Archive for December, 2010

More Civil Religion at Christmas

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

I had the misfortune of attending church on December 26 at a relative’s church where the pastor of visitation (I believe), a former military chaplain, led the service and preached. He managed to mention the military and war at least 10 times during the service, even apart from the sermon, which was on the birth narrative in Matthew, focusing on cruel Herod and the slaughter of the innocents.

Now he actually made a good point: that the story of the incarnation is not an unrealistic, feel-good fairy tale but one in which the horror of human evil is recognized and is a central part of the narrative. So far so good. I’ve preached and taught this myself.

But the rather startling conclusion to the sermon was that while evil is still real, it will not win in the end, not because the counterintuitive, vulnerable power of God seen in the incarnation and cross will triumph, but because God’s truth is marching on, especially (he clearly implied) in the form of U.S. military power and activity. So the post-sermon hymn–on the day after Christmas!!!–was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”!!!

With Charlie Brown, I feel like saying, “Good grief!” and asking, “Doesn’t anyone know what Christmas is all about?”

Hallelujah Chorus at Christmas (2): A Guest Post

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

In response to my previous post, my friend and former student Susan Jaeger offers the following thoughtful take on the Hallelujah Chorus during Advent and Christmas:

I am aware that the Hallelujah Chorus is not part of the Advent/Christmas section of Messiah (though most performances of Messiah that I have heard during Advent have included the entire work). What I appreciated about the video clip [of the flash mob in Canada singing the Hallelujah Chorus] was that, in the midst of the peak time for pre-Christmas shopping madness, the juxtaposition of the Hallelujah Chorus with all the shopping-mall corporate logos made me think of something Tom Wright might say: if Jesus is Lord, then Mammon is not.

I am not so naive as to assume that the same thought was in the minds of all the singers. Obviously it is impossible to know what their various motivations might have been. It’s just that my own thoughts and motivations are muddled often enough that it is hard to judge others. I found it to be a lovely performance musically. People singing about Jesus as Lord, in the middle of the “Agora,” seemed to me to be a worthy confrontation with paganism, at least slightly akin to early Christianity.

Despite my strong reservations about the Hallelujah Chorus at this time of year (unless sung at its appropriate place in Messiah), including the fear that its powerful content indicated by Susan will be trivialized, I think she makes a very good point. Thank you, Susan.

Good-bye, Away in a Manger and the Hallelujah Chorus (the latter at least at Christmas)

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

Brian Gorman (yes, he’s related) has a fine post about some of the church’s theologically poor and misleading Christmas music, above all “Away in a Manger” (sorry, kids) here.

I will add my two-cents about the Hallelujah Chorus, which seems to be gaining in popularity, at least in shopping malls. While there’s lots to sing about and shout Hallelujah about at Christmas, Handel’s “Christmas Part” (part I) of his oratorio Messiah does not end with the Hallelujah Chorus. Handel and his collaborator Charles Jennens knew better. The Hallelujah Chorus, derived from Revelation 19:6,16 and 11:15, concludes part 2 of Messiah‘s three parts. It celebrates the victory and reign of God/the Lamb, the defeat of evil and emperor, the reality that God alone is and always will be Lord, and the fact that we know this God in the self-revelation of the Lamb who was slain and who triumphs, by his word, over all God’s enemies.

Can we sing that in Advent and at Christmas? Of course. Jesus’ birth demonstrates and foreshadows some of those Revelation themes. But I doubt most people sing it for that reason (actually, I’m not sure why hey sing it, apart from the one word “Hallelujah”), and I doubt, liturgically, narratively, and theologically that now is the best time to sing it. The end of part two of Messiah celebrates the Lordship of God, over against all false claimants to the throne of the universe, that is manifested in the victory of cross, resurrection, and ascension.

Let’s wait a few months to sing Hallelujah.

Civil Religion at Christmas

Monday, December 20th, 2010

It should come as no surprise, especially in this country, that even some of those who try to keep Christmas a “religious” occasion, rather than a purely secular one, cannot refrain from re-making Christmas into a celebration of civil religion, even of the militaristic kind.

Let me give just one example.

One of my favorite biblical texts that is often read in Advent and associated with the gift of peace, both present and future, that Jesus the Prince of Peace provides is from Isaiah 11:

1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On the fourth Sunday of Advent I heard a beautiful musical setting of this text that was, unfortunately, ruined by an interpreter’s brash and inappropriate connection of these words to current U.S. military action around the world. (Thankfully, this did not occur at my church.)

Making this sort of militaristic connection comes so naturally to most Americans that it hardly seems odd or wrong to them. They do not realize that in so doing they are denying the very claim they make, and probably have in some of their Christmas cards: that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Or, to put it more forcefully and in line with Matthew, Luke, John, Paul, the book of Revelation, etc.: Jesus, not Caesar, is the Prince of Peace.

I will be the first to admit that currently we do not see Isaiah’s vision realized in its fulness. But that does not mean that U.S. military action is the way to achieve the peace that Jesus promises and provides. (Even writing that self-evident truth seems so odd, yet so necessary.) Rather, the church–not the military–is called and empowered by God to be beacons and agents of Christ’s peace.

Preachers and other interpreters of God’s word, here is a word for you at this time of year and in this season of world history: resist the temptation, especially this Christmas, to betray the Lord with a militaristic heresy. Preach Jesus, not Caesar, as the Prince of Peace.


Saturday, December 18th, 2010

Early this morning my counter hit the 100,000 mark. In the world of serious blogging, that’s nothing, but it’s a nice milestone for someone who “has their blogging under control,” as one colleague just put it. Thanks to all who read and comment. More to come, God wiliing.

A Pauline Missional Hermeneutic (1)

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

I was recently asked to write a short article on reading Paul missionally. Here’s an excerpt; the full piece will appear in a publication for seminarians called Catalyst.

In his very readable published dissertation, Mission and Moral Reflection in Paul (Peter Lang, 2006) Michael Barram (St. Mary’s College of California) argues that “mission” is not a discrete aspect of Paul’s work, such as evangelism and initial community formation, but a principal rubric for understanding the apostle’s entire vocation, including moral reflection and ongoing community nurturing. Paul’s letters are therefore “mission documents.” If Barram is right, as I think he is, then we need to read Paul’s letters in two ways: first, as witnesses to Paul’s understanding of God’s mission, his role in it, and the place of his congregations in it; and, second, as scriptural texts for our own missional identity, our contemporary vocational and ecclesial self-understanding and practices. Thus is born a Pauline missional hermeneutic.

In a Pauline missional hermeneutic, the guiding question is “How do we read Paul for what he says about the missio Dei and about our participation in it?” In other words, the issue before us is not primarily exegetical or historical, but hermeneutical. What is a Pauline letter? (a mission document). How are we to read it appropriately? (missionally). Older historical and exegetical questions—e.g., about how and whom Paul evangelized, and whether he expected his communities to do the same—are still relevant, but they will not be our primary concerns, and they are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are part of a larger discussion about Paul and mission. Together with all kinds of new questions that emerge from this enlarged understanding, they serve as a means to our own theological and missiological reflection.

Douglas Campbell Interviewed Online

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

Douglas Campbell is interviewed for 30 minutes here about his books on participation in Christ. HT Matt Montonini and Mike Bird.

I am largely very sympathetic with Douglas’s thesis, at least in what it affirms–though not in what it denies (specifically about Romans 1-3).

No Time for Birth: Incarnation and the Messy Subject of Abortion

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that Christians are not talking much about abortion lately, or doing much about it either. As some of you know, I have written two books on the topic, though it is not something anyone enjoys writing or talking about.

However, as we are in the season of Advent and Incarnation, a poem by Madeleine L’Engle recently came to mind as I was asked in an email, by a young public-school student (I’m guessing middle school) writing a report, what Christians think about abortion. (My response to him is printed below.)

The Irrational Season
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.

Dear ________,

Thank you for your message and your interest in this important topic.

The answers to your questions are very complicated, because different kinds of Christians have various approaches to abortion. I will try to give you an overview of the subject.

The basic Christian view of the world is that God is the creator of all life.That gives, or should give, Christians a strong presumption against destroying any kind of life. Christians also believe that humans are made in the image of God and are special forms of creation, so that destroying human life is especially serious. Furthermore, Christians believe that God became human in and through a young woman’s womb (uterus), so that should give Christians great pause when they think about destroying human life in the uterus–abortion. Abortion, then, it would seem, is prohibited by the commandment against taking human life/murder, and is a serious form of failing to love one’s neighbor.

The earliest Christians who wrote about abortion did so less than 100 years after the time of Jesus, and they began a tradition of Christian opposition to abortion for the reasons stated above. Of course, even then, some Christian women procured abortions, but it was still seen as a grave sin. Christian women who contemplated abortion were encouraged to find other solutions, with the help of their Christian family. The same has been true for almost 2,000 years and is still true for many Christians today.

However, in the last 50 years, a growing number of Christians have gone along with the cultural attitude that because sexual activity is a right and is not necessarily connected to having children, continuing a pregnancy is a matter of choice. Many Christians just take this secular attitude for granted, while others have thought about it carefully. Today, there are basically four Christian views of abortion:

1. Abortion is never permitted.

2. Abortion is permitted only in rare circumstances (it threatens the life of mother or baby; the child will likely be seriously deformed; the pregnancy is due to rape).

3. Abortion is permitted as a last resort, for good reasons (broader and more vague reasons than those in #2), if all other options (adoption or keeping the baby) seem unworkable.

4. Abortion is permitted for any reason; it is a woman’s free choice, though the decision should be taken seriously.

The majority of practicing Christians in the world who have thought seriously about abortion probably hold to #1 or #2. Those who advocate #1 or #2 (most Catholics, evangelicals, and Eastern Orthodox, as well as many others) often try to help women in problem pregnancies by providing clothing, medical care, and/or adoption services. There is also a growing emphasis on the responsibility of Christian individuals and churches to care for such women. Pregnancy is not something to go through by oneself.

Position #3 is the basic position of many so-called “mainline” denominations, the Protestant churches that have been losing members for the last few decades Position #4 is held by a few Christian individuals and by one religious organization. Although it is not the official position of many churches, some people think it is the normal Christian position.

Much more could be said (I have written two books on the subject), but I hope this is helpful.