourselves to blame, for squandering the gifts we actually do have and being complacent in the face of their blindness.

What good are we to them? God advised Israel to ignore false prophesies and silence their authors (Deut. 18). That would be a great start.

Yet what good could we be to them, if we did what God has gifted us alone to do? For one thing, we might find ourselves taken seriously again.

The king said to Daniel, "Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery." Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon (Daniel 2:47-48).

4:18 PM

A whole week between entries, and it's not even the end of the semester. My heart is not in this right now. My apologies.

Gen. 34 is the story of the rape of Dinah. Ugh. From beginning to end, everything is awful. Dinah, victim throughout, never even gets a word in. Shechem suddenly discovers "love" for the woman he has just raped and permanently shamed (2-3). His father Hamor sells their marriage to the Israelites and to his countrymen by appealing to the greed of each (9-12, 23). Jacob's sons – fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel – are vengeful liars who use God's covenantal signs (13-17) as pretexts for atrocity (25-26) and pillage (27-29). Never mind that the deal was now Dinah's best shot at a decent life; their honor trumped everything (31). And Jacob's main complaint is that they have brought trouble on him (30).

What a world. Where are you in this tale, God?

Ahh, there you are. A suffering servant.

Bless you, Dinah, for you will be comforted.

Maybe this story's greatest honor to Dinah is the writer leaving her speechless. It lets me hear her silent while the men plot and capitalize on her distress and decide it's all about them, or imagine her uttering the Victor's seven words at the cross rather than the bitter rage or desperate pleading of a victim.

What can you teach our church, Dinah?

(By the way, Jonathan Kirsch's The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible has a wonderful chapter on this horrifying story.)

2:52 PM

January 15, 2003

Yes, I have e-mails to answer, and online dialogues to jump into. But the daily Bible reading is now a priority. I need it.

Today's reading, Gen. 26, is a bizarre deja vu of the passage from Gen. 21. Abimelech and Phicol are there again, negotiating with the Chosen People and digging the well of Beersheba. But this time Isaac is the protagonist, not Abraham. There are significant differences, but the similarities are so obvious that the chapter feels like a plagiarized paper or a modernization of a Shakespeare play. (At first I thought of Return to Gilligan's Island or A Very Brady Christmas, but I like my job.)

Since at least the twelfth century astute readers have noted that these doublets, along with awkward narrative transitions and differences in language, suggest that the Genesis (and even the whole Torah) is an edited work rather than the work of Moses' hand. For decades a whole industry has dedicated itself to refining what is now known as the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis (or Documentary Hypothesis), and building whole historiographies out of its tenuous axioms. More power to them. It's not easy to get a job in biblical studies these days. I'm just thankful that my own Old Testament teacher at Fuller Seminary, Fred Bush, gave this topic the seven minutes of lecture time it deserves, then went on to discuss the Pentateuch as a whole. (After all, it is Torah that is read in synagogues and churches, not J, E, D, and P.)

Anyway, redaction criticism is not what really caught my attention. In Gen. 26 the spin is definitely more generous to Isaac, and more antagonistic to Philistines. The story reads like, well, a pro-Jewish chronicle of the twentieth century Middle East:

When a famine tempts Isaac to go to Egypt to survive, YHWH promises blessings if he sticks with the land of promise (26:1-5). But the course is treacherous. Isaac fears envious suitors will kill him to marry the beautiful Rebekah (6-7).
(The practice outlives antiquity, by the way.) Isaac lies to protect himself, and providentally gains the protection he seeks by being found out and thereby winning respect (8-11). In the midst of the famine, Isaac reaps a bumper crop and grows wealthy, arousing the envy of the Palestinians Philistines (12-14). So the Philistines sabotage Isaac's economy, stopping up the wells that Abraham's servants had dug, and ultimately forcing Isaac's house to leave (15-16).

Isaac withdraws to an emptier spot and renews the wells of Abraham. Yet whenever he discovers water, the Philistines claim it as their own (17-21). Finally he moves again and finds undisputed water in a spacious land (22).

God then reiterates the promise that introduced this troublesome chapter (23-24, cf. 2-5). After all the harrassment, it must have been very good to hear. In response Isaac builds an altar at Beersheba, camps, and begins digging the well (25). It is a new morning in Palestine.

Then the Philistines approach again (26-27). Here we go again, Isaac must be thinking: another dispute, another exile, another move. If we fail, we die. If we succeed, we only attract attention, arouse envy and ire, and force a new retreat. Even blessings become a curse. What are we supposed to do, Abimelech? Will you ever be happy until you push us into the sea?

But the Philistines have apparently finally learned their lesson. They want peace. "We now see plainly that YHWH has been with you." Time for a treaty "that you will not do us harm, just as we have not molested you but have always dealt kindly with you and sent you away in peace. From now on, be you blessed of YHWH" (28-29)!

How hard it must be to listen to all that bluster, all that face-saving historical revision from your own oppressors, and then to have them cap it off with their own invocation of your God's blessing. But behind the hot air is cold reality: God is with Isaac, and opposing him is just an exercise in self-destruction. So Isaac lets the Philistines delude themselves with diplomatic niceties, accepts their offer, and makes them a feast (30-31). (Naturally, he is the one stuck with the bill.) That very day the water is struck, and the well is named "well of the oath", Beersheba, in commemoration (and perhaps to make the deal harder for the Philistines to forget, which they will anyway).

Stop the narrative after verse 21, and as an (admittedly tendentious) account of the history of Zionist Judaism, it's not bad.

Now those who narrate the conflict in a way more sympathetic of the Arab cause will naturally be furious with the parallel, and with some justification. There are other chapters that are less kind to Isaac, and a complicated backstory that supports at least some of their objections. Besides, there is no inherent reason why the recent history of the nation-state of Israel should parallel Gen. 26.


If YHWH was the protector of peoples then, and YHWH is the protector of peoples today, there should be times when the futility of a conflict sinks in to the ones pursuing it. And this should be one of those times. Over the centuries "Christendom" dedicated itself to subjugating the Jews. But God was with them. In the first half of the twentieth century modern anti-Semitism became ever more radical in pursuing a "final solution" to the Jewish problem. But God was with the Jews, and the aggressors were the ones really destroyed. The Holocaust won Europe its precious freedom from Judaism – and cost Europe its soul. Over the last hundred years growing sectors of the Middle East have dedicated themselves to bringing the world's Jews (and Christians) back into the dhimmitude that Islam says is their proper place in the dar al-salaam. But again, God seems to be with the Chosen People. It is the Palestinians and their backers throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds who are driving themselves to virulent anti-Judaism, social pathology, economic ruin, and political suicide. Theirs is a lost cause.

Now all of these opponents of the Jews have inflicted real damage on Israel, as Abimelech's people truly troubled the house of Isaac. Pagans, Christians, Nazis, and Muslims have made Jews miserable for millennia. Yet there is remarkable grace in this people. There is a determination not to be defeated. Above all, there is a freedom from despair that amazes me. There is an eternal vigor that is finally catching the attention of more and more Christians who see ourselves the way we should always have seen ourselves: as fellow citizens in the commonwealth of Israel. These folks are blessed.

Being the Chosen People does not exempt the people Israel from sin any more than it exempts the Church. Then and now, God's people make terrible errors of judgment, and those mistakes cost everyone dearly. The same scriptures that announce these peoples' election never shy away from condemning them for their many mistakes. It is only right that we who number themselves among those people should be called to account before God and our neighbors for our own.

But when God is with a people, that people will not be defeated.

Foreign politicians and political scientists rarely factor election into their calculations. God is not a member of NATO and has no seat at the UN. Yet there is always room for nations, individually or jointly, to realize something they can't explain or don't want to admit, and to respond accordingly. If Gen. 26 is more than just an ancient people's self-serving story, then real hope for peace on earth lies only in such awakenings.

This isn't true just at the level of a people; it's also true of individual persons. Have you ever known someone whom God is just with? Sure, there are people like that in the Bible – Jesus of course, and Job, and the patriarchs I'm reading about here in Genesis, and on and on. But I can also think of several people right now that I know personally. They still face terrible hardships, but they get through them joyfully. They still do foolish and sinful things, but they repent and make them right again as best they can. They prosper in every sense of the word. I can be happy about that, and I will share in their blessings. Or I can wrack myself with envy, but in the end I can't stop it. Their election is theirs to give, but it is not mine to take away.

Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against YHWH and his Messiah, saying,
"Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us."
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
YHWH has them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
"I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill."
I will tell of the decree of YHWH:
He said to me, "You are my son,
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel."
Now, therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve YHWH with fear,
with trembling kiss his feet,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way;
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2)
Zion's anointed king is Jesus of Nazareth. Though he reigns throughout the earth, he will never forget his own people. He breaks and dashes regimes to pieces with love, not war. He is a refuge for those who seek his protection, but he frustrates the plans of any – even his own citizenry! – who would threaten his subjects. If death couldn't stop him, nothing can stop him. So his enemies have a choice. They can give up now, or they can give up later – and become history's ultimate losers.

And this is my favorite part: Whenever we are ready to stop fighting our lost causes, he is gracious to make peace. He even has water for the oath and a feast for the celebration.

12:44 PM

January 12, 2003

At that time Abimelech and Phicol, chief of his troops, said to Abraham, "God is with you in everything you do. Therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my kith and kin, but will deal with me and with the land in which you have sojourned as loyally as I have dealt with you." And Abraham said, "I swear it" (Gen. 21:22-24).
I am obviously not a Constantinian; that is, I do not see the Church as particularly blessed when it allies itself with civil authorities. State sponsorship of the Church has always come with strings attached.

However, I am not entirely happy with anti-Constantinianism either. In this passage a vision peeks through that shows itself throughout the story of God's people. Civil authorities look to the people of God in admiration or even envy, and seek to make a special arrangement of some kind or another. Anti-Constantinianism seems too quick to foreclose any such arrangement. There may yet be arrangements that end more happily than most of the arrangements that have been worked out so far. Indeed, if such arrangements are fruits of the new creation that began way back here in Genesis, then we should be as receptive (and cautious) of such overtures as we are of any sign of the end of the age.

As I said a long time ago, I want the Church to be perceived as a holy people, a peculiar people, but a people whose presence among others is welcomed and celebrated and even depended on. I want Abimelech's children to take note of our children of Abraham as our ancestors once did. There are better ways to order the world than sheer Constantinianism and anti-Constantinianism.

3:28 PM

Today's reading is Gen. 21-22: Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, Abraham's pact with Abimelech in the land of the Philistines, and God's command to sacrifice Isaac.

Here again are stories (particularly the last) that are too big to blog. I should just point you to Kierkegaard. No one has done this better than he.

Coincidentally, the book I'm currently working through, Rusty Reno's In the Ruins of the Church, highlights Kierkegaard's use of the story in a passage I read just yesterday:

People try to persuade us that objections against Christianity spring from doubt. The objections against Christianity spring from insubordination, the dislike of obedience, rebellion against all authority. As a result, people have hitherto been beating the air in their struggle against objections, because they have fought intellectually with doubt instead of fighting morally with rebellion.
Let us consider this observation for a moment. Kierkegaard was such a singular voice in the nineteenth century not because he was a literary genius but also because he had a profound sense of how difficult Christianity is. His most famous book,
Fear and Trembling, meditates on the collision of Abraham, the father of faith, with our normal sense of sane, responsible life. And this collision has nothing to do with evidence or argument. The collision is between Abraham's obedience and every other way in which we might conceive of living our lives. Abraham's scandal is moral – How could he ever set out to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son in the first place? – not intellectual. We rebel against the specific form of Abraham's obedience. And, I might add, Kierkegaard suggests in Fear and Trembling, but never says, that the scene of obedience and sacrifice on Golgotha collides even more violently with our sensibilities than the story of Abraham and Isaac. For in the death of Jesus, the Father really does sacrifice the Son.

To the extent that Kierkegaard's meditation on Abraham ignores the Enlightenment way of posing the problem, he is inserting us into a very different interpretation of the difficulty of faith. For Kierkegaard, we do not turn away because of methodological, historical, or evidential doubts. The distance that makes faith seem remote and alien is not the result of an impersonal problem of cultural or intellectual relevance. Ours is a story of moral rebellion, of our recoil in horror, of our offended sensibilities. The distance is something we will for ourselves, and we do so in order to protect ourselves. Here Kierkegaard interprets the problem of faith in a way that should be called Augustinian. What we now think of as the standard story, the Enlightenment story of Western culture's awakening from faith to reason, replaced the Augustinian story. I want us to reconsider this development, because the Augustinian story casts a much more helpful light on the difficulties of faithfulness in our time (52-53).

Have I mentioned enough yet that I think this is a fantastic book?

And a disturbing one, if I allow my agreement with Reno's diagnosis to pass beyond my students to myself.

For, without contesting Reno's or Kierkegaard's arguments here, I see the story this way:

When God calls Abraham to sacrifice his "beloved son", he is calling Abraham to cut off his own future. Like every ancient near eastern patriarch, Abraham has everything riding on his son. The call is more than a command to kill a loved one. This command would have Abraham kill his own legacy; his memory; himself. It would have him extinguish the only promise that made his other blessings significant (Gen. 15:2). The parallel I see here is Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, faced with the prospect of obeying the One who sent him at the cost of his life. But Jesus has invested his whole life in the little movement that will surely die with him if he drinks this cup. The church is his baby. He is being asked to commit institutional infanticide. And for what? Not for a noble goal, for the charges against him will be trumped up. This point is to submit to injustice, have his life ended in great pain and shame, and to see his school destroyed.

It made no sense then, and it makes no sense today.

In my debates last summer with advocates of utilitarian war, nationalistic war, and just war, my opponents inevitably appealed to sense rather than to absurdities like this. Why, it would be suicidal for Christians not to fight against those who are out to kill us! Here in Genesis, and later in the gospels – and at many profound moments everywhere else – moral calculus fails the Kingdom.

Obedience is not a matter of heeding the angel whispering in your right ear and ignoring the devil whispering in your left. There is no angel or devil when these exams are administered; there are only God and common sense. Twenty-four hours a day common sense – that is, the rationality of my culture, which is the most powerful culture in the world – is telling me to nurture and protect my future, not jeopardize it by leaving it in God's hands. Twenty-four hours a day the Kingdom, of which I am a citizen, is telling me to take up my cross and follow Jesus, to leave my posterity to God. Often the two programs do not send me in very different directions; there are times when the world's proverbs and the Kingdom's proverbs seem interchangeable. But just as often the distinctions frame even the similarities in radically different ways.

The God in whom I am tempted not to trust my posterity brought Jesus back to life. The Father gave Jesus the posterity Jesus longed to win for the Father. Things were not so different long before, when an angel intercepted Abraham and promised eternal blessings for him, his descendants, and all the nations of the earth on account of his obedience. No harm came to the beloved son. Things are not so different today either.

Happy Lord's Day!

3:05 PM

January 11, 2003

The chapters in Genesis I've been reading in the last few days have been so familiar that it has been hard to blog them. There are verses so huge that the world has turned on them: "Abram gave [Melchizedek] a tenth of everything" (Gen. 14:20), in which we see a priesthood prior to Aaron's. "I swear to YHWH God Most High" (14:22), when the Hebrews identify their G-d with the high god of the Canaanites. "Abraham believed God, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness" (15:6). The annunciation of Ishmael (Gen. 16), a rival line of lesser blessing that Arabs will later identify themselves with. It goes on and on like this. Reading these chapters as daily devotionals is like my first day in Rome, when the bus driving us from the airport passed by the ruins of the Colisseum. All I want to do is gawk.

Then there are verses that seem almost incidental. Strangely, these are the ones I haven't been able to get out of my mind. Yesterday's reading took me to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The lines that haunt me are these:

As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot on, saying, "Up, take your wife and your two remaining daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city." Still he delayed. So the men seized his hand, and the hands of his wife and his two daughters – in the Lord's mercy on him – and brought him out and left him outside the city (Gen. 19:15-16).
Why does this strike me so?

The writer of 2 Peter noticed it too, and interpreted Lot as "vexed in his righteous soul day after day with their lawless deeds" (2 Pet. 2:8). Surely that's true. But Genesis suggests a poignancy that is more than vexation. Lot is dithering, I think, because he loves his recently chosen neighbors (cf. Gen. 13:11-12).

Abraham, friend of the righteous (even the secretly righteous, the "anonymous Christians" in Karl Rahner's problematic language), stands up for whatever good people reside there (18:22-32), and wins God's assurance that God will endure great evil for the sake of a few righteous. But Lot's love goes to the guilty as well. I think it's because he knows them personally. Surely Lot takes this too far, to the point of tempting him to compromise his own family's righteousness (19:4-11). But could this extreme tolerance be related to the extreme generosity he shows also to strangers (19:1-3)?

If you're a homeowner, you want a guy like Abraham on your neighborhood watch. If you're a defendant, you want a guy like Lot on your jury. Abraham and Lot remind me, if you will forgive the parallel (and most of you probably won't), of American conservatives and American liberals. Abraham is incensed about the sufferings of innocents – in sufficient numbers anyway (18:25) – and perhaps that keeps him at a distance from the guilty. He wants peace for the sake of justice, and gets it through rustic isolation (13:12). Lot knows justice too (19:7), but he seems equally concerned about the sufferings of the guilty. After so many kindnesses, his warnings of coming destruction are so out of character that they seem to his family like jests (19:14). He wants peace for the sake of mercy, and gets it by friendship with the wicked (19:7). He waits and he waits to act, and finally he has to be dragged away from the punishment (19:16). Even then, ever the urbanite, Lot pleads to settle in a small town rather than the country (19:19-20)!

I have both my inner Abraham and my inner Lot. (That's a confession, not a boast.) But what really touches me in this chapter is the way justice and mercy meet – not in either of them, nor in both together, but in YHWH. God's justice is finer than Abraham's, judging even one righteous person as worth saving. Likewise, God's mercy is keener than Lot's, distinguishing sinners from the lovers of sinners.

Likewise, Jesus is not Abraham. He identifies with the guilty as well as the innocent. He comes to our sinful communities and stays, bearing with our atrocities to give hope to sinners.

But Jesus is no bleeding-heart Lot either. He preaches judgment as well as mercy. He also resides today where he really belongs, at the right hand of the Father.

Because Jesus is neither one, he is able to do for the world what neither mere advocacy nor mere solidarity can do. You can't peg Jesus as either a 'red-zone' urban dweller or a 'blue-zone' suburbanite, as either an American liberal or an American conservative. Nor is Jesus a moderate, trying forever to split the difference. Like YHWH (of course), he explodes the typology. We disciples will need to do that too, if we want to keep the world from turning into pillars of smoke and salt.

Shabbat shalom.

4:17 PM

A round of e-mails followed Anthony Easton's original e-mail. These concern prayer. I'm going to respond to Anthony's latest response here:

... for me prayer – i dont know it feels like a ramble, a self indulgent whine, a complaint, a yelling or an attempt to be empty, it doesnt seem to be happy or joyus and shouldnt christianity be a doctrine of joy ? and why should i pray when my concerns are so meaningless ? I have a roof over my head and food in my belly and i dont know isnt that all i need.
Does the liturgy, let alone the Lord's Prayer, really sound to you like a self-indulgent whine? Not to me. Not when it's understood in the context of Jesus' whole life and career. The Lord's Prayer certainly doesn't ramble. It can be said with joy or with mourning; there are occasions for both.

If your concerns were meaningless, then Jesus wouldn't have included some of them in the prayer he taught us.

You are right, of course, that it is possible to stack prayers full of self-indulgent concerns that don't pursue the life Jesus won for us. Those kinds of prayers backfire. I'm not saying to pray that way, and neither is Jesus – after all, he insists that a roof and food aren't all you need, and what the world needs is a lot more than what you need anyway.

If those around you are praying that way, then why not help them pray more faithfully rather than impugning Christian prayer in general?

I find myself angry when i go to church, furious at its hermeticism, upset at is complacency, when i read the works of god i get a view of him as angry and intolerant and capricous, and his servants terified of both pleasure and joy.
Do you really see Jesus as fundamentally angry? Complacent? Hermetic? Capricious? Intolerant? Does he teach terror at either pleasure or joy?

I may regret phrasing the question this way, but: Are you really reading the Bible as a Trinitarian? Do you really think Jesus reveals the character of God? Because the people who put that book together thought so. Sure, you can take different hermeneutics to the text and arrive at very different readings. But would Jesus' apostolic communities have recognized those readings as honoring their memory of Jesus and the God who raised him to his right hand?

why doesnt he give you flour and water and teach you to bake, why doesnt he encourage self sufficiency ?
Isn't midnight a little late for baking bread? The travellers are hungry now. Waiting for the yeast to rise won't do.

Read a little more charitably and you will see that in the parable God is serving hospitality, not fostering abject dependence. Prayer is not about God catering to couch potatoes. Prayer is about God serving the needs of a community that helps not just themselves, but each other, and even the needy and unexpected guests. In Christ, the Kingdom is self-sufficient. That's the point! You just have to bother to be a part of it.

A couple of weeks ago I decided after dinner to make something special for my kids for dessert. I found a recipe that needed more butter than I had, so I called a neighbor and asked for a stick. I didn't need a lecture in individualistic 'self-sufficiency'; I wanted help from a neighbor in service of something unexpected. My prayer, in the form of a phone call, was answered, and the result was more than banana bread; it got me outside myself and back in fellowship with my neighbor (no small thing in suburban America) and with my kids (also no small thing nowadays).

Now really, shouldn't a fair reading of Luke make it obvious that God is not just applying to be our baker and butler and nanny? Obviously we're not supposed to turn this into a license never to be prepared; the life of the Church is all about being prepared for a future that is certain and uncertain at the same time.

Sorry if this is overly blunt, but I really don't see your caricatures as faithful representations of God, the Kingdom, or the text. I can think of several possible reasons for this: You might have learned a distorted theology earlier that continues to influence you. You might belong to a fundamentally unhealthy Christian community, which is training you to see things in unhelpful ways. Or you might actually be more loyal to (or formed by) a story other than the Gospel, and so you are reading the characters of Christian faith according to a different, basically hostile narrative.

doubt is easy and often feels safe.
If you are looking for excuses to avoid taking this stuff seriously, then you'll find them. If you are looking for excuses to believe it, then you'll find them. If I may paraphrase Calvin, the human heart is a factory of excuses. Both 'faith' and 'doubt' can be complacent, hermetic, angry, intolerant, capricious, and terrified of authenticity.

Some time ago I stopped trying to convince myself either that God is really there or that God really isn't. I decided that God can jolly well show himself. Now this doesn't mean I just sit back and wait for it to happen; I go to church and read Holy Scripture and pray. I go to where God promises to be. But I don't view these things as exercises in conjuring up an imaginative deity, and don't intend them to become so. I view them as appointments God promises to keep. If God is real, God is going to have to show up and meet me there.

Likewise, I will go to great lengths to assist anyone who really wants assistance, but experiences with others have worn my patience rather thin when I sense that the questions and objections aren't really 'in good faith'. I am not really interested in propping up students' flagging faith if they are secretly more interested in sabotaging it. Nor am I interested in challenging their complacent 'faith' if they are secretly more interested in dismissing the challenges. Both are really 'standing God up' rather than honoring the appointment.

From your messages so far I can't tell whether you are trying to believe, trying not to believe, unable to make up your mind, or what. I think part of my confusion is just my own imperceptivity, and insofar as I am at fault, please accept my apologies. I'll try to be a more careful interpreter from here on out, and I'll need you to work a little harder than perhaps you should have to to help me understand.

Yet as I try to understand how you can read things like that parable as unfairly as you have, I also sense a little postmodern mischief in your stance. You seem to be engaging in the very culturally cool strategy of distancing oneself from anything that would threaten one's personal sovereignty (i.e., one's "self-sufficiency").

Perhaps there's a war going on in you between the narrative of the Good News and the narrative of the supposedly postmodern self. Maybe your assent to the latter ideology (Rusty Reno calls it "Petronian" after Petronius, the cynical Roman historian) is sheltering you from finding or accepting the answers that would threaten it, but which at another level you profoundly want and need. Do you think that could be?

I hope not; I hope I'm wrong, and if I am, please forgive me. But if I'm right, you're on dangerous ground. Jesus was enormously patient with those who really struggled with his message. But Jesus was not overly patient with people who didn't interact with him in good faith, who weren't really interested in determining who he was and treating him accordingly. I don't see why his disciples should be any more patient than he was. Be careful!

1:02 PM

January 6, 2003

Today's daily reading features Gen. 11-12.

In seminary my Old Testament class followed the common convention of splitting Genesis into the primordial narratives of chapters 1-11 and the patriarchal narratives of chapters 12-50. That is an eminently reasonable approach. But whoever left chapters 11-12 together in today's reading – probably in ignorance – helped me see something.

Gen. 11:1-9, the story of the Tower of Babel, illustrates how not to become remembered: by "making a name for ourselves" (11:4). It is not the first time. The heroes of old are products of an earlier project pursuing notoreity through power. Then God overpowered heroism with natural calamity (Gen. 6:1-7). This time God defuses achievement with confusion (Gen. 11:7).

Try to make a name for yourself, and God becomes your personal (or family or corporate or national) saboteur. This is a lesson I needed to learn in my twenties, and God taught me good. Many of my students need to learn it too. I do what I can to teach them early, rather than leaving them to learn it late and much more painfully.

"What a petty, vindictive, jealous god is YHWH," I can hear people thinking. Yet God is not just a spoiler. Immediately following both catastrophes, God finds someone not out for fame and power and grants them to him. Then through him God extends it far and wide. Noah alone found favor with God and so won a future for wicked humanity (Gen. 6:8). Abram too finds favor with God and becomes a source of blessing for all the scattered nations (Gen. 12:2-3).

The irony is delicious. The Nephilim want power, and God overpowers them with rain. Then God grants the covenant of the rainbow, in which he delegates unprecedented power on Noah's posterity. All the peoples of the world want to make a name for themselves, and they are frustrated. Then God somehow announces to an obscure wandering Aramean that "I will make your name great" (Gen. 12:2).

Coincidence? I think not. Remember Adam and Eve, who wanted to be like God and know good and evil? They got their wish (Gen. 3:22). But, tragically, they did so by refusing the likeness and knowledge already granted them (Gen. 1:26-28). Ever since, God has been preventing us from getting our wishes – only to grant us the proper form of those wishes.

After God let my heroic ambitions crumble in my twenties, God began rebuilding my life in my thirties. (I am rounding, by the way.) Like every cocky adolescent overachiever, I wanted to make a name for myself. To save me from myself, to deliver me from the smallness of my imagined grandeur, my Redeemer first had to be my Saboteur.

I'm glad those years are over, but not entirely relieved. You see, Abram's soap opera is only beginning in Gen. 12. The first-time reader can be forgiven for thinking that this YHWH is more of an imp than a god. He sends this childless couple away from the only family they have. He grants an already populated land, then watches famine force Abram's family out of it. He promises posterity to offspring that won't exist for decades. He lets Abram's insecurity and jealousy bring misfortune on his hosts and exile to his own house. The rest of Gen. 12 is all very amusing until you're the protagonist.

This is good news? This is blessing? I can imagine Noah wondering about that as he mucks out the ark again, watching that raven fly to and fro, perhaps even envying his drowned neighbors.

Yeah, it's a blessing. My thirties have not been a serene decade. Sometimes it feels as if the holy sabotage continues. But the troubles that follow election are neither sabotage nor prankishness. They are just the painful, unparalleled privileges of a life of faith. They are purgatorial means by which the Spirit of God is making us into something better than we were capable of imagining – into the likeness of Christ. They sure beat the hell of "succeeding" in the Nietzschean world of power I wanted for myself in my twenties. And the real glories are yet to come (Heb. 12:18-24).

Have a joyful Epiphany.

5:30 PM

Rusty Reno really nails the persuasive power of relativism in our culture in this passage from In the Ruins of the Church (Brazos, 2002), which looks so far to be a terrific read. Reno is a lot more modern than I am – I think an Alasdair MacIntyre or Ludwig Wittgenstein has different but not relativistic answers to his classroom questions – but we are of one accord on the power of the spirit of our age:

We should not underestimate the intensity of the postmodern horror of obedience, a horror that makes the power of truth itself a threat. "Sharing" now smothers debate. God forbid that anyone should formulate a reasoned argument; it might contradict or "marginalize" the experience of others. All sentences must begin with a compulsive ritual preface: "From my point of view...." The truth and falsity of all claims depend on one's "perspective." Everyone must be affirmed; the views of all must be validated.

Many of my colleagues in philosophy are convinced that this all-views-are-equally-valid approach stems from a widespread belief in relativism. We are all, these professors imagine, in the grips of a bad theory of truth, and they spend a great deal of time trying to disabuse their students of this bad theory.

The problem, however, is that this does not work. I can point out to my students that the truth that 2 + 2 = 4 does not in fact depend on anyone's point of view. I can expand upon the objectivity of the natural sciences. I can lecture about the distinction between truth and justification. I can exhort all to recognize that the possibilities of error and prejudice do not make them inevitable.

My efforts are in vain because my students have a primitive and unreflective commitment to the proposition that all truth is relative. They hold such a view as dogma, not as theory. It is a presupposition, not a conclusion. To be sure, sometimes they use the techniques of culture critique. Truth claims, they say, are relative to their cultural contexts. If I press the issue and ask them to explain how such a view is consistent with the fact that modern science is practiced in India, Japan, Russia, and the United States, and that scientists go to international conferences and seem to agree with each other about all sorts of things regardless of cultural context, they look at me and shrug. At other times they deploy sophistic tricks. A student insists that one cannot make non-mathematical claims about mathematics, and this demonstrates that all systems of thought are closed and self-referential. Therefore truth claims reduce to empty tautology. When I ask him in what sense the proposition that engineers find mathematics useful is a mathematical claim about mathematics, he just looks at me and repeats his conviction. His belief is more certain than anything I might say. It is a matter of faith, not evidence or inference.

These experiences in the classroom have convinced me that relativism is not a philosophical theory. It is a spiritual truth, a protective dogma designed to fend off any power that might claim our loyalty. It is a habit of mind that insulates postmodern life from the sober potency of arguments and the force of evidence, from the rightful claims of reason and the wisdom of the past. My students can look me in the eye and insist that one should never impose one's beliefs on others and that all truth claims – including, I presume, the moral rigors of never, never imposing on others – are relative. Here our contemporary horror of obedience joins hands with solipsism in order to protect the soul from all demands, rational or otherwise. Here we are face to face with the spirit of our age.

There's more; I'm on pages 38-39. Read the whole thing!

4:01 PM

Everyone keeps telling me my site loads more slowly than anybody's. At first I thought that was because of the sheer size of the page, but I have taken steps to reduce that and the problem has not solved itself. I think a complicating factor might be a slow connection from westmont.edu. This would be worse than usual on the first week of their new semester. Sorry about that, and thanks for your patience.

I will just appeal to what Old Willow says to the hobbits in The Twin Towers: Nothing is worth saying that doesn't take a long time to say. Boy, that line sure must have come from the heart of Professor Tolkien. (What the Ent should have said is that nothing is worth saying that doesn't take a long time to say well.)

It may be that a few design changes can speed up the loading process. They're in the pipeline ... so, like I said, thanks for your patience.

3:43 PM

I got quite an e-mail this morning from Anthony Easton:

You don't know me, but I was surfing tonight – thinking about God, wanting to abandon him and wondering why after reading Foucault, Derrida and Lacan, after absorbing the postmodern ethos, why I still go to church – why I can't jettision my faith.

I don't have an answer, and I don't have an answer to why I am Christian in the first place. I read your essay by random (by the holy spirit?) and I wanted to tell you that it moved me to tears, I'm not sure it changed my life or my thinking-I still struggle, but maybe it was the first pebble in a landslide.

Well, I'm glad I know you now. After reading one of your posts, I have a feeling the Theological FAQ entry you read was this one of mine. In that case, it must have been the Holy Spirit, because I don't know who else could see you through reading such a rambling, rhetorically clumsy post. (Then again, if you've made it through Derrida....)

Maybe your remarkable journey has brought you to Church and refuses to leave, despite your exposure to all that continental postmodernist chaff, because in your heart you know the liturgy is more real than trendy nihilistic lit-crit, more real than atomizing and isolating modern liberalism from which those schools still drink so deeply, more real than all the fleeting capital and social power and lust that consume our attention and finally our souls, more real than the bland sentimentality that passes for spirituality in our culture, more real than all those who thunder with rants and bombs and rolled eyes against its small but insistent voice.

"Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again." What else needs to be said? The finest minds of the West say nothing comparable to those three staggering claims. I think you still go to Church because God draws you there, to hear and eat and drink and live those visible words with your brothers and sisters, to give you life and purpose and patience with our world's agonies while you and all the other people of God wait and work together for creation's perfection.

Jesus loves you, Mr. Easton. No deconstructionist can take him off of that cross, or take him away from the Father's bosom, or take the taste of that eucharistic wine from your lips, or take you off his mind. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Live in that love and you will truly live. Leave it and, well, you're stuck with Foucault.

Thanks so much for your e-mail. My apologies if I'm being too presumptuous or preachy. I do hope a landslide is coming. My family will be praying for it. Write any time!

10:06 AM

January 5, 2003

Classes start tomorrow.

I have actually been keeping up with the daily Bible readings our church is pushing. I grew up mainline rather than evangelical, so the idea of devotional Bible reading was new to me, and I have never really pursued it. Having done it for only a week, I can feel how much I have needed it. This week Kim will be doing it too. This would be a really great habit for us to build as a family. Otherwise a new generation of Works will grow up without it.

We are supposed to be keeping journals of our reflections on each day's readings. I am adapting this in two ways: First, I will blog insights that seem fit for public reading. Second, I will articulate only orally the insights that aren't (either because they should stay private or because they would not be particularly interesting).

I only have time to report one meditation from the first week's readings, which have concentrated on Gen. 1-10.

In Gen. 8:6-12 Noah sends birds out from the ark to do reconnaissance: a raven, then a dove three times. The raven doesn't return until the waters are dried up; the dove returns, then returns with an olive leaf, then remains. These details struck me; I was so conditioned to see only doves that I missed the raven, and wondered at what to do with the dove's three missions.

My allegorical imagination wants to see the dove as the Holy Spirit. At first, the Spirit broods over the waters, there being nothing more (Gen. 1:2). Later the Spirit comes upon the prophets (cf. Isaiah 61), returning to God with the life of Israel, God's olive branch (cf. Rom. 11:17). Yet only upon the Anointed one, the Son of the Father, does the Spirit rest and not return (Matt. 3:16). From resting on the Son the Spirit is poured out to indwell the Son's brothers and sisters. The Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, God's home away from home, dry and hospitable land for the Dove.

What to do with the raven? I'm not sure. Frankly ravens don't have much of a presence in the biblical tradition: God takes care of them, as God takes care of the lilies, and once they bring food to Elijah. Other than that, they just seem to be birds.

The two birds have a parallel in Gilgamesh's flood story (Gilgamesh XI,152), so perhaps the raven is a vestigial presence with no real significance. But the Jewish thing to do with Scripture is to find the significance. It's there, so it must matter.

Fishing around for other opinions, I came across this allegory, rather forced in my humble opinion, which sees the raven as Satan. The raven is an unclean bird, and the writer notes that the "to and fro" of Gen. 8 sounds like the "to and fro" of Satan's wanderings in Job 1. Sounds promising. But the Hebrew uses different vocabulary, so the match isn't the kind of pesher that would catch the eye of a rabbi. I'll pass on the raven as devil, thank you very much.

What the raven represents, if the raven represents anything, is less important to the story than the lesson that the raven isn't the right bird for the job.

Noah tries the raven, but then turns to the dove. Why? It's obvious. Until everything is right, the raven is unsatisfied. It wanders. It neither returns to the ark nor rests in the land until it is fully dried out.

The dove is not so myopic. It embraces what little hope there is in the world and makes it a portent of a glorious future. It finds the young olive tree of Israel and returns to its Sender with a leaf as a sign of its favor.

The raven leaves the ark before its new home is finished, a homeless perfectionist. The Dove returns to the ark until its new home is habitable, a hopeful believer.

While the raven searches endlessly for fulfillment, the Dove finds early contentment through promise.

To the raven, you aren't good enough. To the Dove, that's not important.

The raven passes us over looking for someone better. The Dove comes to us, returns to the Sender presenting us in joy, then comes alongside us forever as the seal of God's eternal presence.

The raven is a lot like Noah. Only once the earth is dry does the raven stop going to and fro, and only once the earth is dry does Noah open the ark. That's why the raven is useless. Noah needs One who will go ahead of him, One who will pioneer the return of animate life to God's world, One whose early affirmation will signal the return of divine favor after the divine judgment has passed.

The raven is a false god, a god in our image, an ironically unclean thing who settles only with people who would perfect themselves. The Dove is an apostolic God, a strange and holy God, a clean thing who comes to us before we are ready for his fellowship and stays with us while his fellowship finishes what it alone could start.

Allegory lives! Come, Holy Spirit!

5:50 PM


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