Saturday, August 29, 2009

Rethinking It All: The Last Withdrawal

It is time, dear reader, to draw this series to a close. I have much more that I would like to say concerning the Church year, lectionaries, and other things regarding worship specifically, but I must stop here. There is much changing where I am and I won't have a chance to speak to those things for the time being -- more time in Arabia is needed before anything can be confidently said.

What have I learned through all of this? In many ways I cannot answer that confidently: I suffer from the same pop-Protestant aversion to anything about my religion other than just "Jesus is the answer." The freedom given us, at least prima facie in the New Testament, coupled with the dearth of historical information about how the first century Church actually operated, leads to an almost hopeless morass of various opinions on how we should live and worship today. Not to mention the ambiguity on matters of Torah observance, ecclesial polity, and the continuation of the Spirit today. I honestly want to throw my hands in the air in distress and disgust.

At the same time, some of the conversations that this series have sparked amongst my friends have been truly enlightening. Micah's question, "What does YHWH require of you?", has become a regular and lively query. It is very humbling to me to see other men and women bow themselves to the simple, yet incredibly difficult, demand of obedience: training our eyes, ears, hearts, minds, and hands to listen carefully, to be careful, and to act in a peaceable and gentle way.

It is the simplicity of the demand that proves to be a stumbling-block. For what does it mean to be faithful in our circumstances? We have Torah to guide us, it is true, but we must not let that be our focus, otherwise we will tithe on the mint and cumin, but forget the weighter matters of peace and compassion. Compassion seems to be the main focus of Jesus' ministry even: compassion to neighbors, to socially and religiously outcast, to the ostensible enemy. Not because sin should be pooh-poohed, but instead because the real battle lies elsewhere, with the Satan, not with Rome or sinners.

But we are distracted. Debates on the meaning of justification (endless it seems), on ecclesial polity, on the state of Israel in prophecy, and so on, take our attention away from obedience. We are left with a high view of our rational skills and sophisticated rhetoric. However, the woman on the street, abandoned by her husband and with no marketable skills, finds no comfort that you are "of Wright" or "of Piper", "of Luther", "of Calvin" or "of Ratzinberger". She sees, rightly, through this game as a play of power and money, of status and pride, of mint and cumin. The Enemy, the real enemy, has us ensnared and confused. We know the Scriptures but haven't the foggiest of what they actually mean. We know our responsibility to the poor, outcast, widowed, hungry, naked, but act on it through our Republican or Democratic proxies all too willing to enforce "equity" and "justice" through brutality and theft. And the Church is powerless to do anything because we are too tied into it: how can we proclaim peace and reconciliation to our "enemies" within the gates of the Church when we are so eager to bomb the infidels out of existence because they threaten, even if just theoretically, our comfortable way of life? We are distracted.

In many ways, this rethinking has been a quest for significance. When Paul sojourned in Arabia, he found his calling being strengthened and confirmed by his reading of Isaiah and the Torah. In his work was the fulfillment of many of God's longstanding promises: Israel restored through the Messiah, the Gentiles brought near to worship the true God. I continue to probe and pry the mysteries of God, but have not yet found myself in Paul's shoes. All the better for now, I suppose, I am not yet sanctified to the priesthood that God calls all his people to.

And so the sojourn continues for me. I cry out that God has left me and me alone to rethink, but I know there are at least 7,000 who have not bowed their knees to any other God. I am no Elijah, nor a Paul, but I am trying -- feebly -- to follow in their footsteps. In an age where everyone is a role model, we desperately need these men of faith, and of failure, to show us a better way.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Rethinking It All: Jesus the Jew

I was recently approached about publishing this little series. I have agreed, although now I feel the intense need to go back and rethink the rethinking. Something about being in "official" print. Blogging, in my mind at least, is about one or two steps below self-publication in a plastic binder. This all, in other words, needs a serious gussying up.

I remember vaguely when it first dawned on my that Jesus was a Jew. Not that I didn't know it, but much of the Christianity I'd encountered was content to let his ethnic background be a bit of embarrasing (and somewhat unnecessary) familial history. In other words, aside from historical accident, it wasn't important. Once the realization that it was important -- that Jesus' Jewishness formed his mindset, his symbolic universe, his way of discourse, and who and what he cared about -- the rethinking really began. If I could remember the date, I would say it was the date that I became uncomfortable with evangelicalism and an overly systematic understanding of the faith. My exposure to what is called Biblical Theology (basically, in an extremely reductive way of saying it, reading the Bible as a story and drawing theological conclusions from that) both from the Tyler theonomists and Geneva helped me along this path. There was something important, vitally important, about understanding Jesus as a Jew. Missing that understanding stunts a very vital part of the faith. Included in this are why his mission was to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" instead of the more general "mankind"; why the Bible seems to be relatively unconcerned with divinity claims, but bends over backwards to confess and prove that he is the Messiah, the promised Jewish king who would also be lord over the gentiles/nations; why apocalyptic texts aren't talking about the end of the physical world, but the corrupt nature of the world-systems that inhabit God's good creation; why circumcision is a big deal in the early Church and not later; and the list could go on. The path to this understanding has been endless fruitful in my attempts to be obedient to the faith and in my knowledge of the one we call "Lord and Christ", but it also has been endlessly frustrating because nary a conversation happens or a sermon gets preached that I don't get riled up over what happens when this basic paradigm is misunderstood or ignored altogether. Blessing and cursing live, as always for a spiritual leper like myself, next door to each other.

The thing that has grasped me lately, though, has been an off-shoot of all of this: I am a Gentile. I was born a Gentile, I will die an ethnic Gentile. I can no sooner become a Jew than a leopard can change his spots. So, when I approach Jesus, I am not just divide by the servant-master principle, but also by a deep cultural divide. Of the Jews are the promises, the covenants, the beautiful Torah, the election, the patriarchs, the kingdom, and salvation. I am but a former idolater, rescued from the no-gods of my ancestors, and placed firm footed amongst the worshipping company of those who have held the true God as the only god for millennia. If I am seeking to understand this Jesus and what he has said, I must develop a certain cultural sympathy to a people that has been at the apple of God's eye since Abraham (this is not to say that modern Jewry can be affirmed as it stands, it still has the same need as Gentiles to bow to the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth). I approach as the other to this wholly Other.

So now I see that we must approach the Scriptures in a totally different way, not only through Jewish eyes, but also through Middle Eastern eyes as well. This causes a significant problem, though: what about the perspicuity of Scripture? The perspicuity doctrine would state that everything necessary for "salvation" (a tricky word to define as it is) is understandable by anyone straight from the text of Scripture or the "preaching" (yet another one of those words) of it. If we take a cultural understanding to be necessary, doesn't that just add a layer of elitist hierarchy for the common folk to be part of God's people? Yes and no.

First off, the basic confession is that "God raised Jesus from the dead and Jesus is therefore Lord". One can read or hear Scripture and get the basics of this confession down, be changed by the Holy Spirit, and have a saving faith. However, like the Ethiopian eunuch, there is much to misunderstand. What do we mean by "raised from the dead"? (Still) leading NT scholar Rudolph Bultmann would say it means "the disciples got a sense of Jesus' presence after his death" -- a highly influential opinion in large swaths of Christianity. Others would say that Jesus' physical body was raised from a physical grave, albeit changed in significant ways (see the Gospel of John, for example) -- this is the confession of much of Christianity from the earliest days and fits in not only with the Biblical record, but with a cultural understanding of what "resurrection" is. Another question that arises is the word "lord". What does it mean? What does it not mean? (That might be the more important question). There are a variety of answers in the public square, but while many may do justice to some part of the linguistic range of the Bible's use of the term in reference to Jesus, many do not fit at all, even traditional understandings fall into this sometimes. So, again, the answer to the above question is: yes and no.

Secondly, there has always been an interpreter in the Church: that father to the son on Passover, the Levite to the common folk in rural ancient Israel, Ezra, Jesus, Paul and the apostles. Whether that role needs to be clouded with "ordination" or not is another issue for another day. What is needed is men (and women) of solid character -- in other words, those whose lives reflect their obedience to the faith -- who take upon themselves the burden and privelege of studying the Scriptures deeply, not just at a linguistic or exegetical level, but at the cultural, historical, economic, and sociological levels: to know not just the words, but their deep contexts, embedded in real history that we can know, albeit often times through a glass darkly. Once this has happened, and the people of God are trained to do this for themselves (they must first see the need of total discipleship!), will the Jewishness of our Messiah really mean something: he will be confessed by all to be appointed by God as both Lord and Messiah.