Friday, April 29, 2011

Defining Intellectual

Some of Conversations On Truth is stupidly intelligent, some of it is intelligently stupid, and some of it is good. Very good.

The authors talk to Noam Chomsky, and ask him the following question:

Do you think that subordination to power in America or Britain is something that, generally speaking, people are happy to go along with? Are people happy being lied to?

Chomsky's answer is as theological as they come:

They may not be happy, but it's easier. It is certainly easier to conform to authority and to standard doctrine than to stand up against it. And this goes back right through the earliest recorded history. Look at classical Greece. Who was it that drank the hemlock? Was it somebody who was praising official doctrine or was it someone who was corrupting the youth of Athens by his questions and criticisms? Or take, say, the Bible at roughly the same time. In the Old Testament there was a group of people whom we might call intellectuals, people who gave geopolitical analysis, criticized the crimes of the state and called for mercy for widows and orphans. They were the people whom we call prophets -- basically dissident intellectuals by our standards. Were they treated nicely? No. They were imprisoned, driven into the desert, and so on. Centuries later they were honoured, of course, but not at the time. At the time the people who were honoured were the flatterers at the court. They were the ones who, in the gospels, are called false prophets. And that is a pattern that runs through history.

Chomsky's words challenge my definition of "intellectual", transporting the term from the realm of academia and scholarship to the realm of politics and church. I often associate an "intellectual" with wealth, prestige and power, but as Chomsky highlights, there is another side to intellectuality. It is the side that speaks uncomfortable truths to wealth, prestige, and power. The early disciples of Jesus were marked by their relentless proclamation of such truths. They subverted the empire at every turn. They were intellectual, but not as we know it.

Which side do disciples of Jesus fall on today, by and large? Empire-exposers or empire-producers/consumers? And what does it mean to be an intellectual Christian in the 21st century? Judging by the prophets' standards it has become too tame a pursuit. For many, to be an intellectual Christian means to take science seriously. There's nothing wrong with this, but there's more - it means to take the kingdom of god seriously. It means understanding that all of life -- politics, economics, education, the arts, religion, science -- is called into question by the stunning vision of the kingdom of god as revealed and enacted by Jesus of Nazareth.

The next time someone asks me if what I'm doing in Belfast Bible College is purely intellectual, instead of insisting that it's not I might just say, "Yes it is, but that's okay."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Belief does nothing....We can believe the resurrection happened literally, we can believe it didn't. For me that's neither here nor there....Faith [for some people] is asserting propositions that you don't know are true. But that's actually not the category Paul is meaning when he talks about faith....It's not about having belief in something that we're not 100% sure about. It's about participating in a reality; participating in a truth....Belief, non-belief, all of that is at best a crutch, helps you sleep at night...

Attach a Northern Irish twang to those words and you have Peter Rollins in dialogue with Tony Jones about the resurrection.

I understand and even agree with what Rollins is railing against - an intellectualised discipleship (with "intellectual" meaning what the Enlightenment says it means) whereby the Christian journey is nothing more than a quest for knowledge, a pilgrimage for an indubitable belief structure. But, out of rejection for such cerebral Christianity, can you just throw belief out the window? Doesn't what we believe about a "reality" or a "truth" affect the shape of our participation?

Rollins seems to want to bypass beliefs, but I'm not sure that's possible for a species whose minds are deeply corrupted. When it comes to breathing we can participate without having to mentally assent to certain propositions about oxygen and our respiratory system, but participation in the kingdom of God here and now is not like breathing. Or if it is, it is more like breathing under water. There are constraints, there are hazards, there are modes of being that are unnatural and incorrect belief will seriously damage the effectiveness of our participation.

Does Rollins really believe that belief does nothing? The divide between theory and praxis may be a modern construct that has no place in biblical faith (despite the popular notion that some of Paul's letters can be neatly divided up into half theory, half practice), but is the correction of this errant construct simply the removal of belief from the equation, or the relegation of belief to nothingness?

At the beginning of The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard states that "The killing fields of Cambodia come from philosophical discussions in Paris". If there is any truth to this statement then we ought to take the crutch of belief with considerable seriousness, for it may be a crutch that is used to beat someone over the head with.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Listen First to Moses and the Prophets

The resurrection of Jesus will remain a mute, uninterpretable puzzle unless it is placed firmly within the Old Testament story of Israel. The disciples on the way to Emmaus had already heard it reported that Jesus was alive, but because they didn't know how to locate that report within Israel's story, it seemed like a curious and meaningless claim. Their incomprehension, I think, prefigures the interpretive helplessness of late modern readers and it exemplifies the grimly ironic dictum with which Luke's parable of the rich man and Lazarus concludes: "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead."
That is our plight today. And I'm speaking not only of a post-Christian, pluralistic culture that doesn't know the Scriptures - I'm speaking also of the Church. For much of the Church today, Moses and the prophets belong to a closed and unknown book.
The good news of Luke 24, however, is that the story doesn't end in incomprehension and hermeneutical failure, because the one who rose from the dead teaches us anew how to listen to Moses and the prophets.
- Richard B. Hays 

As Churches across the globe prepare to speak of resurrection, perhaps in this time between Friday and Sunday it would be prudent and nourishing to listen first to Moses and the prophets. The resurrection of Jesus is not only the beginning of a new history but the climax of an old history. A pressing task within evangelical kerygma and scholarship is helpfully exploring the tension between "Jesus's gospel" and "Paul's gospel". The key to fruitful exploration (and therefore to a faithful evangel) is listening to Moses and the prophets afresh. For as Jesus heralded Moses and the prophets as a witness to his death and resurrection, so Paul also puts them on the stand: "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it..."

The resurrection is a "witnessed to" event. The apostles witnessed to it, and the Church today lives as a witness to it. But, as Hays brings to our remembrance, there is a third witness - Moses and the prophets. We leave this testimony unheard to our peril, for if we do not listen to Moses and the prophets then neither will we be convinced should someone rise from the dead.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Anything other than endless punishment...

...actually lessens sin and lessens the God who has been sinned against."

So says Tim Keller at the beginning of a round table discussion on, you guessed it, Love Wins.

This begs the question, what punishment did Jesus take on the cross? If eternal punishment is the just counterbalance for a sin/sins, then wouldn't we expect Jesus to suffer eternal punishment in our place? To anyone more familiar with atonement theology than I am, how is this worked out? Perhaps the same line of reasoning is used as when people say that a sin against an eternal being is worthy of eternal punishment: punishment meted out on an eternal being is eternal punishment...??

I hate to turn the atonement event into a mathematical equation where one side must equal the other, but I would be interested to hear how eternal punishment is understood in relation to the cross as an occurrence of the wrath of God. If the wrath of God that we deserve is eternal, how can it ever be satisfied by a historical event?

My initial reaction is that Keller's statement is faulty and needlessly dismissive. It seems to make the wrath of God co-ultimate with the love of God, whereas I'm inclined to side with Barth who views wrath as penultimate and love as ultimate.

It's always smart to side with Barth, right?


A sort of poetic/prayerful reflection on the threatening nature of God.

I trade danger for distance
Not too close; easy, easy.
Your presence carries too much threat;
It is my undoing.

Drawing near risks everything;
All I have, all I am.
I must not lose it;
Everything must not change.

Arms length will suffice.
There you remain controllable,
Comfortable, amiable, nice.
Content at being thought of without being known.

Yet your danger is not so distant;
In my weaker moments it is even desirable.
Could it be that
the threat that is my undoing
is also my making?

Loss brings life, you say;
And the threat your presence poses is also a promise
That everything must change.
For good.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Jesus Tempted

In the process of researching for a presentation on the temptations of Jesus (it's never a good sign when your research leads you to YouTube, is it?), a friend of mine stumbled upon this dramatic adaptation of the familiar narrative from Matthew's Gospel. The home movie was made by a couple of teenagers, and it's strange, awkward and funny in roughly equal measure. Perhaps I have a soft spot for it on account of my previous life as an amateur film-maker alongside friends from church, but I think it's genius. Fast forward to the 2min20sec mark and see what you think.

Friday, April 15, 2011

What God Has Joined Together

In Faithfulness In Action, Katharine Doob Sakenfeld makes an important point about the scope of anthropomorphisms vis-a-vis our talk about God:

…it should be recognised that whenever we speak of the loyalty or faithfulness of God, we are speaking anthropomorphically. While we notice this anthropomorphic element readily enough when we speak of the face or hand of God, we tend to overlook it when we turn to highly charged theological terms such as “faithful” or “righteous”. Somehow it seems as if we know the content of these terms, and that such understanding frees them from their anthropomorphic character. But when we are called upon to explain the meaning of such words to describe their content, the illustrations that we give relate to modes of behaviour rooted in human experience.

"Spiritual" language needs flesh and blood in order to make sense to us earthlings. When it comes to speaking about the divine, everything is anthropomorphism.

Or is it? What does the incarnation have to say to this?

Surely the love of God enacted in and through Jesus of Nazareth was/is no anthropomorphism (if I'm understanding the term correctly). To speak of this love embodied and made known to us in a human being is not to speak of a shadow that hints at the substance, a reflection of the Platonic Form. The life of Jesus which lead to death on a cross is the love of God. The fullness of divine revelation comes to us in utterly human terms.

Therefore at the cross of Christ human love and divine love are found not to be two things but one.

The incarnation brings together anthropomorphism and theomorphism, and what God has joined together let no man separate.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


A meagre poem inspired by my sister's new "Windy Stone Paths":

Paths we forge,
Paths forged for us;
It’s hard to tell
The two apart

We cut the stone,
then lay it down;
But why here?
Was there a path
before our path?

Still, we must walk
By faith, not sight
On paths of stone
Known yet unknown

Monday, April 11, 2011

Moral Hero

By way of a follow up to the previous post, The Wire also has a character who is the anti-Marlo. He is a man with a disciplined code of conduct, though only The Wire could have its moral hero be a homosexual gun slinger who robs drug-dealers for a living.

Marlo and Omar first cross paths at a poker game, and from there on in the show chronicles the interacting fortunes of these two players of the game who are so similar on the face of it and yet so different.

A Truth Event


What would Jesus do?

Philosopher John Caputo takes this one step further, giving the ‘do’ a specific purpose. He asks, What would Jesus deconstruct?

To help flesh out this philosophical term Caputo cites HBO’s The Wire as a modern day practitioner of deconstruction, a prophetic voice in an urban wilderness of broken promises and moral decay. As The Wire demonstrates, deconstruction is not preachy or comfortably moralistic. It is a truth event, wherein the dominant way gets to see itself for what it really is.

The dominant way – the way that The Wire shines a big spotlight on -- is perhaps best embodied in the show by the character Marlo Stanfield. He is a powerful individual earning millions as the top dog of a big business. He is in complete control of his employees, feared by his competitors, with his goal in life being to rise to the very elite of his profession and thus have his name synonymous with success and respect.

Marlo Stanfield is a drug dealer, though of course he never touches the drugs. In fact being a drug dealer isn’t about the drugs. It isn’t even about the money, though money has a role to play. In Baltimore as in life there is a game, and Marlo’s goal is to be the number one player. He wants to “wear the crown.” When told that those who wore the crown before him ended up dead or in prison soon after, his response is telling: “The point is they wore it.”

Marlo is the embodiment of unbridled dreams. In his world people are objects, laws are irrelevant, feelings and sentiment are weakness, and the crown is everything. In season four of The Wire he gets to wear it, and it wears well on him. The opening of episode 4 captures the ideologue that is Marlo Stanfield to a tee.

After a poker game he heads to a local grocery store. He walks past a security guard, picks up a bottle of water and pays for it at the counter. While the checkout lady gets his change, he takes a couple of lollipops from a stand, shoves them into his jacket pocket, and glances over at the security guard just to make sure that he knows what happened. Marlo walks out of the shop as cool as you like, with the security guard lamenting the choice he now has to make. Reluctantly he decides to confront Marlo outside on the street, in Marlo’s kingdom.

The security guard curses Marlo for stealing the merchandise “like you don’t even know I’m there”. “I don’t”, says Marlo. The guard isn’t looking to “step to”. He is simply a man trying to stand up for some semblance of justice and order. Marlo’s parting line puts things in their proper place:

“You want it to be one way…you want it to be one way…you want it to be one way……….but it’s the other way.”

Marlo’s muscle Chris pulls up, takes his boss away, and later that episode we see Chris and his partner in crime Snoop boarding up a vacant house - now a tomb for the murdered security guard.

While scoping the guard before murdering him Snoop asked Chris what the guard did. “Talked back” was the guard’s sin.

In this kingdom there is no talking back. As Chris says to Marlo’s new employee/subject Bodie “‘Why’ ain’t in your repertoire no more”. Criticism of the crown, questioning of the crown, is punishable by death.

It’s the other way. It’s the way of unchecked power. It’s the way of fear. It’s the way of greed for money and greed for the crown. The beauty and the terror of The Wire is that Marlo Stanfield, a drug dealer, is not butting heads with the institutions of America, at least when it comes to what “way” they’re going. They’re all playing the same game, and, as David Simon and co illustrate, it’s a game that’s killing American cities, quite literally.

In a later episode Bodie and Poot – two pawns in the drug game – talk about global warming. Conversation then moves to the murder of their friend Little Kevin. Bodie doesn’t think it’s right. He doesn’t think Marlo had to “do” Kevin. He calls Marlo a “cold” so-and-so.

“It’s a cold world”, says Poot.

“Thought you said it was gettin’ warmer?”

“World goin’ one way, people another, yo.”

Friday, April 8, 2011

Two Models

There is an article in Christianity Today on what is seen as two models of atonement theory -- Christus Victor and Substitution -- competing for top billing in evangelicalism. The author, Mark Galli, has witnessed a trend amongst (post)modern evangelicals to favour the Christus Victor model as the dominant model. Galli, however, says that,

biblical substitutionary atonement in all its nuances (the Bible frames it in subtly different ways: as sacrifice, propitiation, and payment) remains the dominant metaphor for atonement in Scripture.

I don't know much about the history or the contents of the Christus Victor model, but is substitution not a part of it? Galli says that the Christus Victor model comes under the umbrella of the substitution model (he cites a tenuous example from Colossians 2 to support his point), but is it not the other way round? Christus Victor doesn't exist for the purpose of substitution; substitution exists for the purpose of Christus Victor. In other words, substitution isn't the goal; Christus Victor is.

Substitution is a necessary part of Christus Victor because humanity's original calling was to power, dominion -- ultimately, to kingship. We have failed in our vocation individually and communally, therefore we needed someone to step into our shoes to do what we didn't and couldn't. This is perhaps the chief reason the cross is so offensive to us - it is God's way for humanity to exert power and authority over the competing powers and authorities, but we have sided with the competitors rather than God. 

In Jesus weakness, servanthood, and sacrifice become the hallmarks of what a powerful human being looks like. Jesus offends us because he has put himself in our place but acted in a way that is seemingly irrational, even sub-human. But the gospel is (amongst other things) the message that Jesus is truly human. It is thus the announcement that power and authority has returned to its rightful owner. Jesus has taken our place, but the staggering good news on top of this good news is that he wants us to join with him in his reign. The law says that we are unfit to be kings, but Jesus has overturned the law's verdict. The record of debt against us was nailed to the cross with Christ, but unlike Christ it did not rise again.

I don't know if this is all part of classic Christus Victor, but I'm excited about it. This framework of understanding seems to make better sense of God, humanity, the role of Law, justification, participation and how these fit together in that at times elusive story we call "the gospel".

Galli says that there are "no extensive discussions of Christus Victor anywhere in the New Testament". Mark Galli, meet Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew Mark, Luke and John, meet Mark Galli. They may not be "discussions" of Christ Victor, but they surely tell its story. 

The problem with the "biblical substitutionary atonement" model is that it doesn't make good sense of the Gospels. A resulting problem is that those who hold to it as the dominant model struggle to find the gospel in the Gospels. We end up with a Jesus who didn't really preach the gospel at all, even though he said that he did. Something like Christus Victor seems to solve these serious problems.

What do you think? Is Galli right about the rise in popularity of Christus Victor, but wrong to let "biblical substitutionary atonement" dominate it? Do I need to read A Community Called Atonement again since I mostly forget what it says other than something about a golf bag? I'm gonna say Yes, Maybe, and Yes, but feel free to disagree.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Gospel and Money

It's always risky business when you start questioning people's motives. But when there's money and livelihood's on the line, it's naive to ignore them.

In the affluent West the gospel is embroiled in big business. People pay thousands of dollars to attend seminary for a high quality education, expecting some kind of employment at the end. There are churches who can offer these graduates very reasonable salaries, provided the graduates tick the right boxes. There is an array of Christian publishing companies, looking for big sellers. There is an array of Christian authors, looking to grant these publishing companies their wishes. And behind (or in front of) it all is the gospel -- or in reality an array of interpretations of the gospel. And without these interpretations, thousands of people would either be unemployed or in a different line of work.

I don't necessarily lament this reality. I am a Bible college student, after all.

But I wonder, I just wonder, how much gospel debating and defending is merely towing the party line so that one can stay in a job, or maintain prospects of a job.

I know I said I wouldn't talk about it again, but the Rob Bell fiasco presents an interesting case study.

Of course on the one side you have Bell, earning enormous sums of money out of all of this. On the other side, you have a collection of Christian men deriding the book, lamenting the perceived false teaching, and slapping each other on the back for doing so. "The gospel is at stake" is something you might expect both sides to be saying. Of course that's true, but it's not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Rob Bell and his opponents earn money from the particular gospel interpretation that they hold to. If one of Bell's opponents became convinced by Bell's arguments, he would probably very quickly find himself out of a job, or at least disinvited from the next Together For the Gospel conference. The life he once lived would have to change quite drastically, I would say. This is more than defense of the gospel alone; this is defense of livelihood also.

Brian McLaren raised this point very briefly in a video I watched about a year ago. At the beginning of a discussion on inerrancy, he remarked that a lot of people present in the room there and then would be out of a job if they didn't sign up to the word. Can faithful, honest dialogue really happen in a situation like the one we're in?

A lecturer once told me that he is too evangelical for some colleges and not evangelical enough for others. What does one do in this case? When doctrine is conjoined with paychecks, what should you do when your particular interpretation of certain doctrines means you either do or don't get paid?

I don't have the answers. I probably don't even have the right questions. But to ignore money in all of this -- as appears to be the case in most of what I've read -- is un-Christlike. He had quite a bit to say about the gospel's relationship with mammon and our relationship with mammon, none of which makes for comfortable listening in this day and age.