Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Bonhoeffer on Prayer

Why should you pray?
Because I can take nothing for myself and must instead ask everything of God; because I want to thank God for all his gifts.

Why are you permitted to pray?
Because my Lord Jesus Christ has commanded me to do so and wants to be my intercessor.

For what should you pray?
For all things necessary for the body and soul, which the child asks of its father.
From a catechism he developed at Finkenwalde.
Which prayers are pleasing to God?
I should call on God alone in my prayer. For everything I ask, I should do so for Christ’s sake. I should believe with assurance that God hears me. I should pray with my heart rather than only with my mouth (Matt. 6: 5– 8). I should pray several times each day (in the morning, at midday, and in the evening). (1 Thess. 5: 17; Rom. 12: 12.) [—] John 15: 7; 16: 23– 24; Ps. 119.

How does God answer prayers?
By relieving us of and bearing all our care, trouble, and sin. All our prayers have been answered in the cross of Jesus Christ.

What does Christ instruct you to pray?
The Lord’s Prayer.

What gift does God give you in prayer?
God gives me the assurance that through Jesus Christ I am and will remain God’s own. [—] Rom. 8: 15– 16.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Jacques Ellul's 8 Characteristics of Propaganda

From Ellul's 1965 (!) book Propaganda.
1) It Prevents Dialogue.

“To be effective, propaganda cannot be concerned with detail... Propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins… it does not tolerate discussion; by its very nature, it excludes contradiction and discussion.” 

2) It Focuses on the Mass

“For propaganda to address itself to the individual, in his isolation, apart from the crowd, is impossible. The individual is of no interest to the propagandist; as an isolated unit he presents too much resistance to external action… The most favorable moment to seize a man and influence him is when he is alone in the mass: it is at this point that propaganda can be most effective.”

3) It is “Total”

“Propaganda must be total. The propagandist must utilize all of the technical means at his disposal – the press, radio, TV, movies, posters, meetings, door-to-door canvassing. Modern propaganda must utilize all of these media. There is no propaganda as long as one makes use, in sporadic fashion and at random, of a newspaper article here, a poster or a radio program there, organizes a few meetings and lectures, writes a few slogans on walls; that is not propaganda.” 

4) It Takes Over Education

“Education and training are inevitably taken over, as the Napoleonic Empire demonstrated for the first time. No contrast can be tolerated between teaching and propaganda, between the critical spirit formed by higher education and the exclusion of independent thought. One must utilize the education of the young to condition them to what comes later.”

 5) It Takes Over Literature and History

“Propaganda will take over literature (present and past) and history, which must be rewritten according to propaganda’s needs.” 

6) It Must be Subtle at First

“Direct propaganda, aimed at modifying opinions and attitudes, must be preceded by propaganda that is sociological in character, slow, general, seeking to create a climate, an atmosphere of favorable preliminary attitudes… The ground must be sociologically prepared before one can proceed to direct prompting.” 
7) It Must be Nonstop

“[Propaganda] must fill the citizen’s whole day and all his days… Propaganda tends to make the individual live in a separate world; he must not have outside points of reference… successful propaganda will occupy every moment of the individual’s life: through posters and loudspeakers when he is out walking, through radio and newspapers at home, through meetings and movies in the evening. The individual must not be allowed to recover, to collect himself, to remain untouched by propaganda during any relatively long period… It is based on slow, constant impregnation.” 

8) It Aims at Irrational Action

“The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action. It is no longer to change adherence to a doctrine, but to make the individual cling irrationally to a process of action. It is no longer to lead to a choice, but to loosen the reflexes. It is no longer to transform an opinion, but to arouse an active and mythical belief.”

Monday, August 22, 2016

If You Think . . . (13)

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

What is Cleanliness?

          If you think “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” you just might be right! Christian faith has a vital interest in cleanliness. And it’s right up there with godliness. Don’t believe me? Please keep reading.

            Besides teaching the people all the Mosaic commandments priests are charged with helping the people “distinguish . . . between the clean and the unclean” (Leviticus 10:10). This same task is prophesied for priests in God’s eschatological temple (Ezekiel 44:23). Jesus is that eschatological temple (John 2:22) and his followers become part of that temple in him (Ephesians 2:22; 1 Peter 2:1-10). And Jesus, as our high priest, spends a good deal of his ministry help his disciples discern between the clean and unclean.

            Really, you ask? How so?

            The book of Leviticus is about godness and goodness (in that order). The first 16 chapters are pretty much about the godness of the people while chs.17-27 are about goodness. Godness is about the people’s being separated, distinctive, and belonging to God. The “cleanliness” material in in chs.11-15. Cleanliness, therefore, has to do with the distinctiveness of the people as God’s people. It marks them off from all other peoples as God’s.

            We know from Genesis 12:1-3 that God has chosen Abraham’s people as the family through whom he will bless the rest of the disobedient and rebellious world. The shape of that people in their distinctive way of life is the way this blessing happens (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). Cleanliness is one chief way that distinctiveness is preserved.

What Does Cleanliness Mean Today?

            We don’t know as much as we would like about the criteria used for classifying something clean or unclean in Israel. Much of it makes no sense to us. Just a bunch of outdated fussiness. The upside to or ignorance here is that we are forced to think through what these categories might mean for us (if anything).

            On the one hand, Jesus abrogates the food laws and declares all foods clean (Mark 7).  Peter had a vision to the same effect in Acts 10. None of the other cleanliness laws are passed on as binding on the church.

            These laws which served to distinguish Israel as God’s belonging were no longer needed since the church is not an ethnic or national entity that needs such marks of food, clothing, or particular practices to signify they belong to God (Hebrews 8). Nor is the language of cleanliness much used in the New Testament (except to adjudicate disputes within churches as to how Jews and Gentiles were to live together). But the purpose of distinguishing between clean and unclean remains as crucial in the New Testament as in the Old.

            Can you think of a place in the New Testament where such discernment is taught? A place where Jesus clarifies Old Testament regulations to bring out their deeper significance in the time of the Law’s fulfilment? Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), of course. And no one can or will deny that a people living the way of life Jesus predicates of the Kingdom of God will be clearly distinguishable as people belonging to Jesus and God!

            On the other hand, when the church becomes too assimilated to it surrounding culture and fails to exhibit the distinguishing marks of a Kingdom way of life, it falls prey to the blandishments of such a culture and guilty of its pretentions, excesses, and abominations (Revelation 18:4).

            The parade example of such a church in the last century was the German church during the Nazi years. It capitulated almost totally to the Nazi ideology and its takeover of the church as a propaganda arm of the state. Many scholars claim that if the church has mounted a stout resistance to these alien incursions, kept herself “clean” to use the language of this post, things might have turned out very different for the Nazis and the world. We’ll never know, of course, but that is not an implausible conjecture.

            Nor is too big a leap, if any at all, to suggest that the church in America has capitulated in similar ways to our government and culture. And I don’t just mean evangelicals who support Donald Trump. All of us have, by and large, failed to exhibit a Kingdom distinctiveness throughout all of lives that marks us as Jesus’ people. The evidence gathered by those who research such things is unanimous that our lives are virtually indistinguishable from friends and neighbors who are unchurched. The need for leaders who can teach us how to help each other make such discernments is surely as critical today as it was in ancient Israel.

            It turns out, I think, that “cleanliness is next to godliness,” perhaps right by its side!   

Sunday, August 21, 2016

If You Think . . . (12)

Ch.12: You’d Like (Hate) Living in the End Times

          If you think you’d like to live in the end times, or if that scares the hell out of you, I’ve got really great or really bad news for you! YOU DO!

That’s right, you and I live in what the Bible calls the end times. That’s the whole period from Jesus’ resurrection to his return. It is his resurrection that demonstrates this. For Jews, who expected a general resurrection of the dead on the day when God intervenes to set all things right, the inescapable meaning of the resurrection of a Jew in the middle of time was that the Day of the Lord had arrived and the end times were upon them. This is certainly how the Jews who wrote the New Testament documents took it.

-in both the gospel and letters of John “eternal life” (the life of the age to come) is a reality Christians can experience in the here and now as well as the then and there.

-Paul describes the Corinthians as those “on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1Cor.10:11).

-the author of Hebrews tells his readers that in contrast to the many various ways God has spoken to his people in the past, now “in these last days” God has spoken through his Son (Heb.1:1-2).

          Jews expected a linear unfolding of history. There was the present evil age which God would end by his intervention which would inaugurate the new creation God had long promised. Christians, under the impact of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, realized it was going to be more complex than that. With Jesus’ resurrection bringing in the last days which were also the dawning of God’s new creation, yet with the defeated and decaying old age continuing on, there is an overlap that characterizes the time in which the church lives.

Both the old age and the new intermingle in this time between Christ’s resurrection and his return. This is the like the period between D-Day and V-Day for Allied forces in the European theater. Victory was assured on D-Day (Christ’s resurrection) but the hostilities did not cease until about a year later when treaties were signed on V-Day (Christ’s return). In this in-between time, full of ambiguity and complexity, the church is called to be God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement. That’s chief among the reasons life as God’s people is difficult.

But that’s also why it’s crucial for us to know what time we live in. Though the old age continues on, winding down, as it were, we already inhabit the new age, God’s realm (Colossians 1:13). We occupy the same space and history but see it and respond to it out the new life already at work within and among us. We are a “back from future” people who know and experience here and now in part the life we will experience in full and forever then and there.

John’s language for this is being “in” the world but not “of” it. Christians don’t escape the world and its struggles, nor do they segregate into “holy huddles” and let the world go by. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it like this:

“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. 'The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared' (Luther).”                                                            

And again he writes, our life as Christians is

“. . .living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.”

There are good times, then, living in the end times. But there is also much distress, sadness, struggle, and loss that goes with living as God’s SCRM, his “back from the future” people. But in the strange alchemy of divine love such struggle and loss are the ingredients of God’s victory. Jesus even blesses his followers who “mourn” with the promise that they shall be comforted (Matthew.5:4). Paul captures this beautifully in his “Christ Hymn” in Philippians 5:6-11 where he says about Christ:

“who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.”

          Paul’s own report on his and his associates life and ministry reads like a transcript of his description of Christ:

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-12)
          So there you have it. Whether you want to or not, as a Christian, you live in the “end times.” This conflicted and confusing time as the old age decays and the new age moves toward its noontime of Christ’s return, we remain in the struggle of implementing and expanding the victory of Christ throughout the world in the strange and paradoxical way we’ve seen it played out in Christ and Paul. This is the way of victory however unlikely that may seem.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

If You Think . . . (11)

Ch.11: The Bible is Important

The Bible plays a vital role in God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement. Every movement, especially a “great campaign of sabotage” (C. S. Lewis) needs a Field Guide, and that, I suggest, is how, in most respects, the Bible functions for God’s people. The respect in which the Bible is unlike a Field Guide, however, is the most important. It serves as a sacrament, sign, and servant of God’s SCRM.

The Bible as the Living Word of God

The SCRM God communicates himself and his will and way for us in the Bible. “Jesus Christ as he is attested in Holy Scripture is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”[1] So claims the remarkable Theological Declaration of Barmen written by the Confessing Church as a witness against the Nazi regime in Germany in 1934.

“As he is attested in Holy Scripture” – the Jesus we find in the pages of the New Testament witnesses to the living Word of God that effects and grows our relationship with God. This relational connection with God’s SCRM-in-person gives us a personal stake in the movement. In and through him we too share in God’s SCRM.

The living Word in and through the written Word speaks to each of us calling us to return to who we truly are and the vocation for which we are made. The Word who bound himself to us and made us his own and now gives himself to us as life itself. “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Rom.5:10).

In light of this personal address from God to us in the Bible, can we then speak of the Bible as a love letter from God to us? James McGrath, biblical scholar and popular blogger, says not. Recently he posted this on his blog.

Few assumptions prevent people from understanding the Bible as much as the idea that it is a love letter from God to them. Every part of that – that God wrote it, that it is a love letter, and that it is written with you in mind – is badly mistaken, and so the combination thereof creates a lens that radically distorts and obscures the Bible.”[2]

On the other hand, no less a theologian than Dietrich Bonhoeffer apparently did so describe the Bible. One of his students remembers this from him: "There, before the church struggle, (Bonhoeffer) said to us at the new Alexanderplatz, with a simplicity like old Tholuck might have once used, that we should not forget that every word of Holy Scripture was a love letter from God directed very personally to us, and he asked us whether we loved Jesus.”[3]

So what do we say? Yea or Nay?

McGrath dislikes all three parts of it: divine authorship, it being a love letter, and that it was written with the contemporary reader in mind. I suspect he has in mind a kind of “Jesus is my boyfriend” sentiment that some praise songs and worship practices invoke. I too would reject that sentiment.

Bonhoeffer is a rather different matter, I think. He certainly thinks God is speaking to us through the Bible. In a letter to his brother-in-law in 1936 DB writes:

That is because in the Bible God speaks to us. And one cannot simply think about God in one’s own strength, one has to enquire of him. Only if we seek him, will he answer us. Of course it is also possible to read the Bible like any other book, that is to say from the point of view of textual criticism, etc.; there is nothing to be said against that. Only that that is not the method which will reveal to us the heart of the Bible, but only the surface, just as we do not grasp the words of someone we love by taking them to bits, but by simply receiving them, so that for days they go on lingering in our minds, simply because they are the words of a person we love; and just as these words reveal more and more of the person who said them as we go on, like Mary, “pondering them in our heart,” so it will be with the words of the Bible. Only if we will venture to enter into the words of the Bible, as though in them this God were speaking to us who loves us and does not will to leave us alone with our questions, only so shall we learn to rejoice in the Bible . . . .”[4]

But for DB this divine speaking takes place in context of a living relationship between God and his human creatures. Just prior to the quote above he stresses that we must listen to God speaking in the Bible with an insistent humility actively seeking and even questioning what we hear.[5] This is very different from kind of sentiment I suspected above lay behind McGrath’s quote.

This kind of approach to hearing God speak in the Bible is the only way we will receive an answer to our questions. DB acknowledges this approach is different from academic reading (which has nothing wrong with it per se). It just does not get to the kind of relational listening Bonhoeffer thinks vital and necessary. Here we come to the love language. DB believes that God loves human beings. And that in that love God takes the first step toward us. And he engages us in the reality of our lives whatever that might be at any given time. This is the kind concreteness Bonhoeffer is famous for pursuing. Again, very different from a sentimental approach.

So, at least for DB, we can say that God does speak to us in the Bible and that it is appropriate, even necessary, to call this relationship to the speaking God a relationship of love. But he adds following the quote above that God speaks where God chooses, a place, he writes, “that will probably be a place which does not at all correspond to my nature, which is not at all pleasing to me.” Bonhoeffer identifies this place where God speaks as “the cross of Christ.” And here is the death of that sentimental approach. What we hear from God will not always be warm, fuzzy, and comforting. It may be a word of devastating judgment. And yet still a word of love. “This is no place which is pleasing or a priori sensible to us. But this is the very place God has chosen to encounter us.”[6]

DB even claims we should practice a “sacrifice of our intellect” in matters that remain opaque, perplexing, questionable.

“And who would not in fact bring his or her own sacrifice of intellect into such a situation, that is, with the acknowledgment one does not yet understand this or that place of the Scripture, in the awareness that even this will one day be revealed as God’s own Word? I would rather do this than only to say, following some suitable opinion: ‘This is divine, that is human.’”[7]

Many would disagree with Bonhoeffer, not willing to sacrifice their intellect for anyone, even God. And many seem willing today to divide up what “following some suitable opinion” they deem the human (dispensable) element in the Bible from the divine.

I believe here we have a watershed moment in our time. Can we allow God, as a loving parent, to have secrets beyond what we can fathom or accept and still embrace his Word as a whole as a word of love to us? Can we allow ourselves to say “I do not understand how God could do this and am sorely tempted to disregard it for my moral and intellectual well-being, but I will not. I will hold open my questions and trust that someday, someway, God will answer them.”

Only such a relationship to God through Scripture as DB describes, or something very like it, can sustain the stresses of such a practice. But only in that it is of a piece with our whole journey with God (as Bonhoeffer was already learning and would keep on learning in excruciating ways). Only the parental love of God can sustain us. Even if that love outstrips our knowledge or stretches our morality, or is the tough love of judgment and wrath. This is the genius of DB’s approach. And it is this we need to recover in our time. An insistent, humble confidence that God speaks to us and bids us follow him into the darkness of a cruciform existence that paradoxically turns out to be the light of the world (however dark it may be for us at this or that time).

I don’t know whether McGrath would agree to any of this or not. But with Bonhoeffer I continue to believe that in love God speaks to our darkness and distrust in the Bible calling us to deeper communion and commitment as befits a genuine family.

The Bible as the Written Word of God

The Bible not only communicates/reveals God himself to us, it also reveals his heart, that is, his passion, plans, and commitments to and for his creation. We have seen that God’s heart for us makes him a subversive counter-revolutionary deity in a fallen world in revolt against him. Thus his written Word to us resources our own life as members of his SCRM. It does this in various ways, all important to create and sustain a movement in the interests of his love and passion. The Bible gives us

-the vision of God for creation,

-the story of humanity's rejecting that vision, and God's continuing passion and strategy for a pursuit of his wayward human creatures and their communities,

-the victory of God over the powers of sin, death, and (d)evil in Jesus Christ, and

-the equipping of his people to live and love as they were intended in witnessing to God's victory and participating in his guiding his creation and creatures to their full and final flourishing (narrative, gospels, prophecy, apocalyptic).

-a history of some of the earliest development and growth of this movement (Acts),

-nuts and bolts for the training in and practice of God's Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement (wisdom, teaching, epistles). Chief among these teachings is Jesus' exposition of life in the movement in the Sermon on the Mount in Mt.5-7. 

-a challenge to the coherence of the movement (e.g. Ecclesiastes, Job) and responses to meet and process these challenges (e.g. Psalms, Daniel).   

It is within the community of faith, the SCRM that these convictions attain their plausibility. This gives the movement its plausibility structure. The social and cultural setting that makes our convictions supportable or plausible is critical. Outside this community, trying to go it individually as a Christian, we will fail. Outside such community we are left at the mercy of other communities to attack or seduce us with their convictions and plausibility structures.

All this, I take it, is a way saying what the Paul of the Pastoral Epistles says of the Bible (in this context the Old Testament) in 2 Tim. 3:16-17: “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.” The Bible points us to God, puts us in touch with God, and prepares us to serve God as his SCRM.

The Bible as Enacted Word

God comes to us personally through his living Word, Jesus. And he comes to us through his written Word, the Bible. But he also comes to us through his enacted Word, the sacraments. These rituals, baptism and the Eucharist,[8] give us the opportunity to both kinetically and imaginatively encounter the living Christ and practice the skills and moves necessary for faithful prosecution of the struggles of God’s people.

From the perspective of God’s SCRM, these sacraments can be re-visioned to gain traction within this framework. Indeed, I suggest that military imagery is especially helpful here and lifts up aspects of these acts frequently overlooked. I refer specifically to seeing baptism as induction into the military and the Eucharist as the rations that nourish and sustain soldiers in military action.

The Holy Spirit uses the Liquid Word of baptism and the Edible Word of the Eucharist to seal, that is, confirm and make effective, the Preached and Written Word of the Bible.[9]

Baptism is a sign of initiation into God’s people, akin, I suggest, to induction and basic training into the military. Both give us a new parent (Uncle Sam/God the Father), a new identity, a new family, new resources and skills, a new inheritance or goal, and a new vocation (to serve in God’s SCRM).

The Eucharist sustains and nurtures us in Christian living. Again, we might liken it to the “rations” a soldier lives off while in action. In the Eucharist we experience a preview of the great feast in God’s kingdom which is our hope, receive provision for present need, and we practice the skills needed to do and be the people God calls us to be. Undeserved welcome, friendship, peacemaking, hope, and stewardship chief among them.[10]

These sacraments are “means of grace” because they initiate and sustain us as members of God’s people and through whom we meet the risen Christ and grow in relation to him.

Another way to state the significance of these sacraments and their importance for us is to think of baptism as the beginning that never ends and the Eucharist as the end that has already begun. We never outlive or outgrow our baptismal call to live for Christ and God’s kingdom; so too, we experience here and now, in part, hope of life and friendship with God and one another in his new creation forever and ever. We live, as I like to put it, between the Font of baptism and the Table of the Eucharist. The various graces of each enfold from opposite directions making that imaginative space between the font and the table in the sanctuary a matrix of grace that forms us as God’s people.

Yet another way to reflect on the significance of these sacraments is to say that in baptism Jesus’ SCRM life becomes ours, while in the Eucharist, our lives become SCRM lives in his.

For all these reasons and more, it is incumbent on us, I believe, to pay far more attention to these gracious gifts God has given us to train and sustain us as his people. It is here at the font and the table that we will find the equipping and enablement we need to serve in God’s SCRM.

The Authority of the Bible

The authority of this book lies in its use by God through the Spirit to “author” a SCRM. Inerrancy or errancy plays no role here. If one has met the God who shines in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6) and been grasped by that Vision of his Desirable Future and caught up into service in his SCRM the matter is beyond inerrancy or not. It's a matter

-of the faithfulness of this God encountered.

-of the truth of his cause.

-of the immeasurable greatness of his presence in and among his people.

This, I take, as a paraphrase of Calvin's insistence on the inner witness of the Holy Spirit as the essential mark of the reality and truth of scripture's testimony. His emphasis here is reflected in A Declaration of Faith:

[1Through the inward witness of the same Spirit
we acknowledge the authority of the Bible.
We accept the Old and New Testaments as the canon,
or authoritative standard of faith and life,
to which no further writings need be added.
The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments
are necessary, sufficient, and reliable
as witnesses to Jesus Christ, the living Word.
We must test any word that comes to us
from church, world, or inner experience
by the Word of God in Scripture.
We subject to its judgment
all our understanding of doctrine and practice,
including this Declaration of Faith.
We believe the Bible to be the Word of God
as no other word written by human beings.”11

Then it becomes a matter of faith seeking understanding. We submit to the Bible, errant or not, as God's chosen vehicle to make himself known to and guide his people.




[5] Geoffrey B. Kelly and E. Burton Nelson, eds. Testament of Freedom (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 425.

[6] Ibid., 426.

[7] Ibid.

[8] I am aware that some traditions have more than these two sacraments and others don’t call them sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist (or the Lord’s Supper or Communion) are recognized by all traditions as special acts that are central to Christian existence and worship.

[9] See A Declaration of Faith, ch.6, par.5.

[10] My unpublished paper “Living Between the Font and the Table: Why Only the Sacraments Can Save Us Now” explores this greater detail. Available as pdf upon request from author.

[11]A Declaration of Faith, ch.6, ll.42-57.

If You Thiink . . . (10)

Ch.10: Genesis 1-2 Are About Scientific Origins

The vexed matter of how to interpret Genesis 1-2 seems inextricably tethered to debates about science and origins. Sadly, this misplaced focus robs these texts of much of their richness and either unjustifiably inflates the explanatory power of science on the one side, or unjustifiably jaundices our view of it one the other. Many voices, of course, have been raised from many directions contesting this focus on these texts but they seemed to have made little headway. I don’t expect that my contribution will make much headway either. My justification for it is my conviction that the most effective way to contest another perspective is to show the fruitfulness of other perspectives in treating the same issues. It would be a fine thing if all who preached and taught these texts broadened their viewpoints enough to include some or all of the 5 other perspectives on Genesis 1-2 that I will suggest in this piece.

All the peoples and cultures surrounding Israel in the Ancient Near East of the 2nd and 1st millennia B.C. had cosmogonies (creation stories). None of them are told in a manner that approximates what we would consider today “scientific” (primarily because those ways of thinking about origins did not and could not exist at that time and place). Israel’s creation stories in Genesis 1-2 strive to be intelligible to its own people and in conversation with these other stories (often called “myths” – which is not necessarily a bad word!). To do so required Israel to “speak the language” of the times, the ideas and concepts others were using to make clear what it intended by its own stories and how those stories differed from those told by other peoples. Let’s call this the missionary and apologetic aims of Genesis 1-2 which serve and extend its primary theological message.

Five Ways to Preach/Teach Genesis 1-2 that Do Not Involve Evolution or Creationism

1.       Some describe the world in such a way that human beings can locate and understand themselves in the world’s order. Genesis 1-2 can be read from this angle as a description of “home” for human creatures, a place where they belong and have a role and purpose. Genesis 1 structures its story in terms of a place (first three days) and a placing in this place of vegetation, land, air, and water creatures, and humanity. The effect of this unfolding of creation in all its orderly abundance suggests this is a good “home” for all God has created. Of course, God himself pronounces just this verdict over his handiwork. Humanity’s creation in God’s “image” and his royal representatives and care-takers of his creation reinforce this sense of creation’s goodness and our role in the “home economics” of this creation.

2.       Other descriptions focus the nature of creation as “habitat.” That is, what kind of place is this, especially for the human beings who have to make and sustain life here. Is it a “friendly” habitat for humanity? Or will they experience and perceive it as a threat and challenge to wrest life from it? Or some combination of these? Are its processes stable and regular enough to establish routines and practices of food gathering and production? Are the resources sufficient to sustain life? What does it mean that human beings are to “till and keep” (Genesis 2:15) the garden as habitat? Preaching/teaching from this angle has a clear message that God has inscribed this creation with the stability, regularity, and abundance necessary for a flourishing life for human beings who can learn to work and care for this habitat in a way that benefits all. An ecological or environmental mandate jumps off the pages of the Bible seen from this point of view. Neither a domineering use of creational resources for human whim and want nor a “tree-hugging” reverence for the creation that allows little or nothing done to it are appropriate to the Bible’s picture of this habitat. Rather, it seems clear that a responsible use of this creation to meet all humanity’s needs within an overall care for its integrity and flourishing is the Bible’s portrayal.

It is worth noting at this point that the unfolding description of this habitat in Genesis with God creating and assigning a place and role to the various elements offers a critique, a demythologizing, if you will, of aspects of creation considered by other cultures to be deities in control of certain aspects of life. These deities needed to be worshiped and placated for them to offer their gifts to humanity. Often arbitrary and sometimes vicious, these gods and goddesses often worked at cross purposes and treated humanity as slaves to do the “grunt” work of maintaining creation they were tired of doing. Sun and Moon, for instance, were major deities in many of the religions of the region. In Genesis 1, however, they are only creations, astral bodies placed in the skies for purposes assigned them by God. 

3.       Often creation stories in Israel’s world were told as the construction of a cosmic temple, a “Hekal” in Hebrew. It’s become very clear in recent research that this is precisely what we have in Genesis 1 and 2. (Check out the article in Kerux from 2002 entitled “Garden Temple” by Gregory Beale at or his “Eden, the temple and the church’s mission in the new creation.”  JETS. March 2005 48(1): pp 5-31 for details.) This creation is to be the dwelling place of God and site of the eternal fellowship (communication, communion, and community) between God and humanity forever. And where does a God dwell? In a temple. Further, the words used for the roles God assigned to humanity (male and female, Genesis 1:27!) in the Garden (Genesis 2:15 again) are used together most often for the service of priests in the temple! This suggests that as divine image-bearers humanity is God’s family of royal (because God is the Great King) priests representing and expanding the boundaries of the Garden temple until they are coextensive with the world itself along with mediating God’s presence in this expanding temple by “protecting and serving” it (another way of translating the terms for “till and work” in Genesis 2:15). This is corroborated at the end of the biblical story with the vision of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, coextensive with God’s new creation and in the cubic shape of the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple (the only other cubic-shaped structure in the Bible (1 Kings 6:20). Creation as a temple, a Hekal, a dwelling for God and humanity highlights God’s deepest intention for creation. We live in this world with God, for God, as his royal-priests serving in the expansion throughout the world of the temple it is destined to become. 

4.       The creation story has also be preached as a story of hope. Many ancient creation stories served to buttress the idea that the way things were was the way the gods wanted them to be. To try and change the way the world worked, then, was to act against the gods and court the divine punishment the authorized powers that be would swiftly and brutally deliver. Israel’s story, though, moves in the opposite direction. As we say in #3 the creation is not yet what it will be. The originating point, far from setting the way things are at that point in stone, set creature and creation on a journey to each’s full flourishing.  In this maturing journey, even apart from sin, we will have to learn and discover how best to implement God’s order as we make our through life and across the creation. We are responsible for this due to our creation as God’s image-bearers and response-able to do it as those who live in constant communication, communion, and community with God. Sin tragically disrupts this journey and makes it infinitely more difficult, but still necessary. Jesus Christ, in whose image we are created and will be remade (Colossians 1:15; Romans 8:29), who would have come to be God with us and one of us (thus fulfilling God’s deepest desire to draw near his people) even apart from sin, takes on the task of reclaiming and restoring us to God’s divine intention through his life, death, and resurrection as well. Thus we have hope that the world of interdependent harmony, cooperation, generosity, and beauty prefigured in Genesis 1-2 will finally and fully become reality as pictured in Revelation 21-22. How things are, often quite unjust and oppressive for the many, is not how things have to be or are supposed to be. And the God of the Bible is indisputably and unreservedly on the side of changing things to more closely approximate the world he desires and will one day have. Hope, yes, the creation stories in Genesis are hope-full stories for those held down, put upon, and mistreated at present. 

5.       Another way of preaching/teaching the Genesis creation stories is to consider the date of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis – Deuteronomy. A consensus exists at present that these books did not take their final form, the form in which we have them, until after the exile to Babylon (6th century B. C.). And it was put together in this form as a response to the catastrophe of exile. Everything for Israel was put in question when Nebuchadnezzar and his armies destroyed Jerusalem, razed the temple, and hauled the best and the brightest of the land off to Babylon – God, their future, what their lives meant – everything. How might the struggling, dispirited faithful respond? For what might they hope now? The answer Genesis 1 provides is the people may hope for Help. It gives us a lexicon of salvation. When the “tohu wabohu” (‘formless void, Genesis 1:2) descends upon us – and exile was “tohu wabohu” to the nth degree – we are reminded here that such chaos is not beyond God’s interest or redemption. He will again utter his recreative “Let there be” and new order will take shape out of the chaos. And this re-creative utterance will be matched by its fulfilment (“and it was so,” 1:7). Genesis 1 is a story of Help. The help that the God who creates and redeems alone can and will offer. The help that we can hope for when hope itself fails us!

Creation as Home, Habitat, Hekal (Temple), Hope, and Help. I hope my sketchy comments here help to begin to flesh out some directions a preacher/teacher might go with them. Even more, I hope all such folks will catch a vision of the fullness that lies within these texts and can and ought to be put to use regardless of how one treats the “scientific” issues. I suspect that over time a repeated exposition of the creation stories in this manner will reveal the poverty and irrelevance of the “scientific” issues we continue to struggle over today. And it may just lose its hold and drop aside in favor of the rich possibilities of reading these stories from other angles.

                [Now I do believe there is an issue that must be contested in the “scientific” struggle over origins. But it is not whether to read Genesis 1 “literally” or not. It is evolutionism or scientism. When advocates of science or evolution rule out a theistic creation (even an evolutionary theistic one) because science tells us all we can or need to know about human and cosmic origins, then Christians, at least, must cry “foul.” Science, properly conceived and invaluable for its proper purpose, can only tell us what is and some parts of the story of how what is came to be. It cannot tell us whether or what kind of deity may stand behind the creative process. It’s when science becomes such an ideology (scientism, evolutionism), a philosophy that we must say “no.” But we don’t resist it by turning theology into science! Rather, we let Genesis 1 and 2 answer the “who,” “why,” and “where” questions – who is God? Who are we as God’s creatures, Why are we here? Where is creation going? -  and let them frame and interpret whatever account of origins the best science of our time affords us. Bad science (science as ideology or philosophy) and bad theology (theology as science) have created the huge distraction of creationism/intelligent design vs. science that continues to haunt our approach to Genesis 1 and 2. It’s time to let that go, isn’t it, and turn to riches we so easily ignore in these wonderful texts?]    

Friday, August 19, 2016

"If You Think . . . (9)

The Sacraments are Boring and Irrelevant
          The sacraments for us Protestants number two: Baptism and Eucharist or Communion or the Lord’s Supper. In all honesty, these rituals hold little purchase on our hearts and minds these days. Baptism, for those churches that baptism infants, is often little more than pious baby worship, and hence, idolatrous. And most of us have little idea of what the Eucharist is about. And often the little we do know is that it’s somber and sorrowful, with little scraps or cubes or wafers of bread and a thimble full of juice or wine passing for a “feast,” supposedly re-enacting the Last Supper, and it makes us late to the restaurant after worship for Sunday lunch.
          There’s got to be more to them than that, though. Isn’t there? What happens when we celebrate them. Are they mere symbols of something else? That’s a common misconception needs to be debunked. They are indeed symbolic but through them God also communicates the reality to which they point.  Flannery O’Connor, in her usual direct and frank way, cut through flowery talk about the wonderful “symbolism” of the Eucharist among some of her social circle in New York.  “If it is just a symbol, to hell with it,” she said.

What is a Sacrament?

God Word comes to us in aural, liquid, and edible forms.  We have tried for the most part to live off the aural Word (sermon, Bible study) without integrating then liquid Word and the edible Word into our lives.  But it is just these forms of the Word that offer help for a dehydrated and emaciated church.

The sacraments, according the PC(U.S.A.)’s “Directory for Worship,” “are God’s acts of sealing the promises of faith within the community of faith as the congregation worships and include the responses of the faithful to the Word proclaimed and enacted in the Sacraments.” (Book of Order, W.3.3600).  Through these actions of washing and sharing a meal God through the Spirit communicates the reality of Christ’s presence in and among us.

While this is all formally correct, it leaves open the very matters that need concretization:  what promises?, which community?, what does God do here, and how do we respond?  These are the things I want to reframe for us in light of the nature of the church as God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement (see last post).

A Fresh Image         

          If we consider the church as GSCRM, I propose we can and should see the sacraments, the font and the table, as “Boot Camp” for induction and training for the task we are called to undertake.  Before you laugh and blow this off, read on and let me unpack this proposal a bit.


          What happens in Boot Camp?

1.    You get a new “Father” (actually in the U.S. military you get a new “Uncle”!)

2.    Your old civilian identity is broken down

3.    Your new identity is inculcated

4.    You become part of a new family

5.    You have a new inheritance (or goal)

6.    You receive new resources and learn new skills

7.    You have a new vocation and way of seeing the world

          Living wet under the liquid Word of the font of baptism delivers to us an identical set of realities and thus, I would argue, serves admirably as an induction and boot camp training for those baptized/inducted into GSCRM.

          This statement on baptism from the Presbyterian A Declaration of Faith (ch.6, par.5, ll.111-120) summarizes the biblical material very well.

“We believe that in baptism

the Spirit demonstrates and confirms God's promise

to include us and our children in his gracious covenant,

cleansing us from sin,

and giving us newness of life,

as participants in Christ's death and resurrection.

Baptism sets us in the visible community of Christ's people

and joins us to all other believers by a powerful bond.

In baptism we give ourselves up in faith and repentance

to be the Lord's.”

          It is not difficult to see the seven items listed and illustrated above from Boot Camp.  Let’s look at them.

1.    You have a new “Father”

2.    You old identity and way of life is done away with

3.    You are given a new identity

4.    You are part of a new family

5.    You receive a new inheritance

6.    You get new resources and new skills                                

7.    You have a new vocation and way of seeing the world

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Jesus, Matthew 6:33)

“Pray then in this way: Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from evil.”  The Lord’s Prayer (Jesus, Matt.6:7-13)

          Like induction into the military, baptism is a decisive change in a person’s life.  This change is profound and follows one throughout their lives.  If we do not continually refresh ourselves by memory and reaffirmation of our baptisms, we rapidly dehydrate and grow useless.  Let us, then, call baptism the “beginning that never ends.”  We can illustrate it like this:

             Baptism/The Beginning that Never Ends . . .

          The first verse of the hymn “At the Font We Start Our Journey” captures this well:

                   At the font we start our journey

                   in the Easter faith baptized;

                   doubts and fears no longer blind us,

                   by the light of Christ surprised.

                   Alleluia!  Alleluia!


                    Baptism (both experienced and remembered) slakes our thirst for a whole new way of being.  It inducts us into a new community, GSCRM, intent on journeying toward God’s new creation and setting up signposts of and toward it on the way.  While on the way it the Eucharist that are our “rations,” our nourishment and sustenance.

          This edible Word and the community which shares it together experience the various graces of the table. 

1.    At this table celebrating this meal we experience and provide a preview of the great banquet Jesus promised when he told his followers:

“. . . many outsiders who will soon be coming from all directions—streaming in from the east, pouring in from the west, sitting down at God's kingdom banquet alongside Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Jesus (Matthew 8:11)

2.    At this table celebrating this meal we experience provision for present need:

“But Jesus didn't give an inch. ‘Only insofar as you eat and drink flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of the Son of Man, do you have life within you. The one who brings a hearty appetite to this eating and drinking has eternal life and will be fit and ready for the Final Day. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. By eating my flesh and drinking my blood you enter into me and I into you.’” (John 6:53-56, The Message)

3.    At this table celebrating this meal we practice the skills needed for carrying out the subversive counter-revolution for which God has called us.  I note four here:

-In a world of alienated and lonely people, we learn the grace of undeserved welcome and friendship at the table of the Eucharist.

-In a world wounded and terrorized by violence, we learn to make peace at the table of the Eucharist.

-In a world discouraged and haunted by futility, we learn hope at the table of the Eucharist.

-In a world reckless and wasteful of creation’s resources, we learn stewardship at the table of the Eucharist.

       “The Eucharist,” writes Peter Leithart, “is not merely a ‘sign’ to be examined, dissected, and analyzed but a rite whose enactment disciplines the church in the virtues of Christian living and forms the church and thereby molds the world into something more like the kingdom it signifies.” This is, as he puts it, “how the Eucharist makes the church.” Harold Daniels summarizes the impact of sharing the Eucharist regularly with a striking image: “It transforms us into icons of Jesus’ compassion in the world seeking to heal it of its brokenness.  This is the mark of living in the reign of God into which we are called, and which is yet to be in its fullness.”

       A somewhat whimsical (though no less true) way to illustrate this is to take the four actions of the Eucharist as Kingdom or Communion Calisthenics.  Jesus institutes this meal with four actions:  receiving, thanking, breaking, and giving.  Let’s imagine them as a patterned set of calisthenics. 

-We begin by lifting our empty hands out over our heads with our palms up.  By this we embody the emptiness, openness, and receptivity that begins everything Christian.

-Our next move is to lower our arms and bring our hands together in front of us in a posture of prayer.  Thanksgiving is first response a Christian makes to the gifts and graces received from God.

-Next we move our hands apart as if tearing a loaf of bread.  We signal with this action our commitment to be broken, to die both figuratively and, if necessary, even physically in following Jesus Christ and serving God’s mission in the world.

-Finally, we spread open out to our sides, a gesture of the giving which constitutes the lives of witness. Sharing, and caring we offer to others in and for the sake of Jesus.

       Next, imagine going through these gestures repeatedly in sequence and at an ever faster pace.  With enough practice and time such actions will be inscribed into our muscle memory and become more and more second nature to us. 

       And that’s just the point, isn’t it?  Eating these “rations” of the Eucharist with the rest of GSCRM is a necessary part of the equipping/training for faithful service.  Leithart sees this clearly when he describes how this meal witnesses to Christ’s death:  “. . .  there is no reason to assume that the proclamation takes place by the minister’s manipulation of the elements.  Since the Supper is the communal meal as a whole, the fact that we eat together and the way we do it, that is what “proclaims the Lord’s death.” Without these rations we will quickly become famished, emaciated, and unable to act!

      Regular (weekly?) celebration of this feast, then, is a non-negotiable for God’s people. The most frequent argument against weekly observance of the Eucharist is that if celebrated too often the Supper will no longer be “special.”  This is specious, of course.  First, who ever said it was to be “special” in the sense that frequency of celebration ruins its effect?  It is “special” in the sense that God has given us this gracious and remarkable provision that enables just what asks us to do!  I would think we would be eager to eat this “special” meal as often as possible!  And secondly, the Eucharist is a meal of communion and intimacy with the triune God.  I don’t want to be indelicate here, but I wonder what we would make of a couple who only shared marital intimacy once a month in order to keep it “special”?   Since it prefigures and provides a foretaste of the great banquet, when God’s kingdom is fully come, let’s call the Eucharist “the end that has already begun.”                              

. . . Eucharist/The End that has Already Begun

      The hymn “At the Font We Start Our Journey” sings the Eucharist this way:

“At the altar we are nourished

with the Easter gift of bread;

in our breaking it to pieces

see the love of Christ outspread.

Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Life embraced yet freely shed.”

Living Between the Font and the Table

        All this, then, bring us to the final stage of my proposal.  Imagine you worship space.  The pulpit, the place where God’s Word is heard (the aural Word) is the first and primary “space” where GSCRM gets its “marching orders.”  Next, imagine the space between the font and the table as a kind of “force field.”  The graces of the font (as outlined above), our “beginning which never ends,” interpenetrate us from one direction.  Those of the Table (as outlined above) do the same from the other direction.  This is the “space” from which we receive, learn, practice the graces to align our priorities, passions, and practices with God’s and engage the struggle with the principalities and powers for which God called us and which constitutes our subversive, counter-revolutionary action on God’s behalf.

 Baptism/The Beginning that Never Ends. . . Church . . . Eucharist/The End that has Already Begun

      Between the Font and the Table is the place where the Church is made and kept the Church; the place we know we will meet the Risen Christ and receive his life for us and for the world.  In other words, it is between the Font and the Table, where in baptism, Christ’s life becomes ours, and at the table, our lives become Christ’s, that we are formed into Christians and learn how to live faithfully in the world.

       The final verse of “At the Font We Start Our Journey” follows us from the font and table into the world:

“At the door we are commissioned,

Now the Easter victory’s won,

To restore a world divided

To the peace of Christ as one. 

Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Easter’s work must still be done.”


       Our lack of a vital sacramental life in North American Christianity (even for many in “high” churches that practice weekly Eucharist) has several roots.  Our (mis)understanding of the church is the one of the primary ones.  If we envision the church as a settled institution to which we seek to attract others with the larger goal of extending the expanding the institution’s life, the sacraments can be little more than opportunities for private devotion, rites of passages, or meaningless relics we observe to satisfy some antiquarian rule or principle. 

       Until we see the church in its biblical profile as at least something like what I have called GSCRM, the sacraments cannot attain their full importance or vital function.  A richer sacramental life will not happen simply by instituting weekly Eucharist celebration or calling more attention to baptism.  Those are things that need to arise out of a new vision of who and what the church is and what it is called to do.  The agonistic vision I have sketched is something like a view of the church in which such rituals have a large and critical role to play.      

       This brief essay cannot deal with all the questions, observations, or criticisms it is likely to occasion.  But there is one further question I want to leave you with.  Is it not possible, even likely, that if you cannot envision the sacraments functioning as I have sketched here in your church, if, in other words, there is not a “fit” between the sacraments (as outline here) and ethos and life of your church, that something is fundamentally wrong with the vision of church at work in your congregation?  And if so, might not the sacraments be a catalyst to a rethinking of the way you are and do church?  It is in this sense that I think  only the sacraments can save us now!