Two Hundred Years in a Couple of Minutes

Every once in a while I like to back up a little bit and try to take a “bird’s eye” picture of what is happening. In recent years that process has been defined as taking the “view from 30,000 feet.” Curiously, I’ve never known of a bird flying 5 miles above the surface of the earth, but I suppose anything is possible. When we back up and look at the entire forest, it helps us understand the current condition of each tree that comprises that forest. Now, if I have not completely mixed all my metaphors to the point of obscurity, let me move on.

Consider what was occurring “on or about” the year 1819. The “Second Great Awakening” was gathering wind. It was a heady time. The smoke from the Revolutionary War could still be smelled if one tried hard enough. It seemed as if the United States was quite literally at the vanguard of a new millennium, the blessed arrival of God’s Kingdom on earth. Alexander Campbell had been in the United States barely a decade, and the “movement” that he would become so much a fixture of might have been toddling, but it certainly was not running quite yet. It would still be another decade before Joseph Smith would publish his novel, The Book of Mormon. Religious fervor was, quite literally, in the air. The Holy Spirit was running amok, or so some would say, and the Shakers were not the only ones left shaking in the wind.

Flash forward to 1919. The brilliant hopes of the Divine Millennium, the earthly Kingdom of God, had been crushed first by the Civil War, and most recently by the War to End All Wars. The smoke from that war was clearly still hanging in the air, but only in Europe, not in the blessed United States. Stateside there was a renewed religious fervor, albeit not quite as rambunctious as that seen one hundred years earlier, but still robust. The eighteenth amendment had been passed in 1917, and in 1919 it was ratified. The next year prohibition would be the law of the land, and with “demon rum” removed from Satan’s arsenal, surely God’s Spirit would not have as much opposition in the battle for man’s heart. The “Roaring Twenties” were just about to get going, and the “Great Depression” was simply a bad nickname for the Grand Canyon. Adolf Hitler was just an unemployed former corporal, and a world-wide peace that he would soon obliterate was not just a hope, but for the majority, it was a reality that could not be shaken. It was perhaps not the full-bodied Kingdom of God as envisioned one hundred years earlier, but it was still a peace – or so it was believed.

Flash forward to 2019. Nothing of 1919 is recognizable anymore, and certainly not anything of 1819. Not only is “demon rum” legal again, but so is the most decadent, the most horrific, obscene pornography. Homosexual marriage is not only legal, but glorified. Biologically born men are removing the physical attributes of maleness and are becoming “women.” Same with biologically born women, surgically removing their breasts and ingesting massive doses of testosterone so as to appear “male.” Millions, not just thousands, of babies are aborted under the umbrella of “freedom of reproductive rights” (nothing could be more of an oxymoron!!). The millennial fervor of the early 1800’s is just a footnote in some dusty history book, and not even a whiff of the resurgent spirituality of the early 1900’s remains. All that the world sees of the “Kingdom of God” is an anemic, lethargic, and basically complicit, institutional “church.”

Sorry to be the source of so much joy and happiness – but from where I sit this is the “view from 30,000 feet.” In a scant (speaking geologically) 200 years, the United States has moved from being on the doorstep of a realized and eternal Kingdom of God on earth to being a bastion of narcissism the likes of which this world has never witnessed (and, taking into consideration the narcissism of the Persians, Greeks and Romans, that is saying something!). Barely 75 years ago legions of 20 something year-old men were dying from the beaches of Normandy to the outskirts of Berlin, sacrificing their lives in the cause of freedom. Today those young men are dying on our streets, the result of unrestrained gang violence. Today the greatest existential crisis occurs when a biological male is called a “he” that he is, instead of the “she” that he wants to be. Life is simply unsustainable if the WI FI goes down at the neighborhood Starbucks. We can no longer allow a dissenting voice on our university campuses (something archaically enshrined in the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution), we have to insure that only one voice – the voice of unrestrained paganism – be spoken to the tender ears of our future leaders.  We are living what Os Guinness has labeled A Free People’s Suicide. (I highly recommend the book by that title). I could go on. The view from 30,000 feet is expansive.

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer could identify his world as a “world come of age,” what would he say of America in 2019? Above I described the church as being “anemic, lethargic, and basically complicit” in what has transpired. Fighting words, I grant you, but does anyone dare dispute me? When, in the last 100, or 75, or 50 or even 25 years has the church stood up and dared to be sent to its crucifixion by proclaiming in Christ and only in Christ is there to be health and wholeness? We have ministers of the gospel defending behavior that the Bible describes as an abomination to God. We accept the most reprehensible behavior in our Presidents (Democrat and Republican) simply because they represent our chosen political party. We depend on scientists to answer all our questions and politicians to solve all our problems. We depend on the government to feed and house the poor, we depend on the government to take care of our elderly, we depend on the government to educate our children, we depend on the government to protect our right to assemble and the right to speak freely and forthrightly. Well, since we have surrendered every other responsibility to a pagan government, it should come as absolutely no shock that that pagan government has no interest in protecting the freedom to protest what we have carelessly ceded to it.

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. – Matthew 7:6

The churches and religious organizations in the United States have attempted to domesticate a serpent for the past 200 years, and it has not turned out pretty. You can domesticate just about every animal on earth, but a snake – and here I am thinking about a rattlesnake or a water moccasin or a cobra – cannot be tamed. They are by nature serpents, and it is not by accident that the Bible first speaks of Satan as a snake.

After 200+ years, we are not going to change things by electing more “Christian” politicians. We are not going to change things by appointing more “Conservative” judges. We are not going to change things by getting more strict and “moral” laws passed. We are not going to change things no how, no way, at all.

What we can do is pray that God breathes fire back into his church. We can pray that God revives and restores us, the body of his Son. We can begin by acting like we fully believe what we have been preaching. And, we can pray that God in his power and wisdom will give us the chance to once again be his “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18) before he decides to permanently purify his creation.

Two hundred years – from literally the threshold of heaven to the basest pit of hell. Maybe, if it went that direction when we turned our backs on God, just maybe it can go the other direction if we return our hearts to him. (See Jeremiah 18:7-10; 26:3, 13)

The Consequences of Trivializing Sin (2)

As I mentioned in my last post, there are at least two major consequences to our minimizing or trivializing sin (The Consequences of Trivializing Sin). In this post I want to deal with consequence number two – the fact that we have lost, or fail to recognize, the pervasive “systemic” nature of sin. I will attempt to illustrate my conclusion with an example I think few would disagree with – and one that I’m sure will ruffle more than a few feathers.

The first is the way in which sexual sin has truly become systemic in our culture today. Back in the late 1950’s and 1960’s when the “sexual revolution” began to bloom in full flower, the church responded as it is wont to do, by focusing on the “moralities” of the revolution. Thus, instead of recognizing that what was taking place was a total reorientation of our sexual nature, the church focused on the length of a woman’s skirt, whether “mixed bathing” was a sin (um, that has to rate up close to the top for incorrect nomenclature. I don’t think ANYONE was arguing for mixed bathing, but swimming together was surely a hot topic), and the “sin” of dancing (the old “vertical expression of a horizontal desire”). As the revolution deepened, more strenuous objections came against pornography and guiltless cohabitation, but once again, the push back was focused on individual “acts” of sexual immorality, not the larger issue of our sexual natures being “re-imagined.” Fast forward to 2019, and now the sexual content of that harbinger of decadence, Playboy magazine, seems tame in comparison to the repugnant demonstrations of homosexuality routinely presented in “Gay Pride” parades. But, while the content has certainly become more decadent, the underlying rebellion against God’s plan for male and female sexuality has not changed. The church did not recognize it back in the ’50’s and ’60’s, but we what we are seeing today is nothing more than the ’50’s rebellion writ large.

The second area that I wanted to highlight is the area of economics. I have read, and have even heard it taught, that free-market capitalism is “God’s perfect form of an economy.” Such promoters point to the fact that in the Old Testament land ownership was described positively, and that hard work and thrift are praised both in the Old and New Testaments. I’m not sure how many of these free-market capitalists would appreciate going back to a divinely appointed monarchy, but I digress. The idea is that because God allowed, or even blessed, land ownership and hard work and thriftiness, he somehow instituted free-market capitalism as his favored economic platform.

Two comments scream out for attention. One is that in the Old Testament, no Israelite ever owned the land! It was God’s land, “leased” or “lent” to the individual farmer for a period of time. Every fifty years all “ownership” of the land reverted back to the original “owner,” but even that was provisional. All the crops, all the livestock that grazed on the crops, all the proceeds of the land or livestock belonged to God. God allowed the “land owner” or livestock manager to keep between 75 percent and 90 percent of his work, but the implication was clear – everything was God’s and did not “belong” to the man who worked the fields or kept the livestock.

Second, a system of free-market capitalism without extraordinary moral safeguards becomes a demonic system of the powerful abusing and repressing the weak. Slavery is perfectly acceptable in a pure free-market capitalism. Charging “whatever the market will bear” is perfectly acceptable, and even demanded, in a pure free-market capitalistic economy. Usury is basically mandated in a pure free-market capitalistic society. And, as our American history has proven, it is exactly that pure, undiluted free-market mindset that has been rejected in favor of a much more egalitarian capitalism, where laws and opposing forces (such as labor unions) provide a check on unbridled greed. In other words, without a strong moral framework, a pure free-market capitalism is simply impossible to maintain without utterly destroying the weakest and poorest citizens in a commonwealth.

Simply put, SIN runs rampant in a free-market capitalism, and it must be restrained by moral safeguards – such as those instituted by God in Leviticus 19 (and other texts) and as have been initiated in our own culture. It is unbiblical, and highly dubious, to argue that free-market capitalism is God’s chosen economic platform. Leaving the corners of your field unharvested, leaving grapes on the vine, ceasing all labor every seventh day (thus allowing your beasts and your workers rest), letting your land lie fallow every seventh and fiftieth year, freeing your slaves every seven years, refusing to charge interest and remitting debts every 50 years – NONE of these practices are a part of a capitalistic economy, and yet they form the bedrock morality of the Israelite economy. Let us be done with the myth that our form of capitalism is somehow favored by God!

The point that I wanted to drive home here with these two examples (and more could be given) is that SIN is not just the isolated instance of two men or two women choosing to have sex with each other, or charging usurious interest rates. SIN is a demonic force – personalized by the apostle Paul as “the prince of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2. SIN pervades every aspect of our life – there is no component untouched. If we as Christians cherry-pick what we think are the worst of the worst (typically sexual in nature and behaviors the furthest away from our lifestyle) and label them as sins while blithely turning a blind eye to the aspects of SIN that are in our favor (or worse, that we actively support), then our opponents are right to accuse us of hypocrisy.

It is past time for Christians to return to a biblical understanding of SIN. While there certainly is nothing wrong with cataloging individual sins, (and Paul certainly does that!), we need to regain that understanding of SIN that underlies all of the various biblical catalogs of sin – SIN is deeply embedded in our nature, it is not without reason that the Psalmist can say, “I was conceived in sin.” (And, lest you worry, I am NOT promoting the idea of original sin!!) I am simply saying that the psalmist had a much more “biblical” view of sin than we do, and we have his words to help us understand the idea of sin!

Not to muddy the waters even more at this point, but we really do need to return to the apostle Paul in the letter to the Ephesians, and forget the blather of Sigmund Freud!

[Authors note: some rather egregious spelling mistakes have been corrected. Sorry for the poor proof-reading!]

Book Review – Signs Amid the Rubble (Lesslie Newbigin)

Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History, Edited and Introduced by Geoffrey Wainwright, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 121 pages.

As I have “reviewed” (my reviews rarely constitute what would properly be called a book review) a number of Newbigin’s books recently, my comments on this book will be much shorter.

This volume was not written by Newbigin, but is rather a collection of speeches that has been collected and edited by Geoffrey Wainwright. In fact, I have discovered that a number of Newbigin’s books originate with speeches that he presented to various missionary meetings. I like this, because I do not get the opportunity to sit in lecture halls anymore, and reading these lectures gives me the opportunity to stretch my “listening” muscles as much as I can through the printed page.

Basically, this book reinforces what I appreciate so much in Newbigin. To wit:

  • Newbigin has the ability, and the courage, to analyze and to call out the weaknesses of our contemporary culture as few authors I know of. In many respects he is ruthless in nailing our hides to the wall. His utter repudiation of the idea of “progress” in these speeches is worth the price of the book. He has the knack of seeing what so few people are able to see, and he has the courage to “call it like it is.” His candor is truly refreshing.
  • Newbigin is relentless in his belief that presenting the gospel as fact, and not opinion, is the only way the church will confront this deteriorating culture. As he states in a number of his speeches throughout a number of books I have read, if there is no purpose to history, if all of this is just one gigantic mistake, then secularism is about the best we can do. But, if there is a point to history, if God will eventually bring all of history to a grand cataclysmic end, then it is only the gospel of Jesus Christ that will save mankind. This gospel does have a political component, but the gospel itself is not political (that is, humans will not usher in the kingdom of God by our human efforts).
  • Being a devoted student of the American Restoration Movement, I cannot help but hear echoes of the apocalypticism of Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb as opposed to the millennial utopianism of Alexander Campbell. In Newbigin’s observations, the major thrust of the evangelical churches repeats the post-millennial view shared by Campbell (a point ably defended by Richard Hughes), while Newbigin himself paints a more apocalyptic vision, where only the power of God will set things right in this world. To recall Richard Hughes again, it was the loss of Stone’s and Lipscomb’s apocalypticism that has severely stunted the health of the Restoration Movement, and it is strangely reassuring to me to read Newbigin’s comments, knowing that he is writing primarily as a missionary, first in India and later in his life to the thoroughly secular (or pagan) culture of a postmodern England.
  • I read today a passage that explains to me both (a) why some promote Newbigin as the father of the “Missional Church” movement and (b) why those people really have not read Newbigin carefully. Here are two sentences, and note how he deftly suggests the first while in reality denying it:

Today we have all learned that mission is not marginal to the life of the church, but definitive of it, central to its being . . . The church is God’s sending, His mission. (p. 95)

There you have it, the church is God’s mission, God sent the church just as he sent Jesus. The church does not have a mission, it is God’s mission. Nothing could be clearer, right? Except that one sentence later Newbigin says this,

But by the same shift of perspective, mission now often appears to be everything rather than something. (p. 95)

And that is the major argument I have against the “missional church” movement even as it is being promoted within the Churches of Christ. I distinctly remember reading a blog of a young preacher who was so proud of leading his church into be a “missional church” and pointing to their most recent “missional” accomplishment. What was that accomplishment you ask? Cleaning up a stretch of highway near their community. That’s right, God’s mission includes highway beautification. When God’s sending his Son into the world includes picking up trash, that is when the word “mission” loses all of its meaning. Now, mind you, I am not against cleaning up trash. I am certainly not against a church doing so. It can be, and probably is, a great community service project. I just rebel at the thought of using a highway clean-up day as a way of presenting God’s mission to a sin-sick and dying world.

And, so, once again I encourage those who have never read Newbigin to give him a read. I will say this about this particular volume, the editor’s introduction provided much needed biographical information about Newbigin, and explains a little more of Newbigin’s theological background. After reading a number of Newbigin’s books, I wish I had this information much earlier.

Now for the standard, “don’t swallow everything you read in this book” warning. Newbigin comes from a much different theological background than I do, and his Calvinistic leanings do show through here and there. I cannot defend everything he says any more than I can defend the writings of B.W. Stone, David Lipscomb, or Alexander Campbell. I read with care, and I expect others to use their God given intellects as well. I do recommend the purchase and reading of many books, not because the authors are inspired and their words are equal to Paul’s or Peter’s, but because they cause me to think, and because God can use less than perfect men (and women) to present his perfect truth.

Sound Conservatism

Those who read my post yesterday, (Neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran) who are otherwise unaware of who I am, may have come to the conclusion that I am some kind of flaming liberal. Well, I can assure you that is not the case. I may be a flaming dingbat, but I digress. My point yesterday was to illustrate how conservatism can be, and has been, coopted by ideologies that ultimately destroy healthy conservatism. There is a sound, healthy conservatism, and I believe the Bible teaches that conservatism.

After writing yesterday’s post, it might be surprising for me to say today that biblical conservatism contains aspects of each of those three distortions of conservatism I dismissed. While I firmly reject the conservatism of the political Sadducees, the legalistic Pharisees, and the escapist Qumran covenanters (perhaps the Essenes), I do believe that biblical conservatism holds the basic truths of those movements, but in a way that fundamentally rejects where each of them ends up.

In terms of the political Sadducees, there is a sense in which biblical conservatism seeks to maintain a healthy equilibrium, a measure of the status quo. Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that God’s chosen people can exist, and can even pray for the leaders, in any and every human culture. Daniel did not seek to overthrow Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah commanded the exiles to pray for their Babylonian captors. Both Paul and Peter encouraged Christians to pray for the leaders of a godless, pagan Roman empire. This is because, as I firmly believe, the Kingdom of God transcends human politics. The kingdom is dynamic, and will eventually work to overcome those pagan cultures, but it is not dynamitic – it is transformative but it is not revolutionary. Where the Sadduccean view of conservatism goes awry is that it seeks to maintain a certain political status quo for purely selfish and covetous reasons. It is all about power, and Christians today who are pressing for a political solution for moral issues have sold their soul to the devil when it comes to power. Power corrupts – and there is not a single elected official who does not have to deal with the issue of how to exercise his or her power. Human nature being what it is, and Sin being what it is, that power is virtually always turned inward, and the more power the more selfish and egotistical that power holder becomes.

Regarding the legalistic Pharisees, the Bible clearly enjoins faithful obedience to the laws of the Kingdom of God. The New Testament nowhere repeals every injunction of the Torah (a point not often understood). Jesus himself, in that oft quoted passage (Matthew 23:23-24), clearly states that obedience of the letter of the Law is not to be ignored, but that what is more critical is that the “weightier” concepts (justice and mercy and faithfulness) to which the letter of the Law points is to be observed with greater diligence. To ignore what the Pharisees were trying to protect is to totally misunderstand their righteousness (see especially Matthew 5:20). Jesus never condemned the Pharisees because they were concerned with protecting the Law of Moses. Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they elevated a legalistic interpretation of the Law over the spiritual message that the Law was pointing to. Today’s Pharisees are not to be blamed because they are devout in wanting to follow God’s commands to the furthest extent that they can see them. Where today’s Pharisees share with their historic counterparts is in their devout, almost psychotic, elevation of their interpretation of some jot or tittle of Scripture and who completely miss the truth of that text. Just as one example, yesterday I mentioned an overly literalistic interpretation of the age of the earth. Now, no one knows how old the earth is, and I defy anyone, scientist or theologian, who can prove to me conclusively that he or she knows otherwise. It simply cannot be done – and do not even start with Archbishop Ussher’s chronology – I’ve seen it and while I appreciate its scope, I reject its basic premise. However, today’s Pharisees mandate that a believer holds to a very specific age of the earth, and anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic, certain to be excommunicated if not burned at the stake. It does not matter to them if there are other possible scenarios (and the entire thrust of Genesis 1-3 is utterly ignored). The only thing that matters to them is whether their interpretation is unquestionably accepted as absolute truth.

That leaves the Qumran covenanters, and once again, there is a level of legitimacy to their desire to separate themselves from the pagan society in which they found themselves. Jesus himself clearly taught that there are firm boundaries between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Paul taught that the call of Christ is a call to “come out” of the world and enter into a new realm – to become citizens of heaven. Peter addressed his Christian readers as exiles in this world. This is an aspect of the Kingdom of God that I find disturbingly missing from much of contemporary Christianity. Within the Churches of Christ we have deep roots in this line of spirituality, and the fact that we have virtually eliminated that strain of thought has weakened our message and out influence considerably. We (and I speak as the majority of Churches of Christ) are far too comfortable in this world, and we have welcomed far too much of the world into our congregations. However, taken to a radical extent, this desire to separate from the world leads to a spiritual pride, and even a physical separation, that is wholly unknown in the New Testament. Paul called on his readers to separate from the world, not at all meaning they were to leave their cities and move to the desert, but that they were to separate themselves from the behaviors and practices of those who were “outside” of the kingdom. It is possible, and even biblically commanded, that Christians are to be separate, to be God’s Holy people. But we can never allow that command to countermand the equally valid injunction that we are to salt and light in a bent and broken world.

So, while I firmly reject the political compromises of the Sadduceean conservatives, and the legalistic dogmatism of the Pharisaical conservatives, and the utopian escapism of the Qumran conservatives, I do equally affirm the reality of a sound, healthy, biblical conservatism. I believe that the church must profess the last, while rejecting the excesses and errors of the first three. There is, to use Aristotle’s term, a “golden mean” that allows a disciple of Christ to be thoroughly conservative, and yet at the same time be energetically concerned with the social issues of the day. It requires that we be thoroughly biblical – that we be Old Testament Christians as well and New Testament Christians. It means that we have to re-learn some texts that we have either forgotten or have ignored – mostly the Pentateuch and the Prophets.

But it can be done. And, when we dive deeply into those books we discover a wonderful new world – it is the world of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran

Reading Lesslie Newbigin’s appraisal of how history is interpreted in various religions got me to thinking. Newbigin’s point was that Christianity, as opposed to the religions of Hinduism or Buddhism, views history as a linear concept – there was a past, there is a present, there will be a future. The eastern religions tend to view history as cyclical, as repetitive. Humans are caught in a never-ending cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. The only way out is to empty oneself so totally as to achieve “oneness” with the total, the complete, the one. For Christianity, history as we know it has a purpose, a goal, a telos. For the eastern religions, history is meaningless, there is no “point” to history.

Newbigin’s point is well taken, and as he spent many years in India, he should be well educated about the difference between Christianity and Hinduism. But reading his argument got me to thinking – how do you fit the despair of Ecclesiastes into the “history is linear with a goal at the end” viewpoint? Doesn’t the writer of Ecclesiastes stress “whatever has been will be, there is nothing new under the sun?” It is an interesting paradox.

Which, after a long and convoluted conversation in my mind (which will not be recounted here), got me to thinking about the difference between the Sadducees, Pharisees, and the Qumran covenanters, sometimes referred to, although not perfectly identified with, the Essenes. Each of these three groups are, in their own peculiar way, a manifestation of what we would refer to as “Conservatism.” That is, unless I am just horribly mistaken. This leads to some interesting connections to today (ergo, my lead-in with the “history as linear vs. cyclical” conundrum.)

The Sadducees were conservative in that they were entirely comfortable with the status quo, and did not want anything to disrupt their grip on the religion and piety of the people. As stewards of the temple cultus, the Sadducees had carved out a level of peace with the Roman invaders, and while they might protest the Roman occupation on a surface level, they knew that the Pax Romana also guaranteed their place as power holders in the Jewish culture. Thus Caiaphas’s view that it was far better for one man to die than for the people (i.e., Sadducees) to lose their place.

The Pharisees made their conservatism manifest in a much different form. If the Sadducees were concerned about the status quo of the present, the Pharisees were concerned about preserving a view of the past. Theirs was a legalistic conservatism, built upon a strict interpretation of the Torah. They were the stewards of the synagogues, and as such, did not necessarily conflict with the Sadducees as much as just come from a different foundation. The issue with the Pharisees was not a political alliance with Rome, but a spiritual purity that really had no specific relation to politics. In other words, they were not so much concerned with their political relationship with Rome, as they were their obedience to a literal and historic interpretation of the Torah. As long as Rome recognized their independence, they had no quarrels with the empire, and probably were quite pleased to live under the protection of the Pax Romana.

The Qumran covenanters (whether they were Essenes or not), were conservatives of yet a third stripe. They represented the escapist, the monastics, the “hunker and bunker” mentality of conservatism. They were so convinced they were the “righteous remnant” (a view probably shared by both the Sadducees and the Pharisees!) that they felt they had to leave the corrupt world and escape to a safe place where only the most pure could dwell. They lived in as much isolation as they could achieve, and we know about them only through their writings, which although are numerous, are equally shady,  difficult to decipher, and open to a multitude of interpretations. They utterly rejected the self-seeking conservatism of the Sadducees, and they were equally dismissive of the antiquated conservatism of the Pharisees. They viewed both as cultural traitors and their faith as compromised. The only response was total, complete, and uncompromising withdrawal from both of these “secular” forms of the faith.

So, is history cyclical? Now, I am not a Hindu or Buddhist, but there is something about these three groups that is alarmingly contemporary. Which, I believe, confirms the truth and wisdom of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. History is linear – there is a point, there is a goal, there is a telos. But, equally, there is nothing new under the sun. Life is not cyclical in that we are in an endless loop of birth, life, death and rebirth, but humanity is remarkably dull and unimaginative when it comes to issues of ultimate importance.

Take modern conservatism, for example.

There are voices in the church that are clearly Sadduceean. They just want to “get along.” They do not want to ruffle any feathers, because they have made their peace with the political powers. They fear that if there is any turmoil they will “lose their place.” So desperate are these people that even when culture shifts in totally bizarre and unimaginable ways (witness the increasing militancy of the gender-fluid protagonists), they willingly go along with these cultural shifts so that they will not be stripped of their political, and outwardly religious, authority. Scripture is constantly being reinterpreted so that whatever “is” is blessed by God, and no one, especially of the Sadduceean mentality, is capable of challenging the cult of progress.

The ancient Pharisees have their modern counter-parts too. Chained to interpretations of Scripture that have not changed in decades (if not centuries) these folks are not so concerned with political power as they are religious power. Every jot and tittle is counted and measured, and if any word or deed conflicts with tried and true understandings, the new teaching is immediately labeled a heresy and the guilty is expunged. The specific topic of the modern-day Pharisee might vary, but the biggest issues today seem to be the only acceptable translation of Scripture, the literal (and specific) age of the earth, and how the worship service of the church is to be conducted. Related issues such as church architecture and proper decorum are never very far under the surface. Mint and dill and cumin are carefully counted and God’s tithe is duly given, but justice and mercy and righteousness are largely ignored.

Finally, the Qumran covenanters have their fair share of modern followers, too. These folks are, just like the Sadducees and Pharisees, devoutly conservative. So conservative, in fact, that they cannot stay in to day’s raucous society. They leave, even if only mentally while they physically stay put. They build their little enclaves of spiritual purity, and the cost to join them is high, if it is attainable at all. These enclaves usually die out after a few generations (as did the Qumran covenanters) because that level of perfection cannot be maintained by many or for long. However, another enclave will usually spring up to take their place, and this, the most rabid form of conservatism, will never truly fade away.

Looking at today’s religious conservatives I really commiserate with the author of Ecclesiastes. There really is nothing new under the sun, even while history moves inexorably toward it’s final end. This is why I think the apostle Paul, and our Lord Jesus for sure, would be so disappointed with today’s church.

We are not called to be Sadducees and form alliances with our pagan and paganizing culture. We are not called to be Pharisees and look back to some gilded age (which never existed in reality, anyway) and try to live up to a legalistic interpretation of the Bible that “neither we nor our fathers” were able to attain (to borrow a quote the apostle Peter). And, we have certainly not been called to become modern day Qumran covenanters, abandoning our role as being salt and light to a bent and broken world.

We are neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran. We are the church, the assembly, the people of God, the body of Christ. Let us ascend to that reality!

“And You Will Know That I Am The LORD Your God”

[Note: this post was written almost a year ago, June 21, 2018. Once again I am reading through Ezekiel and noted how many times this key phrase was repeated. I thought to myself, “I need to write a post on this.” Sigh. I already have written it. So – although I might change a few things here or there, I simply decided to re-post this. When will we (the church) learn that God will, eventually, prove that He alone is God? The world has an excuse – it is an unredeemed world. We, the church, have no excuse. God, save us from our ignorance and our rebellion!]

I have stated verbally, and I think in this space too, how I believe I am experiencing some of the best Bible study this year that I have ever been able to accomplish. That is both reassuring (thankful I am not going backward) but also embarrassing. I feel like I should have been at this point many years ago, but I guess some skulls are just thicker than others. Anyway, what has helped me tremendously this year is that I am using fine line markers to highlight, and in some cases, make notes in my Bible. This has helped me see some powerful messages in books where previously I would just skim over or glide past certain words or phrases. I noticed one such phrase while recently reading through Ezekiel. When one phrase (or even word) keeps reappearing in a chapter or book, it is time to pull out the ol’ thinking cap and ask what the author was trying to communicate. So, I offer the following as both result of my reading and for your continued thoughts.

The phrase that caught my attention is, “And you will know that I am  the LORD your God” and numerous variations. Sometimes it is second person in speaking to the Israelites (“you”) and sometimes it is third person (“they”) in referring to the nations. At least once a specific nation is mentioned – Egypt!

So, here is what I discovered in my non-scientific, non-computerized, and non-original Hebrew language analysis: that phrase (or a variation) shows up 60 times in the book of Ezekiel. What makes this even more profound is that the phrase does not appear in 23 out of the 48 chapters – therefore, if my math is correct, Ezekiel uses the phrase 60 times in 25 chapters. In a couple of chapters (20 and 25, to be specific) the phrase is used 5 times!

There are a number of other phrases that convey basically the same thought, but in different expressions: “They shall be my people, and I will be their God,” “I am (or will be) your God,” “I the LORD sanctify them,” “I the LORD have poured out my wrath.”

So, I ponder – why this emphasis? Why is it so critical for Ezekiel to communicate that YHWH is God, and that the people will finally understand this? Did they not know that YHWH was God? Were they not good, devout, wholesome Jews?

In a word, no. God had to show Ezekiel this, and he did so in a dramatic fashion, taking Ezekiel in visions to the Temple in Jerusalem where Ezekiel saw how corrupt the worship of the priests had become. They had drawn images on the walls of the temple depicting foreign gods, and both the priests and the leading women of the nation were actively involved in idol worship. In a dramatic, and what had to be for the faithful a crushing scene, God is so fed up with the nation that he gets into his chariot and leaves the temple and the city in order to allow it to be destroyed by the Babylonians.

All well and good for those faithless Jews, you might say, those ignorant hooligans who had every blessing in the world yet turned their backs on God.

And I ask, the church in America is different how?

We all, liberal and conservative, wrap our interpretation of the Bible in the American flag, and use patriotism as the primary lens by which we invoke the Word of God. We all, liberal and conservative, refuse to consider or apply the teachings of Scripture that not only challenge, but destroy, our pet ideologies. We all, liberal and conservative alike, have removed God as the sole arbiter of our thoughts and intentions and words, and we have replaced him with pragmatics (what works) or cultural relativity (what is) or shallow emotionalism (what I feel) as the basis of our theology.

Consider this: notice how Republicans (in general) passionately argue that all pre-born life is sacred, that regardless of how a baby was conceived (even through rape or incest) or what might or might not be considered “defects,” that life is precious in the sight of God and must be protected. Democrats (again, generally) reject that thinking, and argue it is up to the whim of the mother to decide who is allowed, or is rejected, entrance at the border of life. In the issue of immigration the roles are reversed 180 degrees. Republicans (I repeat, generally) argue it is the right of a sovereign nation to decide (i.e., “freedom of choice”) who is admitted entrance, and careful examination must be made to decide if a life is “worthy” to be granted visitor or citizen status. Conversely, Democrats (same song 4th verse) argue that all life, regardless of whether we “want” the immigrant or whether he/she exhibits any “defects” should be granted admission.

And, both sides appeal to the Bible for support of their views.

Can there be any more stark of a contrast in how we allow politics and “patriotism” to color our interpretation of Scripture?

Dear Christians, brothers and sisters, can we not see here how critical it is for us to stand under Scripture, and to argue that all life is precious, created in the sight of God – and at the same time remember the repeated and emphatic commands of God to treat the alien, the fatherless, the poor, the destitute, with love and compassion? Why is it either/or? Why can we not, as those who are supposed to understand forgiveness and grace so much more than anyone else, extend that grace to all people – people who look like us and people who don’t look like us (or believe what we believe)?

I will admit to my own fears and shortcomings in this regard – I have to deal with my fallen humanity just as much as the next guy (or girl). But – Christians are called to a higher standard. We are not called to just aspire to the Constitution of the United States of America. We are called to aspire to the Being, the very nature, of God.

The very same God who sent Israel (and Judah) into Assyrian and Babylonian captivity because they forgot God.

God promised Ezekiel that following their punishment, both Israel and the nations would learn that He, the LORD, is God.

Will the church ever learn that?

Book Review – Foolishness to the Greeks (Lesslie Newbigin)

Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1986), 150 pages.

For those who have followed this blog for any length of time, this next paragraph is old hat, but I am an inveterate learner. For the overwhelming majority of my life that has meant the pursuit of some level of education – college, graduate school, doctoral degree in ministry. Everything I learn just teaches me that there is something else out there to learn, that I have just scooped a thimble full out of the all-encompassing ocean of knowledge. Alas, I am out of money and, quite frankly, brain power to pursue another formal degree, so I satiate my hunger for learning by reading books. One author that I just recently discovered (although, I had been introduced to him in a round-a-bout way some years ago) is Lesslie Newbigin. For most contemporary theologians, Newbigin’s name is well known. For me, reading him is almost a breath of fresh air. He never ceases to astound me. Foolishness to the Greeks is, I believe, the third book of Newbigin’s that I have read.

Simply stated and I hope without over-stating the thought, Foolishness to the Greeks is perhaps the briefest, yet finest expose of western culture that I have read (and I have read many). I think maybe I know the answer to my own question, but I simply cannot understand why Newbigin was not required reading for my Doctor of Ministry courses in post-modern theology. (The answer is, I am guessing that the professors assumed we were all familiar with Newbigin, and therefore did not think it necessary for us to include him in our reading. A very wrong assumption for me, and having Newbigin as background would have been invaluable as we were assigned so much Brian McLaren, et.al., in our course work.) If you are looking for a brief, very readable, and penetrating examination of where we are today as a culture and as a church confronting that culture, this little volume would be my go-to choice.

Newbigin is, in addition to being a deep-thinking theologian, what I would consider to be a true renaissance man – in the sense that he is just as equally adept at discussing philosophy and science as he is theology. I am amazed at the depth of his reading – and of his comprehension of extremely complex cultural issues. As has been said of so many other thinkers, if I had just half of his brain I would be exponentially smarter than I am. (Twice as smart just does not quite cover it.) Newbigin returns to the very cradle of our culture to examine the “plausibility structures” that have created who we are and why we think the way we do. Working not only with influential philosophers, but also intimately with leading scientific minds, Newbigin lays bare the skeleton that frames our “common” way of thinking. And, as staring at a bare skeleton can sometimes be disarming (pardon the pun), so having the bare elements of our culture revealed can be uncomfortable.

As just a brief overview, Newbigin begins with the question, What would it be like if we attempted to address this modern, western culture as a missionary? How would we analyze it? What forces have created this culture? Why is the message of the gospel so strange, in fact, so repugnant to a culture that, at least on the surface, continues to refer to itself as “Christian”? Why is the gospel still as much “foolishness to the Greeks” today as it was in the days of the apostle Paul? The book is divided into six chapters (the book is actually an expansion of a series of lectures, so there is no expansive wasting of words. The chapters are brief, but as they were previously given orally, they are loaded. I like that – excessive wordiness kills many an otherwise fine book!) Newbigin writes for the reader in mind – he uses simple clues (1, 2, 3, a, b, c) and repeats himself efficiently but not obnoxiously. The chapters build on themselves, and if the reader gets lost it only takes a turn of a page or two to get back on track. For simple minds such as mine, this is a genuine benefit.

While reading this book one question kept coming up in my mind, “How could a book with a 1986 publication date be so relevant over three decades later?” I guess, in answer, that our culture has not changed direction during those three decades, but the cracks and fissures that Newbigin identified in the late 20th century have become gaping chasms in the early 21st century, so I have no hesitation but to recommend the contents of this book for anyone who is searching for an answer to the challenges that the contemporary church faces.

This little volume is not just about theory, however. Newbigin was a missionary and a high-church leader, and he writes not just with questions or analysis in mind, but always with answers. True to form, in the final chapter he provides seven “essential” responses for the church to engage if it is going to be effective in confronting this “post-enlightenment” and “post-Christian” culture.

I have recently read where Newbigin is considered by many to be the father (or at least significant promoter) of the missional church movement, or the Mission Dei movement. If so, I think he has been co-opted by that movement. If that is true I am either seriously misreading Newbigin, or I am seriously misreading the missional church people (especially those who remain connected to the Churches of Christ). I would recommend, if you have hitherto been uncomfortable about picking up Newbigin because of this presumed association, that you put that idea out of your mind and read Newbigin for yourself. I am so grateful that I was able to put aside this “guilt by association” and consider Newbigin on his own merits.

OBNOXIOUS, BUT SEEMINGLY NECESSARY CAUTION: I do not agree with everything Newbigin says or writes. He comes from a theological tradition that I find to be problematic. He makes assertions that I do not believe are valid, at least biblically speaking. As a mature Christian I hope that I can recommend a book without claiming that the author to be impeccable, or being blamed for his (or her, for that matter) errors.