Archive for June, 2010

This is NOT Independence Sunday (reprise)

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

A popular post from last year, repeated here in light of earlier conversations and updated just a bit for this year:

In some U.S. churches, at least some Methodist churches (and I suspect others), this Sunday’s bulletin will announce that Sunday, July 5 [4], 2009 [2010] is Independence Sunday—perhaps along with something else (like the Fifth [Sixth] Sunday after Pentecost), or perhaps not.

But it is not Independence Sunday, because that liturgical day does not exist, or at least should not exist. “Independence Sunday” is an American invention, an example of American civil religion: the inappropriate Americanizing of Christianity and Christianizing (in some vague, superficial sense) of America.

The misnaming of the Sunday nearest [or, this year, on] July 4 is a theological mistake in at least three specific ways. First, it nationalizes a calendar (the liturgical or church calendar) and a day that belong to the entire Christian church. “The Fifth [Sixth] Sunday after Pentecost” or “The 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time” or simply “The Lord’s Day, July 5 [4], 2009 [2010]” is theologically appropriate because each of these is inclusive, universal, catholic. But “Independence Sunday” is exclusive and parochial. When we come as Christians to worship God, even on the Fourth of July [itself] weekend, we come to celebrate our oneness with people from every nation, tribe, and race, and to recommit to a divine mission that includes all peoples. There may be appropriate ways for Christian individuals and churches to acknowledge their particularity as Americans or Iraquis or Koreans, but hijacking the Christian calendar and liturgy is not one of them.

Second, “Independence Sunday” robs not only the Christian church, but also, and far more importantly, the Lord of the church. It takes the focus of worship off the Triune God who liberated Israel in the Exodus and then came to rescue wayward humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, substituting—however subtly (or not!)—a national deity who is usually thought to have chosen America and poured special blessings on the American people as Americans. Sunday—every Sunday, no exceptions—is the Lord’s day, the day devoted to the adoration of Jesus as Lord and to communion with him [---and for many of us it will be our monthly communion Sunday]. Centering on anything or anyone else negates the very reason for the gathering and transforms it into something else, something alien.

Third, the language of “Independence Sunday” misleads both Christians and non-Christians into thinking that one’s true identity and freedom are given to them by one’s nation state. It will not suffice to say something like “We celebrate our freedom as Americans but also, and more importantly, our freedom from sin because of Jesus.” Why is this insufficient? Because comparing the two trivializes the latter, the one that really matters. Why do these words not make “Independence Day” language in church appropriate? Because the use of “we” in “we celebrate” erroneously suggests that there is something as significant, or almost as significant, about the assembled group’s identity as Americans as there is about its identity as Christians.

The custom of singing songs and offering prayers about peace, justice and similar topics on the Sunday nearest July 4 may be a good thing—if they are appropriately interpreted by the pastor in non-nationalistic and non-militaristic ways. In my experience this is seldom done. (But at least it’s better than blatant nationalism.) A church can do this without either misnaming the Sunday or misfocusing the worship service.

I have not said anything about the use of American flags in church, on “Independence Sunday” or any other time, but for all the reasons noted above, the position I would argue is probably obvious.

At Christmas time I posted that Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday, but this other liturgical error may be far more harmful, at least for Americans. [For 2009: So… Happy Fifth to all! Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, that is.

PS For ideas about celebrating Independence Day (the national holiday), see what Shane Claiborne and others have to say.

July 4: Baby Steps away from Civil Religion

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

The gist of recent comments on this blog has been that pastors need to take baby steps to move churches away from civil religion. On the assumption that that’s what most people will need to do, here are some ideas for pastors:

1. Be the pastor. Take charge of the service. Don’t allow special interests to dictate worship—ever.

2. Begin every conversation about this subject with something like, “Let’s remember: the purpose of worship is worship, not celebrating the national holiday. Church is a Christian gathering, not a civic/patriotic gathering. We cannot do anything in Christian worship that would exclude any non-American Christians who might happen to be there.”

3. Under no circumstances allow the pledge of allegiance. Don’t feel forced to challenge the pledge in principle. Simply say, “In worship we pledge ourselves to God alone.”

4. Don’t compare the red of the U.S. flag or the blood shed in battle to the blood of Christ, or war deaths to Christ’s sacrifice. At best, that cheapens Christ’s death.

5. Do not allow the singing or playing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “Onward Christian Soldiers” or anything that calls itself a national or armed-forces hymn. That feeds militarism. Avoid “America the Beautiful” and “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” because they are not truly hymns, as they celebrate a nation rather than God. (They both directly address “America” in personification.)

6. If your church must sing something related to the national holiday, try “Let There be Peace on Earth” or “This is My Song” (to the tune of Finlandia) or something similar.

7. If you must allude to the national holiday, keep it brief, and try to focus on anything other than what people expect. Be creative! Possible themes: justice, peace, nonviolence, interdependence, etc.

8. Use and blame the lectionary! Preach on the texts of the day, not the civic holiday.

Any other baby steps?

Babylonian Economics

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

From my work on Revelation 17-18:

Since at least the time of Tertullian, in the late second century, the church has grappled with which vocations might be inappropriate for Christians, even idolatrous. Tertullian raised questions about a host of occupations, including teaching (for promoting secular values and polytheism, or idolatry) and the military (for engaging in idolatry and violence). Touched by God’s amazing grace, John Newton (1725-1807) knew he had to stop buying and selling slaves. But apart perhaps from prostitution and drug-dealing, the church today seldom discourages any career path considered by young people or undertaken by adults. In my own United Methodist denomination, for example, a video on “vocation” for youth mentions a career in the military in the same breath as vocations in social work, medicine, the church, etc.

While few Christians today would question the appropriateness of teaching in secular schools as a vocation, perhaps, at the very least, Christian teachers should question and “come out” from some of the values and practices inscribed in many secular—and even Christian—forms of education. I am thinking here, not of topics like evolution, but of even larger worldview issues, such as nationalism and consumerism, to name just two. As for the military, many Christians cannot even imagine a reason why a career in the military might be anything less than an honorable Christian vocation, much less engage in a discussion about it. But this is a topic in need of discussion, especially for those who live in or near Babylon. There is something amiss when a Christian youth can go to summer camp one week and sing “Kumbaya,” and then go to Marine boot camp the next and chant “We can kill.” But it happens—all the time.

It would be easy to assume that most careers and day-to-day practices are exempt from critique, but Revelation will not allow us to be so naïve. If it involves buying or selling goods, Revelation puts a question mark on it. It this a business that directly or indirectly promotes the rich and exploits the poor? Does it harm the earth or other human beings? If so, then Revelation 18 has something to say about it. Churches, too, need to consider carefully the sources and means of their income, whether local “fundraising” techniques, such as flea markets or silent auctions or fashion shows, or larger issues such as investing.

How do we begin this conversation in the churches?

Civil Religion: The Liturgical Season is Upon Us

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

No matter what the churches claim, Christianity in the United States has two liturgical seasons, the Holy Season, which runs from Advent to Easter (or Pentecost if you’re lucky), and the Civil Season, which runs from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving. (Rather handy division of the year, isn’t it?) At the beginning of summer, we are clearly now in the thick of Civil Season, or Civil Religion Time—which replaces Ordinary Time.

Civil religion in the U.S. never goes away, but its major feasts are in that six-month period. God-and-country language and rituals are more prevalent, and syncretism in the churches (“when you see the red in the flag, think of the blood of those who died to make us free, and also think of Jesus’ blood that was shed to make us really free”) runs rampant but is hardly ever questioned.

Why is it so difficult for Christians in the U.S. (and elsewhere, sometimes, but especially in the U.S.) to see this for what it is: idolatry?

SBL is Coming

Friday, June 18th, 2010

The SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) will meet in Atlanta this November, and there will be a lot of good sessions. The preliminary program book is now online. Although last year I gave three papers (which was crazy!), this year I will only be chairing a session for one of the groups on whose steering committee I serve. (Why nothing else?Largely because of numerous other lecture commitments this fall—four major academic lectures in September and October.) Among the many things I find inviting are the following (must-hears in bold italics; may require some bi-location!):

Theological Hermeneutics of Christian Scripture
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Theme: History, Historicisms, and Theological Interpretation
Michael Gorman, Saint Mary’s Seminary and University, Presiding (5 min)

Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, Eastern University
The Quest for the Historical Leviathan: Truth and Method in Biblical Studies (30 min)

Joel B. Green, Fuller Theological Seminary
Rethinking “History” for Theological Interpretation (30 min)

Matthew Levering, University of Dayton
Augustine’s Theology of History (30 min)

Jeannine Brown, Bethel Theological Seminary (St. Paul, MN), Respondent (15 min)

I will also attend the session of the Gospel and our Culture Network, Missional Hermeneutics Forum, on whose steering committee I serve as well:

GOCN Forum on Missional Hermeneutics
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Theme: Exile, Identity, and Mission: Interpreting Biblical Texts
Michael Barram, Saint Mary’s College of California, presiding

Bo H. Lim, Seattle Pacific University
From Servant to Servants: Continuing the Legacy of the Exile in the Post-Exilic Era (20 min)

Andrew D. Rowell, Duke University
ohn Howard Yoder’s Missional Exiles and Jeremiah 29: A Case Study for Missional Hermeneutics (20 min)

Aaron Kuecker, Trinity Christian College
As He Who Called You is Holy: Missional Holiness and the People of God in 1 Peter (20 min)

Suzanne Watts Henderson, Queens University of Charlotte, Respondent (15 min)
George Hunsberger, Western Theological Seminary, Respondent (15 min)

Also of great interest to me are the following book-review sessions, which are becoming quite popular at SBL:

Book Review: Joseph Mangina, Revelation, in Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010)
4:00 PM to 6:00 PM
Ryan Hansen, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Presiding

Kathryn Greene-McCreight, St John’s Episcopal Church, New Haven, CT 06511, Panelist (15 min)
Richard B. Hays, Duke University, Panelist (15 min)
Nathan Kerr, Trevecca Nazarene Universit, Panelist (15 min)

Joseph Mangina, Wycliffe College, Respondent (20 min)

Christian Theology and the Bible
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Theme: Book Review Panel of C. Kavin Rowe’s “World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age”
Stephen Fowl, Loyola College in Maryland, Presiding (10 min)

Beverly Gaventa, Princeton Theological Seminary, Panelist (25 min)
Robert Wall, Seattle Pacific University, Panelist (25 min)
Douglas Harink, Panelist (25 min)
Stephen Fowl, Loyola College in Maryland, Panelist (25 min)
Kavin Rowe, Duke University, Respondent (25 min)

As for “regular” sessions, there will be plenty of good ones. Starting with “non-Paul”:

Book of Acts
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Loveday Alexander, University of Chester, Presiding

Patricia Walters, Rockford College
Irreconcilable Distances: A Challenge to the Assumed Authorial Unity of Luke and Acts (30 min)

Mikeal Parsons, Baylor University, Respondent (12 min)
Heather Gorman, Baylor University, Respondent (12 min)

Kavin Rowe, Duke University
The Return of Allegory: Scholarly Exegesis and the Literal Sense of Luke-Acts (30 min)
Steve Walton, London School of Theology, Respondent (25 min)

Scripture in Early Judaism and Christianity
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Theme: Use of Scripture in the Gospel of Luke
Bruce Fisk, Westmont College, Presiding

Craig A. Evans, Acadia Divinity College
Luke’s Good Samaritan and the Chronicler’s Good Samaritans (30 min)

Richard B. Hays, Duke University
Intimations of Divine Identity Christology in Luke’s Reading of Scripture
(30 min)

R. Steven Notley, Nyack College NYC
The Hebrew Scriptures in the Third Gospel (30 min)
Discussion (60 min)

Some of the good Paul sessions:

Pauline Epistles
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Terence Donaldson, Wycliffe College, Presiding

M. David Litwa, University of Virginia
Transformation through a Mirror: Moses in 2 Cor 3:18 (30 min)
NOTE: I directed David’s ThM thesis at Duke.

Jonathan A. Linebaugh, Durham University
Announcing the Human: Rethinking the Relationship Between Romans 1.18-32 and Wisdom of Solomon 13-15 (30 min)

Christopher R. Bruno, Wheaton College
Eyewitness Testimony and the Jesus Tradition in Paul: The Sermon on the Mount as the Background to Philippians (30 min)

Tom McGlothlin, Duke University
Patristic Rhetorical Analyses of Romans 3:1-8/9 (30 min)

David Briones, Durham University
Does Obligation Corrupt the ‘Purity’ of the Gift?: Comparing Seneca’s De Beneficiis with Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (30 min)

Romans through History and Cultures
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Theme: Reconciliation and Peace in Romans
Kathy Ehrensperger, University of Wales, Lampeter (Trinity St.David), Presiding

Jason A. Whitlark, Baylor University
Peace with God and the Pax Deorum: Hearing Romans 5:1 in Rome (25 min)

Matthew W. Bates, University of Notre Dame
The Proto-Creed in Rom 1:3-4—A tool of reconciliation?: Evaluating the Proposal of Robert Jewett (25 min)

Ralph J. Korner, McMaster University
Making Room for Sacred Space in Jewish – Christian Reconciliation (25 min)

Soham Al-Suadi, University of Basel
Placing Christian Origins into the Ordinary – The Hellenistic Meal and the „Birth of Christianity“ (25 min)

Edward Pillar, University of Wale, Lampeter (Trinity St David)
“The Reconciliation of the World”: Exploring how Paul’s Expansive Vision for Israel and the Gentiles Counters and Subverts Pretensions of the Empire (25 min)

Second Corinthians: Pauline Theology in the Making
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Theme: 2 Corinthians in general
Edith M. Humphrey, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Presiding

B. J. Oropeza, Azusa Pacific University
Saved by Benefaction, Judged by Works? The Paradox of Rejecting Grace in 2 Corinthians (20 min)

Ryan S. Schellenberg, University of St. Michael’s College
Beyond Rhetoric: Self-Praise in Plutarch, Paul, and Red Jacket (20 min)

Hermut Loehr, University of Munster
Stone Tablets. Torah Traditions in 2Cor 3 (20 min)

James Buchanan Wallace, Christian Brothers University
Paul’s Catalogues of Suffering in 2 Corinthians as Ascetic Performances (20 min)

Christopher R. Bruno, Wheaton College
Carrying in the Body the Death of Jesus: The Passion Narratives as Paul’s Model for his Apostolic Self-Understanding in 2 Corinthians
(20 min)

Second Corinthians: Pauline Theology in the Making
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Theme: 2 Corinthians 4
Thomas Schmeller, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Presiding

Dustin W. Ellington, World Mission, Presbyterian Church (USA)
Revisiting Paul’s “We” in 2 Corinthians 4: A Shared Vocation through Participation in Christ (20 min)

Robin Griffith-Jones, King’s College London / Temple Church
‘We’, ‘You’, ‘All’: Respecting Paul’s Distinctions in 2 Corinthians 1-5 (20 min)

Timothy Luckritz Marquis, Moravian Theological Seminary
Apostolic Travels as ‘Carrying around the Death of Jesus’ in 2 Corinthians 4:10 (20 min)

Ma. Marilou S. Ibita, Catholic University of Leuven-Belgium
Episteusa dio elalesa (2 Cor 4:13): Paul and the Psalmist (20 min)

Edith Humphrey, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Respondent (10 min)

Paul and Scripture
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Theme: The Place of Scripture in Paul’s Theology
G. K. Beale, Westminster Theological Seminary, Presiding

Matthew Bates, University of Notre Dame
How Do We Judge What Role Scripture Played in Paul’s Theology? (10 min)

Linda Belleville, Bethel College
Scripture and Other Voices in Paul’s Theology (10 min)

Roy E. Ciampa, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
Approaching Paul’s Use of Scripture in Light of Translation Studies (10 min)

Papers will be summarized, not read. Papers will be available for download in early November on the seminar’s Web page at

Pauline Epistles
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Theme: Paul and Cosmology
Emma Wasserman, Rutgers University, Presiding

Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Copenhagen University
Which Cosmology? And How Important? (30 min)

Stanley Stowers, Brown University
Theorizing Paul’s Cosmology (30 min)

Edward Adams, King’s College – London
“Things that are” and “things that are not:” Cosmological Rhetoric in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 (30 min)

Pauline Soteriology
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Theme: The “Cosmos” in Paul’s Soteriology
Susan Eastman, Duke University, Presiding

Martin de Boer, Vrije Universiteit-Amsterdam
The Cross and The Cosmos in Galatians
(40 min)

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Princeton Theological Seminary
Neither Height nor Depth: Discerning the Cosmology of Romans (40 min)

Edward Adams, King’s College – London, Respondent (20 min)

Cross, Resurrection, and Diversity in Earliest Christianity
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Theme: Jesus’ Resurrection in the Pauline Evidence
Papers will be available by November 1 at
Elaine Pagels, Princeton University, Presiding

Todd Still, Baylor University
“Since We Believe that Jesus Died and Rose Again”: The Death and Resurrection of Jesus in 1 Thessalonians (25 min)

E. Johnson, Columbia Theological Seminary, Respondent (15 min)

James Ware, University of Evansville
Paul’s Gospel of the Empty Tomb: The Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 (25 min)

Dale Martin, Yale University, Respondent (15 min)

Pauline Soteriology
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Theme: The Social Embodiment of Pauline Theology
Douglas Campbell, Duke University, Presiding

Jim Harrison, Wesley Institute
Augustan Rome and the Body of Christ: A Comparison of the Social Vision of the Res Gestae and Paul’s Letter to the Romans (35 min)

David Horrell, University of Exeter
Embodied Theology: Soma as Soteriological and Social Category in Paul (35 min)

Larry Welborn, Fordham University
The Kairos, The Awakening: Pauline Soteriology in Nero’s Rome (35 min)

New Unit Planning Session: Paul and Judaism
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Theme: What Does it Mean to Approach Paul as Practicing First-Century Judaism?
Kathy Ehrensperger, University of Wales Lampeter, Presiding

Magnus Zetterholm, Lund University
Paul as a First-Century Jew: The State of the Question (20 min)

Anders Runesson, McMaster University
Paul and Jewish-Christianity: Terminological and Conceptual Issues (20 min)

Pamela Eisenbaum, Iliff School of Theology
Paul and Christianity: Was Paul a Christian? (20 min)

Mark D. Nanos, Rockhurst University
Locating Paul on a Map of First Century Judaism
(20 min)

Paula Fredriksen, Boston University
A Way Forward for Research and Discussion of “Paul and Judaism” (20 min)

Pauline Epistles
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
David Horrell, University of Exeter, Presiding

Bradley R. Trick, Duke University
The Singular Abrahamic Seed and the Law’s Supplementing of the Promise in Gal 3:15-20 (30 min)

K.B. Neutel, University of Groningen
Were You a Slave When You Were Called?: Questioning Paul’s Social Conservatism (30 min)

John Goodrich, Moody Bible Institute
Compelled to Preach: Retaining Paul’s Apostolic Right in 1 Corinthians 9.17 (30 min)

Kevin Scull, University of California-Los Angeles
Paul’s Use of Self-Presentation as a Defense of His Oratorical Abilities in 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21 (30 min)

John Paul Dickson, Macquarie University
Did Paul expect his converts to further the gospel?
(30 min)

Disputed Paulines
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Theme: Colossians and Ephesians
Daniel Darko, University of Scranton, Presiding

Matthew E. Gordley, Regent University
Reading the Household Code of Colossians in its Contexts: A Critique and Proposal (30 min)

Ben C. Blackwell, Durham University
Deification and Colossians 2.10
(30 min)

April Favara, Iliff School of Theology/University of Denver
The Stoic Ethic of Perfect Manhood in Ephesians 4:13 (30 min)

Aaron Sherwood, Durham University
A Discourse Analysis of Ephesians 3:1–13 (30 min)

Additional meetings this year include the big N.T. Wright lecture:

Institute for Biblical Research
6:45 PM to 10:00 PM
Theme: Annual Lecture and Reception
Annual Lecture: N. T. Wright
N. T. Wright, University of St. Andrews
The Kingdom and the Cross
(45 min)

Michael Bird, Crossway College, Respondent (20 min)
N. T. Wright, Church of England, Respondent (5 min)


Society of Christian Ethics
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Theme: What Biblical Scholars Wish Christian Ethicists Would Start/Stop Doing with Scripture
Scholarship exploring the context, meaning, and reception of Scripture makes a foundational contribution to Christian ethics, but in this session, Scripture scholars have been invited to advise ethicists not just about how to read texts but about how to do ethics. Terence Fretheim and Stephen Fowl will offer their manifestos, to which Stanley Hauerwas will respond. Their ensuing dialogue will invite additional contributions from those attending.

Michael Cartwright, University of Indianapolis, Presiding (5 min)
Terence Fretheim, Luther Seminary, Panelist (30 min)
Stephen Fowl, Loyola College in Maryland, Panelist (30 min)
Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University, Panelist (30 min)

More to come!

Two Interviews

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

I cannot believe how long it has been since I have had time to blog—between family matters, starting summer school administratively, and now teaching a summer school course on Revelation while also finising my book on the Apocalypse—a book about which I will post more later.

Anyhow, though I don’t normally call attention to things like this. someone might be interested in an interview with me and one with N.T. Wright that mentions my work. Thanks to Nick Mitchell at The King and His Kingdom for doing the first one and for telling me about the second.

Nick has also recently posted at least 10 summaries of and reflections on my book Reading Paul.