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Archive for September, 2011

Today I commence a series of posts on the intersection of those two things no one is supposed to discuss in polite society: religion and politics. Specifically, I take up the question of how to be a Christian in public, what the Christian’s Book has to say about the matter.

This is hardly a unique undertaking in our time. There has been no shortage of articles and books, popular and scholarly, on the subject of public theology, by whole bunch of people from all over the political and theological spectrum, the past decade. The prominence of the “religious right” in American politics in the eighties and nineties provoked a lot of thought, and writing, on the public implications of theology.  And then, when one kind of theology drastically altered the New York City skyline and crashed into the Pentagon, the volume of writing on the subject increased by several orders of magnitude over again. So I’m well aware that I’m talking into an already noisy area of the public square.

Nor is this series a unique undertaking historically. The great writers of the tradition in which I stand — the Christian tradition — include many who have made constructive contributions on this very subject.  So why should I — not a great thinker, not an “expert,” but a simple lawyer living in a small town in a relatively rural part of the world — think I could possibly say something about this subject that hasn’t already been said better by someone else?

The answer is simple: I don’t.  On this matter I’m an amateur — a student, not an expert.  But so are most people.  That means I can compare notes with my fellow amateurs in a way that experts cannot; I am hopeful that, as a result, some lights will go on.

Moreover, I plan to address the subject in a way I’ve not really seen done before: simply by selecting some pertinent biblical passages and then writing a series of essays on them. Every other treatment of public theology that I’ve seen has either presupposed, constructed, attacked or defended some overarching theory of how to be public theologians. While I am not without my own sympathies and presuppositions (which will become manifest enough over the course of the series), my hope is that keeping my comments firmly and plainly anchored in the common Book of the Church universal, readers will be able to appreciate afresh the riches of the Bible for public discourse, and interact with these posts a way that one can’t interact with a scholarly monograph.

We have indeed a profound need for a basic understanding of the public implications of biblical texts, which has not infrequently been exposed of late. To take one example from a recent Republican presidential debate: Byron York’s question to Michele Bachmann about submitting to her husband. Bachmann, not so deftly, skirted the issue, stating that she respected her husband, as he did her.  Much could be (and already has been) said about the propriety of York’s question and Bachmann’s answer, but for now I’ll register a simple hurrah to the question and a “meh” to Bachmann’s dodge and note one of the early responses to the whole dustup: Stephen Prothero’s list of five biblical passages on which he’d like to hear commentary from Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry.  I found Prothero’s post noteworthy, not because it’s unique but precisely because it follows a trend: Any time a publicly evangelical politician publicly dodges a question about a biblical text, these kinds of posts start popping up like mushrooms.  To the extent that those of us who call ourselves Christians cannot respond intelligently to the questions posed by the people who write posts like Prothero’s, we confess that we have not carefully read or bothered to understand our common Book.  And we give the impression to the watching world that we really are just another set of partisan hacks, content to “pound” our Book while shouting across the cultural divide, and less than eager to read, learn, mark and inwardly digest what it has to say about matters of political concern.

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Reading the New Testament in order is not, of course, as essential as reading it. But there are some places where reading the books in the canonical order is especially delightful, and aids comprehension in a way that reading out of order does not.  Acts-Romans is one of those.

Acts deals, in large measure (chapters 10-28), with the Church’s Gentile mission, which was commenced by Peter and then carried forth, most notably, by Paul of Tarsus. The incorporation of Gentiles into the Church, and how it was to be done, raised huge issues; in fact, reading through Acts you could say the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God was the defining controversy of the Church’s first few decades. Not surprisingly, then, when Paul, Jew by birth and education and apostle to the Gentiles by calling, started setting ink on parchment to send to the Church in Rome, this matter of Jew and Gentile would direct the course of his argument. The power of God in accomplishing salvation through his Messiah is the ultimate theme of Romans, and the theme which gives Romans its grandeur. But the economy of salvation — “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” — is what gives Romans its distinctive shape.

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A Christian complains he cannot pray. `Oh, I am troubled with so many distracting thoughts, and never more than now!’ But has he put into your heart a desire to pray? Then he will hear the desires of his own Spirit in you. `We know not what we should pray for as we ought’ (nor how to do anything else as we ought), but the Spirit helps our infirmities with `groanings which cannot be uttered’ (Rom 8:26), which are not hid from God. `My groaning is not hid from thee’ (Psa. 38:9). God can pick sense out of a confused prayer. These desires cry louder in his ears than your sins. Sometimes a Christian has such confused thoughts that he can say nothing but, as a child, cries, `O Father’, not able to express what he needs, like Moses at the Red Sea. These stirrings of spirit touch the heart of God and melt him into compassion towards us, when they come from the Spirit of adoption, and from a striving to be better.

‘Oh, but is it possible’, thinks the misgiving heart, `that so holy a God should accept such a prayer?’ Yes, he will accept that which is his own, and pardon that which is ours. Jonah prayed in the fish’s belly (Jon. 2:1), being burdened with the guilt of sin, yet God heard him. Let not, therefore, infirmities discourage us. James takes away this objection (James 5:17). Some might object, `If I were as holy as Elijah, then my prayers might be regarded.’ `But,’ says he, ‘Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are.’ He had his passions as well as we, or do we think that God heard him because he was without fault? Surely not. But look at the promises: `Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee’ (Psa. 50:15). `Ask, and it shall be given you’ (Matt. 7:7) and others like these. God accepts our prayers, though weak, because we are his own children, and they come from his own Spirit; because they are according to his own will; and because they are offered in Christ’s mediation, and he takes them, and mingles them with his own incense (Rev. 8:3).

There is never a holy sigh, never a tear we shed, which is lost. And as every grace increases by exercise of itself, so does the grace of prayer. By prayer we learn to pray. So, likewise, we should take heed of a spirit of discouragement in all other holy duties, since we have so gracious a Saviour. Pray as we are able, hear as we are able, strive as we are able, do as we are able, according to the measure of grace received. God in Christ will cast a gracious eye upon that which is his own.

Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed ch. 7 (1630).

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Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
   Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899).

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John Piper has completed what looks like a fascinating book called Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian, set to be published at the end of this month.  More information on the book is available here, and Tim Keller’s foreword can be read online here.

Now I found this news particularly interesting because it took me back to a thought I had just this spring about Piper, race, and the clarity of scripture. It was early April. I was out for a jog, enjoying the fresh spring air and a rather extraordinary central Virginia sunset. Meanwhile, my mind was somewhat less agreeably engaged with this post by Brian McLaren about Piper. Evidently one of McLaren’s readers had read his response to Piper’s theodicy and took exception with this statement:

I doubt [Piper], or many like him, will ever change course because this kind of explanation, for them, is fidelity—to their way of reading the Bible, to their understanding of God, to their tradition of strict Calvinism.

To which McLaren’s reader responded:

I honestly believe that God has changed both of our hearts to be more compassionate and that same God is capable of changing the hearts of everyone in this world including Piper’s. Of course, the last sentence of the previous paragraph makes the assumption that we are right and Piper is wrong which is narrow-minded. While I agree with you that simple answers for the sake of comfort is not what God has called us to, there is the possibility that Piper is correct. Anyway, if we are correct in our thinking and approach to our creator, while Piper and others with similar cognitive processes are incorrect with theirs, I am hopeful rather than doubtful that God will mold them into who he wants them to be, just as I am hopeful that God will continue you to mold you and me into who he wants us to be.

Now there is much that could be said about McLaren’s comments, or his more irenic reader’s response, but here I’ll confine myself to retracing the course of my vernal thoughts. For some reason these started with my remembering one way in which God had molded Piper’s heart: turning him from a young racist into one of the most persistent modern evangelical preachers against racism, and a man who, by his own testimony, wept “tears of joy” at the election of a black man to the Oval Office in 2008.

I didn’t (and still don’t) know the details of how that change happened (UPDATE: you can read Piper’s story here). But I guessed that Piper’s conviction that scripture gave him a clear word on racism, to which he had to submit and by which he had to be reformed, had quite a lot to do with it. And it occurred to me that while McLaren would (rightly) agree with Piper on racism, his views on the subject could be neither formed nor sustained by the notion that God has spoken clearly on the subject.  In McLaren’s universe — a universe in which the heaping up of phrases like “for them,” “their way of reading,” and “their understanding,” effectively buries the possibility that scripture might speak clearly — McLaren’s views could receive no such support. And thus I concluded: McLaren’s stance on racism must depend on the zeitgeist, the winds of public opinion, in a way that Piper’s stance does not.

So . . . in the event that the zeitgeist in our culture turns the way it did in, say, 1930’s Germany (and if you think that’s just impossible, go read the relevant history), who’s our more likely Bonhoeffer?

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Quote confluence

And the storm inside was raging
It was howling like the wind at the Pentecost
And His love was teaching us a language
We thought was lost

Andrew Peterson, Don’t Give Up On Me, on Resurrection Letters Volume II (2008).

What has eschatology to do with ethics? What has the new heavens and the new earth for which we long to do with my moral struggles here and now? Exactly this: Love is not our duty. It is our destiny. Love is the language they speak in the new creation — and we get to learn it here. Oh, it’s difficult.  There are lots of irregular verbs. There’s vocabulary that’ll be very difficult to get into your head, and get your tongue around. But learn it, and one day you’ll be singing in it.

N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, held by the Center for Faith & Work, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York, NY (lecture, Apr. 20, 2010).

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Since for some time now things around here have been sleepier than the meetings of the Third Amendment Defense Council, you may want to check out this excellent blog, started by some friends of mine at Lantern Hollow Press. I, least of the bloggers there, the blogger untimely born, will now post regularly on Saturdays. Tomorrow I’ll be posting the third installment in a series called “The Lawcourt for Writers”; after that, Lord willing, I plan to commence a series on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin.

When I resume posting here I plan to take up the following: (1) St Paul’s letter to the Romans; and (2) a series on a New Testament-shaped philosophy of politics.

Until then, shalom.

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