Archive for January, 2011

Obama at Tucson: A Christian Response

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

I have finally found the words to say something Christian (cruciform and anastiform) about Tucson and Obama–but they are someone else’s words! They are a blog post for the religion page (I think) of a Kansas newspaper. The writer is Tim Suttle, a former student of my good friend Andy Johnson at Nazarene Seminary in Kansas City, and can be found here.

A couple of excerpts:

Cultivating a Christian response to tragic events such as those in Tucson can be tricky business. The emotions are immediate, of course. We feel pain, grief, even fear. We look at the pictures of the warm, vibrant 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green and wonder why this happened to her. We hear the story of how she was born on 9/11; her destiny, it seems, is to be given to the world and taken from it in the midst of national tragedy. Once the emotions begin to ebb, we move past them as we to try to make some sense of what has happened and formulate our response.

That those who were killed and wounded by the shooter were attempting to participate in the grassroots of American political discourse makes the Christian response even more challenging. We Christians struggle with our involvement in the political realm. Too often we conflate our ideology, be it liberal or conservative, with our faith, baptizing our political beliefs with Christian language and attacking those who disagree. Perhaps this is because we have not realized that our faith is itself a politic — a way of organizing our common life together — meant to transcend typical left-right distinctions. Our faith is meant to define the way we interact with the world, the way we meet all reality, even pain and death.

The most basic tenet of Christianity is that the future of God has broken into the present time through Jesus Christ. Thus we are not victims of the way things are, but we are now free to participate in God’s redemptive project. We may have limited capacities, but we have the ability to choose the future we wish to enact. Our response to tragedy cannot be one of cynicism, skepticism or despair. It must be the response of hope and healing. Our participation in the national discourse at this or any other time should not be infused with the rhetoric of the right or the left because this is not the future to which we are committed. Our words call into being a certain kind of future — one which transcends national politics. Embracing words that heal and eschewing words that wound is a Christian response.

That we are now becoming what we shall one day be eliminates the cynical Christian response. If we are cynical we will enjoin a world of cynicism. If we are skeptical we will no doubt engender a world of skepticism. When it comes to cynicism and despair, there are no victims; there are only willing accomplices. Christians can afford to be peaceful in a world with too much violence. We can be hopeful in a world with too much despair. It is a deeply Christian act to use words that heal, and healing needs all the words it can get.

Two Swords? Ben Witherington and A-J Levine Clarify

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

On his blog, Ben Witherington quotes from his forthcoming commentary on Luke, co-authored by Jewish NT scholar A-J Levine, to lay to rest the misinterpretation of Luke 22:38 as support for Jesus’ disciples taking up arms. Particularly important is his reminder that the Greek text does not say “Two swords are enough” but merely “Enough!”–end of discussion!

The Ehrman Project

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Apparently some folks who don’t agree with Professor Bart Ehrman, especially in his popularizing mode, have decided to do something about it. There’s a new web site, “The Ehrman Project,” with numerous short videos (and more to come, I’ms sure) responding to some of Bart’s claims about Scripture and evil, in particular. Among the contributors so far are Ben Witherington (NT, Asbury), Darrell Bock (NT, Dallas), and Alvin Plantinga (philosophy, Notre Dame). Ironically, the spokesperson for and apparent coordinator of the site, Miles O’Neill, is an employee at UNC Chapel Hill, where Bart works. [Update: According to a comment below, he actually is a staff member with Campus Crusade for Christ at UNC.] In his welcome video Mr. O’Neill states that the site is not an attack on Bart but a set of serious responses from respected scholars who differ.

As I have often told my students, Bart Ehrman and I go back a very long way, back to Princeton Seminary days: friends, neighbors, classmates, teaching fellows together for Bruce Metzger, delivering the New York Times together before classes to feed our families, watching our kids play together, teaching Greek together, etc. We remain friends, though we are no longer close.

As the welcome video states, Bart is smart, witty, and a great communicator. He is an excellent scholar, and has been for many years. I remember his morning quiet times, at 5 or 6 a.m., which consisted of reading the Bible in Greek and Hebrew. I also remember him as a pastor of a Baptist church for a while. I remember conversations about suffering, especially about the killing fields of SE Asia. Bart’s concerns are legitimate.

Bart is a fine NT scholar who knows his material like few others. Bart is a first-class textual critic. I have often thought, however, on some topics, that Bart exaggerates some issues and sometimes makes mountains out of molehills. Bart is not a philosopher or theologian, however, and his legitimate concerns about suffering probably should be addressed in public by someone who is.

Bart is also something of an iconoclast, to say the least. Iconoclasts have a legitimate function, but they also have a responsibility, and need to be held accountable for their words and deeds. I don’t know whether or not this site will encourage some of that, or whether it will itself be too reactionary. We will see. I have not yet viewed the videos, but some will certainly be better than others.

Bart and I come from somewhat similar backgrounds. We have similar Princeton educations–almost identical, in fact. Over time, we have chosen very different ways of understanding and teaching the Bible. I continue to hope that all who teach the Bible and explore the Christian faith publicly will do so in a way that edifies others. I also look forward to seeing what becomes of “The Ehrman Project.” I’m sure Bart does, too! He will not ignore it, I assume.

[P.S. To Bart--who would have thunk it would come to this?!]

Paul’s Letter to American Christians, by Dr. M.L. King, Jr.

Monday, January 17th, 2011

In 1956 and again in 1963 Dr. King delivered a powerful sermon in the form of a letter from Paul to American Christians, which can be found here. (Please note that his remarks about the Catholic church, which may offend some, were made pre-Vatican II.) There it can be read or listened to. (Note: the script does not correspond word for word to the audio.) A few excerpts from the written text:

[Concerning general morality:]

“You have made tremendous strides in the area of scientific and technological development.

“But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. … You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.”

[Concerning allegiance:]

“I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unChristian world. That is what I had to do. That is what every Christian has to do. But I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs. They are afraid to be different….

“But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Phillipian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.”

[Concerning capitalism:]

“I understand that you have an economic system in America known as Capitalism. Through this economic system you have been able to do wonders…. But Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your Capitalism. I still contend that money can be the root of all evil. It can cause one to live a life of gross materialism. I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life. You are prone to judge the success of your profession by the index of your salary and the size of the wheel base on your automobile, rather than the quality of your service to humanity.

“The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation…. God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe “enough and to spare” for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.”

[Concerning segregation:]

“May I say just a word to those of you who are struggling against this evil. Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.

“In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself. Let him know that the festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro. With this attitude you will be able to keep your struggle on high Christian standards.”

[Concerning the goal of life:]

“I still believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may….

What is the summon bonum of life? I think I have an answer America. I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. As John says, “God is love.” He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God.”"

[Concerning love, the cross, and power:]

“You may have the gift of prophecy and understanding all mysteries. You may be able to break into the storehouse of nature and bring out many insights that men never dreamed were there. You may ascend to the heights of academic achievement, so that you will have all knowledge. You may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees. But all of this amounts to absolutely nothing devoid of love.

But even more Americans, you may give your goods to feed the poor. You may give great gifts to charity. You may tower high in philanthropy. But if you have not love it means nothing…. Without love benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.

“So the greatest of all virtues is love. It is here that we find the true meaning of the Christian faith. This is at bottom the meaning of the cross. The great event on Calvary signifies more than a meaningless drama that took place on the stage of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power drunk generation that love is most durable power in the world, and that it is at bottom the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. Only through achieving this love can you expect to matriculate into the university of eternal life.”

Paul: A Pre- and Post-Test

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Just for fun, I started the semester with some version of the following true/false “pre-test” in my courses on Paul’s letters and theology, one in the (Catholic) seminary and the other in the Ecumenical Institute of Theology. Although I do not give final exams in either course, after a semester of study, it could make for an interesting essay or take-home exam. Each question is meant to be a bit of a trick question, or at least to have a twist or two.

1. Paul was a Christian.

2. Paul was a Jew.

3. Paul was converted after falling off a horse on the road to Damascus.

4. Saul changed his name to Paul after his conversion.

5. Paul wrote Romans.

6. Paul wrote Ephesians.

7. Paul wrote Hebrews.

8. Catholics like Jesus, but Protestants like Paul.

9. Paul was a misogynist.

10. The center of Paul’s thought, and his abiding contribution to Christian theology, is the doctrine of justification by faith.

Each question provoked a few minutes of give and take that made the “obvious” answers look  simplistic and the questions appear–rightly–more complicated than they seem at first.

Justification: An Overview of Recent Proposals

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

My good friend Andy Johnson of Nazarene Seminary has a very helpful overview here of three recent proposals about justification in Paul–those of N.T. Wright, Douglas Campbell, and myself–in contrast to one another and especially to the traditional Protestant view. I recommend it highly.

Civil Religion Watch

Monday, January 10th, 2011

As most readers of this blog (and/or my books) know, I have an almost fanatical concern about civil religion, especially the variety found in the U.S. So I am asking you, my readers and friends, over the next few months to help identify and make public various expressions of civil religion.

To start off the new year: There is a church in the northeastern part of Baltimore called Christ and Country Church. I wish I had known about it before my Revelation book went to press.