Friday, April 29, 2011

"The Gospel of the Kingdom," pp. 187-8 of Wright

How many years had that Scripture (Isa. 61:1-3) been read in that synagogue? How many times would the local rabbi had encouraged the people to go on praying and trusting for the day when the one of whom it spoke would come and do those things? May he come soon, O Lord! Bring us this good news in our lifetime. Perhaps tomorrow ...

Then one Sabbath morning, the local carpenter's son shocked the whole town with the electric word, "Today!" No more waiting. What you have hoped and longed for all these years is here, in the one standing before you. The prophetic voice of the ancient text has become the living voice of the one now reading it to you. "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21; italics added).

And the things the text spoke of were exactly the things that Jesus pointed to as evidence that the kingdom of God had indeed come. God was reigning in and through Jesus, through his words and his works: "If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Luke 11:20). When John the Baptist wondered if perhaps he had backed the wrong messiah, Jesus pointed to the same things, this time supported by yet another text of Isaiah (Isa. 35:5-6), but adding the significant words, "and the good news is proclaimed to the poor" (Lit., "and the poor are being 'evangelized'"' Matt. 11:4-5).

And that reign of God, inaugurated by Jesus and indeed embodied in him, continues to work within human history in the ways that Jesus said it would- like seed growing, like yeast rising, like fish being caught. The kingdom of God is at work in and through the lives of those who have "entered" it, that is, in whose lives God is reigning through repentance and faith in Christ, in those who are committed to the ways of Jesus Christ by submitting to him as Lord, those who seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, in those who hunger and thirst for justice....

The gospel, then, is fundamentally good news of the reign of God.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

What is the Gospel? ... Not So Fast ...

"What exactly is the gospel that lies at the core of our mission? It is the good news of what God has done through Jesus Christ for the redemption of the world. But what is the scale and scope of God’s redemption? … One of the dangers with a word like 'gospel' is that we all love it so much (rightly), and want to share it passionately (rightly again), that we don’t take time to explore its full biblical content…. We will find that the Bible itself will correct our tendency to reduce the gospel to a solution to our individual sin problem and a swipe card for heaven’s door, and replace that reductionistic impression with a message that has to do with the cosmic reign of God in Christ that will ultimately eradicate evil from God’s universe (and solve our individual sin problem too, of course)" (Wright, The Mission of God's People, p. 31).

The Mission of God's People, by Chris Wright

I have already begun quoting from Wright's book as I have been working through it; however, I think there is benefit to look at some of his thoughts in the beginning of his book to get a sense of where he is going with things. Here Wright gets us to think intentionally about how we think when the word "mission" is mentioned. These are some of the foundational questions he plans to engage in his book:

… mission is [often thought by Christians as something] either that specially commissioned Christians manage to do full-time, if they can get enough “support” to do so, or something that other Christians (the vast majority) do in odd moments of time they have to spare from the necessity of having to work for a living. Maybe they can fit a “mission trip” into a vacation, or go on a “church mission” over the weekend.

But what about the rest of life? What about the rest of the “world”- the world of work, the public arena, the world of business, education, politics, medicine, sports, and the like? In what sense is that world the arena of the mission of God’s people, and what does such mission consist of? Is it only the moments of evangelistic opportunity in that world, or can our work itself participate in God’s mission?

To push the question further, do the people of God have any responsibility to the rest of human society in general beyond the imperative of evangelism? What content do we put into biblical phrases like being a blessing to the nations, or seeking the welfare of the city, or being the salt of the earth or light of the world, or doing good (one of the commonest expressions used by Paul and Peter)? Do these concepts figure in our biblical theology of mission?

A Whole Gospel

"It is hard to imagine a sequence of events more comprehensive in effect than the story of the exodus presented to us in the book of that name. The texts portray at least four dimensions of the bondage that Israel suffered in Egypt- political, economic, social and spiritual- and goes on to show how God redeemed them in every one of these dimensions" (Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God's People, p. 99).

"Political, economic, social, spiritual- all of these dimensions are integral to the Bible's first great act of redemption. God did whatever it would take to rescue Israel out of whatever form their bondage took" (Wright, p. 101).

"The New Testament presents the cross and resurrection of Jesus as the grand exodus par excellence- the crowning accomplishment of God's redeeming will and power, his victory over all powers, human and satanic, that oppose him and oppress his people" (Wright, p. 111).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bringing Good News to the Whole of Creation

In the last post, Wright said "our mission must include being and bringing good news to the whole of creation." What are some examples of this? Think of what we might call "creational structures" we see in the first couple chapters of the book of Genesis before the fall of humanity: marriage, stewardship of the environment [think of the idea of subduing the earth and caring for it... yard work anyone? :-) (see last post)], work (Adam was set in the garden to "work it"), parenthood (producing little "image-bearers" who will spread the light of God, His likeness, rule and reign throughout the earth) and implicit is the beginning of "culture-making," i.e. the employment of man-made items like tools that are used to mold, shape and order the earth after God's desire. Also implicit, culture-making is found in the expression of song and poetry as Adam expresses delight in the vision of his bride (Gen. 2:23... see similarities with Isa. 62:5b and Zeph 3:17). 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Things Eternal?

I remember a few years back hearing a line among evangelical people that "the only things that are eternal are God, His Word and souls," so that being the case our entire lives should focus in making Him known by proclaiming His Word by trying to evangelize as many people as possible. There was one book in particular that I remember reading that encouraged its reader to make sure and purchase a house that would require minimal yard work, so that one could focus in on the things that truly are eternal and matter. In a word, we should spend all our energy finding opportunity to "preach the gospel" and to save people from their sin. But is that true? Is that how we should spend all our energy and are those three things (God, His Word and souls) all that will continue on into eternity?

The final book I am working through, due before my May 23rd deadline, is Christopher J. H. Wright's The Mission of God's People. Wright writes this on p. 59, "... although it is gloriously true that sinners are saved through the cross of Christ, it is not actually the whole gospel or the whole achievement of the cross- not according to the New Testament itself." Quoting from Col. 1:15-23, Wright says:

Paul links Christ and creation in the most comprehensive way. Christ was there, of course, as the Son of God, even before creation existed (v. 17). Christ is the source of the creation of the universe (v. 16). Christ is beneficiary or heir of all creation ("the firstborn" [v. 15], "for him" [v. 16]). Christ sustains creation in existence (v. 17). Paul includes creation in the saving power of the cross. Christ has redeemed creation (v. 20). It is vital to see here that the blood of Christ, shed on the cross, is the means of the reconciliation of creation to God, not only of sinners. 

Wright concludes on pp. 60-61:

If, then the cross of Christ is good news for the whole creation, our mission must include being and bringing good news to the whole creation. So our care for creation is motivated not solely by the fact that it was created by God and we were commanded to look after it, but also by the fact that it has been redeemed by Christ, and we are to erect signposts towards its ultimate destiny of complete restoration in Christ. God's redemptive mission includes creation. Our mission involves participating in that redemptive work as agents of good news to creation, as well as to people.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Imaging God, by Douglas John Hall


Can I have a "do over"? In my last blogpost, I wrote that Hall's book didn't seem to me to have a "direct connection to my audience," so I chose not to blog about it. Well, ... I'd like to re-consider my decision. I will say this much, that as difficult as I found the read from a technical aspect, very few among my audience will find the read (and cost of the book itself- $26 on Amazon... ouch!) worthwhile. So, in that sense I suppose, there isn't a "direct connection." In addition to the technical aspects of the book, I also listened to Hall as he brought into question the entire interpretative process the western church has undergone for the last 2000 years resulting in Hall's mind, in a neglect of a robust understanding of the created order and God's purpose for it. As Hall writes near the end of his book, "A faith that is theocentric is at the same time anthropocentric and geocentric…. we mirror the sovereignty of the divine love in our stewardship of earth" (p. 200). As someone who has a high view of God's providential action in history and someone who essentially "trusts" that there is much the Church has gotten "right" over the years, this was a difficult critique for me to receive at first but as I kept reading (and praying), I found some fundamental value in Hall's writing; here's one of the things I found helpful ... 

I remember a number of years ago listening to a series of tapes by R.C. Sproul on this term "theocentric" which means "God-centered." He made the case that evangelical people tended to be "anthropocentric" rather than "theocentric." Anthropocentric comes from the Greek word anthropos and means "man-centered." Sproul made the case for why, if you listen to evangelical praise choruses, they are often written in the 1st person, "I, me, us" rather than the 2nd and 3rd, "You, Thee, Lord." I appreciated Sproul getting me to think more intentionally about having a God-centered faith, rather than a man-centered faith. A few years later, I think some of my seminary professors brought a different kind of corrective; they helped me to see that we can become so God-centered, that we forget that there is a sense in which God Himself is "man-centered." Think Psalm 8:4- "what is man that you are mindful of him?" This was a great corrective to help me to remember that "God so loved the world" and also that Jesus Himself became a man (Jn. 1:14) for our salvation. I once again found a place in my theology for a healthy kind of anthropocentricism. Also, my seminary professors helped me "come back down to earth" so that I wasn't so "theocentric" so as to find value in being a jerk to others who didn't share my thoughts on God.

Now Hall brings a new idea to mind, to work into my theological paradigm, ... the notion of "geocentrism." What does it mean as a Christian person to care for God's created order (geo referring to the natural order), the world that God made or what Hall calls "extrahuman creation"? In our discussion on theocentrism vs. anthropocentrism, can we neglect or have we neglected entirely the geocentrism of God? Quoting from two authors named Birch and Rassmussen, Hall writes regarding Psalm 104:

God is praised as creator and all sorts of things in creation are enumerated as witnesses to God's glory as creator: the heavens, the seas, the valleys, the mountains, wild asses, cattle, trees, birds, goats, badger, moon, sun, and lions. Then in v. 23 almost casually it states, Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until the evening." Verses 27-30 then conclude of all God's creatures: These all look to thee, to give them their food in due season... 

Is the redemptive activity of God and the redemptive work of Christ directed and limited to the human? Many would say so, but it hardly seems possible biblically. Unless we see human life lived in a vacuum, redemption must involve the rest of nature as well because redemption is precisely God's effort to restore the whole network of relationships that have been broken by sin. This is why new creation is such a helpful image of God's redemptive work. pp. 170-71

Birch and Rassmussen then go on to discuss passages such as Isaiah 55:12-13, Romans 8:21, Colossians 1:15 and Isaiah 11:6-9.

Still Here

I haven't blogged for a little while but wanted you to know I'm still here. Three things happened to me recently: 1) I caught a liberating sense of approaching completion as I'm down to 1.25 books and about 400 pages, after having started in mid-Feb. with what was then a 2800-2900 page journey to be completed by my first D.Min. co-hort meeting May 23rd; 2) I found myself in a book for the degree program that didn't seem to have as direct a connection with my audience, so chose not to blog about it (if you want to know what book, Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship, by Douglas John Hall; it's the 2nd book in my program so far that I have not blogged about); and 3) I got somewhat "distracted" as I started reading A Problem from Hell by Samantha Power about the history of U.S. policy towards global genocide. Given the subject, I won't call the Power book "pleasure reading," but it's been nice for the first time since mid-Feb. to read something of my own choosing. Then, again my good friend Harry Riggs likes to say, "books choose us." I was given the book after a conversation with my Ethiopian friend Zenebe Beyene who had just introduced me to a young man who lost both his parents in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Hopefully before too long, I'll have something more to share about my readings.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Callings, part 4 (and final part)

As Placher enters the "fourth historical period" that he calls "Christian Callings in a Post-Christian World, 1800-present," he notes that modern writers have given more attention to the notion of what Karl Marx called "alienated labor." If you have been following this blog, you might recall the notion was often used by Miroslav Volf. Whereas monastic life was viewed early on as a true call from God and all other forms of life and job fell short of the ideal, so the Protestant Reformation shifted thinking that every occupation could be a calling from God. However, the Protestant Reformation also had a tendency to "sanctify" ordinary work and life to the point that some writers began to question whether we should think of anything particularly unique or special about a Christian's calling. German Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later write about the "Cost of Discipleship" and the importance of obedience married to faith in the Christian life. Karl Barth wrote, "Protestantism successfully expelled monasticism by recalling the fact that klesis (calling) is the presupposition of all Christian existence. But it lost sight of the divine grandeur and purity of this idea which were always in some sense retained even by monasticism...." (p. 434). To put it bluntly, what's so special about a call from God when everyone has one whether sought out or not?

Nuance regarding jobs and calling grew as we entered an industrial and information age and much of society veered away from an agrarian society. As Placher writes:

Jobs can seem not only meaningless but actually destructive of our lives as Christians. Store clerks and computer programmers miss church because they have to work Sundays.... on average people work longer hours than they did a generation ago, and a long commute often adds to the length of the working day, with less time to spend with spouses and children, less time to be an active church member or an active community citizen. Corporate careers regularly involve multiple moves... parents and grandparents get left behind, to be visited only on rare occasions. In such a context, to urge people to think of their job as the call from God that gives their life meaning may be to push them in exactly the wrong direction, toward centering their lives ever more on jobs that already obsess them.  Callings, p. 327

Certain Christian writers like Jacques Ellul reacted to the Reformation idea of every job being a vocation, i.e. call from God. Ellul made the case for the Bible always speaking of a summons or special invitation to a particular task when using the language of calling. Work is necessary for survival but not as a “superfluous spiritual decoration” (p. 328). Our jobs do not give our lives meaning and the Bible never claims they do, so believed Ellul. American Baptist James Holloway wrote that we don’t know what the prophets and apostles did to earn a living because this wasn’t important to their calling from God; work is not a vocation (p. 328). Stanley Hauwerwas cautions us against making more of work than we should, that work is nothing more than “the means to survive, to be of service to others, and perhaps most of all, … gives us a way to stay busy” (p. 328). Even Miroslav Volf believed that the term “vocation” should be lifted from the Christian idea of work.

So much being written in recent years against the notion of “job as vocation,” Placher pushes back some by seeing there to be high value in many kinds of work but also that vocation can mean a lot of things for a lot of people. Early on priesthood and monastic life comprised an individual sense of call. At other times, like the ones in which we live, Christians have felt “called” to secular jobs or possibly to family life. As Placher writes, “We do not have to limit ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ to one meaning and then vote it, in that sense, up or down” (p. 330). Job as vocation should stay on the list, but not as the only option. At the end of the day humans want to know, does my life have meaning and purpose?
For some of us, the center of the answer may lie in our jobs- from doctors curing patients to landscapers making the spaces in which people live a bit more beautiful. For others, our jobs will be meaningful primarily only in that they help us support our families, and it will be in the nurturing of a family that we find the core of our life’s vocation. For still others, a hobby may create a community and reward not found in a paid job. Still others may find the activities of their church the work that most gives meaning to their lives. Even on the job, some people may find the support and friendship they give their co-workers more significance than the doing of the job itself. Indeed, in an age when once again committed Christians in Europe and North America may find themselves a minority voice in their society, simply being publicly a Christian, as in the early church, may itself be an important calling…. These are not, moreover, brand new issues…. What should I do with my life? How can I know? Will I find something that gives my life a sense of purpose or meaning? Even through the context in which we ask such questions has grown ever more complex, the Christian tradition still provides us with a range of resources for thinking about how to answer them.  Callings, pp. 330-32

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ordinary Workers and Artists

I turn forty here in less than two months. I've lived enough to know some people who wanted to be artists but were told along the way, likely by a parent, that only the pursuit of a "real job" made practical sense. Having heeded the advice and having become “successful” in their practical pursuits, I've also watched these people entering their late 30s and into their 40s asking the "what if" question about their lives. Dorothy L. Sayers reflects on the incredible tension many feel looking for the search for meaning, yet instead finding themselves working in the “most monotonous and soul-killing kind of toil.” Sayers does this by reflecting on the difference between the “artist” and the “ordinary worker”:

The great primary contrast between the artist and the ordinary worker is this: the worker works to make money, so that he may enjoy those things in life which are not his work and which his work can purchase for him; but the artist makes money by his work in order that he may go on working. The artist does not say: “I must work in order to live”; but “I must contrive to make money so that I may live to work.” For the artist there is no distinction between work and living. His work is his life, and the whole of his life- not merely the material world about him, or the colors and sounds and events that he perceives, but also all his own personality and emotions, the whole of his Life- is the actual material of his work.

… There is a price paid for the artist’s freedom, as for all freedom. He, of all workers in the world, has the least economic security. The money value of his work is at the mercy of every wind of public opinion; …. Moreoever, he is taxed with a singular injustice; while the world pays tribute to his unworldliness by expecting him to place a great deal of his time, energy, and stock-in-trade at the disposal of the community without payment. The artist puts up with these disabilities because his way of life is not primarily rooted in economics. True, he often demands high prices for his work- but he wants the money not in order that he may stop working and go away and do something different, but in order that he may indulge in the luxury of doing some part of his work for nothing. “Thank heaven,” the artist will say, “I’ve made enough with that book, or play, or picture of mine, to take a couple of years off to do my own work”- which he probably means some book or play or picture which will cost him an immense amount of labor and pains and which he has very little chance of selling.… The actor, like other artists, passionately enjoys doing work for nothing or next to nothing if only he can afford to do it. And he never talks of himself as “employed”; if he is employed, he tells you that he is “working.”

… far too many people in this country seem to go about only half alive. All their existence is an effort to escape from what they are doing. And the inevitable result of this is a boredom, a lack of purpose, a passivity which eats life away at the heart and a disillusionment which prompts men to ask what life is all about, and complain, with only too much truth, that they can “make nothing of it.”

… the power that enables men to work with enthusiasm is a real conviction of the worth of their work. They will endure much if, like the artist, they passionately desire to see the job completed and to know that it is very good. But what are we to say about a civilization which employs so many of its workers in doing work which has no worth at all, work which no living man with a soul in him could desire to see, work which has nothing whatever to justify it, except the manufacture of employment and the creation of profits? That is the real vicious circle in which we are all enclosed. That is the real indictment we have to bring against a commercial age.  Callings, pp. 408-12