P is for Perichoresis

Perichoresis is the most beautiful and elegant picture of the Christian godhead that many Christians may be completly unaware of.P-Perichoresis

The easiest way to break down the word is:

  • Peri – as in perimeter
  • Choresis – as in choreograph (from the Greek word to ‘give away’ or ‘make room’)

It is the dance of the godhead. The picture is of movement and inter-relatedness. It is the constant exchange of moving around the edge – always providing space in the center. The concept is also known as cicumincession or interpenetration.

Circumincession: The theological concept, also referred to as perichoresis, affirming that the divine *essence is shared by each of the three persons of the *Trinity in a manner that avoids blurring the distinctions among them. By extension, this idea suggests that any essential characteristic that belongs to one of the three is shared by the others. Circumincession also affirms that the action of one of the persons of the Trinity is also fully the action of the other two persons.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 254-256). Kindle Edition.

In the gospels God points to Jesus and says “this is son in whom I am well pleased”. Jesus says “I do only that which I see the father doing”. The spirit anoints Jesus and empowers him to point people to God. Jesus leaves and sends/is replaced by the presence of Holy Spirit. This Paraclete leads into all truth and reminds us of what Jesus said (John 14:26).

Admittedly, talk about the Trinity gets complicated quickly. This is why so much contention surrounded the early churches’ councils and creeds. The filioque clause caused a schism between Easter and Western branches of the church in the 11th century.

Modern arguments abound regarding the hierarchy of Father-Son-Spirit. Contemporary conflicts multiply about the gendered language of trinitarian thought and moving toward formulations such as Creator-Redeemer-Comforter.

In fact, the list of early century heresies and modern attempts to revive or reformulate theories about the Trinity can make ones head spin. It takes upper level philosophy and vocabulary to explain how 3 can be 1 or how a monotheistic religion has 3 persons in the godhead. It gets even more complicated when one has to explain exactly what happened on the cross and where exactly ‘god’ was.
It can be done but it is sticky and messy to say the least.

Then there is the whole matter of the ‘economic’ trinity and the ‘ontological’ trinity. That is for another time. Suffice to say that examination and exploration of trinitarian theories are deep.

One sure thing is that we have a beautiful legacy in this perichoretic picture of the inner-life and dance of god from the 3rd century.

 

Artwork for the series provided by Jesse Turri

* another complicated distinction many may not know is that when speaking of the Trinity use of the phrase ‘person’ does not , in any way, conotate the modern/contemporary understudying of personhood. God is not a person in that sense. Theologians use it as a ‘super-category’ – almost like a place holder that they know needs to be defined, clarified and expanded later. 

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O is for Open & Relational

One of the most vibrant developments in Christian theology has happened in the past 50 years. The conversation is diverse and includes everyone from Process friendly Mainliners to Vatican II Catholics, from Emergent types to progressive Evangelicals – and plenty of others.O-OpenRelational

These diverse perspectives come under a canopy called “Open and Relational Theologies”. The name itself is instructive and helpful in this case. Here is the easiest way to think about the name:

  • Open addresses the nature of the future.
  • Relational addresses the nature of power.

The Open crew often hale from more evangelical camps who question the common held belief (in their circles) that the future is determined. Questions of human free will, God’s intervention and nature of certainty when interpreting things like biblical prophecy, salvation, and world history.
The Relational crew is more concerned with assumptions of God’s character and power and thus question common held beliefs about things like omnipotence and intervention. This camp looks at world history and says, ‘We know how God’s activity has been framed and thought of in the past but is that really how the world works?’ Challenges to the other famous ‘O’ words are seriously undertaken: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence.

Both groups have many positive assertions even though they often grow out of a negative critique of established or institutional assumption regarding God’s character and work in the world.

There is much overlap between the two schools and thus they often work together and can be grouped at partners.
There are, however, three significant differences:

  1. Open thinkers often come from an evangelical background and thus are heavily Bible focused. They question the nature of the future and of God’s power but are unwilling to come all the way over to Process thoughts or to convert to a different metaphysic.
  2. Relational folks may be more likely to engage liberal brands of biblical scholarship and to shed antiquated our outdated notions by integrating scientific discoveries and new models (and better explanations) of reality.
  3. Open thinkers also hold that God could be coercive and interventionist, but willing holds back (or relinquished this) in love and for human free-will. Relational thinkers may be more willing to go all the way and say ‘no – this is just not the nature of God or God’s character. It is not that God could if God wanted to … it is simply not the way that things work.’

I came to O&R through Emergence thought. Emergent explanations of science and society make far more sense than former top-down and authoritarian (coercive) models of God and the world.
Emergence thought focus on the inter-related nature of existence and how higher forms of organization emerged from simpler and smaller  elements (or entities) within the organization or eco-system.

Many of the models we have inherited from church history are either based in hierarchy (like King-Caesar thought) or are mechanical (from the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment on). Those mechanistic explanations of God’s power and God’s work become problematic and seem entirely outdated (and unprovable) in a world come of age.

Open & Relational schools of thought provide a much better model of reality (nature) and human experience than antiquated explanations based in the 3-tiered Universe and ancient metaphysics.

Here is a bullet point list of themes from a previous post by Tripp Fuller:

  • God’s primary characteristic is love.
  • Theology involves humble speculation about who God truly is and what God really does.
  • Creatures – at least humans – are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation.
  • God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others.
  • Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships.
  • God’s experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence is unchanging.
  • God created all nondivine things.
  • God takes calculated risks, because God is not all-controlling.
  • Creatures are called to act in loving ways that please God and make the world a better place.
  • The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God.
  • God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions.
  • Although everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to how creatures experience time.

You can listen to HBC episode 107 with Thomas J. Oord for more.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri 

 

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L is for Liberation (and Logos)

Two concepts that anybody doing theology in the 21st century must know are Liberation and Logos. They play into so much of what we do in the theological endeavor.L-Liberation

Liberation Theology: This term most often refers to a theological movement developed in the late 1960s in Latin America (where it continues to hold prominence). In attempting to unite theology and sociopolitical concerns, liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez emphasize the scriptural theme of liberation, understood as the overcoming of poverty and oppression. Liberation theologies have also found expression among representatives of seemingly marginalized groups in North American society, including women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 797-800). Kindle Edition.

It might be helpful to understand how I came to liberation theologies. I was writing my Master’s Thesis at an evangelical seminary on ‘Contextual Theology’. I was doing so because I had been raised and ordained in a Missionary denomination. I wanted to encourage and advance the work of those who claimed the ‘missional’ and/or ‘missions’ moniker.
It was in the midst of engagement with Bevans and Schreiter that I stumbled upon a form of contextual theology (an alternative perspective) that stood apart from the enlightenment/colonial models. It was called ‘Liberation’ and it was unlike any of the other models being examined.

Gonzalez adds a couple of important clarifications:

Some liberation theologies center their attention on international economic oppression, while others are particularly concerned with classism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and other foci. Besides acknowledging and claiming their contextuality, … liberation theologies insist on the need to promote and practice justice and love, not only at the personal level, but also in societal practices and structures.

Justo L. González. Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 2442-2446). Kindle Edition.

The only thing that I will add as far a Logos theology goes is that one must account for they way in which the word (logos) became flesh. ?This is the case, not just because John 1 is so important in protestant-conservative-evangelical-charismatic circles, but because one must figure out in what way God was present in Christ.

There is much to be said on this issue not just because the Incarnation sets the tone for contextual (liberation) models of ministry but because the entire christian gospel is based on (centered on) the reality that the Logos was made flesh and dwelt (camped-tabernacled) among us.

In more philosophical circles, Logos theology takes on a much broader concern. As early as the 6th century B.C.E. Greek philosophers were addressing the Logos as “the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning.”
The Gospel of John borrows/appropriates/adopts this term to address the pre-existence of Christ and how that manifested in the person of Jesus. It is important to understand that the gospel writer integrated/adapted Greek philosophy. This move is significant for several reasons:

  1. Proclamations about Jesus were not made in a vacuum.
  2. Some early church writers drew from Hebrew narratives and themes.
  3. Others spliced in philosophical ideas and concepts from non-Jewish sources.
  4. Both in scripture and in church history we see a constant and elaborate mixing/integrating of external philosophies and concepts.

I bring this up because a major objection to Liberation theology is its use/appropriation of secular political theories (like Marxism) and critics will use this to discredit Liberation thought. We need to be careful with that kind of easy dismissal. ?Liberation theology does have its drawbacks and limitations* – but simply having philosophical partnership is not one of them. In fact, there has never been a theological or ‘biblical’ expression that did not have philosophical underpinnings or explicit frameworks.
Theology does not happen in a vacuum. All theology is contextual theology. This is not a problem. The only problem is when certain theologies don’t recognize their contextual nature with time and place and purport to being both universal and timeless.

Liberation theology is not for everyone and it does not happen everywhere. While true that it is thoroughly political and radically ideological at points, it is also highly contextual and local – as all theology should be.

 

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

 

* some object to Liberation’s emphasis on God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed. 

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K is for Kenosis (and the Kingdom)

Kenosis is one of those Greek words in the New Testament that I wish went untranslated in English. It is a special and mysterious word that would be great just left as it was and put in italics by Bible translators.

I have a list of words that I wish remained in Greek. Words like agape, kiononia, kairos, and ecclesia. They are just great words that would carry some power/mystery if we did not offer an English translation.

I am a big fan of translating the Bible – in fact I think that the translatability of the christian scriptures is a major distinction from other religious traditions like Islam. We don’t have to learn the original language in order to read and interpret the Bible.

Lamin Sanneh in Whose Religion Is Christianity: the Gospel Beyond the West, says:

Being that the original scripture of the Christian movement, the New Testament Gospels are translated versions of the message of Jesus, and that means Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their scriptures well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. Translation is the church’s birthmark as well as its missionary benchmark: the church would be unrecognizable or unsustainable without it…  Since Jesus did not write or dictate the Gospels, his followers had little choice but to adopt a translated form of his message. (Sanneh p. 97)

You can read an older post about this issue here.

So while I love this translatability aspect of the christian testament, I also mourn for the loss of deep and mysterious words from the original language.K-Kenosis

Kenosis appears four times in the New Testament. Three times in is translated ‘made void’ or ‘to no effect’. The most famous appearance is in Philippians 2:7 when it talks about Christ Jesus and is translated ‘emptied himself’.
The self-emptying of God had become a big topic in the 18th and 19th century – then expanded in the theological work after the Second World War. Most people that I talk to are familiar with this concept in the work of thinkers like Motlmann and his ‘Crucified God’.

Our Pocket Dictionary defines it as:

Kenosis, kenoticism: Derived from the use of the Greek verb ekenosen (he emptied himself) in Philippians 2:7-11. Kenosis refers to the self-emptying of Christ in the incarnation, as well as his conscious acceptance of obedience to the divine will that led him to death by crucifixion. Many theologians see in the term a reference to Jesus’ choice not to exercise the prerogatives and powers that were his by virtue of his divine nature. In the nineteenth century certain thinkers built this idea into a kenotic *Christology,which spoke of the incarnation as the self-emptying of the preexistent, eternal Son to become the human Jesus. This self-emptying involved the setting aside of certain divine attributes, or at least the independent exercise of his divine powers.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 773-777). Kindle Edition.

While the concept is beautiful … it also gets really tricky really fast.
What exactly did he empty himself of? You have to be careful because almost any answer is either:

  1. a historical heresy
  2. based on a presupposition that he had that attribute in the first place

Most people go for the low hanging fruit of ‘3 omnis’ (as I call them) of omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience. Obviously Jesus could not have been those 3 things and been human.
But once you start down this road you quickly run into your first barrier: if Jesus was lacking something that God has … how exactly was he still God? BUT if he had something that no other human had … then he wasn’t really all that like us and thus his being tempted or performing miracles is not really something that we can exactly imitate…

Many times this leads to a ‘Clark Kent’ version of Jesus where he wore a flesh suit and appeared to be human but underneath was a superman who could have done anything he wanted … it’s just that he chose not to!
This is part of why there is no end to the work of christology. Depending on your ontology (view of reality), metaphysics (beyond the physical), your view of the Trinity and your anthropology (view of humanity) … the danger of getting tied in knots is constricting.

What starts out as a beautiful word – Kenosis – hides a dangerous concept that can quickly become theological quicksand.

This is the opposite of a different ‘K’ word: kingdom.

What is often translated ‘the Kingdom of God’ in English is another phrase that I wish went untranslated: Basileia tou Theou.

From the age of Ceasars to the reign of Kings it made sense to translate it this way. It no longer does.
Not only does ‘kingdom’ not capture the nuance and possibility of expectation in Basileia tou Theou. It can actually be misleading because people think they know what a Kingdom is and are just waiting for God to take off this Clark Kent costume and take up the rightful claim to the throne!!

There are so many better translations of Basileia tou Theou. I have heard :

  • Kin-dom of God (family)
  • Reign of God (still too royal for me)
  • Common-wealth of God (my favorite)
  • Community of God (no hierarchy assumed)

I wish that we just left it untranslated as Basileia tou Theou.

You can see in these two ‘K’ words that translation is a tricky business and provides a constant supply of new material for the theological endeavor.

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J is for Justification (a snapshot of theology)

The word Justification in English has the same convenient memory device as atonement did. Many use the Just-as-if to remember ‘it is just as if I never sinned’. J-Justification

Here is how our pocket dictionary defines it:

Justification, justification by faith: A forensic (legal) term related to the idea of acquittal, justification refers to the divine act whereby God makes humans, who are sinful and therefore worthy of condemnation, acceptable before a God who is holy and righteous. More appropriately described as “justification by grace through faith,” this key doctrine of the *Reformation asserts that a sinner is justified (pardoned from the punishment and condemnation of sin) and brought into relationship with God by faith in God’s grace alone.

 Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 764-767). Kindle Edition.

Our other resource for this series, Essential Theological Terms by Justo L. González, provides a helpful distinction about the heated debates between Protestant and Catholic thinkers during the Protestant Reformation.

The difference lay in that for Luther and the main Protestant theologians justification was God’s gracious act of declaring a sinner just, even in spite of the continued presence of sin, while Roman Catholics saw justification as God’s act of infusing *grace into the sinner, who can then perform acts of justice-good works-and thus become just.

(Kindle Locations 2246-2248). Kindle Edition.

Justification provides a telling snapshot about the task of contemporary theology.

  1. The concept is vital within the realm of theology.
  2. The underlying truth plays a central role with the christian tradition.
  3. There are many excellent theories and explanations regarding the concept.
  4. Consensus can be difficult to come by due to competing theories and explanations.
  5. Much of the work is subject to speculation.
  6. If one does not subscribe to the assumed presumption (in this case like ‘original sin’) then the solution seems arbitrary and unnecessary.

This is why I selected justification – as an illustration of the grand, elaborate, nuanced and speculative nature of much theology.

You might be surprised at how excited I get about the topic of justification and how committed I am to both proclaiming and explaining it to congregations that I pastor.
One of my favorite sermons is a high energy presentation of Romans 5 which begins:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

I then take v. 12-21 and convert the words into math formulas in order illustrate the fantastic work of God in Christ!

Keep that in mind when I say that justification is illustrative of the theological endeavor.

  • It is vital to the faith.
  • It is central to the tradition.
  • It is contentious as points.
  • It can be speculative.
  • It is rooted in suppositions that may be outdated or even antiquated.

This is a great snapshot of our task in contemporary theology: to take the tradition seriously, to account for the variety of perspectives and frameworks, and to adjust/adapt the ‘answers’ to the questions being posed by our present situation.

This is why simply parroting the answers of the past is often not sufficient. There are new considerations provided by sociology, biblical scholarship, history and science.
This is also what makes the theological endeavor A) exciting B) important C) difficult and D) complex.

 

Thanks to Jesse Turri for the artwork for this series.

 

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I is for Infallible, Inerrant, Impassible and Immutable

Note: all relevant ‘I’ words will be placed in italics.I-Inerrant

It is an unfortunate quirk in the English language that leads negatives – or negations – to begin with the letter ‘I’.

The resulting effect is that some of the most problematic and even disturbing words in the theological tool-shed begin with ‘I’.

  • Infallible
  • Inerrant 
  • Impassible
  • Immutable 

These are just a sample, but are the 4 that we will focus on today.

These four ‘I’ words are just a sample of the kinds of words that lay-people can find both intimidating and infuriating about theology. Some have even lost their faith over these ‘I’ words.

Don’t even get me started on irresistible grace and infralapsarian – two concepts that hard-core Calvinists will bring up.

I say this in all seriousness. There is something about ‘I’ words which exhibit the most intense aspect of the difficulties when delving into theology. Many people point to words like these as an example of exactly why they are not interested in theology.

I have named 6 problematic ‘I’ words so far – but I will offer 2 more (inspiration and incarnation) as examples of ‘keeping it simple’ as an antidote to becoming disillusioned.

Let’s deal with the Bible first and then with God.

We live in a unique time of history where those who claim to believe the Bible the most attempt to place two words not found in scripture upon the Bible:

Inerrancy: The idea that Scripture is completely free from error. It is generally agreed by all theologians who use the term that inerrancy at least refers to the trustworthy and authoritative nature of Scripture as God’s Word, which informs humankind of the need for and the way to *salvation. Some theologians, however, affirm that the Bible is also completely accurate in whatever it teaches about other subjects, such as science and history.

This is admittedly a tough line to hold. The more that one learns about Biblical scholarship or historical criticism the tougher it gets. Inerrancy is an outside idea imposed upon the Bible that the Bible itself and thus has a tough time living up to its claim. It does not, however, mean that the Bible is not trustworthy!! This is my point! One can trust the Biblical narrative without having to elevate it to the level of inerrant.

Infallibility: The characteristic of being incapable of failing to accomplish a predetermined purpose. In Protestant theology infallibility is usually associated with Scripture. The Bible will not fail in its ultimate purpose of revealing God and the way of *salvation to humans. In Roman Catholic theology infallibility is also extended to the teaching of the church (“*magisterium” or “*dogma”) under the authority of the pope as the chief teacher and earthly head of the body of Christ.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 726-731). Kindle Edition.

Infallibility is better than inerrancy. Infallible can simply mean that the Bible will accomplish that which it is meant to accomplish. That seems fair enough on the surface.

Here is my contention: Why do we need to assert that it is guaranteed to accomplish the task? Where does that need for certainty come from?
Why isn’t it enough to say that the Bible is ‘inspired’ and leave it at that?

Inspiration: A term used by many theologians to designate the work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the human authors of the Bible to record what God desired to have written in the Scriptures. Theories explaining how God “superintended” the process of Scripture formation vary from dictation (the human authors wrote as secretaries, recording word for word what God said) to ecstatic writing (the human authors wrote at the peak of their human creativity). Most *evangelical theories of inspiration maintain that the Holy Spirit divinely guided the writing of Scripture, while at the same time allowing elements of the authors’ culture and historical context to come through, at least in matters of style, grammar and choice of words.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 731-736). Kindle Edition.

2 Timothy 3:16 talks about scripture being ‘god breathed’ . I think that should suffice and that attempts to impose external expectations upon the scriptures are futile (impotent?).  Whenever someone wants to talk about the ‘original’ texts, one only has to ask about them to see this folly.

It’s like calling the Bible ‘the Word of God’. The problem is that the New Testament refers to Jesus as the Word of God. Christians rightly refer to the testimony about Jesus as the scriptures. In this sense, they are words about the Word.
The problem starts when we want to upgrade the concept beyond its capability to sustain that we which we are attempting to assert upon it.
I would love if Christians would simply be satisfied with believing that the Bible is inspired by God’s Spirit and not attempt to make a claim on it that it can not sustain.

Now let’s talk about God.

The God that is revealed in Christ is, for the Christian, both informative and formative. It both sets a precedent and provides an interpretive lens.
As with the Bible (above) it is disastrous when we import foreign concepts of God (in this instance from Greek ideals) and impose them upon the revealed nature of Christ seen in the incarnation.

Immutability: The characteristic of not experiencing change or development. Certain understandings of God posit the divine reality as incapable of experiencing change in any way. Some theologians, however, assert that this concept owes more to Greek philosophical influence than to explicit biblical teaching. Many contemporary theologians distinguish between God’s eternally unchanging, faithful character and God’s ability to respond in different ways to changing human beings in their temporal, earthly situation.

Impassibility: The characteristic, usually associated with God, of being unaffected by earthly, temporal circumstances, particularly the experience of suffering and its effects. Many contemporary theologians reject the idea of divine impassibility, suggesting that it reflects Greek philosophical, rather than biblical, concerns. However, the Bible clearly teaches that God cannot be swayed in any way to be unfaithful to what God has promised. Still, it is seemingly impossible to associate pure impassibility with God in light of the fact that Jesus Christ, as the fullest manifestation of God, experienced suffering on the cross.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 704-709). Kindle Edition.

You can see why these concepts are contentious. They are imported from somewhere else and then imposed upon the narrative of Scripture. In my opinion they are incompatible and thus unsustainable.

Our great hope is found in the in-carnate god. We will return to this concept in two days with the letter ‘K’ for kenosis.

I would love to hear your thoughts, concerns, questions and comments.

 

BIG thanks to Jesse Turri for providing the artwork for each letter!

If you are interested you can see the early post about reading the Bible according to Genre or check out the art of Hermeneutics (interoperation).   You may also want to look into the temptation of Fideism.

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G is for Genre or Billy Graham got one thing wrong

Genre is by far the most important thing about the Bible that many Bible believing people don’t know. Empire is a close second but nothing matters more than genre when it comes to reading the Bible.

Genre: A term that refers to different types or varieties of literature or media. In the interpretation of texts, particularly the Bible, most exegetes agree that identifying the genre of the text to be interpreted is crucial and that the text must be understood in light of the common conventions that typified that genre at the time of its writing. Thus, poetry is not to be interpreted in the same manner as historical narrative, nor is prophecy properly read in the same manner as an epistle (letter).

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 593-595). Kindle Edition.

Simply stated, one must read a poem differently than history, prophecy differently than a gospel, an epistle differently than apocalyptic literature.

When people say “the Bible says …” it is a bit of a misnomer. The Bible is not one book per se but a collection of books. These 66 books were written at different times over several centuries by dozens of different men and women.G-Genre

This is why one can not say “The Bible says X” with any accuracy.

It would be better to say “In Romans Paul says” or, better yet, “The epistle the Romans says”.

Saying “the Bible says” is like saying “the Kindle says”.

If you said “according to the Kindle”, one would ask ‘in which book?’ and ‘who was the author?’

We need to do the same with the Bible.

This is where Billy Graham comes in. I was recently re-acquainted with the 1998 TED Talk delivered by the legendary evangelical preacher Billy Graham. You can hear the highlights here on the TED Radio Hour.

If you listen to those highlights, I expect 5 things will stick out to you.
1) The humble and sincere spirit of a man who impacted the world.
2) The quote about Thomas Edison.
3) The allusion to Pascal.
4) The ‘Liar, Lord, or Lunatic’ option

Now it is important to stop here are make a confession. Growing up Evangelical, I idolizing Billy Graham and was trained as an apologist in the Billy Graham School of Evangelism. I can not tell you how many times I quoted those same three lines (Franklin, Pascal, and Lewis).

I thank God for this man and have only one lingering concern:

5) The story about believing that the Bible was ‘God’s word’ because ‘God was a gentleman and does not lie’. That is an interesting cultural snapshot.

BUT what it leads to is viewing the Bible as a single-entity and being comfortable say “the Bible says …” as if the Bible did not have competing and contentious voices within its collection!

  • Many people love listening to Billy Graham.
  • Many of those same people love reading the Bible.
  • Many of those same people have never heard of J.E.D.P.

Which is the most basic entry-level of Biblical Scholarship that I know.

All of this is to say that ‘Genre’ is an important element of any Biblical examination and is essential to any discussion regarding faith and religion in the 21st Century.

I know that Billy Graham played a monumental role the American political and religious landscape in the second half of the 20th Century.
The phase “the Bible says”, however, is not one that we can carry into the 21st Century.

The books of the Bible need to be read according to the genre that they were written in.
That is how we hear the truth that is in them – and Christians, beyond anything else, should be lovers of  the truth.

_______________

You can read the rest of the series here:
A is for Atonement

B is for Baptism 

C is for Christology 

ABC Podcast (TNT)

D is for Deconstruction 

E is for Empire 

F is for Fideism 

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E is for Empire

 

“Christian theology suffers from an imperial condition”E-Empire

This is how Catherine Keller begins her chapter in PostColonial Theology.  [Keller podcast]

The people that I know who love, quote, and believe the Bible the most happen to be the least aware of the Bible’s concern with /critique of Empire.

What is fascinating to me is that those who are most unaware of the nature of the American Empire (Imperial reign) are also those who claim to take the Bible the most seriously.

Whenever I bring this up, some who will question ‘How can this be so?” While others will say “What are you making such a big deal about?”

Here is how it works: The biblical narrative details many empires – all of whom have a devastating effect on the people of God.
The Exodus narrative, the Babylonian captivity and the Roman occupation are all examples of Empire. The Bible is through-and-through saturated with imperialism and the disastrous effects that it has on those who are faithful to God.

This is where is gets tough: Moses, Daniel and Jesus all suffered (and subsequently overcame) Imperial regimes. The Bible is saturated with themes of ‘Empire’ and resistance.

The problem is that those who are most imbedded in the Empire (and believe the Bible) are the most unaware of this theme and may have no idea that the Bible that they believe so much has anything to say about the issue what so ever!

If you have never heard of ‘Empire / Imperialism’ then the Bible reads a certain way which allows you to be complicit in the current American imperial impulse and actually believe that you are serving the Kingdom of God by participating in that said structure.

The shocker is when you find out that Moses, Daniel and Jesus were on the underbelly of the beast and were figures of resistance seeking to undermine the established order – the systems, structures and institutions of repression and containment.

It can be eye-opening!~

There is not a single part of the New Testament that is not haunted by the shadow of Empire and Imperial domination.
One might as well not even read the Gospels or the Book of Revelation outside of this lens!!

As long as we are on the subject, it is impossible to talk about the Cross of Christ or Paul’s diatribe in Romans 1 without a thorough understanding of Empire. Take a minute and think about what a cross was – an instrument of intimidation and public terror reserved for those who threatened that stability of the Empire (like sedition).

I might go as far as to say that Empire and Imperial pressures dominate and dictate every facet of the Bible and especially the New Testament.

Here is the shocker: those who take the Bible the most seriously (or least read it the most) may know the least about this aspect of its original context …

… and may be those what are most blind to the current role that their nationalistic government plays in the world.

 

Think about this: if you do not see the role that Egypt, Babylon and Rome played in the Biblical narrative … by what lens would be able to see the role that post-Cold War America plays in the global War on Terror?

I don’t think that you could.

Here is the bottom line: The people of God have frequently been oppressed and dominated.
Scripture tells us of their resistance and deliverance.
If, then, the people who claim to be ‘with God’ are complicit in the oppression and marginalization of those who claim to be fellow believers ‘in Christ’ … let alone those who come from a different tradition…

… you can see the problem.

Empire dominates everything. Domination is actually the Modus Operandi of Imperial regimes. The methods are predictable:

  • Road blocks
  • Security checks
  • Boarders
  • Prisons
  • War
  • Control

The Bible testifies to this and to the resistance of it. The great irony of history is that so many Bible believing people both don’t know this – and subsequently participate (even complicetly) in the continuation of this oppressive system.
The Bible tells us that Moses, Daniel and Jesus all suffered under Imperial oppression. We need to make sure that we don’t use the Bible to defend or extend any Nationalistic/ Empire ambitions in the world that we live in via the systems that we participate in and support.
For further examination:

Beyond the Spirit of Empire - Rieger, Sung, Miguez [Rieger podcast]

Arrogance of Nations: Paul and Empire – Elliott  [Elliot podcast]

God and Empire - Crossan  [Jesus and Empire – Horsley

New Testament and Empire – Carter  [Carter podcast]

If interested, here is a blog series I wrote about social imaginaries (nationalism)
In case one would think that I made too much out of the absence of this topic in certain circles, it is illustrative that neither Grenz nor Gonzalez – the two resources I am utilizing in the series –  have an entry for ‘Empire’ in their dictionaries. They do however both address ‘Empiricism’ (as in ‘empirical evidence’).

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10 Not-So-Shocking Things You Learn in Religion 101

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Greg & Tripp Chatting

CEM47354539_129436297782Tons of people that are ‘religious’  would be shocked if they just took a religion 101 class.  The divide between the academic study of religion is so huge that the experience of many students in their first religion class is disorientating.  I don’t think this is because religion professors hate religion and want to ruin people of faith’s confidence.  Largely it is evidence of just how poor our religious communities educate their members.  In this episode I am joined by Greg Horton, ex-pastor and undergrad religion professor in Oklahoma to look of  a list of 10 Not-So-Shocking Things You Learn in Religion 101.  Well we get through half of it in this episode.  Next week we will finish

Greg Horton was one of the inspirations behind starting the podcast.  I have stalked him online for a long time and then we got to have some fun in person on my visit to Oklahoma.  It was turned into this popular episode of the podcast.  Then he came back on the podcast to share 10 Dirty Secrets About Being a Minister.  Way back when he had a podcast called ‘the Parish’ on the wired parish podcast network. Back then he was an emergent Christian and has since left the building. Throughout his journey I have loved following his blog,hearing about his undergrad religion and ethics students, and thinking through some of the serious criticisms he has leveled against the church. Plus he also does some wine reviews.

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Who Loves Us? or What’s Up With Worship Music?

I am a passionate worshiper. I sing loudly and feel the songs deeply. As a former drummer, I also dig rockin’ worship.worship blue

Having said that, my recent travels have given me reason to pause. In three different states – in three different regions of the country – I have had the pleasure of attending three different worship services. It was not lost on me that although they are three different denominational backgrounds, they all sang almost identical worship sets.

Now, the uniformity in contexts that proudly eschew liturgy is fascinating enough – but will have to wait.
What I want to focus on today is that in all  three services the exact same song appeared … and it is a troubling song in the context of public worship.

I know that looking at contemporary worship music is a delicate affair. I have at times comforted those who are worried about worship. I have at other times needed to be reminded of the poetics involved corporate singing.

It is with appropriate caution that I offer a modest critique of this very popular song. I only bring it up because it is so emblematic of a larger issue that needs addressing.

The song is “How He Loves Us”. Here is how the song starts:

He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.

 

Right off the bat we have 4 problems:

1) Who is ‘He’? The song never references God at all.  It never introduces a character and then refers to ‘him’ by pronoun the rest of the time. There is no referent for ‘he’. It is odd to introduce a pronoun without an antecedent.

Herein lies the problem: the assumed ‘you’ (or in this case ‘he’) of modern worship music is too comfortable. I don’t mean in a ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ sort of way. I mean in an christendom assumption that everyone in the room means/thinks the same thing.
This presumption of identity is the exact thing that we need to be correcting/ deconstructing with good and meaningful worship!  Instead, we go early and often to therapeutic songs about belonging, identity and longing.

2) Mercy Doesn’t Bend Trees. I get the imagery of the hurricane. It is fine to allude to imagery and even use allegory. Music is expressive! I get that. But if you are going to employ a device … stick with it.

‘He’ is a hurricane, I am a tree. Fine. Wind bends trees. Got it. What is the mercy part? Mercy doesn’t bend trees. That line doesn’t make any sense.

Herein lies the problem: the thoughtless jumping into and out of poetic devices is distracting to anyone who is actually thinking about what they are singing. If your going to employ imagery – go with it. Stick with it. As worshipers we will give you plenty of permission to be creative. Just don’t be distracting.

3) Who are you singing to? The next line of the song then shifts voices/audiences.

When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

We were just singing about ‘Him’ and now you (singular) are singing to ‘You’. What happened there?  It is like this song loses its train of thought or switches into and out of storytelling mode impulsively.

Herein lies the problem: contemporary worship songs have become so emotive that what may be appropriate for the song writer’s personal/private experience may not be as suitable for public/corporate worship.

4) He Loves Us. The chorus then has another shift in voice and audience and now ‘we‘ are signing about ‘Him’. The music swells and settles into a powerful and constant sway. The audience comes together into full-throated unity. It is an amazing crescendo and it resonates deeply in our hearts as we remind each other of the deepest truth in the universe: God is love (I John 4:8) and that love is for the whole world (John 3:16).

Herein lies the problem: the chorus is beautiful and deep and meaningful and true. So my concern about the distracting and scattered nature of the song up to this point may lead someone to ask “You don’t like that song? I love that song! It means so much to me and I experienced God’s love when we sang it.”  And that is the problem! Because songs are so powerful and people’s experience in/of them is so profound and meaningful … we need to be more careful with the stuff we throw up on the powerpoint projector.

My concern is not with the sincere congregant who throws themselves whole-heartedly into a worship chorus and isn’t analyzing every detail of the progression and theology. God bless them!
My concern is with the leadership that chooses and orchestrates the worship gathering! We need to love, lead and protect people because they are vulnerable when they on their knees – with their eyes closed – and their hands raised to heaven. That is a vulnerable position and we are asking them to offer their whole hearts to God – we can’t be this sloppy and unquestioning in our song selection.

 

I could go on with my critique of this song. It gets weirder and more erratic. I don’t want to beat a dead horse though. 

Let me close with this: If you were to take the lyrics of a song and plug them into one of those ‘word bubble’ generators, if ‘He’ is the biggest word + ‘God’ never appears in the song = the song is making assumptions we cannot afford to make in the 21st century.

In a post-modern post-christendom context, people are coming in with both great needs and massive assumptions. We are missing the very opportunity that worship of the living God provides when we don’t challenge those assumptions (of both God’s identity as well as  our own identity) and meet those needs of forgiveness, acceptance and belonging.

It is time to ask again what the purpose of worship is and then select songs accordingly. Otherwise we are missing an opportunity to teach about God and introduce people to that God who loves them so very much.

I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, concerns and corrections. 

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