Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Lent: Call to an Altared/Altered Life

Romans 12:1-2
12 1-2 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (The Message)

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.

Last week we looked at the way conformity to our culture hinders our pursuit of faithfully serving God. This week we look at the obstacles in us that hinder that pursuit. The rigor of the changes in us that faithful discernment exacts. Someone has quipped that the only problem with the “living sacrifices” (Rom.12:1 NRSV) Paul encourages us to become is that we keep climbing down off the altar.

John the Seer gives us a thumbnail sketch of the kind of people God wants and intends us to become in Rev.12:10: people who conquer the enemy by Jesus' blood (his way of loving, self-sacrifical way of serving others, by holding to his testimony, and willing to give their lives for Jesus' sake. I don't need to detail the struggles each of us has in coming to terms with what this will cost us. But there you have it.

Paul's counsel is to “fix your attention on God.” We face our struggles by turning our faces to God, to Christ. That's how we get “changed from inside out.” St. Augustine tells us how this works: we become what we adore. Not by dint of self-effort or moral improvement but by adore and fixed attention on the God we know in Jesus Christ. And that's right where the Lenten journey takes us. To the God who hands on a cross for love of us to rescue us from whatever hell we have found our way into.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's story “The Great Stone Face” captures this truth dramatically and memorably.

In a rural valley there was a rock formation that to the locals looked like a human face. The local folklore of the valley includes a prophecy that one day a local would be born who bears a stricking resemblance to the Great Stone Face. Others woud recognize this resemblance and acclaim him as "the greatest and noblest personage of his time." Ernest, a young mane of the valley, sets humself to discover the promised hero. He spends hours just looking at and ponering the Great Stone Face.

As time passes and Ernest grows to manhood, the story of the Great Stone Face gets around the United States. Others, who fancy they may be that hero revisit the valley to seek if others will acclaim them to be the one. A weathy merchant, a successful general, a skilled politician, a brilliant writer comme one by one to town. Ernest, however, discerns significant character flaws that disqualify them from fulfilling the conditions of the prophecy. They don't quite look like the Great Stone Face.

Ernest is a good bit older by now and is lay preacher for the community. He has faithfully kept up his vigal pondering the Great Stone Face.For one of his sermons the congregation has asked Ernest to deliver his sacred remarks from a the base of the cliff where everyone can see the Great Stone Face high above.

Hawthorne describes the climax of Ernest's sermon:  
“At that moment, in sympathy with a thought which he was about to utter, the face of Ernest assumed a grandeur of expression, so imbued with benevolence, that the poet, by an irresistible impulse, threw his arms aloft and shouted, 'Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!' Then all the people looked, and saw that what the deep-sighted poet said was true. The prophecy was fulfilled.”

The Benedict Option and the Way of Exchange

    by Alan Jacobs 3 . 20 . 17

Surely there has never been a richer and more deeply faithful model of Christian faith and practice than that offered by the leaders of the Church in Roman Cappadocia in the fourth and fifth centuries. Think of Basil the Great, exhorting the rich of Caesarea to “empty their barns” to feed the poor, building hospitals for the sick, upholding Trinitarian orthodoxy against the Arians, teaching young Christians the right uses of pagan literature. And Basil was only one among many great ones, even in his own neighborhood: His sister Macrina, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, were all titans of faith and charity, and built a thoroughgoing Christian culture the likes of which the Church has rarely if ever seen.
In 1974, when the great bishop-theologian Lesslie Newbigin retired from his decades of labor in the Church of South India, he and his wife decided to make their way back to their native England by whatever kind of transportation was locally available, taking their time, seeing parts of the world that most Europeans never think of: from Chennai to Birmingham by bus. Newbigin would later write in his autobiography, Unfinished Agenda, that everywhere they went, even in the most unlikely places, they found Christian communities—with one exception. “Cappadocia, once the nursery of Christian theology, was the only place in our whole trip where we had to have our Sunday worship by ourselves, for there was no other Christian to be found.”
If the complete destruction of a powerful and beautiful Christian culture could happen in Cappadocia, it can happen anywhere, and to acknowledge that possibility is mere realism, not a refusal of Christian hope. One refuses Christian hope by denying that Jesus Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, not by saying that Christianity can disappear from a particular place at a particular time.

Therefore, to argue, as many have, that the argument Rod Dreher makes in The Benedict Option is despairing, and hopeless, and a failure to trust in the Lord Jesus, is a category error. It takes a set of sociological and historical judgments and treats them as though they were metaphysical assertions. Anyone in Roman Cappadocia who had said that the culture Basil and his colleagues had built was not bound to last until the Lord returns would not have been deficient in Christian hope. Rather, he or she would have been offering a useful reminder of the vagaries of history, to which even the most faithful Christians are subject. Dreher’s argument in The Benedict Option may be wrong, but if so, it is wrong historically and prudentially, not metaphysically. . .


Monday, March 20, 2017

Submerging Church Meets the Benedict Option

Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option is all the rage these days. And rightly so. Rod articulates an important perspective as the North American Church continues to try to find its bearings as the reality of the death of Christendom sinks very more deeply into our ecclesial psyche. I have a proposal to throw in the ring too. I call it the "Submerging Church." The following very brief statement will give you an idea of the direction in which I'm thinking.

Submerging Church

Though we live (or have lived) in the age of the Emerging/Emergent Church, I have a different proposal for a new vision of church. I call it the Submerging Church! Am I serious, you ask? Read on and see what you think.

The Submerging Church, as I see it, is radically subversive, relentlessly incarnational, and ruthlessly hospitable. It dives deeply into everyday life, sharing it with others, while at the same time questioning and critiquing the conditions of that life we share. Since this community lives from its center, the risen Jesus Christ, its boundaries are porous and permeable with arms outstretched to everyone who encounters it.

Here are some characteristics of the Submerging Church:

§  first, it is hard to find because it is small and spread throughout the community;
§  second, it is difficult to join because “membership” is relational and based on a shared journey towards the center;
§  thirdly, it is culturally atheistic, that is, not committed to a cultural Christ or his civil religion;
§  fourth, it is more like yeast (which though small permeates the whole) than a beast (a mega-church prominent in the community);
§  fifth, it finds its “niche” with those at the margins and their experiences, which generates the “lens” through which it views and responds to the world; and
§  finally, it focuses on “inner-tainment” (life with God) rather than entertainment.

The core content of the Submerging Church comes from:

§  first, being a Kingdom Outpost rather than a religious institution;
§  second, following a Cruciform Jesus rather a Cultural Christ;
§  third, living by a Holy Script (Bible) rather than a cultural script;
§  fourth, being centered on a bath and a meal rather than programs;
§  fifth, seeking justice for all (especially the poor) instead of good for “just us”; and
§  sixth, sharing “communitas” rather than just fellowship (Google it!).

Well, there’s the basic outline of my vision for the Submerging Church – what do you think?

Submerging Church Spirituality

If becoming a Christian is at heart becoming human, and surely it is, then living
Christianly must be living humanly, in a human style and at a human pace. What we call
spirituality,” then, is nothing more or less than a human way of life. Living a Christian life, or even explaining it to others, as we must, does not require specifically Christian acts or words. Since it is living humanly, these everyday ways, can be explained in everyday non-religious language.

The lexicon of faith, the language of “Canaan,” is our “arcane discipline,” of worship
and devotion (Bonhoeffer), the depth that undergirds our non-religious life and language. The Jesus we worship and adore, the “man for others,” (Bonhoeffer) is the content and goal of human beings we are becoming.

What might such “non-religious” language and living look like? How might we describe
it? Perhaps the following will help us make a start. Human, that is, Christian, living is
shaped by actions such as the following:

Slow Down (Sabbath from Speed)
Three-miles-an-hour is the speed at which humans normally walk. It is the “human” speed. But, as Brooks, a character in “The Shawshank Redemption” said upon release from prison after fifty years, “The world’s gone and gotten itself in a big damn hurry.” By becoming human, Jesus brought “God” to us at a “speed” we could understand and relate to. If Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, and if I constantly move at faster and faster speeds, if I am perpetually “too busy,” I will discover myself more and more out of touch with a Three Mile-an-hour God (Kosuke Koyama)

Sign Out (Sabbath from Cyber-Space)
If cyber-space becomes our primary connection to life, it has become a surrogate reality. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its gifts, we need regular breaks from cyber-space, periods when I sign out in order to reach out and lay hold of the life-in-relationships that alone sustain me.

Stay Put (Sabbath from Mobility)
Submerging spirituality recognizes the importance of “location, location, location.” My ability to get up and go whenever I please often inhibits God’s call for me stay and grow where God pleases. (See The Wisdom of Stability by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove)

Shut Up (Sabbath from Words)
Just listen!

Stoop Down (Sabbath from Controlling)
Humility, the grace to confess that I am a creature (who is not in control) and not God (who is), is best made palpable to me by re-connecting with the humus, the dirt from which God made me. I daily eat a “sacramental” pinch of dirt to help this grace hit home for me. We are a part of God’s creation, and by grace his partner in reclaiming and restoring it. We best play our role by remembering who we are and the grace by which we live.

Stare (Sabbath from Distraction)
Distraction and diversion are in my experience the heart of the enemy’s strategy to disable our living humanly. It short circuits my capacity to be present to my life. I suffer from “Spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder.” Wholeness in living comes for me when I rediscover the truth Kierkegaard captures in the title of his book
Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.

Sing (Sabbath from Memos)
Discursive, linear, pragmatic thought rules most of the time. I heard Walter Brueggemann call this kind of thought “memos.” He said that such memos will kill you, but poetry (he was talking about the Psalms) gives life. I encounter poetry mostly in song. So I need to sing (even though I can’t carry a tune). I think it was Augustine who said that the one who sings, prays twice.

Share (Sabbath from Me)
My life is my relationships, and relationships mean sharing. I must learn to share my necessities of life (food, communitas, faith) and joys and burdens with others while receiving their gifts and sharing their burdens as well. This, as I said, is my life.

Simplify (Sabbath from Clutter)
I need to pursue the path of downward nobility rather than upward mobility, divest, and de-clutter. I want what I have and know and do to serve life rather than me serving them. To know the difference between want and need is a great gift.

Sleep (Sabbath from Self)
Sleep, enough sleep is a basic form of selflessness and trust. To give ourselves unreservedly to God in the needs of our creatureliness is to affirm our Creator’s wisdom and the goodness of what he has made. Sufficient rest is a primal act of faith and powerful witness in beleaguered, fatigued, workaholic world.

Friday, March 17, 2017

ResistingTrump with Revelation (16)

the seven trumpets 1 (8:2-11:19)

Before the seven angels can wind their trumpets that is prefaced by an angel who has gathered the prayers of the martyrs in a golden censer filling it with fire from the altar and casting it on earth. Thunder, earthquakes, lightning, and rumblings afflicted the earth (8:3-5). This sets the context of the forthcoming judgments, or plagues, in an Exodus framework. This is the seventh seal.

This cycle, then, is organically related to the preceding one, intensified in that it cuts deeper (the 1/3 reach to the Seal’s ¼ reach). I think this language intends to take us deeper in insight rather than forward in time. As we have seen, these three cycles cover the same period of time from Christ’s death and resurrection and return in glory. There is nowhere to go forward to in time.

This point of Christ’s sermon is driven by the martyrs’ question “How long till we are avenged and God’s purposes fulfilled?” We say earlier that this cry is not for revenge but for justice, for God to set all things right. That is to bring his good purposes for his creatures and creation to fruition. The logic seems to be this in the sermon so far: Christ reveals what is really going on in the world, that those who have given their lives for his cause long for the fulfillment of God’s loving and redemptive work, God has sealed and secured throughout their journey in life. If “the inhabitants of the earth” are Egypt, the church is Israel.

Told to rest and wait in the Seal’s cycle, the martyrs here learn that even now God’s judgment is active on earth against those who resist him. If the church faces hard times by an Egypt under God’s judgment it can persevere by participating with God and the slaughtered Lamb in his loving and redemptive purpose. This judgment means that “something is wrong and we had better get it right. The harsh realities of history sound the alarm that ‘you are going down the wrong road,’ and you had better turn around.”[1] It’s a warning to provoke change not a judgment born of condemnation. The language and imagery of this judgment is meant to spur its readers to respond in repentance.

The First Four Trumpets (8:7-12)

The Trumpet’s cycle follows the pattern of the Seal’s cycle: 4 linked scenes followed by 2 longer scenes, an interlude, and then the seventh Trumpet which is the seven Bowls cycle.

                These first four Trumpets allow and abused and tormented creation to strike back at its tormenters. The similarity to the plagues on Egypt is unmistakable. 1/3 of the earth, 1/3 of the sea, 1/3 of fresh waters, and 1/3 of the sun, moon, and stars, and their light are affected. The foundations of life on this planet God allows to rebel against their mistreatment.

                God’s relation to this judgment is real though indirect. Grimsrud[2] offers the following helpful observation on this:

So, the significance of all the “was” and “were” language of 8:7-12 may best be seen as a way of addressing the paradox of a universe which is governed by a sovereign God whose character and power are love. In such a universe there is an openness and respect for human freedom that makes possible a lot of evil and destruction—such as reflected in the admittedly hyperbolic plague visions. But none of this defeats or even operates in complete autonomy from the providential love of the Creator. This paradox cannot be easily defined, but it can be illustrated.”

The Fifth and Sixth Trumpets (9:1-21)

The final three Trumpets are introduced by an eagle soaring in midheaven announcing them as “woes” or “alas.”[3] The sorrows on the “inhabitants on earth” are about to get worse.

The fifth Trumpet (9:1-11), the first “Woe,” takes us deeper still into understanding what is happening in and to the world around them. Into a “bottomless pit” in fact (9:2). A “fallen star” (cast into the bottomless pit himself in Rev.20) is “given” a key with which to open this pit. Given, not his by right, possession, or ownership. This fallen star does not unleash further havoc on earth apart from the will of the One who does have the key by right, possession, and ownership. The Creator signs off on and limits (“five months,” 9:10) his activity and those of the horrors he unleashes.

This judgment affects those not bearing the seal of God on their forehead (9:4). The hideous creatures (or better, anti-creatures, parodies of God’s creatures[4]) released from the pit, these locust-like[5] fiends torture those who stand against God. Driven to their limits, those so afflicted long for death (9:6) but will not find it. That is not the end for which judgment is given. That end, is repentance (9:20). Judgment is a for the restoration and renewal of the God’s creatures. It is not purely or primarily punitive. There are consequences to living out of sync with the Creator’s will and the order he has inscribed in his world, to be sure. Judgment is often God’s allowing these consequences to play out in hope that the consequences will turn God’s creatures back to him and his way for us. Paul has a similar view. In Romans 1 he three times (v.24, 26,28) claims that God has “handed over” a rebellious and idolatrous humanity to its lusts and idols. This is the “tough love” of a divine parent toward his rebellious and incorrigible creatures.

Here we see that humanity’s troubles are not simply the sum of their own evil. There are other and more than human agents at work as well.  But they too are part of God’s loving restorative judgment (tough love) on a recalcitrant humanity.

Craig Keener in the IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary explains the symbolism of the fantastic beasts and images John uses here:

“An invasion of locusts could be described as warhorses (Joel 2:4), and horses could be described as being as numerous as locusts (Jer 51:27; cf. 51:14). The crowns might reflect prior military exploits. The image of human-faced scorpions derived from nightmarish traditions from the East, and Mediterranean zodiacs eventually applied it to Sagittarius, who was often portrayed with long hair (see comment on 9:8). Although the image is not meant literally, it draws on the most terrible, repressed images of that culture’s unconscious fears to evoke horror at the impending judgments.       

“9:8. Joel 1:6 described locusts with “teeth like lions” to emphasize their destructiveness to the crops and everything else. In Joel, the image would terrify an agrarian society; in Revelation, it would remind readers of the lion’s proverbial ferocity. The “hair like women” would be a more obvious allusion to most of John’s readers: everyone in the Roman Empire knew that “barbarians” outside the Empire, unlike most people in Greco-Roman society, had long hair. In the context of a military invasion, the readers would immediately think of the Parthians (or, in apocalyptic terms, perhaps the evil spiritual realities behind them). By way of illustration, the reigning emperor Domitian’s father was reported-perhaps fictitiously-to have joked about the Parthians’ long hair in view of a long-tailed comet portending his death.                      

“9:9. The “noise of chariots” is borrowed from the military imagery for locusts in Joel 2:5; the swarms would be so intense that they would sound like an invading army, a sound great enough to make a land quake (Jer 8:16). The scales of a kind of locust’s thorax are compared with scaled armor in a later Jewish text; here John uses a more updated armor image.                                                                                   

“9:10. Their tails may be mentioned simply because that was the weapon of scorpions (9:5), but the reverse could also be true; scorpions could be mentioned because of the tails. It may be of interest that the Parthians (9:8) had become famous for their rearward archery: they had retreated up hills mounted on horseback, and when unwary Roman legions had followed them, the Parthians had released a backward hail of arrows, wiping out several legions before the Romans learned not to follow them up hills.

“9:11. “Abaddon” is a Hebrew name for the lowest depths of the earth, the realm of the dead (cf. Job 31:12; Ps 88:11; Prov 27:20); the Dead Sea Scrolls also linked the “spirit of Abaddon” with the “angel of the pit.” “Apollyon” means “destruction” in Greek. (Some scholars have secondarily connected the name to Apollo, a Greek deity one of whose totems was the locust, and whose incarnation the emperor claimed to be; cf. Rev 2:18. Because Apollyon as a name is otherwise unattested, it is not impossible that readers in Asia could have suspected this allusion; in this case, the emperor’s supposed patron deity is in reality an evil angel who, in the sovereignty of God, will be used against him; cf. Ex 12:12; Num 33:4. But the allusion is not altogether clear.) The final, terrifying touch to this description of an army with elements from Joel’s locusts, from Parthians and from scorpions is that these are the armies of hell, sent by death itself to fill its bowels.”

The sixth Trumpet sounds and a vast army 200,000, 000 strong are unleashed by four angels bound at the river Euphrates. They will kill 1/3 of humanity. Fire, smoke, and sulfur came out of the horses’ mouths slaying people. Notice that these beasts “were released.” This Trumpet has sounded. This horde roams the earth today. It is not a future event.

Keener again helpfully explains the imagery.


“Parthians were Rome’s most feared enemies in this period. They were portrayed as untrustworthy, and the authority of their monarchs was absolute. Older Greek prophecies about an eastern invasion of the Roman Empire still made some Romans nervous, and the Jewish Sibylline Oracles prophesied that Nero would return, leading Parthian hordes in vengeance on Rome. (Many Jewish people lived in Parthian territory, and many Jews in the Roman Empire felt no more allegiance to Rome than they would have to Parthia; in the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 many Jews expected Parthia to intervene on their behalf, but their hopes were disappointed. . .                                                                                                                                                              

“9:14. Ancient literature indicates that it was common knowledge that the river Euphrates (16:12) was, above all else, the traditional boundary between the Roman and Parthian empires. Some other Jewish texts speak of fallen angels being bound in the depths of various seas, able to be released only at the command of God or one of his angels.                                                                                                                                                 

“9:15. For all their recognition of demonic forces in this age, apocalyptic writers recognized also the standard Jewish doctrine that God ultimately rules all of history. Casualty statistics like this one are also familiar in Jewish judgment oracles (see the Sibylline Oracles).

“9:16. Parthians were noted horsemen; in contrast to Rome, whose only cavalry contingents were drawn from its auxiliary (non-Roman) units, the Parthians were renowned for their cavalry. “Two hundred million” would be a huge standing army even today (nearly the entire population of the United States, almost four times that of Great Britain, over twice that of Nigeria, and eight times that of Canada); in the first century it may have represented more than the population of the entire world.

“9:17-18. The “dark blue” (NIV; “hyacinth”- NASB; or “sapphire”- NRSV) might allude to the color of the smoke of sulfur’s flame. Cf. 9:7-8 for the source of the image of horses and lions; lions were considered the most ferocious and regal of beasts, which no one cared to meet. In a widely read Jewish wisdom book, a writer had declared that God could have punished idolatry by sending lions or newly created, fire-breathing and smoke-belching monsters (Wisdom of Solomon 11:17-20). But again this imagery may be mixed with the threat of a Parthian invasion: Parthian archers often used flaming arrows.

“9:19. The power “in their tails” may allude to scorpions or to the Parthian cavalry’s rearward archery (see comment on 9:10).”

Again, John notes the purpose of this judgment: repentance. Humanity, however, blunders on in its multitudinous idolatries and foul practices (9:20-21). In light of this refusal of repentance, John’s “purple prose” here is understandable. More on the Trumpet cycle next post.

[1] Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, 195.
[2] Grimsrud,
[3] Ibid.
[4] Perhaps like the Orcs in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
[5] Locusts, of course, were often agents of judgment, cursing and blighting the crops and spirits of the people.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Lent: Call to an Altared/Altered Life (4)

Romans 12:1-2
12 1-2 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (The Message)

Third Sunday in Lent

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.
Last week we focused on the “altaring” side of Lenten reflections. This week Romans 12:1-2 leads us to the “altering” side

Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould” (J.B. Phillips). Both Eugene Peterson and J. B. Phillips offer powerful images for Paul's admonition here. Of all the things one might give up for Lent, what Paul urges us to stay away from here is far and away the one we need to heed. Paul builds on his previous call for his readers to offer their “everyday, ordinary life” to God for his use in the world. And here's the needed response: “don't become so well-adjusted to your culture” (Peterson) or the Phillips' rendering (which I love), “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”

Here's what Paul knows that we often forget. We're always being educated, shaped, formed by the myriads of ideas, people, causes, and those supra-human forces Paul calls the “principalities and powers whose God-given job I to establish and sustain the conditions for human flourishing. Tragically, these powers have somehow chosen to be the world's rulers rather than God's servants on our behalf. Much of life's distortions and dehumanization come from them. Christ defeated these rebellious powers at the cross and part of our role as his people is to be his way of letting the powers know that their reign is over and their pacification is underway (Eph.3:10).

If we are to live fully immersed in life, then, we must learn to “determine what is best” (Phil.3:10). Everything outside of God is attempting to educate us in some way of life or another different from and opposed to God's way for us. God intends us to interact with all these people and things. To be in the midst of the fray. Discernment is the gift God has given us to negotiate our way in these interactions and relationships.

Discernment is a community process. That's why Paul prays for this gift for the Philippian church. Rooted in worship, which we'll look at next week, the church must continually make discernments about engaging its culture. This is, in essence, what the epistles display in the New Testament.

But another, even more difficult reality awaits us on the way to discernment. Not only must we face up to influences “out there” that misshape us. But also to the rigor of the changes in us discernment exacts. We start with that next week.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Benedict Option?

Rod Dreher's proposed “Benedict Option” has generated much pre-publication comment in print and social media. Some like it, some don't. Some have accepted it already, others have proposed revisions and tweaks. The main criticisms are twofold at this point.

-First, Dreher's claims of persecution are misguided and play on fear.
-Second, his proposal is a withdrawal from engagement with society.

Dreher does believes that a progressive secular world is clamping down on various forms of Christian expression and institutions (marriage, family) and the church must respond now or its only going to get worse. The survival of the church in North America is at stake!

I suspect some of this is last-gasp Christendom thinking kicking and screaming for its (doomed) life. But where Dreher goes beyond this critique and his proposal gains traction is that he recognizes that unrestrained crony capitalism is leeching the life out our institutions, particularly the family. And the family is his entry point into his subject.

And he's not wrong about the economy's effect on the family and other institutions, as far as I can see. His Benedict Option is aimed at combating the erosion and thinning out of life the economy effects. This is where reflection on his work should focus. This is the most crucial reality in the life of the American church. Any viable vision of church for our time most enable us to break the hold consumerism has on us and develop thicker relationships and networks between and among us to be worth the effort. This must be at the forefront of any effort to address the future of the church and the family here.

And that means worship lies at the heart of the Benedict Option. In worship we are formed to become people who can resist the consumeristic erosion of witness mentioned above. Much like Bonhoeffer's insistence on the need for an “arcane discipline” (worship) at the heart of the worldliness or non-religious way of being Christian he advocated, Dreher posits worship as the well-spring from where the transformative power of Christian faith is encountered.

Does Dreher advocate withdrawal from cultural engagement in this model of being church? This depends on what you mean by engagement. If you believe that the public sector and its processes and protocols is the primary arena for the church's social witness (as both right and left have done) and that “responsibility” means taking charge of or effectively using these processes and protocols to do “justice.”

Dreher does not see it this way. He does not eschew this kind of activity (as far as I can tell). But his sense of responsibility and engagement of culture is different. He sees the church's primary responsibility to the culture to be the church – a distinctive community offering a way of life the reflects the character and will of God. From that sense of identity the church then engages the world. Whatever can and may be done politically can and should be done (I presume). But that should not be a first or primary strategy. The primary mode of engagement is what Bonhoeffer called immersion in the everyday-ness of life, helping and serving others rather than dominating or dictating.

My hunch is that the way we have engaged culture is the way we like and are comfortable with (even though we don't often do it very well). The thought of seriously becoming a church intentionally and seriously working against our economic captivity to globalistic capitalism seems far from what we have been taught is a “religious” or “Christian” concern. A concern that we neither know how or want to engage. Thus we resist ideas like the Benedict Option. But as I said above, this is where the rubber hits the road for American Christianity. And I think that's worth taking seriously.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (15)

The three judgment series of sevens

Now that we’ve looked at the first series of judgment cycles in Revelation, the seven seals (6:1-8:1), we can step back and look at the three cycles, seals, trumpets, and bowls, as a whole and in their interrelationships. The chart below gives us a bird’s eye view of the cycles.
Military Conquests
Hail & fire, mixed with blood, burn 1/3 of earth
Burning mountain, sea turned to blood, 1/3 of creatures & ships destroyed
Sea becomes blood, everything in it dies
Falling star strikes fresh water and makes it bitter
Rivers & springs turn to blood
Death & Hades: sword, famine, and pestilence and animals kill ¼ of earth’s population
Darkness: all celestial lights are darkened by 1/3
Sun’s intense heat scorches people on earth
Persecution: martyrs cry out for vengeance & told to wait
Locust-Scorpions from bottomless pit torture earth’s people for 5 months
Beast’s kingdom plunged into darkness
Cosmic earthquake
Dragon-Lions with serpent tails invade from across Euphrates
Demonic forces gather the kings of the world for battle of Armageddon

Some observations:
1.       Seas Trumpets Bowls –  Trumpets emerge from Seals and Bowls from Trumpets. They are organically related. Spilsbury says, “. . . the bowls are incorporated within the seventh trumpet and the trumpet within the seventh seal. This means that each of the three sequences ends at the same time: the end of the seventh seal opening happens at the end of the seventh trumpet blast, which in turn happens at the end of the seventh bowl judgment.”[1] Not chronological sequence but overlapping scenes, each one adding to the one before, is the rationale here. We will expect then that the Trumpets cycle will go over the same ground as the Seals from a different perspective.

2.       This period of time covered by the Seals, Trumpets, and Bowls is that between the resurrection and return of Christ with focal attention on the clash with Rome.

3.       Each of the cycles ends similarly with a storm-earthquake which suggests they are dealing with the same subject matter.

4.       Each also reflects an intensification: Seals have the judgment covering ¼ of areas affected; Trumpets have effect over 1/3 of areas affected; Bowls affect everything. What does this mean? It’s not completely clear. Perhaps it reflects the inescapabilty and ubiquity of judgment. Grimsrud suggests this intensification of judgment is rhetorical not chronological.[2] 

5.       Each cycle also reflects God’s involvement with the judgment but also his distance from it. We do know from the decisive vision of ch.5 where the slaughtered Lamb is the one who unseals the scroll of God’s continuing fulfillment of his good purposes for creation that God’s way is the way of suffering love. Whatever else is going on here (and there is more to learn as Jesus’ sermon unfolds) we must assume that God’s activity is oriented toward his love reaching and healing his creatures.

6.      These cycles are symbolic and do not reflect historical events. God is not literally ravaging his creation in judgment, burning it up, bashing it to pieces. He is judging the people on earth during this whole period. Judgment cannot be relegated to some few years before the end. I think a familiar passage from the Gospel of John (to which Revelation is likely related even if not written by the same people). John’s symbolic language is a dramatic and rhetorically powerful way of energizing “normal” language for a particular purpose. This passage from John 3:16-21 may well be the “normal” way of saying what John symbolizes in these three judgment cycles:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who                      believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not                       send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world                   might be saved through him.  Those who believe in him are not condemned; but                   those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed                   in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment, that the light has                    come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their                    deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so                 that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the                 light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Reflect on that for a few moments. Is it unreasonable to think that John’s version of Jesus’ saying in the gospel is the meaning John was trying to communicate with his striking and lurid imagery? I think not. What do you think.

John’s intention (as we have seen) is to catalyze and energize the faith and daily obedience of his churches as they struggle with what faithfulness to Jesus asks of them and may well cost them. He takes fundamental Christian truths and puts them to dramatic use for this purpose. This, I take it, is what he is doing here. These judgment cycles are meant to show that those who have not believed in Jesus already experience judgment while those who do believe show their deeds are generated by God.

7.       The prevalence of Exodus imagery makes this last point clear. Use of this imagery lets us know that the point of these judgment cycles is that there is a way out. Plagues precede Exodus and provide protection and a way out of the judgment. We’ll look at the specifics of this imagery in the next post in this series.
8.       The phrase “the inhabitants of the earth” (6:10; 8:13) is a technical phrase in Revelation denoting those who experience God’s judgment. According to George B. Caird it refers to those who “are at home in the present world order (of power and violence), people of earthbound vision, trusting in earthly security, unable to look beyond the things that are seen and temporal.”[3] “The inhabitants of the earth” are equivalent to the Egyptians in the Exodus narrative. God’s goal in that event toward them was that they repent, i.e. no longer stand in the way of his people, and know that he is Lord (Ex.7:5).

   The Seals cycle unveiled what is really going on beyond the surface of life: the judgments of the Four Horsemen, the cry of the martyrs, the desire to escape judgment, and the unveiling of further levels of judgment in the Seven Trumpets. To that Trumpet cycle we now turn.

[1] Spilsbury, The Throne, 115.
[2] Grimsrud,
[3] George B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John (Hendrickson Publishers; Reprint edition, 1993), 88.