The Speckled Mind

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Surprised By Hope Part 7: Resurrection

Well, friends, I'm afraid I'm going to have to end this series. Not because there's nothing more to say. Rather, these posts are pretty labor intensive, and I'm not sure I'm going to have the time to continue them any longer. To those that have accompanied me on the journey--both those who commented and those who did not--I owe you my deepest thanks. I wish there were more time to deeply explore some of the issues that have arisen in the past few weeks. Perhaps there will be at some point.

Part 7 seemed to be the perfect one on which to end this series (for those of you who are into Jewish numerology at least...). Also, it seemed right to post on this particular topic on Resurrection Sunday. Today, Christians everywhere rejoice in the fact that the tomb is empty, and that we worship the risen and exalted messiah, Jesus.

In terms of apologetics for the truth of the resurrection I will give only a few brief comments--here I am drawing heavily upon Wright's work. My hunch is that few readers of this blog doubt the historicity of this event, but these things are still worth mentioning. First, those that would doubt the truth of the bodily resurrection of Christ must explain the historical (and sociological) curiosity of the early Christian movement. If Jesus did not actually rise from the dead, why would his disciples have continued to proclaim him as the messiah? A crucified Jewish would-be messiah in the first century was a FAILED messiah. This point cannot be made too strongly, and there are plenty of historical examples to support it. The followers of that would-be messiah had two options: a) disband and forget the hope of liberation that the 'messiah' seemed to offer, or b) elect a new messianic candidate from within who would continue the cause of liberation. Curiously, the first Christians did neither of these things, instead proclaiming that Jesus had BODILY risen from the dead. Wright and others argue vehemently that such a proclamation is historically inconceivable unless Jesus actually did rise.

A second and very convincing argument for the truth of the resurrection accounts in the gospels is that women were the first witnesses of the event. In Part 6, I mentioned briefly the second class status afforded women in Jewish society. They were not allowed to testify in court--their recounting of events would have been worthless for legal purposes. Such a situation begs the question: If the evangelists were trying to author a convincing fiction and pass it off as history, why in the world would they have written women as the leading actresses of their accounts? It would have convinced no one. The only explanation for the gospel accounts reading as they do is that they are historically accurate.

So, having established the facticity of the gospel accounts, what can we say about how the disciples understood the event itself? What did it mean within the larger schema of Jewish eschatology? Here the road is a bit bumpier, and I will again recommend reading Surprised By Hope for yourself if you want to get a clearer picture. For our purposes, an all-too-brief summary will have to suffice.

First, most Jews expected a resurrection to occur (save the Sadducees); everyone knew that Yahweh would one day resurrect all people for judgment in anticipation of/preparation for the new heavens and new earth. Let me be clear, all expectation in this regard had an end of the world referent. For Jesus' disciples to claim that their Lord had been raised from the dead in the middle of history would have been a novel invention indeed (were it not true). So what did it mean? For Paul, the answer is clear.

It meant that death had been defeated; it meant that Yahweh's new creation had already been inaugurated in the person of Jesus.

Jesus was, in this sense, the "truly human one." He was the lone example of what human life in God's perfect new creation would look like. He was the person in whom the future was caught up in the present. Notice that there is nothing that can be 'spiritualized' about Jesus' resurrection. It was not another way of referring to life after death in another place. Nor was it an interesting description of an intense private spirituality. Rather it was the prototype for life after life after death on earth (this is Wright's way of putting the matter, and I think it's spectacular).

So what should we make of the fact that God's new creation has been set loose in the person of Jesus Christ? I suggest the most appropriate response is to find out how we can get in on the action. After all, if there are two types of creation going on all around us--one that is subject to death and decay and another that bears the beauty of the risen Christ--it would seem logical to shoot for the latter. It is, therefore, our privilege and pleasure to be "in Christ" in this way--that we reflect the agenda of God's certain and conclusive future redemption for the entire cosmos in the present.

Or, as Paul puts it, "If anyone is in Christ [there is] a New Creation!! Everything old has passed away; behold! everything has become new."


So what does all of this mean in terms of practical action? How does a belief in the present power of new creation affect the things that are said and done on an every day basis? I'd be lying if I said I had ready made answers to these questions. What I can do is offer some thoughts I've had about being a Christian in this generation--especially since reading this book. Much of this might not strike you as novel, but it is what it is....

I've thought long and hard about the ways in which being "in Christ" should make me different from any other person walking down the DC streets. What should set me apart? What would cause people to recognize the surprising and beautiful existence of new creation in the middle of history when it was on display in my life? What would cause people to be persuaded that a commitment to Christ is anything more than a personal spiritual add-on to the existing status quo?

First, I think my generation has stopped asking the question "is it right?" and replaced it with, "does it work?" It is the generation of the postmodern pragmatist, concerned more with the agenda of human advancement and advantage than the characteristics of new creation. Therefore, I need to remember that "Does it work" always serves the cause of the powerful (they define what 'works' and what doesn't) and to take up the cause of those who are casualties of that agenda. My operating paradigm for action must be rooted in "is it right?".

Second, I need to learn to be loving. I need to resist the tendency to redefine love in terms of what I consider to be possible--to remake love in my own image, if you will. I need to give up my self perceived need to be right as a matter of course, realizing that "the right" are not listed amongst the blessed in Jesus economy.

Like I said, nothing particularly new. These are just a couple of things I've been kicking around and trying to put into practice since reading this book. Feel free to add your own to the list of 'what new creation looks like in the 21st century.'

To all: Happy Resurrection Day. HE IS RISEN!

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Surprised by Hope Part 6: Symbol as Story as Action

What about Jesus
Didn't he do it too?
Hang out with prostitutes
And have a drink or two.
Power of example
My mama said it and I heard
She says one ounce of action
Beats a ton of words.~~Martin Sexton

I have promised to describe in more detail the difference that seeing Jesus as a first century Jew has made in the way I read scripture. In this post, I will offer what I hope is a clear example of that. But first, a few words of introduction are in order.

Categorically speaking, the biggest shift I've experienced in this regard is a new awareness to the presence of (and importance of!) symbolism in the gospels. My theological heritage had taught me that symbols were 'bare'--they didn't actually do anything, and they didn't even say all that much except in a dry referential sort of way. My conversion on this issue has been a new birth into understanding symbol as story, and story as action. In short, speech is action; and, often times, actions say more than words ever could. I suggest that this was the operating paradigm with which we should approach the Biblical texts, and the gospels in particular.

Luke 10: 38-42 provides an excellent test case for examining synoptic symbolism:

38As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all
the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" 41"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

This passage has been used in many sermons as a defense for the priority that women must give to prayer and scripture study. "Remember, ladies," so it is said, "time in the Word is just as important as doing the laundry or dishes." Such a reading of this passage, however, does not do justice to the subversiveness of Jesus actions or Luke's special theological emphases.

First, we must remember that Jesus lived (and Luke wrote) in a highly patriarchal culture. Women had their place, and men had theirs--and the clearly defined boundaries of those realms were not to be transgressed. Thus, a number of things about this story should seem curious to the reader. First, what would have given Mary the audacity to think she had a right to sit at Jesus feet? Such a position symbolically implied an inclusion amongst Jesus' disciples. Only Men were allowed to sit at the feet of a rabbi. Mary didn't just get distracted while she was setting the table for dinner. Her action was intentional, and it rocked the social world in which she lived--that's why Martha was so outraged. It wasn't because she needed an extra pair of hands in the kitchen.

The second--and bigger--question: why in the world would Jesus allow Mary to do such a thing? Mary, as a 'foolish woman' could perhaps be excused for considering herself more highly than she should have.

But not a rabbi of Jesus' stature.

By allowing Mary to sit at his feet as he taught, Jesus was giving tacit approval to her actions. In Martha's view, Jesus was brining shame upon himself by allowing the situation to continue. By her questioning, Martha is attempting to restore the all important social order of a first century Jewish household. She, essentially, was reminding Jesus of who he was.

In this light, Jesus response is all the more remarkable for its symbolism. He did not scold Mary when her embarrassing actions were brought to light by Martha--who, by the way, was certainly just saying what the rest of the male disciples were thinking. Rather, Jesus affirmed both her desire and her right to be included amongst the disciples. Essentially, Jesus response explained to Martha that Mary had gotten it right by shaking up the social constraints of her culture; and--by extension--inviting Martha to live in the new reality into which her sister had already stepped. Jesus, essentially, was reminding Martha of who she was.

In my view the application of this passage is clear. Women have the same right to sit at the feet of the Great Rabbi as men. And, by extension, they have the same right to further the legacy of that Rabbi by teaching others. The fact that women are still consistently denied the right, duty and privilege of exercising their gifts to the fullest possible benefit of the church is troubling. It seems to me that those who would deny gifted women a preaching role
(for instance) are simply echoing the voice of Martha--"Tell these women to remember their place!" And, I'm quite confident Jesus' gentle rebuke would be similar--"You are concerned about many things (i.e., maintenance of social tradition)...but they have chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from them."

Many, in their attempts to minimize the utter difference of this kind of reading, refer to this as a "deeper meaning." (I've described this problem in more detail elsewhere.) By this, they mean that it is nice for those who want to study the passage in a more extensive way, but that the normal reading also 'works just fine.' The reason that I chose the passage from Luke 10 is that it illustrates the folly of such dualism. What I've described above can't possibly be a 'deeper meaning' because it completely deconstructs the more common reading of the text. One reading says, "Don't forget to be pious while you accept the social norms handed to you;" the other says, "The social norms you've been handed--where women are viewed as second class citizenry--are not a part of the kingdom of God that is even now breaking in upon this world."

I think this is a good place to stop for the time being. But first, a word to those that disagree with the larger theological point I've made in this entry. I hope you see a pastoral heart in what otherwise might seem like a polemical bludgeon club. Certainly you could call up other scripture passages that may seem to oppose the point I've made here, and I'm confident it would make for an interesting discussion. What I'm primarily interested in, however, is: How would you render this passage differently in either meaning or application? And, if your reading is different, is it grounded in the concrete history of first century Judaism? I believe that the most fruitful discussions are to be had on those terms, and I sincerely thank you for indulging me if you feel differently.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Surprised by Hope Part 5: The Importance of Being Jewish

The noise is coming out, and if it's not out now
Then tomorrow, tomorrow
They took your life apart and called you failure's art
They were wrong though, they won't know
'Til tomorrow~~Elliott Smith

I hope that Part 4 persuaded many of my readers (or reconfirmed already held beliefs) about the importance of studying the historical Jesus in correlation with the theological Jesus. My greatest hope in writing--the eschatology of this blog series, if you will--is that the artificial border between those two approaches to Jesus would lie down together in peace. Theology has nothing to fear from examining history, and history has nothing to fear in doing theology.

I hope this post will draw together some of the threads of earlier posts in its discussion of Jesus' Jewishness. I have already shown the problems with an ahistorical rendering of Jesus' Kingdom preaching in Part 3. Without a firm historical cornerstone, the theological building crumbles into a heap of Platonic metaphysical speculation about the afterlife. It could be argued, though, that this misunderstanding of "Kingdom" is an isolated example and that the majority of traditional theological reflection would be left unscathed by a closer study of history. I have often heard this objection raised, and I would like to answer it somewhat indirectly.
Of all the things that my Evangelical background did well (yes, there were many things!), making sense of the pre-passion gospel accounts was not amongst them. In short, I was quite clear on why Jesus died ("to forgive sins"), but rather fuzzy on why he lived (other than "to be sinless"). Further, it went as an unspoken assumption that Jesus death could have "worked" regardless of when he lived (period of history) or his ethnic heritage. Thus, if he had been Chinese, lived in the 200's B.C.E, spun pithy aphorisms and died a sacrificial death, it would have been just as well for those who seek "salvation."

I have since come to see such a view of Jesus as shortsighted for a number of reasons. I should be clear at this point, however, that the soteriology of my youth is something I still hold very dear. I still believe deeply and passionately that Jesus died to save sinners. Yet, that description of his mission alone is rendered impotent without the larger story that must accompany it--a story that answers all of the important worldview questions: who are we, where are we, what is wrong and what is the solution, (See Wright's NTPG, 123c). And, though Christians have developed interesting answers to those questions in modern times, I would argue that Jesus' answers to those questions in his own time were very different. Further, we only get a true understanding of the importance of Jesus when we see how his answers to these questions differed from those of his first century contemporaries. I would also argue that if we are to be Biblically faithful, our own answers to those questions must grow organically out of Jesus'.

Who Are We? For a first century Jew, this one was a no-brainer: We are the people of the one true, creator God--the God who made everything. All of us who are Jews by birth belong to a privileged order of God's humanity--the elected. In his wisdom,God has given us the covenant, the law and the temple.

Where Are We? & What Is Wrong? For a first century Jew, these questions were impossible to answer in isolation from one another: Some of us are back in the land that we were promised, but that land no longer looks like the one that we were promised. For starters, we are a vassal state under the crushing imperial power of Rome. Second, because of Roman rule we are taxed beyond the confines of what we can bear. Third, even our house of worship is controlled by the Herods, whom most of us despise. So, to put it bluntly, home isn't right, the power structures aren't right and worship isn't right. To put it even more bluntly: The exile is still ongoing. For whatever reason, Yahweh still allows this state of affairs to continue in relative silence.

What Is The Solution? It is important to note that there were a number of answers to this question, all of which will necessarily be oversimplified in what follows:
  • As a Zealot, I believe that Yahweh has not delivered us from oppression because we have not given him ample opportunity to display his power in battle. Therefore, it is our duty and privilege to provoke the Romans into an armed conflict, trusting that Yahweh will victoriously act on our behalf when we do. My favorite part of scripture is Daniel 7.
  • As a Pharisee, I believe that Yahweh has not delivered us from Roman oppression because the sin of the land is so great. The lack of personal commitments to holiness amongst the prostitutes, tax collectors, etc. is to blame for the condition we’re in. Only when Yahweh sees a systemic commitment to piety will he act decisively on our behalf and deliver us from Roman oppression. My favorite part of Scripture is the book of Leviticus.
  • As a Sadducee, I believe that we need to accept the present Roman oppression as a consequence of our past sins. Therefore, the wisest course of action is to accept Yahweh's judgment by making the best of the situation--after all, the more that Rome prospers, the more we will prosper along with it. My favorite part of Scripture is Jeremiah 29.
  • As an Essene, I believe that everything wrong with the so-called, ‘people of God’ is so bad as to be irreparable. In fact, not all those who call themselves, “Israel” really are the Israel that God has in mind. Therefore, the best we can hope for is to start again--away from all the evil in Jerusalem--by forming a remnant community along the Dead Sea in Qumran. Only in separation and isolation can holiness be achieved. My favorite part of Scripture is Isaiah 10.
However crude and reductionist, I believe this to be a historically accurate sketch of the Jewish worldview matrix into which Jesus stepped. His life, then, is best understood by examining the ways in which he affirmed, modified or opposed the ready made answers to the worldview questions posited by the different Judaisms of his day.

What follows is my understanding of how Jesus would have answered the same four worldview questions if they were posed to him:

Who Are We? "We" is a bit of a misnomer, because not everyone who is Jewish by ethnicity is amongst God's elect. As Isaiah prophesied, God has reserved a remnant for himself, and I have come to gather that remnant around me and to define it in relation to myself. The standards by which Israel has typically judged herself a part of the covenant community--Circumcision, Temple and Torah--are no longer reliable as efficacious symbols of corporate identity. God's Israel will be defined as those who love me by keeping my commands.

Where Are We? & What Is Wrong? We are at THE climactic moment in all of history. We are still in exile, and that means each person must make a choice. The first option is for those who insist upon clinging to their own nationalistic aspirations. The result of that choice will be judgment and destruction--it is as foolish a choice as waiting on the shore of the Red Sea as Pharaoh's army approaches. The second choice is to join the remnant by passing through the water--John has already symbolically initiated this by his baptisms in the desert. The result of that choice will be the experience of a new exodus--a new liberation from oppression. Certainly, though, most of ethnic Israel will not accept Yahweh's chosen mode of deliverance--they never do; and this is a symptom of the larger problem. Israel has mistaken her election as a matter of privilege when it was always intended as a matter of responsibility.

What Is The Solution? I am the solution. I am everything that Yahweh wanted Israel to be in the first place. I am the elect one--true Israel--because I have perfectly kept the covenant with Yahweh. I am the 'blessing to the nations of the earth' for through me, Yahweh will finally see his hope for the inclusion of the Gentiles realized. I am the "prophet like Moses" because I have come to lead a new exodus from the present oppression. I am the true temple because true worship of Yahweh happens in and through me.


I suggest that this sketch of Jesus' worldview makes excellent sense of the life he lived--why he taught as he did, why he acted as he did and why he ultimately died as he did. A Jesus who believed and acted in this manner is believably follow-able because he provided a rare and convincing hope to his contemporaries. Further, this Jesus is believably crucifiable from both a Roman and a Jewish perspective. Worldviews do not shift easily, and Jesus' subversion of them would logically be met with fierce resistance from all the world's powers.

Some may object at this point that I still have not displayed any kind of interpretive cash-out for all the historical insight I've provided.

And those people are correct.

Unfortunately, due to the length of this post, those people will have to wait for the next edition. In Part 6 (which, God willing will be far shorter than Part 5) I will give some concrete examples of where the first century Jewish matrix I've sketched has made a difference in my readings of the texts. I felt that it would have been disingenuous to give those examples without first providing a clear foundation.

For those that made it clear to the bottom of this post, I thank you for your time and attention. I look forward to continuing our discussion.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Surprised by Hope Part 4: Jesus and His-Story

"It is amazing that so many New Testament scholars write books about Jesus in which they discover that he agrees with their own version of Christianity…I am a liberal, modern, secularized Protestant, brought up in a church dominated by low Christology and the social gospel. I am proud of the things that that religious tradition stands for. I am not bold enough, however, to suppose that Jesus came to establish it, or that he died for the sake of its principles."~~E.P. Sanders

The desire to remake Jesus in our own image is irresistible. As Sanders so wryly notes, Biblical scholars are not immune from this disease--in fact, they are often the primary carriers. And, though artists are not always trying to depict reality as it actually is, the plethora of different renderings of Jesus' physical likeness serves as evidence that scholars are not alone in this tendency. Pastor and layperson alike also fall into the trap of imagining Jesus as a bit too much like themselves.

It's pervasive, and it is a problem--but where is the escape hatch?

It should be stated at the outset that I consider myself to be a carrier of this disease. I would never claim to have an objective standpoint from which I can critique others' views while leaving mine unsullied as 'the' correct view (nor would Wright). I do, however, want to see discussions about Jesus based on something other than religious impressionism.

And that 'something' is history.

Wright states the point with appropriate succinctness: "Christianity appeals to history; to history it must go." Despite the bumps in the road that the Quests for the Historical Jesus have incurred--one can hardly hear the words "Jesus" and "Seminar" in the same sentence anymore without a shiver--the followers of Jesus have nothing to fear in examining the historical context in which he lived. Let me reiterate--we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by questing for the historical Jesus, and letting his history determine our reading of scripture.

The apostle Paul would agree wholeheartedly with that proposal. In his words, "When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children." I love this verse because it holds together the story of God's salvation, sovereignty and timing (i.e., history) as a package deal. You can't have one without the others. Thus, the only Jesus that we should care about is the first century Jewish carpenter from Galilee. Certainly Jesus' status as God incarnate plays a role, but I would argue that you only get the latter in view when you've given appropriate effort to examining the significance of the former.

So where do we begin?

Millions of pages have been written on the historical Jesus, and hundreds of thousands more have been written in critique of those who have undertaken the quest. And, while most won't find all of the insights of those pages particularly helpful, one fact is inescapable and necessary for scholar and layperson alike: Jesus was a Jew.

I suspect I don't need to prove that to any of those who frequent this blog, but I would like to suggest that the implications of that small fact have rarely been considered by most pewsitters who read scripture.

As this post has already gone on too long, I would like to leave it here--looking forward to Part 5 in which I will discuss some of the Jewish aspects of Jesus that are too often ignored, why they matter and the personal difference that recognizing them has made in my own life. Part 5, then, will serve as a segue back into the issues more closely related to Surprised by Hope. Thus, Part 6 will examine the Jewish concept of resurrection and its relation to Jewish messianic thought. This will (I hope) bring us to the more practical implications of Wright's book for the mission of the church--maybe even in time for Easter! Wouldn't that be nice? I'd like to again thank all of you who are participating in the discussion and wrestling with the messy and beautiful business of living in a post-resurrection world.

May the life of Christ dwell in you richly.

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