Changes Afoot

Changes are coming to The View from Here.

It’s been some time since I’ve written regularly on the blog, and for a number of reasons. Having swapped coasts, entered marital bliss and begun a new job; there simply hasn’t been the time to write as I might like to (though I’ve just barely kept up contributing regular devotional blogs at {re}fresh).

At any rate, I’m committed to renewing my focus on this corner of the interweb and with it will come a handful of updates. For one, I’ll be reviewing the overall look and feel of the site. Things have gotten a little shabby in my absence. Certain parts have begun to sag. Our digital hair has gone unwashed, uncombed, unkempt. The belt around this blog’s center needs to be tightened. In short, we’ve let ourselves go, but it’s going to change.

Appearances are important, as far as they go, though far more important is the actual content. For the foreseeable future, I’m hoping to concentrate my attention on a theme I’ve been thinking about off and on for years: human purpose.

As long as there have been people on the earth, there have been people wondering why on earth they were there. It’s big question deserving of a big answer. And sadly, various cultures—even Christian ones—provide too small a response. Yet from a biblical perspective, as best as I can tell, people are a big deal. I’d like to explore why and to what end.

My musings on this topic have been more like meanderings up to now. It’s time I corralled this beast.

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Twerking Our Way through the Bible

via wikipedia.org

Among the elements that makes understanding the Bible (and any other ancient texts) so difficult are the various cultural barriers that keep us 21st century readers out of the original world of the author and his readers.  Quite naturally, we don’t live in the same world of Homer (the Greek, not Simpson) or Chaucer or Saul of Tarsus.  One or two things have changed since these old writers lived and worked.

To see what I mean on a lesser scale, watch an episode of “Leave it to Beaver.”  Does your family look like Ward and June?  Do you look at the world through the same lenses that the shows writers did?  How foreign do things look through those eyes from where we sit today?  So it is (though far more magnified) when we approach Scripture written two thousand years ago and more.

It is the task of each generation, then, to reinterpret these ancient texts.  Every new community of believers has to learn to read these old stories and letters and translate them so that they take the leap from their ancient context into our own world.

via wikipedia.org

Sticking with the television theme, this practice is the equivalent of “Happy Days” (a show about the 50’s produced in the 70’s & 80’s), “The Wonder Years” (a show about the 60’s produced in the 80’s & 90’s) and “That 70’s Show” (a show about the, well, 70’s, produced in the 90’s & 2000’s).  (Has anyone yet mastered the 80’s?  Alas, I pine.)  These are all the retelling of earlier eras, reinterpreted to speak to our own present situation.

So this is what we are continually doing with the Bible, reading and rereading these ancient texts, trying our best to understand them for what they meant in their own contexts, so that we may then retell them to one another in such a way that they make sense for 2014.

The process, however, is fraught with difficulty.

The hardest part about grasping the message of the Bible is not about whether you know Greek or Hebrew.  It’s not about our inability to diagram sentences.  The greatest barrier to accurately understanding and then translating the Bible is what we do and do not know about everything that’s not in the Bible.

In my own journey with Scripture, I find that the texts seem to come alive in greatest measure when I’m in the process of learning about the world around the biblical eras, rather than about the text itself.  For example, when I’ve learned about Jewish cultural movements in the intertestamental period (after Malachi, before Matthew), it’s opened great windows of clarity on what it was Jesus was up to and what others thought about what he was up to.

Sorry, no twerk pic available.

It’s like being in on a good (or even a terrible) joke, like twerking our way through the Bible.  But if you aren’t tuned into pop culture, you don’t get it, even if you are actually better off.  So the question is, Who were the Miley Cyruses of Paul’s day?  If they weren’t twerking in first century Palestine, what were they doing?  And how might the gospel writers or Peter or James have referenced these cultural phenomena?

More on this anon, specifically, regarding Paul and the Roman Empire.

Go Get Refreshed

I may have mentioned this before, but I occasionally post at another blog, which is more devotional and encouraging in nature.  It’s called {re}fresh (the brackets are silent) and I’ve got an advent post up there now.  Please do check it out, but not for my sake.  Tour around a bit and enjoy the writing and thoughts of some of my friends, who are actual friends in actual life, not just the digital kind.

Oh, and since I’m dumping links, if music is your thing, I’d recommend these two songs from Joel and Amy Davis.  Joel is the singer for Ascend the Hill, a worship band out of Tampa. Amy is his wife.  I can guarantee you’ve never heard a worship band like Ascend the Hill, unless, that is, you’ve previously heard Ascend the Hill (for proof, see below).  By the way, their music is available for free (legally!) at Come & Live!  Anyway, Joel and Amy had me literally crying at my desk this morning, and not because they dropped in to punch me in the face.  These two tracks are just that good.

Social Justice and the Gospel

via tamedcynic.org

I’ve never been a huge fan of the term “social justice.”

There, I said it.  And I will henceforth forever be disqualified from attaining my hipster credentials.

So much of what we today call “social justice” reminds me of Mark Twain’s insightful remark: “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”

I’m a bigger fan of simple justice, or, to coin a phrase that no one else will ever use, “Jesus justice.”

In Luke’s account of the start of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus famously announced his intentions.  He told the folks in his home town what he intended to do going forward.

[Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.  And he stood up to read.  The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.  Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:16-21, NIV).

At last, his audience must have thought, we, the oppressed people of God, are going to get the kind of justice we deserve.  And at last, these pagan nations that have been crushing us will get the kind of justice they deserve!

It’s important to remember when reading the gospels that Jesus is living and working in the midst of a people that had effectively been under foreign domination for roughly 750 years.  Think about it: 750 years ago, the world was still 230 years from Columbus way underestimating the size of the globe.  So from the time the Assyrians conquered Israel (722 BCE) to the time of Jesus (~AD 30) the bulk of Palestine was ruled by people other than the Jews, a few very brief stints excepted.

All that is to say that Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes are ready for a change, and they surely thought Jesus was announcing it. More than that, they were certain it meant their elevation and the Romans’ demise.

But JR Daniel Kirk reminds us that Jesus justice (what a great phrase!) works a little differently than we expect, for Jesus goes on in Luke 4 to cite incidents in the Hebrew Bible in which God blesses foreigners through the prophets Elijah and Elisha (Lk 4:25-27).  Those who praised Jesus’ good news a few verses earlier are surprised and ready to lynch him.  Kirk:

The scandalous implication of Jesus’s good news is that God’s promises to Israel will come as a blessing through Israel for the sake of the nations’ glory rather than coming to bless the people of Israel at the cost of the nations’ humiliation (Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, 144).

Jesus justice (it just rolls off the tongue) doesn’t belittle one group in favor of another.  Jesus justice might bless one group, but that blessing is given to the one for the benefit of all.  Jesus justice is not a zero sum game.

Kirk again speaks of the culture of Jesus’ day:

In the first-century context, … the exaltation of Israel at the expense of Rome would be a perpetuation of the injustice already rampant on the earth–only now with a different perpetrator in charge (145).

To put this in contemporary terms, we might have imagined Jesus wandering into one of the Occupy Wall Street camps a couple years ago announcing the year of the Lord’s favor for the 99%.  The throngs would let out a cheer.  Those greedy bastards are finally getting theirs!

But then he might turn around, intersect a trader leaving the exchange and say, “Hey, what can I do for you?”  And the wealthy trader would say, “Well, my little girl is at Sloan-Kettering right now waiting for a blood transfusion.  I’m worried as hell.”  And Jesus would respond, “Don’t be afraid.  The cancer is already gone.”

The point is that in Jesus justice (aw, who am I kidding; it’s never catching on) there’s plenty to go around.  It’s meant for everyone, everywhere, at all times.

Paul: Now about Those Pesky Women…

via strivetoenter.com

Among those issues in which Paul has generated a dangerous level of radiation is his (supposed) estimation of women in the Body of Christ.  You really can’t get around it: Paul has some difficult things to say about women, at least on the surface.

I must confess, the entire Western Evangelical debate over women in the church, especially women in leadership roles, was lost on me growing up.  First, I’m male.  So, any impact was indirect.  Second, I was raised in the northeast, where the cultural milieu was (1) egalitarian and (2) non-fundamentalist, at least.  So, I don’t know that I ever assumed the Bible wasn’t culturally and contextually conditioned, even while I held it in the highest regard.  Third, my own family was on the egalitarian side of the spectrum.  I just assumed women could go wherever their gifts led them, because that’s pretty much what my mom did.

It was bewildering to me, then, that this was so contentious an issue when I landed at Messiah College and began taking Christian ministry classes with young men and women from much more conservative and more rigid backgrounds.  It became a rite of each semester to have at least one class in which a classmate would break down in tears over the politely condescending remarks she was getting from otherwise kindhearted folks back home: “Oh, you’re studying Christian ministry?  But what are you going to do when you get out?  You know you can’t become a pastor.”

I never understood this, but enough of the caveats.

The fact remains that Paul said some tough stuff about how women should dress (plainly) and what they could and could not do (anything important) and how they should relate to their husbands (as a subordinate).  Moreover, such remarks seem directly at odds with other liberating elements of both the gospels and other elements of Paul’s writing, in which he praises female coworkers and gives several women the lofty title of apostle (see, especially, Rom. 16).

As JR Daniel Kirk homes in on this subject, he does a good thing in setting out first the ways in which the gospel and Paul both elevate women in ways that their contemporary culture at large would never dream.  For example, in the story of Mary and Martha’s squabble (Matthew 10), Mary sits a Rabbi Jesus’ feet, a place generally reserved for men only.  For this she is commended.

Meanwhile, for Paul, we would do well to elevate his famous statement in Galatians 3:28 (echoed in 1 Cor 12:13 & Col 3:11): “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (ESV).  Within the body of Christ, neither ethnic, socio-economic, nor gender boundaries count for anything.  It cannot be missed: unity with one another in the body of Christ due to our unity with Christ is a major theme for Paul.  We could even say it’s among the top five concerns of Paul’s ministry.

And for this reason, it ought to override statements from Paul that appear to contradict his incessant calls for unity.  At the very least, clear passages like Galatians 3:28 should cause us to raise an eyebrow at something like 1 Timothy 2, in which Paul does not allow a woman to teach.  Perhaps something else is going on in Timothy’s context that has caused Paul to write something so at odds with his overall platform and the Gospel at large.

Kirk himself raises a fine point from Paul’s own writing in the arguments against traditional gender hierarchies.  Citing 1 Corinthians 11, and specifically verse 11 (“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman,” ESV.), Kirk highlights Paul’s modus operandi (more Latin?).

Mutual dependence turns out to be more ultimate than hierarchy.  This is because the argument for hierarchy is based on creation, while mutual dependence derives more directly from the gospel story in which all are one because they are united to Christ. … New creation is more determinative of our life together than first creation (Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, 127).

I think he’s dead on.  Well, mostly.  I’d suggest that mutual dependence is inherent in the first marriage as well and the hierarchy comes after the Fall.  Regardless, the point remains: For us as new creation people, we must reflect new creation realities in all our relationships.  Men and women, women and men, together.

Who Was Cain?

Henri Vidal’s Cain via wikipedia.org

The last couple days I’ve been reading the first few chapters of Genesis.  I had come across the idea in Peter Enns‘s The Evolution of Adam that perhaps the Eden narrative was meant to serve as a prologue to the story of Israel that begins, essentially, in chapter 12.  Think about it: God’s chosen son (and daughter) are given a land of abundance, but the son rejects God and is subsequently exiled from the land.  It’s Israel in miniature.

Anyway, this morning I read Cain’s story in chapter 4 and was struck by a similar motif (but it’s not the first time).

Central to the set up of the narrative is worship.  As you know, Abel, the good one, brings the best of his flocks to sacrifice to the Lord (v. 4), but Cain’s offering was only so-so (v. 5).  God is not happy with Cain’s worship.

It doesn’t take an exceptionally deep reading of the Old Testament to realize that proper worship is a central theme.  After all, there’s the second half of Exodus, pretty much all of Leviticus, portions of Numbers, and the bulk of Deuteronomy (you know, all the parts you skip when reading the OT) that deal with the nature of Israel’s worship.  Then, of course, there’s Solomon’s temple, which everyone essentially hails as the pinnacle of his reign.  And there’s the prophets, who have plenty to say about good worship, not least, the only part of Micah anyone remembers:

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?  Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  He has sowed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).

Israel’s worship, in all its forms, matters to the Lord.

Anyway, that’s the set up in Genesis 4.  The critical question, however, comes from God in v. 7, and it touches on another preeminent theme in the Old Testament, namely the choice between righteousness and death.  Look: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?  But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

It’s the same classic A/B choice that faced Adam in the garden and the same choice that stands before Israel at all times.  Follow the Lord or abandon Him.

Of course, we know the unfortunate choice Cain makes, and it’s the same choice that Israel would ultimately make.  For both, the consequence is the same: exile.  Hear Cain’s anguish in v. 14a: “Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence.”  The prophet Ezekiel, writing in the midst of Israel’s own banishment from the land, catches a vision that represented their reality.  God’s presence had departed the temple.  The people were distant from their Lord (Ezk 10).  It is likely no coincidence, further, that Cain’s exile takes place to the east of Eden (v. 16), just as Israel was hauled to Babylon, well east of Jerusalem.

Through it all, however, Cain never ceases to be a part of God’s family.  He is given a special status, even in the midst of his punishment (v. 15).  This is not unlike the special treatment of Jehoiachin, the last surviving king of Judah, while in exile in Babylon (2 Kgs 25:27-30).

Who was Cain?  From a literary perspective, at least, he is Israel.  He is the reminder of what happens when God’s people do not do what is right and allow sin to master them instead of the other way around.