Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Myth of a Christian Nation, by Gregory Boyd

Gregory Boyd's The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church is the latest book in the "Currently Reading" sidebar to bite the dust. Since I am writing a "book-note" on the book to be published here, I will summarize Boyd briefly and allow any critique I might make to be published there.

In his introduction, Boyd writes this: "I believe a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry.... Rather than focusing our understanding of God's kingdom on the person of Jesus -- who, incidentally, never allowed himself to get pulled into the political disputes of his day -- I believe many of us American evangelicals have allowed our understanding of the kingdom of God to be polluted with political ideals, agendas, and issues" (11).

Boyd argues that for something to be Christian it must look like Jesus, and Jesus looks like someone dying for the people who crucified him. He connects Jesus' sacrificial life to Christians by quoting Ephesians 5:2: "Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." Boyd believes that Jesus' sacrifice is not simply to be adored, it is to be imitated.

Chapters 1-3 develop the idea that there has never been a Christian nation, since no nation has ever looked liked Jesus who was willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of those who killed him. All nations are one form or other of the "kingdom of the world," the power set up by God but controlled by demonic forces. The radical alternative was inaugurated by Jesus, the "kingdom of God." All nations, as forms of the kingdom of the world, practice "power-over" people and coerce people by violence to do as the kingdom of the world desires. Only the kingdom of God practices "power-under," the form of power exercised by Jesus Christ when he washed his disciples' feet and died for the people who killed him.

Chapters 4-5 illustrate from historical and contemporary examples how the kingdom of God has been coopted by the kingdom of the world and made little more than a religious version of the kingdom of the world. Boyd suggests that this is best seen in the current motto: "Taking America Back for God."

Chapters 6-8 illustrate five negative consequences of seeing America as a "Christian" nation.
  1. It harms global missions because the kingdom of God has been associated by people in the rest of the globe with the specific kingdom of the world government that rules in the U.S.
  2. It harms local missions because of the "pervasive misconception that the civil religion of Christianity in America is real Christianity" (111).
  3. It harms our spiritual lives because we learn to rely on the "power-over" of the "Christian" U.S. instead of trusting whole-heartedly on the "power-under" power of prayer.
  4. It harms our relationship with sinners because the myth that America is a Christian nation tempts many of us to see ourselves as the "moral guardians" of the country instead of the "chief of all sinners."
  5. It harms the advancement of the kingdom of God in general because the myth causes us to look more towards Old Testament theocracy than to New Testament discipleship for examples to live by. In Boyd's view, only Israel has ever had the right to be called a theocracy, and it is American hubris to claim those rights for itself.
In the final chapter, Boyd wrestles with five questions concerning Christianity and violence.

Is this book worth reading? Since I am not critiquing yet, I would say "yes." I found several things in the book that I disagreed with, but I still found many more things very helpful in elucidating the difference between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God, between true Christianity and the civil religion of America, etc. Any Christian should be edified by these distinctions (which are classically Christian) and by the focus that Boyd pulls consistently back to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.

But even if Boyd is right, there are many who would not be able to accept it. Sometimes people have spent too much blood, sweat, and tears going in one direction to change their minds, even if they have figured out that the path leads to destruction. Is the book worth reading? Yes, it is. Will it be difficult for many to read? Yes, very, very likely. It calls everything into question.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson

I must be on a roll because I just finished another book from the "Currently Reading" pane: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, by Eugene Peterson.

I received a copy of the book at ONS (Orientation for New Staff) this year in Madison, Wisconsin. I was suspicious of the book because I struggle with Peterson's magnum opus: The Message Bible paraphrase. It has been my opinion that in The Message Peterson takes undue liberties with the Biblical text to make them fit his theological structure and methodology.

While I do not like this in relationship to the text itself, I find I rather enjoy it in reflection on the text.

A Long Obedience is an extended reflection on the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134), and Peterson uses each Psalm to reflect Christianly on topics like repentance, providence, worship, and service.

What I found disconcerting at first was just how Christian these reflections were. I was taught in exegesis courses that one must first establish what a biblical text meant for the original audience before trying to transfer that meaning to today, and that a text cannot mean today what it did not mean to its original audience. I found myself wanting to limit and sometimes exclude distinctively Christian readings of the Old Testament.

Peterson just assumes the weight of the Christian message of the divine-human Jesus sent from the Holy Trinity as the Savior of the world, and his Christian assumptions weave their way through his appreciation of the Psalms and their application to Christian lives. His prose is bracing...and refreshing. He takes for granted the amazing grace of the Father shown and enacted in the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit.

This book is a response to grace, and an infectious joy seeps through the pages, even the pages that deal with sadness and suffering. It sings joy to people in hard times and good times. It reminds everyone in every situation of life that, while the Christian life may be at times difficult (a long obedience in the same direction) it is still a life lived in response to the wonderful love given to us in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Fires of Heaven, by Robert Jordan

I just finished the first book that had been in the "Currently Reading" side-bar. It was Robert Jordan's fifth book in the Wheel of Time series: The Fires of Heaven.

If you're looking for some light-hearted reading, please try something like this. If, on the other hand, you're looking for heart-pumping story-telling in a Tolkien-like world, the Wheel of Time series is the place to go.

As I like to put it, Jordan manages to maintain all of Tolkien's strengths without replicating any of his weaknesses. It's hard to find any time in the first five books where it might remotely be called "slow." Jordan expertly introduces, maintains, and develops several dozen important characters and many detailed locations.

And the story is great, too.

So, if you're looking for something to read at the end of the summer, pick up Book One of the Wheel of Time series. You won't regret it.

Proverbs for the Present

Since my last post on Proverbs, I have been reflecting on the amount of "love thy enemies" that seeped up into that chapter (Prov. 24). Today, I'll be reflecting on some Proverbs from the 29th chapter. The more I read the OT, the more I am surprised by the moral and ethical overlay between it and Jesus' teaching. It has been fashionable in Christian circles (both conservative and liberal) to play up the differences between the testaments so as to make the NT somehow a completely new thing that leaves the "primitive" and "arcane" OT in the dust.

But, we must remember, as so many fine biblical scholars and theologians have, that while the Incarnation of the Son of God is an absolutely unique event, the Trinity decided that the human nature of Jesus would come from the Virgin Mary, a very Jewish woman who begat a very Jewish man. The Incarnation, instead of destroying the OT, instead establishes and enriches it.

Listen to these proverbs and hear its resonances with Jesus, especially in the Gospel of Luke:

7 The righteous care about justice for the poor,
but the wicked have no such concern.

14 If a king judges the poor with fairness,
his throne will always be secure.

Or these proverbs wtih Jesus' injunction to turn the other cheek:

13 The poor man and the oppressor have this in common:
The LORD gives sight to the eyes of both.

11 A fool gives full vent to his anger,
but a wise man keeps himself under control.

20 Do you see a man who speaks in haste?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.

23 A man's pride brings him low,
but a man of lowly spirit gains honor.

25 Fear of man will prove to be a snare,
but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe.

26 Many seek an audience with a ruler,
but it is from the LORD that man gets justice.

And, just to be reminded that turning the other cheek does not mean condoning wickedness:

27 The righteous detest the dishonest;
the wicked detest the upright.

In fact, it is Jesus' example of the wise life that leads Christians in his Way. This chapter even has wise comments on the necessity of Jesus' sacrificial life and death:

19 A servant cannot be corrected by mere words;
though he understands, he will not respond.

16 When the wicked thrive, so does sin,
but the righteous will see their downfall.

10 Bloodthirsty men hate a man of integrity
and seek to kill the upright.

But, just to be reminded of the difference...that there is something truly new in the Person and Work of Jesus, notice how Jesus' life turned this proverb on its head:

3 A man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father,
but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth.

How wonderful that Jesus' wisdom brought joy to the Father on our behalf; and how wonderful that Jesus squandered his wealth in his gracious pursuit of us his Church, the worst of all prostitutes.

Monday, August 28, 2006

New Student Outreach 2006

If you have any experience with InterVarsity, you know it is famous for its acronyms. For example, I work for IVCF's GFM. Inside GFM are other groups: PSM, NCF, RTSF, BSF, LSF, etc.

A high-five to whoever can get them all right.

This week has been another famous acronym: NSO (New Student Outreach). A week ago (Mon, 8/21), we had a small booth at graduate student orientation. Thirteen new students signed up to be on our mailing list, and I was able to have coffee with five of those before our Welcome Picnic that happened yesterday (Sun, 8/27). We played frisbee, croquet, and ate lots and lots of Flavor-Ice. About twenty people showed up, and several of them signed up to get more information. I have already sent out emails to follow-up with those students.

I enjoyed myself this week. Getting to know students and the campus better was exciting. Please pray that God uses us to minister in this place, giving us insight into the needs of the students and the Gospel that answers all of our needs through Christ.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Proverbs for the Present

While reading in the 24th chapter of Proverbs today, I ran across some interesting ones that I thought would be good to share. This might develop into a series.

[Tags like "BIBLE" are going to be more commonplace here. Some will be "Bible," others "Theology," others "News" so the discerning reader can see and know what they are getting themselves into.]

Proverbs 24:11-12
11 Rescue those being led away to death;
hold back those staggering toward slaughter.
12 If you say, "But we knew nothing about this,"
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who guards your life know it?
Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?

I though this was especially fitting for its resonances not only with evangelism but also service to the community. Make an effort, it says, to go after those who are perishing and to help those in danger. Whether it be personal salvation or the fact that both their brake lights are out, it would be good to go out of our way to be a help to those in peril.

Proverbs 24:17-18
17 Do not gloat when your enemy falls;
when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice,
18 or the LORD will see and disapprove
and turn his wrath away from him.

Lesslie Newbigin once wrote that to ever glory in the fact that a person has gone to Hell is to show that one has never understood grace. While I certainly agree with Lesslie's sentiment, the wise saying here says, "Don't gloat, or God will stop punishing them!" So, one way or the other, don't gloat when an enemy falls, especially the really bad ones. It either shows that you don't understand the grace that saved you or shows that you really don't want them punished in the first place. If we can't be happy that our enemy stumbles, what can we do? "Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter..."

But this doesn't mean that we should withhold our judgement of evil:

23 These also are sayings of the wise:
To show partiality in judging is not good:
24 Whoever says to the guilty, "You are innocent"—
peoples will curse him and nations denounce him.
25 But it will go well with those who convict the guilty,
and rich blessing will come upon them.

Don't show partiality to enemies and don't gloat over their demise. The wise know that vengeance belongs to the Lord and that God's justice is still just the other side of God's love. It is only because God is constant love that He hates that which is evil, that which is not love. When we gloat over our enemies, or withhold judgement of them as wicked, or don't run after them to help them avoid death and slaughter, we leave the path of God's loving wisdom to make another of our own.

And here's my favorite for the day, one that needs no comment:

26 An honest answer
is like a kiss on the lips.

Monday, August 21, 2006

God's Beautiful 'Nevertheless'

Andrea, a friend of mine from New Jersey, raised an interesting question to me in an email the other day. She was reading Acts and wanted to know how Acts 5:13-14 made sense:

No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.

My two-cents on the matter went something like this:

Acts 5:13-14: These two verses seem to contradict one another, but it looks to me like the tension here highlights the mystery and miracle of coming to believe in Christ.

“No one else dared to join them…”—left on their own, the people do not dare join the company of people who witness to the Resurrection of Christ.

“even though they were highly regarded…”—so, people, even when they consider the high reputation of the church, do not dare, of their own will, to join it. It appears to their minds to be an “impossible possibility.”

“Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.”—Isn’t that a beautiful “nevertheless”? Despite every human desire to the contrary, despite every good reason to stay away from the church, God’s “nevertheless” intervenes so that women and men “were added” to their number, not added by a choice that began with them, but added by a choice that began with God and cut through their doubt and fear. God’s “nevertheless” cuts our own hesitation to ribbons. What was impossible in v. 13 is made possible by God in v. 14. Hallelujah.

Believing in Christ is a mystery because we cannot fathom the “how” of coming to believe. It is a miracle because God is the one who adds to the church’s number with his “nevertheless.”

Immediately before in the disturbing passage about Ananias and Sapphira we are reminded that God is a jealous God who punishes evil even in the hearts of His followers; yet in v.13-14, we are reminded that God is also a merciful God who calls people to Himself despite their sinful rejection of faith and obedience. We approach the God we love then with both fear and awe; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit deserve (and demand) no less from us.

And, I might add, in beginning this trek with Graduate and Faculty Ministries at Vanderbilt University, it will be important for me to remember that while I can make it so that our community is well spoken of and admired on campus, I cannot coerce or force the "nevertheless." Until the Father moves through the Spirit to point to Christ as the Way, Truth, and Life, all I can do is bear witness and pray for God's beautiful, intervening "nevertheless."