Friday, September 26, 2008

Auctioning Virginity

This is from

Graduate Student Auctions Off Virginity:  In a new low for morals and capitalism, a 22 year old graduate student at Sacramento State has joined with a legal Nevada brothel to auction off her virginity.  The young woman says she can verify her purity and is selling her first experience to finance her graduate education in marriage and family therapy.  Holding an undergraduate degree in women's studies she believes her actions are empowering to her as a woman and that her virginity is marketable because it is a rare commodity.  Several students have expressed support, especially for a cause as noble as paying for school.  ( September 11, 2008)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Getting mentioned...

Because of the recent work I've been doing with Matt Jenson's The Gravity of Sin, I've gotten some exposure at the T&T Clark blog here and here. Enjoy!

Monday, August 11, 2008

N. T. Wright on the Ascension

I've been reading N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope. Here are a couple of fantastic paragraphs on the ascension (112-113).

What happens when you downplay or ignore the ascension [or the resurrected and still embodied Jesus]? The answer is that the church expands to fill the vaccuum. If Jesus is more or less identical with the church - if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created a high road to the worst kind of triumphalism. This indeed is what twentieth-century English liberalism always tended toward: by compromising with rationalism and trying to maintain that talk of the ascension is really talk about Jesus being with us everywhere, the church effectively presented itself (with its structures and hierarchy, its customs and quirks) instead of presenting Jesus as its Lord and itself as the world's servant, as Paul puts it. And the other side of triumphalism is of course despair. If you put all your eggs into the church-equals-Jesus basket, what are you left with when, as Paul says in the same passage, we ourselves are found to be cracked earthenware vessels?

If the church identifies its structures, its leadership, its liturgy, its buildings, or anything else with its Lord - and that's what happens if you ignore the ascension or turn it into another way of talking about the Spirit - what do you get? You get, on the one hand, what Shakespeare called "the insolence of office" and, on the other hand, the despair of late middle age, as people realize it doesn't work. (I see this all too frequently among those who bought heavily into the soggy rationalism of the 1950s and 1960s.) Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church - when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him - only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.

There is more fantastic material in the following paragraphs, but this little tidbit hit me on Saturday when I was reading it. Wright goes on to make the interesting (and necessary point) that a human being (Jesus as the divine-human person) is running the cosmos right now from heaven - that Jesus continues his human work straight into the present. You hear these things so little - how wonderful to hear them again!

Friday, August 08, 2008

"At the Name of Jesus"

This is a lyric of a song we sing at St. Bartholomew's from time to time. The words were penned by Caroline Maria Noel in 1870, and the hymn tune we use was arranged by our music director Eric Wyse in 2005. In my humble opinion, there's not a more perfect expression of theology and piety than this song. The two verses in brackets are original, but we don't use in church, for length's sake, but they are beautiful nonetheless.

At the Name of Jesus
At the Name of Jesus, every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess Him King of glory now;
’Tis the Father’s pleasure we should call Him Lord,
Who from the beginning was the mighty Word.

[Mighty and mysterious in the highest height,
God from everlasting, very light of light:
In the Father’s bosom with the spirit blest,
Love, in love eternal, rest, in perfect rest.

At His voice creation sprang at once to sight,
All the angel faces, all the hosts of light,
Thrones and dominations, stars upon their way,
All the heavenly orders, in their great array.]

Humbled for a season, to receive a name
From the lips of sinners unto whom He came,
Faithfully He bore it, spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious when from death He passed.

Bore it up triumphant with its human light,
Through all ranks of creatures, to the central height,
To the throne of Godhead, to the Father’s breast;
Filled it with the glory of that perfect rest.

Name Him, Christians, name Him, with love strong as death
But with awe and wonder, and with bated breath!
He is God the Savior, He is Christ the Lord,
Ever to be worshipped, trusted and adored.

In your hearts enthrone Him; there let Him subdue
All that is not holy, all that is not true;
Crown Him as your Captain in temptation’s hour;
Let His will enfold you in its light and power.

Christians, this Lord Jesus shall return again,
With His Father’s glory, with His angel train;
For all wreaths of empire meet upon His brow,
And our hearts confess Him King of glory now.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The same mistake

In other words, liberalism is, simply, the desire to be taken seriously by the academy and the willingness to find an apologetic that is relevant to the culture.
Several days ago, a friend replied to my 'bad, bad windows' rant. You can see his response here. I replied, and the above sentence is part of the response. The more I think about this sentence, the more I think it is both desperately hard and true.

It is hard because I work for InterVarsity's Graduate and Faculty Ministries. We're about the work of helping Christian grad students make it in the contemporary university and, on top of that, helping them to thrive as Christians and academics, as whole people, as world-changers.

It is hard because our modus operandi is sometimes for some of us driven by wanting to be taken seriously and wanting to find an apologetic that is relevant to the academic culture.

We want to be taken seriously. Who wants to be thought of as a buffoon? Who wants to think other people are thinking one is a supersititous, backwoods idiot?

And so, we want to be relevant. We want to find a bridge between the culture that we want to take us seriously, and the message we want to bring to that culture.

But, unfortunately, the sentence remains devastatingly true - at least of the thumbnail sketch of the development of continental liberalism I was taught. Schleiermacher wrote a book on Christianity to "his cultured despisers." A brilliant thinker, he bridged the gap. He developed a sophisticated, elegant, and convincing apologetic for the Gospel.

But, in so doing, he tamed the Gospel; he broke her back. The Gospel became a maidservant to the ideology to which she had been wedded. She was eventually eviscerated of her vital life and left as a shell into which people cast their images of God against the sky.

He wanted the Gospel to be taken seriously by the culture.

He was willing to fashion an apologetic to make it so.

And us evangelicals are perilously close to the same mistake, which is why I continued in my comment:
Well, those two things sound like most evangelicals, don't they? That's because we're only ever a hair's breadth away from making the same mistake as the continental liberals: wanting more desperately to speak TO our cultured despisers than ABOUT Jesus Christ.
We ministers have to be able to speak about Jesus Christ, even at the expense of looking foolish to our counterparts and colleagues. He is public truth, and his Revelation is knowledge, but if we ever put the cart before the horse, if we ever allow something else to become the subject of the sentence, then we have already capitulated, already lost the fight. One hundred years from now, "public truth" and "knowledge" will not be the terms in which we try to cast our faith, but He will always be its purpose, content, and goal. We are speaking about him to our cultured despisers. And may it always come in that order.

Monday, August 04, 2008

10 Days to Faster Reading

I finished this little book while we were on vacation, and I'd say this. If you want to read more quickly than you already do, then buy this book. I've tried to read faster before, but there was something about this book was structured (one chapter a day for ten days) that sped the learning, and I highly recommend it.

The most important thing I learned was that you have to expect a drop in comprehension when you start to read faster. BUT, given (what I found to be) just a little bit of practice, comprehension returns. Now, I feel like a more confident reader than I ever have before.

This really helps for someone working with graduate students!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

New review up!

Before we left on our trip, I wrote a review of Matt Jenson's The Gravity of Sin for the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. The review is up now, so go see it and let me know what you think.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Bad, Bad Windows

As I've written, Monique and I just returned recently from a fantastic 10-day vacation to the Pacific Northwest. On the trip, we visited Victoria, British Columbia, and its beautiful Parliament building.

Represented in stained glass around the place were the different branches of knowledge. One held the Arts, another Science, and yet another Agriculture. Being me, the one that caught my eye was Divinitas, "divinity."

It's a beautiful window, and I took a minute or two to ponder it. I noticed how Divinity is broken into two, Theology and Piety.

Theology had a Star of David and a lamp on a pedestal.

Piety had an open Bible and a cross.

And then the message of the windows hit me. Theology is the transcendence of Jewish religion by the light of reason (the lamp), while piety is the affectation of Christian religion based on Scripture and the cross. Divinity is thus broken into the theoretical (theology) and the practical (piety), the hard and the soft.

The window deserves some applause for holding theology and piety together. Many lectures and sermons have tried to convince me to value one more highly than the other. Some theologians demonize piety for its lack of rigor and clear headedness. Some preachers demonize theology for separating them from the presence of God's love.

And the windows bear out the divide. Only Piety focuses on Christ. The open Bible is there as well as the cross. Affectation, a feeling of dependence, a sense of being forgiven.

But not in the Theology pane. In Theology, there is the Star of David, a representative of ancient Jewish religion. It is impaled on the stand that holds the clear light of reason on top. Theology is not about Jesus or Scripture, the window proclaims. It is the pure knowledge of God that transcends the narrow and backwards superstitions of the ancient Jewish people (and, by extension, the narrow and backwards superstitions of the pious). I can't tell what sickens me more, the overt arrogance or the covert anti-semitism. Or the fact that these ideas dominated the continental liberal theological establishment that supported a Kaiser's war policies and then refused to stand up to a Fuhrer.

Or that many well-meaning, wonderful, and intelligent theologians and preachers still indulge the insipid divide between theology and piety today.

Oh, for a new starting point in theology.

Back from the Northwest

Monique and I are just back from a celebratory trip to the Pacific Northwest. We celebrated Monique's completed Ph.D. with ten days in Washington, Oregon, and Canada. What a great trip it was!

Here are some of the things we saw:
1. Mt. Rainier
2. Mt. St. Helens
3. The Columbia River Gorge
4. Multnomah Falls
5. Portland
6. Washington's Pacific Coastline
7. Olympic National Park
8. The Hoh Rainforest
9. Cape Flattery (the most NW point of the lower 48)
10. Victoria, the major city on Vancouver Island, British Columbia
11. and Seattle!

The trip was great, and there are so many stories to tell. And, I'll be posting some of them here in the next few days. Actually, one of them is already written and returns to more theological topics. I hope you'll enjoy!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Two recent sermons

Here is a link to two recent sermons I preached at Montgomery Evangelical Free Church in Belle Mead, NJ.

The first is "Christ Conquered our Suffering," on Romans 5:1-11.

The second is "God Gave Us Life," on Romans 6:1-11.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Indiana Jones in Twilight

The very few reviews I have read try to treat Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a stand-alone story and then complain about its lack of wonder, adventure, or originality. These really are problems with Skull, but I do not think they spring from the failure of Lucas and Spielberg to create a fresh action movie. They are, on the other hand, marks of success. Skull was nothing if not appropriate.

Indiana Jones is old. In his first appearance in Skull, Indy stumbles to his tossed-down hat. His gait is strained and his posture stiff. With hands raised, Indy’s companion mutters, “This isn’t going to be easy.” Indy replies, “Not as easy as it used to be.”

Indy lives in a different time and place. No longer the WWII era filled with Nazis and youth, the late ‘50’s are a time of fear. Suited FBI agents tell Indy he is a suspected Communist. The Board of Directors at Yale put him on an indefinite leave of absence. The once-open halls of academia breath the stale, narrow air of paranoia. Teaching always bored the Dr. Jones who wanted to be ‘in the field.’ But this is different somehow. Yale feels like a tomb.

Indy has wasted his life. Bouncing in the back of a Soviet truck through the Amazon, Marian and Indy argue about his lost life. “I’m sure you had plenty of women after you left me,” Marian spits. “Yeah,” Indy retorts, “They all shared one problem, though. They weren’t you, sweetheart.” His years of lying in his relationships’ wreckage have taken a silent toll on Indy which he only realizes when he is told that he has a son, Mutt Williams (played admirably by Shia LeBeouf).

Indy grows. “Do what you love and don’t let anybody tell you different,” Indiana says to Mutt in a wasted Peruvian city. Mutt had dropped out of college. When Indy finds out the truth about his son, he changes: “You’re going back to school!”

“What about ‘do what you love and don’t let anybody tell you different’!?!”

“That was before I was your father!”

What if they make a new movie starring Mutt? I myself am torn. This was Indiana’s twilight, but it would make sense if it were Mutt’s dawning, and the work done in Skull would allow a sequel to be made on the fresh and interesting level of Raiders and Crusade. I like how Skull ended with Mutt nearly, but not quite, donning the hat. I hope for two different things: the first is that they make a movie to explore the development of Henry Jones III. The second is that they never reopen these pages, allowing us to do what the Indiana Jones saga has always encouraged: dream of a time not so long ago, when a fedora, a whip, and some wit could throw open legend and make us believe. That’s what this movie did, and, for all its problems, it remained an Indiana Jones film from beginning to end.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

'Context happens'

[Disclaimer: You are about to read a polemic]

I've been thinking some about missions lately, and the idea of 'context' has come up repeatedly. Some say we need to 'contextualize the Gospel' in order to make it understandable to others. The problem is that the context or culture of any one person, much less an entire group of people, is infinitely removed from yours. There is no such thing as the "University context" or the "Nigerian context" or the "Palestinian context." There are only specific people, places, events, resemblances, and analogies. That's not to say we can't generalize, but we should always check and chuck our generalizations when they cease to describe well.

Instead of contextualizing the Gospel, let's just be mindful that context just happens. Be mindful and stop worrying so much.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Spotting 'Human Flourishing'

As I prepare for this December's Following Christ conference, I keep spotting its theme of human flourishing in many and varied places. See if you can spot it here in some remarks by the Rt. Revd. N.T. Wright, who will be expositing Colossians at this year's conference.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Part III: Why I no longer use the word 'incarnational.'

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV (not yet published)

I've been angling slowly towards making this point: the current use of the word "incarnational" to describe ministry or presence falls short of the Incarnation itself.

One can use the word to describe ministry if we just start with the word itself, "incarnation," as enfleshment or embodiment. Again, in this connection there are (usually) three things involved: a bearer/mediator, a receiver, and the thing being borne/mediated. The means of the mediation is generally unspecified, and, when specified, rarely allows (if we're honest with ourselves) for the mediated to be a person of any sort. This path that moves upward from "incarnation" leaves little hope that our incarnational ministries can do much good or connect with anything beyond our humanity.

On the other hand, what happens if we start this discussion by talking about the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ as witnessed in Holy Scripture and taught us by our common inheritance of faith?

I think we would find something completely different than what I used to describe by the word 'incarnational,' and in its complete difference we would find it unable to be generalized to our ministry contexts.

The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is a single and utterly unique event that took place roughly 2,000 years ago in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus Christ maintains the three levels of presence, embodied presence, and kenotic embodied presence, but none of these three, and not all three together, go as far in describing this Mystery as they should. Scripture set us down a path that our fathers and mothers in faith followed to discover that in the Incarnation the mediation between God and humanity is no longer generally unspecified. They described this mediation as none other than the union of two natures (human and divine) in the One Person of the Mediator, Jesus Christ. In this, the hypostatic union, the eternal Son of God enters unique and irreplaceable fellowship with the human nature of Jesus Christ. This fellowship is uniquely with this human being (the son of Mary) and in this specific connection (one Person, two Natures). It is a personal union. That which is mediated to the world in Jesus Christ is none other than the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, whom T. F. Torrance calls the 'personalizing Person,' and in this mediation the Trinity itself is irrevocably connected to humanity.

If we start by thinking about what Scripture and our tradition says happened in Jesus Christ, then it becomes very difficult to use the word incarnational of anything other than the Incarnation itself for Incarnation soars high above the ideas of moral and spiritual mediation (as described by 'embodied' and 'kenotic embodied' presence) while still containing them in this unique and special hypostatic union, connection, and mediation. God becoming one of us in Jesus Christ in the hypostatic union is the content of the Incarnation that differentiates it from all other categories and therefore defines it (if we start with Jesus Christ). If we use an adjectival form that does not allow for this specific and definitive content, then we have muddied our language and threaten to undercut our souls' awe at the beauty and grandeur of the Incarnation itself.

Therefore, the reason I no longer use the word 'incarnational,' and the reason that I think you should stop using it too, is that unless we are willing to say that everyday human beings or institutions can become hypostically united with God or the Spirit, using the word 'incarnational' makes little to no sense and shows our lack of care about the language we use to point to one of the central Mysteries of our faith. I feel like much of the original intent behind using 'incarnational' has to do with 1) raising the value of the thing described, such as in incarnational ministry, and 2) connecting the thing described with the Person and Work of Christ. These are both wonderful things, but I contend that instead of doing either of them, using 'incarnational' actually devalues the Incarnation from which the modifier 'incarnational' is formed and subsequently devalues the ministry that we claim derives from it.

That is not to say that we should throw away the word 'incarnational' and find nothing to replace it. The actual work that 'incarnational' has done (as described in part i) needs to be preserved, but we should change metaphors. In the next and final part (iv), I will argue that the word 'embodied' is the word we should employ instead of 'incarnational' and that the former's use opens us to richer and deeper theological/pastoral reflection and practice than the latter.

[concluded in part iv]

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Part II: Why I no longer use the word 'incarnational.'

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV (not yet published)

So far, I've described three layers of how I've seen the modifier "incarnational" used. The first use is "presence." The second use is "embodied presence." The third is either "kenotic presence" or "kenotic embodied presence." In the second and third use there is a mediation involved, usually of an idea or ideal and usually in an unspecified way or form.

This is well and good if one starts this journey from "incarnation" as a word and then moves on to talk about ministry. Very basically, "incarnation" derives from the Latin for "in the flesh" or "enfleshment." The word incarnation, as an artifact of its etymology, really is just a fancy (and, perhaps all-important, theological-sounding) word for "embodiment." Anyone or anything can be an embodiment or incarnation, in this sense, of an ethical or moral ideal such as love, courage, and wisdom. At this point, "incarnational" ministry is just ministry that is bodily present for people in need.

One can add the Spirit into the discussion if one wants, but it doesn't change the necessarily moral (and only moral/spiritual) nature of the embodiment. In fact, one would wonder if the Spirit could retain any personal element at all "starting from the bottom" with 'incarnation.' Surely, from the bottom up, we could only legitimately talk about the Person of God as an anthropomorphism, nothing more. If that is the case, what could we possibly mean by the incarnation of Jesus Christ?

We can already see the problems that become evident when we start at the bottom with the word 'incarnation.' The problem becomes even more evident if we start from the other end with the Incarnation of Jesus Christ itself.

(continued in part iii)

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV (not yet published)

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Why I no longer use the word "incarnational" (and why I don't think you should use it either); Part I

I've heard a lot since college about this adjective, "incarnational." Well, actually, I haven't heard a lot about it. I've heard it used, repeatedly, to describe things like "ministry" or "presence." You might hear something like, "We strive to practice incarnational ministry here," or, "The Church needs to be more incarnational." As you can see from the title, I don't use this word any longer, and I want to share my reasons with you but that can wait for later (I'm not quite sure how many posts this will have!). Here, I want to describe three layers of meaning-in-practice I see in this concept's use along a theological sliding-scale. Next time I'll tell you why I no longer use that adjective (and, by extension, why I don't think you should either).

At its least theological, when people use the word "incarnational," they mean "presence." In the Incarnation, God became one of us and dwelt with us. He was present with us in Christ. Therefore, we should be present with others in the same way. There are two things in this understanding: the person coming to be present (x) and the person with whom the first is being present (y).

At a slightly more theological level, people might mean "embodied" by "incarnational." Embodied connotes more than just "being there;" it also evokes a type of doing. Incarnational anything, understood as embodiment, conceives of three things, or, rather, keeps the two people (x and y) from above but introduces an abstract ideal that is mediated (by generally unspecified means) through one of the persons involved. You can see this second theological level of the understanding of "incarnational" in this standard phrase: "The Church should incarnate God's love to the world." In this instance, person or persons x [the Church] incarnates idea/ideal z [God's love] so that y [the world] can see it.

At its most theological, when people talk about incarnational ministry, they speak by analogy about the kenosis, or self-emptying, of Christ (cf. Phil 2). This sense is the trickiest to describe because it can move along at least two tracks.

The first track might take kenosis as something for us to do for the sake of the message we bear. This retains elements of "incarnational" as "embodied" except that in order to bear the idea/ideal to the world, we have to humble ourselves, empty ourselves, in order to let the message/Word/Gospel/Spirit shine through. It adds a definitely moral tone to the rhetoric.

The second track might see self-emptying itself as the message. This returns to "incarnational" as presence but, again, adds a moral element to it. It's not enough just to be with people, one must empty oneself of oneself, and that self-emptying is the content of the Christian faith.

As I lay this groundwork, I need to add some caveats:
1) I'm not thinking of anyone specifically as I describe the above. As I think about the shape of the way I and others have used the adjective "incarnational" over the past decade, this is what comes to mind.
2) Ergo, from none of these above statements should it be taken that I am trying to develop a typology by which we might categorize people's "incarnational" thinking. Any one person using the word probably slides around and through these 'categories' very freely. If not already, the reason for the categories will become apparent in my next post.

Next up: Why I no longer use the word "incarnational," and why you shouldn't either.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV (not yet published)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Christian Heroism

"It is Christian heroism--a rarity, to be sure--to venture wholly to become oneself, an individual human being, this specific individual human being, alone before God, alone in this prodigious strenuousness and this prodigious responsibility; but it is not Christian heroism to be taken in by the idea of man in the abstract or to play the wonder game with world history" (italics mine).
-Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Saturday Day Trip

Last Saturday, Monique and I took a day trip to East Tennessee. I spent the first part of the day at a small conference in Monteagle, TN at the Dubose Conference Center. Professors Peter Augustine Lawler and William McClay presented on topics related to human dignity and bio-technology. During my shut-in hours, Monique explored the surrounding area, visiting Sewannee and the University of the South. After the conference, we drove up Lookout Mountain in Georgia and then descended to Chattanooga, TN where we ate dinner in a train car attached to the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo!

As I think about the trip now, I have two nuggets to share.
  1. Dr. Lawler, borrowing a phrase from Pascal, talked about the greatness and misery of the human person, namely that our greatness is our misery. We are the only living creatures we know that are fully aware that they are going to die...and they don't like it one bit. Our misery comes from our awareness of our own impending and necessary deaths and the lack of time and space that gives us to live lives of substance and meaning. Because we are these creatures of both greatness and misery, whenever we advance one aspect, like our greatness, we find ourselves more miserable than before. Lawler likes to use the example of parnaoid soccer moms. How come, in a country that is arguably the safest and healthiest country ever in the history of the world, people are more paranoid and nervous than ever? A quick answer is that as our greatness increases so does our misery. As we've made death more and more accidental, the more and more we fear it.
  2. The Chattanooga Choo Choo started running from Cincinnati to Chattanooga in the 1880's. Believe it or not, it was the FIRST railway connecting the North and the South in this way. As we were looking at the train and having dinner, we wondered how the inevitable culture clash that ended in the American Civil War might have been mitigated if it were just easier to go visit your relatives up North or down South. Without that fast and easy transportation, it's easy to see how the two could see themselves as truly separate cultures and, for the South, countries.
That's that. Let me know what you think.