The Dark Ref Rises

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On Using Contentment to Be Anything but Content

I’m reading a book titled The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. The second chapter looks at how many Christians erroneously think of God because they believe that if they do a certain number of good works, He will reward them with blessings. The inverse of this is that sins will result in bad things happening to you.

I’ve been trying to think of how I might think of God in these terms, and while I’m still letting the chapter sink in, I immediately thought of an example that I used to be enslaved by: the idea that God will give me a girlfriend/future wife as soon as I learn to be content in Him.

I heard this a lot in college. The idea is that you stop wanting a significant other and start wanting Jesus. When you’re satisfied with Jesus and content with being just with him, Jesus will then turn around and give you the significant other you’ve always wanted.

I think this is a perfect example of the mindset that Smith says does not reflect the character of God, because what you’re really doing is trying to get Him to give you something you want. The irony of this is, you’re trying to use contentment as a way to make that happen.

So here, contentment would be the good work that gets me the reward of a significant other.

I think Smith is correct in that this is the wrong attitude to have. The central message of Jesus includes the announcement that God loves us because He is love, not because we are great. His affection toward us and what He’s done to save us from evil is not and will never be based on what we bring to the table but on His mercy and His desire to be reconciled to us.

We don’t earn the gift of Christ. Why would we think we could earn all of His other gifts?

I’m still thinking about how I might be using good works toward God as a way to get something I want. What about you, reader? Have you found this attitude in your own life, and if so, how are you fighting it?

Quick Review: ‘Recovering the Scandal of the Cross’

I’m very thankful to have read Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, because there’s an understanding of how Jesus’ death saved us that many Christians believe and that is absolutely poisonous.

I’m referring to the popular understanding of what is called penal substitutionary atonement, and here’s how you’ve heard it articulated: God poured His wrath out on Jesus on the cross so that He could forgive us instead of pouring His wrath out on us. We are sinners who deserved hell; because of Jesus serving as our substitute, we can be forgiven. This is what many people in church will call the “good news”.

I’ve had problems with this atonement theory for a while. Many people will insist that Jesus had to bear the wrath of God because justice had to be satisfied, but if this theory is true, then justice was not met at the cross at all. Justice was in fact violated because God apparently killed an innocent man for someone else’s crime—and perverting justice toward the innocent is something that is explicitly condemned in Scripture. I don’t see how you can argue that God dealt with our sins at the cross when He had to effectively sin in order to save us.

Thankfully, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross looks at the relevant biblical passages and influential theologians throughout history to show that this popular understanding of penal substitution is not something to which the church has held. The authors, Joel Baker and Mark Green, contend that the reason the early church never articulated a single atonement theory is that it saw the cross of Christ through several lenses and used several metaphors to explain what Jesus accomplished through his death. The following is a brief review of their work, which I received as part of the book review program by IVP Academic.

To be clear: the authors believe that Jesus’ death accomplished something on our behalf. Jesus died “for us”—of this, there is no doubt in their minds. But there are several ways of explaining how that happened, write the authors. To communicate what the death of Jesus accomplished, the biblical writers used images and metaphors drawn from the culture of their time.

After examining both the biblical passages and various theologians that include Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, and Abelard, the authors look at how the cross is understood in modern cultures and various places, including Japan and Africa. I was very interested to learn how each culture sees the cross through different lenses and excited to see how the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been made incarnate through words and images that those cultures can understand.

What was helpful in the discussion of the history of Christian thought regarding the atonement was the clarification on what Anselm meant in his theory of satisfaction. This theory is different from the modern view in that modern Christians today think it was God’s wrath that must be satisfied, while Anselm believed it was God’s honor that must be satisfied.

This is a book that will both educate you regarding the theories of atonement presented by the church as well as challenge what you think the predominant theory is or should be. The book will also challenge how you communicate the gospel and consider if there are better ways to share it with cultures that have different values and ways of thinking than ours. I’m thankful that Baker and Green made the case—well, in my opinion—that there is not a single metaphor for the cross, behind which all other theories must stand.

So go pick it up. You’ll be glad  you did.

 

All the Ways to Describe ‘Game of Thrones’ to Someone Who’s Never Read/Watched It

I suppose you could say that Game of Thrones really is like The West Wing … so long as Josh Lyman eventually gets his head cut off. (Can you imagine that for a series finale?)

Here’s the graphic, courtesy of Tumblr of Thrones:

Review: ‘The Enemy in the Household’

Sometimes, the greatest stumbling block to the Christian faith is the Bible. And while Caryn Reeder’s book The Enemy in the Household probably won’t remove the trouble that people have with the Scriptures, I think her book deserves more consideration than it’s apparently getting.

The Enemy in the Household was published this summer by Baker Academic and examines three of Deuteronomy’s laws that regulate violence in the household. It hones in on three particular texts that address an invitation to commit idolatry (Deut. 13:6­–11), a rebellious son (Deut. 21:18–21), and a daughter accused of infidelity (Deut. 22:13–21).

So far, no one has reviewed the book on Amazon. I think that reflects a bad choice on the part of reviewers, because even though this book won’t settle these controversial passages in a way that modern Americans would appreciate, it does give incredible insight into how they were interpreted and even limited by the same people who sought to be faithful to biblical commands.

Disclaimer: I reviewed this book as part of Baker Academic’s blog review program. My opinions are my own, and my participating in the program is not contingent on giving Baker’s books favorable reviews.

And with that, we can begin.

The Book 

Chapter 2 discusses the relevant passages at hand, and at times, various interpretations of those passages are noted (but not discussed in detail). At several points, Reeder argues that the relationship between the son and his parents, the daughter to her parents, and the family unit itself are all pictures of Israel’s relationship with God. The Old Testament describes Israel and Yahweh as son and father, and it’s a theme that the New Testament uses to describe God’s relationship to both Jesus Christ and to the individual members of the church.

“For Deuteronomy, the most fundamental principle of Israel’s life is the recognition of Yahweh alone as God. When this foundation is challenged by idolatrous family members, Israel’s future hangs in the balance, a danger that justifies and even demands the death of the challenger, the enemy within the household” (37).

Chapter 3 studies how these laws would have been applied in the post-exile age, when the Jews were living under not only foreign rule but also the pressure to embrace a Hellenistic lifestyle. How would these laws regarding enemies in the household be applied in a time when it’d be very easy to adopt the traditions and beliefs of the Greeks? For that, Reeder looks at the books of Sirach, 1 Maccabees, and Jubilees.

I was surprised at the conflicting views of familial violence presented in those books (at least, according to Reeder). While 1 Maccabees sees violence as a way toward freedom for the covenant people—and as a means toward dealing with the Jewish men and women who sided with the pagans—Jubilees presents violence toward family as something that actually hurts the covenant community and instead presents a picture in which the best way to preserve that identity is to study the law. Sirach reflects the importance of honor and shame emphasized in Greek culture and motivate the control of a patriarch over his family.

“By no means does Sirach preach the full acceptance of Hellenistic culture at the expense of Israel’s identity as the people of God. Rather, the book teaches Jews how to accommodate to Greek ways of life while remaining centered on Jewish tradition” (65).

Chapter 4 examines Roman family laws, the Jewish philosopher Philo, and Jewish historian Josephus. Fathers had authority over their homes in the Roman empire, but that authority was, in principle though not always in practice, held in check by governing bodies.

For Philo, a person’s kin includes the people who share their blood—but a bond that trumps that connection is the shared virtue that comes from following God and Israel’s traditions. Writes Reeder: “The one who dishonors God and disrupts society with uncontrolled, undisciplined, or impious behavior, therefore, is not kin but an enemy of the godly community, an identification that resonates with Mic. 7:1–7. Such behavior threatens the well-being of the community, and so the community must treat the enemy within as they would treat enemies of state” (110).

For Josephus, sinners are lawless but he does not deny them as kin (111) and minimizes family violence. But Josephus also maintains ambiguity regarding violence, as he supports both the Maccabean Revolt while denouncing the actions of the Jewish rebels whose war against Rome led to Jerusalem’s destruction in A.D. 70.

Reeder also examines the works of the Tannaitic rabbis in the post-A.D. 70 world, a world in which the Jewish temple was no longer standing and in which the leaders of Judaism had to figure out how to obey God without it. Their interpretation of the rebellious son passage includes such strict requirements for its execution that Reeder notes that the rabbis almost made that regulation impossible to implement. Their interpretation of the law regarding the questionable daughter, though, seems to include more situations than is actually necessary.

“The differences between the presentation and potential use of each law draw attention to the different social values and positions held by sons and daughters in the days of the Tannaitic rabbis. Ironically, the harsher treatment of the daughter identifies her as more significant than the son because her (mis)behavior can threaten society, inheritance, and the identity of her husband and offspring. For the rabbis, though fathers and sons may lose some of their theological importance, women remain key players in the propagation of Jewish identity” (123).

In their interpretation of Deut. 13, the rabbis expand the circle of people who are eligible to be turned in if they are caught trying to seduce another Jewish person into idolatry. The rabbis even go so far as to argue that the perpetuator should be tricked into enlisting another person into idolatry, since the initial crime was performed in secret and the two witnesses required to condemn them might not willingly come forward (127).

In the conclusion to that chapter, Reeder notes that these figures thought that such violent reactions should be wielded—carefully—but each also does not adhere to the strict letter of those laws: “A notable feature … across the writings of Philo, Josephus, and the rabbis is ambiguity. Explicitly and implicitly, the interpreters recognize tensions and conflicts between what the laws demand and normal expectations for family relationships. … Each of the laws is even abandoned by different interpreters: Philo omits the death of a shamed bride, Josephus neglects the law against the idolatrous seducer, and the rabbis effectively pardon the rebellious son” (129).

Chapter 5 shows how, in the gospels, Jesus and his disciples were likely to be seen as violating these rules. An example is when Jesus acknowledges the Son of Man is known as a drunkard and a glutton—two things that would qualify him to be punished as a rebellious son by the community. I’ve always seen this accusation against Jesus as a sign that he ate and drank with the wrong people (and that he had no quarrels drinking alcohol in the process). I’ve never once read that as an indication that Deuteronomy’s laws could be used against Christ and serve as the basis for his execution.

This last section also looks at the various types of church discipline called for in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament does not give authority to the leaders of the church to use violence against its members who have proven wayward in their devotion to God.

So, Should You Buy This Book?

I think so, and I’ll give a few insights that I gleaned from Reeder’s book to show you why.

Reeder doesn’t directly say this, but she kept touching on something that led me to see something about these texts I hadn’t noticed before. At several points, Reeder notes that the families within Israel serve as visuals of the relationship between God and His people, and when the family unit is threatened by idolatry and disobedience, then the nation is threatened.

What I hadn’t noticed before is the threat to the nation’s safety this presented, and not just in terms of preserving its strict monotheism. Think about it for a moment: would it be possible for an Israelite family, town, or city to take up the gods of another nation without eventually contemplating an alliance to that other nation? When a group of people identify themselves by what they worship, then they always ally themselves with the people who share their beliefs.

So an Israelite town pursuing its neighbors gods over Yahweh is not just a betrayal of theological proportions; it’s quite likely the beginning of an armed rebellion that could drag the nation into war—a conflict that will be much harder to win when people’s enemies are also their neighbors.

Reeder’s book also makes me wonder if God didn’t intend for these violent laws to actually prevent the thing they’re condemning. If it’s nearly impossible to commit idolatry and the would-be idolater knows that such act would end with their death, then maybe those laws are actually deterring them from committing idolatry and thus preventing any need for an execution. Maybe that’s why those laws are so severe: so people would be too scared to go after other gods and keep their lives as a result.

Actually, I don’t have to wonder, because as I advanced in my reading, I happened upon this paragraph:

“The presence of the laws of the stubborn, rebellious son and the unchaste daughter in the Torah provides incentive to children and parents, wives and husbands, to live in such a way that the laws need not be implemented. These laws would encourage parents in particular to use their power from the beginning to teach and discipline their children to be faithful members of the community” (53)

Just when you think you’ve reached a smart idea all by yourself …

Oh well.

I’m also thankful that Reeder points out something else about the rebellious son laws: it’s a way to ensure that children will take care of their aging parents when they themselves grow up. There was no ancient version of Medicaid, no social safety net that would attempt to protect the elderly. For that, the elderly needed their children. So the law against the rebellious son—and the related rule to honor your father and mother (aka, “the Fifth Commandment”)—is about making sure that children not only become faithful to God in the present but also become the kind of adults who will care for their parents when their parents are no longer able to care for themselves.

Conclusion

I don’t think The Enemy in the Household will suddenly make the Bible more comfortable for people who find its passages disturbing. But Reeder will show you that you’re hardly the first to ask these questions. Even the most devout of believers struggled with these commands, their effectiveness, and how they were to be put in practice, if at all. Today, many religious people of both the past and present are accused of being mindless drones who accept, with no questions, what’s written in the Bible and never really stop to think about the hard passages contained in those books. Reeder’s book shows, quite clearly, that this is a baseless charge.

It’s a well-researched and clearly organized work from which anyone could benefit. Go find yourself a copy.

A Rather Curious Case of Forgiveness

The story in which Jesus heals a paralytic is well known, mostly because it’s not everybody that your friends carve a hole into someone else’s roof and lower their injured friend through it.

(Under normal circumstances, that’d be pretty rude of them.)

But here’s where the story in Mark 2 confuses me: when Jesus forgives the man he just healed, he doesn’t do so because the man has shown any evidence of faith. It’s because of the faith of his friends that this man is healed. Does this man himself believe Jesus was sent by God? The text doesn’t say–and that’s a curious thing for the New Testament, in which a person’s allegiance to God is said to be determined by their faith in His Son.

So what am I missing here, readers? Help me out.