Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem

We are coming to an end today of our week in Israel, and as usual it has been a wonderful, pognant, and painful experience. The plight of the Palestinian Christians is more evident every day. As most of you may know two weeks ago several innocent women and children were killed on a Gaza beach by the Israelis while these persons were minding their own business. And of course there are also various Palestinian women and children in jail here, simply because they are under suspicion and have no rights as citizens to fair treatment. They are not allowed to be citizens of Israel. My tour guide Mike, born and raised in Jerusalem, has lived under a Jordanian passport his whole life and he is nothing but a friend of Christians and leads tours of the Holy Land. He has a ministry of tourism. The pain he and his family experience from being separated from their friends by the wall put up around Bethelehem and the west bank is palpable, and it is unjust. The Palestinian Christians are being starved out of Bethelehem and they are moving to the U.S. in droves. Soon there will be few if any indigenous Christians in this land. And now of course Hamas has taken prisoner an Israeli soldier (not a civilian) in hopes of exchanging him for some of their family members. Israeli tanks are massing on the border of Gaza. We could degenerate into another stupid war in which all will lose and none will win.

I would ask you to pray for the peace of this place as the Psalmist urged us to do. It is what our Lord asked of us, for as he said "blessed are the peacemakers". We are off to Turkey this afternoon-- thanks be to God.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Conversations Heard at the Water Cooler at work

"So hey what have you been up to lately."

"We'll believe it or not I am into reading."

"Really? Reading what?"

"Well, I am growing my spirituality."

"So, what are you reading?"

"Well I am reading the Bible. And let me tell you, that guy can write!"

Friday, June 16, 2006

James the Sage

I will be off to Israel on Monday and off the blog for a while, as I serve as tour guide through Israel and Turkey, and then I am on to England and Scotland for three weeks, from which venue I plan to return to the blogosphere. Here below you will find a small excerpt from my forthcoming commentary on Hebrews, James, and Jude for Inter Varsity Press.


In early Judaism of the time of Jesus and James there had already long since been a cross-fertilization of the wisdom and prophetic traditions, including the apocalyptic traditions in Judaism. This is hardly a surprise since there was such Biblical precedent. Daniel for example is a sage and court counselor who also has apocalyptic visions and foresees eschatological scenarios. In other studies I have shown that there were differences between scribes and sages and prophetic figures in early Judaism. Any of these figures could be teachers, including teachers of the law, but in Lk. 5.17-21 it is interesting that there is an equation between scribes and teachers of the law, a combination also seen in the person of Gamaliel (Acts 5.34). But in Matthew’s Gospel we have a clear distinction between scribes, sages or wise men, and prophets (Mt. 23.34). This is not surprising because the First Evangelist is himself a sapiential scribe, carefully recording and editing his source material in a sapiential and eschatological manner.
Our discussion of what James was can be honed and refined by thinking about how the First Evangelist, another Jewish Christian writer deeply influenced by the Wisdom tradition should be characterized. What especially prompts this discussion is that first person verbs are quite rare in James, and apart from hypothetical questions (1.13; 2.18; 4.13,15) occur only here in this homily and once at James 5.11. What stands out about that latter reference is it involves a beatitude—one of the most familiar forms of sapiential speech which Jesus used. But here James self-identifies as a teacher, and since he does not refer to himself as an apostle or prophet this seems quite significant. Apostles are missionaries, and James stayed put in Jerusalem. Prophets are oracles, quoting God, but James does not do this. But sages are another matter altogether, and they seem to have made up the bulk of teachers in Jesus’ and James’ era (cf. Acts 13.1; Ephes. 4.11). Brosend helpfully reminds “teachers are known by the content of their teaching. This may be exactly what James intended, claiming a significant role that nonetheless turned attention away from himself to his message while accepting the responsibility that comes with presuming to instruct others.” But some distinctions are necessary to understand James’ role and the ethos and nature of his teaching.
The term grammateus itself has a range of meanings, but all of them presuppose a person who is literate, one who can read and write, and so a person who, educationally, is in the upper echelons of society, since only 10% of all ancients could read and write. There was considerable power in being a scribe in those sorts of social circumstances. But was a Jewish scribe simply a copier of documents? Was James a sapiential scribe like the First Evangelist, or would it be better to call him a creative sage in his own right?
James’ homily is written in Greek, not in Hebrew or Aramaic, and it reflects the traditions of Jewish writers who wrote in Greek, and not only so, he reflects Jewish writers who knew rhetoric as well. As we have already had occasion to note, James reflects the Jewish sapiential tradition in that era, and so we need to look more closely at sapiential scribes and sages such as Qohelet and later Ben Sira and even the author of Wisdom of Solomon. Fortunately, in Sirach we have some quite clear evidence about the way Jewish scribes worked in the intertestamental period and continuing on into the NT era.

Sirach 39.1-11 speaks of the ideal Jewish sapiential scribe:

He who devotes himself to the study of the Law of the Most High
Will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients,
And will be concerned with prophecies,
He will preserve the discourse of notable men
And penetrate the subtleties of parables;
He will seek out the hidden meanings of proverbs,
And be at home with the obscurities of parables.
He will serve among great men and appear before rulers...
If the great Lord is willing, he will be filled with the spirit of understanding;
He will pour forth words of wisdom
And give thanks to the Lord in prayer.
He will direct his counsel and knowledge aright,
And meditate on his secrets,
He will reveal instruction in his teaching,
And will glory in the Law of the Lord’s covenant,
Many will praise his understanding,
And it will never be blotted out;
His memory will not disappear,
and his name will live through all generations,
Nations will declare his wisdom,
And the congregation will proclaim his praise...

There are many things that could be remarked on in this passage but most importantly note that the Law is talked about in a context in which Law, prophecy, parable, proverbs and the like are all viewed from a sapiential point of view, which is to say as one or another sort of divine wisdom meant to give guidance to God’s people. It is after all Ben Sira who first clearly identifies Torah with Wisdom, indeed suggests that Wisdom became incarnate, so to speak in Torah. I would submit that the First Evangelist sees himself in the light of this sort of description of a Jewish scribe, and so sees his task as interpreting and presenting the life and teachings of Jesus as revelatory wisdom from God. Indeed he will argue that Jesus himself, rather than Torah, is the incarnation of God’s wisdom, and that it is therefore Jesus’ own wise teaching which provides the hermeneutical key to understanding Law, proverb, prophecy, parable and other things. But is this the agenda and modus operandi of James? My answer to this question must be no. He is more like the person whom the First Evangelist writes about--- Jesus who was indeed a sage, a creator of parables, aphorisms, riddles and the like.
Of course it must be remembered that the First Evangelist, who ought more appropriately to be called the First (Christian) Scribe, saw Jesus as an eschatological and royal sage, not just another wise man. But the issue here is not the content of Jesus’ teaching but its form. In form, Jesus’ teaching is overwhelmingly sapiential in character, even when the content may involve eschatology, and we must remind ourselves again that at least from the time of Daniel, if not before there had been this sort of cross-fertilization of wisdom, prophecy, and apocalyptic. Furthermore, such literature which reflected this cross-fertilization had become enormously popular and influential, and may even have helped spawn or at least spur on a whole series of ‘wise men’ or sages in the era just prior to and contemporaneous with Jesus (cf. e,g, Hanina ben Dosa, Honi the circle drawer), including that unique figure--- the visionary sage, which both Jesus and James fit into the mold of.
In a revealing comment in his recent study on sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism John J. Collins makes these telling remarks: “Comparison of Enoch and Daniel, on the one hand and 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch on the other shows there are significant variations in the ideal of the visionary sage in the apocalyptic literature….There are some consistent features of apocalyptic wisdom that distinguish it from traditional Hebrew wisdom. Most fundamental of these is the claim to have, and reliance upon, a supernatural revelation. Even a sage like Ezra who disavows heavenly ascents, still relies on dreams and visions…the apocalyptic sage is not at a loss, as Qoheleth was, to know what God had done from beginning to end (Qoh. 3.11), because he claims to have access to the recesses of wisdom in the heavens….One finds then in the sages of the apocalypses a denial of earthly wisdom, but also a claim to a higher, superior wisdom.” Several things about this quote are interesting for our purposes. While James does not at all renounce wisdom derived from the analysis of nature and human nature, nevertheless his most crucial insights about life he attributes to the wisdom that comes down from above, revelatory wisdom. In this respect he is very much like Jesus who was an apocalyptic sage who drew on both sorts of wisdom traditions.
I have differed with D. E. Orton’s characterization of the First Evangelist as being an apocalyptic scribe more in the line of the authors of some of the Enochian literature than in line with Ben Sira. To the contrary, the description we find in Mt. 13.52, which most scholars think provides a clue to help us understand the First Evangelist points us in the direction of Ben Sira not Enoch. It states: “Therefore every teacher of the Torah who has been instructed about the Kingdom of Heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” Notice that the person in question is: 1) a teacher; 2) knows the Law and teaches it; and 3) has been instructed about the Kingdom of heaven (a, if not the major subject of Jesus’ parables and other teachings). I would submit that the ‘new’ has to do with what the teacher has recently been instructed about (the Kingdom), whereas the old refers to Torah. This teacher in other words does not limit himself to the Torah, but also deals in new treasures as well, namely the various teachings of Jesus. In this regard it is understandable why the author of this Gospel is such a strong critic of Pharisees and their scribes. It is not the noble task of a scribe that he objects to, he is one. It is the Pharisaic scribes who dwell on Torah and its amplification and refuse to recognize the teaching of Jesus and his perspectives on earlier Jewish wisdom including the Law that our author has issues with. Our author is operating in a profoundly Jewish milieu where the teachings of the Pharisees rival the teachings that the First Evangelist seeks to offer.
Another helpful clue to the modus operandi of the First Evangelist is found in Eccles. 12.9-10. The sapiential scribe is one who is to weigh or assess, study, and arrange or set in order the meshalim, the parables, proverbs, aphorisms, riddles of the wisdom tradition. This description reflects the three stages of literary composition—experimenting with, refining and shaping, and then arranging in a collection. The scribe is not merely to record but to enhance the wisdom examined by arrangement and elegance of expression, though always expressing himself with care. Wisdom is meant to be both a guide and goad in life, both a handhold and something which helps one get a grip on life (Ec.12.11). The scribe is an inspired interpreter and editor of his sources, but he is self-effacing and points to others as the sages or teachers whose material he is refining, restoring and presenting. If we were to characterize the First Evangelist we would have to say that he is remarkably like the description of the sapiential scribe we find in Sirach. And of course we have seen in James how very indebted he is to the same sort of Jewish wisdom sources--- Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. But James operates quite differently than the First Evangelist in various respects. In the first place James is offering his own wisdom, not merely redacting the wisdom of the past. Nowhere is this clearer than in the way he handles the Jesus tradition as opposed to the way the First Evangelist handles it. The latter quotes Jesus and attributes the material to Jesus. James on the other hand draws on the Jesus tradition without attribution and modifies it to suit his own purposes, melding it together with his own wisdom—sometimes revelatory and counter-order wisdom, sometimes conventional wisdom. There is a reason James, like Paul, calls himself a servant of Jesus Christ, and not his secretary or scribe ( grammateus). He too has received revelation, and he too has insights to share, and new perspectives on previous wisdom teaching including that of his brother. Notice that James does not feel it necessary to quote Torah often to give authority to his discourse, and notice as well that unlike what his brother manifested he is perfectly at home with using Greco-Roman rhetorical techniques to address with maximum possible impact Jewish Christians in the Diaspora, which is to say living in a rhetoric saturated Greco-Roman environment.
Of course we will never know whether Jesus was capable of wielding rhetoric in the way James does, and since he never really addresses foreigners in any lengthy Greek discourse we cannot guess. But whatever else we may say, James proves to be a multi-faceted and multi-talented sage in his own right, able to address audiences outside of his own setting in persuasive ways, while still manifesting the same Jewish Gestalt with that mixture of wisdom and eschatological fervor and content that we find in the teachings of Jesus. Like his brother he is a creative generator of new traditions, new wisdom as well as a reframer of old wisdom, and so he certainly does not merely fall into the category of creative scribe like the First Evangelist, which is to say a person whose skill is just in editing and assembling data whether old or new. In fact, if we may call the First Evangelist the first Christian scribe in the Christian era, we may call James the first Jewish Christian sage in that era. And like his brother, James is prepared to offer a new law, a royal and eschatological and perfect law which combines some elements from the Mosaic covenant (like “love thy neighbor…..”) with other things. Law is seen as but one form of wise teaching and it is handled in a sapiential way. It is truly unfortunate that James was ever caricatured as someone who had not really captured Jesus’ vision of things, but rather merely rehearsed older Jewish wisdom teachings.
But there is a problem seldom noticed here. Jesus in Mt. 23.8-10 warned his disciples that they were not to be called rabbis or teachers, because they had one teacher—Jesus himself. Now James’ caution about not many becoming teachers may fall in line with Jesus’ warning, and Jesus’ warning may be said to be against the honorific side of things as it involved early Jewish teachers—in other words whoever was a teacher was not to seek the status and praise for doing so. Rather they were to follow Jesus’ own more humble example. Probably, this is how James will have understood this saying of Jesus.
Furthermore, as we see in James 3, while James follows the Jewish practice of identifying the proper teacher with the sage he models for these teachers something that goes well beyond scribal activities or job descriptions. In other words, while he does not want many to follow in his footsteps and become teachers/sages (cf. Heb. 5.12), he is certainly assuming and hoping a few will do so to guide the Jewish Christians in the Diaspora, some who are perhaps already the elders in those places. The criteria for being such a teacher involves of course criteria of character which is emphasized in James 3, but also criteria of knowing earlier wisdom and being open to new revelatory wisdom as well, and having the ability to articulate it persuasively. One need not be a scribe to be a sage, nor become a scribe in preparation for being a sage. Good character, knowledge of the Word, and openness to new insight from God would suffice. One need not necessarily even be literate to do this, though James certainly was. As R. Bauckham stresses James was such a creative sage that he even felt free to rephrase his brother’s own teaching as well as the OT. In commenting on James 3.11-12 he notes “James is not quoting or alluding to the saying of Jesus [Mt. 7.16], but in the manner of a wisdom sage, he is re-expressing the insight he has learned from Jesus’ teaching (Lk. 6.43-45; Matt. 12.33-35; 7.16-18)…Just as Ben Sira, even when he repeats the thought of Proverbs, deliberately refrains from repeating the words, so James creates an aphorism of his own, indebted to but no mere reproduction of the words of Jesus.”
To judge from the subsequent history of Christianity after the apostolic age, both prophetic and sapiential figures who claimed independent authority and revelation gradually came under an increasing cloud of suspicion, as we already see in the Didache 11-13. The church tended to marginalize such figures, and of course has continued to do so throughout church history. Thus we may be thankful that the writing of a figure like James the sage became enshrined in the canon of the NT, despite the bumpy ride it took to get there. It reminds us that our roots look rather different than most of the current limbs we could inspect which now grow from the tree. It reminds us that early Christianity was a movement not just of the faithful reiteration of older traditions but of fresh revelation, fresh wisdom from and about Christ, who came to be called the very Wisdom of God, the ultimate revelation of the mind and character of God.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

"Cars"-- Auto Eroticism in America

"Cars" (the movie, not the old rock group with Ric Ocasek) has barnstormed up the movie charts and according to many pundits its a great movie, some even say, an instant classic. There is no doubting that 20 years into their creative arc,Pixar Entertainment is the leader in the field when it comes to this sort of computer generated animation. And interestingly enough, 'children's' movies (I use the term loosely) during that same period of time have not only become much bigger business, but are attracting a galaxy of stars to do the voices, and of musical stars to do the sound track (this one is scored by Randy Newman and has James Taylor, John Mayer, Sheryl Crow, Rascal Flats, and others).

I must say however that this particular animated feature is in fact mostly for adults. In the first place it has themes like 'nostalgia' for the good old days (n.b. children are not old enough to think that way), or selfish opportunism in the pursuit of one's career path vs. self-sacrifical behavior (again the way this is pitched in this movie is over young children's heads), or romance between 'young' cars (again not a children's theme).

Unlike some children's movies that have a few jokes for the adults, this movie seems more oriented towards adults. You can also see this in the level of action in the movie-- apart from the NASCAR like races at the beginning and end of the movie this movie is very slow paced, and its centerpiece is life on ole Route 66 in the town that time forgot--- Radiator Springs. Unlike "Ice Age-- the Melt Down" this movie has some real slow spots for children, though I thoroughly enjoyed it. A fast-paced comic thriller this is not, but it has some classic scenes e.g. when Lightning McQueen (voice by Owen Wilson) the youngbuck race car, and Mater the tow truck go 'tractor tipping' out in the fields outside town one night, or in the brief scenes where Cheech Marin is playing the pimped up low rider car which is pretty hysterical.

The animation in itself is worth seeing this movie for, as it is truly amazing whether we are talking about the cars or the towns, or the breathtaking scenery of the west near Grand Canyon. And there is a not so subliminal message for adults in this movie as well which hooks them because of their love of vintage cars and perhaps there love of travel.

And the message is this--- we need to rethink our cultural trends which lead to going everywhere fast but getting nowhere fast when it comes to the things that really matter. At one juncture in the movie there is a critique of the building of Interstate 40 across America which caused many small towns through which Route 66 went to become ghost towns. Instead of conforming to the contours of the land, says the commentator, we now run roughshod over it, and miss all the interesting things along the way-- a sort of there is joy in the journey, and things to learn from the past kind of message. But it is also reminiscent of the recent decisions taken in New Hampshire and Vermont to ban Walmart from town lest it lead to the closing down of all the downtown mom and pop businesses.

But of course this movie is also about auto eroticism--- America's great love for its cars, the ultimate symbol of its mobility and freedom. This movie plays up that theme in various ways. We have the dream cars (the female lead is a Porsche in this movie!), the race cars, the junk cars, the vintage restored cars, the funky Italian cars (Guido and Luigi no less) and at the end a hilarious segment where SUVs are sent to boot camp to learn how to actually do off roading.

Instead of people are like the cars they drive, we have the reverse theme-- cars are like different kinds of people. My personal favorite is the old VW Mini-van from the 60s still painted in psychedelic colors, who sits watching a blinking yellow light and comments "You know man every third blink is like slower", to which his buddy the panel van replies "The 60s weren't good to you were they?" We are what we drive it would seem, in America, or at least we see our cars as an extension and expression of our personalities. No wonder public transportation is such a non-starter in much of this country. Whoever envisioned themselves as a subway car or a Greyhound bus?

The Pixar company is to be commended for quality work over the last two decades, but this movie is not a classic like Toy Story or Bug's Life and some of their other big hits. It is however, as the saying goes, a fun ride while it lasts (a bit less than two hours), which is only appropriate for a movie about cars.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Ten Commandments for the Internet Age

Thou shalt not have any other Providers before me.

Thou shalt not make for thyself a sacrilegious image using Photoshop or Powerpoint.

Thou shalt not bow down and worship thy technology for I am a jealous God punishing the third and fourth generation of computer programs with bugs and viruses and the blue screen of death.

Thou shalt not misuse the name of the Lord using emoticons, symbols, java scripts or other flippant forms of expression.

Remember the Shut Down time and do not Restart during it. Six days ye shall compute and do all your email and word processing but on the seventh day cease, to make room for the Word Perfect.

Honor your parents' computer illiteracy and answer their snail mail so you may live long in the land.

Thou shalt not murder thy computer just because Microsoft Works is an oxymoron.

Thou shalt not commit adultery by means of cyber porn.

Thou shalt not steal another’s data, identity, nor illegally download or copy things.

Thou shalt not give false testimony on a blog against thy neighbor whilst hiding behind a pseudonymous blog name.

Thou shalt not covet thy sister’s laptop, nor her printer, nor her Ipod, nor her cellphone, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor.


Saturday, June 10, 2006

China Bans Da Vinci Code Movie

In the category of closing the barn door after the cow has escaped, we now have the banning of the Da Vinci Code movie after it has had a 22 day run there and has exceeded all expectations in ticket sales. Here is the link--


This seems to have been the response of the Chinese government trying to appease the Catholic Patriot League, but also responding to the 'social unrest' and various protests the movie had caused in the last few weeks there. Of course this tactic only makes those Catholics look like obscurantists and censors unfortunately. Nevertheless, it is an irony that the Communist government in China has been more sensitive to Christian feelings on this matter than all the Western governments put together! It also shows, that at least some governmental officials understand that this movie is definitely not "much ado about nothing".

Friday, June 09, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion-- A Eulogy to Things Dying from the Heartland

With an all star cast (Kevin Kline, Meryl Strep, Lilly Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Masden Lindsey Lohan, John C. Reily, Tommy Lee Jones etc.), and the ole boy himself, Garrison Keillor, and a reenactment of an episode of the Prairie Home Companion in the offing, the heavy odds would be on this being a lot of fun. And indeed it is. Just watching Meryl Streep and Lilly Tomlin play country singing sisters, and Kevin Kline as Guy Noir the bumbling security guard was worth the price of admission. It is too bad the moguls have decided on only a limited release for this movie.

What you didn't figure on in this movie was a long meditation of death. But in fact that is precisely what you get in this movie. Virginia Masden plays quite literally the angel of death. But had she come to help ring down the curtain on the Prairie Home Companion?

The plot is quite simple-- the Fitzgerald theater in St. Paul is about to be imploded, putting an end to the venue for the long running radio show. It has been bought by a born again Texas axe man, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who thinks the show needs to end and another parking lot should be put up (you can sing the chorus of Joni Mitchell's classic 'Big Yellow Taxi' here--- "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot...')

So it is no surprise that the cast, and Garrison are in a melancholy and reflective mood. Nevertheless they must make merry, and do so by singing everything from bluegrass, to country, to spirituals to old Gospel classics, to western cowboy songs. Indeed most of the movie involves singing, and we discover that most of these big name stars can sing, and so can Keillor as well, who plays himself of course. For somewhat under two hours we watch them perform, follow the behind the scenes high jinks, and generally have a good time.

Keillor, in good Lake Wobegon fashion reminds us of how Keillor sees the nature of the upper midwest. People expect it to be cold, they expect death, and if joy breaks out for too long they feel like something is wrong and this too will pass. In short they range from Stoics to fatalists to glass is half empty folks, and even the young, portrayed by Lindsey Lohan are busy writing poems about suicide and death.

Yet they enjoy fiddling as Lake Woebegon freezes, and if this is a death spiral dance, it sure is entertaining to watch. "Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow..." seems to be the theme here. It is interesting though that when a cast member actually dies back stage during the show, Keillor insists the show must go on, and he refuses to do a live eulogy to ole Claude Akers the cowboy singer. It seems that some cope with death by avoidance of the subject, others by obsessing about it.

There is a bit of baudy humor in this movie served up by Harrelson and Reilly (e.g.--- "News bulletin, a large shipment of Viagra has been stolen"; Harrelson asks--- 'Who do they suspect?' Answer--- "hardened criminals!") so you probably don't want to take the kids to this one, but there are many good laughs in the movie, even as death is being mused on.

What one can learn from this movie is a good deal about the heartland of America, far from beautiful weather, and gorgeous oceans. The movie has all the charm of an earlier era when people actually mainly listened to the live radio shows, rather than turning on XM radio or shock jock radio talk shows. What one learns immediately is that we have mostly lost the art of musing over a leisurely hour about topics like death--- and of course Grandma's Powdermilk biscuits, interspersed with some corny jokes.

In fact the show's humor reminded me of a fellow Charlottean's humorous comic strip--- Kudzu. In it there is a character named the Rev. Will B. Dunn. In one strip he is speaking to the church's ladies circle, and he says "Personally I have no problems with women and their roles in the church." And then patting his paunch he adds-- "its women and their biscuits that I have problems with." You catch my drift....

I really loved this movie on so many levels, and it made me wistful for a time when we took time to really listen for an hour to others singing from the heart, speaking with wit, tongue firmly in cheek, and of course doing the American thing-- advertising everything on the planet from biscuits to laxatives.

It reminded me of why country music really does speak to so many people in the heartland-- they are living those songs, and they are painfully true, whether you are singing "Red River Valley" or Frankie and Johnny" or "Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling". This is the music that speaks to everyday life, and gives it a spiritual or humorous twist, with a little moralizing thrown in for good measure. I can recommend this movie for adults, but be prepared to smile and grin and tap your toes. If you're too Stoic for that, then you belong at Lake Woebegon.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Rick Warren as 'A Model of Faith'

I have to admit that I have problems with mega-churches, and many of their pastors. And it is also the case that I have been critical of Rick Warren's mega-selling "The Purpose Driven Life" as being too individualistic and other-worldly in some aspects of its theological underpinnings. But you can tell a lot about a man from the way he responds to prosperity, and Rick Warren has responded in truly Christian fashion and deserves to be commended for it in the wake of his enormous success in publishing.

In a recent article in U.S. Today (June 5th edition) Tom Krattenmaker chronicles the recent campaigns of Warren against AIDS and poverty especially in Africa and against global warming as well. Though one might think Bush-backing Warren and liberal Christian Bono make strange partners in such campaigns, in fact they are in agreement about the need for the church to respond to these globalizing crises that threaten to destroy a whole continent, and take down other continents as well in the process.

Warren recently told the Philiadelphia Inquirer "The New Testament says the church is the body of Christ, but for the last 100 years, the hands and feet have been amputated, and the church has just been a mouth. And mostly, its been known for what it's against... I'm so tired of Christians being known for what they're against." Amen to that brother. Warren is also tired of partisan spirit that really is a sort of party spirit that does not honor the particularism of the Gospel or its message. As Krattenmaker points out, Warren stresses that he's not for the right wing or the left wing but for the whole bird. Amen to that as well. Just need to make sure the bird one is holistically endorsing is the Gospel bird, and not a turkey.

Warren provides us with a prophetic model that is not politically driven but rather issues driven. Warren does not do political endorsements or jump on party bandwagons. Good for him. He stays focused on the issues and the implications of what he takes to be the NT teaching. This means on the one hand, that in regard to the issues listed above he may seem like a liberal Democrat to some, that is until you hear him talk about abortion, stem cell research and same sex intercourse or marriage. Warren clearly believes in the social Gospel and this leads him to take positions on varying issues on a issue by issue basis, not on the basis of some party loyalty platform or ideology. Good for him.

Warren has always believed that salvation only comes through Christ, but he believes that there needs to be a graciousness in the presenting of the Good News to all. The way I like to put is this--- all are welcome to come to Jesus and his community as they are. The church should be a hospital for sick sinners, not a museum for saints. But no one is welcome to stay as they are, whatever their particular sins. Nor should they expect the church to baptize their sins and call them good.

In his ecumenicity making common cause with people on an issue by issue basis, and in his stress on both the spiritual and the social Gospel, Warren reminds me of that earlier figure of catholic (i.e. uiniversal) spirit--- John Wesley. Wesley use to say, in his letter to a devout Catholic-- "if your heart is as my heart on this issue, give me your hand." I quite agree with this approach. Warren seeks to be broad where the Bible is broad and inclusive and narrow where the Bible is narrow and exclusivistic-- particularly in regard to salvation only coming through Jesus.

Of course this sort of approach will not appeal to all conservative Christians. It will not seem partisan and apologetically driven enough. I however think that Warren has the balance and implications of the Gospel right in this regard. And he deserves to be commended for it. He understands that being obnoxious for Jesus is not what we are called to, however stridently we may oppose the various flaws and sins of our culture. So I say to Rick "Well done good and faithful servant-- carry on in season and out. And don't be discouraged by your cultured and not so cultured detractors. Jesus had the same problem, and responded in the same ways."

Monday, June 05, 2006

What to Do on a 19 Hour Plane Ride?

I took the longest commercial flight in the world these past two days--- Singapore to Newark N.J. non-stop. Its supposed to take a mere 18 and a half hours. Ours went a bit longer. Singapore Airlines is justly famous for its comfort and service and so I was well cared for. But what to do with the huge amount of time. Rest of course, but there was plenty of time to read and watch movies as well. I finished Wendell Berry's sleepy southern novel about a sleepy mythical Kentucky river town called Port William. It is beautifully written and well reflects Southern life in a small town and farming area during WWII. Berry stands in the tradition of southern writers like Walker Percy and Flannery O' Connor, not to mention Ferrell Sams, Doris Betts and Thomas Wolfe. He is well worth the time to read. The novel I am referring to is "A Place on Earth."

I also watched three movies-- Matchpoint, the recent much praised Woody Allen film (which is, unlike most of his previous movies not an exercise in comedy or whimsy), The Matador (think Pierce Brosnan as aging hit man who is losing his edge and needing a friend), and Crash, the multiply Oscar nominated film. While all three of these films have their pluses, and all share a common subject matter of violence, Crash is the film I would most commend for all Christians to view due to its serious and at times profound probing of the issue of ethnic prejudice in America. The film is noteworthy for showing prejudice in various forms-- whites vs. blacks as well as blacks vs. whites. Whites or blacks vs. new immigrant groups, and new immigrant groups vs. other minorities. It shows what an endemic and pandemic problem this is in our society. Matt Dillon and an all star cast put in some memorable performances. One of the major themes in the film is the role that fear and sheer ignorance plays in producing ethnic prejudice of this sort. We might want to add human falleness and sin as well. One could speak at length as well about the big difference between tolerance and actually learning to love one's neighbor who is different from us. The movie shows the futility of using violence to resolve ethnic disputes.

Recently, in a long over due court decision, it was decided in regard to my mother's home town of Wilmington N.C. that the descendents of the victims of the race riots of 1898 should be compensated for their familial losses. Some have of course asked whether the statute of limitations should not have run out on such crimes a long time ago. This is the wrong question.

We should have asked, should there ever be a time limit put on the need to atone for sin? Of course we cannot atone for it-- only Jesus can and did. Reparations are not the same as atonement, even though they are needful for healing. But imagine if Jesus had said--- "well, I don't need to atone for the sin of Adam, because that was so long ago. We should just forgive and forget."

You will notice that that is not how God deals with sin. Instead of just forgetting it even if it was long in the past, he atones for it. I suspect this is how Jesus would have us to act as well. "If your brother has something against you, and you are going to lay a gift on the altar, first go and be reconciled to your brother......"

I would suggest that the reason that racial resentment simmers and boils over with regularity in America is precisely because we fail to do the hard work of reconciliation and the actual seeking of forgiveness. At least in South Africa there has been a truth and reconciliation commission that has persued a just and fair resolution of the damage the apartheid system did to both black and white south Africans. We in the U.S. settle at best for reparations and general cries for forgiving and forgetting. But this is forgetting that forgiveness must be sought out, not assumed, and it must be freely offered by the offended party-- and it is a sign of recalcitrance when the wounded have to seek legal means to force offenders or their descendents to do what they ought to have done in the first place. Crash, is at least a good conversation starter on this subject for Americans. But it has miles to go, and does not even raise the issue of grace and forgiveness in any meaningful way. But we as Christians must talk about these things. One good resource to start such discussions is Miroslav Wolff's powerful award winning book "Exclusion and Embrace."

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Singing Singapore's Praises

I have just finished the better part of the week lecturing in Singapore, a city/state of 4 million people living on an island of 250 square miles, just north of the equator (think hot and humid). It was of course at one time a part of the British Empire but now perhaps has 2% British population and is very much its own master, including having the busiest port in the world.

When John Calvin envisioned the ideal city state, I think he had something close to Singapore in mind in some respects. It is certainly the cleanest, most gleaming big city I have ever visited. The people are mostly of Chinese descent though there is a huge Malay, Indonesian, and Indian population as well. Its form of government is like the British a Parliamentary system with a Prime Minister.

This nation has 14% that claim to be Christian of some variety, with a large Moslem and Buddhist population as well. It is truly a cosmopolitan place, in an Oriental sort of way. Singapore has compulsory military service for all able bodied males (2 years and a bit) and it also has no tax exemption for church, nor tax deduction for giving to churches. Giving then is done on a truly charitable basis to the church, knowing it is not tax exempt. I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing. The largest denominational presence in Singapore is Methodists (I was pleased to discover) but not due to British Methodist influence. Rather this is a success story of American Methodism. There are many good sized and lively Methodist Churches and boy do these folks sing vigorously as all good Methodists should. If only they drove on the same side of the road as American Methodists, but everything is right hand drive here, as in the U.K.

I was here to give the usual Da Vinci Code seminar lectures and speak to pastors about the cultural factors that have led to this being such a popular book and movie. We had lots of good and deep discussion. I had enough time to tour the city, sample the wonderful Chinese cuisine (especially Sezhuan), visit their world class zoo, see their celestial shopping malls (including a five story technology emporium with every techno gadget known to man) and enjoy warm fellowship with new friends. I was especially honored to make the acquaintance of Bishop Daniel of the Coptic Church visiting his little flock of 20 persons here in Singapore. He confirmed what I already thought about claims that the Coptic of the Gospel of Judas is translation Coptic just because it has Greek loan words. This is false. He also confirmed that 'koinonos' means companion-- it is not the word for spouse or wife! So much for the Gospel of Philip suggesting Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.

What especially impressed me was the cooperation of various of the churches here-- the Anglicans hosted the event in St. Andrews Cathedral in cooperation with Methodists, Presbyterians and others. It was an ecumenical venture co-ordinated by Bishop Solomon (a wise man indeed :) of the Methodist Church and K.T. Lim of the National Council of Churches-- these folks are all conservative Christians, so don't think liberal thoughts about this arm of the World Council of Churches. Christianity is alive and well here, and doing better than in its neighboring country Austrailia where only 2 % go to church.

Most Singaporians live in apartments, most of which as government built or maintained. Not surprisingly land is very sparse and precious on this island and few can afford to own a home. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and with its excellent public transportation and facilities everyone can have a reasonable standard of living. I set foot in the South China Sea yesterday and it was like a warm bath tub--- no waves to speak of unfortunately. Otherwise this was a perfect visit. God bless Singapore the island jewel of the Orient.