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Flotsam and jetsam (2/24)


Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This “pre-adulthood” has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it’s time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn’t bring out the best in men.

Just as each writer must find her or his own voice, I believe each preacher must find her or his own way into the call of preaching. However, we don’t do it alone. The most healthy preachers know they are always in conversation with their congregation, their local community, the world, the books in their library, those closest to them, their own lives. They know that throughout these conversations, scripture winds its wisdom, prophecy, incongruities, humor, and stories.

In the face of death, suffering and grief, what the Jesus community is given to know and to hope in and to proclaim is the word of the cross and resurrection. We have no other word!

The study, as reported in a recent online Christianity Today article, reveals that the category evangelicals are most willing for the government to cut is economic assistance for global poverty. Fifty-six percent of evangelicals preferred to chop from the federal budget aid for the world’s poorest people. The next highest choice, at 40 percent, was economic assistance for the unemployed. As the CT article notes, evangelicals were more supportive of decreasing spending in these areas than were other Americans. Evangelicals were much more reticent, on the other hand, to cut terrorism defense and military defense. In fact, 45 percent of evangelicals favored increasing spending for military defense, a percentage well higher than non-evangelicals (28 percent).

Flotsam and jetsam (1/26)

Do you see it? We have an immense propensity to take the gospel and turn it into law. We love to take good and turn it into chains. Why do we do that?

If election were solely based on what God wanted and not anything in us that might differentiate the chosen from the un-chosen and thus account for why this one and not another, why didn’t God choose all? If he could have, why didn’t he?

While there is more we could expand on here, the question of the hour is this: If Satan is so evil and “anti-God” why did God put Satan in the Eden? While there is no way to know what would have happened had he not been present, it is evident from the narrative and the ensuing curse that Satan played a big part in the fall.

According to Leithart, water baptism has “virtually unbelievable powers” that makes someone a member of Christ instead of Adam, turns someone into a member of Christ’s body, and brings someone into acceptance with God.

Mark Twain and Psalm 73 on the absurdity of injustice

Mark Twain has to be one of my favorite short story authors. Recently, I was struck by his The Story of the Bad Little Boy, in which Twain wrestles with the perennial question of “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Here’s how he describes Jim’s life.

Once there was a bad little boy whose name was Jim – though, if you will notice, you will find that bad little boys are nearly always called James in your Sunday-school books. It was strange, but still it was true that this one was called Jim….

Once this little bad boy stole the key of the pantry, and slipped in there and helped himself to some jam, and filled up the vessel with tar, so that his mother would never know the difference; but all at once a terrible feeling didn’t come over him, and something didn’t seem to whisper to him, “Is it right to disobey my mother? Isn’t it sinful to do this? Where do bad little boys go who gobble up their good kind mother’s jam?” and then he didn’t kneel down all alone and promise never to be wicked any more, and rise up with a light, happy heart, and go and tell his mother all about it, and beg her forgiveness, and be blessed by her with tears of pride and thankfulness in her eyes. No; that is the way with all other bad boys in the books; but it happened otherwise with this Jim, strangely enough. He ate that jam, and said it was bully, in his sinful, vulgar way; and he put in the tar, and said that was bully also, and laughed…. Everything about this boy was curious – everything turned out differently with him from the way it does to the bad James in the books.

Once he climbed up in Farmer Acorn’s apple-tree to steal apples, and the limb didn’t break, and he didn’t fall and break his arm, and get torn by the farmer’s great dog, and then languish on a sick bed for weeks, and repent and become good. Oh! no; he stole as many apples as he wanted and came down all right; and he was all ready for the dog too, and knocked him endways with a brick when he came to tear him….Nothing like it in any of the Sunday-school books….

But the strangest thing that ever happened to Jim was the time he went boating on Sunday, and didn’t get drowned, and that other time that he got caught out in the storm when he was fishing on Sunday, and didn’t get struck by lightning….How this Jim ever escaped is a mystery to me….

In many ways, it’s the same question that we find in Psalm 73.

Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.

For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (vv. 1-3)

If the world is governed by a good and just God, why are we surrounded by such injustice? Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? The psalmist never offers a definitive answer. Instead, he simply turns his eyes toward heaven in worship.

When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me

till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny. (vv. 16-17)

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever. (vv. 24-25)

Mark Twain takes a very different approach when he concludes his story.

And he grew up and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an axe one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality; and now he is the infernalist wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.

Temporally speaking, I don’t think Mark Twain’s position is any different than that of the psalmist. Wicked people do in fact prosper and justice often reigns triumphant in the world. But, what Twain’s story lacks, and what the psalmist offers, is the brazen declaration of hope, the bold confidence in God’s ultimate sovereignty, the vision to gaze beyond the injustice and see the Kingdom of God beyond. Twain’s power as a writer lay in his ability to make us see the absurdities of the now, but seeing the now is not always the best training for seeing what will be. The psalmist shows us a different path – one that refuses to turn away from seeing the world in all of its devastating depravity, rejects facile and moralistic explanations of injustice, resists the ineluctable draw of nihilism, and reaches out to a greater, deeper, more glorious vision of then – ephemeral, elusive, exasperating…the eschaton.

Eccentric Existence 7 (our everyday context)

The other context important for understanding human persons is that of our creaturely context – i.e. the world in which we find ourselves. And, since Kelsey prioritizes the wisdom literature, this means that he is going to analyze our creaturely context primarily by considering the everyday world of the wisdom writers.

He’s aware, though, that creaturely contexts vary wildly from one place to another and that it is, therefore, impossible to privilege one finite context as paradigmatic for all the others. So, rather than “absolutizing the quotidian” (193) of the wisdom literature, Kelsey instead seeks lessons from the wisdom literature applicable to all everyday realities. This means that our hermeneutic cannot move directly from the exhortations of the wisdom literature to specific practices in our own context. Instead, we have to understand why and how these constituted wise living in that creaturely context, so that we can be challenged to live similarly wisdom-shaped lives in our own context.

Our creaturely context also serves as the context for our most fundamental vocation. God created humans to live for the well being of one another and all creation. The “wisdom” of the wisdom literature, then, portrays primarily a way of living that seeks the well being of one’s whole environment. That is our vocation.

“This means that the very context into which we are born has the force of a vocation regarding our practices: human creatures are born into a vocation, called to be wise in their practices.” (194)

Once again, the literature provides more of a general shape for understanding that vocation than specific details regarding how vocation should be lived out.

Kelsey argues that emphasizing our creaturely context as viewed through the wisdom literature has three consequences.

1. Intrinsic limitations on anthropology

The fact that we can only understand humans as they exist in actual creaturely contexts means that there can be no absolute model for true humanity.

“the real and authentic human being is the ordinary, everyday human person….It is important because it warrants on theological grounds the abandonment of the notion of a perfect or the perfectly actualized human being.” (204)

Kelsey rejects the idea that even Adam/Eve and Jesus should be seen in this way. As we’ve seen, Kelsey does not believe that we should build our understanding of humanity from the Genesis narratives. And, while Jesus certainly modeled faithful humanity in his context, this is far different from being an almost platonic exemplar of perfect humanity. The other option for creating a more theoretical understanding of true humanity would be through the motif of the imago Dei. As we’ll see when we discuss the appendices to the work, though, Kelsey rejects this approach as well.

So, for Kelsey, we have no absolute model for true humanity. And, he thinks this frees us from an unhealthy attempt to strive toward some unrealizable, perfect standard.

“The idea that one might be a perfect human person who lacks nothing in regard to one’s human personhood presupposes that there is (a) a single scale of possible degrees of completeness which is (b) comprehensive of all the relevant respects in which a human person might be complete….and presupposes (c) that there is a ‘true’ self awaiting actualization, perhaps deep within, which serves as the norm by which to assess how fully self-actualization has occurred.” (205)

The intrinsic limits of a quotidian anthropology, then, constrict us to pursuing faithful humanity in our own everyday world, rather than pursuing an abstract and unachievable ideal.

2. Extrinsic limits on anthropology

I’ll say less about this, but Kelsey also points out that an emphasis on the everyday world means that we need to pay attention to the limitations that are placed upon us by our context. We are finite beings, bounded by the people and circumstances into which we are born. So, wise and faithful living will be shaped by our quotidian realities.

3. The ambiguous nature of our everyday existence

Finally, Kelsey contends that the wisdom literature portrays the quotidian as inherently ambiguous in several ways. At the very least it’s ambiguous because we’re finite beings living in diverse contexts. That means that discerning what “wise living” looks like in any given quotidian will be a challenging task. Further, humanity is ambiguous because we lack that abstract ideal that can show us what true humanity should look like. And, most significantly, the quotidian is ambiguous because of sin and evil.

This last point gets considerable attention from Kelsey. In a manner very similar to his discussion of creation, Kelsey argues that the wisdom literature makes no attempt at offering a theodicy. (He reads Job as dealing with the reality of sin, not explaining its existence.) Instead, it takes the reality of sin and evil for granted, and offers a way of living wisely in broken contexts. This means that the anthropology we have in the wisdom literature shows humans as acting in community, but in ways that often have correspondingly negative consequences for other people. For Kelsey, acting in the quotidian is always ambiguous because all such actions are embedded in broken realities and result in or contribute to sinful world structures.

The upshot of all this is that we are left without any clear picture of what it means to be truly human in any given quotidian. We can look at the life of Christ as model of what it looks like for one particular human to live a wise and faithful life in his everyday world, but that can only provide the shape and not the details of what it means for me to live a fully human life in my quotidian.

Flotsam and jetsam (6/8)

More Imaginary Jesuses

Yesterday I started a review of Matt Mikalatos’ Imaginary Jesus. As I said before, this is a book that manages to be both fun and theological at the same time (terrifying, I know). But, I also said that I would offer a few critical comments as well (mostly because I like being mean).

My first criticism is one that I need to be careful with. Imaginary Jesus is a satire and, consequently, you should expect a fair amount of biting (though humorous) criticism. And, like all satires, there will be some places where you get a bit uncomfortable. Again, that’s the point. But, for satire to work effectively, you can’t cross the line to where the criticisms begin to feel unfair. For the most part Imaginary Jesus succeeds. But, there are a couple of places where the satire stretches a bit too far. This was particularly noticeable with Meticulous Providence Jesus. Now, I’m not a meticulous providence guy, so this isn’t me defending my own imaginary Jesus. But, I know a lot of people who hold to some version of meticulous providence, and I’m not sure that they’d see enough truth in the caricature for the satire to be successful.

Second, I think Matt lets us off too easy at the end. After all his wrestling and struggling with his imaginary Jesuses, Matt seems to suggest that we can arrive at that point where we have finally found the real Jesus. But, do we ever really arrive at that point? Is my vision of Jesus ever separated from my own culturally conditioned expectations, needs, and desires? Of course not. And Matt knows that. But, he lets the story end without offering what I think would have been a needful caution that we will wrestle with imaginary Jesuses for the rest of our lives. Maybe he intended to suggest that by offering a real Jesus at the end of the story whose face was hidden – suggesting that we will always supply our own. But, if so, I would have liked to see that made more explicit. A little less of a “happy ending” and a little more emphasis on the not-yet of our present understanding would have been appropriate.

I was also surprised and frustrated not to see the church play much of a role in the story. Matt is on this amazing adventure to find the real Jesus, but apparently that is something you do entirely on your own. (Assuming that you don’t count the Apostle Peter, the talking donkey, and the former prostitute.) I would have preferred to see Matt engage with the church at some point in the process. In this way, the atheists again come the closest. They’re at least working together in trying to understand the Bible and what it says about Jesus. So, although I liked the emphasis on finding Jesus in the text, I would have liked to see a strong emphasis as well on finding Jesus through his people.

I also think George Barna gets off too easy. Come on, George Barna in a book that satirizes evangelicalism? That’s just begging for some scathing satire in its own right.

Imagining Jesus(es): What does your Jesus look like?

I just finished reading Matt Mikalatos’ Imaginary Jesus (BarnaBooks 2010), and I must say that it’s a fabulous read. Any book gets my vote that includes a fistfight between Peter and Jesus, a conversation where Peter tells Matt that they need to go “find a whore,” Jesus hotwiring a car, and a whole bunch of Jesuses getting into a brawl in Powell’s. (Really, it all makes perfect sense in the story.) The whole book functions as a narrative satire on different ways that we misconceive, and in a sense “tame”, Jesus by fitting him to our preconceptions and perceived needs.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should also say that Matt is a Western grad. But, he only took one class from me, so I can’t take any credit (or blame) for anything he’s written.

Imaginary Jesus is a satire that tells the story of Matt coming to realize that the “Jesus” he hangs out with all the time is not actually the real Jesus. Instead, he’s an imaginary Jesus that Matt has constructed out of his own needs and desires. So Matt goes on a search for the real Jesus (along with the apostle Peter, a talking donkey, and a former prostitute). Along the way, he confronts quite a large number of imaginary Jesuses as he discovers that nearly everyone has their own personal Jesus (to steal a line from Depeche Mode). And, eventually he has to struggle with his own inner needs and weaknesses that have caused him to hide from the real Jesus for so long – a struggle that will cause Matt to deal with the difficult questions of pain, death, loss, and the love of God.

Imaginary Jesus does a number of things very well. First, as you’ve probably figured out, it contains a fair amount of irreverent humor. And, it’s great. Theology can often be a discipline characterized by an almost stoic unwillingness to see the value in wit, humor, and joy. Matt has no such problem. Throughout the book he uses a whimsical narrative to address substantive theological issues. And, he does it well. He also mixes in an obvious appreciation for the wondrous side of life (art, food, friendship, children, etc.) that helps keep the story alive and fun.

The book also succeeds because of Matt’s extensive familiarity with evangelicalism, particularly in the northwest. Since the book provides a satirical look at a whole range of Jesus-like misconceptions, the book pokes into the evangelical psyche of almost every evangelical subculture. Matt spends most of his time with those subcultures that he knows best (white, middle-class, Portland), but his vision is much broader than that. And, although the satirical approach will rub people the wrong way at times (satire is supposed to do that), he is generally fair in the way he makes fun of himself and others.

Matt should also be commended for the way in which he handles the challenging issues of death, pain, and suffering as they relate to the nature and character of God. I don’t want to give away too much of the story here, but the burden of the narrative really rests on how the pain in Matt’s life affects his image of Jesus. And, throughout the story, Matt resists offering any easy answers to the questions that he asks. In the end, he offers only a hope that belies the brokenness of this present reality, a hope grounded in the goodness, faithfulness, and sheer otherness of God, as well as the fact that Jesus has entered into our pain and has promised to make all things right in the end.

Finally, I appreciate that Matt ultimately grounded his understanding of Jesus in the narrative of the Bible. I got a little nervous in a couple of places thinking that finding the real Jesus was going to be a semi-mystical “journey within”, an attempt to ground our understanding of Jesus in our own spiritual experiences. But, as important as personal experience is in the book, he clearly shows that the only reliable picture of Jesus is one that is grounded in the biblical text. And, unsurprisingly for this book, it’s an atheist who demonstrates this most clearly.

When it’s all said and done, Imaginary Jesus is a fun read, but one that will also press you to think about your own imaginary Jesus(es). It would be a great book to use with people who might find “theology” intimidating, but need some theology in their lives anyway.

Tomorrow I’ll offer some more critical comments on Matt’s book. But, they won’t change the fact that this one is worth reading.

Around the watercooler

In case you have nothing better to do, here are some interesting recent posts from around the blogosphere:

  • Fred Sanders on The Modern Doctrine of the Trinity. Sanders provides a very helpful discussion of the modern retrieval of trinitarian doctrine, but he pushes this retrieval back to the Romanticism of the 18th century and the turn to history, experience, and the past as sources of theological knowledge.
  • Ben Myers posted a request for good books on theological ethics, and the comments are well worth perusing if you’re at all interested in that topic.
  • On the same note, Jason Goroncy has posted a list of good books and resources on theodicy.
  • Steve Duby has an excellent post on understanding Barth on receiving the Word of God. He does a very nice job unpacking what Barth means when he says that receiving the Word is an event in which even the very condition for the possibility of that event lies in the event itself. (If that summary made no sense, read the post.)
  • Paul Helm has begun a new series of posts on Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology.