Category Archives: theology

Confessions of an Introverted Church Member

I test out as an introvert on the Myers-Briggs type indicator. And by that I mean seriously introverted. I have 99% of the signs and characteristics of this personality type, and probably a few additional ones that would fascinate the psychological profession to no end.

Some people are surprised to hear this because I am a litigator. A lawyer? Not so surprising. After all, someone needs to sit in front of their computer for hours on end drafting things like those license agreements that we never read when we install software on our computer – and who better to forego hours on end of personal interaction than an introvert, right? But a litigator? Who has to deal with witnesses? And judges? And juries? And other lawyers? And – gasp! – clients? How does that work?

It actually works out much better than you would imagine. I have arranged my work and non-work patterns so that I get a lot of quiet time, and the rest of my practice actually helps to get me “out” and interacting with people on a day-to-day basis, something that my extroverted wife insists is good for me.

Dealing with church, however, has always been an interesting challenge. This isn’t because introverts are incapable of rich, healthy spiritual lives, but because – to the introvert – most modern-day, Western churches look and feel like social minefields.

Inspired by a recent reading of Adam McHugh’s Introverts in the Church, a book I would heartily recommend for pastors (introverted or otherwise) and introverted lay-leaders as well, I will try to explain – in this post – why doing church (as its come to be called) is challenging for introverts. Then, in a couple of posts to follow, I plan to provide brief survival guides for introverts in the church, and for the church leaders who deal with them.

introvert[1] So…what makes church such a challenging experience for the introvert? To answer the question, lets look at some typical traits of introverts, and consider the way they impact their interactions within modern-day churches.

  • Introverts often prefer solitude over socializing. Introverts require a certain quota of time in which they are either (a) alone or (b) in the company of a only select person or group of people, such as a spouse or family member (and even then, not conversing very much). This gives us time to process the things that happen to us in our lives and to recuperate from the difficult task of interacting with the world. Some people go crazy if they spend too much time alone. Introverts go crazy when they spend too much time with people, even people that they like.
  • Introverts value conversational quality over quantity. Introverts are not interested in constantly talking when in the presence of others. If you happen to stumble over a subject that interests the introvert, you may find yourself in a deep conversation a few minutes later (like it or not!). However, if not, the conversation is likely to strike the extrovert as awkward and puzzling. For the introvert, small talk is hard work, and generally unpleasant. I often think of it this way: extroverts like to talk about what is on their mind at the moment, while introverts like to talk about what has been on their mind lately. The first is contemporary, spontaneous and semi-random; the second is an expression of a more purposeful train of thought that has likely bee in the introvert’s mind for weeks, months, or even years.
  • Shyness and introversion are not the same thing. Some introverts suffer from communication apprehension, or the fear of personal interaction. However, many – like me – don’t really fear interaction per se. Rather, casual conversation – something that comes very naturally for most people – is simply experienced as hard work. When we are involved in purpose-driven communications – such as lectures or group meetings – introverts often shine. I’m pretty sure that some of the best preaching ministers/pastors that I’ve ever known have been extreme introverts. Give introverts a good format and forum in which to express their thoughts, and you may be surprised at the results!
  • Introverts are Anxious About Being Misinterpreted. As I’ve said, casual interaction is hard work for the introvert. This isn’t because we dislike people, or because we think the subject matter of casual conversation is too trivial for our “deep” thoughts. Its just very difficult for us to stay focused on this particular type of conversation. We avoid extensive small talk because we are inadequate at it. However, at the same time, we fear that people misinterpret this as a form of rejection/withdrawal. Its a very awkward thing, and we often don’t deal with it very well because…well…we’re introverts. So the problem tends to spiral downward.
  • Introverts talk less about themselves. At this point, it probably goes without saying, but introverts tend to be “closed” personalities. Though close friends and spouses know them well, they tend to talk about themselves less with their casual acquaintances. This makes it difficult for them to become well-known in social organizations, and they are often thought of as mysterious and reclusive.
  • Introverts tend to prefer mediated communication. Books, email, and (even) Facebook are great forms of communication to an introvert, because they allow the introvert to communicate as much as they want, and only to the extent that they want. These tools allow the introvert to regulate the quantity and rate of communication at a level that is more tolerable.

Some people, I realize, have a lot of trouble “getting” what the big deal is when it comes to the lack of capacity for extensive, casual interaction. For those, a workable comparison can be made to the feeling that students get when they have to study for a test on a subject area that doesn’t interest them. The act of forcing oneself to concentrate can itself be very stressful and anxiety-inducing. Again, this isn’t because we dislike people – we just like to talk (a) less and (b) on a different “wavelength.”

So why are Churches such difficult places for introverts? The short answer is: modern Churches tend to be places where people are expected to talk – a lot! This is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes the Church an attractive place for most people. However, the problem lies in the introvert’s perception that they are required to participate in the chattiness. A great example is the “stand up and greet your neighbor” segment that many churches utilize during their worship time to help encourage an atmosphere of friendliness and informality. It works great for most folks…but – if the statistics are correct – every time it happens in a church with more than a handful of visitors, at least one of them is made less comfortable by the experience. The request to stand up and introduce yourself is actually experienced as something that is inhospitable. I know it sounds counterintuitive to say that the first thing an introverted visitor needs is to be left alone for several worship sessions, but that is often exactly what they need to acclimate themselves!

The theological language of “community” can also pose a problem. Church leaders often use terms like “authentic community” to describe something that members are supposed to experience. Another, similar term that I used to hear a lot was “fellowship.” While I think these are valid theological concepts, Churches often translate them into informal events, often involving meals and “fun” activities, in which everyone is supposed to come together and interact. All of the talk, no matter how superficial, is seen as the embodiment of “community.” Again, these types of gatherings are perfectly normal activities for most folks, but they have little to do with forming the type of “community” that is described in the Bible. Equating them with healthy spirituality can make the introvert feel like a second-class member.

One last example: small groups. Some churches put heavy emphasis on getting new members into small groups very quickly. The initiates are then asked to attend regular meetings and to interact with the strangers in the group about spiritual issues. Introverts need these experiences, but they probably need to start much more slowly, and they probably need to be a part of smaller, more intimate groups (even pairings). Rushing everyone into groups like this – while it may be effective on a larger scale – tends to drive out the more extreme introverts.

I write all of this because I think that both the introvert and the community suffer when a heavily “extroverted” culture develops in a Church. I’ll explain why as we continue in the next post or two.

A Theology of Church and State?

Part of what I’m trying to do during my blogging hiatus is to develop a more refined theology of church and state. As I’ve wrestled with 3-4 particular issues during the last few months, its occurred to me that my whole way of thinking about this subject is more underdeveloped than I would like.

In dealing with the subject, I’m already well-grounded in the concept of kingdom of God as a political concept – I’ve read a lot of NT Wright on this subject, and a little bit of Borg and Crossan as well. I also know that I’m going to spend some time reading Walter Wink. I’m also going to read Michael Sandel’s Justice, which the critics seem to be raving over.

I’m fascinated with the idea of church-as-prophet…I think there is a lot to be said for that metaphor.

Any other resources that you would recommend?

A New Kind of Christianity #10: The What-Next Question

[This is the tenth – and final – part of a multiple-post review of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, which I introduced here. In the book, McLaren sets out the ten questions that he believes are reshaping Christianity in the West.]

McLaren’s book concludes with this question: How can we translate our quest into action?

He makes it clear that he believes the Spirit of God is behind the movement that is bringing about these questions – that Christianity is reaching a stage where it is preparing to move into a new era. To do this, we need not only great thinkers and theologians, but great saints – women and men who are full of God and who have a passion for his ways.

The key is not in loud and bitter contentiousness with people who think differently, but in “quietly building communities of peace and practice rooted in the teaching and example of Jesus.” In other words, the ultimate expression of the quest for A New Kind of Christianity is not a set of ideas, but a way of living in community that embodies these questions.

McLaren then turns to the question of how the world would look when A New Kind of Christianity is put into action. Recall that, in discussing Question 3, he emphasized the concept of progressive revelation – the idea that the history of humanity can be seen as a journey toward an increasingly sophisticated understanding of God. Extending from this idea, he compares the state of Christianity to a spectrum of light, which looks like this:

800px-Spectrum-sRGB.svg[1]

Throughout history, we have lived in different places along that spectrum:

  • Early in history, the human quest was for survival. The essential challenge was how can we get through today, and live tomorrow? (The Red Zone)
  • Later, humans developed tribes and nations in a quest for security. (The Orange Zone)
  • With tribes and city-states, however, came competition for resources. Thus, humans undertook a quest for power. (The Yellow Zone).
  • But with these powers became potential for corruption and oppression, causing humanity to begin to emphasize the need for independence. (The Green Zone).
  • At the same time, people began to lose their identity as the world came to look more like a machine, and as homes, jobs, etc. became genericized. As such, people also went on a quest for individuality.  (The Blue Zone).
  • Then came the quest for honesty. By the mid-twentieth century, it became apparent that something has gone wrong in the other quests – we have created military-industrial complexes to feed our need for power, we’ve stripped the environment to satisfy our needs for material goods, we’ve enslaved and subordinated women and minority races, making independence meaningful for some, but not all humans. We face a crisis of conscience for the way the Westernized, “civilized” world has malfunctioned and created havoc, and people in this zone call on society to be honest about what has happened. (The Indigo Zone).
  • Thus, now comes the seventh quest: the quest to heal. How can we now unify and liberate what we’ve tragically “divided and conquered”? Here he uses the African word ubuntu. (The Violet Zone).

Christians, he argues, can be scattered all throughout these zones. Some, feeling the threat of extinction of their preferred theologies, may be in survival mode (Red Zone). Others, desperately needing a sense of individuality, prefer a Christianity where they have a “personal Lord” and experience “personal spirituality” or “personal success.” They need to know how God relates to me. They are in the Blue Zone. When you are in a particular zone, the entire world is colored with your band of the spectrum. It is difficult to see the world any other way. People in the red zone will have difficulty understanding what Indigo is, or why it is important. And so on.

This applies, too, he says for those who seek honesty. In the Indigo-colored world, everything becomes about critiquing the stages before you. Indigos are therefore often incapable of doing anything other than deconstruction – they think of themselves as cool and “above” everyone else, but from the outside they look like malcontents who have no alternatives to bring to the table.

Where is Jesus in all of this? Jesus, McLaren argues, is the light – he is the full spectrum, the sum of everything good about all of these zones. As such, Indigo Christians need to come to see that there are things of value in all of the previous bands of the spectrum.

And that is essentially what the shift from Indigo Christianity (obsessed with deconstruction) to Violet Christianity (which seeks ubuntu) is all about. How can we find ways to include and transcend the bands of the spectrum that are inhabited by other Christians?

The other stages, he argues, are not without value. To get to one stage, you often have to go through others first. You may have a good view from the top of a ladder, but you had to step on several rungs (which gave you progressively better views) before you arrived at the top.

One other thought, which is explored in the closing chapters is worth mentioning. It has to do with the tensions that will naturally be created whenever people start asking questions like these.

Institutions, he says, exist to preserve ideas. They are the product of prior movements. Thus, ironically, because they exist to preserve ideas, they are also resistant to movements, the very things that created them. Whenever new ideas arise, institutions are generally going to be opposed to them.

When the reformers challenged the Catholic church, they initially existed as a movement within an institution. Eventually, however, the reformers ended up creating institutions of their own, primarily, the protestant churches. These institutions can now be expected to be resistant to the ten questions, and to any other questions that are posed by those who are no longer satisfied with the answers that come from the protestant churches.

This does not mean that churches/institutions of the reformation are evil, nor that there is something wrong with institutionalism itself. The give-and-take, the tension that is created by the questioning is a natural part of the process by which the new movement, the New Kind of Christianity, will be tested. Although I’m not sure he puts it in this many words – I think this is a good thing. Institutional resistance is itself a healthy check to ensure that the movement does not go too far astray.

Also, its worthwhile to remind ourselves that, eventually, today’s movement will become tomorrow’s institution.

 

So there you have McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. Its a thought-provoking experience from start to finish. And even though I’m not always satisfied with his answers, I think he has put his finger on the pulse of the critical questions that are reverberating throughout our Churches. If you are someone who is no longer satisfied with the standard answers to these questions, this book is a great place to begin looking for new ones.

RSG 2: The Claim of Resurrection

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[This is part 2 of a series of posts that summarize NT Wright’s argument for the historical validity of the resurrection of Jesus in The Resurrection of the Son of God.  You can read my overview of his argument here.]

For me, the best place to begin an explanation of Wright’s argument is with his account of what, exactly, early Christians claimed about the resurrection. This starting point is critical because of the tendency, on the part of modern historical and literary criticism, to de-mythologize scripture.

I spoke about this concept in a recent post. The last 100-200 years of Bible scholarship has been characterized by a growing trend to view scripture as a-historical. Bible stories, we are told, exist as myth, and we can best understand them if we recognize and remove the mystical elements and view them solely as history. Thus, it is argued to be unlikely that Jonah – if he existed at all – spent three days in a whale, that the Earth literally stopped spinning during a battle in the Old Testament, or that the Nile river actually turned to blood, as we are told in Exodus. It may be true that a small band of Hebrew slaves migrated out of Egypt during a particular Egyptian Dynasty, and that they later violently conquered territory that they claimed to be their own, but the fantastical accounts should often (or always) be dismissed as myth. Indeed, it is often argued, not even those who wrote the accounts intended for them to be taken literally and/or historically.

Wright recognizes many valid points from this trend. He does not understand that all of scripture should be treated as history in the sense that modern science would approach the subject. He might even concede (though I’ve not heard him do so) that Jonah may not have really been in a whale for three days. However, when it comes to the resurrection, he argues, we must conclude that something important, something extraordinary did, in fact, happen within human history during the days after the death of Jesus.

Be clear: Wright is not saying that every Gospel account of the resurrection in every detail can be seen as historically valid. We cannot know, for example, the exact names and number of people who saw the empty tomb on Easter Sunday (though the Bible tries to give us an account of that). Nor can we know whether Jesus himself had a conversation with Mary Magdalene at the tomb (only one gospel, John, tells us a story of this nature). Indeed, he recognizes that some of the accounts are contradictory. He is saying, however, that two broader points can be readily supported using basic, historical-critical tools:

  • That on Easter Sunday, a number of disciples discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty.
  • That, subsequently, a large number of Jesus’ followers had a series of extraordinary experiences involving “appearances” of Jesus, in which Jesus was physically present.

For me, it is Wright’s refusal to overreach and claim – as Evangelicals would – that every account is absolutely true in every respect, that makes his argument remarkable. Using my own experiences, I often illustrate it this way: in a lawsuit involving a car accident, there is often a dispute over an important fact – say – whether a traffic signal was red or green when someone entered an intersection. Clearly, someone got a particular detail wrong in their account. However, no one argues that, because of the dispute over the details, a collision did not occur at a particular time and place. In RSG, Wright argues in favor of the collision, so to speak, but not necessarily in favor of what people said about the stop lights. This gives us less certainty, perhaps, about exactly what happened, but – if we are willing to consider it carefully in this way – we soon begin to see a coherent picture that, while blurred on the edges, points to something very clear and extraordinary in the center.

The early Christian belief was very simple: the empty tomb PLUS the subsequent “appearances” of Jesus indicated that God had raised him from the dead on Easter Sunday. The earliest account of the resurrection, as I understand it, comes from Paul in I Corinthians 15:

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him.

Here we have a standard teaching/formulation that, as Paul says, predates Paul’s involvement in the Christian community. Its something he has told the Corinthians before, and it is something that was given to him by the other Apostles. As such, it likely relates back to the very early days after Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus, he says, was seen by Peter and then the Twelve. Then, in an extraordinary event that is not recorded anywhere else, Jesus made an appearance to 500 people at the same time. Paul is clear that most of those 500 are still alive.

Pay careful attention to what Paul is repeating here. There is a list. Someone within this early Christian community is keeping count. There are people within the community who can point at someone – still living – and say: he was there when Jesus appeared to the 500, or she was there when Jesus appeared on the beach. Presumably, at the time, you could have gone over and asked one of these alleged witnesses to tell the story themselves.

Based on this, and a considerable array of other indicators, Wright argues, it can’t be said that early Christians were claiming that the resurrection was merely mythology or metaphor. Rather, it was something that happened before their very eyes. The community was saturated in stories from multiple witnesses who claimed to have had a real experience of Jesus.

So what were they claiming to have seen? A ghost? Unlikely, he says. First, like our own culture, the culture in which the early Church existed had its own, unique language for ghosts. The accounts of Jesus walking on the water (in which Jesus is at first believed to be a ghost) illustrate that they knew full well how to describe an experience involving an encounter with a ghost. These are not the stories that we are told. We are instead told stories about Jesus eating bread and fish, of Jesus inviting doubters to reach out and touch him. Plus, he reminds us, we are told about an empty tomb. There is no need to emphasize an empty tomb if you want to talk about a ghost. Both corpse and ghost can exist at the same time.

Having said that, it is also important to recognize that what the witnesses claimed to have seen was more than a resuscitated corpse. The risen Jesus appears in rooms with closed doors. At one moment, he is unrecognizable, and then can be readily identified at the next. He vanishes in plain sight. He has a physical reality to be sure, but he is more than that. He is, as Wright coins the term, transphysical; more than a physical being, but not less. (He observes that the Church came to believe that these properties were manifestations of God’s new creation, a new kind of world, or reality. To put it in terms that would be used in connection with modern physics, Jesus was thought to be the first bit of matter, the first human, to exist in this new state.)

Finally, and most startlingly, Wright asks us to consider the beliefs that early Christians held about life after death. Here, perhaps, is the most brilliant move of all. It is developed in remarkable detail.

I’m oversimplifying a bit here, but in the Jew-plus-Gentile world of the early Church, there were three competing views about life after death. They were as follows:

  • The Pagan View. Under this view, the dead become spirits or ghosts, diminished versions of the people they once were. Their spirits are then consigned to Hades, the realm of the dead, where they remain for eternity. They do not come back.
  • The Sadducee’s View. The Sadducees viewed death as an end. Once one is dead, they are gone forever. No spirit remains, and certainly no one returns from the dead.
  • The Pharisee’s View. The Pharisees believed that one does, indeed become a spirit after death. They also believed, however, that God would eventually raise the righteous dead (and/or all of the dead) to life again, in the “last day.” Then, the dead would be judged and God would renew his creation for the benefit of the resurrected.

The disagreements between these viewpoints were not minor. Strident, heated debates were known to break out, particularly in the Jewish community – and at least two accounts of such a debate can be found within scripture itself. Think, if you will, about the major schisms that exist today about atonement theories in the theological realm, or even about subjects like health care in the political realm, in which emotions run high. People were highly opinionated and entrenched when it came to the question of life after death.

So what does this have to do with the early Church? Isn’t it bizarre, he argues, that you don’t see this debate raging within the early Church? One would expect, he says, in a relatively large community of Jews and Gentiles to see strident debates continue on about which view of life after death is appropriate. But you don’t get that. Instead you get – quite consistently – an agreement/belief that endorses the view of the Pharisees, a view which holds that people can, in fact, rise from the dead.

What could this community have possibly experienced that would so convincingly convert everyone to this one view?  To hold this view, they would have to be convinced, at a bare minimum, that physical resurrection is possible. This is not a belief in a metaphor of resurrection, nor an endorsement that ghosts of the dead can sometimes appear to the living (both of which would be consistent, at least, with the Pagan view). This is a belief that people really can – and will – physically rise from the dead.

The conclusion of this line of thought is that there ought to be very little doubt that the Christian community believed – and was deeply convinced – that a resurrection had actually happened within their realm of immediate experience, and that it involved a transformation of a human corpse into a physical-plus-more state. No metaphors. No parables. No ghosts. They were quite serious and quite clear about what they claimed had happened.

Having established that this was the belief/conviction of the early Christian community, Wright can now turn to explore the possible explanations for their conviction – chiefly, the possibility that someone successfully falsified the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. If none of those possibilities are satisfying, he argues, we can conclude that what they claimed had happened is what actually happened.

We will turn to some of those alternative explanations in the next post.

RSG 1: An Overview

res%20son[1] Over the years, I have found a lot of books useful on my spiritual walk, but very few (perhaps no more than 1 or 2) have had more influence than NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.

RSG arrived at my doorstep at a time when I was ready to piece together some big questions about God, the nature of scripture, and the Christian hope. I expected RSG to provide a piece of that puzzle. However, when I started making my way through Wright’s massive volume, I quickly discovered that I was getting more than I bargained for. Sprinkled along the trail of Wright’s primary argument in the book – a stunning defense of the historical validity of the resurrection of Jesus – Wright lays out in massive detail an entire theological framework for understanding resurrection that dramatically sharpened my thinking, beliefs, and view of the subject. As an academic work, it really is a tour de force.

My only objection to RSG was that it isn’t the sort of book that you recommend to your friends for casual reading. After finishing it, I felt like Wright needed to create a parallel book that (a) was more friendly to lay readers and that (b) explored the implications of Jesus’ resurrection, as he presented it, more directly. About the time I finished the book, I was pleased to find Surprised by Hope – a book that does just that – on Amazon. If this review piques your interest enough to explore further, but you are intimidated by the task of trying to work your way through an expansive academic treatment of the subject, Surprised by Hope is a great place to go.

My goal in this series of posts is to outline of Wright’s argument – in both books – in favor of the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus. This won’t be a traditional summary/review, however. Wright develops the argument inductively, and brilliantly, but you have to be very patient to follow him along many trails before his view takes shape. The book is much like a long, sometimes difficult hike that slowly brings into view a breathtaking vista. In this series, I’m going to take a deductive approach to the subject – allowing the argument, rather than the evidence, to shape its structure. I think that will make it easier to follow things, and I will do my best to translate the gist of his argument into cleaner propositions.

Wright’s central argument is this: that we can know with reasonable historical certainty that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. He does not posit that it can be known as an absolute truth, but he believes that we can know it in the same way, for example, that we know whether or not Washington crossed the Delaware. The point is thus not strictly apologetic – to prove his proposition to be absolutely correct. Rather, he says, the evidence ought to be enough to cause us to want to investigate the truth of it ourselves – by immersing ourselves in the practice and traditions of Christianity. If we can be convinced that the sun has risen with some degree of reasonable certainty, he suggests, we will probably want to open the curtains to investigate for ourselves whether it is true.

The structure of Wrights argument is a very traditional, disjunctive syllogism. That is, he offers a list of potential explanations for the early Christian account of resurrection, and argues that the most reasonable explanation of that account is that it really did happen.  Specifically, his argument rejects the following alternatives:

  • The resurrection accounts were meant as parable or metaphor, not history
  • The resurrection accounts were intentionally fabricated
  • The resurrection accounts were a result of hysteria or illusion
  • The resurrection accounts falsely assumed Jesus had died

Of all of these, the first and second are treated as more credible, and they get the most attention in the books.

I should also note that, by “early Christian account of resurrection,” Wright refers not only to the resurrection of Jesus, but to the overall belief of the community that there will be a general resurrection of the dead at some point in the future. That the Christian community immediately and universally adopted this view (one that was in opposition to other strongly and widely held positions) is also, he will show, a remarkable testimony to a series of credible experiences of the risen Jesus within their community.

If, at the end, one is still unconvinced because of a presupposition that it isn’t possible for a person to rise from the dead, Wright will respect that position. However, he warns, this presupposition isn’t supported by…

  • The fact that we “know better” than they did because of modern science (they, too, knew and believed as strongly as we do that dead people don’t get up and walk around); or
  • The lack of historical evidence (which is as extensive as you will find for a massive array of other well-recognized events in history)

I am going to try and flesh out these arguments in a little more detail over four or five more posts, so stay tuned.

Why Did Jesus Die?

Every year, during Holy Week, the atonement wars seem to heat up in the media and in the blogosphere. Its a regrettable situation. Of all times of year, Holy Week is hardly an appropriate season to strike up a debate over whether penal substitution is or is not the definitive explanation for Christ's atoning work. For that reason, while I'm not interested in bashing penal substitution (or any other atonement theory) in this post. I do think that there is a question that is worth asking when it comes to the atonement:

What did Jesus have to say about the meaning of his death?

Most of our understanding of the reasons for the death of Jesus tend to come from two sources – (1) Paul's writings and (2) the book of Hebrews. There are also a few smatterings that come from the Revelation and from the other epistles. Most of the time, however, if you ask someone to show you a place in the Bible where the meaning of Jesus' death is explained, they will head straight to something written by Paul – more often than not, to the early chapters in Romans.

Don't get me wrong. Paul is the great interpreter of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. What he says on the subject needs to be heard. However, before getting to Paul's words, it might be worthwhile to reflect on what Jesus himself thought of his death. He knew full well that he was about to die at the hands of the temple authorities and the Romans when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He had told his disciples as much. Surely his thoughts about what his death would mean should be given primary consideration when we think about atonement.

To explore this question, lets have a look at the Gospel of Mark, which was the subject of my post on Holy Week meditations a few days ago. Within this book are two key texts that contain Jesus' explanation for his death.

We begin in Mark 10:42, just before the description of Palm Sunday. The disciples, we are told, have been arguing over who will be the more prominent in God's kingdom. Jesus responds like this:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The concept of ransom that is central to this text is similar, but not identical to our own. When we think of ransom, we are probably thinking of money that is paid to cause a kidnapper to release a hostage. Someone is a captive, and, because of the ransom, they are set free. For the original readers of Mark, the idea of ransom relates to slavery: to pay a ransom to a slave owner is to arrange to have the slave set free. In the end, the concepts are identical for purposes of the central point: someone who is captive is set free.

The statement that Jesus is giving his life as a ransom is contrasted with the conduct of the Gentiles. The Gentiles act as tyrants, enslaving and asserting dominion over one another. They struggle with each other for dominance. This order of things, Jesus suggests, is going to be undone by his death.

From what are the "many" being set free? From the consequences of sin? Perhaps, in a sense, you could put it that way. But to fully understand what this freedom is about, you need to first understand that, in Mark, forgiveness of sins does not seem to be a huge barrier to relationship with God. In Chapter 2, for example, Jesus simply pronounces forgiveness on a paralyzed man, and – when his claim that the man has been forgiven is challenged – he backs it up by healing him. It is clear that, even before Jesus' death, God is capable of forgiving sin.

So, again, if forgiveness can be obtained even before Jesus' death, what is it from which people are set free? A parable in which Jesus refers to his own death, in Chapter 12, is helpful in answering this question. This story follows a text in which the people in charge of the temple ask Jesus to describe the authority by which he acted, the day before, in shutting down the business of the temple and condemning them as robbers. In fact, as I suggested in the previous post on the subject, they were effectively robbers – depriving landowners of their rights and taking control over their property (Jesus will later warn people to watch out for them because they "rob widows' houses").

After he is asked this question, Jesus proceeds to tell a parable about a vineyard. The reference to a vineyard is likely intended to remind the crowd of Isaiah 5, where Israel is itself described as a vineyard. Here is the parable:

A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.  At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.  But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed.  Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed

He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son. But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’  So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.  Haven’t you read this scripture: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this,and it is marvelous in our eyes."

We are told by Mark that the temple authorities “realized that he had told this parable against them.” As such, the parable is about how the temple leaders (the tenants) who are in charge of the vineyard (Israel) have failed in their duties. Their killing of the prophets (the servants) will now give way to their killing of Jesus himself (the son). The act of Jesus’ death will then trigger God’s judgment on them, and we will marvel as God makes Jesus (the rejected stone) the Christ (the chief cornerstone). 

To summarize, then, this is how I think Jesus viewed his own death:

  • Jesus believed his duty was to confront and condemn the temple authorities, knowing that this would cause them to kill him.
  • This death would then be the final straw, sealing their fate. As a result of his death, God’s judgment would fall on the temple and those in charge of it.
  • This is good news, because when God acts against the oppressors, he also acts to set free those who are subject to the oppression.

I conclude with two questions:

Does Jesus’ understanding of his death involve us being saved from our sins? As I said above, the answer is “yes, in a sense.” The systems by which one, smaller set of humans dominate and oppress a larger set are the ultimate consequence of our sin. To borrow from the first and second commandment, we do not love God, who does not desire things to be this way, nor our neighbors, whom we oppress. For God to undo this system is to save us all from our sins.

How, exactly, does Jesus death serve to set free the oppressed? Clearly, systems of oppression and domination have continued to exist for the last 2000 years. Here, I think, is where we need Paul desperately. However, to understand Paul properly, we need to see him as picking up on the same theme – the theme of liberation, and then elaborating on it in light of Jesus’ resurrection and the subsequent emergence of the community of Christians. And that, unfortunately, is where I’ll have to leave things off for now.

Do Our Pastors Say What They Really Believe?

Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology is linking to this paper, written by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola from the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. In the paper, they describe LaScola's interviews of five pastors/preachers who are secretly atheists. These five – all self selected for the study, of course – not only detail their journey from belief to unbelief, but also talk about why they are quite sure that they are only the tip of an iceberg. It really is a riveting read.

Their stories are all remarkably similar. In each case, they enter seminary with a very traditional view of the Christian faith, which sees the Bible as an inerrant document, inspired by God, which depicts "real" stories. Adam and Eve actually existed as the first two humans. Jonah really did spend three days in a whale. Jesus really did say the things attributed to him in exactly the way it is depicted in the Bible. People really do end up in a literal, burning hell.

In seminary, however, the pastors were exposed to textual and historical-critical perspectives of the Bible. These perspectives tend to show how the original texts of the Bible were adapted and altered over time, how they were often cut-and-paste patchworks of stories and ideas from various sources, and how cultural and personal bias often found their way into the manner in which the Biblical authors presented their stories and arguments. The effect of all of this is a view of scripture that is "demythologized," a phrase that is used in the academic world to describe a story may convey a certain truth, but which didn't really happen. When they were exposed to these ideas in seminary, they either (a) underwent a crisis of faith or (b) learned, ironically, to compartmentalize their seminary education from their true faith.

The five pastors all emphasize that they were not alone. This crisis was common among their classmates, many of whom openly resisted a lot of what they were taught. Presumably, it continues to happen today.

How does "seminary shock" translate into what we hear from the pulpit? Simple. They don't tell us what they really think. It is, Dennett and LaScola observe, almost like a conspiracy:

One can be initiated into a conspiracy without a single word exchanged or secret handshake; all it takes is the dawning realization, beginning in seminary, that you and the others are privy to a secret, and that they know that you know, and you know that they know that you know. This is what is known to philosophers and linguists as mutual knowledge, and it plays a potent role in many social circumstances. Without any explicit agreement, mutual knowledge seals the deal: you then have no right to betray this bond by unilaterally divulging it, or even discussing it.

This don't-ask-don't-tell approach to ministry is, I suspect, the dirty little secret of the pastoring business. They simply don't believe much of what they seem to be asking the laity to believe. And there are plenty of ways to equivocate, wiggling around the tough issues. Theology is such a metaphor-intensive endeavor that it is very easy for a pastor to have a conversation with you about God's influence on history, for example, without ever poking around at his/her belief about the nature of God. In the Pastor's thoughts and careful phraseology, the conversation is about the concept of God influencing history, even though you have something much more literal in mind.

I don't think, by the way, that the vast majority of pastors – even a significant number of them – are atheists per se. These five pastors may be the tip of the iceberg, but I imagine that what is really floating under the surface are a lot of dedicated ministers of genuine faith, who love Christianity and their own traditions, but who can't connect what they learned in seminary with the issues they have to address in the pulpit. And I think they are very anxious about how to do ministry when their education is so disconnected from their work.

Why do they hide what they think? The cynic would say that it is merely to avoid offending you, so they can keep their jobs, keep you in the pew, and to keep your checks flowing into the Church coffers. And there may be some truth to that. However, I think it is more likely that they are trying to do three things:

  • "Protect" their congregation from ideas that might also harm their faith;
  • Preserve the Christian tradition, because – after all – they might be wrong about how it is all wrong, and they want to give it a fighting chance to survive; and
  • They see that, even "demythologized," Christianity benefits society, and they remain committed to it for that reason.

The problem is that this disconnect is making a lot of pastors feel like frauds, giving answers that they are either questioning themselves or that they simply don't believe. That sense of anxiety is doubtless having ripple effects on their marriages, their families, and their churches. 

Is it really for the best if pastors "protect" us from what they learned in seminar? My conviction is that it is not. When seminary training and ministry are overly compartmentalized, the results are shallow sermons, lifeless theologies, and stagnant traditions. Tell us what we want to hear, and only what we want to hear, and we will never grow.

Furthermore, the same questions that the clergy began to encounter in seminary 20 years ago are now making their way onto the street. Why does God allow suffering? Can someone really survive in a whale for three days? Were Adam and Eve real people? Every one of those questions is floating around in the worlds where paritioners now live. Ignore them, and attention and attendance will continue to shrink.

What is needed is open discussion where people – clergy and laity – can be safe to ask questions and test ideas without fear of retribution or scorn. My guess – my experience – is that, once the conversation begins to flow, we will discover that God hasn't vanished, and that – in fact – he is bigger, more real, and much more wonderful than anything we would ever have found under the old, rigid view of the Bible that is regularly shattered in seminary.

A New Kind of Christianity #5 – The Gospel Question

[This is the fifth part of a multiple-post review of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, which I introduced here. In the book, McLaren sets out the ten questions that he believes are reshaping Christianity in the West.]

Having considered the nature of God in question 3 and the nature of Jesus in question 4, one might expect McLaren to complete a trinitarian theme in question 5, focusing on the Spirit of God. But McLaren's list of questions instead takes another somewhat natural turn by considering the nature of the gospel.

So what is the good news that we call the "gospel"? Before getting into McLaren's approach, it would probably be helpful to take a quick detour that frames the gospel question in the context of the book as a whole.

The best way to think about this issue is to consider not only the "answer" of the gospel, but the "question" that the gospel is answering.

Lets begin with the question and answer that forms the center of the traditional, evangelical approach to the gospel (we will call it Gospel A):

Q. How can I avoid being punished for my sins by spending an eternity in hell?

A. By having faith in Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross served as a substitute punishment for my sins.

Notice how this falls within the confines of, and serves the purposes of, the Greco-Roman narrative that was the subject of Question 1. If the main problem is that individual humans are in danger of being thrown into the trash heap as a result of the cosmic sorting bin that is the physical world, then the "good news" will naturally show how to escape this predicament.

However, there is a completely different way of thinking about the gospel (we will call it Gospel B), which looks something like this:

Q. What will God do about evil and oppression in our world?

A. God is establishing a new, benevolent society – a kingdom – among us that liberates us.

McLaren favors this second approach to the gospel, believing that it is the most natural way to read scripture outside the constraints of the Greco-Roman narrative. Under this approach, Jesus' proclamation "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!" is itself the gospel.

So how did Christians come to embrace Gospel A, while ignoring/losing track of Gospel B? McLaren believes (and I agree) that the problem originates from a particular interpretation of Paul's letter to the Romans that developed during the early period of the Reformation. More particularly, I would add, the problem arises out of an interpretation of Romans 1-4. That interpretation has become the framework by which we try to understand the rest of the New Testament, including the rest of Romans, as well as the stories about the life and teachings of Jesus.

If you read the stories of Jesus first, and then interpret Paul's letters, and particularly Romans, in light of those teachings, you end up with a completely different perspective. And, essentially, McLaren's discussion of the meaning of the gospel briefly outlines the way that the Jesus-first-then-Paul approach has changed his own viewpoint.

So, beginning with the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we must first see that Jesus came so that – as he taught us to pray – God's will is done "on earth as it is in heaven." He challenged us in his teachings to rethink everything, and to enter into a life of discipleship, seeking to love our enemies and care for the least among us. This is a fulfillment of the longings of the Old Testament for: (1) a new Creation, (2) a new Exodus, and (3) a new Kingdom.

Along next comes Paul, who, after some time accepts the teachings of Jesus and seeks to enter into this new kingdom. But there is a problem. This kingdom isn't an exclusive Jews-only club. It must be available to Gentiles as well. How can that happen? Paul takes it upon himself, McLaren argues, to bring the Gentiles into the fold.

Romans is, he argues, not an attempt to explain what the gospel is, but an effort to show how Gentiles and Jews can live, in diversity, within this same kingdom. Thus, in Romans, Paul makes seven brilliant moves:

  1. Reduce Jew and Gentile to the same level of need
  2. Announce a new way forward for all, Jew and Gentile, a way of faith
  3. Unite all in a common story from the Hebrew scriptures
  4. Unite all in a common struggle and a common victory
  5. Address Jewish and Gentile problems, showing God as God of all
  6. Engage all in a common life and mission
  7. Call everyone to unity in the kingdom of God

That Paul is ultimately committed to the same "kingdom" gospel that Jesus taught is further made clear by the fact that, when Paul goes to Rome some years after he wrote his letter to the Romans, we are told that he was "testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince [those who came to hear him] about Jesus."

Is the kingdom Gospel "fine print" to be added to Gospel A, or is it a radically different perspective in which Gospel A becomes, at best, only a small part of the picture? If all you can manage for now is Gospel A, with Gospel B as a footnote, McLaren thinks it is a good start. But either way, we should "repent [and] believe the good news, for it is good indeed."

After reflecting on McLaren's exposition on the gospel and Paul, I am in agreement with him as far as he goes. However, I also think that his picture of the gospel is still a little underdeveloped. The primary focus of McLaren's exposition is on the way the gospel rearranges social relations, and while I think this is true, I believe that you ultimately have to address the problems of cosmic decay and death for the gospel's full impact to be felt. In particular, I believe you need a better understanding of the way the death and resurrection of Jesus reinforce the gospel of the kingdom.

God isn't merely rearranging society, as wonderful and necessary as that might be – but he is liberating us from the forces that draw us physically, socially, spiritually into states of decay and death. In Romans, it takes Paul almost no time to let his readers know that God has established Jesus as Lord of this new world, and has shown this by raising Jesus from the dead. This resurrection brings with it the promise of a new creation that bursts free from the entropic constraints of the "old" universe.

In a sense, the "cosmic" view the gospel brings Gospel A back into the picture, albeit with less concern on hell and more concern with the way sin has brought with it the consequences of physical death.

To put it another way:

  • Good: God is saving people from the consequences of their own actions (Gospel A, sort-of)
  • Better: God is liberating people from social oppression and evil (McLaren's emphasis)
  • Best: God is renewing (a) individuals, (b) society, and (c) creation itself.

Without all three elements, I think the "kingdom" gospel – and Paul's expression of it, in particular – is incomplete. I don't think McLaren would necessarily disagree with this. I just think that, for whatever reason, he likes to place more emphasis on the aspects of social transformation that are present within the gospel.

On Dragon Skin, Scab-Picking, and Spiritual Dentristry

Sheila and I co-teach a young adult bible class with Pam Rowley, one of the pastors at our church. Several weeks ago, the class decided to read through C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity together, and tomorrow, we plan to wind things up with a summary of Lewis' closing thoughts. We're also going to read an excerpt from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, another Lewis masterpiece.

In preparing a summary of the closing chapters of the book, I've been struck by the way Lewis really does view sanctification (the transformation of humans from an evil/sinful condition to a right/good condition) as the essential process that defines Christianity. Ideas of justification (often, but not always, thought of as an event that causes us to instantly be viewed as right/good by God, even though we remain sinful) take a back seat to Lewis. In fact, if when I read the book closely, I think Lewis is arguing that the language of justification is just another way of talking about how we get into the process of sanctification.

For Lewis, sanctification is a voluntary process. God won't force it on us. And when we choose it, it is immensely painful. It involves the "killing"of one self so that another self can be embraced. We embrace this process with trepidation the same way we get anxious about going to the dentist – knowing that it is needed, but dreading the anxiety and pain it will cause.

The concept is beautifully illustrated in Dawn Treader, when a young boy named Eustace accidentally turns himself into a dragon after going to sleep on a pile of magical treasure. Knowing that he is still a boy underneath, he tries to remove the dragon skin, but discovers that the removal of one layer only reveals another one below it. His only option is to allow Aslan, the great Lion, to remove the skin for him.

Here is Eustace's account of the process:

I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back and let him do it.

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you've ever picked a scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.

* * *

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I'd done it my self the other three times, only they hadn't hurt – and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly looking than the others had been. And there I was smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been.

For me, Lewis' genius is in the way he picks up on the subtleties of the process. Is it painful? Yes. Still, there is a certain kind of pleasure that comes from becoming free of this thing that has caused you pain and disfigured your soul – like yanking off a scab to find healed skin underneath. And what can you expect to find when the process is complete? After the fact, you'll probably discover you were a great deal worse off than even you imagined.

That is what is on my mind this Lenten Saturday: Dragon skin is ugly, and it hurts when you peel on it. But it is actually kind of fun letting Aslan take it off.

A New Kind of Christianity #4 – The Jesus Question

[This is the fourth part of a multiple-post review of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, which I introduced here. In the book, McLaren sets out the ten questions that he believes are reshaping Christianity in the West.]

Who is Jesus? Why is he important? Is Jesus the victim of identity theft?

These are the issues that are at stake in Question #4 – the Jesus question.

Consider this. If you look around long enough, you can find just about any kind of "Jesus" to suit your fancy:

  • A Jesus who will help you to accumulate wealth and live your "best life now"
  • A Jesus who is pro-Israel, and favors an aggressive military policy in the Middle East
  • A Jesus who hates Jews, because they crucified him
  • A Jesus about whom we can be sentimental in the midst of organ music and stained glass
  • A Jesus who is a master psychotherapist, ready to address every mental and emotional illness known to the self-help industry
  • A Jesus who hates homosexuals or feminists or whoever else you don't particularly like yourself
  • A Jesus who supports American culture, the American way of life, and American wars
  • Etc., etc.

To show just how ridiculous things have become, McLaren quotes from my favorite scene in Taladaga Nights (this probably goes without saying for ANYTHING involving Will Farrell, but…NSFW and NSFK):

How has the situation deteriorated such that Jesus has become little more than an expression of what we want him to be? And how can we see clearly through the Bible to a Jesus that is more authentic?

To explore this issue, McLaren utilizes a statement that Mark Driscoll recently made in Relevant Magazine (though he appears to intentionally avoid identifying Driscoll):

Some emergent types [want] to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.

Here, Jesus is presented as one who is worthy of worship because he is a tough guy who is ready to kick butt. But this bada** Jesus hardly fits anything that we know about the Jesus of history, or even of Revelation. Rather, he is the model of what one might expect from a "Greco-Roman" worldview – one which favors Imperial dominance as a means of advancing power. 

This image of Jesus as conqueror, McLaren argues, is presented in a form of literature that is designed to encourage people to think about where the current course of events will carry history. It is not prognostication as much as it is imagination. In several important respects, such literature resembles our modern genre of science fiction (coincidentally, I recently explored an almost identical issue in  this post). Thus, the sword that comes from Jesus' mouth in this text tells us that Jesus' words are more powerful than the seeming might of Rome, the world Empire that was dominant when Revelation was written.

I agree. But I also think McLaren overlooks another obvious problem in this way of looking at Jesus. Why does Revelation say that Jesus is "worthy" of worship? Chapter 5 shows that it is because he submitted to violence, not because he was violent himself ("Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!" shouts heaven, when Jesus is revealed not as an expected lion, but as a sacrificial lamb). It is also notable that, in the Gospel narratives, Jesus was, in fact "beat up" by some First Century tough guys. I suppose that Driscoll would not have respected that Jesus either, because he could have joined right in with the Roman soldiers who tortured him.

McLaren then goes on, in Chapter 13 to outline his argument for the path to a more authentic Jesus. In short, this path relies on seeing Jesus through the three-dimensional eyes of the Old Testament, rather than trying to force him into a six-line Greco-Roman narrative. Viewed in this light, we can see that Jesus came to "launch a new Genesis, to lead a new Exodus," and, in light of prophets like Isaiah, "to announce, embody, and inaugurate a new kingdom as the Prince of Peace." Look at Jesus in this way, he argues, and we will discover an authentic Jesus that is far more attractive and "unbelievably believable" than a Jesus that is shrunk and trimmed to fit our preferred worldviews.

I couldn't agree more with McLaren's approach to the Jesus Question. You find the "real" Jesus by looking at him in light of – and as a culmination of – the history of the Old Testament.  The two chapters on this subject hit the nail on the head, even if they are a little polemic.