Beyond Partisan Politics

I want to begin by saying something that should be uncontroversial: Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat. Jesus is a radical departure from politics as usual. He doesn’t endorse a candidate. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Fact-check it. And if Jesus is king, it calls into question every power, principality, party, political platform, or ideology. All of them fall short of the glory of God.

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image source: Wikimedia Commons

In the first century, Jesus had several political options available to him, but he didn’t join the party politics of his day. He came onto his own, but didn’t side with the elites (the Sadducees), the middle-class (the Pharisees), the purists (Essenes) or the radicals (the zealots). He challenged the legitimacy of Herod and he tacitly critiqued the politics of empire (in N.T. Wright’s happy phrase, “If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not”). He didn’t choose the lesser of two evils (or six evils?), he announced the game had been rigged and inaugurated a whole new way of being in the world (John 18:36-37, Mark 10:42-45 ). If we call Jesus our king, we need to follow his example in our own political engagement. Continue reading Beyond Partisan Politics

Answering Questions about the Historical Jesus: a book review

‘Q & A’ books are as good as the questions they pose and the answers they give. I enjoyed Marvin Tate’s book exploring Paul’s eschatology (Apostle of the Last Days, Kregel Academic, 2013), but I was uncertain what I would think of his take on ‘historical Jesus.’ Yet 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus does a great job of summarizing the quest for the historical Jesus and answering questions about Jesus’ life from a confessional perspective.

9780825442841The forty questions are organized under four headings, each with two sub-sections. Part 1, tackles background questions about the “historical Jesus.” The first subsection summarizes the quest for the historical Jesus. The second subsection examines the source material for Jesus (the Old Testament,  Jewish and non-Jewish sources, apocryphal gospels,oral tradition, the New Testament and archaeology). Part 2 explores the birth and childhood of Jesus, delving into Jesus’ birth, family of origin (i.e. questions about the virgin birth and Jesus’ siblings) and childhood. Part 3 examines Jesus’ life and teachings while Part 4 discusses Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

This user-friendly book is a good apologetic resource for exploring the reliability of the Gospels and who Jesus was. Pate synthesizes insights of confessional scholarship (i.e. I.Howard Marshall, N.T. Wright, Craig Evans, Darrell Bock, etc). This is a quick-at-a-glance resource more than an in-depth exploration. I recommend this book for pastoral ministry and  campus ministries. I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Jesus Subverting Empire: a ★★★★★ book review

Craig Greenfield grew up with a ‘nice’ Jesus. The Jesus he learned about as a kid, had blond locks and the perfect beard. He was always kind, always polite. As he grew older, ‘nice Jesus’ morphed into respectable-good-citizen-Jesus: the Jesus that would save your soul -without challenging the status quo.

T240_360_book-1913-coverhen when he was twenty-two he went to Cambodia where an interaction with a beggar outside a Khmer Rouge genocide museum sent him on a path where he re-thought and re-examined who Jesus really was, why he came and what it means to follow Him. Subversive Jesus tells the story of Greenfield, his Cambodian wife Nay, and their family as they walked the subversive ways of Jesus. Greenfield journey takes him from New Zealand to the slums of Cambodia, to Vancouver’s Down-Town Eastside and to Cambodia again. Greenfield shares the insights he gained from other theologian/practitioners,  notably folks like Charles Ringma, Dave Diewert, and Dave Andrews; yet this book is primarily about what Greenfield and his family learned as they followed their subversive Jesus by challenging empire,  practicing radical hospitality, and loving and advocating for the marginalized.

Greenfield shares about hospitality and community, learning the place his children had in mission, living vulnerably and non-violently in the midst of a violent neighborhood,  and sharing with and including neighbors. Their family would have a community meals where participants cooked together and shared life around a table. Greenfield maintained a hospitable and welcoming stance toward neighbors and friends, yet he also recognized the need for proper boundaries to sustain life and ministry. Dave Andrews phrase, “Bizarre Behavior is okay. Abusive Behavior is not okay,” became a community rule (56). Greenfield observes that in the culture-at-large, the opposite is usually true (the bizarre are shunned and the abusive are praised for their strength).

Sometimes we may be tempted to think that being a Christian means being a good citizen of our country. Greenfield lives a more robust form of discipleship believing Jesus came to challenge empire and the powers of this age. This has led him to take counter-cultural (subversive) stances and the practice of resistance. Greenfield helps us see away to act faithful to God and governing authorities while resisting laws and aspects of culture that are unjust (submitting to the consequences of our resistance to unjust laws, is still submitting to government authority). For him this includes taking lemonade to drug dealers, organizing flash-mob-protests, starting community gardens, and building relationships among the marginalized.

I like this book a lot and loved hearing Greenfield’s story. This is a thoughtful, theologically rich and biblically sound account, but it is also a story of what it means to follow Jesus in broken places and a call or us also to live more courageously as we seek to follow our subversive Jesus.

One episode that was intriguing was the time, Greenfield’s community painted a pentagram as an act of worship to God and love for their neighbor. Yeah, It is terrible for me to give you that little detail without describing what actually happened or the events leading up to it. I guess you will just have to read the book yourself. I give this five stars. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

The Fullness of Christ in the Early Church: a book review

One of the theology profs at my grad school used to say something like, “All the new heresies are the old heresies with fresh make up and a mini skirt.” Leaving aside his troubling gendered association of apostasy, his point is a good one: there is nothing new under the sun, there are simply variations of an old theme.

9780830851270This is demonstrated in The Earliest Christologies: Five images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age James Papandrea, associate professor of church history at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary,  explores the various views of Christ in the second and third centuries (before Constantine and councils). Some thinkers in the area were Adoptionists, denying the divinity of Jesus; Others were Docetists, denying  Christ’s humanity. The middle position was Logos Christology—affirming Jesus Christ’s full  divinity and humanity and paving the way for Nicea and Chalcedon.

Papandrea explores five images of Christ in the early church. He distinguishes two different types of adoptionists: Angel Adoptionists and Spirit Adoptionists. The Angel Adoptionists held that the human Jesus was rewarded by God for his perfect obedience and given an indwelling angel. This happened proactively at the moment of his conception because of God’s foreknowledge (25-26).  Thus they accepted the Virgin Birth but neither the man (Jesus) or the indwelling angel (the Christ) were considered divine (27). They accepted the gospel of Matthew as canon and prominent teachers include the author of The Shepherd of Hermas and Lucian of Antioch (Arius’ teacher) (29-30). With this Christology, salvation is based on merit and human effort (31). Little is known about the actual lifestyle of the Angel Adoptionists (31).

Most adoptionists were Spirit Adoptionists, believing that Jesus became the Christ through the anointing of the Spirit at his Baptism (35). This gave Jesus power to perform miracles in his ministry; however the Spirit withdrew at Jesus’ passion (35). Thus the union of human to God was temporary, focused on the concept of anointing rather than indwelling (35-36). They likely used an edited form of Matthew’s gospel, excising the birth narratives (39)  The Spirit Adoptionists affirmed the preexistence of the Spirit, safegarding Jewish monotheism by removing Jesus from the realm of divinity (42). Jesus was just a man filled by the Spirit, and as such not unique (36).  Adherents of Spirit Adoptionism included Theodutus the Elder, Theodutus the Younger and Paul of Samasota (36-37). As with the Angel Adoptionists, Spirit Adoptionists were ‘optimistic about human nature’ advocating strict  adherence to the Jewish law (41). This manifested itself as a strict asceticism among adherents, vegetarianism and the use of water at the Eucharist (43).

The Docetists were also (broadly) of two types: those that denied that Jesus had a body at all (Docetism and Docetic Gnosticism),  and those that thought Jesus had a “ethereal” body which appeared human (Hybrid Gnosticsm. Hybrid Gnosticism (or quasi-docetism)  developed somewhat later, possibly in conversation with the mainstream church and a concession that Jesus did seem to actually have a body (70)  Both forms of gGnosticism demeaned matter in favor of the ‘spiritual,’ though in practice it manifested itself differently. Those who thought that Jesus’ body was an illusion, denigrated their bodies as evil and practiced asceticism (64). The Hybrids were more hedonistic, though possibly no-more than Roman society at large (82-83).  Neither type of docetist believe in Jesus humanity. Thus he has no birth,  or resurrection. Jesus was simply the offspring of gods in a polytheistic pantheon.

Papandrea presents Logos Christology as ‘the middle way’ between adoptionism and docetism:

Logos Christology, as the middle way between these alternatives, refused to allow either of Jesus Christ’s two natures to be diminished. Logos Christology embraces a full divinity that is preexistant and a true humanity with a real human body. This is a hristology of descent because the divine Logos starts out in the dine realm as equal to the Father and descends to humanity to take on our human condition (Phil 2:6-8). Furthermore Logos Christology refuses to separate Jesus from “the Christ” as though they were two separate entities, but rather consider the whole incarnate Jesus Christ as one person. (88-89).

Thus Logos Christology affirms Jesus humanity and that he is the divine Son of God, his bodily resurrection, his virgin birth, his incarnation. The practical payoff of this view is a belief in the doctrine of grace, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice, resurrection and the dignity of creation. Rather than legalism or a strict asceticism, Christians could have a more balanced approach to their bodies and matter (104).

Papandrea’s final chapter explores why Logos Christianity won, instead of these other alternatives. But he also show how these early heresies had a legacy. Adoptionism evolved into Arianism in the forth century (119). Docetic Gnosticism paved the way for modalism (120). In his final pages he observes the modern forms of Adoptionism and Doceticism (125-127). Modern day modalists and practical docetists in the church, continue to deny the dignity of embodied life. Adoptionism is seen in contemporary scholarship that draws a strong distinction between “the historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” (125). Old heresies remade for today.

Papandrea has produced an accessible guide to these early Christologies. It is an introductory overview, so could certainly be more detailed at points; yet Papandrea does give a good analysis of the controversies and the implications for sotierology and anthropology. This would be a good supplementary text for a systematic or historical theology course. It also has the advantage of describing the significance of these histories for today. As a pastoral leader, this book clarified my understanding of the roots of contemporary issues facing Christology in the church.  I give this four-and-a-half stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

Revealing the Hidden Things: a book review

Christian films, books and TV preachers give their take on the last book of the Bible, Revelation. Speculation about end times is a Christian cottage industry with theories bandied about on things like the identity of the beast, the rapture, the role of Israel, or the nature of the judgments poured out on the earth. Revelation is written in highly metaphorical language, so there are tons of speculations. Other Christians read through Revelation once or twice but unsure of what to do with it, so they ignore it.  In The Heart of Revelation,  J.Scott Duvall offers a third way of of reading revelation. He attends to the vision of hope in the book without devolving into personal speculation about what we may or may not suffer.

TheHeartOfRevelation_hires+spine.inddAfter a brief introduction discussing the cultural context, Duvall explores the book’s message through the lens of ten themes: God, Worship, the People of God, the Holy Spirit, our enemies, our mission, Jesus Christ, judgment, new creation, and perseverance. By attending to Revelation thematically, Duvall provides a overview of the book rather than a detailed walk through the text (elsewhere he has published a commentary on revelation in the ‘Teach the Text Commentary Series).

In his introduction Duvall offers these guidelines for understanding the book: (1) attend to the meaning of the book to its original hearers in Asia Minor, (2)  Be aware of the symbolic nature of its language and (3) a focus on the main theological message of each vision (9-10).  The result is a historical-literary sensitive reading which doesn’t get caught up in theorizing about locust in smoke or Russia’s role in Armageddon (Sorry Hal). This isn’t to say that what Duvall says isn’t compatible with various eschatological options. He allows for the book’s future orientation without speculating about the minutia. His focus remains on the major themes through out the book and I think that mild Preterists, Millennialists and Dispensationalists can all read this book profitably.

The picture he paints is of a loving God who is the true center and source of life, a worshipping community drawn from every tongue, tribe and nation, a Holy Spirit who is living and active among us, an oppressor who is defeated by the cross and enemies we will overcome as we take up our cross and suffer. We also see our calling to be faithful witnesses to Jesus, the coming judgment against sin which takes seriously God’s holiness and  our human freedom, a new heaven and new earth where God will dwell with his people,  and the challenge and promise for those who persevere until the end.

If Revelation mystifies you and you want a book that helps you see the meaning and purpose of the book, this is a great place to start. Each chapter ends with a list of key texts, a reading plan and community group questions for exploring Revelation in a small group setting (or personal study).  I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.

Jihad Jesus: a book review

In a post 9-11 world, jihad is a scary concept for many of us in the West. We look at ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas and violence done in Allah’s name and we are. . .nervous. Each of these organizations represent militant, extreme versions of Islam, but isn’t jihad a central tenant of Islam? Certainly we can point to some pretty terrible moments of Muslim history; however we have some terrible moments of our own: the crusades, inquisition, the holocaust (the Nazis weren’t Christian, but Christians are still implicated) and more. Muslims are as perturbed by Christian violence as we are by theirs. In The Jihad of Jesus: The Sacred Nonviolent Struggle for Justice, Dave Andrews examines the mutual history of Holy War in Christianity and Islam, naming evil where he finds it and illuminating the Christian and Muslim jihad for peace

9781498217743Andrews is a Christian, Anarchist, Australian committed to following Jesus consistently in the way of peace and is active in Christian community development among Aboriginals and refugees in Brisbane. He wrote The Jihad of Jesus in conversation with Muslims. While so much jihad talk moves towards fear-mongering (“they are out to get us”) or damage control (“jihad doesn’t mean ‘holy war’ it means  something like ‘sacred struggle'”), Andrews’s dialog with Islam is characterized by both humility and truth.  He isn’t afraid to call certain acts evil, but he has the grace to turn the same critical eye on his own tradition, identifying where Christians have also gotten it wrong.

Andrews begins with a section entitled “The Jihad of Dajjall.”(Dajjall  means ‘deceiver’ and is kind of like a Muslim Antichrist). Chapter one explores Christian’s use of ‘holy war’ and violence against others through out history and in our current context. Chapter two does the same for Islam. The third chapter critically engages these ‘so-called holy wars’ showing how in both Christianity and Islam have a history of doing evil things in the name of God. He closes this section critiquing ‘closed set’ religion and arguing for ‘open-set’ religion. Andrews contends that most of the conflicts between Christians and Muslims has happened on the boundaries:

It is through defending these boundaries of belief and behavior that religious people define their religious identity. Hence Christians and Muslims have tended to fight to not only to define but also defend these boundaries of belief and behavior to the death, because not only their religious identity, but also their eternal destiny, depends on it. . . .Is [defending the boundaries] violent? Not necessarily. But normally. For three reasons. One: Christians and Muslims tend to defend their boundaries to the death. Two: the best form of defense has always been attack. And, three: there are plenty of competing groups fighting for the right to define and defend their boundaries of belief and behavior for themselves. (72)

A ‘open set’ approach, by contrast, focuses on the center: Isa (Jesus) and the  Bismallah (the Arabic equivalent to the Shema) Rather than defining and defending religion:

The essence of open set religion is all about becoming more open to God and encouraging everyone to become more open to God. Conversion for Christians and Muslims within a closed set perspective may mean confessing the creed or the kalimah. Conversion for Christians and Muslims seen from an open set perspective means constantly turning and moving towards the compassionate spirit of God, exemplified in Isa and the Bismillah, whether we use that language or not, judging our lives, for ourselves, in the light of God’s love, and beginning to trust His love, to sustain us, on the journey of the greater jihad of personal growth and the lesser jihad of social change that He is calling us to be involved with. (75)

So openness doesn’t apply a ‘looseness’ in the concept of God, but an intense focus and openness to the God that sits at the center of our own tradition. Here Andrews is making a nod towards E. Stanley Jones approach to interfaith evangelism, ““Get the center right, and the circumference takes care of itself.”(76).

In part two, “The Jihad of Jesus” reframes jihad as non-violent struggle, shows how Jesus’ life and teaching is our model, and recollects non-violent struggles from the history of Christianity and Islam. Chapter four  begins with a look of how terrorist organizations train otherwise good people to commit heinous acts before looking at how to retool the nature of jihad.  Chapter five focuses on Jesus’ as our supreme example. Chapter six has other exemplars (both Christian and Muslim) and what we can learn from their non-violent jihads.


This book recovers the term Jihad and reloads it with peace, justice and spiritual vitality. Andrews exemplifies not only how Christians may behave better to our Muslim neighbors, but suggests ways that we can also be sharpened and learn from them. As a Christian reader, I appreciated how a life centered on Christ, responding in openness to Jesus, pushes  me towards the struggle for non-violence. I think this is absolutely correct. It is Christendom with its empire building that makes war and violence a viable option.

I like where Andrews takes the open/closed set distinction, but I suppose I may still be somewhat closed-set.  Jesus (and the early church) make some pretty exclusive claims about salvation being through Him alone (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). There is common ground  but there will be tension at the boundaries, though the focus should remain at the center of our faith traditions.  I certainly don’t want to ‘build a wall’ at the border to ‘keep Muslims out.’ Dialogue is mutually edifying.

So don’t let the provocative title scare you.  This a book that will encourage Christians to be more like Christ in our work for Justice. Muslim readers shouldn’t be afraid either. Andrews isn’t secretly trying to convert you, and he doesn’t malign Islam (which is rare for Christian authors!). I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from the publisher via, SpeakEasy in exchange or my honest review.

Good News Lent: Wilderness Temptation, Part I

I am committed to hearing Good News this Lent. In a previous post I explored some of the ‘good news’ for Jesus and us in the wilderness Jesus was where the Holy Spirit wanted Him to be, it clarified and solidified His identity and mission, it was a place of preparation and purgation, and the place where Jesus back stories the gospel.

judean_wilderness1All this is true, but the best news about the wilderness is this: it doesn’t go on forever. Wildernesses are meant to be a stop on the way to somewhere else, . Israel’s forty-year wilderness wandering ended when they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land; Jesus forty days preceded three years of active ministry, later a cross and a grave gave way to resurrection and glory. A dry, desolate place may be large, it may stretch on for miles in all directions, you may have been here for years, and you may have no sense when this season will end. But dry, desolate places do not encompass all reality. This is a part of the journey, it is no destination.

Mark and Luke’s gospels tells us that Jesus was ‘in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan’ (Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-2). Matthew places Satan’s temptation at the end of the wilderness time, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.The tempter came to him. . .” (Matthew 4:2-3).  It is true that Jesus was in a vulnerable state after his forty-day-fast, but I think the significance of Matthew’s timeline because Jesus’ responses reveal the trajectory, tone and rules of engagement for His earthly ministry. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy (a wilderness textbook) three times On his lips, these words drip with good news and expose the devil’s dead-ends. ( Matthew 4:1-11). Let’s look at the first temptation:

“It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The accuser says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” The immediate context tells of Jesus’ hunger after forty days fasting.  Certainly this is part of it, but Henri Nouwen in In the Name of Jesus identifies this first temptation as a temptation toward relevance. How many hungry people could be fed if the stones would become bread? Nowen writes:

Aren’t we not called to do something that makes people realize that we do make a difference in their lives? Aren’t we called to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and alleviate the suffering of the poor? Jesus was faced with these same questions, but when he was asked to prove his power as the Son of God by the relevant behavior of changing stones to bread he clung to his mission to proclaim the word and said, “Human beings live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (18).

Rome was the oppressor. They had a wide expanse of land and resources at their disposal and ruled over diverse people groups, including Jesus’own people, the Jews. Throughout the empire they quashed rebellion through ‘bread and circuses’—people were feed just enough and distracted enough, so they didn’t organize for real change. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, to embody Israel’s hopes and to restore the world  to a right relationship with him. Bread from stones is a mere pittance, a cheap parlor trick, even if it fills an immediate need. God had a plan and an end he was moving toward—a new heaven and a new earth: humanity restored and Creation made perfect. If he set that aside for bread, he would have been choosing the quick fix over God the Father’s comprehensive vision for human flourishing. We choose the Word of God over bread because the wilderness doesn’t go on forever, and we have a hope to sustain us. Courage and commitment comes as we keep the end game in mind.


 

I am not trying to be trite. I know what the wilderness is like, both in life and in ministry. I know the constrictive stress of financial obligations—mounting bills which make you feel like you can’t do anything, the stress of not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, and the fear that when it comes it won’t be enough. I know what it is to lose something you care about and to hunger for something which lies just beyond your grasp. These are the moments I long for the stones to become bread so that I can move easily = to the next big thing. Somebody buy me a lottery ticket. Stones to bread, rags to riches, anything to help me traverse this wasteland back to where I’m supposed to be. 


 

Jesus does what Esau could not (the guy who sold his birthright for a  stomachful of stew).  When Satan gives Jesus away to satisfy his physical hungry, Jesus clung tenaciously to God’s plan—every word that fell from God’s mouth. He would not be seduced by technique, quick-fixes and short term gains. God’s Word doesn’t return void but accomplishes God’s desires and purposes (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus would not put his hope in material provision, or relevance, or magic. He trusted that what God said, God would do and He held with all his being to the promises of God.

Where is your hope? Who are you trusting in for your salvation? If we are to learn from Jesus how to not settle for bread of our own making, we need a hope and a vision big enough to sustain us through our vulnerability and weakness. Or we may sell out for a meal. Jesus knew the story and where it was headed. If we are to live by God’s Word we need to know the story. If you haven’t read the Bible cover-to-cover, you should. God’s Word orients us when we are in dangerous terrain.

But living by God’s Word instead of bread, also means prayer. Nouwen puts it like this,  “To live a life that is not dominated by the desire to be relevant but is instead safely anchored in the knowledge of God’s first love, we have to be mystics. A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love” (28). The mystic doesn’t chase bread because she knows herself to be cherished and cared for by the God of love. We will be sustained through the wilderness when we know whose we are.

Jesus would say on a different occasion that his food was to do the will of He who sent him (John 4:34). But it wasn’t as though He quit eating. The gospels are glutted with stories of Jesus lounging around a table, breaking bread with Pharisees, eating and drinking with tax collectors, sinners, lepers, and dirty-handed disciples. He would instruct his disciples to pray for daily bread. His best known miracle was, if not making bread from stones, multiplying it to feed thousands. His own life was broken as bread and given for the world. But this as ever bread for Himself. It was for the world and He remained rooted in God’s love, trusting Him wholeheartedly.

Wilderness God, You stood with lean frame and your belly distended, staring down Satan. Thank you for not quitting, but staying committed to Your  redemptive plan. Thank you for trusting the Father more than food. Help me to live with the same trust, and security that you had in the Judean Wilderness. Give me confidence that the desert doesn’t extend forever, and that at the end of it, You have good things. Help me to feed on Your Word, that I may live always in the love of God.  Amen