Tuesday, July 12, 2011

N.T. Wright's Scripture and the Authority of God

Problems I have with N.T. Wright's Scripture and the Authority of God

Wright insists that the authority of scripture really means God's authority exercised through Scripture without making the case that this is so. It seems to me that the authority of scripture is also related to the authority of the church.

His insistence that there is an overarching narrative which he imposes on the scriptures. I think he treats that narrative in such a way that it rules scripture rather than the other way around.

He treats the New Testament as different from and better than the Old Testament. Although he claims the Old Testament is not "a lesser revelation" (171), he calls the Torah "a temporary dispensation designed to advance a larger project" (188). The Hebrew Scriptures must always, in his method, be interpreted in light of the Christian Scriptures. This, I believe robs the Hebrew Scriptures of their original context and meaning. I don't see Jesus under every rock in the desert or behind every burning bush. While I believe that Jesus gives new meaning to some passages of the Old Testament, I don't think they were written in reference to Jesus.

His interpretation of scripture leaves out marginalized voices in favor of "authorized" (115) or "accredited leaders" (137), although he does include the caveat that authority is not always structural but spiritual.

He restricts biblical interpretation to discovering "what the writers meant" (135), ignoring other forms of interpretation that he does not consider to be "loyal to the Christian community through time and space." Yet, when he actually engages in interpretation in the two Case Study chapters, he does not really inquire into who the authors were or what their perspective might have been; he actually interprets through his overarching narrative.

He dismisses any postmodern critique of the scriptures as something that only "achieves . . . a nihilism in which the only relief is a kind of hermeneutical narcissism, taking one's pleasure with the text and letting the rest of the world go by unnoticed" (99-100). Any feminist interpretation, he says, risks treating the text as wholly untrustworthy.

What I appreciated about the book

The two chapters in which he actually interprets the scriptures were full of interest tidbits, for instance:

The connection of creation with other ancient stories about gods building temples in which the image of the god is placed casts the universe as God's temple in which humanity in placed after having been created in God's image. The sabbath rest is then seen as the time when God goes about "'taking his ease,' taking up residence and being at peace in his new home" (148).

Being with Jesus is an experience in which the social justice aspects of the Jubilee and sabbath are realized. Jesus reveals time and space, the here and now, to be sacramental, "shot through with both memory and anticipation" and, quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, "charged with the grandeur of God" (165).

After he deals with what he deems the inappropriate notion of Sunday as the Christian sabbath, he does ask, "What are you going to do this Sunday that is creative, that brings justice and mercy, that offers healing and hope?" It's hard to fault this perspective, regardless of how he got there.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Saving Paradise -- Part 2: Paradise Needs to Be Saved

This is the second part of my review of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. The first part of my review focused on the book's description of the church as paradise in this world and as resistance against the violence of empire. I interpreted this part of the book to be about the salvific power of paradise, thus rendering the book's title to mean a paradise that saves.

Part 2 of the book deals with the decline of paradise on earth in the theology of the Western church and the concomitant ascent of a theology of crucifixion that pushes paradise out of this world and into the afterlife. Such a theology functions to support rather that resist empire in this world. I interpret this part of the book to be about a paradise that needs to be saved.

The crux of the book (pun only partially intended) is the chapter about the oldest existing crucifix, the Gero Cross, found in the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, pictured on the left. Charlemagne, having been crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in 800, was constantly expanding his territory, forcing the peoples he conquered to convert to Latin Christianity. One of the groups thus forcibly converted were Saxons who were already Christians, but not Latin Christians. They included a deep reverence for nature as part of their practice of Christianity. Christian rituals and those devoted to the Norse gods took place side by side. Carolingian (Charlemagne's) forces subdued the populace and enforced Latin Christianity in part by cutting sacred trees such as the sacred oak of Thor. The Saxons were told that they were responsible for Christ's crucifixion and that, if they did not convert to Latin Christianity and give up all aspects of paganism, they would die without being forgiven for crucifying Christ and would therefore go to hell. Ironically, the Gero Cross was fashioned out of oak by the great-grandchildren of those subdued by point of sword and by threat of hell.

Accompanying this new emphasis on guilt for killing Christ and the pushing of paradise into the afterlife was the acceptance of killing. Earlier Christians had refused to kill other people under any circumstance, and, when Christianity had been co-opted by the Roman Empire, Christians who had been conscripted into the military were treated as penitents for a year upon their return home. This prohibition against killing was turned on its head by the time of the Carolingian Empire. Killing those outside the empire was acceptable because they were considered to be the enemies of Christ.

Monasteries became the place where paradise was preserved in this world. It became the norm that everyday people couldn't be expected to live lives of paradise, experienced both in nature and in communal relationships, so paradise was cloistered. This led to the idea that the empire was the cloister of Christianity and that everyone outside the "walls" of the empire were outside paradise.

Eucharistic theology and practice began to change, as well. No longer a celebration of the risen Christ and the risen faithful, it became an experience of sacrifice, in which the death of Christ was both commemorated and recapitulated during each Mass. The violence of empire, rather than being resisted, became an integral part of Christianity. The authors draw a straight line from this to the Crusades and to the so-called "redemptive suffering" that made torture acceptable.

Paradise was discovered in this world once again by the "discovery" of the New World. The annihilation of its inhabitants was considered to be completely acceptable because of the violent theology of the church, which sanctioned slavery to subdue the New World and make it into a paradise in which Christians can live.

The authors do see hope in the twentieth century in the theology and practice of Walter Rauschenbusch and Martin Luther King, Jr. For both, this world, rather than the next, is the place of God's saving activity.

I was refreshed by Part 1 of this book. Part 2, on the other hand, recounts the imperialization of Christianity as a violent religion, one that punishes, kills, and enslaves. The greatest challenge put forth by the book was the idea that pushing paradise out of this world and into the afterlife creates the sense that we are always "lost' in this world (not the evangelical sense of "lost," but in the sense that, even as Christians we don't belong in the world but only in the afterlife). This, the authors convincingly contend, creates the twin feelings of nostalgia and hope, that justify all kinds of atrocities in the hope to restore the world to that imaginary state that only exists in our nostalgia.

I therefore will resist the temptation to yearn for how the church used to be. Instead, as the authors suggest, I will endeavor to love the world as it exists in the here and now. I will find beauty in the world and enjoy it. I will create relationships of mutual love. I will recognize that paradise is in this world and that it includes those who have died in Christ. I will attempt to live non-violently in my actions and in my theology. I will seek justice for all. I will live the resurrected life in communion with the risen Lord and the risen faithful. I can't do this alone. We need each other to grow into the image of the divine meant for us by God. As you can see, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Deliver Us from Evil

Darkwood Brew is an online community of faith that streams a weekly service on Sundays at 6:00 ET that utilizes jazz, Lectio Divina, Skype interviews, and online chat. It is currently in the middle of a series on the Lord's Prayer. Posted today on the Darkwood Brew Facebook page today was the following: "We're focusing this week on 'Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.' If you could choose which side of this phrase to discuss, which side would you choose and why?"

When I read this, I couldn't come to any conclusion about which side I preferred to discuss. I put aside my laptop and opened Brian McLaren's Naked Spirituality, which I've been reading slowly, one chapter a day. McLaren begins today's chapter, entitled "Help: Tapping into the Current of Power," with The Prayer of Jabez, which was very popular several years ago. He quotes the last part of Jabez' little prayer, using the NKJV, which is the version used by the book: "[K]eep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!"

I don't use the NKJV, and I didn't think much of The Prayer of Jabez. This juxtaposition, though, gives some poignancy to the above question. Jabez' name meant "pain" because his mother had a painful delivery. That's a pretty harsh name, so a prayer that says keep me from evil so I won't keep on being a pain would seem to be one that's rising up from his very identity. He's asking for grace to transcend that identity.

My name is biblical and means "beloved." That's not a name I need to run from, but rather run toward. As I think about being delivered from evil, I am prompted to pray, "Keep me from evil, that I may live up to being beloved, that I may live a life of love." As a communal prayer, the Lord's Prayer, prompts me to pray, "deliver us from evil, that we may be Christ's body redeemed by his blood" (a little Eucharist blessing thrown in there). Or, identifying the Lord's Prayer with all humanity: "deliver us from evil, that God's image might shine forth in our lives."

Just a few thoughts prompted by a bit of synchronicity between this week's question and my devotional reading.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Saving Paradise -- Part 1: Paradise as Salvific

I just finished reading Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. I bought the book last summer, but wound up not having time to read it, as my father's health began to decline about that time. I began spending more and more time with my parents during this time, and my father died in the fall. I insisted that Dad's pastor, a "low-church" United Methodist, use the United Methodist Service of Death and Resurrection at the funeral. Those words, inscribed upon my heart from the numerous times I have said them, mean a great deal to me. The opening words at Dad's funeral were:
Dying, Christ destroyed our death.
Rising, Christ restored our life.
Christ will come again in glory.
As in baptism Harry Miller put on Christ, so in Christ may Harry be clothed with glory.
Here and now, dear friends, we are God’s children.
What we shall be has not yet been revealed; but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
Those who have this hope purify themselves as Christ is pure.
In addition to the explicit reference to baptism, the Eucharist is implied, as the first three lines invoke the mystery of faith proclaimed in the Eucharistic liturgy: "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." It is meaningful to me to say these words with the community of faith. The pastor of the church I am attending is another "low-church" United Methodist, and the few times we've had Communion since Dad's death, I don't recall his having used the liturgy. In April, I and a colleague took a group of students to visit a Greek Orthodox Church. Immediately upon seeing the iconostasis -- the panel of icons re-presenting (re-presencing?) to the gathered faithful that great cloud of witnesses composed of those who have died in Christ -- I became aware of Dad's presence filling that place within myself where I had been experiencing nothing but absence for months.

I indulge in this bit of self-revelation not, I hope, as a form of exhibitionism but as a practical example of the importance of the life-affirming theology found in this book. The book is written in two parts, the first of which has refreshed my spirit and which will be the subject of this post. The book begins with a description of the authors' travels to view Christianity's earliest art. To their surprise, a dying or dead Jesus is nowhere to be found until the tenth century. Rather, Jesus is always depicted as being alive, whether those depictions are of a youthful Jesus tending sheep or of a resurrected Jesus pronouncing a blessing on those looking at the artwork.

They also discovered a paradise motif. Over and over, Jesus is shown in the context of greenery, trees, and rivers. Not just any paradise is depicted, either, but none other than the Paradise of Genesis, the Garden of Eden. Having been thus sensitized to this motif, they discovered a plethora of written material from the church "fathers" and even some mothers that described the church as paradise on earth. Rather than seeing paradise as a promise of afterlife, Saving Paradise paints a convincing picture of a Christian emphasis on the here and now as the ultimate time and place of God's blessing.

Each chapter develops this motif from a different angle, forming a mosaic as beautiful and inspiring as the actual mosaics they describe. The elements of the mosaic include the location of paradise (Garden of Eden) being perceived as on earth, paradise as resistance to the evils of empire, the church as paradise on earth, paradise as the communion of the living and the dead, baptism as the "portal" to paradise, Eucharist as a ritual of resurrection, and salvation as theosis -- the process of humans becoming divine, "ingodded," as one quote puts it. As the mosaic is completed, paradise comes to be expressed as the integration of the spiritual and the material, the human and the divine. Paradise is relational and communal; it includes meeting the material needs of people as well as the spiritual, and it includes working for justice in an unjust empire.

Each one of these elements deserves elaboration, but I will confine my remarks to those most relevant to my self-revelation above, the chapters entitled "So Great a Cloud" and "The Beautiful Feast of Life." The point is made that Judaism began to include resurrection into its rabbinical theology during the time of martyrdom depicted deutero-canonically. If empire is killing the faithful precisely because they insist on remaining faithful, resurrection is the ultimate expression of the conviction that the violence of empire has no power over the faithful. Empire may kill the faithful, but a faithful God will erase those deaths. This is a new idea to me. I have previously understood resurrection to have entered Jewish consciousness through contact with Zoroastrianism. They cite Jon Davies' Death, Burial, and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity, and this merits more investigation on my part.

Making the connection between these Jewish martyrs and early Christian martyrs, the book envisions the Eucharist as a ritual that has the power to bring Jesus and all our deceased loved ones into our presence. (This part of the book builds on Brock's earlier work, particularly her Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, which examines the phenomenon of the living experiencing visits from the dead.) The Eucharist is the place where the power of the divine suffuses our existence here on earth. In the presence of the risen Christ and the risen faithful, we receive power to continue to resist the violence of empire, power to continue to meet the physical needs of people, power to see the spiritual in the material, power to engage in the work of justice, and power to live in paradise in the here and now.

On what seemed at the time to be his deathbed, my father said to me, thinking his words then to be his last to me (he lived another week), "We'll meet again. I believe this to be true." Through my tears, I said, "I believe it, too, and I love you." Because of my theological education, there are lots of ways in which my understanding of an afterlife (if there be such a thing) differed from Dad's, but it didn't matter; the two parts of my response to him were inseparable. The reciprocal love -- Brock calls it "erotic" love in her earlier book, love that finds value, beauty, truth, and goodness in another and that expects a loving response -- the reciprocal love between us demands that I believe it to be true. The reciprocal love between us, a love that reveals human/divine integration, makes it true. And now, thanks to this wonderful work of history and theology, I realize I don't have to wait for it to be true. It is true in the here and now. I was already inclined to think of the work of salvation as that of theosis, of the kingdom of God (or of heaven) as God's will on earth, and of the work of justice as essential to Christian discipleship, so I didn't have to be convinced.

The first part of Saving Paradise released many positive emotions within me, and I am grateful for it. I hope my self-revelation has not been merely self-indulgent on my part, but I hope it has been an example of the difference a here-and-now theology can make. The second part of the book, on the other hand, is a challenging and bracing account of the church's move from finding paradise in the here and now to yearning for it in the afterlife. There are numerous ethical considerations in such a move. In Part 2 of my review, I will deal with these.