The Speckled Mind

Friday, February 29, 2008

Surprised by Hope Part 3: A King and a Kingdom

There's no escape for you, except in someone else
Although you've already disappeared within yourself
The invisible man who's always changing clothes
It's all about taking the easy way out for you I suppose
~~Elliott Smith
Thanks to everyone that has taken the time to comment thus far. It's been illuminating to get feedback and glean from your insights. I will try to answer as many of the questions as I can in turn.

JB noted that he wanted to hear more about a few of the points I made in my first post. Today I'd like to deal with some of the misconceptions that circle around the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven;" and, in doing so, I hope to answer some of the crucial points Cor brought up about "average Joe pewsitter." It should be noted that much of what will follow may be review for some of my readers, but I trust that you will all bear with me for the sake of those who may be new to this discussion.

The phrase "Kingdom of heaven" is only used in Matthew. It is an unquestioned fact of Biblical studies that the phrase "Kingdom of God" found in Mark and Luke are equivalent in both meaning and referent to Matthew's phrase. (The reason for Matthew's change from the text of Mark, which he likely used as a source, is an interesting topic but takes us too far afield at this point). And while most 'pewsitters' wouldn't question that fact, many read both phrases as referring to the afterlife because of the prevalent false understanding of the meaning of 'heaven' I discussed in Part 2. The practical result of this misreading is that all of Jesus' teaching that begins with the phrase, "The kingdom of God/heaven is like..." is read as a description of a posthumous spiritual reality.

Is such a reading warranted? If such a reading is not warranted, what is the right reading of such texts and how do we know? Does it really matter?

Having been shaped by Wright's writing over the past few years, I have come to the firm conclusion that such a reading is not warranted for a number of reasons (here I'm drawing on Wright's The New Testament and the People of God). First and foremost, the intracanonical evidence does not support such a reading. Whenever the idea is referenced in the Old Testament literature--particularly in the Psalms and in Isaiah, it always describes the idea of God once again becoming king of Israel (See in particular Psalms 145, 93, 96, 97 and Isaiah 33 and 52).

Second, no one within the world of first century Judaism would have understood the phrase that way. First century Jews were not looking for the end of the space time universe. Rather, they were anticipating God's deliverance from their present oppression. The phrase (or its lexical cousin "No King but God") were used in other first century writings, and it never referred to the end of the world--but rather, the end of the present state of affairs in which the Jews were ruled over by Gentile pagans. Wright comments on this in NTPG, p. 302:

"The kingdom of God" historically and theologically considered is a slogan whose basic meaning is the hope that Israel's God is going to rule Israel (and the whole world), and that Caesar, or Herod, or anyone else of their ilk, is not.

Interestingly enough, the enacting of this kingdom was not always associated with a messianic figure--an interesting discussion in its own right. Hopefully we can discuss that in a future post.

So, having established that neither history nor theology support a futuristic reading of the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven/God," what can we say are the affects of this popular misreading? First, such a reading neuters the radical call Jesus was making on his countrymen and contemporaries. Jesus favorite topic of teaching was the "Kingdom of God," and if he was just speaking about a new world order that will take place in the distant future, there is little reason anyone in his time would have been very upset about it. Or, to use Wright's terminology from Jesus and the Victory of God, such a Jesus would not have been "crucifiable." If the Jesus we read in the gospels wasn't a Jesus who radically challenged the power structures of his own time, we're reading a different gospel. And, by extension (and this is where it really hits the average 'pewsitter') if Jesus didn't radically challenge the power structures and priorities of his own time by inaugurating the rule and reign of God through his teaching of the kingdom, he has little hope of doing so in our own time.

Second, such a reading creates the impression that God did something powerful in and through Jesus 2000 years ago, but He hasn't shown any particular interest in humanity since--and he won't again until the end of time. A Jesus whose kingdom preaching refers only to end of time realities is a Jesus who has colluded with deists--he is an absentee landlord that can only help his followers endure the present evil instead of seeking to transform it. He is a Jesus who, with regard to the two important questions about salvation--"From What?" and "To What?"--can only answer the former with any kind convincing authority. He is a Jesus who reduces the work of the Holy Spirit to an afterthought. Bluntly, he is not a Jesus that can, in any sense, claim the title of "Lord" over this present world.

Let me be clear--Jesus will finally and ultimately institute the rule and reign of God in the new heavens and new earth. But to pretend that the bulk of Jesus' teaching was about this subject stretches the bounds of historical and theological plausibility beyond the breaking point. Our world needs a group of people, empowered by the Spirit, to join the mission of God by living every day in the realities that were made possible by Jesus' kingdom inauguration; it needs Christians to be people of the resurrection. It is to that vocation that scholar and pewsitter alike are called.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Surprised by Hope Part 2: Heaven Is A Place On Earth?

Everybody knows
Everybody knows
Everybody knows
You only live a day
But it's brilliant anyway ~ Elliott Smith
No one debates the inescapable nature of death. As certain as taxes, each day we draw one day closer to our ultimate demise. So what follows that demise?

Let's just say the aforementioned universal consensus ends at that point.

Answers to the question range widely, but one very popular answer centers around the idea of "heaven." Most Christians would give this response concerning their own destiny, but Wright notes that the conceptions of heaven amongst Christians often bares little resemblance to that of the Biblical authors. What follows are some of the important places of departure between the prevailing Christian view of heaven and the Biblical accounts:

1. The most important thing about heaven is its essence, not it's geography. In the Jewish conception, heaven was that place where God's will for God's creation happened perfectly. Thus, the state of affairs of that place--its Lordship, if you will--was the primary thing of interest to the Biblical authors when they referred to heaven .

2. It follows from this that when the reign of God is enacted on earth, heaven and earth can and do overlap. The places of that overlap can be seen throughout the scriptures, most notably in the holy of holies in the Jewish temple. Not to mention, Jesus taught his followers to pray for that overlap--"...Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

3. The eternal dwelling place of the faithful is not heaven. Rather, a post-resurrection new heavens and new earth (a la Isaiah 65 - 66; Revelation 21 - 22) are God's plan for the future. Probably my favorite quote from the book stems from this truth: "Heaven is nice, but it's not the end of the world."

4. The idea of humans leaving earth at the end of time is a misnomer with no Biblical evidence to support it. The new Jerusalem, the heavenly city, comes down to earth. Thus,the overlap of heaven and earth will be ultimately be perfected.

So what's the problem? Are these misconceptions really that big of a deal? I would argue that, when combined with the spirit/matter dualism (Gnosticism) described in my last post, the results can be disastrous, not least in the musical worship of our churches.

As a worship leader, I have noticed how often this dualistic Gnosticism plagues the writing of our hymns and choruses. Here are some of the more egregious examples:

When the shadows of this life have grown, I'll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls, I’ll fly, I'll fly away
I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away (in the morning)
When I die, hallelujah by and by, I'll fly away (From I'll Fly Away)

God is bigger than the air I breathe
The world we'll leave
God will save the day and all will say
My glorious! (From My Glorious)

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow
The sun forbear to shine
But God, Who called me here below
Will be forever mine (From Christ Tomlin's
Amazing Grace)

Certainly, the effects have been felt in the preaching realm just as much as that of music. But I figured this would be a good start to the discussion. Do you agree that there is a heaven confusion? If so, where have you seen it happen?

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Surprised by Hope Part 1: A Gnostic in Orthodox Clothing?

N.T. Wright’s new book on heaven, resurrection and the basis for Christian hope was borne out of his conviction that there are two broad misunderstandings currently at work with regard to popular Christian eschatology. In this post, I will treat the first which I have called "A Gnostic in Orthodox Clothing."

This view is (typically) that of the conservative Biblicist who, though he/she believes firmly in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, misunderstands greatly the significance and implications of that event. For this group of people, Jesus’ rise from the grave amounts to little more than a decisive demonstration of God’s power--a confirmation of the atoning efficaciousness of Good Friday. Further, the logic of this group usually follows the pattern that, "Jesus resurrection proves that there is a heaven, and the reward of every Christian soul will be to (someday) follow Jesus to that place after death."

In the interest of evenhandedness, I'll point out a few of the strengths of this position:
  • Belief in the power of God to raise Jesus from the dead (over-against those who dismiss such an accomplishment on 'scientific' grounds)
  • A commitment to reading the gospel accounts as if they (more or less) accurately record actual historical events
  • Belief in God's commitment to the plight of human beings and His atoning action
There may be others, but these are the major ones that I see. Now, let's look at some of the weaknesses of this position:
  • An insufficient understanding of Jesus' Jewishness and the significance thereof
  • A shallow understanding of the history of Israel with regard to the categorical importance of the title "Messiah" or "Christ"
  • A complete misunderstanding of the function of 'resurrection' in the minds of the Biblical authors
  • A misreading of many parables and Matthews phrase "Kingdom of Heaven" as having an "end times" referent
  • In the more extreme versions of this position (see the absurdly popular "Left Behind" series as a categorical exemplar), a complete abdication of earthly Christan responsibility to any other task than "soul-saving"
  • An intractable spirit/matter dualism--more the product of Platonic heritage than Biblical study--in which the important aspect of salvation is the soul's eventual escape to an otherworldly paradise (heaven).
There are other weakness of this position, friends. And I wish I could say Wright is off course in his assessment. The problem is that this kind of eschatology is my heritage--and it is certainly the heritage of many within my Non-denominational/Evangelical Free/Baptist tradition.

Out of the entire list, the last is the most disturbing of all because it unknowingly dismantles the basis for and the sustenance of Christian hope. The logic often goes something like this:

We are saved (to a non-physical heaven in the future)
by grace through faith (so none or our deeds actually matter in an eternal sense)
and nothing can snatch us from the Father's hand. (so endure this difficult physical life and look forward to the spiritual life of the future)
And, someday, when we get to heaven (the really important thing about living life in the first place)
we'll just praise God all day long (because we're unclear about what life hereafter would entail other than that).

Granted, there are variations within this stream of thought; but I'm confident that the above description is not a straw man. In the coming days I will treat each of the issues this position raises in greater detail.

It should be said at this point that my own interaction with Wright's book is one of (nearly) unanimous agreement. For those who have discussed these issues with me in the past, that will come as little surprise for two reasons. First you've heard me squawk endlessly about the need for a shift in Christian eschatological view and praxis. Wright simply stated the issues in a more eloquent, organized and succinct manner than I could have. Second, Wright is as good a Biblical scholar as there is in the field--his depth of wisdom and insight is the product of both lifelong academic study and lifelong pastoral responsibility. His commitment to both is the reason I've come to trust his point of view to such a large extent.

I look forward to interaction with any and everyone on these issues. As Christians, I firmly believe we can't make sense of the present until we know where it's going.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Surprised by Hope: An Introduction

Hello, Friends.

To my memory, I have never made an explicit book recommendation on this blog--117 entries, according to blogger, and not once have I suggested some light reading for those of you who love/tolerate the (far too infrequent) posts in this little corner of cyberspace.

All of that is changing today.

N.T. Wright's new book, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church, should be required reading for all those who submit to the Lordship of Jesus--and all of those who have dismissed Christianity because of the apparent disconnect between the teachings of its leader and the actions of his followers.

For those who may be turned off by heady works of academic theology, fear not. This book is written at a popular level so that academic and parishioner alike can rejoice together in the wisdom it contains. No elitism here.

I will be discussing this book in some detail in the coming days on this blog, and I would love to have others join in the conversation. Note--you are welcome and encouraged to discuss regardless of whether or not you've read the book. But I am confident you will all benefit deeply from reading.

I'll beg if I have to, but hopefully it won't come to that.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I Leave Town for FIVE MINUTES...


This is like a bad dream.


I want to know who's responsible for this. Brad? Jerod? Alan or Naomi? Dave? Perhaps Zach?

Whichever one of you forgot to blow out your candle last night must step forward and fess up immediately. And, I demand that you kids get that mess cleaned up before I get back to town.

The clock's ticking.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Blah Di Blah

Sorry, friends. I just haven't felt like writing much lately. I'll get back on the horse eventually, I promise.

Monday, February 04, 2008


I know what you're thinking.

You're thinking, "He was just looking for an excuse to use that graphic. He can't possibly have a relevant reason for posting that (other than it being very, very funny)."

Well, friends, you're only half right in that assessment of my motivations. I was, indeed looking for a reason to use that graphic, and today I hit the relevance jackpot.

Apparently running into internationally renown people is becoming a habit for me. Today, I was minding my own business at work--and who should ask for a large, skim, decaf latte but Rick Warren. Wow. I thought being one of the world's best selling authors would allow a person to live it up a bit more. Maybe Skim and Decaf are the price of fame...


Mr. Warren grabbed my hand, gave it a hearty shake and announced his name to me. The only similarity to my meeting with Bono is that I didn't really know what to say to this guy either--but for totally different reasons. With Bono, I was flat out star struck. With Warren I was just ambivalent. So, I said the only thing that came to mind:

"I enjoyed your interview on the Colbert Report."

He smiled uncomfortably as if to say I had brought up an awkward subject. It seems as if Mr. Warren was feeling some ambivalence of his own. I did, however, refrain from commenting about the 'B-list' guests on the comedy shows these days (with the writer's strike and all). I guess you take what you can get, right? And nothing is more 'purpose driven' than that.

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Moving On In Stupid Optimism

There was a sporting event last night.

The underdogs won, the seemingly unbeatable titans fell...

Blah, Blah, Blah.

And, even though it was one of the most excitingly competitive Super Bowls in recent memory, the best play of the game (in my opinion) was Eli Manning kneeling down on that final play. Not because it secured victory for the Giants, but because it symbolized and signaled an even greater existential truth:


That's right friends. No matter which MLB team you follow you have reason to cheer--after all, your team is currently undefeated and in first place in its division. Your team is just as likely as any other team in its division to go to the playoffs.

Now, if that sounds like the delusions of a Santana-less Twins is. I may be grasping at straws here, but I need some kind of hope, and the freshness of a new season provides that for me. So, for all of you 'seam-heads' out there, I got you a little gift to help bide your time between now and the first Spring Training game. You're welcome.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

In Which My Posture Towards Pop Culture Gets Deconstructed

You know...I've often been accused of music snobbery. And, I have to admit it's justified. One need only to peruse the music related entries on this blog to see it.

However, it's good to know that--not only am I in good company--but someone was clever enough to encapsulate the "indie rock elitist mentality" in a diagram on a t-shirt.

Absolutely brilliant.

I hear that this t-shirt is standard issue at Pitchfork.