Saturday, May 20, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (30)

the fall of babylon (Revelation (18)

Rev.17 details the “mystery” of the harlot, the beast, Rome. Only to eyes of faith does the true reality of this figure disclose itself. If you take the blue pill the glitz and glamor, power and prosperity will be what you see. If you take the red pill, however, you will see what John shows you, for Revelation is the red pill par excellence. This illustration from the movie “The Matrix” is a perfect example of how this book works. It unveils, or x-rays, the surface of things so the community of faith can carry on with a sure sense of the deep truth of God and the world it has been called to bear witness in.

Rev.18 details in horrible detail the demise of this figure. A great angel announces Rom’s fall, declaring it a wilderness, a haunt of every foul thing, who has polluted and deceived the earth with it oppression, injustice, and cruelty (18:2-3.

Another heavenly voice calls God’s people out of Rome. This is not a physical retreat or withdrawal. That would not have been possible for the many slaves who were Christians. And it was really possible to escape Rome even if one physically withdrew because Rome is a spirit, a power, embodied in but not exhausted in the institutions and culture of the city set on seven hills. Rome is a spirit and must be combatted spiritually. Rome is the spirit of America. And it must be combatted spiritually. It is that spiritual struggle to which the heavenly voice calls us.

If you take the red pill Jesus offers you in this sermon  it becomes possible to develop a profile of the spirit of Rome/America as the spirit to be resisted.[1]

“Since the ideology and religion of empire almost invariably includes nationalism, militarism, and consumerism (that is, aggrandizing the merchants and reinforcing the dominating power of the nations), the call to “come out” is a call to resist, to create alternative, to practice refusal in the midst of Babylon.”[2]

1.       Most obviously, the spirit of Rome/America tries to live without God.[3]

This leaves a hole, a vacancy, at the heart of the culture that tries to live without God. Hence the vision’s description of Rome as a haunted wilderness (v.2).

2.       Sensuality (18:3,9).

Sexuality is inextricably tied to commerce. It is thus engaged in a reciprocal perversion of each other.

3.       Injustice (18:13).

The most horrible example is that Rome engaged in promoting slavery, human chattel. And what chills the heart even more is that this human “merchandise” is placed at the very end of the list – the least of what Rome is buying and selling!

4.       Commodification (18:13-19)

Everything is a thing that can be quantified and assigned a cost. After all, that hole in the culture’s soul must be filled by something and nothing can be off limits to buy or sell in that effort.

5.       Violence (18:21)

Violence was endemic to the spirit of Rome/America. It is endemic to the human project of trying to live without God (Gen.6:11). So endemic that her judgment entails the violence that has marked her life.

6.      Deception and Counterfeit (18:7)

This “Queen” feigns to rule over and determine the lives of all under her sway.  The Pax Romana (“Peace of Rome”) was anything but if you resisted its rule. The Vietnam maxim of “destroying a village to pacify it” comes out of Rome’s playbook.

7.       Idolatry (18:7)

Self-glorification, or I-dolatry (the rule of the imperial “I”), is the primal human sin. The animating center of peoples and cultures trying to live without God.

That’s what God’s people are to steer clear of, even while living in the heart of the beast. This is the spirit of Rome/America that creates much of the injustice, oppression, and hardship that most of the world lives with. Wherever this spirit takes root, Rev.17-18 come into play.

The true and living God never allows self-proclaimed surrogates to prevail for long. Even if they claim to rule in his name. Rome’s judgment falls in a single day (18:8), indeed, a single hour (18:8, 17)! Obviously, this means a short time not a literal day or hour.

The lone note of hope in this bleak scene comes in the last sentence: “in you was found the blood of prophets and of saints” (v.24). At first glance this seems an indictment of the hardness of heart that refused to hear and heed the message and life of God’s people. And it is that. But as we have seen in this book, the “blood” of the Lamb and his people has redemptive power. It just may be that Jesus offers a hint here that if his people live his way, sacrificial, loving, servanthood, the kings and inhabitants of the earth’s enmity might be graciously overcome in divine goodness and mercy. It is intriguing that when we see all these enemies of God defeated and destroyed in the next chapter, we find them coming in and out of the holy city, the New Jerusalem, in Rev.21!

[1] Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, 302-303.
[2] Grimsrud,
[3] This is the powerful argument of Adam B. Seligman’s Modernity’s Wager.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Huxley or Orwell in 21st c. America?

"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us."
― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Everythng You Need to KNow About the Bible is in Revelation 21-22!

Herma and Herman Neutics on Reading from the End

Perhaps you've been told not to jump ahead and read the end of a story, particularly a whodunit because it spoils the reading experience. And that mostly true, I suppose. But I heard Herma say one day, "You know, everything I need to know about the Bible is in Revelation 21-22."

"Surely you jest," I replied.

"No," she said, "not really. Maybe a little exaggeration but I think its true."

"Okay, I'll bite," replied Herman. "What do you mean?"

'It's pretty simple, really. We don't read the Bible primarily for aesthetic enjoyment (though we should probably do more of that than we do). We read it to gain some kind of direction or insight into faithfully for God, right? Well, then, our reading will be rather aimless until we know what God is doing and where God is taking us and history. Only if we know what God's up to can we live with direction, intention, and attention. Three things many of us lack or find difficult to sustain because we lack this knowledge."

"So, you're saying that we should start be reading Revelation 21-22?" asked Herman.

"That's right, Herman. Exactly!"

"Wish I didn't have to run off right now to work. Will you tell me more about this when I return?

"Of course, of course. Till then."

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Reading the Old Testament as a Christian Book

The Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible. At least taken by itself it is. But when the church added the New Testament to it, it became a Christian book. But what does that mean?  How does it effect the way we read it?

Herman likes to make a point of how much of it there is - way more than the New Testament. It must have some vital role to play in shaping Christian understanding if the church chose to put it together with the NT. That means we cannot ignore or neglect it as Christians started doing in the second century and in too many circles continue to do to this day. One has only to remember that this is what the Nazis did in Germany as part of their program of rebuilding the German nation of pure Aryan blood. We forget or neglect the Old Testament to our hurt!

So, how do we (Christians) read the Old Testament?

1. as part of the one story of God with his creation and creatures. It is chapter 1 of a 2 chapter story. The latter chapter is unintelligible without the first.

2. as Jesus put it, "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22). To experience salvation, then, means understanding it in light of what God did with the Jews and how all that is reconfigured (but not rejected!) in the light of Jesus.

3. the Old Testament is not Law to be contrasted and dismissed by the New Testament which is grace. The biblical pattern is not Law (OT) - Grace (NT) but rather Grace - Law - Grace with Law being a gift of grace to direct and illumine the people.

4. we read the OT forward to get its historical development as a Jewish text. We then read it backwards through the lens of the life/death/resurrection of Jesus to catch meanings and dimensions of the OT that could not be seen by its authors or heard apart from faith in Jesus.

5. to paraphrase St. Augustine, the NT is in the OT prefigured; the OT is in the NT transfigured.
Again, it is the eyes of faith that see the NT prefigure in the OT and the OT transfigured in the New in the light of Christ.

In sum, we value the OT as much as the New, find God's grace in it as well as in the NT, discover the foundation of the NT in the Old, and the ultimate meaning of the Old in the New.

Resisting Trump with Revelation (29)

The Great Harlot (Revelation 17)

As the bowls of wrath cycle brings home to us the finality, universality, and horror of divine judgment it concludes: “God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath.” Here the vision brings this symbol in greater focus.

The historical Babylon is long gone at this point but its symbolic value as “the” Empire continued on and is here applied to Rome. For us today the Roman Empire is long gone but “Empire: has not vanished. We live in one today in America (which is our focus of concern). Babylon = Rome = America = future empires. That’s how we have to read this symbolism today.

We met the Beast in Rev.13 (actually the two Beast; one from the sea, another from the earth). They are the Dragon’s minions. “In the Spirit” the Seer is taken to the “wilderness”  and enabled to perceive the true nature of this Beast. “Harlot,” “prostitute,” and “whore” are what John sees. Ugly words; ugly reality. These terms are not directed to women or sex. They are intrinsic to the symbol of harlotry elsewhere in the Bible. That term can mean idolatry, and social, political, economic, military oppression. Probably all are involved here, though the emphasis is on the latter four realities.

This harlot sits on a scarlet beast creating an imposing though repugnant image. Blasphemous names pervade her. The worship of Rome and the occasional claims of some emperors to be divine ae chief among such monikers. Its seven heads and ten horns mean what we have seen them mean elsewhere in Revelation. The seven heads = the fullness of authority. The ten horns = fullness of strength and power. Adorned with all sorts of precious jewels, this harlot carries a cup, “a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication.”

But more than that, there is a double drunkenness at work here. The kings and inhabitants of the earth are drunk with Babylon’s wine (V.2) and Babylon herself is drunk with “the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (v.6). And drunk, each is liable to deception. Babylon deceives the kings and people to follow her. But the harlot herself is drunk and deceived by her own lies and illusions about who she is and what she can do. And both make themselves liable to judgment by these deceptions. And the outcomes of these drunken delusions are a big part of the judgment they receive.

The Demise of the Beast (17:7-14)

Another “mystery” is revealed here: this impressive and overwhelming entity, this beast, will be destroyed! I agree with Grimsrud that we probably cannot sort out the imagery here. Nor do we have to. The mystery is that this seemingly invincible reality will bite the dust! Certainty about God’s power and victory will always be in question. In our hearts and in the world at large. That’s why the so-called problem of evil has such bite. It directly contests this basic Christian truth. So the vision reinforces that here but in a way that reinforces God’s own peculiar way of dealing with evil.

Wisdom is needed here. To ally with the Beast will seem the most normal, natural, and desirable thing in the world. The “seven mountains” identify this beast as Rome, “the city set on seven hills.” While the imagery here is difficult and there is no consensus on it, the punch line is in v.13: “These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast.” All earthly power and authority is rooted in the beast and his dragon patron.

Further, this beastly power will contest the reality, presence, and power of God and the Lamb. Earthly Empires and the divine Empire do not mix, oil and water-like. Yet astonishingly, the Lamb will conquer them! Here John harks back to one of favorite themes – conquering. And we are reminded that in Revelation, as well as the rest of the New Testament, conquering means living in the self-sacrificial loving way of Jesus. And that’s the way his people conquer too. “And they conquered him by the blood of the Lamb (Rev.12:11). God’s promised and certain triumph comes not through a mighty display of “shock and awe.” Rather it comes in the most unlikely and implausible way – through a people living by the power of One who gave his life for others and thus set God’s redeeming and reconciling love free in the world. And that’s a force none can finally withstand!

Revelation 17:15-18

But there is more here. The Beast rules over “many peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (v.15). Now hears the stinger in the tail. These “authorities” who have given themselves to the Beast (Rome) will ultimately turn on it and do it in. Evil cannibalizes itself – that seems a law of history. “For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled.” There is a moral order to God’s world that will not allow evil to triumph forever. Evil will turn on itself and destroy itself. Rome’s come-uppance will come several centuries hence – but it will come through powers that take advantage of the unraveling of Rome’s internal life. I encourage you to pray and seek wisdom concerning where our own country may be in this ineluctable process.

More on this beast/Rome/Empire in the next chapter!

How did political progressives think they were Anabaptists?

May 15, 2017 by 
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Let me tell you the story about how many politically progressive Christians came to think they were Anabaptists. (I’m mainly talking about post-evangelical progressives rather than traditional mainline progressives.)
To recap, I’ve made the argument that many progressive Christians believe they are Anabaptists when, in fact, they are Niebuhrians. This truth was exposed with the election of Donald Trump. The rise of Trump has politically energized progressive Christians in ways that are hard to reconcile with Anabaptist theology and practice. Again, this is no judgment of Anabaptist theology or of all the political activism of progressive Christians. Not at all. This is just a description of the disjoint between political theology and political praxis.
Most progressive Christians want to be politically engaged. Very much so. Especially with Donald Trump in office. But Anabaptist theology doesn’t provide great theological scaffolding for much of that political activism. Thus my advice: Seek out and embrace a political theology that provides better theological support. To my eye, I think that theology is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism.
But that raises a different question. Why did so many progressive Christians come to embrace Anabaptist theology in the first place?
That’s the story I want to tell you.

Art, Passion, and Breaking the Rules

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist. – Pablo Picasso

Vincent Van Gogh is widely known today as a typically eccentric artist. He might not have invented Impressionism, but he was the first to paint stars swirling uncontrollably in the night sky, or to depict sunflowers as golden explosions, or the sky on fire above a wheatfield. His pictures were vivid, wild, daring, chaotic, full of bright yellows and deep blues.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and be surrounded by a room full of his work – SunflowersIrisesAlmond BlossomThe Bedroom and Potato Eaters – you’ll know the powerful visceral effect it can have.
And yet, if you go to the 2nd floor to the “Van Gogh Close Up” exhibit you’ll find scores of meticulous drawings of hands and feet made by Vincent when he was beginning to learn art. And then it dawns on you – Vincent didn’t simply pick up a brush and start painting A Starry Night. He took boring art classes. He submitted himself to the slow discipline of learning his craft.

I remember my father moaning about modern art and saying anyone could paint like Picasso (“It’s just cubes”) or Pollock (“You just splash paint on a canvas”). But you try. Your colorful splashes on canvas won’t be anywhere bear as sublime as Jackson Pollock’s.

It’s because the grand masters all submitted themselves to their craft. They learned the rules before they dared break them. Artist, Alexander McQueen once said, “You’ve got to break the rules, but keep the tradition.”