Thursday, December 30, 2004

Bridging Some Gaps?

It is very easy to take things out of Scripture and make them into general, "timeless" principles. I think it is the number one danger of Christian faith, a kind of baptized dualism that is hard to dispel. A lot of these things are found in uses of single words that 'sum' up the Christian faith: justice, mercy, holiness, etc. Obviously, as Christians we need shorthand words; we can't go around explaining the whole story of Scripture every time we talk about 'justice' or 'peace'. It is a distinct problem, though, that we have people talking past each other because we cannot agree on the most prevalent terms in our assemblies and in our nation (or nations).

In the Torah (or the Pentateuch, if you like), all the laws are prefaced with the book of Genesis. The Decalogue (or Ten Commandments, if you like) is prefaced with: "I am the LORD your God, I brought you out of the house of Egypt, out of the house of bondage". This single phrase says a lot more than the sum total of its word count--it tells the whole story from Abraham to the (then) present. From that story, especially its culmination in the events of the Exodus, the basis for all of Israelite law, wisdom, and praxis is laid.

Christians, though, walk around as if Jesus offered something essentially ahistorical which can be carried everywhere as long as we reference something about a virgin birth, a death, and a resurrection. A case in point is the various icons of Jesus looking either Greek or Roman or Chinese or African. Jesus has been dehistoricized and made into a divine Everyman. Nice way to make all races feel welcome, but it just isn't true. Jesus (probably, of course since no pictures remain) wasn't Swedish or Indian or Chilean--he was (and continues to be) a Jew. He has a history, tied intimately and delicately to that of ancient Israel, and ultimately to the whole world (compare Genesis 1 to John 1, for example). He didn't spout out timeless moral platitudes (which would make nonsense of why he got executed). No, he spoke into a specific environment with specific demands, warnings, and exhortations. What he did, though, laid the model and foundation for the Church's work. Our mission to the world must tell a Jewish gospel about a Jewish man who fulfilled the Israelite identity in himself and reconciled the whole world to God through that.

Christian faith and life, then, are tied up in the historical (placed, in other words) death and resurrection of Jesus. When we say, "Jesus is Lord", it isn't just that he is the religious head of our order, but that all other "lords" and "gods" are deluded at best and idolatrous at worst. The 'forces' that guide the world, whether they be economic, historical, political, or 'religious' aren't in charge of the world and must be reminded of their subordinate place to the Messiah Jesus. All our actions, our fruits of the Spirit, must be placed after a phrase like this: "This is what Jesus, the Messiah, says: I delivered you on that Roman cross from the house of bondage, the house of sin and death--therefore, go into all the world and make disciples..."

As Christians, we need to have the nerve to ask about anything and everything: how does the cross of Jesus affect this? How does the cross put the 'State' in its proper place? How does the cross organize the people of God into a 'church'? How does the cross affect my understanding and practice of 'justice' and 'mercy'? For the next few blogs (which will be few and far between for awhile, I'm heading out of town for class), I want to tackle the (seemingly) easy buzzwords of the Christian faith: justice, mercy, peace, love, knowledge, etc. (Please feel free in the comments section to write words in that I have forgot--it is almost midnight, so my mind isn't as sharp as it could be--or at least as sharp as I seem to think that it can be).

The first word to hit (conveniently for me since I have to lecture on this in March): covenant.

Shalom olam (peace always)...

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Elders for Everyone!

Being an American, it is hard for me to imagine 'church' as being anything but a one-man show in which I minimally participate (oddly enough, though, my home church isn't like that--behold the power of an acultured imagination) and which the church, not to mention those outside, minimally benefit. Part of the problem (especially being a language nerd) is that I really have no idea what 'church' (qua word) really means. However, I did some snooping and here's what I found:

'Church' comes (ultimately) from 'kuriakon' which means "Lord's house"--since post-apostolic fathers time it has been used for the idea of ekklesia, which is the word translated in our Bibles as 'church'. This could also be why since about that time, churches have been modeled after, and functioned like, little temples. The Lord's house, Old Testament style, was the Temple in Jerusalem (interesting side-note, the Hebrew word for temple also means 'palace'). However, since the people of God are the building blocks of the Temple, with Jesus as the Temple itself (see my first post ever), calling the ekklesia the temple is missing something: Jesus. The ekklesia isn't the temple, it is the building blocks with Jesus as the cornerstone. That may seem like semantics, but to say that the church is the temple is wrong, since Jesus is not part of the church (never are the two equated or combined in Scripture to my knowledge). So already we are working with a massive, largely ignored (which is important, but not for my polemic) misnomer. What, though, is an ekklesia?

An ekklesia, which you will see if you read the above article (which I don't endorse whole-heartedly, but it has some good stuff) is the ruling class of the basileia/kingdom. It is the King's council, if you will. However, unlike the ancient Greek system, it isn't a democracy. There is a hierarchy of authority in the ekklesia: elders, then the people. Every man should strive to be an elder or a deacon. The question is (and many local ekklesia get bogged down in this): what is an elder and what is a deacon? I Timothy obviously gives the qualifications of such, but what are they to do? To find out, we must return to the Hebrew Bible, to Exodus 18: here we find that elders adjudicate the disputes of the assembly (a better translation of ekklesia). They are, in a sense, a series of appellate court judges that apply the word of God to all of life, while still extending considerable freedom to their charges (I Corinthians 6). In other words, an elder is not a ruler, in the Greek sense (see the quote from the last blog), but he is a servant that is working to make the community work. He is a judge, but also (in that same function) a teacher, comforter, and exhorter. He is the wise man around town, a sort of Christian rabbi, if you will allow. Almost like a Levite of old (I'll tantalizingly let that stand and not develop it). Obviously, this is only the tip of the iceberg, but what if we adopted this model? What might change in our communities? Our ekklesias?

How about the diaconate? Firstly, I think that it is important to say that the Greek word means "servant". Whether or not it is a Biblical 'office' is still in debate and probably will be for quite some time. If we look at the Hebrew Bible context, we might see that a servant is someone who is a courtier of the King: his advisors, his errand runners, etc. It might apply to the Temple also, since priests and Levites were known as servants--maybe the two combine when we realize that the Temple was a Palace. I'm not so sure on this right now.

What, though, is to be the chief end of these individuals (may the whole ekklesia be full of them)? Maturity. In Paul's words:

And he himself gave some to be royal heralds, some covenant lawyers, some 'good-news'ers, and some as shepherd-teachers; for the equipping of the holy ones for the work of service, for the building up of the body of the Messiah, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the covenant loyalty of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of the Messiah; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of teaching, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, we may grow up in all thing into him who is the head--the Messiah--from whom the wohle body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord: that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk...(Russ' expanded version)

Growing up. Maturing. Leaving behind old ways. That is what the ekklesia, in all its diverse parts is to be about. A light to the nations. If we are mature, we will not need to worry about what the State does because we will be self-governing, learning under our elders (of whom we try to emulate as they emulate the Messiah), and approaching life with the basis of Torah and the wisdom of God as the guiding principle through the Spirit.

The ekklesia, then, is to be a counter-imperial (counter-State, in other words) body that fights its wars with prayer and proclamation, wins through service of hospitality and self-sacrifice, and rules through love and humility. No empire can stand against that: against such things there is no law. Yes, the empire, threatened by this new Lord, may respond with violence or (worse) tax-increases, but we believe in the justice of God against theft (State-sponsored or not) and we believe in resurrection, that the last enemy, Death (which is the power of Caesar) may be swallowed up in life through the Messiah Jesus.

Iesous Xristos Kurious estin
Baruch hu' beshem YHWH

(Jesus Messiah is Lord...Blessed be he in the name of YHWH)

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Church and State

David Whitcomb has an interesting post on his site about how the retreat of the Church causes a vacuum readily filled by the State (capitalized, of course, is different from non-capitalized--it's all about capitalism, I suppose). I think that Eliot (whom Whitcomb quotes) was on to something more than just theoretical, it was also intensely historical.

When the Church joined hands with the State under Constantine, it was already in the process of handing over any power it had--the council just solidified what was already happening. Earlier, most notably in Origin and Justin Martyr, the narrative thought-world of Hebrew religion (itself, importantly, thoroughly mixed with some ideas from Hellenism and other ancient religions, but that is another blog--see "Fightin' Mad Monotheism" for a taste) was linguistically replaced by that of neo- and middle-Platonism. The Church became about the 'soul' and its salvation, not about the world and its true Lord. When the lordship of Caesar is no longer contested (the famous phrase "Jesus is Lord" loses its thrust when not placed against the contemporary, and more popular, confession "Caesar is Lord"), Caesar has little trouble regaining his position. This time, though, he did it without a fight. That drama and its consequences is chronicled elsewhere though.

The whole 'two-swords' theory is also based on this historical tension between these two 'powers': power of the sword for the State, power of the Word for the Church. The list, of course, of both instances historical and theoretical could go on indefinitely.

The question that comes to my mind is whether these two 'powers' can coexist at all. Kuyper, of course, would say 'yes' and they should be separate, but inform one another. Kevin Craig would say that neither can exist in a Christian society. Both are, to some extent or another, Neo-Calvinists. The question, maybe, lies in a more basic, but rarely asked (and even more rarely sufficiently answered): what is power?

For Caesar (which I use largely as a derogatory, innuendo-ladened substitute for 'State') power follows Mao's dictum--it comes from the barrel of a gun. For Jesus, it comes also rather violently, but violence taken upon one's self. For the Church? Jesus said:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Herein, it would seem, lies the true road to 'power': servanthood. The slaves are the greatest, the first, the most blessed, the most powerful. Why is that? It is possible that once we give everything we have, we have really gained all:

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains that whole world, yet forfeits his own self? Of what can a man give in exchange for himself?

But how does one do this? If one tries to gain the whole world, he becomes a slave. If one gives up on sin and follows the renewed Torah proclaimed on the Mount, he gains the whole world--the meek inherit the land. What would this mean for politics, a part of life concerned supremely with issues of servitude (taxes), land (national security and sovereignty), and power. Anything, though, would have to happen at a small level--politics reflects what is going on in the nation's hearts, minds, and hands. Politics is properly a 'power': something that was originally created good, but was twisted through man's royal abdication and that therefore enslaved him (or became his master by default). Colossians 1 makes a point to say that politics is to be, as all the 'powers' are, reconciled to the true King, the Messiah who claims both worldly governments to follow his law and the Church--the body (a metaphor closely resembling that of the Roman Empire back in the day).

But if Messiah is competing, in a way, against the 'kingdoms of this world', what is politics supposed to look like? An ecclesiocracy? Depends, I guess, on what you mean by 'ekklesia' (Church for the non-Greekers)...I think that that will be the subject of the next entry, I need to spend time with some family and friends tonight!

The King has come! Let his subjects rejoice! (Merry Christmas, in other words)

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Purpose of Blogging

Gideon Strauss has issued himself a challenge: to speak Christianly to the wider world. It is a wonderful challenge that I think needs to be heard, proclaimed, promolgated in the wider Christian ghetto.

However, after thinking about his challenge, I've decided to go the other way. Cultural engagement is a Christian necessity and I'm glad that someone like Gideon is going to be leading the way. I myself, though, feel the calling to 'stay in the ghetto' as it were and proclaim the third-way to its dwellers. 'Judgement begins at the house of God' and I feel the need to talk to the Church about God's way as I understand it (that last clause is very important as I do not pretend to speak for God).

Does this mean that I'm trying to contravert Gideon? Ma Genito (Paul's phrase in Romans for "May it not be" or KJV "God forbid")! No, this is just an example of the Body of Christ metaphor taken up and developed by Paul--we need people inside and outside the walls to be proclaiming the message, engaging the world, and 'taking dominion' in the Genesis sort of way. I think that these approaches are nothing if not complementary--the Church cannot turn away from the world, but it cannot turn totally away from itself either.

So, my posts will probably be more directed towards Christians of all stripes; they will seek to integrate Biblical faith with contemporary faithfulness; they will (Lord willing) wisely engage all of life--politics, economics, agriculture, art, theology, linguistics, etc. It will (again, Lord willing) be where Torah (Law) and Hocmah (Wisdom) meet over a cup of Fair Trade...

Iesous Christos Kurious estin...

Saturday, December 11, 2004

J. Alfred

This is a poem based off of two previous works: The Love Story of J. Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot and Prufrock by Charles Modro (a coworker of mine and part of the band Xara. Some of the subject matter is a bit adultish (but not in the late night Cinemax sort of way), so parental discretion advised. Once again, the Blogger formatting isn't friendly to my style of aesthetic writing, so I apologize that you all will miss some of the important indents. Please enjoy...
J. Alfred

I can think of death
I can think of life
But to live! that’s the thing
Whether by boats or cars or planes
TVs with a thousand neglected channels on satellite
Computers blazing graphics of endless death
Sex often and obscure—yet I die too.

The car rusts
The TV tubes burst
The orgasm ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper.

I’ve become the Hollow Men, for we are many.

What foul principality has a hold of us now?
Whiter teeth in twenty days
Faster internet speed
Now this new, now that new
But the grass still grows the same way.

The body has severed the Head
Then the arms
Now the toes have to learn war.

Cry out, “God, deliver us!”
Deliver us from our greatest enemy!
The Hater of our souls!
His name is Hollow Men.
“Make war on our foes!” we cry
Waiting for the evening news
To flash our enemies’ demise
And the falling price of gasoline.

This is your life,
Ending one second at a time.
Two and you’re considered fortunate.

Priests on Viagra is the opiate of the masses
Turning our hearts away from finding
The hidden God.
The Hollow Men is filled up to the brim,
His cup overflows with the wrath of the lamb
A table is set in the presence of his enemies
A table for one please
I’ll be dining alone tonight.

Eat well and eat long
Glut on varied delights
I’d like fries with that
Coffee two…no three cups
The poor wouldn’t like the taste anyway
They should be happy they have jobs
God loves everyone
The vomitorium, replies the waiter, is on your left.

The Lord is coming, the Lord is acomin’
Shield Co. will stop the nighttime thief
Whose house we stole.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Please Remind Me of This

I have been a Christian for almost a decade (I find it hard to even think in those terms!) and I've had providential opportunity to reflect on my time in the Kingdom and hopefully where it is going. The sovereignty of God is a strange, strange thing...

There has been one thing that has had me hang on for this long and for the indefinite future: the gospel. Yes, I know that sounds trite, but it is true--I don't usually speak Christianese anyway. It is the promises of the gospel that keep me going, all exemplified in the weirdest place: the raising to life of an insignificant Jewish peasant political 'rebel'.

The gospel, by which I mean the summing up of the Israel story in Jesus and the progressive application through the Spirit to a hurting world, had to me--even (and especially!) as a Christian--remained largely hidden. The 'powers' and 'principalities' exerted massive control over the Israel-Church (not the nation Israel, but the Church as Israel--think Meredith Kline use of hyphens). Salvation was about me--my justification, my sanctification, my glorification. I remember asking questions about whether I would recognize loved ones in heaven and thinking heaven was whatever I wanted to do most (how post-modern!).

The proclamation of Jesus as King broke those bonds. Now I no longer had to feel pessimistic about life (worse and worse till AntiChrist) or optimistic (world is getting better, sin is getting less); instead I could have legitimate hope that wrong would be righted, even if I couldn't at first see it: Psalm 73 made true sense for once. The gospel wasn't just for me and to hell with the rest of the world; it bred compassion for a lost world that had once included me. I admit, I've not yet reached the goal of maturity in Christ--being able tolay down my own life for the restoration of the world--but I'm now striving for it, not against it.The gospel also makes some parts of Calvinism more palatable, so to speak. God is saving not just a few elect here and there and (once again) to hell with the rest of the world, but he is saving the elect here and there so that the world as a whole won't have to go to hell! Election with purpose; foreknowledge with promise! Life isn't about me anymore, but God in Christ restoring the world to Himself!

Now the Church can gain a clear sense of itself: the training up of believer-elder-priests to 'rule' the world by God's love and restorative cross. Worship takes on a new meaning because it is no longer about abstract, mystical communion or abstract, timeless ethical principles, but about concrete community (through the symbol, importantly, of communion) and worship--the, so to speak, putting of God in His place (the Throne) and listening to His Inscripturated Word for marching orders. The Church isn't this narrow, exclusivist body, but a welcoming body inviting others to stop fighting, stop running, stop rebelling against the living One and come join our cosmic renewal party. This also sharpens the Church's prophetic critique of the world and itself--it must make the terms of refusal known--destruction--but woe over it (Bruggeman makes the excellent point that the prophetic 'woe' oracles aren't anger, they are lament--"The Prophetic Imagination"). All of this orchestrated and empower by the Spirit of God itself, the Breath that hovered over the waters and created man in the first place.


Friday, December 03, 2004

More About Truth

It is amazing that emt (truth) is such an absorbing subject--epistemology really takes you in. The danger, I think, is that truth can take you so abstractly that you no longer see how it affects real life. What does it matter if we know how we think and why we think like we do if our world is crumbling? What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?

Other than that (and I think that there are many ways to connect learning to life, I bring up the questions metaphorically) epistemology is an incredible subject.

Talking with a friend today, he helped explain to me the division between Truth and truth. Basically, if we say that there is some 'metaphysical' Truth and that we cannot know anything about it, that is Kant's noumenal category. What we experience is 'truth' or 'phenomena'. Ok. I think I got that, maybe...possibly.

So, is there a Truth out there? I would feel compelled to say yes--and only God has it. Sounds a bit like Kant, though. However, we know God in truth--in relationship, in praxis--and He has revealed enough of the Truth to us so that we may make it truth. It isn't, then, until Truth becomes truth that it matters to us (or to the Kingdom). But it all still sounds Kantian to me...and I have a presuppositional bias against Kant.

What do you all think?

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Knowledge and Salvation

Well, Russ has fully entered the postmodern world and is seeking to find his way through the quagmire into some sort of Christian cultural critique. Reading books like The Truth About the Truth by Walter Truett Anderson and Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be by Walsh and Middleton isn't helping at all, either. It is just causing me to rethink my whole epistemology.

Tonight in class, we shortly (oh, too shortly) discussed the concept of 'absolute truth' and basically it came out that the students who had studied philosophy disagreed with the Prof. No surprises there (beware, lest ye fall Keith!). Regardless, it did raise some interesting points. If we discuss anything 'absolutely' we are begging the question, can we know anything absolutely, or to use ol' Francis Schaeffer language, can we know anything exhaustively? Schaeffer (and Walsh and Middleton, et al) would say no, of course not. We are not God (or even 'god') and cannot stand outside of the Creation to view it. Does this mean that there is no 'objective' knowledge? Depends on what you mean as objective, etc.

One of the most interesting parts of the discussion is whether we should connote the two different (but ultimately undefinable) 'truths' by using capital and lowercase letters: Truth v. truth. It ended up being that one student said that Truth existed, but you can't know it, but 'truth' is what we live out. Maybe someone could help me, but isn't that Kant's phenomenicological (it must have that many letters, I'm sure of it!) and noumenal categories?

Well, that got me to thinking, what about the historic Creeds of the Church (however you define 'historic', 'creed', and 'church', isn't postmodernism fun?)? If, as finite human creatures, we cannot know something totally or exhaustively (or even at all), how can we be dogmatic about our intra-faith problems? Within the faith, it would seem that a more open discussion should be taking place, "to see whether these things are so" (which I've noticed is a wonderful thing to say in a sermon to lull the congregation into a state of happy acceptance of whatever is about to be said). Can we say, with the Athanasian Creed that whoever doesn't ascribe to the obtuse philosophical discourse contained within it that they are 'anathema'?

Or, to get at it another way, since all knowledge is culturally conditioned, can we even live the creeds out since they are very conditioned to an early synthesis of neo-Platonism and Christianity? Or, to press it further, can we live out the New Testament (not to mention the Old) since they are even more remotely conditioned?

I think that all my questions come down to this: if we are to have a knowledge of God for salvation and all our knowledge is culturally and individually conditioned, how can we ever be sure that we are believing the right things? In other words, how can we know that we have salvation, without collapsing into either a Gnostic mysticism or a Platonic autonomy?

Will the Bible survive this epistemological catastrophe?

A Misnomer If I Ever Saw One

The previous post to this, "Old Friends" was originally intended to talk about the experiences I had with my high school friends this last Thanksgiving...but ended up being about relatives.

Those responsible for the error have been sacked.