Monday, August 21, 2017

Jesus' Temptations and Competitors and the Church

The Church’s Temptations

The devil tested Jesus by offering him three (false) ways of being Messiah and, thus, three ways of being God’s people. Ways that would offer no challenge to satanic rule over the world. Ironically, each of these three entangle God’s people in colluding with devilish designs in substantial ways.

We begin here because this bad news or our collusion with the enemy sets a necessary negative foil for our reflections in this presentation.


Jesus was tempted to provide bread for the masses. He rejected this temptation by pointing to the primacy and sufficiency of God’s Word. Rebuffed by Jesus, that old snake continued to ply God’s people with the same temptation. “Give the people what they want! Meet their felt needs! Feed them! Clothe them! Satisfy their needs and wants. Even in church, present God as the great vendor of religious services who will service their every spiritual need! Make consumers of them! They’ll love you and flock to you. And bring their friends.”

Mike Breen points out the problem here:

The problem is at the end of the day, the only thing that Jesus is counting is disciples. That’s it. He doesn’t seem to care too much about converts, attendance, budgets or buildings. It’s about disciples. And, by nature, disciples are producers, not consumers. Yet most of our churches are built around feeding consumers” (


American Christians have been perpetual suckers for religious hucksters. We want celebrities for our pastors. We think that fame and notoriety are ways to secure the significance and security were all seek and need. We may disavow Joel Osteen’s theology but many of us still wish our church was big and famous like his. Such fame gives outsiders something desirable to consume. It is not surprising to find a consumeristic mentality hand-in-hand with a celebrity preacher.

Breen again pinpoints the problem:

“Many subtle things happen in people who desire to this kind of celebrity status: They can disengage community and isolate themselves, setting themselves up for moral failure. They can make decisions that are numbers driven and not always Kingdom driven. They can skew to a shallow understanding of the Gospel as opposed to a holistic one that leads people to discipleship. They can put the good of their church (their personal Kingdom) over the good of God’s Kingdom.” And their churches often enable them in these distortions.


It’s not news to any of us that America is a very competitive country. It’s almost considered the essence of life. Competing, acquiring, having – is the American creed. And when churches are competing with each other, no longer for non-churched people, but for other churches’ members (which is the case today), well, the devil has won big time! And any “growth” experienced in this manner will not be growth that enhances the Kingdom of God. Breen writes:

“So gifted and skilled is our enemy, so conniving is he, that he has convinced us that beating the people on our own team is victory while he stands back and laughs, rarely having to ever engage in conflict, protecting his territory. He is beating us with a slight of hand, with a clever distraction, turning us against ourselves.”

Consumerism, celebrity, and competition are one important way to indicate the shape of the malaise choking the life out of the American church. That’s the reality we face and why I say we’ve never experienced the church.

Jesus’ Competitors

Jesus also faced four major competitors to define Israel’s identity and vocation. One (Sadducees) chose to go along with Rome to get along in the world and carve out a comfortable and lucrative niche for themselves. Many of them were leaders in the temple and wanted to keep it from doing anything to tick Rome off and jeopardize their standing. They believed in the Bible, of course, Well, actually, they believed in the torah the five books of Moses. It trumped the prophets and writings. Allen Ross notes: “Josephus confirms that the Sadducees denied the resurrection, the immortality of the soul, eternal rewards, or the ‘world to come.’ The Sadducees kept their focus on the status quo of the nation of Israel in this world and not the next” (

Those who are not driven by a vision of a most desirable future will settle for a present that in some way grants a significance and security to the now that must be fought for and defended. A church that does not believe in the resurrection, that has not believed it in such a way as to bet their lives on it, can only be a “Sadducee” church. It will align itself comfortably with the powers that be and make sure the church never troubles those powers. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer well put it: “Christ overcame death as the last enemy . . . from the resurrection of Christ . . . a new and purifying wind can blow through our present world. If only a few people really believed that and acted on it in their daily lives, a great deal would be changed. To live in the light of resurrection—that is what Easter means.” (    )

Pharisees were local community leaders who had as their goal to prepare Israel to be the people God wanted it to be when he returned to liberate it from its bondage. Their name probably comes from a root meaning to “separate.” And that is what they wanted for Israel, a community “separate” from the pagan world. “Holy” as a community which focuses on the characteristics that marks it out as distinct from the rest of the world. This was how the Pharisees believed they ought to shape Israel to be a community fit for God to receive and use when he returned.

This drive to make Israel “holy” in terms of separation from the rest of the world, Jesus turned on its head with his vision of holiness which sent his people into the world of unclean pagans confident that his touch of holiness through them would turn their uncleanness into cleanness and welcome them as God’s people too. No wonder he and the Pharisees kept bumping heads all the time!

A “Pharisee” church will be one that uses the rules to keep the people clear of the world and its lures and temptations. Its ministry will focus inward on serving the people already in the community. It provides many (too many) programs and activities that keep the people with others in the church rather than reaching to those outside. Holy Huddles are one name for churches that live this way. They often (though not always) privilege prayer, Bible study, and evangelism over doing works of mercy and justice in the world. What is important here is maintaining a clear line of demarcation between the church and the world.

“Essenes” believed the worship and service in the temple was so utterly corrupt that the only faithful response was to flee to the desert and set up community there to devote themselves to study and the practices that will make them ready for God when he returned. Here hope for world is set aside (it too is hopelessly corrupt) and only the arrival of the Messiah can help now.

No church today is really analogous to the Essenes in all its respects. But I suggest the “Spiritual but not religious” group may be the closest. They too believe the traditional church and religion are corrupt and immoral. They have left and begun to find their own way apart from organized religion. Sometimes they form groups of folks who are also seeking non-institutional, non-religious forms of faith. But many do not and pursue a personal and individual path. These folks have nothing like the highly disciplined communal practice of the Essenes. But in their judgment on the corruption of the religion of the institutional church there are perhaps some analogies.

Jesus had no interest in the Essene way. His way was “spiritual and religious.” While he pronounced judgment on the temple, and its coming destruction, he also proclaimed himself God’s new temple in whom people could now find all they sought from God. And his people in him were “living stones” (1 Pet.2:2) forming this new temple as his corporate body. Jesus intends his people be “in” the world (as a recognizable community or “institution”) at the same time as they are not “of” the world in their source, equipping, and outlook.

Finally, we have the Zealots or at least their precursors. Taking up arms is their answer to the problem of Israel’s Roman overlords and their idolatrous presence in the land. They believed that waiting any longer was unfaithful and their murder of Romans would incite their fellow Jews to emulate them.

Jesus rejected the way of violence at every turn.  His zeal burned every bit as hot as theirs for the liberation and purification of the land. But he understood something about God that they did not. God’s love for his people was but a prelude to his love for everyone and his desire to include them among his people. God is patient and prodigal with his love. Far beyond what humans would consider appropriate or proper. Jesus’ zeal, therefore, burned with a far longer fuse and a respect for others as beloved by God as well.

Zealotry in our time we call culture wars. Liberals, progressives, conservatives, and evangelicals all have been engaged in culture wars in our country over at least the last 30-40 years. While most (but not all) eschew physical violence, these skirmishes have clearly lacked the same patience and respect for opponents that Jesus did.

Jesus’ people are to share in God’s patience and respect for others. However, we engage our culture, the way of the culture war (as we know it) is not the way. We do practice a violence of sorts, but it is the “violence of love” (Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love). That’s Jesus’ way.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world

Last summer, researchers at the International Monetary Fund settled a long and bitter debate over “neoliberalism”: they admitted it exists. Three senior economists at the IMF, an organisation not known for its incaution, published a paper questioning the benefits of neoliberalism. In so doing, they helped put to rest the idea that the word is nothing more than a political slur, or a term without any analytic power. The paper gently called out a “neoliberal agenda” for pushing deregulation on economies around the world, for forcing open national markets to trade and capital, and for demanding that governments shrink themselves via austerity or privatisation. The authors cited statistical evidence for the spread of neoliberal policies since 1980, and their correlation with anaemic growth, boom-and-bust cycles and inequality.

Neoliberalism is an old term, dating back to the 1930s, but it has been revived as a way of describing our current politics – or more precisely, the range of thought allowed by our politics. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, it was a way of assigning responsibility for the debacle, not to a political party per se, but to an establishment that had conceded its authority to the market. For the Democrats in the US and Labour in the UK, this concession was depicted as a grotesque betrayal of principle. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, it was said, had abandoned the left’s traditional commitments, especially to workers, in favour of a global financial elite and the self-serving policies that enriched them; and in doing so, had enabled a sickening rise in inequality . . .

From an essay I'm writing on "Harry Potter and the Mission of the Church"

Opposing the church in our world is a foe of great power with its own design on world domination. Whether we personify this power in a devil figure or see it as an impersonal power or force is less important than recognizing the existence of malignant intent in the universe and its strategic plans to usurp God’s place in the world. I like to picture this power as an unholy trinity – Mars, Mammon, and Me. The undoing of our Hogwarts, the church, has its focal point in the primacy of the self, the power of “stuff”, and the efficacy of violence.

How to Make Fun of Nazis


August 17, 2017

For decades, Wunsiedel, a German town near the Czech border, has struggled with a parade of unwanted visitors. It is the birthplace of one of Adolf Hitler’s deputies, a man named Rudolf Hess. And every year, to residents’ chagrin, neo-Nazis marched to his grave site there. The town had staged counterdemonstrations to dissuade these pilgrims. In 2011 it had exhumed Hess’s body and even removed his grave stone. But undeterred, the neo-Nazis returned. So in 2014, the town tried a different tactic: humorous subversion.

The campaign, called Rechts Gegen Rechts — the Right Against the Right — turned the march into Germany’s “most involuntary walkathon.” For every meter the neo-Nazis marched, local residents and businesses pledged to donate 10 euros (then equivalent to about $12.50) to a program that helps people leave right-wing extremist groups, called EXIT Deutschland.

They turned the march into a mock sporting event. Someone stenciled onto the street “start,” a halfway mark and a finish line, as if it were a race. Colorful signs with silly slogans festooned the route. “If only the F├╝hrer knew!” read one. “Mein Mampf!” (my munch) read another that hung over a table of bananas. A sign at the end of the route thanked the marchers for their contribution to the anti-Nazi cause — €10,000 (close to $12,000). And someone showered the marchers with rainbow confetti at the finish line.

The approach has spread to several other German towns and one in Sweden (where it was billed as Nazis Against Nazis).

Thursday, August 17, 2017

We Need a New Republic

By Daron AcemogluDaron Acemoglu is a co-author with James A. Robinson of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. , Simon JohnsonSimon Johnson is the Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan School of Management. He is also a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C.

August 15, 2017

Most Americans tend to believe that they’ve lived under the same form of government, more or less, since the country was founded in late 1700s. They’re mistaken.

It’s true that there have been important continuities. The American conception of what government should and should not do is deeply rooted in clear thinking at the start of the republic; the country has long preferred limited government and effective constraints on capricious executive action. But this persistence of core ideas (and the consistent use of the same buildings in Washington, D.C.) obscures the dramatic changes that have taken place within the governing institutions themselves.

In fact, formidable challenges at the end of the 19th century were met by fashioning a transformation so thorough it could effectively be deemed a “Second Republic.” This new republic came with significantly different economic and political rules — and, as a result, enabled the American system to survive and even thrive for another century. Today, faced with serious economic and political dysfunction, we are in need of another round of deep institutional renewal: a Third Republic.

The conditions that brought about the first transformation of American society are strikingly similar to those we see today. At the root of the problems confronting the United States by 1900 was a wave of innovation that sped up growth. The direct benefits of these new technologies accrued to a few, while many others became more uncertain about their economic future.

Early in the 21st century, we have reached a similar phase; the latest technology enables the offshoring of many of the manufacturing jobs that had previously been the mainstay of the middle class, or automates them out of existence. And we witness newly extreme concentrations of economic power, which are again making our politics less genuinely democratic.

There are differences too, of course. The modification of the American republic early in the 20th century would not have been feasible, for instance, without the Civil War, which tore down slavery. Still, there are lessons to be learned.

The prime driver of reform at the end of the 19th century was the progressive movement, itself a reaction to the accelerating technological change and the rise of oligarchs. If America as we know it — or, even better, a renewed, reinvigorated version of it — is to survive for yet another century, it will have to replicate the progressives’ achievements. The first task will be to understand the degree of improvisation which accounted for those successes.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Why slippery slope arguments should not stop us from removing Confederate monuments

The inside track on Washington politics.

August 15 at 10:28 PM



Following the violence in Charlottesville, Va. that was sparked by plans to remove the Robert E. Lee statue, cities across the country are stepping up efforts to pull Confederate monuments from public spaces. Cities across the country are stepping up efforts to pull Confederate monuments from public spaces. (Reuters)

Following the violence in Charlottesville, Va. that was sparked by plans to remove the Robert E. Lee statue, cities across the country are stepping up efforts to pull Confederate monuments from public spaces. (Reuters)

This past weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia arose from a gathering of racists, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists, whose ostensible purpose was to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Over the last several years, efforts to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces have gathered steam because more and more people are coming to realize that government should not honor people who principal claim to fame was fighting a war in defense of the evil institution of slavery.

Defenders of Confederate monuments sometimes try to argue that slavery actually had nothing to do with the Civil War and secession. This theory is undermined by the Confederates’ own explanation of their motives, including those in the Southern states’ official statements outlining their reasons for secession, which focus on slavery far more than any other issue, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who famously said that “slavery . . . was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution” and that protecting it was the “cornerstone” of the new Confederate government .  . .

Monday, August 14, 2017

Trump Is Not the Problem

His election is the consequence of a crisis that’s been brewing for a long time.

August 8, 2017

Like it or not, the president of the United States embodies America itself. The individual inhabiting the White House has become the preeminent symbol of who we are and what we represent as a nation and a people. In a fundamental sense, he is us. It was not always so. Millard Fillmore, the 13th president (1850–1853), presided over but did not personify the American republic. He was merely the federal chief executive. Contemporary observers did not refer to his term in office as the Age of Fillmore. With occasional exceptions, Abraham Lincoln in particular, much the same could be said of Fillmore’s successors. They brought to office low expectations, which they rarely exceeded. So when Chester A. Arthur (1881–1885) or William Howard Taft (1909–1913) left the White House, there was no rush to immortalize them by erecting gaudy shrines—now known as “presidential libraries”—to the glory of their presidencies. In those distant days, ex-presidents went back home or somewhere else where they could find work.

Over the course of the past century, all that has changed. Ours is a republic that has long since taken on the trappings of a monarchy, with the president inhabiting rarefied space as our king-emperor. The Brits have their woman in Buckingham Palace. We have our man in the White House.

Nominally, the Constitution assigns responsibilities and allocates prerogatives to three co-equal branches of government. In practice, the executive branch enjoys primacy. Prompted by a seemingly endless series of crises since the Great Depression and World War II, presidents have accumulated ever-greater authority, partly through usurpation, but more often than not through forfeiture.

At the same time, they also took on various extraconstitutional responsibilities. By the beginning of the present century, Americans took it for granted that the occupant of the Oval Office should function as prophet, moral philosopher, style setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and—last but hardly least—celebrity in chief. In short, POTUS was the bright star at the center of the American solar system.

As recently as a year ago, few saw in this cult of the presidency cause for complaint. On odd occasions, some particularly egregious bit of executive tomfoolery might trigger grumbling about an “imperial presidency.” Yet rarely did such complaints lead to effective remedial action. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 might be considered the exception that proves the rule. Inspired by the disaster of the Vietnam War and intended to constrain presidents from using force without congressional buy-in and support, that particular piece of legislation ranks alongside the Volstead Act of 1919(enacted to enforce Prohibition) as among the least effective ever to become law.

In truth, influential American institutions—investment banks and multinational corporations, churches and universities, big =city newspapers and TV networks, the bloated national-security apparatus and both major political parties—have found reason aplenty to endorse a system that elevates the president to the status of demigod. By and large, it’s been good for business, whatever that business happens to be.

Furthermore, it’s our president—not some foreign dude—who is, by common consent, the most powerful person in the universe. For inhabitants of a nation that considers itself both “exceptional” and “indispensable,” this seems only right and proper. So Americans generally like it that their president is the acknowledged Leader of the Free World rather than some fresh-faced pretender from France or Canada.

Then came the Great Hysteria. Arriving with a Pearl Harbor–like shock, it erupted on the night of November 8, 2016, just as the news that Hillary Clinton was losing Florida and appeared certain to lose much else besides became apparent.

Suddenly, all the habits and precedents that had contributed to empowering the modern American presidency no longer made sense. That a single deeply flawed individual along with a handful of unelected associates and family members should be entrusted with determining the fate of the planet suddenly seemed the very definition of madness.

Emotion-laden upheavals producing behavior that is not entirely rational are hardly unknown in the American experience. Indeed, they recur with some frequency. The Great Awakenings of the 18th and early 19th centuries are examples of the phenomenon. So also are the two Red Scares of the 20th century, the first in the early 1920s and the second, commonly known as “McCarthyism,” coinciding with the onset of the Cold War.

Yet the response to Donald Trump’s election, combining as it has fear, anger, bewilderment, disgust, and something akin to despair, qualifies as an upheaval without precedent. History itself had seemingly gone off the rails. The crude Andrew Jackson’s 1828 ousting of an impeccably pedigreed president, John Quincy Adams, was nothing compared to the vulgar Donald Trump’s defeat of an impeccably credentialed graduate of Wellesley and Yale who had served as first lady, United States senator, and secretary of state. A self-evidently inconceivable outcome—all the smart people agreed on that point—had somehow happened anyway.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Confession of 1967 (PCUSA): Fifty Years Later

In 1967 amid the tumultuous societal upheaval of the late 1960’s the then Northern Presbyterian Church issued The Confession of 1967. It applied a reformed, Barthian approach to theology to the issues of those times. Specifically, it addresses discrimination, conflict among nations, poverty, and male-female relations. I’ve reproduced them below from the inclusive language version. It is striking how relevant these concerns are today fifty years later.

9.44 a. God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God over comes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.

9.45 b. God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ is the ground of the peace, justice, and freedom among nations which all powers of government are called to serve and defend. The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding. Reconciliation among nations becomes peculiarly urgent as countries develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, diverting human power and resources from constructive uses and risking the annihilation of humankind. Although nations may serve God’s purposes in history, the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling.

9.46 c. The reconciliation of humankind through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty , whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their abilities, their possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them by God for the maintenance of their families and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is in different to poverty , or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.

9.47 d. The relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God’s ordering of the interpersonal life for which God created humankind. Anarchy in sexual relationships is a symptom of alienation from God, neighbors, and self. Perennial confusion about the meaning of sex has been aggravated in our day by the availability of new means for birth control and the treatment of infection, by the pressures of urbanization, by the exploitation of sexual symbols in mass communication, and by world overpopulation. The church, as the household of God, is called to lead people out of this alienation into the responsible freedom of the new life in Christ. Reconciled to God, people have joy in and respect for their own humanity and that of other persons; a man and woman are enabled to marry, to commit themselves to a mutually shared life, and to respond to each other in sensitive and lifelong concern; parents receive the grace to care for children in love and to nurture their individuality. The church comes under the judgment of God and invites rejection by society when it fails to lead men and women into the full meaning of life together, or withholds the compassion of Christ from those caught in the moral confusion of our time.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Almost Completely Unknown Difference that Makes All the Difference….

December 17, 2012 by Roger E. Olson

The Almost Completely Unknown Difference that Makes All the Difference (between Christians and Culture and between Christians and Christians)

We talk endlessly about differences among Christians: Catholic versus Protestant, Calvinist versus Arminian, liberal versus conservative, neo-fundamentalist versus postconservative, premillennial versus amillennial, pedobaptist versus credobaptist—to name just a few of our favorite divisions.

But over the past few years I have become convinced there’s one deeper difference that is largely unrecognized and runs deeper than all those others. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, among Protestants, at least, it is rarely spoken about. We certainly don’t divide over it. Yet it does divide us without our knowing it. We don’t know it because it’s so seemingly subtle, it sounds esoteric. Whenever I bring it up eyes glaze over and people act as if it’s a drug that immediately causes mental confusion. Yet, it’s not really all that difficult to understand.

Before the dawn of modernity nominalism was hardly known or ever discussed except in the most rarified circles of scholastic philosophy and theology. Only as it became more widely discussed did people begin to realize Christians had always been something else—“realists.” Now, suddenly, beginning sometime in the high middle ages but increasingly with modernity, there was an alternative . . .


Thursday, August 10, 2017

The First Five of Ten Commandments for Bible Reading

                                                                        Herman and Herma Neutics offer the first five of Ten Commandments of Bible Reading 

1.       You shall expect to hear God speak to you through the Bible, even if you are not always aware of it.

2.       You shall treat the Bible as a strange book from far distant cultures. It is written for you but not to you. What you think you know about it will probably mislead you.

3.       You shall hear a word of Grace in the Bible. Humans hate grace, however, and are likely to twist it into a word of self-justification or self-expression.

4.       You shall also hear a word of judgment. You will know by when you hear it as a call to return to the God who loves you and not as a word of condemnation.

5.       Whatever you think you hear in the Bible, if it doesn’t end up with you clinging to and/or shouldering the cross, it’s not God’s word.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

8 Thoughts on Staying Christian Anyway

In my last post, we looked at your 5 biggest challenges to staying Christian from a survey I took a few years ago.

Now let’s move on and talk about moving forward amid those challenges.

I’m a little nervous about using language of “moving on” and “moving forward,” since that could imply minimizing the challenges“Oh that’s not really a problem. Here’s the answer, now move on.” I avoid that common pattern like mold on bread.

To get us started, below are my present thoughts on addressing and living with the challenges to staying Christian. In the comments section you can interact with them or add your own.

To be extra clear, I am not in any way, shape, or form suggesting that what I think is mandate for the rest of you, an attempt at an iron-clad defense of Christianity, or an etched-in-stone “here I stand” statement. But this is where I am. You are, of course, free to accept, ignore, modify, be bored, whatever.

I number them as separate items (because I’m German), but these thoughts overlap.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Rabbi Kushner on Reading the Bible

The Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote a book called God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know, in which each chapter is a different interpretation of the same passage in the Bible. ...

You keep turning the gem, seeing something new each time. That’s what we’ve been doing in this book—we’ve been turning the gem.

We read it, and we let it read us. We dive into their story, discovering our story in the process.
I’ve heard people say that they read it literally. As if that’s the best way to understand the Bible.

It’s not.

We read it literately.
We read it according to the kind of literature that it is.

That’s how you honor it.
That’s how you respect it.
That’s how you learn from it.
That’s how you enjoy it.

If it’s a poem, then you read it as a poem.
If it’s a letter, then you read it as a letter.
If it’s a story but some of the details seem exaggerated or extreme—like when Samson kills exactly one thousand Philistines
or Balaam’s donkey starts talking to him
or Elijah is taken up into heaven before their very eyes—
there’s a good chance the writer is making a larger point and you shouldn’t get too hung up on those details.
You read it,
and you ask questions of it,
and you study and analyze and reflect and smile and argue and speculate and discuss.

Other times people want to know the right answer to a passage in the Bible. As if there is a right and a wrong reading of each verse in the Bible. There are, of course, lots of ways to miss the point and truly read it wrongly. But to say that there’s a right way may unnecessarily limit your reading of the Bible.

There are lots of right ways to read it. In fact, right isn’t even the best way to think about the Bible.
How about dancing?
You dance with it.
And to dance, you have to hear its music.
And then you move in response to it.

My friend Kent was doing graduate work in Jerusalem with a rabbi who one day gave the class an assignment to go home and read the story of Abraham offering his son Isaac (which is called the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac) and then think up as many questions as they possibly could about the story. They returned to class, and the rabbi asked the students to share their questions. They each had a few. After a few students had read theirs, the rabbi launched into a rant about how dumbfounded he was that they had so few. Hadn’t they read the story? How could they have read it and come away with so few questions?

You dance with the Bible, but you also interrogate it.
You challenge it, question it, poke it, probe it.
You let it get under your skin.
We read it, and we let it read us,
and then we turn the gem,
and again,
and again,
seeing something new over and over and over again . . ."
- Rob Bell

Thursday, August 3, 2017

How a Church Can (and Should) Come to  Love Leviticus

The great early church theologian Origen speaks for most of us today when he says:

“If you read people passages from the divine books that are good and clear, they will hear them with great joy . . . But provide someone a reading from Leviticus, and at once the listener will gag and push it away as if it were some bizarre food. He came, after all, to learn how to honor God, to take in the teachings that concern justice and piety. But instead he is now hearing about the ritual of burnt sacrifices!”[1]

Love Leviticus? Perish the thought! It’s in the Bible but most of us offer it only scorn or more or less benign neglect. Love it? We don’t even like it. All that holiness and purity stuff. Clean and unclean – who can make sense of all that? Who wants to? What difference does it make?

No, we don’t love Leviticus. And we really don’t want to.

It’s about a nation we don’t understand (biblically and theologically),

in a time and place foreign and distant to us,

full of ideas and image that mystify and sometimes appall us,

that make it the strangest book in the Bible (save Revelation) to us.

And there’s the stuff about homosexuality.

Oh, there’s the Day of Atonement stuff that we can connect a little bit to the work of Christ. And the Year of Jubilee laws are, well, somewhat inspiring but mostly daunting and unbelievable.

There’s just precious little relevance we can find in it for our Christian lives today.

And that’s the main reason we don’t (or can’t) love Leviticus: it’s not about us! Leviticus is about something else altogether. It doesn’t fit into the frame of understanding most of us bring to the Bible. Our inability or failure to grasp the importance of Leviticus and embrace is a measure of how little we really “get” what this being God’s people is all about!

That’s because we believe (in practice if not in theology) that God is distant from us (in heaven) and our gospel too small (about the salvation of my soul and assurance of life with God in heaven after death). David Wells summarizes this “too small” gospel”

“The biblical interest in righteousness is replaced by a search for happiness, holiness by wholeness, truth by feeling, ethics by feeling good about one's self. The world shrinks to the range of personal circumstances; the community of faith shrinks to a circle of personal friends. The past recedes. The Church recedes. The world recedes. All that remains is the self.”[2]

To be sure, Leviticus is far distant in culture and thought from us. Hard work I still required to get into its world enough to grasp what’s going on in it. But even with that, we’ll never get it coming at it with the above-summarized “too small” gospel.

For, in a word, Leviticus is about God’s presence in our world. The Temple. And how that presence in the temple shapes the whole of our lives. Indeed, my title for Leviticus is “How a Holy God makes an Unholy People Wholly His.” When God comes to “rest” in his creation (Gen.2:1-3) his presence created the equilibrium that keeps order in the cosmos. God at rest (which means not relaxing and taking it easy but seeing that the creation operates as he designed it without opposition or malfunction). God creates “sacred space” in the world for him to reside. And maintaining the equilibrium his presence bestows is what Leviticus is all about. John Walton summarizes the early parts of the biblical story:

“God has brought order and equilibrium to the cosmos and maintains them in the world he has created. Further distinctions in sacred space are made as Eden is identified as the place of God's presence with the garden planted adjoining it. Temples or palaces with adjoining garden/parks are well-known in the ancient Near East. Gen 2:10 details how the rivers flowed from Eden (the equivalent to the Holy of Holies) to water the garden (adjoining it, equivalent to the antechamber). When Adam and Eve sinned, they were cast out of the garden, lost their access to sacred space, and upset the equilibrium that God had established. The plan of the tabernacle (and later, the temple) was designed to reestablish equilibrium in a sacred space—God's presence on earth—while retaining restricted access.

“The design was reminiscent of Eden with the cherub decor, the Table of the presence (provision of food as in Eden), and the menorah, which most agree represents the tree of life. As Exodus 40 describes the glory of the Lord filling the temple, the Israelites experience what is, in effect, a return to Eden—not in the sense of full restoration, but in the sense that God's presence again takes up its residence among people, and access to God's presence, however limited, is restored.”[3]

The ritual, priests, the sacrifices, the celebrations, all recorded in such seemingly tedious detail in Leviticus, are all about maintaining the equilibrium of God’s presence, the source and goal of the world.

Major foci emerging from these practices of maintaining equilibrium of the divine presence revolve around space, status, and time.[4] The Day of Atonement was the annual “recalibration” of the equilibrium of God’s presence in the midst of his people.

Both practices to reset the equilibrium of the divine presence in the tabernacle/temple (Chs.1-23) and in the larger camp (chs.24-27) are present and embrace the whole of Israel’s life. Everything in Leviticus is finally about God’s presence with his people. Space, status, and time form the matrix within which Israel is to maintain the equilibrium. These three matters point us to what for ancient Israel and for us are of urgent and perennial importance.

Though the details and rituals of the tabernacle/temple are not applicable to the church today because Christ is now the temple of God (Jn.2:22), the site of God’s presence now and forever. In him we are part of that temple as well. And the same dynamics for maintaining that equilibrium are relevant for it is still God’s presence we are dealing with! And the world is his as well, so these dynamics apply there too.

The matrix of space, status, and time is an important, perhaps essential, way of conceptualizing the church’s ministry in our world. It would be useful to flesh all that out but this is not the place for that. Perhaps your next small group Bible study could take a shot at it?

Space, status, and time – a fulsome, no-reductive way to describe the church’s life in the world. A “too-small” gospel directs our attention only to the status aspect. A “Levitical” gospel directs us to the full expanse of what God is up to in the world. Such a gospel of course only achieves this fulness in and through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is its temple, the world is its camp, and we “redeem the time” (Eph.5:16) by living by the rhythms of the liturgical year. Our focus is on maintaining a lively and living sense of the presence of God. And the deeper and more intentionally we live our way into this matrix of space, status, and time, the more we might come to love Leviticus. Or at least have our gag reflex tamped down a bit.


[1] Origen, Homily 27: Numbers 33:1–49, quoted in Ephraim Radner, Leviticus, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008), 17.
[2] David Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993) 183.
[3] John H. Walton, “Equilibrium and the Sacred Compass: The Structure of Leviticus,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 11.2 (2001), 295-296.