Tag Archives: jesus

was jesus a hipster?

OK, I’m not really after that question. What I really want to ask is “Was Jesus ironic (/satirical/sardonic/rhetorically savvy in any fashion)?”

Most Christians (and, regrettably, most pastors) assume that Jesus always spoke directly and literally–with no hidden meanings or nuance. This assumption stems from two deeper assumptions. The first is quite understandable, while the second betrays a modern association:

1) If the Gospel message is accessible to even the uneducated and children, then Jesus’ words must not require any special knowledge or expertise to decipher. 

2) All spiritual knowledge and understanding is created equal. (In other words, we want theology to be democratic.)

Let me deal with the second briefly. Until the Reformation, the church was quite comfortable with the idea that there were “levels” of spiritual understanding. Early catechumens were allowed to hear only a portion of the Scriptures, being led outside during the reading or more difficult and mysterious passages, because the elders did not want them to form heretical opinions. (Of course, after the completion of their catechism and confirmation into the body of believers, they were allowed to participate in the entire service.) Origen uses 1 Cor. 3:2 to construct an entire hierarchy of spiritual reading–the codification of which entered Scholasticism as the “four senses of Scripture–with the spiritually immature reading on a level “according to the letter” (literal sense) and the most enlightened reading on a more symbolic or mystical level (anagogical sense). 

Now, far be it from me to deny Luther’s insight that all believers should participate in reading God’s word. But does that entail that all will interpret correctly? No, certainly not.

Our American sensibilities rebel against anything that smacks of elitism and hierarchy, but let us not allow these sensibilities to highjack our theology. 

Take, for instance, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager: 

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

(Luke 16: 1-9)

Most pastors will try and cram the obtuseness of this parable into an interpretation that accords with what Jesus said about money elsewhere. And I admit that Luke’s placement of another saying of Jesus (which we do not know if it had any original connection to the parable; it may be an instance of editorializing by Luke) in v. 9 influences one in the direction of a literal interpretation. 

But what if Jesus is being sarcastic? What if he’s giving us a picture not of what we ought to be like, but of what we ought not to be like? (Jesus certainly used negative examples in other instances: Matt. 18: 23-34 and Luke 12: 13-21 are two great examples.) Or what if it’s even more subtle than that? What if Jesus is doing something much more rhetorically complex than either of these options?

My point is simply that we don’t give Jesus enough credit. Jesus was clearly a gifted speaker, and used a variety of oral conventions to communicate. He even regularly stumped the more educated members of Galilean society–the Pharisees, who (like Paul) likely attended Greek institutions with classical curricula such as rhetoric, philosophy, and logic. So why wouldn’t he use subtle forms of communication? Why must everything be plain-speech? 

Now it’s time to get around to the first assumption: if the Gospel is to be accessible to everyone, Jesus’ words must be simple and straightforward. 

As I said, this assumption rests on very healthy instincts. But is it necessarily true? It depends, for one, on Jesus’ every word being an utterance of the Gospel in its entirety. Did Jesus never talk about anything else but the most core truth of the Gospel? Hardly.

Secondly, does occasionally misinterpreting Jesus amount to missing the Gospel message? Nope. Origen would have admitted that the basic Gospel truth is accessible to everyone–even to those unaware of the “higher sense” of a passage. This is because Origen and contemporary Evangelicals (to take just one subgroup who tend to interpret exclusively according to the literal sense) subscribe to different imaginaries of the Gospel. If you were to diagram how the Gospel looks to Evangelicals, it would be a square, like a fortress, with clear boundaries and a formulaic password to gain entrance. It is also uniform: every element inside the fortress equally signifies the Gospel and is equally important for salvation. 

The other half of the Western Christian tradition (in which Origen and lots of others stand) imagines the Gospel as a series of concentric circles: in the center is Jesus, and on the outside are other truths and doctrines (doctrines about Mary or the angelic beings, for instance), which bear relation to Jesus but might be less essential for salvation. 

Which view do you think is better equipped to handle development and change within the tradition?

Image

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excerpt from research paper

[On Matt. 23:37-39]

Following the Hebrew prophets’ focus on Jerusalem, Jesus addresses the city with uncommon intimacy.  The image he uses to circumscribe his relationship to the city is profoundly domestic: “How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Mt. 23:37b).  Jesus speaks with a familiarity and devotion parallel to that which Wendell Berry exudes for his home state Kentucky.  This devotion is amplified by reference to Isaiah’s “love-song for [the beloved’s] vineyard”:

My beloved had a vineyard

on a very fertile hill.

He dug it and cleared it of stones,

and planted it with choice vines;

he built a watchtower in the midst of it,

and hewed out a wine vat in it;

he expected it to yield grapes,

but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem

and people of Judah,

judge between me

and my vineyard.

What more was there for me to do for my vineyard

that I have not done in it?

When I expected it to yield grapes,

why did it yield wild grapes?

(Isa. 5:2-4)

This image expands Matthew’s from the domestic into the agricultural realm.  God is here concerned with Jerusalem’s fruit-bearing.  It is an activity he is deeply invested in.  Will Jerusalem produce cultural fruit that displays God’s mark and proclaims his lordship?  Or will it yield only “wild grapes,” a clear indication than the vines God had planted were cross-pollinated with an exotic species?

Alas, “you were not willing!” declares Jesus.  The image of happy domesticity is replaced by its direct antithesis, social barrenness: “See, your house is left to you, desolate” (Mt. 23:38).  One may easily read in these lines a foreshadowing of the “unsettlement” decried by contemporary agrarian writers.  Isaiah’s picture of barrenness is clearly linked:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts

is the house of Israel,

and the people of Judah

are his pleasant planting;

he expected justice,

but saw bloodshed;

righteousness,

but heard a cry!

Ah, you who join house to house,

who add field to field,

until there is room for no one but you,

and you are left to live alone

in the midst of the land!

The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:

Surely many houses shall be desolate,

large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.

(Isa. 5:7-9)

Jesus tenders God’s pathos toward Jerusalem.  This pathos contains irrevocable devotion—of the type Berry and Deneen advocate—but it also conveys furious criticism.  Isaiah follows his “love-song” with a prediction of Jerusalem’s decimation by a foreign army; the reason cited is that the people of Jerusalem have “rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, / and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel” (5:24b).

A culture is a community’s “pleasant planting” (Isa. 5:7).  It demands careful attention and skillful hands to ensure a good crop.  As I showed in the cultural theories above, a good crop entails human flourishing.  When a culture yields that which is not only environmentally but also socially destructive, it warrants severe criticism of the sort illustrated by Jesus and Isaiah.  Yet this criticism, to be effectual, must flow from affection.  It will not renew American culture for distant Muslim pundits to decry it; renewal will only come from within.  To alter Berry’s statement (“an adequate local culture keeps work within the reach of love”): an adequate local culture keeps critique within the reach of love.

god is dead/money is king

small is beautifulI’m presently paging my way through E.F. Schumacher’s legendary and influential book, Small Is Beautiful. It’s the sort of book that, though written 30 years ago about a very different economic and social landscape, still commands immense admiration and respect not only for its profound wisdom, but for its (perhaps even more profound) foresight.

Being foundational to many alternative thinkers and writers today (Wendell Berry included), Schumacher enjoys a position not unlike Augustine in the Christian tradition: reading him is almost boring, because everything he says you already believe. Anyway, I recommend it to anyone seeking a “holistic economic theory,” or (to come at it negatively) a critique of the economic and industrial status quo. 

One insight that caught my eye is one recorded in a chapter titled “The Role of Economics.” Schumacher is interested to reign in economics to its proper place. He has watched government policies and global ethics become subservient to the standard of “efficiency” that economics provides: the principle of cost-benefit analysis, with its proverbial “bottom dollar” as the measure of economic (and now governmental and social) goodness. 

This has occurred, according to Schumacher, because modern economic analysis offers one of the last “objective” perceptions of reality. In other words, everyone (presumably) agrees about the terms and assumptions of conventional economic reasoning: two dollars are better than one; a “thriving export economy” is better than a humble, provincial economy. 

Such a strategy for discerning the best way forward—either for an individual, a business, or a country—often obscures factors and consequences until they pop up ten years later, unannounced, as pollution, cancer, or loss of topsoil. These consequences (along with the factors that would have revealed them) are considered “irrelevant” or “external” to economic accounting because economic accounting counts in dollars. In other words, the cost-benefit analysis requires some common denominator, some “currency,” by which to compare two goods. That’s where money comes in. In the philosophy of modern economics, money is the universal by which we are able to judge particulars. This philosophy is, essentially, reductionist. Money reduces all things to itself. Then it calls the product a thing’s “monetary value.”

Here’s how Schumacher describes the “equating” effect of currency in modern society:

Everything is equated with everything else. To equate things means to give them a price and thus to make them exchangeable. To the extent that economic thinking is based on the market, it takes the sacredness out of life, because there can be nothing sacred in something that has a price. Not surprisingly, therefore, if economic thinking pervades the whole of society, even simple non-economic values such as beauty, health, or cleanliness can survive only if they prove to be ‘economic.’ 

(Small is Beautiful, pp.47-48)

So Schumacher’s first corollary to the workings of “The Market” is that modern economic reasoning negates any concept of the sacred. This is the first step on the way to thorough secularization. But Schumacher draws a second corollary, hinting at another feature of a secularized society.

[…]what is worse, and destructive of civilisation, is the pretence that everything has a price or, in other words, that money is the highest of all values. 

(p. 48)

Liz thinks I need more cute pictures.Schumacher’s second corollary needs a bit of fleshing out to appreciate. His point is that in our society money has surpassed its function as merely a “currency,” which Webster defined as “a medium of exchange” having no inherent value itself, to become a thing with the highest value. Thus, we no longer fantasize about having an abundance of food and other necessary supplies (the proverbial “milk and honey” of the Old Testament), but about having loads upon loads of dollar bills. This cognitive state, to say the least, would have been unintelligible to almost all other societies in the history of Western culture, as well as all our contemporaries who have been left untouched by modern economic theory.

But that is not the end of the story. Since money is not only a currency but also a good of the highest value, these two functions become intertwined: other things have value because money—the highest value—confers its value on them.

Sound familiar?

It’s the precise metaphysical location occupied by God in ancient and medieval Western thought. For Plato—as for Plotinus, Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas after him—God is the highest form of the Good. So all things on earth claiming to be “good” themselves must derive their goodness from him.

Such an enthronement of money as the “highest Good” required this location to be empty. Now, I’m not going to waste any words attempting to map the chronology of the “death of God” in Western thought vis-à-vis the establishment of “money as king,” but I will venture to claim, alongside Augustine (and, among others, the author of the story of the Golden Calf), that we as humans can’t bear an empty throne. We are worshippers at heart; and if we no longer feel the urge to worship God, then someone (or something) else must take his place.

None of this is news to most of us. We’ve all heard many a sermon on Jesus’ dictum “you cannot serve both God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24). But it may be helpful to reflect upon the fact that this idolatrous malady is written into the fabric of our personal economic reasoning—not to mention our national economic policy.

good friday

Good Friday icon.Folks. It’s too much pressure to say something worthwhile, something profound, on such an important day. I can’t bear it.

Before leaving you with the words of one more exceedingly more profound and more elegant than me, let me simply say that this day recounts something that occurred to a man, Jesus. Jesus is the subject of the events we commemorate today under the title “the passion”: Jesus suffered. But, as Christians, we proclaim that that event (“the passion”) was not without aim or intention, grammatically speaking. Indeed, it occurred on our behalf: Jesus suffered for us. Finally, this relational aspect of the events we commemorate today is personalized. Jesus suffered for me. He suffered for you

Let us not forget this. 

To help us continue thinking about the dangers of Docetism, consider Kierkegaard’s line of thought below.

But the form of the servant was not something put on. Therefore the god must suffer all things, endure all things, be tried in all things, hunger in the desert, thirst in his agonies, be forsaken in death, absolutely the equal of the lowliest of human beings—look, behold the man! The suffering of death is not his suffering, but his whole life is a story of suffering, and it is love that suffers, love that gives all and is itself destitute. What wonderful self-denial to ask in concern, even though the learner is the lowliest of persons: Do you really love me?

(“The God as Teacher and Savior,” Philosophical Fragments)

 

Good Friday procession.

 

jesus, the fallible one?

My thoughts on John 8 led me to think about another topic related to Jesus’ sinlessness. This post is a sort of follow-up to yesterday’s.

The doctrine of Jesus’ sinlessness has often been contrasted with the doctrine of Jesus’ humanity. The early church did not want to give the impression that being sinless prevented Jesus from being truly human. It therefore drew upon instances that depict Jesus experiencing hunger or thirst (most notably, perhaps, the story of the woman at the well in John 4) to explain not only that Jesus was a real man, but also that he underwent some of the most basic human trials—malnourishment, suffering, even abandonment.

Dale Allison is a New Testament and historical Jesus scholar who has recently made a provocative addendum to the doctrine of Jesus’ humanity. Allison extends Jesus’ humanness to include fallibility—the possibility of being wrong.

Screencap from Little Miss Sunshine.

Allison thinks a fallible Jesus is the best corrective to the Docetism (the belief that Jesus is not a real human, but only seemed—from dokein, “to seem”—like one) still rampant in the Church. And fallibility is one area in which this Docetic prejudice prevails. Allison’s most convenient example is Jesus’ prediction about the apocalypse. This topic, along with the passages associated with it, is perhaps the most widely misunderstood—and therefore ignored—among thinking evangelical Christians today. The basic issue is this: What exactly did Jesus mean by “the end of the age” (Mark 13:3-8, 24-27; see also Matt. 24:3)? Did he really expect it to happen within “this generation” (Matt. 23:36)? Finally, did it happen? Are we still waiting? Or—here’s the kicker—was Jesus wrong

In Jesus Resurrected, a collection of essays on issues surrounding contemporary research and conclusions about the historical Jesus, Allison claims

A Jesus who proclaimed the nearness of the end in the first century must have been a real human being. This is no small point. Docetism may have been condemned lond ago as a heresy, but it has never gone away. Much of the popular Christianity I have known seems to think that Jesus was at least three-fourths divinity, no more than one-quarter human being. If we go back to the ancient church, it wasn’t much better. The theologians who confessed Jesus’ true humanity balked at the implications.

(pp.146-147)

I’m not sure I’m sold on Allison’s proposal. However, it would have interesting implications for how we deal with our own humanity, not to mention how we deal with our sinfulness.

Consider this: If Jesus himself was wrong about something, does that make him sinful? In other words, does being wrong fall into the category of “being sinful” or “being human”? Allison argues that being human not only involves hungering and thirsting, but also being fallible. Simply stated: Jesus was wrong. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the Savior.

We’ve got to ask ourselves what we seek salvation from. “Sin,” sure—but what else? And what counts as “sin”?

This is not an attempt to minimize the number of things for which we ought to be held accountable (Lord knows we have enough of that these days), but it is to remind us there is a dimension of our humanity that, though we might be embarrassed by, we need not be saved from. Rather, true freedom to be human comes by embracing this dimension.

identity-making

My pastor for a number of years, Greg Thompson, used to preach on the perils of “securing one’s identity in earthly things.” This, I suppose, was his version of the timeless spiritual question about individual worth, or—as Paul has it—“righteousness” (Rom. 3:21-22).

The theme of identity is fresh in Paul’s readers mind when he introduces his famous formulation: “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus for all who believe” (v. 22). He has just argued that the Law alone doesn’t automatically import righteousness to the Jews (Rom. 2:17-3:20). Rather, it merely reveals their need to find their righteousness in God. It becomes clear at this point that Paul equates “being justified” with sharing in the righteousness of God.

I think it’s no coincidence that the source of the Jews’ false-righteousness stemmed from their awareness of their Jewish identity—which is exactly what an emphasis on (or a “boasting in”) the Law was. But in verse 21, Paul radically alters the criteria by which righteousness, and therefore identity, is conferred.

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over he sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

(vv. 22-26)

As Paul constantly emphasizes in this passage, the conferral of righteousness is God’s prerogative. The scenario wherein we point to our righteous deeds, relying on our ability to measure up to an external standard for our worth is replaced with a scenario wherein our mouths are silenced (v. 19), that God may pronounce his righteousness over us. Fundamentally, the question of righteousness is a question about one’s utter dependence on God.

But Greg’s version of this doctrine speaks more precisely to our postmodern experience of ourselves. It’s rare for folks in my generation to feel an anxiety over their “justification” by an external standard, like the Law the Jews held. Instead, we look to other sources of justification, such as identity-making.

Perhaps the best way to begin thinking about identity is not to ask how we make our identities from scratch, but ask how we convey our identities once we’ve got them made. This brings us to the phenomenon of self-definition. Consider the numerous ways in which our culture daily offers us the opportunity to define ourselves to our peers: when being introduced, or introducing ourselves; when crafting a Facebook profile, a MySpace page, or a brief bio for a publication; when dressing ourselves in the morning (indeed, fashion is one of the foremost ways we communicate ourselves to others); when ordering at a café (am I a coffee person or a tea person? latté? cappuccino?—soy milk?); and so on. We choose who we care to talk to at a party based on what they’re wearing and drinking. We associate with other fans at a sports bar based on whom they’re rooting for. Most, if not all, social interactions entail the mutual offering and assessment of self-definitions, or identities.

Enigma, Empty House

Well then, how do we normally formulate and “secure” our identities?

There seems to be both an active and a passive element to this process. First, we secure an identity for ourselves by associating with a certain crowd, or making certain conscious decisions in fashion, taste, political leaning, and even spiritual or moral conviction. By consciously choosing our friends, we are consciously choosing a certain set of personal habits, interests, passions—and, conversely, a certain set of distastes, objections, hatreds. It is through these decisions that we write our own stories.

That’s the active element.

Yet our identities are also “fashioned” for us (or “given” to us) by our interaction with significant persons and our involvement in certain events outside our control. These persons can be our families, friends, mentors, teachers—or perhaps distant authors and spiritual guides. The events may be positive or negative, healthy or destructive, in character. But for one reason or another, these persons and events compel us to accept a new view of the world—and, therefore, a new view of ourselves, a new identity.

This is the passive element.

Returning to Greg’s point, what might it mean to sacrifice our efforts to secure our identities in things of this world, looking only in utter dependence to God for our identities, our righteousness? The good news is that God understands how we are wont to craft our identities, and he’s prepared to step into that process and transform it from the inside out.

I said that identity-making had an active as well as a passive element, and I implied that both have a personal character. In other words, we actively associate with certain persons to become someone unique (or “hip” or “trendy”) just as we passively encounter persons in our lives who shape our view of ourselves. But how does God expect to involve himself in this complex process of identity-making? The Christian answer is that God is radically present in Jesus of Nazareth, a concrete human whose life and habits and passions we can involve ourselves in—and who involves himself in our lives. That means that God is able, through Jesus, to alter our identities in much the same way that other earthly persons and events alter our identities. This is the heart of the Incarnation.

In my experience, identity-making doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the product of continual exposure to lots of different factors. The same is true in part of identity-sacrificing and -remaking. Sustained involvement in Jesus’ story, and in the story and habits of his body, the Church, is necessary in order to allow his holy features to win out over our superficial and self-made ones.

But the picture the Gospel paints is more complicated than that. If we take Greg—and Paul—seriously, in addition to the perpetual aspect of identity-construction, there’s an immediate, almost mystical aspect that manifests with belief in Jesus. (See Gal. 2:19-21. This aspect is usually called “adoption” or “justification,” as opposed to the ongoing “sanctification.”) To use a pun, this is more like “identification” with Jesus than like having one’s identity shaped by him. It is an importation of his status and righteousness, as opposed to a grafting of his interests and characteristics. Thus, we are called to identify with Jesus in his relation to sin, to the world, and finally to his Father, the Living God.

Curiously, this act is both the beginning and the end of the Christian life. Faith in Jesus requires one to identify with the sin that Jesus “became” in order that we might “become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21; see also 1 Pet. 2:24). Yet if identifying Jesus means identifying with sin and sinfulness, it also means identifying with righteousness and sonship under God. For Paul says,

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

(Gal. 3:23-26)

Adoption is the result of one’s identification with Jesus, the risen and glorified one. But the crucified Christ, in addition to being the starting place for one’s journey to faith, also grants us a vision of Christian maturity. Identifying ourselves with Jesus, the crucified one from the perspective of a grounded faith is the end of the Christian life. That means identifying ourselves with the poor, the destitute, the socially and physically stricken in our midst. This is what Christian service attempts. It’s a pattern of life that demands much courage—and perhaps even more grace.