Shaped by the Thing to Come

When I was in seminary (10 years ago), I took an ethics seminar where we read a number of articles each week from Bible scholars and theologians on various issues. We read a good cross-section of confessional and critical scholars, both theological conservatives and liberals. One of my classmates standing critique of our readings was the use various theologians made of the beginning and the end of the biblical story.

He’d say something like, “At creation, no one was there to see it, so we don’t know what it is really like. The end of the story hasn’t happened yet, so we can’t speak of what it is like. So we can’t base our ethical claims in either Creation, or the consummation of things.”

Spoiler alert: he was wrong.

His idea, capitulates to a metaphysical realism, where all we can do is make do with the way things are. We may have some resources from tradition to draw on and we may cling to some commands or ethical principles, but essentially all we can do is limp along the best we can. We just have to make the best of it.

The beginning and the end of our story is integral to our spiritual formation. The Hebrew Bible opens with a description of God’s creation of heaven and earth (Gen 1:1):

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ

Our Christian Bible closes with a vision of a new heaven, a new earth, a heavenly Jerusalem descending and Christ’s promise, “Surely, I am coming soon” (Rev 21-22).

The beginning of the story is significant because it tells us what kind of story we are in. The end of the story is essential because it tells us our telos—the future God in Christ has envisioned for his Creation. Without the beginning and the end of the story, we are muddled in a middle, from nowhere and going nowhere. We can say with the culture around us, it is what it is. If we allow the bookends of history, the biblical narrative widens our vision: The good that was, may be again; what is wrong will be made right; the dying and decay of our enthropic environs will be restored; God’s peace will reign.

We may be fond of the idiom, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” There is some truth in that, and we can’t be so future oriented that we aren’t aware of what’s right here, right now. But even the metaphor of journey, implies we want to go somewhere. There is somewhere we want to end up. We don’t want to wander aimlessly forever in the dark.

The Advent story (both the first Advent and the final Advent) tell of God breaking into our wanderings and bringing about a whole new reality. Jesus came, Jesus comes, Jesus returns and everything old is new again. Injustice the degradation of nature, wars, and sickness, and the heavy feeling of grief which haunts and stalks us, even in our seasons of joy, will meet their end. Creation will be renewed and all that is broken will be mended. Everything will be as it should be. In words Dame Julian, ““All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

This is the end we are moving toward, or better, this is the end that God and Christ is moving toward us. May we all be prepared to see the reign of God break into our lives a little more. Come Lord Jesus, Come.

See the source image
14th Century Tapestry of John of Patmos watching the descent of the New Jerusalem (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Jerusalem#/media/File:La_nouvelle_Jérusalem.jpg)

From Culture Wars to ‘Re’ Words: a book review

The Bible likes the  “re” words. No, I am not talking about: reduce, reuse, recycle. Those words are important but I can’t find them in my Bible (perhaps in the Message?). Nor am I talking about the lesser “re” Bible words: resisting, reacting and rejecting. Nope, the big, important ones are: redemption, renew, repent, restore, resurrection, reconciliation and redemption.  In Restoring All Things, authors Warren Cole Smith and John Stonestreet argue that these are the most important “re” words in the Bible, even if our Christian reputation most often reflects lesser ‘re’ words like rejecting and resisting (17). (Hey did you notice that ‘reflect’ is also a ‘re’ word?).

Smith is the vice president of the WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD magazine, author and radio program producer. Stonestreet is a speaker and fellow of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and host of BreakPoint (with Eric Metaxas) and The Point. They are both conservative (both politically and theologically) but they are gracious in their engagement with the wider culture. Much like Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, Smith and Stonestreet have not abandoned the convictions of their predecessors, but embody a noticeable difference in tone.

Chuck Colson still looms large in Smith’s and Stonestreet’s eyes, but Abraham Kuyper is their muse. The epigraph at the head of their introduction is the oft quoted Kuyper quote, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'” (17).  Their fifteen chapters are an attempt to bring the lordship of Christ into every realm of contemporary culture including: poverty, capitalism, abortion, the plight of women and girls in our world, education, restorative justice, race, the prevailing secularism in the university, ministry to the LGBT community and those with disabilities, promoting marriage, caring for orphans, the arts, and local action.  Both Smith and Stonestreet earn their bread as Christian commentators and that is their primary role here; however each chapter tells  the stories of Christians who are active in each of these arenas.

Four questions guide their quest on how to bring Jesus into the public square:

  1. What is good in our culture that we can promote, protect and celebrate?
  2. What is missing in our culture that we can creatively contribute?
  3. What is evil in our culture that we can stop?
  4. What is broken in our culture that we can restore? (25-26)

And so Stonestreet and Smith celebrate the good (like capitalism), look for creative Christian contributions (the arts) call us to put a stop to evil (Abortion on demand, racial injustice) and call us to restore that which is broken (the institution of marriage, the prison system, etc).

I really appreciate the stories of people and ministries that Stonestreet and Smith profile. They profile people I respect (i.e. John Perkins, Makoto Fujimura, Bob Lupton) and many others. The stories are my favorite part (and that is part of their strategy of capturing the culture). They take sensible stands on issues that many evangelicals ignore (such as the racism and prison reform). They also have helpful suggestions for readers to research deeper and begin contributing in each arena they discuss.  However on other points, I found the commentary one-sided (such as their passionate defense of Capitalism) or shallow. Perhaps a book that tackles this many issues is bound to be underwhelming in some places. Still I appreciate the aim and irenic spirit they have. I give this book three-and-a-half stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.