Continuity and Discontinuity in the Bible

Many Christians seem to struggle (often unknowingly) with cognitive dissonance when it comes to how they treat and read the Bible, particularly when it comes to the relationship between the Old Testament and the New.

There is a tendency to read the Bible like a “choose your own adventure book.” By this I mean, that we jump around from book to book, chapter to chapter and Testament to Testament, treating each passage and verse as if they are equally applicable or equally theologically informative. The Old Testament is read on the same level as the New and the inspired depiction of God that we find in the OT is treated as equally informative in our understanding of the revelation of God that we find in the NT.

But the entire Bible is not meant to be read in the manner that we read certain books in it, like Proverbs for example, which is a collection of ancient wisdom. It’s one thing to read the Psalms or Proverbs, divorced from the larger biblical narrative, but it’s quite another to pluck out a passage from the prophet Jeremiah or from the letter to the Ephesians without reading it in context.

Likewise is is unwise to read the Old Testament without considering how the New Testament transforms our understanding of the Law, Israel or Yahweh.

All Scripture is inspired, but that does not mean that all Scripture should be weighed or read the same. This is a crucial distinction for faithful Christian interpreters.

It is not by accident that we call the Old Testament “old” and the New Testament “new.” The usage of the word “new,” implies a change. It implies that there has been something akin to an addition or subtraction or transformation. Something is different.

This is a fundamental aspect in both the Gospels and in Paul’s writing. Jesus transforms our understanding of Israel’s story, of humanity, of creation and of God’s relationship with everything. And the truth is, that while places in the Old Testament hint at the coming revelation of Christ and how things will be different, the full truth about God is still largely unknown.

Again, this is not to say that God did not work through His people in the Old Testament, or that He did not reveal aspects of His purpose. To the contrary, throughout the OT, we see God covenanting and stooping into solidarity with His people, so that all people will one day be blessed (Genesis 22:18). And as we move through the Old Testament narrative, from Genesis to Malachi, there seems to be a progressive, upward trend of God revealing more and more of His purposes and His will.

Thus, the New Testament and Jesus more specifically, is the culmination of God’s revelation to humanity.

But it is impossible to deny that, while there is a sense of continuity when we move from Malachi to Matthew, there is also radical discontinuity. In fact, the manner in which many of the Jews reacted to Jesus (as depicted in the Gospels), should cue us in to the shift that occurs with Jesus’s coming and the subsequent ways in which He shows how God’s people were often mistaken in their understanding of God and His will.

So to say that the Old Testament is not the full revelation of God, is not to follow in Marcion’s steps, despite the protests of fundamentalists. Rather, it is the affirmation of the true character of the New Testament, which itself tells us that the Law was only a shadow of things to comes (Colossians 2:14 and Hebrews 10:1).

Think about how we read novels. Oftentimes, towards the end of a book a big reveal occurs and it changes how we see a character or plot point and thus changes everything that we’ve learned in previous chapters. It forces us to think about things in a new light.

This is not unlike how the New Testament should transform our understanding of the Old. Now, we read the Old in light of the New. This is not to say that we can read the NT without the OT. In fact, the New Testament is incoherent without the Old, but that still doesn’t mean that we treat them the same.

The problem is that so many Christians, love to use the Old Testament as an excuse to justify things that the New Testament clearly does not.

Placing Old Testament passages over the authority of Jesus and Paul is not just poor biblical interpretation and exegesis, it is idolatry.

So, in conclusion, let us remember that, yes, all Scripture is inspired, but we must open our eyes to see how the end of the story changes the beginning.

The author of Hebrews gives us some important insight on this matter;

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.

Hebrews 1:1-3 (NASB).

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Rights vs Responsibilities

It is often claimed that the American nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values, such as respect for property, safety and survival. However this value system is not uniquely Western or biblical. In fact what most mean by Judeo-Christian values is in reality a conventional form of morality that exists within most societies, secular or religious, Christian or otherwise. While much of Western culture is built upon this sense of conventional morality, many aspects of this value system are antithetical to the values found in both the Old Testament and the New.

The cardinal virtues of Western society typically include individualism, self-determination and personal rights. Our society certainly places a high degree of value on these ideas and they no doubt help create order and stability. Christians can and should find the good that these principles produce insofar as they align with the Kingdom vision of Christ. At the same time, we should be cautious about embracing a system for human success that stands outside of the biblical narrative, particularly one so enveloped in individualism and self-realization. It is my contention that no concept of inalienable rights, at least in the modern sense, can be found in the Bible. The idea of rights came from the enlightenment and from the Greeks. The Bible on the other hand places an emphasis not on our personal rights, natural or legal per se, but on our responsibilities.

When Judeo-Christian values are appealed to, the Ten Commandments are often in mind. While it is true that our legal system shares the same basic prohibitions on murder, theft and some forms of false witness, our culture does not legistlate against idolatry, greed and dishonesty. Some have argued that the development and evolution of the “Western” world is indebted to the Judaic-Christian traditions. It is no doubt true that both Judaism and Christianity have influenced and shaped the West to a significant extent. But it would be a mistake to equate the West with the vision of Christ’s Kingdom. I don’t recall any historical examples of government’s implementing the Sermon on the Mount in their domestic legislation or foreign policy.

Looking to the Old Testament, we will find that there are components of the Decalogue that were unique to the Hebrew people. But, broadly speaking, the commandments parallel a general code of conventional morality that has existed within the majority of societies from antiquity to modernity. Furthermore, in the ancient world the Hebrews were not the only ones who lived by certain standards of law and morality. Archaeologists have discovered Babylonian tablets dating from the 18th century BC that bear many similarities to the Old Testament laws (Enns, 20). These tablets, also known as the Code of Hammurabi, appear to date at least a few centuries prior to when most scholars believe Moses would’ve lived. Both the book of Exodus and the Code of Hammurabi share similar laws concerning “stealing, property…kidnapping, marriage and divorce, loans…personal injury [and] animals,” among others (Ibid).

My point here is not to question the inspiration or uniqueness of the Old Testament, but to show that there is nothing particularly unique about much of the morality found in it, particularly the morality that conservatives say America was founded upon. However as we will see, the meta-narrative of the Bible, especially the Prophets and the New Testament, point us toward a more radical form of ethics and more importantly responsibilities, which should transform our prioritization of personal rights.

Because my thesis rests on semantics and the definition of terms, let us first define what “rights” are. The basic essence of rights will be defined here as legal entitlements enforceable by law. Rights are claims you can make on others and thus in a sense are a form of social or relational power. As such, the concept of personal rights amounts to a way of exercising or leveraging power over and against others for our own well-being, protection and benefit. In other words, rights are about maintaining or getting something for yourself or a collection of individuals.

Now to be clear, I’m not advocating for the abolishment of legal rights or entitlements. Nor am I claiming that “rights” are always self-serving or for that matter inherently bad. However, it is important that we recognize that rights are a form of power over others and more importantly they are anthropocentric and typically individualistic in nature. And even when when rights are collectivist, they are sometimes implemented at the cost of individual rights. The converse is also true for individual rights, which can be exercised at the cost of the collective. Thus, in part, this is how rights become a form of power over others. Now, one might ask how exactly rights are a form of power over others. A fair question. Let me explain.

Think for a moment about how rights are typically exercised. When a wrong (whether actual or perceived) is committed by someone, does the victim seek out the individual who wronged them for reconciliation and for possible reparations? The answer is almost universally no. Perhaps on rare occasions. When attempting to implement the privileges and benefits that come with any given right, we seek out the institution that administers them. The establishment of legal rights is backed up by a judicial system which is in turn supported by the power of law enforcement, which has the authority to lock up and even kill those who have violated the rights of others.

Now it may be the case that this is a necessity in a fallen world such as ours, but it is a far cry from what in the Bible is called justice, righteousness, and love. Honoring another’s rights to avoid negative personal consequences, and asserting personal rights for personal benefit are, at the end of the day, both motivated by the same deep drive that is also at the heart of violating another’s rights; self-preference.

In short, it shouldn’t take a law to keep us from violating another person’s value and dignity.

In Good News to the Poor, Tim Chester elaborates on how Christians should shift our mindset regarding the concept of human rights:

I suspect that the focus on human rights reflects the search for a new ethic in a post-Christian, secular world. It is an attempt to articulate afresh our moral obligations to the poor, but it roots this moral obligation in the nature of human beings. But for Christians, moral obligations are not rooted in the nature of human beings but in the nature and will of God. Our obligations are to God. He is the one with rights – not us. We have responsibilities toward God for each other. So the approach of rights-based development is godless. By that I do not mean that all human rights and all that is done in its name is contrary to the will of God – much of it does accord with God’s will, and that is why we can use the instruments and language of human rights to advocate for the poor. But it must be recognized as an attempt to develop an ethic without God” (Chester, 26).

 

We can apply Chester’s reflections to the idea of personal rights as well. In fact Chester aptly voices the importance of responsibilities that I would like to focus on next.

Throughout the Bible we see time after time that everyone, that all humanity, shares equal value, equal dignity and equal worth. Similarly we see that God has expectations of  His people. The Bible doesn’t just command us to not take advantage of the poor and oppressed, it commands us to help the poor and oppressed. And although we have rights given to us by society and/or the government, the Bible doesn’t speak of rights, in the modern sense, that are given to us by God. It does, however, speak of value, dignity and worth, given to us by God, and of the call placed upon all of us to honor and express the value found in all humans, even those who wrong us.

In the Old Testament, the only time (apart from the mention of “conjugal rights” in Exodus 21:10 and of “redemption rights” in Leviticus 25:31) the concept of rights appears, is in the form of Israel, the people of God (and now us, the church), being challenged to defend the rights of others, not theirselves/ourselves. Specifically, the poor, the oppressed, the widows and the orphans. The most vulnerable of society. Here “rights” equates with just living; both collective and individual.

In fact, an attentive reader will find that the Hebrew concern for injustice permeates the Old Testament. The theme of social justice is undeniably foremost in the chorus of the Prophets. The minor prophet Amos well illustrates this concern. In this prophetic book, Amos reveals Yahweh’s warning of the consequences that await not only the nations but both Israel and Judah as well, if they continue to live unjustly. Furthermore, we learn that Yahweh does not desire token gestures of worship and rote sacrifice. Rather God desires a people who live righteously. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, NASB).

In Hebrew, justice or מִשְׁפָּט (mishpat) is not a set of rules enshrined in law but actual concrete actions taken in order to rectify injustice and foster righteous living. In Jeremiah 5:28, the “weeping prophet” speaks harshly of those who “do not defend the rights of poor.” Interestingly enough the Hebrew word used for rights is the same word used for justice in Amos 5:24; mishpat. So, rights = justice and justice = rights. Likewise, righteousness or צְדָקָה (tsĕdaqah) is more than just a state of moral standing. Rather, it is an expectation of fairness and equity in human relationships, without condition. So ultimately, rights or righteousness and justice for the Hebrews were not claims that they had on others but obligations they had towards others based on their calling to reflect God’s image and to imitate how God acts towards us.

In the New Testament we encounter the idea of rights in places like John 1:12, where it describes how God gives us the right or ἐξουσία (exousia) to become children of God. Exousia is the word for “power.” In other words, the power to become children of God. In fact the meaning of the “right” that God has granted to us is akin to a privilege or the power to choose. We have the right to receive the status that we have as God’s children. And this status is granted to all humans, equally, we need only step into this reality. 

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul uses ἐξουσία six times and it is typically translated as “right” (NLT, ESV, NASB etc). However ἐξουσία can also carry the meaning of “power,” “privilege” or “authority” among others. Strong’s Concordance notes that the biblical usage of ἐξουσία generally carries a primary sense of the “power of choice,” or the “liberty of doing as one pleases.” So in one sense, the meaning of ἐξουσία is about the individual autonomy one has. Basically our freedom of choice. But Paul turns the idea that we have the right or privilege to do something for our own benefit on its head. Paul says that although he would’ve been justified in exercising a number of privileges he’d either earned or just had as a result of his apostolic status, he has chosen instead to relinquish them.

Rather than claiming a set of prerogatives, Paul instead models how believers should set aside what they deserve for the sake of the Good News and the cause of Christ. “Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ” (1 Cor 9:19).

This helps us understand passages where Paul seems to uphold the status quo, social values and Greco-Roman forms of hierarchy. The Epistle to Philemon, for example, has been lauded by some as a Pauline endorsement of slavery, or at the very least, the absence of its condemnation.

But Paul tells Philemon that when Onesimus returns, he must treat him as a brother and partner because “He is no longer like a slave to you” (verse 16, NLT). In fact, throughout the Pauline corpus we can find the theme that in the Church, Christ has placed everyone on equal footing (See Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, 1 Corinthians 12:13 & Romans 3:22 for example).

And although within the societal structure we have been given identities and expected roles that coincide with those identities, particularly in the ancient Greco-Roman world, the ethic that Paul presents in Philemon and elsewhere inevitably leads to the abolishment of cultural obligations. And this abolishment of cultural norms takes place most visibly within the Church community.

Rather than rebelling against the status quo in a manner in which 21st century minds would hope for, such as advocating for the immediate end to slavery and the egalitiarian restructuring of society, Paul instead shows that within the Church we take on the mind and attitude of Christ, which on its own erases any hierarchal systems that would otherwise exist outside of the Church.

The New Testament teaches that we have mutual responsibilities to each other. What I owe others is not based on a law, but in the New Creation that Christ has brought about in each of us. And the Church is the primary place where we relearn how to live out this mutual, egalitarian lifestyle, whether it be mutual submission in marriage (Ephesians 5:21) or in any other relationship between Christian brothers and sisters. Furthermore, the Church is the place where we rediscover God’s ideal for humanity, so that we may better witness to the world.

However in our self-orientedness, we all too often turn our obligations, especially with regard to others, into entitlements. Unfortunately the hyper-individualism of the modern world has only heightened our egocentricity, giving free-reign to the primordial propensity for human selfishness.

Although we are obligated to not steal and not kill, instead we typically focus on protecting ourselves and enforcing our claims on others rather than living out our responsibilities towards others. We default into self-protection and self-promotion, whereas the Bible calls us to protect and seek the wellbeing of others.  It’s not about me, not about you. It’s about us.

One of the defining features of the New Testament is the theme of sacrifice. Over and over the NT authors remind us that we must lay aside our own preferences and positions in order to serve others. And Christ presents the ideal portrait of ultimate sacrifice, not only in His death on the cross but in the incarnation itself.

In Philippians, Paul tells us that we should carry the same mentality as Christ reflected in the fact that “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges (or “emptied himself”); he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being” (Phil 2:6-7, NLT).

Paul also taught the Corinthian Christians ways to live out this pattern of choosing to not exercise personal rights in order to promote a higher goal of seeking the benefit of another. He applies this in such areas as marital relations, legal disputes, and even his “rights” as an apostle in ministry, as mentioned earlier.

There will always be situations where it is appropriate for believers to exercise their societal rights, given that they have properly followed the guidance of Scripture and the Holy Spirit. The quest for an ethical framework that promotes wellbeing for all is both moral and Christian, but our guidelines for this task should always place God’s design first. This means that while secular rights can accomplish good things, the exercise of these rights is not always consistent with the biblical witness and its emphasis on responsibilities. In fact, as I have attempted to demonstrate, they can even stand in stark contrast to the biblical ideal.

Does this mean that Christians should abandon attempts to attain justice and/or rights for vulnerable peoples in the secular realm? I don’t think so. As noted earlier, the idea of advocating for the oppressed is certainly biblical. And while advocating for the oppressed should sometimes look radically different for Christians than it does in the secular realm, there are times when the two visions of justice align. The Civil Rights movement, for example, was about a group of people who were advocating for a better society for everyone, freeing both oppressed and oppressor from systemic injustice.

For centuries, the values and worldview of the West have mingled and fused with Christianity. As a result, our conception of rights has been predominantly informed by the culture and not by our faith. One of the core values of the West, the centrality of individual legal entitlements or “rights,” has been all but baptized and incorporated into our modern Christian (and American) creed. Nonetheless, the OT, NT and Jesus all instruct us to lay said our own rights and lives in the pursuit of serving Jesus’ Kingdom faithfully and promoting the well-being of others ahead of our selves. This is one of the supreme responsbilities of the Christian.

Works Cited:

Chester, Tim. Good News to the Poor: Social Involvement and the Gospel, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.

Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015.

Abusing Scripture: Romans 13:1-2

Forgive my hastily compiled thoughts, but I figured this was an appropriate topic to offer some reflections on after the recent claims made by some very high profile figures regarding a particularly misunderstood Bible passage.

First of all, the Gospel should never be compromised by partisanship or your political preferences. This applies to conservatives and liberals. And Christians of all persuasions (myself included) are guilty of putting ideology before their faith. But this is a failure to abide by the standards set forth by the New Testament. It should go without saying that the commandments of Jesus should never be trumped (pun intended) by the policies of the political party you support.

The appropriation and misuse of Romans 13:1-2 in recent days by figures within the government reveals the true priorities of those who have attempted to find support from the Bible for the inhumane treatment of immigrant children.

Because this part of the Epistle to the Romans is such a rich text, there are numerous avenues of interest that cannot be explored here. So these reflections are barely touching the surface on how and why some interpret Romans 13 so mistakenly. So even if we put aside important textual and exegetical aspects of interpreting Romans 13 faithfully, a few basic questions and problems arise concerning the unconditioned claim that Christians should obey governing authorities and the laws they put in place.

The first problem with this claim and those who have made it (Sessions, Pence and others) is that even they don’t follow it consistently. The other is that our ultimate obligation is to obey God rather than men when the two obligations are in conflict/disagreement (cf. Acts 5:29). For the true Christian, God’s law always takes precedence over human law. Submission to governing authorities is only applicable to the extent that a law is not contrary to God’s revealed will. We submit to authority when appropriate, but where the laws contradict God’s will, we disobey them (in a Christ-like manner) and then submit to the government’s penalty for doing so; as Jesus, Paul and the early church martyrs modeled, at the cost of their lives.

If Romans 13 means that Christians are to submit to authority in every detail, then what about the early Christians, who refused to worship Caesar and were martyred for it? Were they disobeying God by choosing not to worship Caesar? On another ironic note, most conservative American Christians who interpret Romans 13 as teaching that we are to render total submission to governments also happen to adore the founding fathers. But if they apply their reading of Romans 13 consistently, they would then ultimately have to conclude that the American Revolution was in direct contradiction to God’s ordinances since the American colonists were rebelling against their government. How then should we view Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany? Were they also mistaken in their resistance against the Nazi regime? Was Martin Luther King Jr. also in the wrong to refuse to submit to the legal orders forbidding his marches and demonstrations? If this reading of Romans 13 was true, then Christians shouldn’t have opposed slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation. If this reading of Romans 13 is applied in the same manner as it has been to the treatment of immigrant children, then why should we oppose abortion, since it was legalized 1973?

The truth is that people like Sessions and Pence don’t apply their own convictions consistently when it comes to Romans 13. They choose to read Romans 13 a certain way because it protects their assumptions and their agendas. Christian’s are simply not called to give unquestioning obedience to every particular law or policy of the State. That is a deeply mistaken reading of Romans 13. Obviously Christians were right not to submit to Caesar or to Hitler. Christians were and are right to oppose slavery, segregation, abortion and now the inhumane treatment of immigrants. When our allegiance to Christ appears to conflict with the call to submit to authority, our submission to Christ should always come first.

If we read Romans 13 contextually and in light of broader New Testament teachings, it is clear that believers are to challenge and resist unjust laws and policies (again in a Christ-like fashion). Furthermore, we are then expected to submit to the punishment that a government may impose as a result of our actions (See the rest of Romans 13 and many NT commentators on this idea).

Throughout history, this popular misinterpretation of Romans 13 has unwittingly (or perhaps not so unwittingly) become a highly convenient way to justify injustice biblically, especially for those who want to implement their political agenda. In fact, as many have noted, Romans 13 has been a favorite proof-text of many tyrants, including the Nazis and slave-owners.

If you have political preferences, that’s okay. And it’s okay for Christians to have disagreements in the realm of politics. But our faith should never be relegated to the second tier, particularly when we have clear guidance from Christ and from Scripture.

And when it comes to the treatment of immigrants, Jesus and the Bible place compassion above all else (See Lev 19:33-34, Deut 27:19, Eze 47:22, Zech 7:9-10, Matthew 25:35 and Hebrews 13:2 for starters).

Romans 13:1-2 cannot be read in a vacuum. The surrounding texts qualify what submission should look like. Likewise, we must remember that Romans was written to a specific context during a specific time. We cannot just pluck Bible passages out as if they are all little nuggets of truth that exist on their own and are meant to read by us in the same manner as they were in the 1st century of the Roman Empire.

This post was also shared on the wondering eagle blog, which can be found here.

Tragedy & Story

I have a deep appreciation for tragic stories, in literature and in film. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again; there is a strange power in tragedy. I don’t mean to be masochistic or fatalistic in the slightest, but there is something deeply moving, something deeply human in suffering or at least the stories of suffering.

There are some who hold to a theology, a doctrine of suffering. In other words, an understanding that suffering is part of God’s will. They often refer to the book of Job to justify this. I think this is an egregious mistake. God does not delight in suffering, nor does God ordain or cause it. The universe is complex and incomprehensible, we cannot and will not grasp the inner workings or the deeper laws written behind the cosmos. But I can say with confidence that God does not delight in our suffering. God is not the architect of our sorrow. That is actually the antithesis of what the book of Job is intending to illustrate and teach.

Beauty can come despite, or out of suffering, but it does not come from suffering. That is an important differentiation that must be made.

But if suffering and tragedy are not a part of the Creator’s original intention, then why are we so often drawn to it, particularly in literature and in film? Of course, anything can be romanticized and idealized. I of all people am aware of this, since I tend to do it quite often. But even if we peel away the romanticizing of suffering, there is still something that draws us to a story that tells of someone who has endured the brutality of existence.

Perhaps we are compelled to sorrowful tales, not because they depict how things should be, but because they all too often depict how things are. Because suffering, by nature, is intrinsically and inherently human. Not human as the Creator intended us to be, but human as we are and as we will be until the new creation.

Nostalgia

Nostalgia. This word encapsulates a host of feelings that are impossible to adequately describe. Even the word nostalgia is inefficient for symbolizing or capturing the entirety of its meaning. Nostalgia isn’t merely memories of events or people or places, but the encapsulation of seasons of life. The aura, the mood, the tone and the ambience of those seasons of life.

Of course I don’t mean seasons in the literal sense of the word, although at times it might correlate to the actual seasons, which have such distinct visuals and sensations 

What I mean by seasons of life in relation to nostalgia, is a sense of being, a sense of existence associated with a time in your life. How you felt for a certain duration of your life. Not necessarily how happy or sad you were, but how you thought about things or what you thought about at that time in your life. How you viewed the world around you. Was your imagination alive with creative juice? Were your thoughts enraptured by a significant other?

Still, this nostalgia I speak of, is more than what I’ve said. It’s existential, something perhaps only God can truly understand and articulate. Perhaps that is the most frustrating aspect of it. Sometimes it can only be captured by a painting, a sound, a smell, but often it cannot be truly recreated at all, not even in your memory, where it once lived. Most unbearable is the fact that it cannot be conveyed to another. Maybe therein lies its beauty?

A Brief Word on the Notion of “Soul Mates”

I’m a hopeless romantic, so naturally I have always been attracted to the idea of a soul mate. Fortunately the wisdom of peers and much self-reflection has convinced me otherwise, although I say this with some qualifications. I don’t reject the concept of soul mates simply on an ideological basis, but primarily because of the assumptions that this idea is built on. Although I would like to believe that, at least to a certain extent, “fate” and “destiny” are real, particularly in the spiritual realm. God is a God of salvation and redemption after all. He has always been. More importantly He has always had a purpose and a plan for Creation.

While I utterly reject meticulous providence and most iterations of Reformed theology, I do believe that God orchestrates and guides and works with those who desire God’s will. But God does not work in a vacuum. God requires partnership, not because He lacks the power to accomplish anything, but because God’s nature is such that He longs for our willing participation in the stewardship of ourselves and of Creation. This entails that humans must act.

The issue that I have with the notion of soul mates is that it presupposes that we play little to no role in the relationship. It does not take into account the flawed and fallen character of humanity. If we assume that God has created one specific individual for each of us, then we are susceptible to become apathetic in our romantic relationships, either in the early stages or later once a covenantal commitment has been made. When the going gets rough, we fallaciously conclude that it was not meant to be. This is a tragic mistake. Relationships take work, patience and care, just like a garden.

In some sense, perhaps we may become one another’s soul mates over the course of time and commitment. I find this idea attractive.

I don’t want to trivialize romanticism. Anyone who knows me well, know that when I become enamored with someone, the feelings build rapidly. Part of this has to do with my personality type, since I tend to sentimentalize and idealize the future and the possibilities that I hope for.

Romantic feelings and romantic relationships are strange phenomenona. While I hardly have much experiential acumen on this matter, I think my intuitions may hold some truth. We’re all a little lonely. Even those of us who can testify to a deep and intimate relationship with our Creator (of which I hardly count myself among, although I’ve come a long way), must admit a certain degree of physical, tangible emptiness. This is of course not universal. There are many who do not need romantic relationships to feel fulfilled. But for many of us, loneliness plagues our thoughts. It’s not so much the lack of relationship as it is the lack of another who is immersed in the inner-workings of your soul, your mind and your heart. Our actions actualize us, but our thoughts define us. Our thoughts are not merely the firing of neurons and the release of chemicals. Our thoughts are living, existing, breathing organisms that come to life. If we can share our deepest thoughts with someone, we are literally sharing our lifeblood.

I would be remiss to deny that loneliness scares me. But in all honesty it’s not so much loneliness that scares me. I believe that I fear other things more. However I am not sure exactly what I fear more: rejection or the possibility of the unknown never coming to fruition.

These anxieties can plague anyone in the early stages of attraction or a relationship. One can quickly experience an attraction that is more than merely physical. While it’s fair to the characterize the initial feelings towards another as simply infatuation, this captivation cannot last indefinitely, at some point a choice is made, a commitment to pursue someone and once this commitment, even if made somewhat foolishly evolves into a bond. The infatuation becomes a small sliver of hope that grows into a deep longing that builds and builds until it crashes over the dam of logic and reason and cascades onwards.

So perhaps I remain somewhat agnostic concerning the existence of soul mates. I would very much like to believe that they are real. I cannot entirely explain attraction. Attraction to someone cannot always be explained by rationale or instinct. It’s completely true that you can find someone singularly attractive. And this undoubtedly plays a part of the equation. But physical attraction cannot fully account for the appeal.

And this is an existential reality that most of us will probably never be able to illustrate or explain. This leads me to my last point.

Ultimately, it seems realistic to hold that we shouldn’t be so concerned with finding our soulmates as we should be with becoming the soul mate our lover desires. 

 

A Tri-fold, Trinitarian Approach to Marriage & Sex

This is an adapted excerpt from a paper I wrote for Professor Paul Eddy entitled “A Covenantal Framework for Marriage & Sex,” which can be found here.

In order to establish a hermeneutical lens through which to comprehend the purpose of marriage and sex, I will propose three foundational objectives for a Christian marriage, all of which are strengthened and protected by sexual union and bonding within marriage. This tri-fold, Trinitarian approach will form the framework of a missional and covenantal understanding of sex and marriage, that reverberates beyond the marriage itself.

The Trinitarian approach to marriage and sex can be summarized as follows. The Trinity can be seen as three unique beings joined into one through intimate bondedness and interaction. This union overflows as love for each other and for humanity. The unity and mutual love within the Trinity, though self-existent, does not endure for its own sake but is directed outward for the sake of others. Thus mutual intimacy, oneness and altruism has the higher purpose of overflowing in blessing and benefit to others. This is a beautiful model of what a Trinitarian or missional marriage might look like (as well as a missional community).

Irenaeus of Lyon, one of the Early Church Fathers, understood God’s creation of man and woman as a means of reflecting God’s image to each other, so that they both would know and experience God. The following quote from a commentator on Irenaeus illustrates how this Early Church Father saw the purpose between the relationality of man and woman;

“Their very existence is designed to be of benefit to the other. This is not simply true in terms of Eve’s relationship to Adam, but also of his relationship to her. They share the same flesh; they share the same bones. The role of Christians, the role of all humans to be the helpmeet of all others, is built in to our nature. To be a community, to be of assistance and support in growth and development to those around us, is not an option.”

This flows nicely into a “Tri-fold” approach to marriage in cohesion with the Trinitarian approach. The threefold purpose of marriage and sex is as follows; (1) To serve and reflect God’s image to each other in the marriage. This internal practice better prepares and teaches us (or should) to do so externally. (2) To serve and reflect God’s image, as a couple, to others in the Church family, which in turn, leads us beyond our Church community. (3) To serve and reflect God’s image, as a couple, to the outside world. In short, the Tri-fold aspect involves the marriage having three levels of “overflow” of love: spouse-to-spouse; couple-to-church community; and couple-to-outside world.

All of this implies that marriage, if we are called to it, functions as part of our missional calling to reflect God’s image in and to the world. Sex functions as a means of serving, unifying and reinforcing our commitment and bond to serve and love each other so that we may better serve and love those around us and in the world. Marriage in this way then becomes missional. In reflecting agapē love to a spouse, we form habits and patterns that should ripple out into the Church community and then into the world.

Sources:

Irenaeus of Lyon, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/ holyfathers/from_the_bone_of_adam_st._irenaeus_on_the_creation_of_eve1

The Cross and Violence

and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.” – Hebrews 12:24 (NASB)

Violence cannot tolerate the presence of one who owes it nothing.” – René Girard

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This post ended up being longer than intended, but I suppose that’s par for the course.

Today of course is Good Friday and so, for those of us who identity as Christians, we remember Christ’s sacrifice.

For many, the Cross is a difficult concept to grasp and understandably so. I find myself constantly wrestling with this topic, especially as of late.

Throughout history various branches of the Church have given a myriad of answers to questions regarding the purpose of the crucifixion. And no matter how well we explain what the cross accomplishes, regardless of our theological differences, Christians can all agree that there will always be a mystical element to Christ’s death that transcends human understanding.

The Cross is many things and we can theologize about it for a lifetime and still fail to understand its magnitude and meaning. It is a revelation of God’s perfect and unchanging character. It is the subversion of human conceptions of forgiveness. It is the conquest of death and of the powers and principalities that enslave creation. It is an example for us to follow. And it is God’s endurance and shouldering of the consequences of sin. But in Protestantism and American Evangelicalism in particular, we often overlook how the cross exposes the violence of humanity. The perfect human being wasn’t killed by God, He was killed by us. By human institutions, both religious and secular; the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman authorities. And by all standards these two establishments were the most advanced of their time. Thus in a sense, Jesus was executed by the Church and the State and as such His unjust death is a condemnation of the broken systems of the world. In enduring death on a cross, Christ exposed the horrific evil humankind is capable of.

The Cross is seen as an event that was divinely orchestrated. All debates surrounding predestination aside, Christians can concur that, at some level, Christ’s death and resurrection were always a part of God’s eternal design for the redemption of the cosmos. But as a result, we often overlook or minimize humanity’s role in putting an innocent person to death. For some, the occurrence of Christ’s death is reduced to an equation where the absolution of sins is granted in exchange for punishment. Our “guilty” standing before God requires the death of a sinless human being in order for the scales of divine justice to be balanced. While we all can and should embrace that there is a saving nature to Christ’s death, it’s important to acknowledge the theological differences we will have in how we parse this out. That being said, Christ’s death is so much more than just the “imputation of righteousness,” where a moral status is somehow conferred upon us.

The death of Christ is the result of our flawed conceptions of justice and our tendency towards violence. And it reveals our need to be saved from ourselves and our destructive patterns of living. It wasn’t some abstract transfer of human sin that killed Jesus, but concrete human decisions and actions that endorsed and carried out His execution.

The author of Acts reiterates over and over again how “you crucified” Christ (See Acts 2:22-23, 3:13-18, 4:10, 5:30, 7:52 etc). These passages implicate not only the Jews, but the Gentiles and ruling authorities as well. And although some commentators argue that the context places a primary emphasis on the responsibility of the Jews in orchestrating Christ’s death, there is also a broader sense in which the world has conspired to bring about the downfall of the Son of Man.

In ancient Greece, the concept of the perfect man and his corresponding characteristics was a topic of prime philosophizing. More than three centuries before Jesus lived, Plato infamously remarked that a perfectly just and righteous man would inevitably endure horrendous torture, unjust and murder at the hands of humans.

The Cross itself is the direct physical result of sinful actions. Likewise the crucifixion simultaneously represents what the sin of the whole world looks like. It looks like a crucified God, an innocent lamb led to the slaughter, a physical portrait of our rejection of God’s design for humanity.

And yet the Cross exposes how humans, when confronted with God in the flesh and the inauguration of His Kingdom, chose instead to continue living in the ways of Babylon.

Babylon, Death and Violence all thought they put the Son of Man into the grave. The violent display of death on a cross was an attempt to adjudicate the powers and principalities in their case against the Man who sought to overturn their systems.

But Christ’s death and resurrection tore asunder the ordinances of our fallen world and freed it from bondage to the old manner of thinking and in doing so revealed the illegitimacy of their reign and the legitimacy of Christ’s.

References:

– S. G. Wilson, “The Jews and the Death of Jesus in Acts,” In Anti-Judaism in Early  Christianity, Vol. 1 Paul and the Gospels edited by Peter Richardson and David Granskou (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1986), 155-164.

– Plato, The Republic, Book II, 360-61.

Thoughts on Privilege

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” – James 1:19 (NET)

They must not slander anyone, but be peaceable, gentle, showing complete courtesy to all people.” – Titus 3:2 (NET)

Cycles of conflict are perpetuated on the interpersonal and social levels by the failure to listen well and to speak gently. These patterns of hurt and misunderstanding are further provoked by the filters through which every individual sees things through. We all have past experiences that when brought to the surface only aggravate a heated situation. In part, this contributes to the difficulty surrounding public and private conversations regarding contentious topics such as “privilege.”

Keeping this in mind, I’d like to make some observations on this particular subject and the problematic manner in which dialogue about privilege often transpires.

It is readily apparent to most of us that the contemporary social justice movement prioritizes discussions about various forms of “privilege,” white or otherwise. In my estimation, regardless of how we define privilege, the critique seems to boil down to power, who has it and who doesn’t.

In short, this ideological faction, particularly popular among millennials and in academia, identifies and categorizes people based on their perceived advantages over others, especially in contrast or relation to disenfranchised and marginalized groups.

There are of course a great many forms of privilege, according to those attempting to bring attention to it. For every possible anthropological division there is a corresponding class of privilege. For race, there is “White Privilege.” For gender, there is “Male Privilege.” For class, there is “Economic Privilege.” There are also some who claim that those deemed physically attractive by society are privileged.

There has been a great deal of push back towards those who embrace the politics of privilege. Typically this debate is split along party lines, with conservatives arguing vehemently against it, while liberals, especially millennials and college students, continue to vocally disseminate their views through social media, campus events and political campaigns.

To be clear, I’m hardly more than a novice on this issue and have much to learn. As with most issues, I find that both sides have legitimate concerns.

On the one hand I find it nearly impossible to deny that there are, in many regards, real disparities when it comes to race and privilege. In fact, my attention was first brought to this in my time at community college, when a sociology professor of mine had us read So Rich So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America by Peter Edelman.

In this book, statistics were outlined that convincingly showed how minorities were systemically robbed of equal opportunity on the economic and societal playing field, whether through federal/state policies or through insurance codes and gerrymandering. Conservative columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks, has also acknowledged how neighborhood zoning restrictions reinforce socio-economic divisions within the country. (Of course Brooks was heavily criticized by the left for one of his so-called insensible examples of privilege referenced later on in his article. However this struck me as an example of the Left protesting too much).

Likewise, theologian and professor Kelly Brown Douglas, in her book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, well illustrates the racialized white mythology sown into the fabric of the American psyche. She traces this deeply rooted white supremacy from ancient Europe to the Puritans, to the Founders all the way through the Revivalists and into modern American society. As someone has said before, “Racism is as American as apple pie.”

In fact, what is most frustrating about the attempted rebuttals of privilege by many pseudo-intellectual conservatives is their outright denial and/or disregard for history and the factual evidence that clearly indicates the presence of undue bias against minorities in many of our institutional policies. There is either an inability or an unwillingness to examine the skeletons in the closet of American history.

To be fair, there are conservatives who raise legitimate concerns. There is a conversation to be had on the over-reliance on welfare and such. There is also a healthy reminder of the importance of personal responsibility. These are talking points that liberals and progressives should be willing to thoughtfully engage with (as some have). But unfortunately, the loudest voices in conservatism often are the ones attacking straw man representations of liberal thought.

There is also an archaic mindset among Republicans that dogmatically holds to the salvatory nature of personal responsibility. This is the “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” paradigm, which assumes that if one works hard enough, they can and will be successful.

I’m hardly one to deny the importance of personal responsibility or of hard work. I’ve worked my way through college and currently have no debt to my name. However, like most of my fellow students, I come from a relatively affluent middle-class family. I have safety nets that many others, especially poor rural white kids and lower income minorities, don’t have. These safety nets (living at home, having my parents help with community college tuition) have allowed me to succeed. Others don’t have that. That is a form of privilege. And it’s not something to be ashamed of, but something one should always be aware of.

Now if one can apply my logic to any other category, such as race or gender, we will probably discover that there is an element of privilege that exists within each.

The more important question is what do we do with that?

Deconstruction is a necessary and inevitable process. Conservatives by nature are fearful of it. Their identity is built upon conserving and maintaining certain values and traditions.

However, deconstruction without reconstruction never stands the test of time.

More importantly, the zealous vigor that defines the social justice movement’s attempts to deconstruct privilege often do more harm than good.

When we define everyone and everything by their level of privilege, we reduce them to an impersonal force, one that is no longer defined by their personhood, but by their culturally ascribed value or identity. We also forge a new hierarchy and hierarchies always divide rather than unite.

There is also a tendency for conversations surrounding privilege to become unsavory shouting matches. If you’re a conservative on the matter, you’ll be labeled a bigot, a racist or a misogynist. If you’re a liberal on the matter, you’ll be called a snowflake and a host of other names that I will not repeat here.

For example the aforementioned David Brooks, has on many occasions had his reputation maligned and dragged through the mud by various leftist outlets for his supposed elitism and white privilege, but more likely his failure to conform to the liberal worldview.

And in some cases, the mantra “white privilege” is typified by its usage as more of a disparaging remark. As Tal Fortgang has noted in Time, phrases like “Check your privilege” often function more as “a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world,” rather than “an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am.” And I’ve heard these exact sentiments from white friends of mine, one of which grew up poor and impoverished. In this instance the phrase “Check your privilege” becomes not a catalyst for dialogue, but an insult to the struggle and hard work that got him where he is today.

While it’s true that the core of calling out privilege is supposed to be directed towards the  collective and not the individual, all too often individuals are the ones who suffer.

When we level the charge of privilege at someone, we must realize that we are making a generalization about something that is far beyond their control. Particularly when it comes to race or gender. We define the person merely by their skin color or their genitalia and ascribe their success in life as a result of this. In my opinion this is blatantly simplistic and reductionist. It’s lazy sociology.

Take for example, my grandparents. Both are descendants of European immigrants and grew up in a small farm town in southern Minnesota. According to the social justice movement, they would be called privileged due to their white pigmentation. Now I think most sensible people, my grandparents included, would acknowledge that, especially during the time period they grew up in, a white person was afforded advantages, unconscious or concious, that minorities did not have. This isn’t difficult to admit, particularly if we are talking about white people as a collective. But when someone approaches people like my grandparents and says “your privileged” or “check your privilege” simply because of their skin color, I have to wonder how this is not a form of racism.

Now my liberal detractors will object that “reverse-racism” is a facetious creation. I’m not so sure. But that is a conversation for another time.

My point in these last few paragraphs is not to create unnecessary subterfuge. Rather my  concern is to remind us that an individual is more than their physical appearance. Is is certainly true that some are the unwitting recipients of benefits others do not get. But as Fortgang states, “Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color.”

My grandparent’s have gone through more hardship and pain than most will ever endure in a lifetime. Branding them or anyone as the products of their privilege takes away from their personhood.

Now I’m certain many will object to the above tangent. So let me clarify again that I’m not claiming that those who decry the collateral damage of privilege are all downplaying the hardship that white American’s like my grandparents, my parents or even myself have experienced. Rather they are attempting to point out how the world is encountered uniquely and often negatively by person’s of another race or gender. The intent is (usually) not to shame an individual or lessen their background and history.

And this brings me to the heart of my quibble with the liberal-conservative discourse on privilege.

There is a tendency on both sides of the spectrum, for the Right and the Left to eat their own. Anyone who doesn’t uphold the tenets of group think is sacrificed on the altar of conformity. Moderates are crucified by both sides for rejecting the polarization of the binary illusion.

Those who express reservations about certain components of what “privilege” entails are  often not given the benefit of the doubt and their intentions, often well-meaning, are  questioned as their reputation is swiftly debased and thrown under the bus.

So in conclusion, I would offer a cliched reminder. When we engage in tough conversations about topics like privilege, let’s listen graciously, speak slowly and remain evermore curious. Don’t be defined or controlled by identity politics.

The Pearl of the Antilles

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.” – Ephesians 4:29 (NET)

They must not slander anyone, but be peaceable, gentle, showing complete courtesy to all people.” – Titus 3:2 (NET)

Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.”               – Proverbs 21:23

 

Eight years ago today a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti’s capital city Port-au-Prince and the surrounding countryside. The earthquake took over a hundred thousand lives, destroyed countless homes and displaced millions.

Haiti holds a very special place in my heart and in the heart of my family. I’ve had the privilege of having many Haitians in my life, as friends and as family. I’ve also had the privilege of visiting the island-nation of Haiti a number of times. My father lived in Haiti for seven years as a missionary and is fluent in Creole.

The Haitian people are a joyful people. You can feel it in their music and see it in their smiles.

The Haitian people are a resilient people. You can see it in their eyes. And you can see it in their bodies, which pick themselves up again and again after each new calamity and hardship.

The Haitian people are a generous people. You’ll feel it in their homes and in their presence and with the gifts they give, both physical and spiritual.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. Many just assume that this is due to poor self-government on Haiti’s part, but from the birth of the nation in 1804, the forces of white imperialism and racism did everything they could to prevent Haiti from surviving and flourishing.

Haiti was the first black republic in the world and the second free republic in the world (The first was the United States). Haiti’s foundation came as a result of a successful slave revolt against the French. However in order to discourage slaves in the US from revolting the US imposed a total trade embargo enforced by a naval blockade to choke the life out of the newborn nation. Throughout Haiti’s history, it has faced unjust treatment from Western Imperialism, particularly America. This injustice has come in the form of embargoes, sanctions and foreign interventions, both militarily and covert.

But against all odds Haiti survived, and in spite of many internal and international blows against her, Haiti remains a proud nation, strong in spirit.

So it is especially sad and appalling that our current president, who is the descendant of immigrants and whose ancestors joined countless others who left their poor, struggling homelands to come and bring their gifts, talents, heritage and hard work to “make America great” has now insulted America’s own heritage by referring to Haiti (and other nations) as “s***hole countries.”

What has truly “made America great” has been the rich and diverse tapestry of nations and cultures which have all been brought together. Haiti was once known as the pearl of the Antilles and what our country needs more than ever is to see and appreciate the beautiful jewel that each and every people and culture is. Every jewel is created and formed in God’s image and we are to embrace and treasure them as such.