The Home Stretch

A major reason I haven’t been posting here lately is because my graduate-level business school has the audacity to require me to do silly, unacademic things like study, finish homework, and prepare for finals.

I know, I know. It’s shocking to imagine that I don’t like devoting much, if not all, of my spare time to filling my head with details about accounting and management information systems. But, nothing truly good in this life ever comes without sacrifice, so onward I press.

By the time this posts, my finals will start in about a week. I’ve been studying when I can, trying to do review quizzes and going over old material. Here’s my question for my readers: what are your end-of-the-semester habits?

Do you have any routines that you find helpful as the semester draws to a close? I’m asking partly because I’m curious, and partly because I’m willing to try out something new if it sounds particularly helpful.

That’s it from me for now. The comments are yours!

How You Might be Helping the Church Become the Thing You Hate

Sometime ago, I wrote a post about my reluctance to join a new church. It was because of all the faults I could see in a local body. I also noted that many of the things I hate about the Bride are things that I also hate about me.

It’s a sobering thought when you realize that you are bound to the Bride not only by the work of Christ, who brought us all together, but also by our shared weaknesses.

Well, it’s been a couple of months since I wrote that. I’m preparing to start going to a church in Greenville, and I think it’s going to be good for me. I could feel my relationship with God being strained over the lack of community with my siblings. And while I knew that I couldn’t really walk with Christ but not his church, that still wasn’t enough to jolt me into going to church again. I can thankfully say that that attitude has left me.

What occurred to me today (Sunday) is that my departure, and the purposeful schism initiated by others, from the church is not only the wrong move, but it also has helped to perpetuate the very sins that caused us all to consider not going to church in the first place.

Here’s where I see this truth:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

All of us have been gifted, through the grace of God in Christ, to help bring the church to full maturity–that is, so she fully reflects the image of Jesus. That type of maturity, it should be noted, would do away with everything we don’t like about churches today. Love would trump people’s desires to prove themselves right. Outsiders would be welcomed, regardless of who they are or what they believe. Think of anything you can’t stand about the church right now, and then imagine that vice being removed from her entirely. Maturity.

But the church is far from it, and I can think of at least one reason why–because people like me, and maybe you, left.

The passage I quoted above also says that we also have been gifted to help the church in its quest to become perfectly like Christ. But when people who have been gifted with Jesus’ gifts refuse to use those gifts on behalf of the church, then the church suffers. She misses opportunities to be fed by what God has given to you to offer to her. She doesn’t receive the grace you could impart, the wisdom you could share, the love that you could give.

She doesn’t receive those things because you left.

Departing from a church may seem like a good idea, a welcomed breath of fresh air from the sometimes poisonous culture that takes root in Christian settings. The truth is, the act of departing helps to perpetuate those vices because the people who hate them and want to see things changed are the same people who aren’t sticking around long enough to do so.

In Christ, you and I have been given gifts, not for our glory but for service. Who are we serving when we take our gifts with us away from the church? How can the church ever reach the maturity for which she longs when so many of the people who are supposed to be helping her mature are instead refusing to show up?

So once again, I find this principle to be true: the church is as imperfect as she is not just because of “them” but also because of “me”.

Review: ‘The Quest for the Trinity’ by Stephen Holmes

For me, reading books about the doctrine of the Trinity goes roughly the same as when I think about the concept of the Trinity itself: I start with curiosity and end with a headache.

Stephen Holmes’ newest book, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity, published by IVP Academic in October 2012, is a brief but thorough survey of one of Christianity’s most perplexing doctrines, spanning from the post-biblical period to modern times. The book is not a proof-text defense of Trinitarian doctrine; in fact, its purpose is not to defend the doctrine at all. It’s to show how the leading thinkers of Christianity have both articulated this belief and refuted what they believed to be heretical understandings of it (and, I’m learning, they often articulated their case during their refutations).

Anyone who isn’t familiar with these debates—and given the central role of the Trinity in Christian thought, it’s a shame that more popular-level churchgoers aren’t acquainted with them—will be amazing at the intricacy and detail in which the Trinity was both argued over and defined (or to be more precise, defined in terms of what language would be best used to describe the Godhead).

Those are the books strengths. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone because not it’s not written for a popular-level audience. The author is clear that this work is intended for undergraduate-level students, and from what’s written, those students were obviously expected to know something about the material being presented. I consider myself an amateur church historian, and yet there were plenty of references to debates and figures in this book that I had never heard before. (Here’s a quick test to see how much you know about Christian history: if you don’t think Constantine created the Bible, made Christianity the religion of the empire, or invented the deity of Christ, then you’re much better off than some people.)

The chapters are organized by different topics and periods. The first chapter examines modern theologians—Barth and Moltmann are included here—and their Trinitarian doctrines. In the first chapter, Holmes sets up the rest of the book: some of the beliefs held about the Trinity today are contrary to what was believed and defended by the early, medieval, and Reformation-era church. To this end, Holmes examines the pre-Nicea era (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, among others), as well as Athanasius and Augustine. “The rule of faith is triadic … and so the theological question of the Trinity is not whether to worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but how to understand the triune life of God” (75). Thomas Aquinas and Anselm also get their due, as do (although briefly) Luther and Calvin. Anti-trinitarians such as Michael Servetus (whose largest claim to fame, in my experience, is in Calvin wanting to see him executed) also get attention. Well-known topics surrounding this doctrine, such as the subordination of the Son and the filioque, are also visited.

In short, you’ll learn a lot about the Trinity in Christian history. Sometimes, the arguments of leading Christian thinkers will surprise, if not baffle you. Origen, for instance, argued for the eternal generation of the Son (also called the “Word”, by John 1:1) on the basis of passages such as Psalm 44:1: “My heart overflows with a good word.” (Holmes references this on pg. 76.) This is hardly the only passage used to defend the generation of the Son, but it’s also hardly the way that modern-day evangelicals read and interpret their Scriptures. (In my personal opinion, my fellow churchgoers could use some exposure to people like Origen, if for no other reason than to realize that the faith has been defended by people whose interpretations are sometimes radically different than their own. Such exposure can hopefully lead to humility.)

I especially like this comment by Holmes, who in the larger context was speaking of Gregory of Nyssa. This statement, I think, highlights both the impossibility of understanding who God is and the proper role of theology in light of the fact that we can never understand Him:

“According to Gregory, and he is representative of the mainstream of pro-Nicene theology on this point, if more sophisticated than most, the deployment of divine simplicity, ingenerateness, and the rest, then, looks something like this: The divine essence is fundamentally beyond our conceptions; all our language and thought, limited as it is by created categories, is inadequate to speak of what God is. Through God’s gracious revelation of himself, we have been given names to name God, and actions by which we might perceive God at work. However, our names suffer from the same limitations as our language and thought: they point towards the ineffable; they do not define or grasp it. … The task of theology is to find a grammar that will speak of this adequately, a task completed by the Cappadocian fathers in Greek and St Augustine in Latin, at least in the judgement of the majority witness of the Christian tradition” (108).

I can’t say it enough: you’re going to learn something from this book. That’s not to say you won’t need an Advil when you’re done, but you can count on getting something new out of the experience.

Review: ‘Culture Making’ by Andry Crouch

I think anyone who is passionate about anything–whether it’s the job they hold, their friendships, families, writing, art, music, whatever–eventually gets burned out on their discipline. As a writer, I love expressing myself through words and thoughts that form a coherent (and hopefully powerful) whole, but there are times where I just don’t feel I have the energy for it and then start to question if such a pursuit is still worth it.

I bring this up because reading Andy Crouch’s 2008 book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling was a good reminder to me not only of the potential I have to make culture but also that it is a gift to all mankind and a holy calling from God.

The first section of the book tackles the question of what culture is, and here, Crouch defines it as what we make of the world. As God is a creator, so are His image bearers. We make sense of the world by making something of the world. This happens in different ways and in different spheres, and our efforts are ultimately subject to change, due to time and technological advances. This section also includes a brief history on how Christians in America have, in recent years, responded to culture, including withdrawing from it, copying it, and seeking to transform it. Borrowing images from Genesis, Crouch argues that we are to be both creators of culture as well as cultivators of it.

The second section of the book examines the biblical story as a whole, starting from Genesis, incorporating events such as creation, the events in the Garden of Eden, the building of Babel, the calling of Israel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost, and the coming new heavens and earth. Crouch examines what culture was created in each of these instances, and I think he makes a great point in his chapter on “the glorious impossible”.

Crouch points out that the first city in Scripture, Babel, is built with evil intentions, and it’s the last thing you’d expect to find in God’s new world. But we turn to Revelation and find that what awaits the redeemed is not another garden like Eden but a city! For Crouch, John the Revelator’s vision of New Jerusalem descending from the sky and coming to earth is indicative of God’s redemptive power:

“Somehow the city, the embodiment of concentrated human culture, has been transformed from the site of sin and judgment to the ultimate expression of grace, a gift ‘coming out of heaven from God’” (122).

Crouch is clear, though: we cannot change the world. Part of this unfortunate fact is due to the fact that people can never predict the unintended consequences of what they’ve created, and part of it is due to the fact that you’re going to change the world for the better. Additionally, Crouch points out that in Scripture, the term for “world” is used in a negative sense and is seen at odds with God. Crouch rightly points out that we are at war with spiritual forces of evil, and here in this discussion, I found what is (I think) one of the best quotes of the book:

“Beware of world changers—they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin” (200).

We can, however, be involved in the work that God is doing and has already done through the Exodus and the Resurrection—two incredibly powerful events that shaped the cultures of Israel and the church, respectively. This will include a shift in our thinking, as we must remember that God works in both the powerful and the powerless (he spoke both to Moses and to Pharaoh, after all).

And we must beware of the lure of power, as no one can ever be sure of how much power they have and will never think that they have enough of it. We must instead seek the disciplines of service and stewardship to protect ourselves from the tempting offer of power.

“Just as the only real antidote to the temptations of money is lavish generosity, so the only real antidote to the temptations of power is choosing to spend our power in the opposite of the way the world encourages us to spend it: not on getting closer to the sources of additional power or on securing our own round-the-clock sense of comfort and control, but spend it on getting closer to the relatively powerless” (228).

So instead of seeking power, we can instead ask what cultural good have we successfully proposed, with whom are we sharing it, and whether our own transformation is taking place in the process (235). We also must recognize that cultural goods start small, within a tiny community, and expand from there. In his chapter “Community”, Crouch argues that the optimal community settings start with three people and expand to both 12 and eventually 120 members.

“This is why most books include acknowledgments. Read the acknowledgments carefully—sometimes you have to read between the lines—and you’ll invariably find a few key people thanked especially profusely (the 3), another group of people given particular mention (the 12), and a host of others whose names couldn’t be omitted without the author dishonestly taking more credit for the final product than he really deserved (the 120). Of course, the numbers won’t always line up quite precisely, but the proportions will always be roughly 3 : 12: 120—and the inner concentric circle, the small group without whom the book simply would never have been written, will never be much more than 3” (240).

Everyone has these types of communities—those that begin with the tightest-knit group (the 3) and go from there. And readers familiar with the gospels will instantly recognize the significance of these numbers, as Jesus had both three different types of disciples: the three (Peter, James, and John), the Twelve, and the 120 mostly unnamed people who continue to follow him after the Resurrection and before the events of Pentecost. The challenge for us is to figure out who in our lives belongs to these different levels of community.

Cultural creativity also comes from our awareness that our lives are a gift and acting, as Crouch describes it, as children of grace. As children of grace, we should expect grace to lead us to places where people are hurting. (A personal thought from the reviewer: is there really other place in which graces is needed?)

“So where are we called to create culture? At the intersection of grace and cross. Where do we find our work and play bearing awe-inspiring fruit—and at the time find ourselves able to identify with Christ on the cross? That intersection is where we are called to dig into the dirt, cultivate and create” (262).

I’d recommend buying this book, although I was disappointed that the author didn’t recommend practical things that people can start doing to either create culture (or at least be aware that they are) or cultivate it. There are a lot of great ideas in this book, and the writing is of a high quality as well. The lack of practical advice is my only real criticism, but other than that, there shouldn’t be anything keeping you from adding this to your bookshelf or e-reader.

Even Jesus Wasn’t Wildly Successful before He Turned 30 (A Quick Post about Easing Up on Yourself)

I don’t know how this thought came to me, but it’s one of those things that I think needs to be put into words because, like me, someone probably needs to hear it.

One of the struggles of being in my late 20s, unmarried, and back in school is dealing with the fear that I’ve wasted a good portion of my life and that things aren’t likely to change from here. (This suspicion becomes more potent each time I hear of someone I knew getting a new job, getting married, having a kid.) How things are, is how they will forever be. I must have missed my chance to change that and do something truly monumental with my life.

But then, Jesus didn’t start his ministry until he was about 30 years old.

Jesus was older than I was before he started to do what he would become known for.

And if the Lord of all the universe took the liberty of waiting until he was older to start what he needed to start, then maybe it’s okay that I haven’t done everything that–in my mind–I’m supposed to do (or, in my truly dramatic moments, what I’m destined to do).

Let me put it another way: maybe it’s okay that I haven’t yet accomplished the most important things I’ll do. For now, maybe I just need to cut myself a little slack.

Review: ‘Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes’

The more familiar I become with the Bible, the more I realize just how strange of a book it really is.

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, co-authored by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien and published by IVP Academic. The book explores the ways in which we Westerners misinterpret or understand what Scripture is saying, primarily because the culture in which it was written was not our own. By focusing on, among other things, differences in cultural mores, the use of language, and the concepts of honor/shame versus right/wrong, the authors show us—and quite convincingly so—how many of our treasured interpretations of Scripture are not what the biblical authors intended to communicate.

One of the last chapters will hit home for a lot of American Christians: the concept that God has a will for my life. The authors tackle misinterpretations of passages such as Jeremiah 29:11 and Romans 8:28 to show that looking at these verses and thinking that they are talking about “you” as an individual is incorrect. The biblical culture was a communal one, and the promises given therein were addressed to a community. So Jeremiah 29:11, for instance, is about God’s promises not to Israel but also to Babylon, as He promises to bless the cities in which His exiled people dwell (Jeremiah 29:7).

The chapter on race is also revealing. I had never caught on to this fact until after reading the book, but it appears that the division in the Corinthian church, which Paul wrote of in 1 Corinthians, was racially motivated:

“It is possible, though, that the divisions among the churches in Corinth were not theological. We may be failing to note ethnic markers that Paul sprinkled all over the text. Apollos was noted as an Alexandrian (Egyptian) Jew (Acts 18:24). They had their own reputation. Paul notes that Peter is called by his Aramaic name, Cephas, suggesting the group that followed him spoke Aramaic and were thus Palestinian Jews. Paul’s church had Diaspora Jews but also many ethnic Corinthians, who were quite proud of their status as residents of a Roman colony and who enjoyed using Latin. This may explain why Paul doesn’t address any theological differences. There weren’t any. The problem was ethnic division: Aramaic-speaking Jews, Greek-speaking Jews, Romans and Alexandrians” (66).

In their discussion of language, the authors point out that languages don’t always have a direct collolary between the words they use. For instance, many cultures don’t have a word for “privacy”. But because our culture does, we have a tendency to read the concept of privacy or “quiet times” into Scripture when Scripture isn’t communicating either. The authors point out that on the night of his arrest, Jesus and his disciples were likely not alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. And when Psalm 46:10 says to be still and know that God is God, it doesn’t actually say to have a private moment in which you are still (78-79).

The authors also show how the Western emphasis on individualism can cause us to misread Scripture. When we read the biblical story of how Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, we typically assume they’re traveling alone. But this would be a faulty interpretation:

“It seems clear in the text that Mary and Joseph were traveling during festival time—that’s why all the inns were full. Bethlehem was what we might call a bedroom community, or suburb, for Jerusalem. … Moreover, in antiquity one’s relatives were the birthing crew. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem when they did because everybody else was going. We imagine Joseph and Mary trudging alone up to Jerusalem, in the quiet of night. Nope. They were part of two large clans—his and hers. (This also explains how Mary and Joseph could “misplace” the twelve-year-old Jesus later. They assumed that he was with his perhaps hundred cousins as they extended family headed home. Only at evening did the boy Jesus go missing.) The birth of Jesus was no solitary event, witnessed only by the doting parents in the quiet of a cattle fold. It was likely a noisy, bustling event attended by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins” (100-101; emphasis mine).

Those are just a few examples of a great book that you’ll do well to pick up if you want to gain a greater understanding of the Bible. I’m amazed at some of the things I learned, and I’m pretty sure you will be, too.

Seriously, Go Read ‘Torn’ by Justin Lee

In October, I reviewed Justin Lee’s then-to-be-released book Torn, which chronicles the story of how a teenage Christian discovered that he was gay.

Well, the book finally came out on Tuesday, and I’d highly encourage you to go out and find a copy. (If it tells you anything, I’ve been reviewing books since before the summer, and this is the only time I’ve ever written a follow-up post to encourage more people to buy something.)

Justin’s story is powerful and deserves to be heard. The debate over homosexuality is not going to end with this book, but I do think that if we Christians want to adopt a more loving approach toward our neighbors, then that needs to include us taking the time to sit down and listen to their stories.

In this case, it’s the story of a young, committed Christian who really, really didn’t want to be gay but couldn’t escape the fact that he was attracted to other boys his age. And it’s also the story of how the church responded in that situation.

It’s a story that’s still going on, a tale in which you are more than likely a character because there are probably people you know and care about who are going through the same thing Justin went through as a teenager.

So go, read Torn and think about what you want your part in the story to be.