This Fenced Off Narrow Space

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home. Evangelical is kind of a dirty word these days, but for good or ill, growing up evangelical shaped my spirituality. It imparted to me a love for the Bible, for God’s mission of redemption and a stubborn Christocentrism. These are real gifts to me. But with gifts came also limitations and blind spots and unhealthy emphases.

Our beliefs about end-times were our scare-tactic-evangelism strategy. We took the book of Revelations(sic) and described that the world was evil, that Jesus was coming back, and on the great and terrible Day of the Lord, Jesus would destroy everything, and burn it up! Bound up with our proclamation was a belief that an evil leader would seduce the nations into a false unity, uniting the world under his leadership, forcing citizens who participate in the economy to receive his mark: 6—6—6.
The moon would turn to blood. And there would be pestilence and war, disease, and darkness. 

Of course, Christians would get a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card, raptured before the days of cataclysmic devastation. 

There is a lot wrong with this eschatology, but one problem was we struggled to make the return of Christ sound like good news, even to ourselves. Jesus is Coming and he’s going to destroy everything you care about!  Yes! There was the promise of heaven, but our imagination was stoked more by the suffering of the world. All of this will burn! The good news was, for us, just a way to circumvent our personal experience of destruction. The world would burn but we don’t have to. Come, Lord Jesus. We ripped Revelation away from John of Patmos and the second-century persecution of the Church. Our blind spot was our social location as modern white middle-class evangelicals.

It took me a long time to understand that the best way to read the Bible was from the underside—with the oppressed, the marginalized, the persecuted, the discriminated against, and the outcasts.  When you do, even the scary bits of Revelation start to feel like good news.

Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was one of the best-known authors of the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry describes the African-American experience—their exclusion from the American dream, and the suffering they endured because of racism and white oppression.  In his poem, I Look at the World, he illustrates the ways society has placed him and his people in a ‘fenced-off narrow space’:

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space   
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

The poem is ultimately hopeful, showing how Hughes and like-minded comrades can remake the world, but he also names the way oppression has been a fence and a wall, something which constricts movement and imprisons.

When we consider this season of Advent we would do well to listen and look with Hughes. Jesus is coming! When you take in the news from the center, the only good news is that Jesus will give us a bailout before everything gets really bad. When you read Revelation from the underside, you hear the good news that the Oppressor— the one who enslaves, imprisons, deports, turns a blind eye to the suffering of the marginalized—will be deposed. Peace will reign. The dehumanizing institutions will be overhauled. Systemic justice will be our new reality:

I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

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.

There is a Wideness in God’s Presence: a book review

Christians are found of saying that God reveals himself in two books: the Bible,God’s special revelation, and creation, God’s general revelation. While there is some baseline recognition that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Psalm 19:1), Protestants are generally suspicious that we can apprehend or trust much truth ‘out there.’ Robert K. Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary, and author of Reel Spirituality: Theology of Film in Dialogue, here tackles the issue of general revelation with God’s Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation.  Johnston sees ample evidence of God’s Presence in the world in nature, culture and even world religions; however this is not a capitulation to some sort of universalist pluralism, but an acknowledgement that God’s Spirit works in mysterious ways and places.

Johnston’s eight chapters are a romp through modern theology, Bible passages and the world of film and fiction. In chapter one, he argues that our problems with general revelation and lack of theological reflection on it, stems from several causes. First we have too narrow of a ‘definitional’ focus. Johnston observes:

Rather than understand general revelation as any encounter with the Transcendent that occurs outside the believing community and that is not directly concerned with redemption, many have wrongly reduced it to a perceived ‘lowest common denominator’ by limiting ‘general revelation’ to those general truths that are communicated by God to all persons at all times and in all places” (8).

This understanding plays out in our biblical theology as well, “Theology’s bias toward the redemptive over the creational, and toward the propostional over the narrative is perhaps the second explanation for the relative paucity of theological thinking on general revelation” (10-11). Thirdly, Johnston sees a dim view of human receptivity to divine revelation in much of conservative evangelical theology. Against these objections, Johnston suggests a way forward that invites a theological dialogue about “God’s revelatory Presence outside the church and without direct reference to Jesus Christ” (15). Johnston calls us to have a robust two-way conversation between Scripture and the theological tradition and the realm of culture and  personal experience (15).

Chapter two describes the growth of spirituality in contemporary times and some of the challenges that face this discussion. Johnston points to God’s revelation in creation, conscience and culture (which he will return to later). He gives testimonials from a number of people of where they sensed God. He also refers to the work of Rudolph Otto and Peter Berger for their significant generalizations about the observation of Presence in the world. Otto observed the human experience of the holy in a variety of religious contexts (34). Berger’s observations led him to the conclusion that ‘there were experiences of the human spirit that pointed beyond that reality, that had “an immediacy to God”‘(35). Johnston acknowledges the cautionary words of other theological explorers of culture, that we can be self-deceived in our fallen human reasoning, but he sees an equal danger in failing to look for God (any)where he may be found:

The danger of self-deception, if not outright blasphemy, is ever present and must be taken seriously. . . As I will argue this is why it is crucial for one to have a full-orbed theological hermeneutic, a robust methodology that includes scripture, tradition, and community as well as experience. One does not whisper “God” by shouting “man.” The witness of God’s revelation in Scripture is authoritative and the testimony and reflection of Christians through the ages foundational. But the danger for Christians is also on the other side. We can exclude by an overemphasis on sin and salvation the real, revelatory Presence of God through his Spirit that is the clear testimony of the vast majority of Westerners today (37).

These two chapters set the trajectory for the rest of the book. Chapter three looks at the experience of transcendence in film by Johnston’s film students (in a variety of styles of films). Chapters four and five illustrate how scripture itself testifies to the Presence of God outside of the covenant community. This includes the borrowing of sayings in Proverbs from Egyptian origins, Yahweh speaking through Pharoh Neco to ward Josiah off of battle. King Huram of Tyre sends Hurumbai as a skilled artisan for the construction of Solomon’s temple,  Cyrus of Persia in Chronicles and Ezra is seen as God’s instrument, Additionally, Johnston highlights two creation psalms (19 and 29) that speak of the revealing nature of creation (and not just reflecting on the creation as described in Genesis). Other examples include Melchizedek, Elijah’s hearing God on Mt. Horeb, Balaam, various non-covenant peoples in the prophetic literature, Paul’s use of natural theology in Acts 14 and his use of Roman poetry and religion in Acts 17. He makes a strong case that the Bible leaves open the possibility of God speaking through unlikely vessels.

In chapter six, Johnston engages the theological tradition.  Johnston examines three different thinkers who were influential on twentieth century Christian thought and takes his cues from them on revelation. With Barth he affirms that natural theology cannot happen from below (recalling his famous answer to Brunner) but “that revelation always needs the Spirit as Revealer–it is event” (127); with Schleiermacher he affirms that general revelation is not accessible through rationality “but through an intuition of Something or Someone beyond us and our feelings that result from that encounter” (127-8); from CS Lewis he gets the idea that general revelation is more than just an insignificant trace in comparison to the glory of Christ but “an experience of the wider Presence of God through his Spirit mediated through creation, conscience and human culture” (128).

In chapter seven Johnston tracks this wider Presence of God through the writings of John Taylor, Elizabeth Johnson, and Jurgen Moltmann. Taylor tackled the reality of real Spiritual encounter in the realm of experience in mission and world religion. Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson explored how the Spirit was “God’s livingness subtly and powerfully abroad in the world” (174). The social-trinitarianism of Moltmann, releases the Spirit from  his subjectivity to the Son, acknowledging the Trinity as a co-equal community. This allows for more freedom for the ‘wind to blow where it may,’ and the Spirit to show-up outside of the tale of our redemption. The final chapter continues to examine the Spirit is at work in the realm of creation, conscience and culture.

Without a robust understanding of general revelation, we have to remain skeptical of any spiritual experience, or moment of transcendence anywhere outside of the Word of God.  That means a moving book or a film, a orchestral piece that brings you to tears, or any cultural achievement is at best merely a human endeavor, at worst demonic. If Johnston is right about the operation of God’s wider Presence, this gives space to critically engage other traditions and perspectives, allowing us to not be dismissive and suspicious of everything, while still acknowledging that aspects may be destructive, delusional and in conflict with the gospel. This gives us a different starting point in our conversations with non-Christians, one where our hunt for common ground reveals God’s Spirit already at work in the life of the world. Throughout this book, I appreciated how seriously Johnston takes the experience of Transcendence as a revelatory event. Even Barth, who was suspicious of  human ability to apprehend God unaided, affirmed that Mozart, a non-practicing Catholic had heard the harmony of creation and captured it in his music (137).  God’s wider Presence sings if only we hear the music. five stars: ★★★★★

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

Revelation: a book review

Peggy Payne‘s imaginative first novel  Revelation (first published in 1988) tells the story of Swain Hammond, a mainline Presbyterian pastor of a respectable, educated congregation. His life is turned upside down the day he hears God speak to him. What is the essence of this Divine communication? Nothing spectacular, at first. Swain hears God call him “son.” Later he hears other words he can’t quite make sense of, or explain to anyone else. Then he receives his ‘call to ministry’,’ fifteen years into his pastorate.

The words from God have a profound effect on Swain. At the start of the novel, Swain is a reasoned and rational minister of a late 80’s liberal congregation–traditional in its worship style, de-mythologized in its exegesis and not open to charismatic expression. When the respectable Reverend Hammond begins talking about hearing God in his yard, the church elders think he’s come unhinged. And he has. The supernatural breaks through his carefully constructed rationalism and he finds himself wrestling with emotions and feelings of abandonment rooted in childhood. He punches a parishioner after an accident which blinds a little boy. While visiting the boy in hospital, Swain tries his hand at faith healing (responding to a power he senses in the room) and tells the boy to remove his bandages and be healed.  As these deeds come to light, it brings Swain into conflict at his church.

Swain Hammond is a man of contradictions. He is a vocational minister and preacher who has committed his life to helping others. But he harbors vitriol for those he serves. He hates kids and feels superior to just about everyone. When he hears God, his feeling of superiority grows. He also fantasizes about an affair with a congregant (the blind boy’s mother). He continues to serve his congregation and do good, but he is a difficult protagonist to actually like.

I enjoyed Revelation. Payne spins a compelling tale of a conflicted man coming to terms with God. But he does change in the end, and experiences healing from his difficult past. This is not a ‘Christian novel’ as such, but a spiritual novel and accessible to anyone who has longed for a richer experience of the divine. Swain’s eventual transformation comes after a vocational crisis.  In the end Swain is less isolated and more gracious with those around me.

I give it three-and-a-half stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from SpeakEasy and the author in exchange for an honest review.

Payne’s novel is available as a Kindle E-book for $2.99 US from Amazon.