Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Drinking and the Wesleyan Church

I didn't realize how hot this issue apparently is for some Wesleyans. Of course I've always assumed that the Wesleyan base was so opposed to drinking that this was a non-issue except for some of the larger churches with members who didn't come from a Wesleyan background. I've been fine with some of these churches just fudging on the issue with their members and otherwise just letting a sleeping dog lie.

In my opinion, it would be a sad statement if our church had anything like a split over an issue like this one--a sad comment on both sides! God has not commanded us to drink or not to drink, but he has commanded us to be of one spirit. When the Episcopals and Methodists are divided over things like homosexuality among the clergy, we would prove to be petty Christians if we split over drinking!

If those who would stay would be the ones with the right attitude (not the ones who won--whichever way), I'd be more than happy for the divisive on both sides to leave.

The truth issue
Ironically, there is widespread agreement on what the Bible teaches on this issue, although the most conservative element in our church would still deny it. Drunkenness is not stomached at all in Scripture. Even here, I personally don't think that the Bible has in mind one time of getting drunk. I'm not saying this to allow for one night of drunkenness. I'm just saying that a drunkard in the ancient world is surely not someone who gets drunk once but someone who is habitually drunk.

But that's really irrelevant. We are pretty well agreed across the denomination that Christians should not get drunk. It's a bad witness, it puts a person in a state where they are more susceptible to temptation, etc... "Strong drink is a mocker..."

Yet we should assume that all the biblical figures drank wine except when the Bible explicitly tells us otherwise. The Nazirites were just a small group within Israel. One of the things that distinguished them from the rest of Israel is that they did not drink. The implication is that most everyone else did. Yes it was more dilute than ours today, yes the water could use some purification, but it was alcoholic and you could get drunk off it.

Jesus distinguishes himself from John the Baptist as someone who drinks, while JB does not (JB came not drinking, you said he had a demon; I came drinking, you say I'm a drunkard). Jesus turned the water into alcoholic wine. Paul tells Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach's sake, and so forth.

So there really is little debate on the truth issue. Alchohol is not prohibited in Scripture, only drunkenness.

Elephants in the Room
Some might be upset that the general board did not flat out OK drinking in the Australian church. Don't blame the board. If a proposal had been brought to let the Australian church find their own way on these sorts of things, it would have been approved. If even the briefest of studies had been done in preparation to present to them, it probably would have been approved. If that is sticking in anyone's craw, pull it out. Drinking was not the problem there.

Schism
I know the conservative wing of our church can be frustrating to the boomers and emergents out there. But that doesn't give anyone the right to be hateful or dismissive of them. They carried this ball for decades, there's a history here, and the Bible does command us to respect our parents. They are our parents on the level of principle, and God is not pleased when we throw them away, even long after we have inherited the power.

That doesn't necessarily mean that we don't change things. But it does mean that we are accountable for how we treat our elders. This is one of the major blind spots of the coming generation. I wonder if we will see a steady rise in hate crimes toward the elderly in the next few decades.

Another blind spot is submission when we don't agree. There is a time to work for change, maybe it is now. But these things are never just about truth. In fact, they're always more about people than truth. This is a mistake I could see both sides making. On the one side is the stubborn conservative who has so wrapped his/her faith around a particular cultural understanding s/he won't listen to what the Bible actually says. Then there is the stubborn progressive who would sink the whole ship in the name of truth. Both these types shouldn't be in leadership for their lack of wisdom.

Smoke Screens
There are a couple anti-drink smoke screens I might mention.

First, sometimes people split hairs over how much you would need to drink before you are drunk. Since you don't know, don't start.

This is a bizarre argument to me. For one, I think the Bible is really adressing the drunkard, the person who is continually drunk, what we would call an alcoholic or the older generation called a "wino." But one time drunk does not a drunkard make, and I can't imagine the biblical authors giving you anything but a strange look with this "is it two, is it three drinks." This argument seems a left over from our overactive introspection period.

I do think there are lots of good reasons never to get drunk. Do you think people sin more when they're sober or when they're drunk? Do you think a person's moral resolve, his or her restraint in saying a hateful or flirtatious word increase or decrease with each drink?

And as someone who did my doctorate in England, all the evangelical Christians I was around drank. They drank sherry before high meals, red and white wine with the meals and port after the meals. I can honestly say that I never saw a one of them I would consider drunk. The chaplain of the college was as holy as anyone I have ever met (yes, even among the entirely sanctified in the WC). He drank, always reasonalby. I can't think of any time when he was drunk.

Where to Go
First, the Wesleyan Church already allows alcohol for medicinal (or machine--ha!) purposes. Given the spate of studies showing that moderate drinking of red wine is good for our health, Wesleyans can technically already drink red wine moderately. Not sure I can make that argument for beer or other forms.

The worst thing would be if we split over something like this. Surely we wouldn't be that stupid. If this is really that big of an issue in our church and a resolution is going to come up, I hope the generals will commission a study.

The most important thing to me is our attitude. The biggest question in this debate for us Wesleyans is not what the Bible prohibits or allows on this issue. It's not the truth question. The most important question is always the attitude question. Can we change our current status and maintain the right attitude throughout the process? If we can't, then we have to ask how it helps the kingdom to change the rules. Does it help win more souls to Christ? Does it help the church mature in the faith?

If we can change the rules and maintain the Spirit of Christ in the process, then I'm with you. But if we don't care about anything but making it easier for us to do something that gives us pleasure and all else be damned because we're right and the Bible allows for what we want (don't even pretend that drinking is a biblical command and that you're fighting for God here!)... THAT has nothing to do with Christ.

And just some small changes in how we formulate membership and the issue disappears as a matter of the people attending our churches.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"Violence in Defense of Justice"

I already mentioned that I'm reading through Richard Hays' Moral Vision of the New Testament this semester. This past week I read his chapter on whether Christians can engage in violence and war in the name of justice.

Following his overall method, Hays begins this chapter with what he calls the descriptive task. This is where he attempts to identify what particular passages of the New Testament had to say on the issue in question (original meaning). In this chapter he focuses in particular on Matthew 5:38-48, the love your enemy part of the Sermon on the Mount. He argues against several interpretations out there with regard to the original scope of these words. So...

  • Matthew does not treat this material as an impossible ideal. The wise man does these things (Matt. 7).
  • This is not an interim ethic, since Matthew 28 anticipates that the end of the age may be some time off.
  • The Gospel of Matthew never advocates violence in defense of a third party, such as one of those with Jesus tries to do in the garden.
  • Matthew applies these words to the disciples (beginning framing) and the crowds (ending framing). They do not apply to just a special class of Christians like ministers.
  • Matthew knows nothing of "our inevitable failure to be able to do these things simply is to show us our need for grace."
  • And even if Horsley were right that Jesus were just speaking to peasants in Galilee about fighting with their neighboring villages, Matthew universalizes the teaching--and it is Matthew as Scripture that is normative for the church, not some hypothetical reconstruction of Jesus.

Next, Hays performs what he calls the synthetic task, which is something like what I call integration. He goes through various other biblical texts to see how unified it may be on the topic at hand.

Here he concludes, first, that the NT is uniform on this issue. Whether another gospel, Acts, Paul's writings, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, even Revelation, Hays finds no justification for going to war, self-defence, or even acting with force for the sake of another. Rather he finds that Christians are to submit to persecution in hope of God's ultimate vindication.

First, I mostly agree with him on the OT. When the NT and OT are in conflict on an issue, the NT trumps. So to the extent that the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' love ethic stand in conflict with OT warring, the NT wins.

I slightly disagree with him, however, in the sense that the OT addresses matters of governance, while Jesus and most NT texts deal with a position of disempowerment. I have not found any of Hays' arguments to alter my sense that this fundamental distinction must be factored into the discussion.

I personally suspect that he and others like him have also over-reached in their reading of the NT as well. For example, when Paul mentions that rulers are appointed to administer justice, Paul approves of this role (which would include a tacit support of capital punishment). I draw the implication that, although it would involve significant modifications, Paul the Christian would also administer forceful justice if he were in political power.

Hays also recognizes that the mention of Christian soldiers in the gospels and Acts is a potential weak point. He responds by lumping them in with tax collectors and prostitutes. But in their cases, the gospels indicate that they should stop the sinful aspects of their "jobs." When John the Baptist indicates what these might be for soldiers, he does not tell the soldiers to stop being soldiers. He tells them to be content with their wages and refrain from extortion. He gives no indication that soldiering is intrinsically unchristian, as Hays believes. This seems to me fatal to a thoroughgoing pacifist interpretation of the NT.

In my opinion, the obvious need for governments to enact justice--at times in a forceful way--was so obvious to most of the NT authors that it was an underlying assumption, revealed by these anomalies in Hays' position. The reason they do not come to the fore is precisely because the NT world was a thoroughly disempowered world.

By the way, Hays also integrates with three primary lenses: community, cross, and new creation (ecclesiology, soteriology, and eschatology). A nice touch, I think. He finds these to support a pacifist position as well.

Hays third phase includes more of what I would put in the category of integration and then a running of the issue through tradition, reason, and experience. He calls it the hermeneutical task.

First, he finds unanimity in all the biblical modes. Explicit rules prohibit violence. Biblical principles would preclude violence. Narrative paradigms do not model violence. And the symbolic world of the NT does not include struggle with flesh and blood.

It is, of course, in the category of tradition, reason, and experience that Hays finds the strongest arguments against his position. Since Augustine the consensus of Christendom has supported the appropriateness of war under certain circumstances (just war theory). Reason and experience of course strongly tell us that the person/nation that does not defend itself is a person/nation destined to be annihilated, barring some deus ex machina (which seldom arrives).

Common sense would also say that defending someone else fits well with love of one's neighbor, even if it involves forcibly stopping an agressor. To be sure, the unloving run miles with these "inches." But abuse is no excuse. It is a diversion of topic to try to undo a truth by what abuse someone else might do with that truth.

Hays cannot listen, for "extrabiblical sources stand in a hermeneutical relation to the New Testament; they are not independent, counterbalancing sources of authority" (341). So despite the fact that "this way is sheer folly" (343), we are called to have "simply obedience to the God who willed that his own Son should give himself up to death on a cross."

Certainly we must admire this level of obedience, and fundamentalists should recognize that he considers this element of NT teaching far clearer than its teaching on divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, or abortion. As I've said above, I don't think the NT integrates nearly so neatly as Hays suggests. But Hays is more right than wrong to be sure.

The final phase living the text is clear given what has preceded. Do not resort to violence for any reason, including self-defense of individual or nation or to protect others.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Romans 1 and Homosexuality

Since my sermon in chapel came today before I finished blogging my research, I'll just give the highlights of the sermon.

Introduction
I started by pointing out that no matter whose statistics you used, there were almost certainly several people in the service who struggled with being attracted to the same sex. I noted that if they were at IWU, I assumed they struggled with the issue because they likely grew up in a conservative Christian home and likely believed the Bible to teach that homosexual sex was wrong. I ventured a guess that their attraction to the same sex was a dominating concern for them, one that probably caused regular discouragement for them. I wondered if for some this was a central area of defeat in their life.

This led to the first and main point of the sermon for those people:

God does not judge us for what we are tempted by. God judges us for what we do with our temptation.

Here I reminded that no IWU students, unless they are married, are supposed to be having sex, regardless of who they are attracted to. And I reminded them that all of us are supposed to control (with the Spirit's power) lustful thoughts. The long and the short of it is that no one in the chapel, no matter whether their temptation came from, needed to feel defeated or discouraged if they were not having sex and submitting their thoughts to God.

Placing Romans 1
In the next part of the sermon I tried to put the argument of Romans 1 into context.

1. It's a sting operation, to use Richard Hays' phrase in his chapter on homosexuality in Moral Vision. Paul has picked "easy Gentile sins" to catch a self-hypocrite in Romans 2. The conclusion toward which he is building is in Romans 3: "all (both Jew and Gentile) have sinned."

So Paul picks idolatry and sexual immorality--the kinds of things Jews loved to talk down Gentiles over. But his point is in chapter 2, where he finds the self-righteous person in Romans 2 guilty of sin as well.

Point: Too many Christians treat homosexuality as if it is an issue they can make fun of, that they are "allowed" to hate or say hateful things about homosexuals. Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of what Paul is doing in Romans 1-2. Paul is saying that none of us deserve God's grace any more than the idolaters and sexually immoral individuals he has mentioned in Romans 1.

2. The argument of Romans 1 is not meant to tell us the progression of every individual. And it's a good thing, because after all, not everyone in the ancient world who worshipped idols ended up having homosexual sex. And not everyone who has homosexual sex ends up being disobedient to parents. Paul is not giving the story of everyone who doesn't acknowledge God as God. After all, there are a lot of atheists who don't engage in homosexual sex.

Rather Romans 1 is a picture in broad strokes of a world that God has "let go" (thus the three times Paul says "God abandoned them...") These are not all the same person, but broad strokes to paint a picture of a fallen world.

At this point I mentioned what I said in the last post, that the question of how a person comes to have same sex desires is really a side issue to the question of whether a person should engage in homosexual sex. Although I did point out the extreme unlikelihood that the people in the room who struggled with this issue had woken up one morning and said to themselves "Hmm, yesterday I was attracted to women but I think I'll be attracted to men today."

Another point I didn't really get to go into was the fact that at least in Romans 1, homosexual sex is not spoken of as the cause of God's wrath. In Romans 1 homosexual sex seems to be the the wrath. Paul would not be thinking of venereal diseases or some AIDS like "punishment." That would be anachronistic. He seems to imply that the shame of the act itself is its own punishment. By the way, Paul seems to be building heavily off of material from Wisdom 12-14 in Romans 1.

What Romans 1:26-27 is not about
1. Not about a heterosexual having homosexual sex.
In other words, some have argued that while it wouldn't be unnatural for a homosexual to have homosexual sex, it would be unnatural for a heterosexual to do so--such a person would be exchanging the natural use of the female for them.

The problem with this is that the idea of a homosexual, a person with an orientation toward the same sex, is a modern concept that seems to date from the 1890's. Before this, we had people who we would call bisexual, individuals who were probably married but also had sex with others of the same sex. This interpretation is thus incredibly anachronistic in terms of anything Paul might have been thinking (I suppose someone might try to use the argument to add another layer to the appropriation of the text, but Paul could not have been thinking this).

The biblical texts consistently refer to sex acts, not to an unexpressed orientation. Leviticus 18:22 speaks of a male lying with a male. Romans 1:26 speaks of women exchanging the natural use. And males are doing with males in Romans 1:27. The very terms in 1 Corinthians 6:9 seem to refer to a person in the active sexual role (arsenokoite) or in the passive sexual role (malakos). So the Bible simply does not discuss unexpressed homosexual orientations. Homosexual passions are discussed in Romans 1 in conjunction with a homosexual act.

2. Not only about pederasty.
This is of course the argument made by Robin Scroggs in The New Testament and Homosexuality (1983). Interestingly, while most in the ancient world rejected sexual relationships between adult men, a "mentoring" relationship between an adult male and an early teen, often blurring into a sexual relationship, was common. So Scroggs argues that the pederastic relationship is likely what would have been in Paul's mind when he wrote Romans 1:27.

The problem with this argument is three fold. First, Paul gives us no contextual clues that would point us in this direction. Second, following the culture of the day, if Paul rejected pederastic relationships, then he almost certainly would have rejected adult male-male relationships. Finally, the parallelism with women in 1:26 pushes us away from this conclusion. The parallelism would then make us expect that it is referring to female pederastic relationships. But what evidence of any significance is there of that in the ancient world?

3. Not about homosexual rape or violence.
Mary Tolbert has argued recently that all sexual relationships in the ancient world were conceptualized in terms of dominance. Men should take the active role, women should take the passive role. I suspect that there is some truth to this in general. Her point is therefore to dismiss Paul's rhetoric on homosexual relations as too culturally conditioned to be of relevance.

After saying that, Romans 1 does not discuss homosexual acts in these terms. It is the direction of the (expressed) passion that is discussed, not the respective roles of dominance or submission.

I did mention, however, that it is wrong to connect Sodom to the question of homosexuality, although the story of Sodom does discuss the intention to commit homosexual rape. We hear stereotypical stories of this type of rape in prison. It is a known form of humiliation in the ancient world--thus Roman soldiers sometimes did this to men they had defeated to humiliate them.

The reason for this interpretation is three-fold:

a. First, the homosexual reading requires us to put a modern understanding of homosexual orientation anachronistically into the text. The ancients would have assumed these men had wives and children.

b. As an illustration, the very similar similar story in Judges 19 tells how the men who want to rape the Levite go on to rape his concubine to death.

c. The clincher is that the rest of the Bible unanimously does not understand the story in this way:

Ezekiel 16:49: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom--she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy" (NRSV).

(note that the Bible has much more to say about those who do not help the poor than it ever says about homosexual sex!)

Matthew 10:14-15: "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town" (NRSV).

This focuses on the fact that Sodom rejected the messengers that God sent them.

Jude 6-7: "And the angels ... Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities ... indulged in sexual immorality and went after other flesh..."

This seems to be about the homosexual act at first glance, but Hays argues plausibly that the "other flesh" Jude has in mind is that of the angels. I am not 100% certain of this because I'm not sure that Jude would think of angels as having flesh. But having said that, if the immorality he has in mind here is homosexual, it would be a homosexual act in view, not a person with a homosexual orientation.

Conclusion:
My conclusion was two-fold.
1. A reiteration to those who struggle: God does not judge us by what tempts us but by what we do with that temptation.

2. Jesus tells us to love our neighbor and our enemy. No one else is left. We must love homosexuals, and anyone who tries to use the Bible to justify hatred of homosexuals is using the Bible wrongly.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

deNeff on Drinking This Morning

Steve deNeff spoke on the turning of water into wine this morning in church. His topic wasn't on drinking but since it was there he did make a quick aside.

His best comment to me this morning had to do with a common Wesleyan conversation you hear from time to time:

Person 1: "So Steve, if Jesus were here today, could he become a member of the Wesleyan Church, since he drank?

Steve: Absolutely!

Person 1: How?

Steve: Because if Jesus decided to be Wesleyan, he would submit to the practices of our community.

This question has a hidden premise that is unexamined and false, yet prevalent. We should be able to do whatever we want, especially if there isn't a definite right or wrong on the issue.

So if someone thinks a rule is stupid, they don't feel obligated to keep it. This is rampant in our homes and schools to where I fear what will happen when this generation is making the laws.

Do I break some rules of the various communities to which I belong? Do I ever break the speed limit? I would be a hypocrite if I said I didn't sometims treat myself as a higher authority.

The difference is that I'm willing to take the consequences. When I'm caught speeding--and I was speeding--I take the ticket as justice, as right.

Did Jesus need to be baptized? No. Then why did he do it? Because it showed his solidarity with the community of the repentant and cleansed being formed through John's baptism.

On the issue of homosexuality, I might just mention that the question of whether a person is born gay or not is irrelevant to the question of whether homosexual sex is appropriate or not. Both sides go at this one. Those who favor homosexual sex often assume that if a person is born a certain way, then God made them that way and must approve of them being that way. Many Christians then follow suit with the same assumption and argue vehemently for homosexuality being a choice.

But this discussion is a red herring. Christian theology teaches that the world, including people, are messed up. Christianity doesn't teach that if you are born with Turrets syndrome, that God made you to cuss uncontrollably. Christianity teaches that things like diabetes or heart disease are a part of a fallen world, not something God has micromanaged in every case. In this sense the Purpose Driven Life is off in its theology. It is unorthodox.

I don't mean to offend anyone who is homosexual by this line of thinking. I'm simply clarifying what the New Testament and Christian theology has always taught [in the light of Dave C's comment below, I'll add after the fact that there are some contemporary theologians and interpreters who disagree with this consensus of history]. The question of whether a person is born gay is a completely separate issue than the question of whether a person should have homosexual sex as a Christian.

So we return to the assumption that if a person has certain desires, it wouldn't be fair to keep them from expressing them. This would be the logic that would say, "If a person wants to drink and it's not absolutely wrong, it would be wrong to prohibit them from drinking." But some practices provide community identity and may not be universal. And there's no law that says that desires have to be gratified.

I didn't get married until I was 31. Given my understanding of Christian ethics, that means I could not have sex until I was 31. Just because I wanted to have sex did not mean that I had to be allowed to have sex. According to Christianity, sex is not a divine right and celibacy is a real option for anyone.

So kudos to Steve. God has given him great wisdom.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Homosexuality and the Bible 2: Countryman

For most evangelicals, the texts of Leviticus, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy are pretty obvious in meaning in relation to homosexual sex:

Lev. 18:22: "You will not lie with a male as you bed with a woman--it is an abomination."

Lev. 20:13: "The man who lies with a male as with a woman--it is an abomination. Take the two, dying they will die. Their blood is upon them."

Romans 1:26-27: "For this reason, God handed them over to dishonorable passions, for even their females exchanged the natural use for the unnatural. And similarly, even the males, leaving the natural use of the female, burned in their desire toward one another--males with males doing that which is shameful and receiving among themselves the punishment which is required for their error."

1 Cor. 6:9: "Do you not know that ... nor malakoi, nor arsenokoitai ... will inherit the kingdom of God."

1 Tim. 1:9-10: "Since we know this, that the law does not exist for the innocent but for the lawless: ... adulterers, arsenokoitai ..."

For most evangelicals, these verses seem very straightforward and seem to have a fairly obvious meaning: that the Bible consistently considers homosexual sex to be against God's will. It seems to me that this is the right interpretation. All these Scriptures refer to males having sex with males, and Romans 1 also refers to Lesbian relationships.

You might be surprised, however to learn of some of the interpretations, both scholarly and more popular, that have been advanced with alternative understandings. I wish to address these as fairly as I can in the next few posts. If we are right in our interpretation, as I believe we mostly are, then we have no reason to be defensive or to have a chip on our shoulder. And if we had turned out to be wrong, then we would have needed to accept that, right?

This latter truth is very revealing, I think. While I believe evangelicals have correctly understood these passages for the most part, I think that a lot of the emotion and anger associated with the issue belies a certain kind of culture that is independent of the issue. It is the same kind of emotion and anger that would ensue if I started arguing we shouldn't have American flags on the pulpits of our churches. It is a cultural package that has little to do with God. In this case it is mainly a coincidence that these cultural sentiments happen to coincide with the right biblical interpretation!

Sometimes when I am discussing my understanding of various passages on women in the New Testament, a person will bring up the bluff that my hermeneutic would lead us to accept homosexuality as well. Of course I disagree, as does William Webb in his recent book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuality. There are a number of significant differences between the two issues.

Yet this argument makes me smile. The process of determining points of continuity and discontinuity between the biblical world and our world is beyond reasonable doubt. IF that process implied that the Bible's teaching did not work its way out in our world on this issue the same way it did in their world, then the implication would not be that our hermeneutic was wrong. The implication would have to be that our position on homosexuality was wrong!

Argument 1: William Countryman: Impure, not Sinful
Countryman argued in his 1988 book, Dirt, Greed and Sex, that the Levitical holiness codes were about purity and impurity and that Paul no longer considered these dynamics to be in force.

This argument is often leveled at the use of Leviticus on this issue. So it is often pointed out that Leviticus 19, just one chapter over, says not to trim the edges of your beard (19:27) or wear clothing that mixes linen and cloth (19:19). Most Christians don't have problems with goatees or polyester. What gives?

Although I don't know if Countryman mentions this, but it also occurs to me that much of the clean/unclean legislation functions from a worldview where the things of the world belong in certain places and don't belong in others ("after its kind"). Blood belongs in not out. Eels don't have fins and are unclean. Snakes don't have legs and are unclean. Birds that don't fly just aren't right. Male parts go with female parts and so forth.

However, even if all of this is true, the fact remains that Paul considers all the sexual prohibitions of the OT to be in force. Paul doesn't require circumcision--wow! He doesn't require Gentiles to keep the Jewish sabbath--who knew!! But he retains with force all the sexual prohibitions of the OT. You might accuse him of inconsistency, but this is what he does.

It would be an incorrect reading of Paul to think that because he says we are not under law that the law is no longer relevant to Christian life. Quite the contrary. It is a Luther misunderstanding of Paul. Paul affirms a certain universal core of the law that he refers to in one place as "Christ's law." And the difference for him between before and after is more that we are able to keep this law after the Spirit arrives, while we were unable to before.

I'm not sure what Countryman does with 1 Corinthians 6:9 (I can imagine something like some of the options I will discuss subsequently). But if Paul refers to those who engage in homosexual relations (arsenokoitai), then he considers such habits enough to keep one out of the kingdom of God. That would undermine Countryman's whole argument.

Countryman's argument with regard to Romans 1 is that Paul is is strictly speaking of impurity rather than sinfulness, setting up a self-righteous Jew in chapter 2, and thus that Paul doesn't actually consider male-male relations in Romans 1 inappropriate. He is starting with where the audience is, as he often does, in order to modify their understanding. So he starts with their categories of clean and unclean and then moves to abolish the applicability of the categories.

1 Cor. 6:9 in itself would prevent this interpretation. Even so, it is very difficult to see how Paul can approve of something he puts in the category of "what happens when you don't acknowledge God as God and he hands you over to dishonorable passions." And why does Paul speak of "punishment"? With all respect to Countryman, I just don't think this argument works.

More to come...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Book Review: The Pre-existent Son 1

I'm basically through the first two chapters of Simon Gathercole's new book. I've met Simon casually but I wasn't exactly sure what scholarly flavor he had. This book has helped me locate him within my categories.

Some impressions:
1. Simon is well read, including good interaction with German literature. With this book he is venturing into new territory that was not really his focus previously, so I sympathize with some material that reminds me of me when I'm writing in areas that aren't my specialty.

2. Simon has an apologist flare. He would fit in the N. T. Wright, Richard Bauckham vein, although perhaps a little more conservative in flavor even than them (with a Reformed bent?). Occasionally I feel hints of the conservative vanquishing the perverse liberal (especially in his Jude section).

3. I found his aquaintance with Tom Schreiner particularly interesting (vii). Schreiner to me is a good example of a recent hard core Calvinist resurgence that I might dubb, "it is hard for you to kick against the pricks of recent developments in Pauline studies." To be fair, Simon's first book on boasting in Romans seems pretty good (ironically written with Dunn as an advisor). I would categorize it as part of the current wave of backlash from the new perspective on Paul.

So much for personal impressions... now for discussion of chapter 2, "Pre-existence in Earliest Christianity."

I personally believe that Simon's second chapter takes too much for granted. He rides on the near consensus that Philippians 2:6 and 1 Corinthians 8:6 are about the pre-existent Christ and then sees pre-existence everywhere in Paul. By the end of the chapter he concludes that "references to preexistence would have been frequent in Paul's teaching" (42).

I found this movement staggering. Largely on the basis of two passages he assumes other marginal passages are about pre-existence and then finally extrapolates to conclude that Paul must have talked about Christ's preexistence all the time wherever he went! And so an idea that rarely pops up in Paul's letters (in fact I would argue only in somewhat poetic contexts) becomes something that was a major part of Paul's oral teaching!

Now I certainly believe that Christ was pre-existent, but I've worked real hard to try to let the text say what it says and not read later theology into it. This is one of my big things--let the text be the text and then work out any problems in your theology, not in your exegesis. I studied with Dunn because he seems to me a model of this sort of attempt at objectivity. That's not to say that I always agree with him--I actually disagree with him on a number of things. And no one is completely objective to be sure. But to me he is one of the best models of someone who lets the text say what he thinks it's saying come what may.

So what is particularly nerve racking to me is the fact that the "educated middle" will absolutely eat Simon's stuff up. By this I mean the hoards of intelligent non-Bibleheads, pastors, and "middle scholars" like me who really want Simon to be right. We are the ones who have made Tom Wright and Ben Witherington wealthy. We're groupies of a sort.

But to me, there is at times in these authors a tinge of special pleading, while to me Dunn is more Spock-like, more "follow the evidence wherever it seems to lead."

Let me give you an example where I think Dunn's exegesis is far superior to Simon's: 1 Corinthians 15:47--"the first man was from the earth; the second man from heaven." Simon reads this as a straightforward instance of Paul referring to Christ's pre-existence, of Christ "having come down from heaven." He dismisses the opposition with the simple phrase, "Despite attempts to argue to the contrary" (26). Later in the paragraph he dismisses without argument two suggestions for what he says the verse is not saying. Since the loyal following he will develop want to hear this, he is able to say such things without hardly any justification.

Now consider Dunn's more scrupulous argument on this verse in Christology in the Making. He notes the order of Paul's argument: "the spiritual is not first, but the natural (psychikos) then the spiritual" (1 Cor. 15:46). Adam first, then Christ. The natural first, then the spiritual. So far so good for either case really. For Dunn it's Adam, then the resurrected Christ. For Gathercole it would have to be Adam, then the incarnated Christ (although I'm making his argument for him here).

"The first man was of dust from the earth, the second man from heaven" (15:27). At this point Gathercole brings his later Christian ears to the text and hears overtones of John and the incarnation. The second man came down from heaven (in the incarnation).

But is this what Paul was really thinking?

What has Paul been talking about in this chapter? "The first man Adam became a living soul (psyche), the last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (15:45). But when, in this line of thought, did Jesus become a life-giving spirit? What is 1 Corinthians 15 about after all????? RESURRECTION!!! Paul has been talking about what the resurrection body will be like and saying it will be of a spiritual sort, a heavenly sort, just like Christ's resurrection body which was spiritual and "from heaven" (cf. Phil. 3:21).

So the context strongly pushes us to think of the "second man from heaven" as a reference to the resurrected Christ, with not a mention of the pre-existent, let alone incarnated Christ! The train of thought thus becomes seamless when we get to 15:48, "Of the same sort as the man of dust, so also are those of dust, and of the same sort as the heavenly (resurrected) man, so also are those of heaven." That is, so are we who will be resurrected one day.

You can see this is a matter of great frustration to me. The precision and correctness of Dunn's interpretation here is exemplary, yet Gathercole's interpretation will be eaten up quickly by the willful. Those like me who dare question the exegesis will be considered perverse for disagreeing even though, in my opinion, we are the ones actually listening to the text rather than shoving later theology down its throat.

In the rest of the chapter Simon deals with Hebrews and Jude, both of which he dates to the time before the destruction of Jerusalem. While I am prone to disagree with him on the dating of both, his thoughts on Jude were particularly interesting. He makes a good case that Jude 5 should read that Jesus destroyed those who left Egypt who did not believe. Very interesting. I haven't decided whether I agree on this but I was impressed with his knowledge of the issue.

More to come. Simon's argument in the overall book is a good one. If Paul believes that Jesus is pre-existent and if the gospels all come later, then wouldn't we be surprised if the gospel writers didn't know Jesus was pre-existent?

Simon is definitely an up and coming and someone to watch!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Disciple versus Christian

I'm a little sorry these posts have been coming almost one a day these last few days... I just seem to have had a lot of thoughts.

Our pastor always has thought provoking sermons. One of the distinctions he played with a little bit Sunday was the distinction between being a disciple of Jesus and being a Christian. This distinction is of course putty in the hands of the Barna crowd I suspect, but I don't think Steve was barking up that tree.

One of his comments was that the disciples were disciples a long time before Acts calls them Christians. He posed the question whether we tend to have the order the wrong way around. We talk about becoming a Christian and then only later about discipleship.

I also note that, in addition to the Barna follower of Jesus who doesn't buy into religion is the person who is a Yoder follower of Jesus. This is the pacifist, turn the other cheek follower. Such a person isn't necessarily unorthodox, but clearly places a certain primacy on the earthly ethics of Jesus and may not consider Paul or the other parts of the NT quite as significant.

Well, a whole bunch of thoughts are swirling around my head. I'll just stream them down here and anyone is welcome to pick any one up:

1. To what extent should we think of Jesus' earthly mission as a very specific mission to upper Galilee?

I think Marshall overdoes this in Beyond the Bible but I think there is a valid point in it too. The earthly Jesus tells us he was not omniscient on earth. He clearly targets Jews not Gentiles and "lost sheep," Galilean Jews at that. He mostly functions within the paradigms of ancient Israel rather than proclaiming an "all time" universal message. What this means is that we should not assume that the message of the earthly Jesus was meant to be "transcultural" (I don't like that word) or timeless in every respect. An aweful lot of his earthly teaching was likely addressed at a specific time and place in Galilee.

2. There is an important distinction to be made between the particulars of what Jesus preached in Galilee and the presentation of Jesus in the gospels. I am not arguing for a strong discontinuity between the two. But, in my strong opinion, the gospels were not written primarily to record for posterity the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. The gospels were written to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to their own audiences decades later than Jesus. In that sense I would argue that the gospels have the same authority as Paul's writings, not more or less. They are the inspired work of New Testament theologians just like Paul's writings.

3. Something very significant takes place at Pentecost that could not have taken place until after the resurrection. Because the Holy Spirit would not come until after Jesus' ascension, we are comparing apples and oranges to some extent when we place before and after Pentecost on some sort of timeline we would compare to the timelines of our lives.

This is one of the hermeneutical problems with the earlier generation of Wesleyans who saw in the disciples' pilgrimage a model for the ordo salutis of our lives today through entire sanctification. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost was a unique event in salvation history, the transition from one age to another. We are all born after Pentecost and we all become Christians (or disciples) after Pentecost in the age of the new covenant. Technically, there could not have been any true "Christians" before Pentecost, for you cannot be a Christian without the Spirit (Rom. 8:9) and the Spirit had not yet come.

But none of this is really what Pastor Steve was talking about--I'm just doing a stream of consciousness with some thoughts he inspired. Steve was posing a legitimate question: do we need to follow Jesus for more than 10 seconds before we can realistically expect to find him, to encounter him? That's what he will be exploring for the next few weeks.

Monday, January 15, 2007

OT Sites: Shechem, Shiloh, Ebal

My Hebrew seminary prof is leading a J term course in Israel and managed to get to Shiloh and a rock's through away from Shechem (deep in the West Bank). His description of the day is interesting:

http://web.mac.com/lawsonstone1/iWeb/StonesFence/Blog/BE7F1086-9916-4F9E-A8F1-73DC78FF3562.html

Some of the historical complications that surround the biblical texts in relation to Shiloh always made me glad I was a NT prof. Why is Samuel a priest when he is not a Levite? Why is there a structure at Shiloh that has lintels and such when Israel was only supposed to have a moveable tent at this point? Why is Israel having one yearly festival of Yahweh when they're supposed to have three and this isn't said to be any of them?

Of course my faith isn't troubled by any of these things because Christ is risen; he is risen indeed...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Faith and Rationality

I posted this on Scot McKnight's blog the other day.
_________________

... I do sympathize with Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) at least to the extent that so much religious thinking does seem to involve dysfunctional thinking. This is a way of thinking that, if we used the same logic in real life, would lead us constantly to misunderstand conversation, to berate others for no reason, to argue vehemently that the sidewalk is actually the road--or someone else's driveway.

To a great extent, such mis-thinking is harmless, indeed beneficial because it fosters meaningful existence. Where it gets us into trouble is when it leads us to hurt others or stops peace processes or flies planes into tall buildings.

To keep my own faith (I can't stomach a disconnect between my religion and the thinking I do in the rest of my life, sorry Kierkegaard), I have had to adopt a particular hermeneutic that disagrees with Dawkins when he says that faith is not convinced by evidence. In order for me to truly affirm God as a God of Truth who actually exists ontologically, then my faith in him cannot be more irrational than rational. That doesn't mean I have to be able to prove he exists--frankly, I don't think I can prove that I exist as a person (I could be a really sophisticated computer program).

So when it comes to science or biblical studies or any field of knowledge, if the overwhelming majority of those competent to judge an issue have reached a particular conclusion, if I cannot identify a clear fatal presupposition leading them to that conclusion, then I have to take that as the most likely conclusion given the evidence we have at the moment. I always have a footnote for the new discovery, for the unexpected paradigm shift. I won't call it fact. But I admit that if I am to affirm something different, I am doing it in the name of "blind faith" on this issue. [note, refusing an overall irrational worldview does not mean that I cannot accommodate points of irrationality within that overall view].

Saturday, January 13, 2007

New Book Feature

I've decided to add book links on the right in relation to books I'm reading and links to my books at the very bottom. In addition to some small change, this will hold me accountable for reading. I would be embarrassed to change the books on the right too often or not to finish them. And I'll start getting embarrassed if they stay up much more than a month at a time. I will say, though, that Moral Vision is a whole semester book rather than a one monther.

So here's to Simon Gathercole, a fellow Dunnite who has recently taken a position at Aberdeen in New Testament. You'll notice that Dunn doesn't give any of the blurbs on the back of his books. I suppose that's because he has to some extent made his brief but already well known reputation by disagreeing with Dunn! Having said that, I'm sure Dunn would have if he had asked.

Bon appetite!

The Bible and Homosexual Sex

IWU, along with all the other Wesleyan colleges but Bethany, is once again on the list of a certain group that treks across America yearly to confront various evangelical colleges on the issue of homosexuality. Last year this group stopped at Wheaton, Biola, Colorado Christian, Liberty, and Azuza Pacific, if I remember correctly. We were on the list last year as well but didn't make the final cut.

I'm speaking in chapel here on the 22nd to discuss what the Bible has to say about this issue. From what we've heard, I'm not actually convinced that this group really wants to discuss the biblical materials on the issue. The group seems to focus much more on the experiences of various individuals. For some, the argument is that since they believe God made them a certain way, it must be acceptable to God. For others, the argument is a testimony against the oppression they have experienced at the hands of Christians.

Of course I have little doubt but that many church people do exhibit less than Christ-like attitudes toward homosexual individuals. God wants all people to be saved, so to have an attitude that is anything but redemptive toward anyone else is not Christian. And I don't see how we could categorize the attitudes of some as anything but hateful.

But my task is not really to talk about these types of issues. My task is just to clarify what the Bible has to say about homosexual sex. Last year I blogged on this quite a bit for the same reason. I won't be as extensive this time. I only will have about 30 minutes.

It is beyond reasonable doubt that the Bible does in fact mention or allude to homosexual sex in a number of places. I should probably mention up front that there is an important distinction between homosexual sex and homosexuality. We hear of men raping men in prison in acts of violence that do not involve homosexuality. The rapist in these cases is not usually someone who would have male-male relations on the outside.

Similarly, there are child molesters, pederasts, who molest boys. But this is not homosexuality in the sense we are discussing any more than a male child molester who molests girls is heterosexuality.

In the sense we are discussing, a heterosexual is someone who prefers to have sex with someone of appropriate age in the opposite sex and a homosexual is someone who prefers to have sex with someone of appopriate age in the same sex. Notice that we today can speak of these categories in terms of desire, "orientation." This way of talking about the subject seems for all intents and purposes a fairly modern way of conceptualizing the issue. In other words, we are able to speak of a hetero- or homosexual apart from the act of sex. The desire can define the category. It would seem that in earlier times, the act defined the category.

More to come...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Bush to Bomb Iran?

A number of MSNBC commentators tonight, including Pat Buchanan who supports the president's surge in Iraq (although he thought the initial war was a mistake), believe that President Bush is preparing to engage Iran.

The argument is this:

1. Bush indicated that he has moved a carrier into the Persian Gulf to help stop those who are aiding Iraq. This can only refer to Iran.

2. Bush indicated that he was sending Patriot missles to the region. There's no need for such missles in Iraq--there's nothing by air the insurgents or factions have to use against us. On the other hand, Iran has such things.

3. The clincher is the fact that American troops stormed an Iranian embassy in the northern part of Iraq. This is technically an act of war, although Iran has not yet taken the bait.

The idea is that Bush is trying to provoke Iran into attacking us there so that we can bomb their nuclear facilities.

If this is true, what are we to make of it? It goes diametrically against the recommendations of the Baker commission, who advised the President to talk to Syria and Iran.

On the one hand, we might make this argument: the President knows more than we do; we should trust him. Perhaps this will pressure Iran into negotiation. Maybe finding a way to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities is better than them having them, which currently seems inevitable.

On the other side, we trusted Bush once already--they have WMD's, they have mobile labs, they're getting uranium from Niger, they're helping Al Qaeda, they'll welcome us with flowers, it's in its last throes, mission accomplished...

This was all wrong. Colin Powell resigned, Generals have resigned, half the Republicans on Capitol Hill have left Bush's side. Gerald Ford disagreed, Bush junior refused to ask for his father's advice.

Somehow the Baker commission seems a whole lot more credible to me about now. God help us all.

The Inferiority of Blackboard

I'm posting this to see what comes of it. Maybe someone who works for Blackboard will find it and get to work. Maybe they're already at work (please, please)...

Blackboard is neat--if you don't know anything else. I'm hoping they will make some major upgrades to their stuff in the days to come. Several courses at IWU use it now. But if I'm ever involved in starting a new program, I will be desperate to search options in this area.

First, though, let me mention two strengths Blackboard has over some other educational software:

1. You can do grades on it.

2. You can give quizzes and tests on it.

These are really great features especially for professors, and being able to watch your grade is a really neat thing for students as well.

Now for my down side list so far:

1. It isn't visual--it's all text oriented. It's not like the internet--not icon oriented. It's like a TXT file versus a DOC file. You don't click on pictures; you click on a bunch of words. No wonder science and math types seem to like it--it has no aesthetic appeal whatsoever.

2. It's not built for community (a second blip on the science and math types). It's one course oriented. There are no common community spaces for everyone in a program or in a community. It is a very left brain logical: course 1, course 2.

3. You can't have multiple windows open at a time. This is my biggest pragmatic complaint. If you are writing something in one area and need to look at something in another, you have to close and go back, then reopen. Better write it down, because if you forget what you looked at before you can get it into the other place, then you have to close everything and go back to the first place, then come back to the second place.

4. You have to close, and close, and close. Yes, alright already, I'm wanting to close.

5. Even though it is text oriented, the text space is fairly confined, embedded. You can't enlarge it to the whole screen. This again fits with the cold feel of it--it's two dimensional, not three dimensional.

6. You can't attach multiple files. If you want to post two things for the class, you have to make two completely different posts.

I may return to this from time to time, both with further strengths I discover and further weaknesses...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bush's Iraq Speech

It will be interesting to see how Bush's speech tonight will be viewed with the hindsight of history. It has to be the first or second most important speech of his presidency to date.

My impressions and reaction:
I agree with Bush that there are scary prospects for an Iraq right now without American troops. I think he's right that Malaki's government would collapse and the civil war would become much worse and anarchic. I agree that Iraq would become an even greater haven for terrorists. Let me also note that Bush himself has created this situation. Iraq was no safe haven for terrorists under Hussein. I think Basra and the Kurdish north are much better now than they were before, but Baghdad is drastically worse. And since Baghdad is the nexus of Iraq's place in the political map of the region, that makes the current Baghdad far more dangerous to us now than it was under Saddam.

Having said that, good luck on his proposal having any real effect. The only real hope I heard in his speech were the things he said he would hold Malaki accountable for: policing of groups like Al Sadr, oil for the Sunnis, rebathification. If Bush can get the Iraqis to do this, this would be significant.

But I doubt 20,000 troops will accomplish anything lasting at all. Perhaps Bush should have one last shot, although I mourn the billions of dollars and extra 1000 American lives it will waste in the process. I hope it succeeds.

Bad tastes in my mouth: Principally two. First, the problem in Iraq is not terrorism and the terrorists are not the primary problem right now. The problem are the Shiite death squads and people like Al Sadr. I have no idea how to reign them in. They're good at laying low until we leave, and we simply cannot stay forever. They're the ones who lynched Hussein.

The second taste is this impotent talk about freedom and the talk of brave Iraqis. Who are they? The ones sneeking around dragging Sunni's out of their houses? We are neck deep in real politique here. Drop the vacuous ideological rhetoric that means absolutely nothing about now.

These are not democrats. This is a tribal group culture. Our freedom is great and would be great for them. But they aren't built to want it. They don't draw paintings of liberty valiantly holding the flag amidst the death around her.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Chicago Statements and Losing Faith

Today I came across the title of an older book by prolific writer Bart Ehrman, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. If I might psychoanalyze the title, it seems full of the anger of an ultraconservative who has just lost faith.

Our division chair, David Smith, sent me this story about some of Ehrman's most recent autobiographical words on his loss of faith: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/june/11.26.html. Although Ehrman was raised as an Episcopalian, he went to Moody, then Wheaton, then Princeton before he became a "happy agnostic."

What really saddens me about this tale is that the process that resulted in such anger was completely unnecessary. From the title of his book I mentioned above, you can see that the beginnings of his faith loss started with a commitment to the KJV as the right text that is just begging to be destroyed by any study whatsoever. Not that there aren't some intelligent people who think the "textus receptus" is the most accurate text (e.g., http://www.daveblackonline.com/). But I would argue they believe this because of their presuppositions, not because of an honest assessment of the evidence.

According to Ehrman's new book, he lost his faith when he found what he thought to be one concrete error, Mark's mention of Abiathar as the high priest in the time of David, while Samuel says it was Abimelech. This type of thing used to trouble me as well when I was in my late teens. I actually have a book of some 700 pages called Alleged Discrepencies that tries to iron out these sorts of things. For Southern Baptists and others, the Chicago statement on inerrancy demands that you be able to explain every single incidence in Scripture like this one or else we can't have Christian faith.

What a waste! ... to lose your faith because of matters like whether there was one blind man or two, whether Jesus was crucified the day before Passover or on the day of Passover itself. What ever happened to "on Christ the solid rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand"?

I have no interest to spend my time trying to find problems in the Bible. But, but to be blunt, Christ's incarnation and resurrection do not rise or fall with the Bible's inerrancy--especially when it is defined as narrowly as the Chicago statement. Did Joshua conquer Jebus or not? It's an interesting question, but "Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again"!

Somehow I suspect that people whose faith is so troubled with details like these have taken their eye off the ball, er, off Christ. Christ is God; the Bible gives witness to them. Even Jesus says in John that he gives witness to the Father, not to himself. So how twisted is it to get so preoccupied with these sorts of details in the Book that you forget Who it is really about? Not a truth of the Apostle's Creed is affected by whether Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple in the first or third year of his ministry.

I've argued here a while back that the Wesleyan Church as a whole has never connected its understanding of inerrancy to the Chicago statement. For us, the word "inerrancy" is not closely or narrowly defined. As Asbury puts it, "The Bible is inerrant in all it affirms." But we give some slack to our Bible scholars, pastors, and studious laypeople to wrestle with just what that might mean.

This is why I think a group of Free Methodist pastors from southern Michigan are ultimately barking up the wrong tree in their attempt to move the FM church more solidly in a Chicago statement direction. Well intentioned, they will condemn some in their midst to unnecessary faith crises because they are majoring on the minor.

What a waste! The lines that Moody and perhaps Wheaton drew for Ehrman set him up for a completely unnecessary faith crisis. So beware, ye Wesleyans and Free Methodists. "Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!" That's the cake. There's a lot of delicious icing on the cake. But it's icing. Christ takes the cake!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Wesleyan Church Membership

Next year is the quadrennial General Conference of The Wesleyan Church. I'm not sure what all the resolutions will be that the various districts will send. This summer will be when they will pass on them. A General Conference committee will then decide which ones to recommend to the General Conference, although all will be mentioned and an opportunity for anyone to resurrection a non-recommended resolution will be given.

One issue that I'm sure will inspire resolutions from multiple districts (I'm predicting from California and Michigan at least) is church membership. The pressures of our day have already led us to modify our approach to church membership some. When Christian groups were fairly isolated from each other and had a strong sense of group identity, it was natural that they would all have very particular requirements for church membership. In a church of 40 where visitors are unusual, becoming a member of the church can involve requirements that are highly specific to that group.

But there are a lot of larger Wesleyan churches now. I think I heard someone say recently that about half of our denomination attends smaller churches and the other half attend churches of over 200 or 300. [correct data welcomed!] In churches like these there is a natural flow of people from broader Christianity. These individuals are often "Christian book store-ish" in doctrine, vaguely Baptist, and they usually come from traditions where you're a member if you attend.

Here comes the conflict. "Entire sanctification, what?" "I don't get drunk but I do have an occasional glass of wine." "What do you mean I can't vote on the pastor--I've been here every Sunday for the last year."

But the conflict is also cultural. The spirit of the times is moving strongly against centralized denominations. It's the age of the non-denominational church. On the one hand, we should fight against the incorrect Barna notion that you don't need a visible church to be where you should be with God. This is the trend to see the woods as as good a church as somewhere you can meet with other Christians. The early Christians wouldn't have comprehended this. After all, when Paul sent people away from the visible church, he was delivering them over to Satan. No longer does the ear despise the eye--the ear has left the body to do its own thing. This is a diseased understanding of the church we should resist.

On the other hand, current Christian culture correctly recognizes that there is only "one body." Almost no one would say that the Baptists aren't going to heaven or that you have to believe and act exactly like the Wesleyans to be saved. We've already come to believe that we are only a very small part of the body of Christ.

But if we acknowledge that we are only a very small part of the church universal, then how can we deny membership to other Christians? It is for this reason that the Wesleyan Church now has two levels of membership--community membership (those who attend) and covenant membership (those who embrace the particulars of the Wesleyan Church, can vote on the pastor and hold positions of leadership). The standards of community membership are much more "common Christianity" than the covenant standards.

But this set up still seems somewhat awkward, so various Wesleyan leaders continue to strive for some sort of system that

1. recognizes all those who are truly Christians as members, even if they don't believe or practice some of the particulars of the Wesleyan tradition

and

2. maintains a full committment to specific Wesleyan beliefs and practices, which are also entirely legitimate.

The diversity of the body of Christ in itself enriches the body. And if we allowed all the churches to melt together to some vague and blurry commonality, the result would be a gray, tasteless muck. And there are many aspects of the Wesleyan Church's beliefs that I will gladly argue are far more accurate to the Bible than certain Lutheran or Baptist ideas.

The question is whether both of these principles can be maintained at the same time. If we have to choose, I think it is more important to retain the most important parts of number 2 over number 1. There are other parts of the body of Christ preserving number 1. What will happen to the places where we are right if we abandon the fort to some broader doctrinal melting pot?

One proposal I've heard has one category of membership, but requires anyone who would participate in church leadership to commit to the more particular specifics of the Wesleyan tradition. The new element is the idea that such leaders would have to reaffirm their commitment to it every year. In a way, that's a higher standard than any members have to hold to now! This becomes not another level of membership, but a way to maintain our unique identity in the body of Christ.

This proposal might work, especially if we strengthen just a tad the power of the district to give final word on local church votes. They currently have that power anyway, I believe. But a restatement of it might be the missing element in this proposal. That way if a congregation became beligerent to the Wesleyan tradition, there would be clear lines of authority to prevent a coup.

What do you think?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Sermon Starters: Epiphany 2007

I'm preaching tomorrow at College Wesleyan. Cheesy title: It's 2007, but the Kingdom's a Comin'

The goal is to combine remembrance of the visit of the wise men with the first sermon of the New Year.

The gist of the sermon goes like this:

Introduction


  • New Year's Day not a Christian holiday per se, but for Christians a good time to hit the reset button on their walk with God.
  • Jan. 6 is Epiphany in the Christian calendar, at one time Christmas was celebrated on that day, in fact today the Orthodox churches are celebrating Christmas.
  • The West often celebrates the visit of the Wise Men at Epiphany
  • The Wise Men: differences between Matt. 2 and our Christmas plays: no mention of 3, Jesus is probably at least a year old, star may be an angel, astrologers
  • Many things of note, including things the Spirit may say uniquely to you: Jesus as a new Moses, foreshadowing that the gospel will reach the Gentiles
  • Focus this morning: seeing what God is doing in the midst of so much busyness.

Point 1: The wise men looked up when everyone else was just looking around.

  • nothing of this recorded elsewhere, star, wise men, murder of babies
  • Golden Age of Roman literature, pax Romana,
  • end of Herod's tenure, rebuilding the temple, murder of wife and children
  • baby born, Savior of the world, Lord of the universe, God on earth
  • Are we looking to what God is doing?
  • Are we showing others the star?
  • Are working to make His will on earth as it is in heaven? In Marion? In the United States? In the world?
  • Are we working to see people change from the inside out? You can't force people to follow the star.
  • Are we working to set up structures in our world that embody the love of our neighbor and thus of our God?

Point 2: The wise men didn't just see, they followed.

  • The priests knew enough to find out where the Messiah would be born--but they didn't run to Bethlehem
  • Mary was there, but we do not read of her following Jesus later in Matthew. In fact, when she and Jesus' family interrupt Jesus' ministry, he ignores them, calling the crowds his mother and brothers.
  • The priests are the type of the person who knows with their head the things of God, but they don't make it into their lives. (Reminds me of my children completely oblivious to the mess they are creating as they make their merry way through the house)
  • much of this is a matter of the Holy Spirit, we can only put ourselves "in the right place," that means being a part of the church, praying, reading the Scriptures, taking the sacraments, etc...
  • We would come a long way if, like the wise men, we could recognize who the king is. This king does not currently demand our all, but one day he will. Right now he is asking for it.
  • Does Christ's presence in your life have the same impact that your boss does when s/he walks in the room? the governor? the president of the US?
  • Is there a disconnect between what we say we believe and our lives? philosophers who say religious language really isn't about reality, story of Afghans who killed daughter because of custom, despite the Quran... where have we dismissed God's will?

Point 3: The wise men didn't just follow, they worshipped

  • Herod knew Jesus was the king, knew what that meant, tried to kill him anyway.
  • That's stupid--to fight against God, running toward a Mac Truck?
  • Herod is a type of the moral idiot, the person who not only is aware of what God asks, but actually fights against it.
  • Amazing when people get caught lying, stealing, cheating, having an affair etc... and they get angry at the person who caught or exposed them.
  • No one deserves mercy... that's part of the definition of mercy. By definition, what we deserve is justice (example of the student who cheated and then was upset that the professor changed their grade after he confessed)

Conclusion:

  • There's a lot going on in our lives right now
  • Don't be like Herod.
  • Don't be like the scribes.
  • Be like the wise men.
  • moments of personal reflection on our lives in the new year

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Perfect Bible Course?

I have never taught a Bible course that I have been really satisfied with. Much of it is my difficulty in getting feedback back. But there is also a real sense in which I am conflicted about what the goals of such courses are. I have generally taught these courses at Christian institutions whose primary goal is to equip future or present ministers. Or survey courses are usually meant to in some way largely to fortify the spirituality of future laypeople.

Yet from my perspective, those who set the curriculum usually have a bit of a misconception of how biblical meaning works. For example, those who put survey courses into the general education curriculum of Christian colleges usually operate under the assumption that learning the Bible's content is the same thing as learning how to live or think. And it is often assumed that learning this content automatically equates to a deeper spirituality.

Sometimes these goals are accomplished if the course is taught by a non-biblical specialist or someone with a pre-modern understanding of the Bible, usually adjuncts. The text is used to mirror the spiritual values, beliefs, and ethics of the Christian culture in which the text is taught.

Yet there is also a strange irony that the biblical specialists who usually teach such courses have been trained to know the original meaning. They've been trained to deconstruct the "what you see is what you get" Sunday School approach. They teach about genres and ancient culture. The student learns that Jeremiah 29:11 was not written about them but that the "thoughts I have toward you" were thoughts about Israelites who had been taken as prisoners to Babylon in 586BC.

What's even worse is that evangelical colleges sometimes restrict their Bible courses to those who have passed through the fires of an "inductive Bible study" (IBS) course to teach them how to read the Bible in context. Indeed, the scandal of Bible teaching at Indiana Wesleyan University is that the overwhelming majority of its students will never be able to take a Bible elective because they have to take the IBS course first! It's absolutely outrageous, if you think about it.

Well, I've gotten off topic. For now I'm teaching future ministers of one sort or another, and I agree that ministers need to study the Bible on a different level than laypeople need to. So what are the skills that I should incorporate into my "upper level Bible," "for future minister" classes? Here's my shot as I finish my syllabi for the Spring.

1. They should know the content of the biblical books in question.

2. They should know the major themes of those books and have integrated the themes in those books with the rest of the Bible.

3. They should have located those themes and that content in relation to the commonly held beliefs and ethics of the universal church and their "local" church (including their denomination, if they have one).

4. They should have appropriated this integrated content into their personal and corporate lives, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

5. They should be equipped to teach and proclaim this integrated content both to Christian and non-Christian as appropriate.

These seem to me to be the most essential outcomes of an upper level Bible course. But there are others of lesser priorities that I think are also completely appropriate for a minister. Indeed, some of the following are skills that help one achieve those that precede.

6. They should rehearse and extend their skills at observing the biblical text both in survey and detail.

7. They should rehearse and extend their skills of interpreting the biblical text in the light of its original context.

8. They should know the major critical issues that relate to the biblical texts in question.

The difference between undergraduate and graduate level courses lies in scope and depth.

To the extent that my ponderings might affect future curriculum wherever, any thoughts, suggestions, or critique?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Top 5 Favorite Visual Artists

My wife Angie has really gotten into art these last few years. Two of her Christmas presents were a book of Dali's art and a large picture book of Italy (which admittedly is only tangentially related to art). So I was thinking today, who right now would be my 5 most favorite visual artists. The list says a lot about my personality.

1. My favorite painter (in terms of what they produced) right now is Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). He's my favorite because of his famous paintings of ancient stories and legends like the Death of Socrates.


Of all his paintings, my favorite right now is The Oath of the Horatii, based on a story in the Roman historian Livy, my favorite Roman author.


2. Rembrandt van Rijn is currently going at second, mostly because I like the dark colors he typically used (he's also Dutch as I'm about half). I like the style of his self-portrait, but my current favorite would be The Anatomy Lesson:















3. M. C. Escher is third with his mathematical drawings. Here's a sample:









4. Salvador Dali comes in fourth in terms of his art, even though he's my favorite artists in terms of personalities. As a college student, The Persistence of Memory was my favorite. Maybe my favorite now should be The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory:



Dali painted this after the dropping of the atomic bomb and the individualized streams of lines reflect the subatomic world.







5. Fifth was a bit of a toss up. On personality I would of course choose Picasso (probably my second favorite personality). But although I like the concept of his art, I really don't fancy the product too much.

I also like El Greco for his exaggerated and elogated figures of Christ and such.

But in the end I decided to choose Hieronymus Bosch on the strength of the only painting I know of his, The Garden of Earthly Delights:



On the left panel of the triptych is Adam and Eve in Paradise, the middle many humans indulged in sinful pleasures, and hell is on the right.


Now look at what the outer shutters look like when the triptych is closed:



This is the creation of the world. This conglomeration of wonderfuls wins this piece the current title of my current favorite piece of visual art work of all time.

This has been a brief interuption of Schenck Thoughts for some thoughts of Schenck.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Happy New Year!

I thought I'd put a pulse through the blog since I arrived back home last evening. I'm missing the Gathering in Orlando this week--a serendipidous possibly major event in the Wesleyan Church. It was originally meant to be a kind of first time spiritual formation event to which all Wesleyan ministers were invited. The response was surprisingly overwhelming, a major social event. And coming as it does a year before our general conference, the coffee talk conversations have the potential to shape the future of the denomination.

I don't think it will achieve that potential this time, though. For one thing, I don't know of anything that's really stirring, unless it would be some changes to how membership works in the Wesleyan Church. I hope to post Sunday/Monday on some thoughts brewing on that subject. And since Keith Drury isn't there, what could really happen of prophetic significance anyway ;-)

Second, the success could--I hope not--turn out to be the thing's actual demise. They did not book enough space for everyone they let come, so they're having to pipe video into alternative spaces. I hope it works but it could turn out to be a major downer. Let's do it again in three years and plan for a major turn out! That way it turns out to be the major cohesive event opposite the 4 year general conferences.

Finally, the speakers have little to nothing to do with our church. They're the typical big name fair that has been the way the WC has gone for years now--little man complex that doesn't think it has any winners in its own ranks. Maybe it doesn't and we should just join some other real denomination (sarcasm, if you had any doubt). That's part of why these things never interest me. Bill Hybels has a lot of good to say, sure. Graham's daughter is I'm sure a good speaker (although don't call her a minister). I think there is another big name speaker who still has his membership in our denomination, but he pretty much has always done his own thing. Can't remember what his name is.

But I think Jim Dunn (isn't he behind this?) has stumbled on a good thing. This is the kind of thing that gives a denomination a sense of identity--and there need not be anything cognitive about it.