Advent Week 2: Bible

We are now in week 2 of the Advent season.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas–more precisely, three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  What we usually do around here during Advent is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

This year we will work through Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian:  Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, unpacks these four items as basic markers of Christian identity.  Christians differ, in some cases quite significantly, on what these things mean and/or how they are to be practiced, yet all Christians practice them in some form or fashion.

This week we will look at what Williams has to say on the Bible.

For when you see a group of baptized people listening to the Bible in public worship, you realize that Bible-reading is an essential part of the Christian life because Christian life is a listening life.  Christians are people who expect to be spoken to by God.

Williams takes pains to remind us that the picture many evangelicals, and perhaps other Christians as well, have of someone all alone in a quiet room with an open Bible in front of him/her, studiously devouring every word, is a relatively modern phenomenon.  For the vast majority of church history and all of Old Testament history prior, people did not have their own personal copies of the Bible.  Scripture was something that was recited, usually within the context of a public worship service.  The same is true for Christians in many parts of the world today.

This is not to diminish the importance of personal Bible study.  And Williams does not either:

Now I say this not to deny the importance of all Christians having a Bible in their pocket with which they are familiar, but to point out that very often we make a set of assumptions about what is central and most important for Bible reading, which would have been quite strange in many parts of the Christian world for many centuries.  And it still is strange to many of our fellow Christians today.

The Bible in the hands of individual believers was a needed corrective for many abuses that had arisen during medieval times.  But the benefit of having easy access to our own personal copies of Scripture to read and study at any time comes with some side effects that I do not think we have fully considered.  First, a book is impersonal and the emphasis on individual Bible study that is pervasive in evangelicalism leads us to believe that our primary responsibility is to study, parse, and analyze independently.  Reading Scripture in corporate worship personalizes it by emphasizing the I-thou dynamic that is present in conversation.  Second, it leads us to prioritize our own study and interpretation of Scripture–apart from and independent of the community of other believers–over hearing the Word in the context of community.

When you do get around to reading and studying the Bible, you will find that it is a very complex thing which resists any attempt to cast it as a simple, straightforward “Thus saith the Lord…”.  The Bible is a collection of texts which span several centuries and represent a bewildering diversity of perspectives and literary forms.  You think the Bible is one thing and then lo and behold, you turn the page and it is something completely different.

According to Williams, the best way to understand the Bible is as a parable.  It is a record of how a certain people saw, heard, and responded to what God was doing in their midst.  The operative question is the same as it is for any of Jesus’ parables:  Who are you in the story?  Where are you in the story?

Ultimately, this brings us back to Jesus.  Says Williams:

It is all very well to talk about finding yourself in God’s story, about reflecting and imagining; but, as we do all that, how can we decide what a good or bad interpretation of that story might be like?  What criteria do we have for discerning truth from falsehood?  The Christian answer is, unsurprisingly, in terms of Jesus Christ.  As Christians read the Bible, the story converges on Jesus.  The full meaning of what has gone before is laid bare in Jesus.  The agenda for what follows is set in Jesus.  And, without trying to undermine or ignore the integrity of Jewish Scripture in itself (a complex question that needs the most careful and sensitive understanding of the experience and reflection of our Jewish brothers and sisters), the Christian is bound to say that he or she can only read those Jewish Scriptures as moving towards the point at which a new depth of meaning is laid bare in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

As we read the Bible, we place ourselves in the story.  We understand from the perspective of the people who are living out the story.  We attempt to make sense of their words, attitudes, and actions, and relate and evaluate it all in terms of Jesus Christ.  What we learn of him helps us to evaluate what constitute a faithful response and what constitutes an unfaithful response.

Williams gives an example from the development of the Tanakh (the Jewish law/prophets/writings).  Jehu was anointed by the prophet Elisha to become king of Israel and purge the evil legacy of king Ahab from the land.  Jehu does this by slaughtering en masse Ahab, his family, and his supporters at a place called Jezreel.  The story is presented and celebrated in 2 Kings as a triumph of God’s righteousness.  But only a few generations later, the prophet Hosea takes a much different view of things:

For in the book of the prophet Hosea (1.4) you will find, just a few generations later, a prophet of Israel looking back on that very story and saying that Jezreel is a name of shame in history, not of triumph, and that Jehu’s atrocities deserve to be punished. Something has happened to shift the perspective. And I imagine that if asked what he meant, Hosea would have said, ‘I’m sure my prophetic forebears were absolutely certain they were doing the will of God. And I’m sure the tyranny and idolatry of the royal house of Ahab was a scandal that needed to be ended. But, human beings being what they are, the clear word of God calling Israel to faithfulness and to resistance was so easily turned into an excuse for yet another turn of the screw in human atrocity and violence. And we’re right to shed tears for that memory.’

Williams brings it all together by emphasizing that the Bible is a thing which we read together:

The Bible that we read is a Bible that has already been read by countless Christians before us, and is being read by others today.  And so we need to listen not only to what the Bible is saying, but to what it is saying to those around us and those in the past.  That is one of the meanings of ‘tradition’ in the Church.  You listen to the way in which people have been reading the Bible.  And it is one of the crucially important things about the Church now:  that we listen to one another read the Bible…

So we read together, we hear together.  And instead of that picture of the Bible as a book held in the hands of a solitary reader alone in a room, have in your mind another kind of picture, one in which somebody is proclaiming God’s story to a gathering of diverse people – and all of them asking themselves, and asking one another, ‘How do we find ourselves in this?  How are we going to be renewed together by this reading?’  Because when that happens, the Bible is an essential source, as well as a sign, of the Christian life.



Advent Week 1: Baptism

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas.  More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas.  What we usually do around here at this time of year is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

This year we will work through Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian:  Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, unpacks these four items as basic markers of Christian identity.  Christians differ, in some cases quite significantly, on what these things mean and/or how they are to be practiced, yet all Christians practice them in some form or fashion.

This week we will look at what Williams has to say on baptism.

Baptism marks the beginning of one’s life as a Christian.  In the evangelical world we see it as a public profession of faith in Christ; in other places it is seen as the means by which one comes to faith in Christ.  Some churches and Christian traditions baptize infants; others baptize only adults who are old enough to make a meaningful profession of faith in Christ.  In some places it is done via sprinkling or pouring of water upon the person being baptized; in others it is done via full immersion.

Jesus spoke of his death as a sort of baptism–that is, a dipping or an immersion–that he had to go through.  So from the beginning, Williams points out, baptism as a ritual for joining Christian community identifies us with the baptism of Jesus’ death in that we are swamped or immersed in the reality of what Jesus endured.

When Jesus was baptized at the river Jordan, he went down into the depths and when he came up the Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove.  Williams ties this imagery back to creation:  at the beginning there was watery chaos and the Holy Spirit hovering or a great wind blowing (depending on how you read the Hebrew, perhaps one is a metaphor for the other) over it, and out of this comes the created world.  Thus the early Christians referred to baptism as a sort of “new creation”.

They also came to see this “new creation” as a restoration of what it means to be truly human, a recovery of the humanity that God intended.  We have let go of that humanity, forgotten it, corrupted it.  Jesus came down to earth to restore that humanity from within.  He did so by entering into the chaos of our world in a state of vulnerability and unprotectedness.  This suggests that our path forward as Christians, as baptized people, as “new creation”, is to enter into the depths of human need in a state of vulnerability and unprotectedness.  What’s more, it means we are also in touch with the chaos inside ourselves, because we all live with a great deal of chaos and inhumanity inside of us.  Williams puts it thusly:

So baptism means being with Jesus ‘in the depths’:  the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need – but also in the depths of God’s love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be.

If all this is correct, baptism does not confer on us a status that marks us off from everybody else.  To be able to say, ‘I’m baptized’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people.  It is to accept that to be a Christian is to be affected – you might even say contaminated – by the mess of humanity.  This is very paradoxical.  Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed, and re-created.  It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave us untouched or unsullied.  And the gathering of baptized people is therefore not a convocation of those who are privileged, elite and separate, but of those who have accepted what it means to be in the heart of a needy, contaminated, messy world.  To put it another way, you don’t go down into the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!

The life of the baptized people is not only a life of openness to human need, it is also a life of openness to the Holy Spirit.  It is a paradoxical, seemingly contradictory existence:  in the loving embrace of the Father’s love for the Son as personified via the Holy Spirit, and yet at the same time in the thick of a world of suffering, sin, pain, and danger.  But because Jesus has taken his stand right in the thick of both these realities, that is where we take ours.

Through baptism we identify with Jesus Christ, and one way to think of the identity and calling of Christ is through the titles of prophet, priest, and king, which in Christ are all rolled up into one.  Williams concludes this chapter by unpacking each of these.

For many centuries the Church has thought of Jesus as anointed by God to live out a threefold identity: that of prophet, priest and king. The baptized person identifies with Jesus in these three ways of being human which characterize and define his unique humanity. As we grow into his life and humanity these three ways come to characterize us as well. The life of the baptized is a life of prophecy and priesthood and royalty.

As baptized people who identify with Christ the Prophet our role is to remind each other what we are here for.  The Church plays this role to the wider world by expressing important yet easily forgotten questions in our society.  This is more than just loudly echoing the talking points of the RNC, as many people in the wider world seem to think (and rightly so).

As baptized people who identify with Christ the Priest–in the Old Testament a priest was somebody who represented humanity before God and vice versa.  His job was to build bridges between humanity and God, by offering sacrifices to God he would restore a relationship wrecked by sin.  Our role, then, is to build bridges and mend shattered relationships between God and the world.

As baptized people who identify with Christ the King–in ancient Israel the king had a priestly role but also the freedom to shape the law and justice of his society.  He would use this freedom to keep the people of Israel close to the demands of God’s covenant, to make justice a reality, or to fail miserably at both of the above as many of Israel’s kings did.  We use our freedom to shape our world in the direction of God’s justice and model something of God’s liberty to heal and restore.

The Solution To American Tribalism Is…Belief In Satan?

On a certain level this makes sense.

At one time, belief in Satan as the ultimate evil in our world to which all other evils pale in comparison, was a widely held belief.  As our culture has modernized and secularized, this belief has largely disappeared.  But when Satan disappeared, someone or something had to take his place.  Thus it has become very easy to believe that the Republicans or Democrats or whoever happens to be on the opposing side of whatever the big political issue of the moment happens to be, is the ultimate evil and must be treated as such.  This explains a lot as to where we are in our current level of political discourse.

Read:  The Solution to American Tribalism is…Belief in Satan by Michael Bird

Fr. Stephen Freeman on Cessationism

Today I give you a post from Fr. Stephen Freeman.  Freeman is one of the most influential Orthodox bloggers, and he blogs at Glory to God for All Things.

In this post, entitled “When Miracles Ceased“, Freeman takes on the secularist way of looking at things that is endemic to all of Western culture.  Basically, the default setting of Western life is that the world is, to borrow the words of Max Weber, “disenchanted”.  Things in the world around us are basically just that–things.  Some of those things just happen to live and move and breathe and think and eat.  All within the boundaries and limits of the laws of nature.  In this view of things, if God is ever to be known or perceived by us then he must disturb the laws of nature or become another object bound by the laws of nature.

All of this had its roots in the Reformation.  The Reformation came upon a Western culture that was all about the miraculous–visions, weeping statues, saints’ lives, and other such things–and basically shoved it all aside as fabrications of a corrupt priesthood.  What supplanted all of that was a notion of the Bible as the answer book for everything concerned with salvation.  Over time, this was codified in some corners of Protestantism into the notion of “cessationism”–the belief that all miracles, spiritual gifts, etc. ceased upon completion of the Scriptural canon.  If it’s all there within the covers of your Bible, then who needs miracles?  What’s more, miracles are potentially very dangerous, especially if people imagine them to carry a weight equal to or greater than that of Scripture.

Freeman then contrasts this with the Orthodox view of things:  Only God is self-existing.  Everything else in the universe is dependent upon Him for its very existence.  Thus the world itself is a manifestation of God working.  To be cessationist would be to cease to exist.  Not only do miracles continue, but on a certain level, everything is a miracle.

Read:  When Miracles Ceased by Fr. Stephen Freeman

There’s No Going Back To Your First Love

Today I will start with a quote to set up where I would like to go.  It is from Christian Wiman’s book My Bright Abyss:  Meditations of a Modern Believer:

In fact, there is no way to “return to the faith of your childhood,” not really, not unless you’ve just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some half-remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you’d been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived—or have denied the reality of your life.

The idea of “going back to your first love” is all over the place in evangelicalism.  Perhaps the best known example is that Matt Redman song “I’m going back to the heart of worship / And it’s all about you, it’s all about you Jesus”, but there are other examples too numerous to mention throughout the world of evangelical worship.

The idea is that you can basically hit the reset button as it were, and be right back where you were when you first accepted Christ.  When everything seemed so simple, all the answers so clear, and the presence of God so close and so thick you could cut it with a knife.  When things aren’t going right, or you feel stagnant in your relationship with God for whatever reason, it’s time to go back to your first love.

I wish it were that simple.  But I don’t think I can go back, even if I wanted to.  And I’m really not even sure I want to.  It isn’t as if I’ve lost the way and all I have to do is find my way back to the last place I was where I knew the way.  No, the very roads and the very landscape have changed, and all the old landmarks just aren’t there anymore.

That’s just how it is.  A life of faith is a life of change.  There’s no going back, like a king returning triumphantly from exile, dispensing the old wisdom and driving out all the rebellious, insurrectionist parts of yourself by which you’d been betrayed.  Life is not an error, even when it is, and if you still believe at the end of your life what you believed when you first accepted Jesus then you haven’t really lived.

And This Is Precisely Why TGC Is On My Shit List

Today we’re going to talk about the Brethren in Christ.

The Brethren in Christ is not a big deal here in the US.  Unless you are one of them, know someone who is, or are a complete and total theological wonk who stays up on such things because you have WAY too much spare time on your hands, you probably never heard of them before in your life until I mentioned them just now.

The Brethren in Christ (BIC) is a small Anabaptist/Mennonite-ish sect that originated in eastern Pennsylvania in the late 1700s, when they broke away from other Anabaptist and Mennonite sects over various and sundry fine points of pietistic practice.  They were happy to stay small and in their own little fishtank until the mid 1900s, at which point they became more outward-focused and ditched all the pietistic stuff and came into line with mainstream American evangelicalism, for the most part.  Yet they remained small and failed to register even a blip on the radar screen of mainstream American evangelicalism.  When evangelical leaders came together to craft the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, they weren’t even invited to the table.  For this reason, inerrancy and other such issues of concern to today’s evangelicals aren’t even on the BIC radar.

But in Canada, they are kind of a big deal.  Bruxy Cavey is a rockstar megachurch pastor who presides over The Meeting House, which started in 1996 as a small church plant but now has morphed into a multisite church network with 14 campuses and a combined Sunday attendance north of 5,000.

Of course you can’t have that kind of growth without people sitting up and taking notice.  Some people got concerned; Cavey and the BIC are at variance with the traditional evangelical way of looking at things on a number of issues.  As already noted, inerrancy and many other such issues of concern to today’s evangelicals aren’t even on the BIC’s radar.

One of the parties taking notice and expressing concern was…yep, our good friends over at The Gospel Coalition.

In an exercise suggestive of the first-century Pharisees questioning Jesus on his teachings or the medieval Catholic church sending Johannes Eck to debate Martin Luther on his 95 Theses, TGC had one of their writers up in Canada investigate Cavey; the results can be found here, here, here, and here.  I would recommend that you read the series; you will find it illuminating as to what Cavey and the BIC actually believe on several issues of interest to those in the Reformed world.

I could easily have seen John MacArthur or Tim Challies seizing upon some quote from Cavey’s teaching and using it to denounce him as a universalist or whatever other epithet strikes your fancy.   To his credit, the TGC representative eschews that tack.  Instead he gives Cavey ample space to explain his teachings and make a compelling case that they lie fully within the pale of Christian orthodoxy.

But even so, the whole thing feels less like a conversation and more like an exercise in “Brace yourself Bruxy Cavey, we will question you and you will answer us.  You don’t get to question us on, say, whether our treatment of women presents a barrier to the Gospel or why some of us are so viscerally anti-gay.  That’s not how this works.”  It has TGC showing up suddenly at Cavey’s door claiming to be the gatekeepers of Christian orthodoxy.  You pass muster, they say.  You’re good.

Does anyone else out there find the whole thing just a little pretentious?

This is precisely why TGC is on my shit list.

Searching For God in a Divided Country

Today I give you this piece by Bryan Mealer at New Republic.  It describes his story of growing up in evangelicalism, losing his faith, and finding it again in the world of the liberal mainlines.

Mealer’s story is not my story.  I could probably never find rest in the world of the liberal mainlines, where they have their own unquestionable orthodoxies and if you dare to question then get over there with Donald Trump and all the devils of hell.  But it is a moving account of one individual’s story of growing up evangelical, losing faith, and finding it again in another branch of the Christian tradition, one which echoes many of the post-evangelical themes I have written about here over the years.

Read:  The Struggle for a New American Gospel:  A liberal’s search for God and faith in a divided country by Bryan Mealer