Sunday, August 30, 2015

Flowing through the Canyons Ahead

from Steve's sermon this morning (Micah 1:8-16) 

"Some Christians say it’s time to fight, to try and recapture some of the ground we’ve lost. They say we should gear up and try to outstrategize and outmaneuver and outvote all the forces which have changed publicly morality and public justice into something distinctly and clearly no longer Christian. We need to “take back our cities” or our country for God, winning converts and building back up those church rolls. We should launch campaigns like the Southern Baptists said they would just last year, to send a limitless number of missionaries out into the world.

...But all that “let’s fight back” talk is not what I hear from Micah today. It’s not really what I hear from most of the prophets, nor from our Lord Jesus. The call we are called with is not a call to arms, or at least not a call to any ordinary sense of battle. It’s a call to faithfulness and following the Lord even when events and the culture around us drive us into holes in the ground.

...In the last verse of the text, 16, Micah calls for even more visible demonstrations of sorrow and remorse. Cutting off one’s hair was a graphic sign of being in mourning in his time. Being shaved and bald meant an experience of the greatest grief. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos also talk about the people cutting off their hair and shaving their beards in sorrow and repentance and mourning over what has happened because they sinned. So Micah asked his people for that same sign of grief, especially for their children, “they have gone from you into exile.”

Micah calls them “your pampered children.” He reminds us that we have been blessed, maybe too blessed in our own eyes. We’ve had everything we’ve needed and far more. Now times are changing and we may have much less, both materially and in terms of influence and power. It’s O.K. to be sad about that.

What should we do about it? I’ve already said that our call as God’s people is not to fight for our rights or to recover our old position in society. In our Gospel reading Jesus talked about focusing on what is inside us, on getting rid of the sins of the spirit, rather than washing hands or what we eat. Maybe that includes less concern about what people say about us, or about winning elections or about anything external to who we are as people of God and disciples of Jesus.

I know you could hear this message from Micah as a real downer, a pretty depressing lesson to take home from your pastor and your church this morning. But let me tell you what is encouraging about it. When God’s people end up in exile, when we lose all the props of and support of the society around us, we get better. We focus on the things which really matter to God and to His kingdom. That’s why the church of Jesus Christ is thriving in China and India and Africa and South America. Christians there know they are in exile.

The Colorado River rises in the Rocky Mountains and flows down from Colorado across the desert in Utah and on into the desert in Arizona. For a lot of that stretch, especially before Glen Canyon dam and the creation of Lake Powell, it was and still is a broad, warm, slow, muddy river, full of frogs and fish like suckers and chubs. It waters the land around it, but there isn’t anything very exciting about it.

But when the Colorado River begins to drop into what we call the Grand Canyon, it changes. As its course gets narrowed and constricted by shale and limestone and ancient schist and granite at the very bottom, something happens to the water. It flows deeper and faster and more clear. It stirs up in powerful rapids which make a boater’s heart race and which wash away any sediment or dirt in its path.

These are difficult times to be a Christian in America. It could get worse. But if we stay the course into the narrow and difficult places, into exile in the midst of a culture we used to think was our own, then we can be like the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. We can be deepened and cleansed and empowered by the restrictions placed on us. That’s what God wanted for His people in Micah’s time. It’s what He wants for us.

May God grant us the grace in Jesus to learn to flow through the canyons ahead. Let us grow deeper in faith and devotion and sacrifice and service, and so emerge on the other side challenged but chastened, stressed but stronger, frightened but faithful, until our stream runs down into the great and powerful flow which is the Kingdom of God. Amen.>

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Rabbi Sacks on Retribution and Revenge

I enjoy reading Rabbi Sacks.  Here he discusses the Jewish distinction between retribution and revenge. I leave this with two thoughts:
1) Might we consider hell a form of "exile"?
2) Sacks frequently makes the point that Judaism is a "realistic" religion, as opposed to "idealistic" religions (like Chrisitianity.) But to me, that makes Christianity even more "good news," because it speaks of a way to live beyond revenge and retribution--a Kingdom of true shalom. 

Retribution and Revenge

Mattot-Masei - Covenant & Conversation 5775 on Ethics
18 July, 2015 / 2 Av 5775

Near the end of Bemidbar, we encounter the law of the cities of refuge: three cities to the east of the Jordan and, later, three more within the land of Israel itself. There, people who had committed homicide could flee and find protection until their case was heard by a court of law. If they were found guilty of murder, in biblical times they were sentenced to death. If found innocent – if the death happened by accident or inadvertently, with neither deliberation nor malice – then they were to stay in the city of refuge “until the death of the High priest.” There, they were protected against revenge on the part of the goel ha-dam, the blood-redeemer, usually the closest relative of the person who had been killed.
Homicide is never less than serious in Jewish law. But there is a fundamental difference between murder – deliberate killing – and manslaughter, accidental death. To kill someone not guilty of murder as an act of revenge for an accidental death is not justice but further bloodshed, and must be prevented. Hence the need for safe havens where people at risk could be protected.
The prevention of unjust violence is fundamental to the Torah. God’s covenant with Noah and humankind after the Flood identifies murder as the ultimate crime: “He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God, God created man” (Gen. 9: 6). Blood wrongly shed cries to Heaven itself. God said to Cain after he had murdered Abel, “Your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground” (Gen. 4: 10).
Here in Bemidbar we hear a similar sentiment: “You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it” (Num. 35: 13). The verb ch-n-ph, which appears twice in this verse and nowhere else in the Mosaic books, means to pollute, to soil, to dirty, to defile. There is something fundamentally blemished about a world in which murder goes unpunished. Human life is sacred. Even justified acts of bloodshed, as in the case of war, still communicate impurity. A Cohen who has shed blood does not bless the people.[1] David is told that he may not build the Temple “because you shed much blood.”[2] Death defiles.
That is what lies behind the idea of revenge. And though the Torah rejects revenge except when commanded by God,[3] something of the idea survives in the concept of the goel ha-dam, wrongly translated as ‘blood-avenger.’ It means, in fact, ‘blood-redeemer.’ A redeemer is someone who rights an imbalance in the world, who rescues someone or something and restores it to its rightful place. Thus Boaz redeems land belonging to Naomi.[4] A redeemer is one who restores a relative to freedom after they have been forced to sell themselves into slavery.[5] God redeems His people from bondage in Egypt. A blood-redeemer is one who ensures that murder does not go unpunished.
However not all acts of killing are murder. Some are bi-shgagah, that is, unintentional, accidental or inadvertent. These are the acts that lead to exile in the cities of refuge. However, there is an ambiguity about this law. Was exile to the cities of refuge considered as a way of protecting the accidental killer, or was it itself a form of punishment, not the death sentence that would have applied to one guilty of murder, but punishment none the less. Recall that exile is a biblical form of punishment. Adam and Eve, after their sin, were exiled from Eden. Cain, after killing Abel, was told he would be “a restless wanderer on the face of the earth.” We say in our prayers, “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.”
In truth both elements are present. On the one hand the Torah says, “The assembly must protect the one accused of murder from the redeemer of blood and send the accused back to the city of refuge to which they fled” (Num. 35: 25). Here the emphasis is on protection. But on the other, we read that if the exiled person “ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which they fled and the redeemer of blood finds them outside the city, the redeemer of blood may kill the accused without being guilty of murder” (Num. 35: 26-27). Here an element of guilt is presumed, otherwise why would the blood redeemer be innocent of murder?[6]
We can see the difference by looking at how the Talmud and Maimonides explain the provision that the exile must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. What had the High Priest to do with accidental killing? According to the Talmud, the High Priest “should have asked for mercy [i.e. should have prayed that there be no accidental deaths among the people] and he did not do so.”[7] The assumption is that had the High Priest prayed more fervently, God would not have allowed this accident to happen. Whether or not there is moral guilt, something wrong has occurred and there is a need for atonement, achieved partly through exile and partly through the death of the High Priest. For the High Priest atoned for the people as a whole, and when he died, his death atoned for the death of those who were accidently killed.
Maimonides, however, gives a completely different explanation in The Guide for the Perplexed (III: 40). For him the issue at stake is not atonement but protection. The reason the man goes into exile in a city of refuge is to allow the passions of the relative of the victim, the blood-redeemer, to cool. The exile stays there until the death of the High Priest, because his death creates a mood of national mourning, which dissolves the longing for revenge – “for it is a natural phenomenon that we find consolation in our misfortune when the same misfortune or a greater one befalls another person. Amongst us no death causes more grief than that of the High Priest.”
The desire for revenge is basic. It exists in all societies. It led to cycles of retaliation – the Montagues against the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet, the Corleones and Tattaglias in The Godfather – that have no natural end. Wars of the clans were capable of destroying whole societies.[8]
The Torah, understanding that the desire for revenge as natural, tames it by translating it into something else altogether. It recognizes the pain, the loss and moral indignation of the family of the victim. That is the meaning of the phrase goel ha-dam, the blood-redeemer, the figure who represents that instinct for revenge. The Torah legislates for people with all their passions, not for saints. It is a realistic code, not a utopian one.
Yet the Torah inserts one vital element between the killer and the victim’s family: the principle of justice. There must be no direct act of revenge. The killer must be protected until his case has been heard in a court of law. If found guilty, he must pay the price. If found innocent, he must be given refuge. This single act turns revenge into retribution. This makes all the difference.
People often find it difficult to distinguish retribution and revenge, yet they are completely different concepts. Revenge is an I-Thou relationship. You killed a member of my family so I will kill you. It is intrinsically personal. Retribution, by contrast, is impersonal. It is no longer the Montagues against the Capulets but both under the impartial rule of law. Indeed the best definition of the society the Torah seeks to create is nomocracy: the rule of laws, not men.
Retribution is the principled rejection of revenge.  It says that we are not free to take the law into our own hands. Passion may not override the due process of the law, for that is a sure route to anarchy and bloodshed. Wrong must be punished, but only after it has been established by a fair trial, and only on behalf, not just of the victim but of society as a whole. It was this principle that drove the work of the late Simon Wiesenthal in bringing Nazi war criminals to trial. He called his biography Justice, not Vengeance. The cities of refuge were part of this process by which vengeance was subordinated to, and replaced by, retributive justice.  
This is not just ancient history. Almost as soon as the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War came to an end in 1989, brutal ethnic war came to the former Yugoslavia, first in Bosnia then Kosovo. It has now spread to Iraq, Syria and many other parts of the world. In his book The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, Michael Ignatieff wondered how these regions descended so rapidly into chaos. This was his conclusion:
The chief moral obstacle in the path of reconciliation is the desire for revenge. Now, revenge is commonly regarded as a low and unworthy emotion, and because it is regarded as such, its deep moral hold on people is rarely understood. But revenge – morally considered – is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honor their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between the generations; the violence it engenders is a ritual form of respect for the community’s dead – therein lies its legitimacy. Reconciliation is difficult precisely because it must compete with the powerful alternative morality of violence. Political terror is tenacious because it is an ethical practice. It is a cult of the dead, a dire and absolute expression of respect.[9]  
It is foolhardy to act as if the desire for revenge does not exist. It does. But given free reign, it will reduce societies to violence and bloodshed without end. The only alternative is to channel it through the operation of law, fair trial, and then either punishment or protection. That is what was introduced into civilization by the law of the cities of refuge, allowing retribution to take the place of revenge, and justice the place of retaliation.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Does belonging, by nature, divide us?

A friend wrote, "I heard this today and am still thinking about it. "Belonging, by nature, divides us." What do you think?"

What a stimulating question!

1) First, I think we need to define what we mean by the term "belonging."

ISTM that there are two ways of belonging: to a community, or as part of a collection. The Trinity is a community. The Three Persons "belong" to the one substance, God; so there is difference, but without division. All three Persons are distinct (the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father) but all three persons are united in their will because they are united in their nature, as God (Sometimes people point to Luke 22:42 to say that Christ's will is different from the Father's, but I think that verse shows just the reverse. Jesus's will is always in harmony with the Father's! )

But ever since the late middle ages, Western thought has been infected by nominalism, which says only particular individuals are real, not universals. The atomistic individual is autonomous. That means the first sort of belonging, to a community, becomes impossible. One can only be part of a collection of autonomous individuals--so the belonging is not grounded in any "reality," but only in will ( I CHOOSE to identify with this collection/group). There is no shared "nature," so there is no shared will. That sort of "belonging" is a recipe for division. That "belonging" can only be temporary and for pragmatic reasons. As soon as an individual decides s/he wants something different from the group, or identifies with a different group, unity is broken. We are in Judges 21:25 and Isaiah 53:6 territory.

I do not believe the unity/ community of the Trinity can ever be broken. (For the reasons why, see Thomas H. McCall, "Forsaken." )

2) Thus, to answer your original question: if we understand "belonging" in the *realist* rather than the *nominalist* sense, belonging does NOT divide us. But if we define "belonging" in a nominalist sense, then yes, belonging DOES divide us.

Friday, July 03, 2015

The Reformation as Slipppery Slope: The Benedict Option for Evangelicals

The Reformation as slippery slope: impetus increases with distance?

This is what happens when you combine the "authority of the word" with a nominalist metaphysic: individual conscience and experience become the ultimate authority.
I wonder if the only way "this real person" can "come from outside ourselves" is if there is a body/church/institution strong enough to resist the corrosion of a culture that has sold out to this worldly philosophy. Such a body would presuppose a realist metaphysic. At this point, IMO the only groups that have a track record of success in resisting nominalism throughout the centuries are the Catholics and the Orthodox. Is the time soon coming where the only way to remain a faithful evangelical is to embrace Catholicism or Orthodoxy? I wonder....

The Benedict Option for Evangelicals

The Gospel as External Authority by Phillip Cary

In the wake of Obergefell, I expect we'll be talking for quite some time about the “Benedict Option” Rod Dreher is proposing. At least I hope so. I'd like to see how it might work, for evangelical Protestants as well as for Roman Catholics.
The Catholic challenge seems clear: if the way forward depends on intentional communities of Christian formation rather like Benedictine monasteries, then what shall we hope for from the parishes located, as it were, outside the monastery walls? What is the task of a parish priest and other leaders in a congregation with many members who are passive or active supporters of a cultural regime that does not understand marriage, the sacredness of human life, or the value of religious liberty?

Evangelical Protestants in America face a similar problem, which is especially evident in their youth. The next generation is more likely to side with the new regime than their parents are. This poses a mortal challenge to the predominant strategy for retaining the youth in growing evangelical churches: get them involved in an emotionally powerful youth group and convince them that the experiences they have there are a great thing they can only have with Jesus. The youth group in effect competes with more secular forms of youth culture for the hearts of future evangelicals.

It's a tough competition to win, and the momentum is now clearly on the side of the opposing team. The evangelical team is playing defense, and they have a major theological weakness. They've adopted a version of the liberal Protestant turn to experience. Today's evangelical Christians are taught to find God by listening for the voice of the Spirit in their hearts. My students typically think this is what it means to know God. This theology will hardly help them resist a culture that is all about celebrating the desires we find within us. If the true God is the God of our experience, then why can't the voice of liberated desire be the Spirit of God?

Something crucial drops out of our religious experience when we make the theological turn to experience. We fail to learn from external authority, which is to say the authority of an Other. Americans are not good with external authority, and American evangelicals have for quite some time been quietly dropping—in practice though not in theory—their old love affair with the authority of Holy Scripture. They are trying to be “personal” in a way that ends up losing the sense that God is a real person who comes to us from outside our own lives. They forget the old Protestant conviction that Christ comes to us in the external word of the Gospel, as a Bridegroom promising himself to his Bride.

In our common efforts to learn how to do Christian formation under the new regime, evangelicals could do other Christians a great service by reigniting their love for the authority of this word, knowing that the Beloved we seek is found in our hearts only when he is first found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Only when we love the authority of this Other, this real person who comes to us from outside ourselves, will we find ourselves glad to obey his commandments.

Phillip Cary is professor of philosophy at Eastern University.

Tyler Franke's "10 Questions No Young Earth Creationist Can Answer"

Most debates between young-earth creationists and those who accept evolution go something like this:

E: Rargh, I am a scary evolutionist! Prepare to be crushed beneath the weight of my mighty evidence and properly utilized scientific principles!
C: Not so fast, Mr. Evolutionist! Or should I say, “EVIL-lutionist”?! For, behold, I have this! (Holds up a Bible.)
E: Nooooooo! Quotes from the Bible! My only weakness! (Collapses to the ground.)

I had to take out some subtext to simplify things for our purposes, but that’s basically it. As far as most young-earther proponents are concerned, this is a dispute between science on one side and the Bible on the other, and the Bible will always trump science. Period.

Unfortunately for them, this neat little picture is complicated by the fact that there are people who also hold the Bible in extremely high regard, and who have no problem with the fact of evolution or the ancient age of the earth. People like yours truly. And we happen to think the Bible does not support the young-earth creationist view nearly as well as its teachers think it does.

Actually, we think their theology is quite bad. Really quite bad. Really, quite, terribly, awfully, really-are-you-serious-with-this-theology?this-is-actually-what-you-believe?, just horribly, incredibly bad.
That’s why I’ve prepared the following list of questions, painstakingly compiled through my years of intense research working on this site. I hope it sparks some good discussion, but I also hope it illustrates that the young-earth crowd does not have the market cornered on biblical truth like they pretend they do, and that, really, their pie-in-the-sky claims fail on theological grounds, without ever having to get into the finer details of the fossil record or the human genome.

1. What was the point of the tree of life?

The tree of life, so named in Genesis 2:9, is one of the most baffling of the many problems spawned by the literal interpretation of the creation accounts. Literalists often pretend like the purpose of the tree is vague and unclear, but the truth is — unlike many things in Genesis 1-3 — the power possessed by the tree of life isn’t vague at all. Genesis 3:22 makes it abundantly clear: Have a little nibble on the fruit of the tree of life and you live forever. Eat your heart out, diet and exercise.
The tree of life: A marvelous, wonderful creation of God, whose miraculous power served absolutely no purpose.
The tree of life: A miraculous creation of God, whose unique and wondrous power served absolutely no purpose.
This presents a huge problem for the young-earth view, because they believe physical death was not part of God’s original creation. According to them, neither humans nor animals were capable of death, pain or suffering until after Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden. Because, obviously, causing the death of every living thing for all time is a perfectly fair and reasonable punishment for a single act of disobedience.

Of course, this raises the question of why, exactly, did God create a magical tree that grants immortality in a world where every living thing was already immortal? If the young-earth theology is correct, then this tree’s miraculous power served absolutely no useful function until after the fall of man — at which point God barred access to the tree with bad-ass angels and a flaming sword. So why’d he make it in the first place?

And speaking of the tree of life, where is it now? Because, again, God didn’t mulch it at the end of the story. Young-earth proponents maintain it was destroyed in Noah’s flood, but not only does this require exactly the kind of extrabiblical conjecture that makes people like me such “compromisers,” but it also implies the tree of life can die (!), which sort of makes my brain explode a little bit.
"This is the tree of life, which grants immortality to whomever eats of its fruit. Also, it can die if it doesn't get enough sun."
“This is the tree of life, which miraculously grants immortality to whomever eats of its fruit. Also, it can die if it doesn’t get enough sun.”
2. If human sin is the reason animals die, why can’t they be saved?

Let’s recap: young-earth creationists believe all death, even animal death, is a consequence of human sin. Now, ignoring for a moment the fact that the Bible never once actually says animal death is a consequence of human sin (seems significant enough to warrant at least a mention or two, don’t you think?), this creates some pretty problematic theology.
Consider, for example, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” You see where I’m going with this. The young-earth crowd can’t say animals are among those who “die in Adam,” but not among those who “shall be made alive in Christ.”
... but only if they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
… but only if they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
Of course, no young-earth creationist really believes goats and hamsters and dragonflies can become born-again believers in Jesus, but they can’t have it both ways. Scripture doesn’t allow them to. To argue otherwise is not only to nullify this passage and many others, but also to call into question whether Christ’s sacrifice really addressed the full ramifications and consequences of our sin.
Some may respond to this that 1 Corinthians 15 is just about people, not animals, and I agree, of course. The only problem is that this is one of the very few biblical proof-texts that have ever been offered to justify animal death as a consequence for human sin in the first place. Without them, the doctrine is based on nothing but the assertions of folks like Ken Ham, which — confident and self-assured they may be — aren’t much to go on.

And, really, that’s as it should be. The whole notion of animal death being a “not-good” amendment to God’s perfect original creation is ridiculous on its face, one I suspect always had a lot more to do with “Bambi” and people’s sentimental notions about animals (not to mention providing a simple solution to the problem of natural evil) than it ever had to do with the Bible and what it actually says.
Please, let’s jettison this silly dogma once and for all, and have a purer — and more biblically accurate — faith to present to the world.

3. If physical death is part of the punishment for sin, why do Christians still die?

So at this point, you may be saying, “OK, that’s all well and good about animal death, but what about human death? Because there are definitely verses that say human death came from Adam’s sin.” Fair enough. Let’s look at one of those verses, shall we?

Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”

Now, look at what the verse is really saying, and don’t — as we are so often tempted to do — neglect the second part: “… death spread to all men, because all sinned.” If this is talking about physical death, then it clearly implies that we don’t become capable of physical death until after we sin, which makes absolutely no sense.

What I believe is that this passage is talking about something different entirely: spiritual death — which is a pretty common theme in scripture as well. Like, for example, just a couple chapters later in Romans, when Paul writes, “I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died.”

Since it’s unlikely that Paul was an unusually eloquent zombie when he penned the Book of Romans, it rather obvious that he’s talking about a non-physical type of death here. And, since the two contexts are identical (discussing the consequences of human sin), the same is almost certainly true of Romans 5.
This was not the Apostle Paul when he wrote Romans.
This was not the Apostle Paul when he wrote Romans.
But there are more insidious implications of this notion that physical death is part of the punishment for human sin. Central to the Christian faith is the idea that Jesus “paid it all,” that his sacrifice was fully sufficient to atone for our sin, remove the punishment that was due us, and reconcile us back into a right relationship with God.

The only problem is that every single Christian who has ever lived has also died. Which has to make you wonder how that’s possible, if physical death was part of the punishment for human sin and Jesus paid the full sum of our punishment with his death on the cross. Fact is, they can’t both be true. Either Christ’s sacrifice was not sufficient to cover all the consequences of our transgressions (which throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the past 2,000 years of Christian theology and tradition), or death just isn’t one of those consequences.

Personally, I side with the latter. I believe God “appointed” that man should die once, not as a punishment, but as an inherent part of the current created order and a symbol of what’s to come — when that order is ultimately done away with.

4. Why was Eve named “mother of life”?

Immediately after Genesis 3:17-19, which is when God “curses” mankind, Adam names his wife Eve. And when I say “immediately after,” I mean, literally, the very next verse. This is significant, because the curse is the part of the Bible that young-earth creationism proponents cite as the genesis (geddit?) for all death and illness and disorder and pretty much any bad thing that’s ever happened (even though, again, the Bible says nothing remotely like that).

Genesis 3:20 explains that Adam chose the name “Eve” for his previously anonymous wife because she “was the mother of all (the) living/life.” The name comes from the Hebrew Ḥawwāh, meaning “living one” or “source of life,” and is related to ḥāyâ, “to live.” I don’t know about you, but it just seems slightly odd (not to mention a little insensitive) that Adam would name his wife “source of life” immediately after she had supposedly just been responsible for cursing the entire universe with death, suffering and misery for the rest of time.
Maybe Adam thought "Royal-screw-up-who-is-responsible-for-the-death-of-everyone" was too much of a mouthful.
Maybe Adam thought “Royal-screw-up-who-is-responsible-for-the-death-of-everyone” was too much of a mouthful.
I mean, I know Adam may not have been the smartest guy in the world (he needed supernatural revelation to realize he was in his birthday suit, after all), but give him a little credit.
And, while we’re on the subject…

5. How did Adam and Eve know what death was?

When God first commands Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge, he warns him what the punishment will be for disobedience: “You will surely die.” The woman hadn’t been made yet at this point in the story, but based on her reference to the penalty during her conversation with the serpent, we can assume the message got passed along in some fashion.

The confusing thing about this is, how did Adam and Eve know what death was? You know, considering the fact that they had just been molded into existence earlier that same day, and were living in a world in which there was no such thing as death. You ever try explaining death to a small child? It’s very difficult. You ever try explaining death to a one-day-old child? It’s even harder.
"Hey, wake up, kid. Daddy's gotta explain you what death is all about."
“Hey, wake up, kid. Daddy’s gotta explain you what death is all about.”
Now, to be fair, groups like AiG have tried to answer this one before. Using their X-trabiblical Vision™, that superpower common to young-earth creationists which gives them the ability to know what God’s word says about things that aren’t actually in God’s word, they reveal that Adam was a super-genius who would’ve known everything there is to know about death simply from hearing the word.

But again, a guy who’s not with it enough to tell that he’s naked doesn’t really inspire confidence that he’s capable of grasping complicated abstract ideas. When God dropped a supposedly foreign concept like death on him, I’m pretty sure the dude would have had some questions.
Like, “What is that,” for example.
Along those same lines…

6. If the punishment for eating from the tree was that Adam and Eve would physically die … why didn’t they physically die?

At first glance, you might be confused by this question. You may be thinking, “Wait a minute. The Bible says they would die, and they did die. What’s the problem?”
Well, the thing is, there’s a little more to it than that. The Bible doesn’t just say they would die, it says they would die “in the day” that they disobeyed. And, fortunately, we know from the literalists that the word “day” in the Genesis creation accounts can’t mean anything other than an ordinary, 24-hour day.

Only, this is a little confusing, since — according to the story — neither Adam nor Eve actually died the day they ate from the tree of knowledge. We don’t know exactly how old Eve was when she shuffled off this mortal coil, but Adam lived to the ripe old age of 930. Now, I’m no mathematician, but I’m fairly certain 930 years is a lot longer than a 24-hour day. And I’m not aware of any coroner who begins his investigation into the cause of death by asking about fruit the deceased may have eaten 900 years prior.

God: You should have seen your face. Oh man! Oh, that was classic. Woman: Oh. [laughing] I really thought I was gonna die. Michael: Oh, really? Pam: Yeah. 'Cause you said I would...
God: You should have seen your face. Oh man! Oh, that was classic.
Woman: Oh. [laughing] I really thought I was gonna die.
God: Oh, really?
Woman: Yeah. ‘Cause you said I would…
The young-earthers have all sorts of creative ways they attempt to avoid this rather obvious discrepancy. A common one is to assert that, in this very special case, maybe the word “day” does refer to a long, indeterminate period of time (even though the people God was talking to clearly understood that the effects would be immediate, such that the woman feared she would die from simply touching the fruit).

My personal favorite is this delightful little exercise in hand-wavery: “(After eating the fruit,) Adam and Eve began to die.”

Ha! “Began to die” — isn’t that great? Setting aside for now that that’s, you know, not what the Bible says (it doesn’t say “begin to die,” it says ”die” — “surely die,” as a matter of fact), what does that even mean? Because as far as I can tell, the definition of “beginning to die” is no different than “being alive.”

Which makes it pretty useless as far as I’m concerned. When any human being older than a zygote qualifies as having “begun to die,” I think the phrase has pretty much lost all meaning as a concept.
So what was God talking about in Genesis 2:16-17? I think the only interpretation that makes sense is the only one that made sense of Romans 5 and 7 earlier in this post: spiritual death.
Humans did not physically die the first time we disobeyed God, nor did we lose the immortality we supposedly enjoyed (for a few minutes, anyway) after our original creation. What happened was that we died spiritually, because our decision to sin severed us from our spiritual source of life — God. Faith in Christ is our one hope of restoring that connection, and restoring that connection is our one hope of eternal life, because our spirit — not our physical bodies — is the only part of us that can live forever.

7. Can you name any other piece of literature in which the existence of a talking snake and trees with magical powers would suggest to you that it was meant to be taken literally?

This one is funny, because when you start discussing the proper interpretation of Genesis with young-earth creationists, they tend to refer to contextual clues a lot. To give just one example, this piece, which goes to hilarious lengths to compare the use of the Hebrew “yom” (“day”) to the 2,282 other Old Testament uses of the word.

Somehow, in this author’s detailed analysis of the use of ordinal numbers in conjunction with “yom,” he managed to miss out on a couple of fairly significant contextual clues, like, I dunno, the freaking snake that is TALKING TO PEOPLE. Because I actually just completed a survey of 6,842 stories that feature talking animals, and — wouldn’t you know it — none of them were history.

Then you have the trees whose fruit bear obvious magical properties, which happens to be another astoundingly common theme in one particular type of writing: fiction writing.

Librarian 1: "Hey, what category do I list this book under?" Librarian 2: "It's got a lot of talking animals in it. Better file it under non-fiction."
Librarian 1: “Hey, what category do I list this book under?”
Librarian 2: “It’s got a lot of talking animals in it. Better place it in non-fiction.”
Some young-earthers have responded to this with the story of Balaam’s donkey, but unlike in Genesis 3, the donkey’s ability to talk is explicitly described as a miraculous act of God. Of course, their exhaustive comparative studies never include Proverbs 3:18 and 13:12, two instances in which the biblical authors revisit the concept of the tree of life — in an obviously figurative context.

8. Why do Genesis 1 and 2 contradict?

I have a much more detailed post on this issue here, so I’ll be brief.
Here is the order of some of the things God made in Genesis 1:
Plants (1:11-13)
Fish and birds, concurrently (1:20-23)
Land animals (1:24-25)
Men and women, concurrently (1:26-27)
Now here’s the order of the same stuff in Genesis 2:
Man (2:7)
Trees (2:9)
Land animals and birds (2:19)
Woman (2:21-22)

Notice any differences? Oh, wait, it’s all different. Now, if these two stories are meant to be theological allegory, as I believe they are, then there’s no issue. But if they are — as the young-earthers insist — historical accounts of the same creation of the same universe, then we have a problem … because they are irreconcilably different.

Some may criticize this question’s inclusion on this list. True, it’s not like young-earthers haven’t tried to answer it before. (Not that they really have a choice — if they can’t even get past the second chapter of Genesis without their literalist exegesis falling apart, they’re in big trouble.) Unfortunately, their explanations are utterly unfaithful to the very story they purport to be defending.

The primary explanation is that the verb in verse 19 (NASB: “Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky…”) should be translated in the past perfect: “had formed.” And indeed this is how some modern translations like the New International Version and the English Standard Version render the verse, even though the only reason to do so is to serve the translator’s underlying theological presuppositions.

Morphosyntactic considerations aside, if you do render the verse 19 verb “had formed,” it kind of completely wrecks the story. Whereas, in the NASB, verse 19 proceeds logically from the preceeding one (18: God says, “I will make a helper suitable for man.” 19: He makes a bunch of helpers), the NIV is hopelessly muddled (18: God says, “I will make a helper suitable for man.” 19: God suddenly reverses course: “Actually, never mind. I forgot I already made all these things. Will any of these work?”).

And don’t forget, this is only one of many problems that the literalistic, young-earth hermeneutic creates. It has to make you wonder: If these really are two literal accounts which are meant to be read as one harmonious history, why do you have to change or ignore so much of what they say to make them harmonize?

9. Why is incest wrong?

Ken Ham claims the most common question he’s been asked is, “Where did Cain get his wife?” Well, consider this the follow-up.

You see, young-earth groups are pretty up-front about where they think Cain’s wife came from: He married his sister. According to the young-earthers, God’s divine plan necessitated that men to procreate with their sisters or mother at least twice: following Noah’s flood and right after our original creation.
Somehow I can't help but question a worldview in which geology must be treated with the utmost caution, but sex with your blood relatives is OK in the proper context.
Somehow I can’t help but question a worldview in which radiometric dating is met with the greatest skepticism, but sex with your blood relatives is OK in the proper context.
Besides being weird and disturbing and more than a little icky, this is problematic because, biblically, incest is repeatedly and consistently described as a sin. It happens to be mentioned in scripture at least as many times as homosexuality, and I think we all know what Ken Ham thinks about that.
So why does incest get a pass?

Two reasons: Because there would “fewer genetic mistakes” the closer the happy couple was to Adam and Eve, and because God hadn’t issued his Mosaic-era prohibitions against incest yet.
Unfortunately, the first defense was arrived at using X-trabiblical Vision™, and since I don’t possess this power, I’m not really qualified to respond.
But the second is — pardon my French — total BS. News flash: According to the young-earthers, God hadn’t issued any commands at this point in history beyond “Don’t eat that fruit,” but it still seemed to be a pretty major party foul when Cain murdered Abel.

"Gee, Cain, I really wish you hadn't done that, but since I didn't specifically tell you not to, I guess it's all right." — God ("Cain Slaying Abel," Peter Paul Rubens)
God: “Gee, Cain, I really wish you hadn’t done that, but since I didn’t specifically tell you not to, I guess it’s all right.” (“Cain Slaying Abel,” Peter Paul Rubens)
So if God’s moral prohibition against murder was in effect before Heston — er, I mean, Moses — laid down the law on Sinai, then so was his moral prohibition against incest. Which makes it pretty unlikely that he would have set up his creation in such a way that it required incest almost immediately, don’t you think?

10. And finally, if it is so vitally important that Christians take Genesis literally, why did Jesus never once instruct us to take Genesis literally?

Sure, it’s an argument from silence. But it’s still worth considering why Jesus — who often addressed Old Testament passages that religious people had a habit of misinterpreting, and surely knew the issue this would one day become in the church. Preventing all that would have been as simple as this:
And again the Pharisees came to test Jesus. “Great teacher,” they said, “there are some who say the creation accounts are like your parables, and not meant to be read as history. What do you say to this?”

And then Jesus replied, giving the exact right answer that would preemptively end decades of harsh debate almost 2,000 years later.

But there’s nothing remotely like that in the gospels. Which proves that, regardless of whose interpretation of Genesis is correct, it doesn’t really matter in the end.
Because, if one particular view of the creation accounts was remotely necessary to the true understanding of Christianity, I’m pretty sure the founder of Christianity would have mentioned it.

Tyler Francke is founder of God of Evolution and author of Reoriented. He can be reached at

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Farewell, Cultural Christianity

Farewell, Cultural Christianity

How a changing landscape can strengthen our witness.

Farewell, Cultural Christianity
Evangelical Christians, of almost all sorts, are a narrative-driven people. Our evangelism often includes personal stories of how we came to meet Christ. Our worship often includes personal “testimonies,” either spoken or sung. To those outside the community, these can seem cloyingly sentimental, and sometimes even manipulative. Even so, those who emphasize the personal nature of knowing Christ often define following Christ in terms of our past, what we’re leaving behind. But even without a spoken testimony, one can often read what an evangelical is walking away from based on what he’s reacting, or over-reacting, to.

Whenever I hear a Christian say that we shouldn’t emphasize the imperatives of Scripture (the commands of God), but rather the indicatives (who we are in Christ), I can predict that, almost every time, this is someone who grew up in an oppressive and rigid legalism. By contrast, when I hear an evangelical Christian wanting to build hedges of rules around the possibility of sin, I can usually guess that this someone was converted out of a morally chaotic background. The Christian who was converted out of a dead, lifeless church often dismisses liturgy as “formalism” and contrasts “religion” with “relationship.” At the same time, one who was converted despite an emotionally exuberant but theologically vacuous church will often seek out the ancient roots and structure of a more liturgically ordered church.

What’s true at the personal level is also true at the movement level. We tend to ping back and forth between extremes—always seeking to avoid the last bad thing. As David R. Swartz points out in his book Moral Minority, The Religious Left of the last generation was, in many ways, a reaction from some sectors of the “Jesus People” era to the empty consumerism and racism and militarism of the post-World War II religious establishments. The old Religious Right was in many ways a reaction to the awful consequences of a real or perceived pietistic withdrawal of some in the church as the country veered into Sexual Revolution and an abortion culture. As we move into a new era, the church in America will seek to correct the course from some aspects of the past. We should simply make sure that we correct in the right way.

Some will see any reframing of Christian public witness as a “pullback from politics” or a withdrawal back into the enclaves. But this is not the case, for several reasons. First of all, it will be impossible. It is one thing for Christianity to correct errors in past forays into the public square: triumphalist expectations, for example, or theatrical panic and paranoia rooted in a victim-status siege mentality. It is quite another to, with silence, constrict the liberty of future generations.

Total disengagement is itself a privilege of a cultural Christendom that is fast passing away.
Total disengagement is itself a privilege of a cultural Christendom that is fast passing away. A church can avoid taking controversial stances on what it means to be human or what it means to be married only so long as the outside culture at least pretends to share the same basic ideals. A church can ignore the culture only until, as the divorce culture did in the past, that culture reshapes the church in a way that obscures the gospel itself. And a church can ignore the state only as long as the state respects the territorial boundaries of Mr. Jefferson’s “wall of separation.” A state that sees some aspects of Christian witness as bigoted and dangerous will not long stay on the other side of that wall.
The primary reason I think evangelicalism will not go wobbly on public engagement is the gospel. In the rising wave of evangelicals, one hears the constant refrain of “gospel focus” and “gospel centrality.” Some might dismiss this as just more evangelical faddishness and sloganeering, and perhaps some of it is. But I think it is far more than that.

The focus on the gospel is tied up with the collapse of the Bible Belt. As American culture secularizes, the most basic Christian tenets seem ever more detached from mainstream American culture. There is, for those who came and will come of age in recent years, no social utility in embracing them. Those who identify with Christianity, and who gather with the people of God, have already decided to walk out of step with the culture. These Christians have already embraced strangeness by spending Sunday morning at church rather than at brunch.

This is leading to a sort of mirror image of the Rapture that the traveling evangelists warned us about. Those who were nominally Christian are suddenly vanished from the pews. Those who wanted an almost-gospel will find that they don’t need it to thrive in American culture. As a matter of fact, cultural Christianity is herded out by natural selection. That sort of nominal religion, when bearing the burden of the embarrassment of a controversial Bible, is no more equipped to survive in a secularizing America than a declawed cat released in the wild. Who then is left behind? It will be those defined not by a Christian America but by a Christian gospel.

To understand why this leads to greater engagement rather than to lesser engagement, we must understand what the slow-motion collapse of the Bible Belt is about in the first place. This changes not just the number of unbelievers, but the way that believers themselves think and relate to the outside culture. Philosopher James K. A. Smith, in his book How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, gives the example of an evangelical church-planter relocating from the Bible Belt to a “post-Christian” urban center in the Pacific Northwest. The church planter is equipped to evangelize and make disciples by asking people diagnostic questions about what’s missing in their lives.
A generation or two ago, that might have been what they were trusting in to get to heaven. In more recent years, it would have been what’s missing in order to grant meaning and purpose to their lives. The central issue isn’t that the church planter isn’t adequately trained to answer their questions; it’s that they are asking different questions. They do not feel “lost” in the world, and they don’t feel as though they need meaning or purpose. The effective evangelist must engage not only at the level of the answers, but also at the level of the questions themselves.

The same will be true when it comes to the social and political witness of Christianity in a new era. Older generations could assume that the culture resonated with the same “values” and “principles.” They could assume that the culture wanted to conserve their “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Increasingly, the culture doesn’t see Christianity as the “real America.” If Christianity is a means to American values, America can get by without it, because America is learning to value other things.
This is, perhaps counterintuitively, both good for the church and good for the church’s engagement with the outside world. In the 1920s, J. Gresham Machen warned the church his book Christianity and Liberalism not only that bartering away orthodoxy wouldn’t gain the church cultural credibility, but also that the great danger for the church is to see Christianity as a means to some other end. Christianity does indeed build stronger families, he argued, and it does indeed provide an alternative to Marxist ideologies. But if Christianity is embraced as a way to build strong families or assimilate people into American values or fight Communism, it is no longer Christianity but an entirely other religion, one he called “liberalism.”

In the last generation of Christian public engagement, there were some genuine prophets and saints, who called the church out of isolation but constantly warned against a political captivity of the church, a captivity that would tap Christianity of its righteous zeal for the sake of power but would, ultimately, drain it of what every culture finds most troublesome: the exclusivity of Christ.
As American culture changes, the scandal of Christianity is increasingly right up front, exactly where it was in the first century. The shaking of American culture will get us back to the question Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?” As the Bible Belt recedes, those left standing up for Jesus will be those who, like Simon Peter of old, know how to answer that question. Once Christianity is no longer seen as part and parcel of patriotism, the church must offer more than “What would Jesus do?” moralism and the “I vote values” populism to which we’ve grown accustomed. Good.

Stanley Hauerwas: "We always marry the wrong person"

"Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become "whole" and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.

We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married."

What American Christians Should Be Singing on July 4

Ever wonder why Independence Day is not part of the Church Year?

a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms:
Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will be done.
Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations;
myself I give thee; let thy will be done.>

(this can be sung to the tune, "Finlandia")