Contagious, What?

 

CH

Wow, I never knew food could be so theologically important! As prominent as dining is in Scripture, there are surprisingly few sustained studies on the topic. In this book Craig L. Blomberg features one of the few works of its kind – a survey of food and meals in Scripture – and he concludes with some contemporary applications.

Chapter two was particularly stunning – I’d say this is some of the finest Biblical Theology I’ve ever come across. In this single chapter, Blomberg surveys key Old Testament texts in sequence to see what emerges. Somehow he manages to highlight every passage in the Old Testament in which a meal plays a particularly significant role. He starts in Genesis where the one prohibition God gave the first human couple was not to eat of the tree, and then goes through more than 100 other passages in the Old Testament where a meal is in view. Reading through it all was an experience difficult to describe – like charting my way to an island I’ve been to before but i’d never noticed how beautiful it was until now!

As I read through the 32 page chapter there were so many passages that popped out as either brand new to me [What? Elisha ordered flour to be put into a pot of poisonous stew? (II Kings 4)] or more theologically rich than I had ever noticed before. For example: Psalm 111:5 which declares that Yahweh “provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever.” How delightful! Or similarly, Isaiah 55:1-2 depicts salvation as an invitation to those longing to eat and drink:

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;

and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without cost. 

Why spend money on what is not bread, 

And your labour on what does not satisfy? 

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, 

and your soul will delight in the riches of fare.” 

Blomberg explains,

“By likening his message to water, wine, milk, and tasty, nourishing, life-giving food, Isaiah makes it clear that it is not mere intellectual cognition he desires, but a chewing and digesting, an inner appropriation in which the total self is involved (cf. Ez. 2:8-3:3). He also wants to emphasize that the acceptance of his message is not like eating spinach or some other distasteful food. Not only is it tasty and life-giving; it brings joy!” 

Just beautiful. But interestingly, the overall impression emerging from the majority of the texts surveyed in this chapter is that meals in the Old Testament helped to draw boundaries. Only those who in some sense belonged were included; the total outsider was not welcome (64). In Chapter three, Blomberg then surveys intertestamental developments in table fellowships and finds that many of those texts emphasize the need for ritual purity, separation from sinners and related boundary markers (68). This background in turn helps to explain why everyone was up in arms when Jesus showed up, associated, and even ate(!) with all sorts of “down-and-out” people. Back in the day, the Jewish common meal seems to have had a “crucial position as possibly the most tangible expression, not only of the communal character of the group but also of its ‘purity’ and its genuine ‘priestly stamp” (80). Apparently, from one’s eating habits one could determine a person’s morality, piety, sociability, efforts for war or peace, parentage and friendships (91).

This gets me into the heart of the book. Besides my awe at some of Blomberg’s title headings, e.g.: “Chapter 4: Jesus the consummate party animal?” (97) or “How not to win friends and influence people: Matthew 8:11-12” (112) I was finally able to grasp why so many of the Jewish leaders felt Jesus’ breach of social and religious conventions as he ate were so outrageously disgusting and ultimately, wrong! For one, Jesus constantly hung out with people who were seen as “particularly corrupt above and beyond the general immorality” (99). As Blomberg describes,

“Jesus defies the conventions of his world by his intimate association with a group of people deemed traitorous and corrupt in his society.  Still, Jesus does not condone their sinful lifestyles but calls them to repentance, transformation and discipleship…it is a story about saving grace, for there are no penalties and no demands, except to follow Jesus.” (101).

Jesus’ meals with sinners give the world “a spectacular alternative” (103). Jesus’ gathering with ritually impure people and his fellowship with all kinds of “undesirables” show his meals to be symbolic of “the joy of God’s uncalculating forgiveness, and a pointer to the eschatological messianic banquet.” (italics original, 106). Constantly, the heterogenous make-up of the crowds especially in the Gospel of Luke come to the fore. As one Biblical theologian puts it,

“Once the boundary-setting and boundary-maintaining function of meals is recalled, the failure of Jesus and his disciples either to observe this role or otherwise to encourage the crowds to observe practices affiliated with it is startling. Here are thousands of people, an undifferentiated mass of people, some undoubtedly unclean, others clean, some more faithful regarding the law, others less so. The food itself – is it clean? Has it been properly prepared? Have tithes been paid on it? Where is the water for washing in preparation for the table? Such concerns are so lacking from this scene that we might miss the extraordinary character of this meal, extraordinary precisely because these concerns are so completely absent…Again, Luke’s narration underscores the degree to which God’s benefaction is without limits.” (Quoted on page 108). 

Elsewhere Blomberg alludes to this as the “great reversal” which would have shocked and no doubt angered Jesus’ original audience. But why? Why would Jesus go so far and break so many culturally and religiously accepted rules? Why would Jesus get so dangerously close to the untouchables?! Ah, and here is where we get to some of the goodest stuff! We find out that perhaps most strikingly of all, “Jesus is not defiled by his contact with impurity but instead vanquishes it through the eschatological power active in him. We might thus speak of holiness for Jesus, rather than sin, being that which he views as ‘contagious‘” (102-103). Jesus regularly associates with the various sorts of sinners on whom the most pious in his culture frowned, but his association is never an end in itself. As Blomberg says so artfully,

“Implicitly or explicitly, Jesus is calling people to change their ways and follow him as their master. But unlike so many in his world (and unlike so many cultures throughout the history of the world), Jesus does not assume that he will be defiled by associating with corrupt people. Rather, his purity can rub off on them and change them for the better. Cleanliness, Jesus believes, is even more ‘catching’ than uncleanness; morality more influential than immorality.” (128). Jesus’ rationale for associating with the outcasts is simple: he wishes to draw them to God. It remains striking that Jesus uses table fellowship as the setting for redrawing the religious boundaries of his world (150).” 

Wow, if there aren’t a billion potential implications in that one paragraph then I don’t know what else is going on. “Jesus does not assume that he will be defiled by associating with corrupt people. Rather, his purity can rub off on them and change them for the better.” If all Christ followers believed only that, how different would our fellowship be?

Positional Sanctification

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In his book Possessed by God: A New Testament theology for sanctification and holiness Dr. David Peterson challenges the common assumption that the New Testament views sanctification as primarily a process. He argues that Scripture’s emphasis instead falls upon sanctification as a definitive event. A succinct summary of the thesis of his book is written on page 27:

“Sanctification is commonly regarded as a process of moral and spiritual transformation following conversion. In the New Testament, however, it primarily refers to God’s way of taking possession of us in Christ, setting us apart to belong to him and to fulfill his purpose for us. Sanctification certainly has present and ongoing effects, but when the verb ‘to sanctify’ (Gk. hagiazein) and the noun ‘sanctification’ (Gk. hagiasmos) are used, the emphasis is regularly on the saving work of God in Christ, applied to believers through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.” (Page 27)

I readily admit that whenever Peterson described the “common misconception” of our day, he is for the most part describing my own (previous?) understanding of sanctification. So, I was immediately intrigued to read on to see what I must have previously missed. Throughout the book Peterson points to different Scriptures which show that when sanctification is in view – we are primarily talking about our conversion experience where we are initially incorporated into Christ (an example of what I would previously had considered as simply a description of a believers’ “justification”).

For example, in I Cor. 1:2 Paul is amplifying to the Corinthians what it means to be God’s church and he describes the intended audience as, “to those sanctified in Christ” (Gk. hegiasmenois en Christo). Here he is saying that the Corinthian Christians were a holy and distinct people in that corrupt and godless city. This is the only time Paul uses this full expression in the opening letter to a church. Apparently, he wanted to emphasize this concept in writing to the Corinthians. Peterson continues…

“This was so because of God’s initiative, because of God drawing them into an exclusive relationship with himself. What God had done for them “in Christ Jesus” had made them part of his eschatological community. In this passage, the perfect passive participle “sanctified” should be understood as another way of speaking about their conversion and incorporation into Christ. It can hardly refer to their holiness of character or conduct, since Paul spends much time in this letter challenging their values and their behavior, calling them to holiness in an ethical sense.” (italics are my own – Pages 40-41)  

So in this quote Peterson is highlighting the fact that to be “sanctified in Christ” is to be primarily redeemed just as we should understand “sainthood” to be synonymous with “Christian.” Similarly, Peterson claims it is one of the tragedies of church history that the term “saint” has become too narrowly identified with apostles or outstanding Christian leaders and exemplars who have done especially good stuff. One of the worst things about this understanding of “sainthood” and by comparison “sanctification as a process” is that we can begin to believe that “sainthood” is an achievement, not a gift. If someone says, ‘She’s a real saint,’ it ought in truth to mean, ‘She’s a real Christian’!” (41) So it would also be true with the concept of sanctification.

I had never before read a defense of positional sanctification and so I’m still new to the conversation. I’m not sure I’m completely convinced yet that sanctification is primarily positional, but I did love one particular consequence of this understanding. In Dr. Peterson’s articulation one truth becomes very clear: If sanctification is indeed positional, then holiness is not something we do, holiness is all about Who we know. This truth echoes and resonates with what I know more broadly as the “Gospel message” and the “Kingdom of God.” We see this helpful nuance all throughout the book.

After reminding us that first and foremost, holiness in Scripture is a description of God and His character and that God alone is holy, Peterson reminds us that the Israelites found that same holiness not through what they did but because they were in a relationship with the Holy One (19). Since God is the only source of true holiness for his people, then holiness cannot simply be acquired by human effort. It is a status or condition which God imparts…(23). Elsewhere Peterson equates holiness with a new “status” given to us by God when he highlights I Cor. 6:11 which says, “This is what some of you used to be…But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

Paul’s overall meaning being, “Your own conversion, effected by God is what has removed you from being wicked…therefore live out this new life in Christ…” (45) Interesting here that Paul is offering 3 different prescriptions of the same reality, rather than alluding to a process of first being washed, then being sanctified, then being justified. So, sanctification in its context does not refer to a  process of ethical development but highlights the fact that God claimed the Corinthians as his own. God turned them around and brought them to Himself in faith and love. In ethical terms, this separation has profound implications certainly – but it is fascinating to see how much Paul labors the point of their holy status as the basis of appeal for holy ethical living.

The same point is reinforced on pages 112-113 when Peterson is exegeting Romans 6:11-14 where we see again that holiness of life is not simply attained by moral effort nor even by striving to keep the law of God. Is is not even a matter of “letting go and letting God.” Rather, practical holiness involves “putting to death” in our lives what God has already sentenced to death on the cross (‘mortification’) and living out the new life given to us by the indwelling Christ (‘vivification’ or ‘aspiration’). Human effort is required, but not apart from, nor distinct from the activity of God’s Spirit. In short, the imperative for holy living in Romans (see also Romans 8:12-13) is grounded in the fact that the “Spirit of holiness” (1:4) has taken possession of us and because of that, the Spirit empowers us to walk in God’s way and to counteract sin.

I need to think about the positional definition of sanctification more because there is something very freeing in its correlated definition of holiness. As Peterson explains, “fullness of life is not attained but given.” (115) Our progress then is not a result of our own human achievement. And ultimately, our “sonship” and “inheritance” depends solely in our relationship to Jesus, not in our good works. While this sense of belonging doesn’t ignore the ethical responsibilities of our family tie, it does ground it in something much more sure. If all this is true, then I don’t rely on myself to further the sanctification of God in my life. I have a better option. I can ask God to finish HIS sanctification within me. As Charles Wesley once prayed:

“Finish then thy new creation,

Pure and spotless let us be:

let us see thy great salvation,

perfectly restored in thee.

Changed from glory into glory,

till in heaven we take our place;

till we cast our crowns before thee,

lost in wonder, love and praise.”

(Quoted on page 137)

 

Preaching in the New Testament

preaching-in-the-nt

This is the newest book published in the New Studies in Biblical Theology Series, technically to be published on March 14, 2017. The goal of this book is to answer two interrelated questions:

  1. Is there such a thing as “preaching” that is mandated in the post-apostolic context – and, if there is, how is it defined and characterized? (Similarly, how is “preaching” unique/similar as compared to other word-based ministries in the church?)
  2. How does post-apostolic “preaching” relate to the preaching of the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus and his apostles?

While question two is certainly important, I was personally more interested in the answers to #1. As “preaching” is a thing I do every once in a while, I am constantly curious about how closely my own practice of it may or may not align with Biblical definitions. The author, Jonathan I. Griffiths, goes to task in exegeting the three main “semi-technical” Greek words that refer to preaching in the New Testament in their own context: euangelizomai (occurring 54 times in the NT), katangello (occurring 18 times in the NT) and kerysso (occurring 59 times in the NT).

The passages Griffiths highlights as most pertinent to this project are the following:

  • II Timothy 3-4 (with a particular focus on 4:2)
  • Romans 10
  • 1 Corinthians (especially chs. 1-2, 9 and 15)
  • II Corinthians (especially chs. 3-5)
  • I Thessalonians (especially chs. 1-2)
  • Hebrews – which is itself a written sermon

In this post I will not rehearse the authors’ examination of the Biblical texts in detail. But I would like to highlight a few of his conclusions which in my mind give us a good “starting base” on which to begin to understand what Scriptural preaching actually entails.

  1. Griffiths argues that “preaching” in the NT is the job where a person passes on, or “testifys accurately” what he had received from Christ and by no means to misrepresent Christ. True preaching in the NT would “enable God’s own voice to be heard” (122) because preaching is itself an activity solely revolved around Jesus – God’s own Son. As Griffiths explains, preaching in the NT typically refers to “fundamentally nothing more and nothing less than an accurate transmission of the received gospel of the sin-bearing death and resurrection of Christ.” (81) So, preaching in the NT revolves around the words and works of Jesus Christ specifically (see II Tim. 3:15-17; I Cor. 1:17; 2:2; 15:3-5; II Cor. 3:14-16 and the entire book of Hebrews).
  2. Additionally, most typically, it is not just anyone who is allowed to preach in the NT. Rather, time and time again, the preachers in the apostolic and post-apostolic time periods were commissioned and duly authorized by God and the community of faith. There is typically some sort of command to preach from God and/or from the leaders of the church. This is the case for the angel who came to Zechariah (Luke 1:19) for John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1-3 and also Mark 1:2-7); for Jesus (Luke 4:18-19; 4:43); for the apostles (Mark 3:14; 6:7-13; Matt. 10:7, 27; Luke 9:2; Acts 10:42; 16:10 [here including Paul’s associates]; I For. 1:17; Gal. 1:16; Eph. 3:8; and for Timothy (II Tim. 4:2; cf. I Tim. 4:14; II Tim. 1:6). In order for Christ to be heard through their preaching, it makes sense that the preachers are not self-appointed, rather, they are commissioned as God’s heralds.
  3. As well, I learned that the three main verbs typically refer to the act of making a public proclamation. While this could include preaching within a home if we allow for a definition of public as “any context where a group of people would gather to hear a speaker” usually preaching would be done in an open arena or most often, within the synagogue. “Preaching” usually refers to a communal proclamation or declaration within a local assembly of people.
  4. The result? “A transformative encounter with the Lord himself!” (91) According to II Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” An encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ (“who is the image of God – II Cor. 4:4) results in his people being “transformed into the same image” in increasing degrees of glory.

When preaching is done in light of God’s good purposes, the hearers “become imitators of us and of the Lord” as they “receive the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (I Thessalonians 1:5-6). Not only does the Holy Spirit empower the proclamation of the word, but he can also cause the recipients to accept it with conviction of its truth and with joy, even in the context of trial so they grow in faith and obedience.

I can’t do better than end with some of Griffiths Final Reflections:

The public proclamation of the word of God in the Christian assembly has a clear mandate from Scripture and occupies a place of central importance in the life of the local church. Preaching is necessary and vital – but not all-sufficient – for the nourishment and edification of the local church. All God’s people are ministers of his word, and a healthy church will be a church where all kinds of word ministries (formal and informal) flourish and abound.

However, none of those other ministries of the word can take the place of the public preaching of God’s word. The primary feeding and teaching of God’s people should come from the preaching that takes place week by week in the assembly. That preaching ministry should, in turn, fuel and shape many other ministries of the word, as all believers speak (and sing!) the word to each other and to those outside the church.

The preaching of the word of God is God’s gracious gift to his people. It is a gift by which he speaks to us, encounters us, equips us for ministry, and, throughout the power of his Spirit, transforms us – all for his glory. (Page 133)

To read a different but related book review of mine from the same series (Timothy S. Laniak’s book, Shepherds After My Own Heart) about how scripture defines pastoral leadership, click here.

God’s Word is Indeed Effective!

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In his book, A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture Mark D. Thompson shows the reader how to understand, speak about and believe in the effectiveness of Scripture despite all other objections to the idea.

Thompson begins the book with the question, “Can we really be certain about what it [Scripture] says or what it means? In many ways this would appear to be the question of the hour” (18) because in the last 50 years the arenas of literary theory and philosophy have purposed strong objections to the perspicuity of Scripture. So, as a response, in chapter one Thompson covers the five main protests to the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture as they have emerged throughout history. This was my favorite chapter in the book. As well as detailing the main objections, this chapter doubles (unintentionally?) as a 30-page summation of the history of hermeneutics as it relates to the theological question at hand.

Certainly my own profound appreciation for such a thoroughly nuanced and yet smooth distillation is a result of having just recently read some of the big intros to the topic – to name just three of them: Bartholomew’s Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics (545 pages), Duvall and Hays’ Grasping God’s Word (490 pages), and Thiselton’s Hermeneutics: an Introduction (355 pages). Somehow, Thompson took all of that history and summarized it in just a few pages. What a feat! This highlights one uniqueness of the author: Thompson is an extremely skilled summarizer. As a historian Thompson knows his stuff and is able to summarize big ideas sufficiently and succinctly. How he covered what he covered in only 170 pages is baffling to me. Very impressive.

In defending the belief that Scripture is clear and effective, Thompson reminds us that Christian theology is not just talk about God made possible by God’s prior decision to be known, but it is unique in that the Spirit of God helps us as we read it. No other book comes with such a promise. As Thompson remarks, “Unlike any other text we might name, the biblical text never leaves the presence of its ultimate author. God attends not only the production but the reception of this text” (77). So, God has not only spoken. In this text he still speaks (78). This means that the usefulness of the text is an activity of God Himself! ( 92)

Numerous times in the book Thompson reminds us that “caritas scripturae” doesn’t always equal “easy to understand” or is the same as “uniform simplicity” or even “transparency.” As he admits, in some cases, “the clear meaning of a passage is hard won” (102) and “the clarity of Scripture does not guarantee that all who read will truly grasp its meaning.” But yet, at the same time, Thompson encourages us to let this truth stand over all other attempts: we can say with confidence that our God, “The living God is an effective communicator.” (80)

Some of my favorite lines of the book come from chapter three, titled, “It is not beyond you: The accessible word of the living God.” In speaking of the effectiveness of God’s word, Thompson points to Isaiah 55:10-11 (on page 100) which says,

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven

and do not return there but water the earth, 

making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; 

it shall not return to me empty, 

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, 

and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 

Thompson clarifies, “God does not speak aimlessly. His words are not confused, tangled or ineffectual. When God speaks, his purpose is certainly fulfilled. As Westermann put it, ‘God’s word is a word that does things. When God speaks, something comes about.’ Just as there was no cosmic resistance when the words, ‘Let there be light’ were uttered at the beginning of time, nothing thwarts or even retards his intention whenever he speaks. With the word of God there is certainty and that certainty entails clarity.” (100-101)

Too often we forget that the confusion we have with Scripture may not be located within its own pages but ends up “showing up” as a result of our bringing our own baggage to the table. Which, by the way, doesn’t render the text indiscernible, it just means we might have to work a little harder to understand it than we’d like. As John Webster puts it so well,

“The act of interpretation repeats the basic motif of Christian existence, which is being drawn out of the darkness of sin and turned to the light of the gospel. Holy Scripture is clear; but because its matter is that to which we must be reconciled, readers can only discern its clarity if their darkness is illuminated. ..Interpretation of the clear Word of God is therefore not first of all an act of clarification but the event of being clarified. Reading, therefore, always includes a humbling of the reader, the breaking of the will in which there is acted out the struggle to detach our apprehension of the text from the idolatrous schemas which we inevitably take to it, and by which we seek to command or suppress it or render it convenient to us.” (Quoted on page 141)

Just as “the nature of God’s dealings with his people generates confidence rather than confusion” (135) so as I read this book I gained an even greater sense of the goodness of God’s Word and the effectiveness of its teachings. Now, if only I could figure out how to stop suppressing it, stop ignoring it, and stop “rendering it” more convenient to my life than it actually is. Where’s the book on how to figure out THAT problem?! :)

(To read a similar post of mine on “Three Barriers to Hearing God’s Word as it shows up in Peter Adam’s Book (in the same series), Hearing God’s Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality, go here).

 

What Fun, a New Hermeneutical Question!

with-the-clouds-of-heaven

As I read through James M. Hamilton Jr.’s Book, With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology I found myself asking a new hermeneutical question:

“How many other passages of Scriptures were the authors of Scripture thinking about (and how often) when they wrote their own Scriptural passages?”

As it turns out, the way a person answers that question makes a massive impact on the way they interpret what Scripture says and how they think Scripture is saying what it is trying to say. So, for example, if you think Scripture writers were constantly thinking about other Scriptures as they wrote their own Scriptures, then you will tend to see signs of intertextuality more often than if you believe Scriptural writers weren’t constantly thinking about other Scriptural writings when they were writing their own Scripture passages.

As far as this reader is concerned, Hamilton shows how Scriptural authors are almost ALWAYS thinking about other Scriptures as they write their own Scripture – or at the least, this is true in the case of the book of Daniel. In my view, Hamilton sees intertextuality everywhere, “on every page” and “under every nook and cranny” so to speak. It’s quite remarkable, actually. Reading Hamilton reminded me a lot of what it’s like to read G.K. Beale. As one of my Old Testament professors once described Beale to me in a personal conversation as a man who controversially “finds Christ under every rock” so it is with Hamilton and Scripture. In interpreting Scripture, Hamilton doesn’t ever seem to simply look at the words of one isolated sentence of Scripture, and then interpret as such. Instead, as he reads he is constantly searching (and finding!) for other Scriptural correspondences that relate with that particular sentence, so that he can further understand not only what the author is trying to tell us, but what the author is assuming the audience already knows.

Hamilton explains that our interpretations of Scripture should be shaped by the way Scripture interprets itself as well as understanding generally how literature functions. Among other things, “being sensitive to the literary dimensions of biblical texts requires us to discern how the authors structured their work, what kinds of things they assumed the audience would know, and the perspective from which they intended their work to be interpreted.” (23)

Hamilton believes that Scriptural authors can be referencing other Scriptures without ever having to invoke, allude, quote or even echo other passages. I read that and was like, “say whaaaa?” Initially it seemed to me a potentially dangerous assumption – almost certainly stated too strongly – but now I may be convinced. He asks, “how can such a suggestion be made?” Well, Hamilton says the validity of the suggestion depends on how we understand the culture in which the biblical authors wrote. For this suggestion to stand, that culture would have to have been saturated in the Scripture that was available…which takes us right to the question of the interpretive perspective of the Biblical authors. Especially to the question that I started with, “How many other Scriptures were the authors of Scripture thinking about (and how often) when they wrote their own Scriptural passages?”

A contemporary example will illustrate the way Hamilton believes authors and audiences share unstated information. He says,

“I wrote the first draft of these thoughts on Tuesday, February 5th, 2013. The previous Sunday, February 3rd, 2013, was “Super Bowl Sunday.” The Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL Championship Game. Consider for a moment everything assumed about readers of this book in the use of the abbreviation “NFL,” the mention of the “Baltimore Ravens”, and the reference to the game that was played as both the “NFL Championship” and “the Super Bowl”. No flock of birds comes to mind at the mention of the Ravens, no one (in the USA) needs the explanation that the Super Bowl is the National Football League Championship game, and everyone knows that Baltimore and San Francisco are both cities.

These things are so much a part of US shared culture that they require no explanation. In fact, they are so much a part of our culture that we can talk to others about the events – and write about them – without overtly mentioning them. Consider the way that I [Hamilton] referenced the game during the announcements before the worship service of Kenwood Baptist, the church I serve as pastor, on the morning under discussion. One of our elders was hosting a Super Bowl party at his home. I did not have to use the words “Super Bowl party” to make that announcement. Overt mention of the event was unnecessary. The announcement went something like this:

“Warren and Jody are opening their home this evening to all and sundry. Evidently there’s something happening on television tonight, maybe you know the details, apparently some commercials are going to be aired. If you’d like to watch the proceedings with others from our congregation, you’re welcome to bring a bag of chips, a jar of salsa or a two-liter to Warren and Jody’s house.”

At the words, “Evidently there’s something happening on television tonight, maybe you know the details” there were smirks and snickers in the congregation, and there was a wry look on my face. Everyone knew what was referenced, even though the words “Super Bowl” and the phrase “football game” were never used.

Hamilton goes on to explain that this is exactly what happens when comedians share jokes  with an audience – for many jokes to make sense, the assume shared information must be there without having to be explained.  What Hamilton said next surprised me. He said,

“The biblical authors make similar assumptions, and the task of Biblical theology is to identify and demonstrate such assumptions. From the way the biblical authors have written, it appears that awareness of earlier biblical texts could be taken for granted in their culture the way awareness of the Super Bowl can be in ours.” (Page 25)

Catch what Hamilton is saying there. He is saying: In the same way that a person living in America is familiar with all the trappings of the Super Bowl, so the Biblical authors were familiar with other Scriptures. He later states, “authors intend to be understood. If they have not explained themselves, they probably thought no explanation necessary.” So, in one sense it is an argument from silence – but the implication is enormous. You don’t have to point to a particular allusion in order to prove that a connection with another Scripture is there if everyone in that world is already immersed in the world of Scripture already. The assumed level of background knowledge and familiarity with Scripture is very, very high. But I’m curious how true this is especially considering the fact that most of the immediate audience could not read. In an oral culture such as the Ancient Near East, would the vast majority of people be as steeped in Scriptural history as Hamilton suggests?

Hamilton makes a similar analogy at the very end of the book when he is talking about Daniel’s use of the story of Joseph both as a “point of contact” and as a “background pattern.” Hamilton says that for Daniel “to call one piece of the pattern to mind was to invoke the whole” in a similar way to how we modern Americans respond to the all-familiar song, “Amazing Grace.” Hamilton says,

“In my own context, the tune to ‘Amazing Grace’ is so pervasive as to be recognizable to believers and unbelievers alike. Play the first two notes of the song, or sing its first two syllables, and even if the music stops at that point the song will continue in the minds of many. Play the first few measures together and the melody will be embedded, to be hummed, sung or whistled to the hearts content… Mention of Joseph into slavery and then exalted over Egypt would be like striking the first few notes of Amazing Grace, a sweet sound that will have wayfarers whistling the rest as they await fulfillment.” (222-223).

Hamilton is saying that for Daniel to evoke a part of the Joseph story is for Daniel to evoke all of Israel’s history at the same time. In his own words, “to suggest a correspondence between Joseph and Daniel was to activate in the imagination the whole paradigm that culminated in exodus and conquest.” (224). Hamilton later says that the Biblical writer would often rely on “subtle, allusive indicators that were like power switches turning on the electric current that caused Old Testament expectation to throb and surge with life.”

My questions to all of the above are the following: “Is Hamilton right?” “Was the original audience of Daniel that steeped in Scriptural history?” “How about the rest of the audiences of Scripture outside of Daniel?” “How should these answers affect the way we hear Scripture, or even, how we preach it?” More thinking…must happen.

3 Barriers to Hearing God’s Words

hearing-gods-word

I’d like to highlight three barriers to our being able to properly hear God’s words. I found these barriers as I read through Peter Adam’s book, “Hearing God’s Words: Exploring Biblical Spirituality.” These three barriers include our personalities, our cultural conditionings, and our unintentional illiteracy.

1) Our Personalities:

In discussing the parable of the soils, Peter Adam examines how our unique personalities can hinder our capability to fully hear the life-giving message of the Gospel. This, because:

  • Emotional people can easily deflect the Word by turning the hearing of it into an emotional experience. They test the word (or its preaching) by its emotional impact, and then focus their response on that emotional experience. But once the emotion has passed, so has the Word.
  • Cerebral people can easily deflect the Word by turning the hearing of it into an intellectual exercise. They substitute understanding it for responding to it, fitting it into their theological grid so that it does not impact their lives.
  • Ministry people can easily deflect the Word by receiving it as a message to be passed on to others. They can always see the application to others, but not to themselves.
  • Practical people can easily deflect the impact of the Word by reducing it to something easy to understand and then, to do. They will have no time for anything not immediately relevant. They reduce the Bible to a set of instructions for daily living, and develop a legalism that blunts the power of God’s Word
  • Superficial people will pay as much attention to God’s Words as they would to anything else, and thus will never be able to receive the Words that can change them.
  • Reactionary people are those who always want to contradict what anyone has asserted about anything. They too will find that their habit of life makes it very difficult for them to receive the Word of God and let it bear fruit in their lives.

2) Our Cultural Conditionings: 

It is difficult to fully hear God’s Word in our current cultural climate because of what Jacques Ellul calls the “humiliation of the word.” James Diane writes of the common view of words today, “Words are puffs of air, mere sounds that die on the wind, lacking inherent power…mere symbols, meaning whatever their user wants them to mean.” Os Guinness writes of this phenomenon as follows:

“We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of the anti-word and which potentially is the age of the lie.” (Quoted on page 139)

Guinness points to the three main maxims that underlie advertising, which itself expresses the trends in communication in our society. They are to:

  1. Simplify thought
  2. intensify emotions
  3. magnify symbols

The author makes an apt argument. While there are simple thoughts, intense emotions and important symbols in the Bible, the prevalence of this mode of communication makes it difficult for modern people to grapple with the whole message of the Bible since the form of Scripture is words. We do not have an authentic Jesus DVD, nor have we personally seen the visions of John recorded in Revelation. We have the words of the Bible. So, the form of Scripture is a form we are not used to digesting and thus, “the move away from listening to words to looking at signs explains much of the religious appetites of our generation.” We have lost sight of a true understanding of Scripture because we have forgotten how to maintain a sustained concentration to words. This is a problem. I like how Susan Sontag says it when writing on photography:

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy. Only that which narrates can make us understand. (Quoted on page 141)

Perhaps this is why Walter Brueggemann describes the kind of preaching that works in our modern age as NOT patriarchal, hierarchical, authoritarian, monologic, flat or universal, but [should be] marked by ambiguity, playfulness, openness, irony and contradiction. He writes of the need for a rhetoric that conveys a counter-truth subversive of dominant, commonly accepted givens, and which has a different style or mode of articulation. This rhetoric will be “Not excessively solemn or rationalistic or final or given with too much sobriety. Rather it is an utterance that is playful, open, teasing, inviting, and capable of voicing the kind of unsure tentativeness and ambiguity that [the people of God] must also maintain.”

For whatever else reasons we should preach this way, I can see at least one additional benefit: It may help us pay more attention to the Word of God – which is full of words – again, a mode of learning we aren’t used to digesting all that much any more.

3) Our Unintentional Illiteracy:

I’m sure this point is somehow related to point #2. Essentially, our frequent and unintentional misinterpretations of Scripture inhibit us from truly hearing Scripture. This happens when we read and interpret Scripture out-of-context. Unfortunately, I see this happen on an almost weekly basis in the church (oftentimes the perpetrator being, myself). This is devastating because whenever we hear Scripture out of context, we aren’t actually hearing what Scripture is saying about itself, and thus, we aren’t really hearing God’s Word as God’s Word.

We do this in lots of ways. As Peter Adam states, we often “hold to the shadow and miss the substance” (101). As Revelation 22:18-19 makes clear,

“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophet, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

What matters to God is our response to THE WORDS, adding to or taking from the words is the opposite of KEEPING the words (cf. Revelation 1:3; 22:7). Nothing is more important than the exact hearing and keeping of the Word as we know it.

One of the reasons I love the series of which this book is a part (New Studies in Biblical Theology) is because each book in the series models a careful reading of entire books and themes of Scripture. Allen models this principle masterfully on pages 81-86 where he exegetes Luke Chapter 24. It is remarkable. He shows how typically this chapter is used for three purposes:

  1. As proof of the empty tomb (based on history)
  2. To show what it’s like to encounter the risen Christ (based on experience); and
  3. To establish a model of meeting Christ in the breaking of bread (based on the Last Supper)

Yet, none of these three aspects of the chapter speak to its’ main reason for existing. Each misses the main point. Actually, the main point of the chapter is not the resurrection of Christ, but that the resurrection of Christ is a part of the whole Gospel story. And actually, the basis for faith is not the empty tomb, an experience of the risen Christ or even the breaking of bread, but the trustworthiness of both the Old Testament AND Jesus’ teaching. I shouldn’t need to map out the full argument for the reader to see my own main point which is to agree with Adam that if we don’t read Scripture in context – we will miss out on the fullness of its message. If we don’t hear Scripture in its proper context, we won’t actually hear what Scripture is trying to tell us.

 

The Squishy World of “Gen Z”

gen-z

In this book, “Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World,” James Emery White seeks to not only describe the new cultural climate we live in, but also advocate a new way of doing mission in our world.

In describing our current cultural climate White tells us that we now have a “squishy religious center.” What he means is that as a result of increased secularization, privatization and pluralization in our world, people conceive of religion differently. Traditionally, as Peter Berger has shown, the role of religion was as a “sacred canopy” which covered our contemporary culture. Back in the day, religion had once “blanketed” most all of society and culture. But today, that canopy is gone, “replaced by millions of small tents under which we can choose to dwell.”

Secularization means there is less of a supportive context for faith. Privatization has made all things related to faith a private affair, like having a favorite color or food. And pluralization puts us face-to-face with the reality that there are multiple faiths and world views that contend for our attention. White says this leads to a squishy center where you have (a generous) 25% of Secularists on one end of the country and on the other end you have another 25% of true Christian believers. In between these two poles, we have 50% of the country. This is what White calls the “squishy center.” His figure goes something like this:

25% Secularists_________ (50% Squishy Center) _____________25% Believers

The people in the middle are “squishy” because these people tend to be soft and pliable in terms of being shaped. Their individual beliefs have little definition and even less conviction. The people in this squishy center tend to thus move toward whatever is culturally more influencing at the moment. Wherever the culture goes, they go. In the past, forces within culture would have moved many people to the “Believers” side, but culture has changed in such a way that White says people are moving more toward the “Secularists” side. Later on (pages 108-109), White sheds further light on this.

He says in thinking about the unchurched person in 1960, we could surmise reasonably some typical beliefs they had such as belief in the deity of Christ; a belief that truth exists and the Bible is trustworthy; would have had a church background and foundational knowledge of the essential truths of Christianity, etc. Given all of this, White would place the average person in 1960 at an “8” out of 10 in terms of their readiness to engage with and respond to the Gospel. His figure looks like this:

1_________________________X8____________10

All it would take to move them from an 8 to a 10 (crossing the line of faith) was a bump. This is why “event” evangelism worked so well way back them. But White says this is no longer where the majority of people are and thus we need different strategies for moving forward. Today, White would put the typical unchurched person at a 3 and not an 8, precisely for the above said reasons:

1______X3________________________________10

These analogies were some of my favorite parts of the book. I think he is generally true and it definitely resonates with my own experience of what ministry is like in New England. Ministry cannot be event centric or event driven if what we are looking for is true discipleship. I see events as sparks that can lead to the fire, but they are by no means where the heat is found.

White then dedicates about 75 pages to what this should mean for our mission, and I’d like to highlight just one warning for us which he calls the “Curse of Knowledge.” This warning should affect the way we think about sharing God with our neighbors today. On page 112, He recommends we try something. Tap out the beats to “Happy Birthday” with your hand on a desk or chair or whatever is handy where you are reading this. You’re singing the song in your head while tapping out the beats with your hand or fingers. It takes only a few seconds.

Okay, once you do it, ask yourself, “Do I think most people would guess the song based on my beats?” It’s such a familiar song that, if you’re like most people, you probably imagine they would have. This was an actual experiment conducted at Stanford University. Researchers found that listeners were able to guess a song right only about 2.5 % of the time – getting three songs out of about 120.

But here’s what’s interesting. The person tapping thought those listening were getting it right at least 90% of the time. The difference was that the tapper was hearing the song in their head. When they were tapping, they couldn’t imagine the other person not hearing the song in the background. This is called the curse of knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. White concludes his analogy by asking,

“Have you forgotten what it’s like to be apart from Christ?…”

“The world needs you to remember.”

How about that, for new missional strategy?! If you ask me, it sounds like a great start…

*Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied*