Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

Revelation, Civil Religion, and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

I am assisting my pastor in a series of sermons on the messages to the churches in Revelation in connection with the lectionary reading from Mark for the day. So far it’s been a fascinating intertextual experience!

Last Sunday I preached on the message to the church in Smyrna:

8“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: 9“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.


My main point was that in order to be ready to suffer faithfully, this church had escaped the temptations of the two cousins Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and Civil Religion. The former was documented as the religion of most American teens (and, I would suggest, adults) by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Of course I had to show how a form of this disease already existed in the first century in the sacrificial systems meant to keep the gods blessing us with fertility, prosperity etc. As for civil religion, that was the imperial cult.

In any event, the sermon was a sermon, not a lecture. But I think I was successful in helping people see the the gods and narratives that these ultimately non-Christian “spiritualities” depend on and embody:

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
There is a god who created the world, looks down on us from heaven with a smile, wants to bless us, wants us to be good to ourselves and kind to others, is there for us when we are in a jam, and promises us a place in heaven if we are good.

Civil Religion
There is a god who created the world, looks down on our country (fill in the blank) with a big smile, has blessed us more than any other nation, thinks our values are his values, wants to expand our influence around the world, wants us to be good to our friends but helps us defeat our enemies, and expects us to love our country as a way of loving God.

Revelation is a manifesto against TMD and Civil Religion.

Reclaiming Advent

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

I know it’s a bit late for this year, but here’s the outline of my talk from a few weeks back, as there have been several requests. This talk was given by me (a Methodist) at an event sponsored by three Catholic churches. There were several people from other kinds of churches present. Unfortunately, there is no audio and no full text.

    “Reclaiming Advent: A Spiritual Season for a Secular Age”

? The Secularization of Advent
o Shopping season: consumption
o Christmas songs as a seductive marketing device
o Focus on the coming of a day/gifts, not a person; non-religious “advent” calendars

? The Season of Advent
o The word: “coming”
o The season: since late 5th c.; wreaths since about 9th c.
o The colors: purple, rose, blue, white, green

? The Sundays of Advent: hope, peace, joy, love
o Advent I = Hope/prophecy
o Advent II–IV = peace, joy, love or other themes (e.g. Prophets’, Bethlehem, Shepherds’, Angels’ candles)

o III (sometimes IV) is joy/rose (Gaudete Sunday = Rejoice Sunday)

o Lectionary Gospel readings
I Jesus’ second coming/coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness
II John the Baptist
III Jesus’ identity (JBapt in year C)
IV Jesus’ birth OR annunciation OR incarnation

? Some Things to Remember
o Christmas is not your birthday.
o Presence is more important than presents.

? The Spirituality of Advent
o Hope/watchfulness
o Preparation/repentance
o Faith
o Joy
o Love/service
o Welcoming Jesus
“Advent… helps us to understand the fullness of the value and meaning of the mystery of Christmas. It is not just about commemorating the historical event, which occurred some 2,000 years ago in a little village of Judea. Instead, we must understand that our whole life should be an “advent,” in vigilant expectation of Christ’s final coming… Advent is then a period of intense training that directs us decisively to the One who has already come, who will come and who continuously comes.” (Pope John Paul II)

? Some Practices to Reclaim Advent
o Speak Christian: “Advent Blessings”; “Merry Christmas”

o Write Christian: Christmas cards / sharing your faith

o Sing Christian: learn new Advent hymns and Christmas carols, go caroling, listen to a concert of sacred music

o Take the Christian calendar to heart
? New year
? Advent calendars

o Participate in an Advent spiritual discipline/adventure
? Reading Scripture texts
? Family Advent wreath with readings and prayers
? Reading a book
? Contribute to and/or use a church-based Advent book of devotions/ meditations

o Simplify and renew gift-giving
? Cut back
? Make gifts
? Give gifts of time
? Give gifts that benefit others
• Catholic Relief Services “Joy to the World Alternative Christmas”
• Heifer International, World Vision, etc.
• Fair Trade shops: SERVV, Ten Thousand Villages (Baltimore), church fairs

o Practice acts of kindness and hospitality (Where is Jesus already present?)
? Buy gifts for those in need (“giving trees,” etc.)
? Volunteer somewhere

o Other ideas to share with one another

? Some Resources
o www.thechristiancalendar.com
o www.adventconspiracy.org: worship fully, spend less, give more, love all
o www.crs.org/act/advent: prepare prayerfully, shop responsibly, give generously
o www.worldvisiongifts.org
o www.heifer.org/catalog
o www.servv.org

Civil Religion (again)–and an Antidote from Allan Bevere

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

On a church sign in rural Delaware (seen returning from a day at the beach):

Jesus is the only way to salvation.
Thank you, troops.

Thank God (literally) for the new little (in size, not impact) book by Allan Bevere, a Methodist pastor with a Ph.D. in NT from Durham (England), called The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World.

It’s published by a small press but will, I hope, get some significant attention in the church. Here’s the text of my endorsement for the book:

Allan Bevere has written a timely, eye-opening, and thought-provoking book for Christians, whether they consider themselves conservative or progressive. He calls on us to forsake the seductive, insidious error of Christendom and civil religion in order to follow Jesus and bear witness to the reign of God. May this book contribute to the renewal of the church for the sake of the world and the glory of God.

Tolle, lege!

Civil Religion Undone

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Although we seldom see success stories in the uncivilizing of Christian faith in the U.S., here’s heartening news from one of my students, who also happens to be a reader of this blog:

After numerous conversations with my pastor and occasions when I shared your words and those of others, as well as my reflections on other churches, this July 4 Sunday [2011] was different at my church. My pastor did not lead a pledge to the flag and made no reference to the flag. He wished the congregation a pleasant holiday, and included in the prayers those who are ill at home and abroad in various capacities, and did use as a recessional hymn one verse of Eternal Father. That was it, and I was so proud of him for his willingness to change after 11 years of pledging and hauling out the flag [emphasis added]. The pastor was concerned that some in the congregation would take him to task for not doing the flag thing, but it seems that no one said a word, at least not yet.

My response was, not surprisingly, “Hallelujah!” Both this student, for such a witness, and this pastor, for such courage, deserve our admiration and gratitude.

Thoughts?

Family Radio: Inside the Church There is no Salvation

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Family Radio is proffering a dangerous ecclesiology. No, that is not a typo. I did not mean to say “eschatology.” A number of people have been wondering why I have not blogged about the eschatology of Harold Camping and Family Radio. My answer would be that its obviously misguided character does not need another critique from me. But I think we should be much more concerned about the “movement”‘s ecclesiology, or lack thereof, because that is what will not be left behind when we are all still here on May 22.

A few days ago I received in the mail, with no return address, two pamphlets from Family Radio, each dated 2009. One announces the coming end of the world on May 21, 2011, gives the biblical “proof” for this date, and recommends that all readers beg God for mercy.

The other pamphlet is entitled “Does God Love You?” In a series of 14 questions and answers, the pamphlet begins with a quote of John 3:16 before quickly shifting focus to God’s anger and judgment. The word “love” with God as subject does not appear again after question 1. The “good news” is that if readers diligently read and study the Bible, they might eventually find out that God will be merciful to them, because (how or why, is not clear) of Christ’s substitutionary death, and they may be counted among those upon whom God will be merciful–the saved. In the meantime, all that sinners can do is read or listen to the Bible, God’s “Law book,” so they will be in a “place” where God can save them. There is no assurance of salvation, only the possibility that God might save us; obedience to the Law book is the evidence that one might be among the saved.

That “place,” however is not the church. The answer to question 13, “Should I attend a church?” is “Definitely NOT!” For 2,000 years, the Bible tells us, church membership was good for believers in Jesus, but now

we learn from the Bible that God is no longer saving people through the ministry of the churches. The church age has come to an end. Fact is God commands in His Law book, the Bible, that true believers are to leave their church. This is because God’s righteous judgment is upon all local congregations as God is preparing the world for Judgment Day…. The Bible teaches that at this present time, when we are very near the end of time, that it is outside the churches that God is saving a great multitude of people.

A quotation and misinterpretation of Matt 24:15, 16 (identifying Judea as “the local churches”) and quotations of 1 Pet 4:17 and Rev 7:9 underwrite this (non-) ecclesiology.

I do not have the time or energy to critique the problems with this soteriology and non-ecclesiology. But if you ever wonder after May 21 why so many people are absent from church, it will not be because they have disappeared into the rapture zone. It will be, in some cases, because they have disappeared into the wrath-filled zone of certain forms of “Christian” radio.

The Ecumenical Apostle

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

I had a delightful time in the hills of Pennsylvania last Thursday giving the annual ecumenical lecture at Mt. Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. It was called “A More Ecumenical Paul: The Jewish, Catholic, Reformed, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Anabaptist (and more) Apostle” (the more was meant to be open-ended, but I ended up focusing on Paul the ecologist). We looked at texts that highlight themes from Paul that have been especially noticed by these various traditions in order to see Paul more as a contributor to Christian unity-in-diversity. We ended with some common, and some not-so-common, themes that emerge from these texts.

Although/because Cresson is super-rural, this small Catholic college draws people for this event from a 50-mile radius or more. Among those in attendance were the current and soon-to-be-appointed Catholic bishops, the Lutheran bishop, the Brethren in Christ Bishop, the Presbyterian presbytery exec, and a whole lot of other really fine people. The spirit of ecumenical openness and cooperation was palpable.

Perhaps the great surprise of the day was being introduced to the college’s ecumenical studies collection in its library, a room full of 18,000 top-notch books and reference materials in theological studies, almost all donated by one retired Lutheran pastor–bought specifically to have a theological library in rural Pennsylvania. I was bowled over by its size and scope. Another grace-filled instance of “bloom where you are planted.”

Lent’s Witness (a guest post)

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

I have been off the grid for a while, busy preparing lectures and completing articles. But since today is the eve of (Western) Lent, here is a guest post (originally posted in 2010) from my son Brian, who blogs over at Restoring Shalom:

Of the various seasons of the church, Lent is probably the least exciting to some people. It is famous as a time of somber reflection and (probably more notably) a time to give up something you enjoy, supposing somehow that it is good for you to go without, to fast, for awhile. We take our cue from Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness without food or water, a time where he was subjected to temptation prior to beginning his ministry. The text on Sunday was from Luke 4:1-13. We are told three specific temptations Jesus is faced with at the end of his fast, when he’s at his weakest. Each of these temptations is a literary foreshadowing of events in Jesus’ life when he will be tempted again to acheive victory through normal understandings of power. I love John Milton’s Paradise Regained which offers some neat insights and imaginative understandings of the text. Milton sees the temptations of Jesus as the crucial point in his ministry, where Jesus comes to know fully his own divinity; everything after that flows from this full knowledge of who he truly is and what he is called to do.

Temptation #1: The temptation to turn stones into bread. Here, the temptation for Jesus is to relieve not only his own hunger, but as some people have interpreted, the temptation to use his divinity to cure others’ hunger as well in order to win their favor. As Milton tells it (from Book I)

“But, if thou be the Son of God, command
That out of these hard stones be made thee bread;
So shalt thou save thyself, and us relieve
With food, whereof we wretched seldom taste.”

And (from Book II)

“What followers, what retin’ue canst thou gain,
Or at thy heels the dizzy multitude,
Longer than thou canst feed them on thy cost?

Later on in Luke 9, Jesus sees this temptation again in the form of the feeding of the 5000. For me, the neat thing is that Jesus distributes the food through the disciples, using them as the instruments for feeding the world. It’s an example of God’s economy, Jesus using little to accomplish something that seems impossible. Perfect divine power. Jesus doesn’t use the opportunity to take over, or let others try to convince him to do the same. Satan, in the Milton example, is trying to convince Jesus what he needs to do in order to keep people following and listening to him. But we see in the end that even feeding them does not convince them to stay with him.

Temptation #2: The offer of the kingdoms of the world. Jesus is here offered the chance to take over the government and thereby bring God’s kingdom to earth in an authoritative way. The parallel for the church is obvious, that we are offered and tempted for the chance to reform the empire as a means to achieve God’s work in the world. But just as Jesus rejected the kingdoms offered to him, we the church must also reject the temptation to believe that we can bring the kingdom of God through the government. Jesus’ way is the way of death, of weakness and rejection. We must take up that cross daily (the word “daily” is added in Luke’s Gospel from Mark’s). Milton sees this temptation as the temptation to overthrow Rome on behalf of the Jewish people. The fascinating thing about Milton is that his Satan is acutely aware that the restoration and salvation of Israel from Roman Empire is an important part of Jesus’ mission, but his temptations are temptations to not use his divine power (the way of weakness) to achieve the ends. Luke’s answer to this temptation is in Jesus’ anti-triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, where Jesus creates almost a farce of a coup d’etat, coming in on a donkey.

Milton’s Version: (Book IV, “monster” refers to the Emperor of Rome)

With what ease,
Endued with regal virtues as thou art,
Appearing, and beginning noble deeds,
Might’st thou expel this monster from his throne,
Now made a sty, and, in his place ascending,
A victor-people free from servile yoke!
And with my help thou may’st; to me the power
Is given, and by that right I give it thee.
Aim, therefore, at no less than all the world;
Aim at the highest; without the highest attained,
Will be for thee no sitting, or not long,
On David’s throne, be prophesied what will.”

Temptation #3: Jesus taken to the temple and tempted to jump off and be saved by the angels. Again Milton’s theme that the temptations are really about Jesus coming to know his own Messiah-ship appears.

There stand, if thou wilt stand; to stand upright
Will ask thee skill. I to thy Father’s house
Have brought thee, and highest placed: highest is best.
Now shew thy progeny; if not to stand,
Cast thyself down. Safely, if Son of God;
For it is written, ‘He will give command
Concerning thee to his Angels; in their hands
They shall uplift thee, lest at any time
Thou chance to dash thy foot against a stone.
To whom thus Jesus: also it is written,
Tempt not the Lord thy God. He said, and stood;
But Satan, smitten with amazement, fell.

Milton makes the drama about whether or not Jesus can stand at the very top of the temple. For Satan, Jesus seems trapped. Either he falls and forces Jesus to put God to the test and is therefore saved, or Jesus dies/isn’t saved and his own faith in who he is called to be is in jeopardy. But Jesus does the miraculous thing and stands on the pinnacle of the temple, a tiny point. Luke re-visits this temptation when Jesus hangs on the cross and is jeered to save himself as to prove who he really is. And here too is our challenge, for how many of us have given in to the compromising culture around us. As a church, we’ve married the state, we’ve given in to the temptation not to bear our cross, to die with Christ.

And so, Lent is a witness for us about the way of Jesus. It is a witness to the world that we begin the journey to life (Easter) through death. It is no mere 40 days of giving up a pleasure, but a radical outward symbol of the type of discipleship we are called to. Lent is an inward journey as much as an outward journey. The death to self, culture, and all other temptations is given the promise of new life with Christ. For us to know our true identity in Christ is to face ongoing temptation to believe that salvation is found elsewhere, that life is found elsewhere, just like Satan attempts to cause Jesus to doubt his own Sonship in Paradise Regained. Jesus’ nonviolent, subversive, seemingly-weak-but-divinely-powerful way of being and doing in the world is the major theme and lesson for us during Lent.

Taizé Course

Monday, November 1st, 2010

As many people know, I am a huge Taizé “fan” and have been to the community in France seven times. I am excited to be teaching a course about Taizé next term (spring 2011). Following are the texts for the course:

Required Texts

1.      Jason Brian Santos, A Community Called Taizé: A Story of Prayer, Worship and Reconciliation. InterVarsity Press, 2008. ISBN13 978-0830835256.

2.      Kathryn Spink, A Universal Heart: The Life and Vision of Brother Roger of Taizé. SPCK/GIA, 2005 [1986]. ISBN13 978-1579995683.

3.      Brother Roger [Schutz] of Taizé, The Sources of Taizé: No Greater Love. GIA G-5363. ISBN-13: 978-1579990862(ISBN10 1-57999-086-X).

4. Marcello Fidanzio, ed., Brother Roger of Taizé: Essential Writings. Orbis, 2006. ISBN13 978-1570756399.

5.      Taizé. Seeds of Trust: Reflecting on the Bible in Silence and Song. GIA, 2005. GIA G-6719. ISBN13 978-1579-995386 (ISBN10 1-57999-538-1).

6.      “Songs and Prayers from Taizé.” GIA CD, 1995. B000003YKF

In addition to normal academic requirements (analytical essay, research paper, book review), students will use Seeds of Trust and the CD for daily prayer,  visit a Taizé prayer service, and write about these experiences.

I wonder if anyone else has taught such a course. The closest I have found thus far in a quick search is a pilgrimage course to Taizé offered at Drew’s theological school. I took students and others there once as part of a study trip course called “Courage and Conviction in Christian France.”

What I’m Up to…

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Not much time to blog lately, but…

I just blurbed the new Paideia commentary on Romans by Frank Matera: a great resource for students.

My review of Jimmy Dunn’s Christianity in the Making, vol. 2 (on Acts and Paul), is in the July issue of Interpretation here.

My response to Markus Bockmuehl on Peter and conversion in the NT is in the 2010 issue of Ex Auditu.

I am editing my Reading Revelation Responsibly.

I am writing the Lund Lectures at North Park Seminary in Chicago on “Re-imagining Justification” (Wed., September 22)

I am writing a paper for the Symposium on Theological Interpretation of Scripture at North Park, which will be discussed Sept 23: “Effecting the New Covenant: A (Not So) New, New Testament Model of the Atonement.”

I am writing my paper for a special international conference at Duke (Oct 7-10) on Revelation, Intertextuality, and Politics. My paper is called “Theological and Hermeneutical Reflections on the Impact History of Revelation.”

So now it is clear why I’m not blogging much!

(Professor) N.T. Wright Going to St. Andrews

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

I thought I was done blogging about Bishop Tom for a while, but then the big news came out today: he is headed for St. Andrews University in Scotland as Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity. Both the University and the Diocese of Durham released statements today.

The good Bishop said it was the most difficult decision of his life (other than turning down the offer we made a few years back :-) ). In my conversation with him in Chicago, he dropped a hint in this direction, but I think most people are quite surprised. I know he is sad to leave the ministry in Durham, but this move certainly feels (w)right to me.

Why? He will now have time to actually get some writing done! (It’s about time.) No more slouching!

Seriously, he will be able to continue his pastoral writing, increase his scholarly output, and guide graduate students. In fact, I know that some people already inquired today about the Ph.D. application process at St. Andrews for the fall and learned that it is closed! I’m sure this was well planned.

Tom joins some interesting people at St. Andrews (which has a very strong biblical faculty and is currently rated the top school in theology in Scotland), including Philip Esler, Trevor Hart, and Alan Torrance not to mention Richard Bauckham (emeritus) (RB has moved to Cambridge in retirement), plus a young American gospels scholar, Kelly Iverson, a good friend of my colleague Chris Skinner.

Bishop/Professor Tom will be 62 in the fall—still a young and energetic man, with many productive years left, we hope and pray. (His colleague C.K. Barrett at Durham, who is 92, remains active to this day as far as I know.) May the next phase of his scholarship and ministry be blessed.

What do others think of this development?


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