Christian life as collaboration.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

God and Kings and "Chosenness"

Emma Green has an engaging piece at The Atlantic on the film Exodus: God and Kings, a film that continues Hollywood's long tradition of Exodus-themed movies and its short tradition of giving single movies titles with subtitles as if they are one part of a multi-volume set.

I haven't seen the movie. I know that I probably should as a teacher of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and I probably will, but the inertia that sets in when I think about doing this is positively crippling. I think I know the cause of this inertia, but it is hard to put to words. I know it has something to do with Christian Bale as Moses. I have nothing against him, loved the Batman franchise, American Hustle, Empire of the Sun (!), but as Moses? (Apparently Ridley Scott has felt the need to explain this casting choice.)

The Blessing and the Curse

Anyhow, Green takes one for the team and records her experience and reflections and in doing so touches upon two points of interest for me.

1. What we consider obscene. The last bastion of any notion of the obscene really is the death of children, particularly babies. In our current cultural production, it is allowable to depict almost any gruesome act against humanity except for graphic violence against children. Think about it, other than a few outliers, the baby always makes it out alive, or if not the death happens off scene. We haven't brought ourselves to that place where we can get past depicted violence against our own very young; it ruins our amusement in a way that shooting and blowing people up does not. (This might be for any number of reasons, but it does raise questions about certain cultural contradictions regarding respect for early human life.)

2. The idea of "chosenness." Of course, in the exodus the death of the Egyptian firstborns lies at the center of the story, which raises another question about why it is good for Egyptians to die so that Israelites might be redeemed from slavery. Green writes,

This is affecting. Whenever children are shown dying in movies, it's meant to be sad; when several dozen children are shown dying, it's devastating. The Egyptians were theoretically culpable for the lives they led at the cost of Hebrew slave labor, yes. But to slaughter innocents because of the actions of their leaders—and because their race was not chosen to be part of an ancient covenant—seems appallingly cruel.
Then again, this idea, that whole peoples should be punished for their sins, comes up repeatedly in the Bible. Examples include Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that were destroyed by God, and Nineveh, which ultimately was not. The consequences of sin in ancient times were total and intense; God wiped out quite a few civilizations in the course of crafting early humanity.
It is this side of God—his cruelty, his capriciousness—that Scott emphasizes with his cinematographic choices. What's interesting about Scott’s portrayal of the exodus is the grief he chooses to focus on. Toward the beginning of the film, there are a few shots of Jews toiling in slavery, building statues in honor of the pharaoh and getting beaten by their masters. But there aren't many. Compared to the grief of the Egyptians—who are shown desperately trying to revive their dead livestock and weeping with the bodies of their sons in their hands—the hardship of the Hebrews seems generic, perfunctory, a necessary plot point without much poignance.
This sets up a difficult moral question: Is the freedom of the Hebrews worth more than the lives of Egyptians? God, after all, did not merely liberate the Jews in the spirit of freeing the oppressed; he wiped out Egyptians, per the Bible and per Exodus, because the nation they’d enslaved happened to be his anointed one. Is one people, even the people God has chosen, worth more than another?
This is an impossible question to answer. It depends upon a theory of justice that assigns blame for the system to the individuals that inhabit it. It depends upon the idea that, by designation of God, certain humans can be more holy, or historically worthy, than others; that the accident of birth is enough to determine which side of God's wrath you deserve to be on. This, perhaps, is why "chosenness" is debated, even within the Jewish community; Reconstructionist Jews, for example, reject this idea.
Green, and Scott for that matter, rightly draw attention to the horror of the judgment that is present in the exodus story. Throughout the Bible, we find judgment at the heart of God's plan to redeem the world. God is clear about his intentions when he first sets aside one group to be a special chosen people. He tells Abraham explicitly, "I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Gen 12:3).

Note that this arrangement of blessing and cursing is how God will bless the whole earth. He has identified with Abraham's offspring, and that identification means that they will become the conduit through which the earth is blessed. It makes sense that the identification between God and his people would have effect on how others ought to treat his people. If a nation curses his people, it is as if they curse God. What happens to a creature who curses his Creator? Just what you might think.


Note also that the "chosenness" of God's people is not a result of their own worthiness. The Hebrew Bible consistently teaches that Israel was chosen because of its unappealing nature, its smallness, weakness, and unwantedness. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, this theology is expressed:
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deut 7:7-8)

Likewise, Ezekiel 16 depicts Israel as an abandoned child, left for dead in a gutter, still wallowing in her afterbirth, when the Lord picks her up, washes her off, and offers her safety and dignity. The value of God's people is not inherent to them, but rather it is bestowed upon them from his character, an "alien righteousness" some might say,

This also raises the question of judgment. Green refers to God's "cruelty, his capriciousness" on display in the exodus plagues, but such an evaluation assumes the innocence of humanity. It assumes that humanity deserves prosperity and blessing from a God who cruelly, capriciously withholds it.

And she is right, the God of the Bible would be cruel and capricious if not for the fact of the Fall. There is a reason why the Bible starts with the story of creation followed by the garden and the serpent and the curse. This is the prologue to the work of redemption depicted in the following sixty-five books. Without that crucial opener, introducing God as Creator and humanity as a rebellious creature (nevertheless bestowed with the image of God), the rest of the Bible does not make a whole lot of sense.

What is truly remarkable is not that God metes out judgment but that he showers us with so much grace.

The fact that Egypt exists, that Pharaoh reigns, that humanity thrives and flourishes, that civilizations rise and fall, that anyone survived the rebellion of Adam and Eve, that life happens at all is a testament to the grace of God, a God who graciously provides a way to be redeemed out slavery. The fact that there is a story of redemption for Ridley Scott to weave into a blockbuster is by the grace of God.

In his grace, God identifies with a fallen people. In the exodus he buys them out of slavery through his mighty works. In Christ he buys them from divine judgment through the death of his son. The redemption of the exodus event points us to the redemption secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He suffers so that those who are in him might not. That seems neither cruel nor capricious, but rather all grace.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Wayward Teens, ISIS, and Original Sin

Peter Berger has another interesting post, this one on the recent trend of Western youths converting to Islam and travelling to Syria to join ISIS. While this trend is not as common as the frequent news accounts would suggest, the fact of any trend existing does raise some interesting questions about the kids being converted as well as the ability or inability of humans in general to perform horrific acts.

Berger looks at the work of German psychiatrist Andreas Krueger whose area of expertise, juvenile violent offenders, promises to shed some light on this issue. Krueger talks about children, many of whom have suffered traumatic events during their early childhood, who report an "inner devil" as the cause of their anti-social behavior. These individuals, Krueger states, are likely beyond the reach of successful intervention, whether by psychotherapy or otherwise, by the time they make it to his office. Berger finds Krueger overly pessimistic on this point, though here his position is more asserted than defended.

Berger then goes on to argue that Krueger is also too optimistic in claiming that such destructive tendencies are not common to all humans, but only to those who have suffered traumatic events. Rather, Berger rightly claims, these tendencies are there "from the very beginning."
The optimism of modern medicine has roots in the Enlightenment, which in turn is rooted in the worldview of classical antiquity: what we call evil is a form of ignorance; it is not rooted in human nature. In this, it is remarkably similar to Confucianism. The Chinese philosopher Mencius (Meng Zi, about 372 to 289 BCE) used a parable to propose that all men are by nature good unless they are deformed. A murderer sees an infant tottering on the edge of a pond. However vicious his murders may have been, he will instinctively pull the child back to save it from drowning. This leaves out two alternative scenarios. The murderer may be a sadist who enjoys watching children drown. Or he may only have concern for children of his own tribe; but the child may belong to the enemy tribe beyond the river.
We started out with the question of how human beings can commit horrible atrocities. Given what biological science can tell us about aggression it is not an inevitable instinct (something, say, similar to the Christian doctrine of original sin), nor simply a deformation of an originally benign human nature (as Enlightenment philosophers thought). Human nature, whatever it is, allows human beings to love and to kill. Religion can induce individuals to do either. Both benevolence and hatred can be learned and taught. Thus I think that we started out with the wrong question. We should have asked: How can it be that horrible atrocities are not committed continuously, all the time? Put differently: How can one sustain a decent society? The answer is that there must be institutions that inculcate decency rather
I believe Berger dismisses the doctrine of "original sin" a bit too quickly, perhaps as a result of a confusion between total and utter depravity. Total depravity describes a situation in which all human action is infected with sin, while utter depravity describes a situation in which all human activity is as evil as it can possibly be (see R.C. Sproul's piece here). The former doctrine rightly corroborates the state of affairs described in this article, while the latter does not.

Total depravity allows for the possibility of humans to build generally "decent" societies that are nevertheless marred by sin and corruption (exhibit A: every city that ever existed). Because of the totality of depravity, there is no current human society that can escape the destructive tendencies all humans have, even if many or most humans do not always act on those tendencies to their fullest extent.

For followers of Christ, the church is one institution that restrains evil in the world (Matt 5:13-16). For Christ, the church was the primary "plausibility structure" (to use Berger's phrase) for biblical faith in a fallen world. For a successful, thoroughly decent society to obtain, however, sin must be eradicated completely. That hope lies at the center of Christian engagement in society.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Just in time for Christmas

For those lonesome souls, restless with wondering about ancient verse, a restlessness that ghosts your reading life like an albatross coasting on silent winds,

            That moment that his face I see,
            I know the man that must hear me:
            To him my tale I teach. (STC, "Rime")

This post is for you.

"Constituent Postponement in Biblical Hebrew Verse" is now available as an ebook.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bavinck on the incarnation: "the central fact of special revelation"

Here is a great quote by Bavinck on the incarnation, one that is fitting for this Advent season. You can find the whole thing over at the RTS Washington site.
The incarnation of God is the central fact in special revelation, the fact that sheds light upon its whole domain. Already in creation God made himself like human beings when he created them in his image. But in re-creation he became human and entered totally into our nature and situation. In a sense God’s becoming human starts already immediately after the fall, inasmuch in his special revelation God reached back deeply into the life of the creation, linked up with the work of his own providence, and so ordered and led persons, situations, and events, indeed the entire history of a people, that he gradually came close to the human race and become ever more clearly knowable to it. But it reaches its culmination only in the person of Christ, who therefore constitutes the central content of the whole of special revelation.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Fathers of Daughters

This article over at the Huffington Post by Justin Ricklefs gets so much right about being a father to daughters. I would only add a point about nurturing imagination through stories and poetry so that they learn a deep engagement of the world around them. Of course, matters of faith and spiritual formation are also crucial to redeeming each of these categories he describes in his piece (cf. my pieces here and here on family worship over at the Christward Collective.

The comments at the beginning of the piece are common to my experience as well, being a father of five daughters. I always have mixed emotions when I hear them. I understand that people feel like they need to acknowledge that I have five daughters, as if I wasn't aware of the fact, but there is also a presumption that this is somehow not the way I wanted our family to turn out, a presumption that my daughters have to hear each time someone says something.

"I feel sorry for you when they become teenagers." "Dude, you're surrounded by women." "What did you do to deserve that?"
Being a dad of four daughters (we also have one son), I hear stuff like this almost daily. And honestly, I'm the one who feels sorry for people who think this way.
Having daughters is one of the greatest joys I could imagine. We have a saying at our house that goes like this, "I love you more today than I did yesterday." Raising girls is a privilege, not a burden.
I certainly don't have it all figured out, but I have learned 15 things about raising girls these last 11 years.
1. She wants to be loved. More than she wants the stuff you can buy her or the things you can teach her, she wants you to love her. No one else on Earth can assume your role as daddy. Your daughter will let you down, make huge mistakes, and maybe even turn her back to you for a season, but don't ever let her doubt your love for her. Look her in the eye and tell her you love her. Lots.
2. You have an influence on her future partner. Scary thought, but the kind of man you are to her will have a direct impact on who she chooses to marry some day. For years, our third daughter would beg me to marry her when she grew up. I had to explain that I was already married to her amazing mother. If you're doing it right, she'll want to marry someone like you one day.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Tim Keller on Preaching in a Secularized Environment

While the nature and extent of secularization has been questioned of late (see this post on Peter Berger's recent shift in thought), there are few pastors more studied in their approach to preaching the gospel to congregations influenced by secularism than Tim Keller. I remember hearing Dr. Keller teach a course on preaching in a postmodern context with Dr. Edmund Clowney years ago at RTS Orlando. The class was formative for me both as a young student of homiletics and also as someone who would later become involved in cross-cultural communications and global education. That class used to be available online. If you can find, listen to it. Seriously, dedicate the forty or so hours of time needed to get through the whole class. It is worth it.

Dr. Keller spoke at RTS Jackson last week as part of the John Reed Miller lecture series. You can see a list of links to his lectures here (along with past speakers), or you can use the links below. Whether you are a preacher or a layperson who struggles with communicating the gospel in the West (who doesn't fall into this category?), I would commend these lectures to you.

Lecture 1: "What is good preaching?"

Lecture 2: "Preaching to Secular People and Secularized Believers"

Question and Answer: Discussion on Keller's Book on Prayer

Lecture 3: "Preaching the Gospel Every Time"

Lecture 4: "Preaching to the Heart"

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lincoln's Parlor

Friday, November 14, 2014

Scientific Romanticism in Interstellar

I have a piece at the Gospel Coalition this morning that is part review and part analysis of the film Interstellar.

An excerpt:

If Interstellar were a religious text, the dogma it encodes could be called something like “scientific romanticism.” This belief system would hold that science will solve all of our problems one day, even the ones that by definition resist empirical observation and thus exist outside the purview of science (see Sagan’s Contact for another dogmatic specimen). Scientific romanticism works well as a narratival contrivance, but when employed to spice up the lives atheists who otherwise think that they have a clearer-headed view of the universe than those troglodytic believers, it can expose the scarcity of meaning available to those who eschew belief in God.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Without God Would There Be a Theory of Gravity

An interesting piece by Noah Berlatsky entitled "Would Science Exist Without Religion" at the Pacific Standard on the history of science and how skepticism is really a double-edged sword.

Our age is science-infused in a way that may seem counter-intuitive to overly confident post-modernists 10-15 years ago, so how ought we think about science in light of faith. Polanyi, Kuhn, and others have shown that the distinction is not so clear.

Here Berlatsky comments on the somewhat unscientific ideas that provided the foundation for some of science's greatest break-throughs.
The fact that the early scientific greats had numerous loopy ideas isn’t usually seen as that much of a problem. Kepler’s record as both an astronomer and an astrologer can be dismissed with mutterings about the superstitions of the time. The astrology is jettisoned, and the pure science is preserved.
Disaggregating isn’t necessarily always that easy, though. For example, Francesco Sizzi, one of Galileo’s critics, looked through the spyglass too—and where Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter, Sizzi saw nothing. Was this because he had poor eyes, or a bad telescope? Maybe, Lipking writes, “students of vision have repeatedly demonstrated [that] seeing something involves the mind as well as the eyes.” Based on what we know now about science, Sizzi failed to see because he lacked a theory that would put those moons into context.
Galileo, on the other hand, could see because he had the right theory. Evidence does not lead to theory; theory provides the context for evidence. Which means that Galileo’s discoveries came not just from a dispassionate evaluation of what he saw, but from his imagination. And if he imagined those moons of Jupiter, are we still imagining them with him?
Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend notoriously took this kind of reasoning and used it to question the entire scientific program—to argue that there is no categorical distinction between the “correct” scientific worldview (the Earth goes around the sun) and the alternate, “incorrect” ones, except for current fashion and institutional authority. Feyerabend argued that there was no real reason at the time to believe that the telescope showed an accurate view of the heavens; Galileo’s theories were based not on truth but on ad hoc guesses and leaps of faith—as Feyerabend argues, all science.
Lipking steps daintily around that particular gravitational pit; when he discusses Newton’s millenarian religious musings, for example, he is careful to note that the scientist’s breakthroughs “depended on meticulous calculations, not magical thinking.” But the pit still yawns off to the side distractingly. What after all do we mean by “depended”? Newton’s intellectual pursuits were inspired by his religious beliefs, and arguably vice versa. If Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter through his theory, didn’t Newton see gravity through his God? And if so, is the gravity there without the God?

Read the rest here.

Friday, November 7, 2014

John Stott on Christian Leadership

From Stott's book Involvement, vol. 2, the concluding essay entitled, "A Call for Christian Leadership" (247-264). This summary includes some paraphrasing.

Five main ingredients of Christian leadership: clear vision, hard work, dogged perseverance, humble service, and iron discipline:

1. Vision: act of seeing, an imaginative perceptions of things, combining insight and foresight...It is compounded of a deep dissatisfaction with what is and a clear grasp of what could be.

2. Industry: men of vision need men of action. Not enough for Moses to envision the land, he had to gather the people.

3. Perseverance: True work of God thrives on opposition. Its silver is refined and its steel hardened.

4. Service: authority by which one leads in not power but love, not force but example, not by coercion but by reasoned persuasion.

5. Discipline: knowing weakness, the greatness of the task & the strength of the opposition, & the inexhaustible riches of God's grace.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Wave Offering

Four reflections on the election last night:

AP Photo
1. Political trends are true until they are not, and the same can be said of political models and narratives. The past-is-prologue-to-the-present school of analysis fell apart pretty quickly last night leaving many analysts uncomfortably shifting in their seats. Media abhors a vacuum, so they were forced to offer unprepared truisms like, "This is a really big night for Republicans." (New York Times writer Ross Douthat comments on one of the failed models on his blog this morning.) Very few saw this "wave" coming, and the lack of foresight created a welcome scene of humility on some newscasts and elation on others. There is something about such disorientation on public display, the moment when a person is speechless, when there are awkward pauses on the guest panel, when the cellphone alarm inexplicably bleepbleeps in the middle of the newscast. In a world of heavily produced news, one enjoys seeing everyone a bit off their game. (UPDATE: Howard Kurtz talks about why the surprise.)

2. The stories of the Bible often turn on a sudden twist of fate, an unforeseen, but usually foreshadowed, outcome that sets all things to right, or wrong as the case may be. (Samson's hair grew back--who saw that coming!) History often goes where we least expect it, and this tells us something about God's work in the world.

3. As voters, the Christian's work is not finished now that the ballots have been cast. We are called to be an informed electorate, not merely an active one. We would not be able, caring members of our families or circles of friends if we did not take the time to get to know our family members and friends, their personalities, likes, fears, hopes. Likewise, we are not good participants in public life or stewards of our tiny piece of civil authority called a vote if we don't take the time to follow and understand how our representatives and governors are using the power given to them.

Yes, honor civil government as Paul reminds us in Romans 13, but remember that, unlike Paul, you don't have the luxury of saying the government is distinct from you. Caesar is not out there and other. You are a part of the authority structure you are called to honor. With such power comes responsibility (see point #1 in Anne Chamberlin's TGC post last week).

4. God has ordained whatsoever comes to pass (obvious slogan: "Election not elections!"), and this arrangement should provide deep consolation in times of doubt and compelling conviction in times of plenty. Last night's elections initiated a significant shift in the American political scene, one that we ought to hope and pray will increase the peace, prosperity, and general flourishing of humans made in the image of God, both within and outside of the U.S.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What Exile Means

This past summer there was a flurry of discussion (see here, here, and here, and over here) about the threat of a coming cultural exile facing the conservative Western church. I was busy at the time with travel and the happy occasion of welcoming with my wife a new baby daughter into our home, so I didn't get a chance to comment on that discussion until now. Hopefully the distance will provide some perspective.

There is a sense in which the church has always been in exile (1 Pet 1:1), awaiting the full restoration that Christ began in his incarnation but will not fulfill until he returns again. Throughout church history, her experience as an exilic community has waxed and waned, so that it is not entirely inappropriate to speak of exile when the church faces particular moments of defeat or persecution.

For this reason, I can sympathize with Christians who predict a coming cultural exile for the church in the West, one that is marked by prevailing cultural irrelevance. But we ought to consider what that means from a biblical perspective. In the Scriptures, exile is always a direct result of the rebellion of God's people, and its stated goal is, among other things, to cleanse God's people of their home-grown injustice and rebellion. This is clear throughout the prophetic corpus of Scripture, but can be clearly seen in the parable Isaiah tells in Isa 5:1-7. For Isaiah, the coming destruction of Judah and Jerusalem is triggered by their own "wild grapes"--the oppression and exploitation of the poor and the weak in their midst.

The restoration from exile comes on the condition of repentance (Lev 26:40-42; Deut 30:1-10; Jer 29:13). In this way, the city of God will be transformed through exile into the city it was always meant to be, a city of righteousness and faithfulness (Isa 1:26). The people's injustice is the trigger of the exile, and their repentance is the goal of the exile (this is true in the New Testament too, see 2 Pet 3:9).

A cursory read of the biblical prophets shows the priority placed on the people of God for whom exile is a future, present, or past reality, depending on the historical setting of the prophet. Yes, there are multiple oracles against nations, but they are relatively few in comparison to the extensive amount of time and energy directed by the prophets towards God's own people. The prophet Amos was perhaps the most provocative as he rebuked Israel for longing for the "Day of the Lord." The Day of the Lord would be the day when God would set all things to rights, correcting injustice in the world and restoring the faithful. Amos argued that Israel  should not be surprised to find themselves subject to judgment, not blessing, when that day comes:

       Woe to you who long
                for the day of the Lord!
       Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
                That day will be darkness, not light.
                                                        Amos 5:18

Instead of obsessing over the failures of their neighbors, the prophet implores Israel to turn inward. The proper response is not to decry the Assyrians or the Babylonians but to reflect humbly on their own grievous failure and repent.

As the prophet Jeremiah discovered, that is the kind of teaching that gets you thrown in a cistern.

Of course, biblical history shows that both the apostates and the righteous remnant go into exile. For the former group, exile represents condemnation, but for the latter it represents discipline that leads to restoration. We may exhibit a dangerous presumption if we do not inquire as to which group we belong, remembering that the righteous are marked by their repentance.

To be sure, the biblical exile provides vivid imagery. While I am not saying that exile is inappropriate for the current situation of the church in the West, we should be aware of what such imagery implies. If we invoke the notion of exile today, we should be ready to accept that we are indicted by implication.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Star Wars in Three Frames

A compilation of Star Wars-themed dalliances that have shown up on the interwebs.

Star Wars in real-life scenes (one of these is a bit risqué, so fair warning and apologies).

Star Wars in Thomas Kinkade.

And Star Wars without the suspension of disbelief (#twilightoftheidols).

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Biblical Inerrancy and the Greener Pastures Fallacy

I have a post over at the Christward Collective that deals with a few issues involved in the somewhat intramural discussion going on about the doctrine of inerrancy in evangelical biblical scholarship. The discussion is worth having, but we need keep a little intellectual and historical perspective.
 I wholeheartedly support the idea that each new generation should confirm the doctrine of Scripture and its authority in the Christian life. Yes, we stand on the shoulders of giants like Augustine, Calvin, Hodge, Bavinck, and Warfield, but at the same time our young pastors and scholars need to be personally impressed with the central role of Scripture as God's unique revelation in this world and that impression needs to be based on both tradition and rigorous personal study. So it is important for us to engage with the challenges to scriptural authority that arise and to revisit and renew our own views of how these challenges relate to the Christian life. It is not enough just to lay hold of tradition, but rather we ought to desire a living faith that is rooted in and blossoms from tradition but is applied in the present life.
Read the rest here.