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November 17, 2014

I have had a number of research assistants over the years. Some have been good. Some have been amazing. A few (a truly small minority) have been worse than useless. I have been entirely unable to trust them to complete the tasks I give them.

Oddly, I have also had excellent assistants who I have been unable to trust to do certain tasks. I have had a project on the back burner for some time now that requires an extensive literature search – I have currently read more than one thousand scientific articles on a single subject and expect to triple that number at minimum. If I had someone help me and they did not do it right that would be actually make matters worse than if I had no help. I would believe that I had all the information I needed from certain articles but I would not – I might even have flat-out incorrect information. I have yet to find a research assistant I can trust with this task.

The kinds of trust in action here are very different. My awful assistants can’t be trusted because their intentions are not trustworthy. Almost all of my assistants have been either paid for their work or have received school credit. A few have attempted to do as little as possible to receive those benefits – their aims and mine are misaligned and I cannot trust what they are up to. When I have found myself unable to trust my better assistants to perform certain tasks the issue has been different. In the project I mentioned above the issue has been one of expertise. My assistants have all been undergraduates and they simply lack the skills to be trusted to get the job done correctly no matter how hard they try.

As Christians we talk a lot about trusting God and failing to trust God. However, we rarely discuss the fact that we can fail to trust God in multiple different ways. Like my trust issues with my assistants we can fail to trust God’s motives or His abilities. Moreover, we can fail to trust His motives and His abilities in more than one way.

Motives are the easy one. We can fail to trust that God intends good things for us. Frankly, this is sometimes pretty easy – following God in anything but the most superficial sense demands sacrifices and sometimes one has to wonder if the sacrifices are worth the reward. Are we doing surgery which hurts but has an end that is better than the beginning or are we just slicing ourselves up? Sometimes we see rewards – I think some of the success I’ve had working with people (which has been pretty valuable for me in my career) is because I try to treat people right. Sometimes we mostly see downsides – I hear that Christ brings peace and joy but I often feel like if I could take a day to be totally unchristian to the people who stress me out the most I could probably drive them off and increase my peace and joy quite a lot.

Motives can be more complex than this, though. If I pray for something good to happen to me I can trust that God wants good things for me or I can believe that God is mostly interested in teaching me hard lessons. A lot of the stress young adults face about choosing colleges and careers stems from this sort of thinking. The whole idea that there is one path for your life that God has ordained and that diverging from it is a disaster assumes that God is not the sort of person who will help you but rather the sort of person who will let you learn a hard and lengthy lesson for your mild disobedience. A lot of modern Christians have a similar sort of issue with asking God for things. What if God is mostly interested in teaching me how to do without? What if God’s idea for my perfect life is a rather Buddhist lack of needfulness for anything? Maybe I need a car for my job and I’m having trouble finding one I can afford but rather than pray for one I’ll assume God intends to teach me to be grateful even when I lose my job because I can’t get to work anymore. (The opposite of this, the idea that God wants to give us every stupid thing we can think of to want, is also a huge problem. In fact, sometimes we make the mistake I just discussed in order to be sure to avoid the mistake of the health-and-wealth gospel.) Ultimately this is about trust – do I trust God to want good things for me? Sometimes the answer is yes but only after “good things for me” has been redefined to look like things that will not be enjoyable any time soon.

Trust in abilities is somewhat more interesting to me. I hear this one referenced rather rarely and almost always in reference to miracles. “Don’t you trust that God has the power to create the world/raise the dead/heal?” However, Dallas Willard points out that what we are more likely to fail to trust is God’s ability to know what is best for us. Or, more specifically, we are more likely to believe that while God has some great moral advice for us His knowledge is mostly restricted to what we now think of as personal morality. God is not generally thought of as smart or clever – He doesn’t understand how the world works and so outside of a limited scope of actions He just can’t be trusted. Part of being Christian, though, is to assert that no one understands the world better than God. While this can create problems – turn the other cheek seems crazy, the economic system found in the Law would destroy Wall Street, and our litigious culture may find New Testament advice about lawsuits uncomfortable – it does seem more Christian.

There’s also room to discuss these different sorts of trust when we are talking about trusting people. In American Christianity it seems unfortunately easy to believe that because someone is a trustworthy person (their intentions are trustworthy) that they should be trusted with tasks that require a lot of skill. However, this could develop into a rather large side note of its own (do we believe that God will grant someone skills on the basis of their moral character or do we just not realize that “I trust you to do what is right” and “I trust that you know what is right” are different?) and so I will not pursue that line of thought further.

Often when I have run across people who struggle in some aspect of their faith I have heard this labeled as a trust issue. Perhaps it is. However, what I wish to suggest with this article is that this is an insufficient diagnosis. “It’s a virus” is a medical diagnosis but it matters quite a bit which virus. Much as medical treatment will take different routes depending on the species of viral infection our attempts to grow spiritually will probably benefit from a more careful diagnosis of our trust issues.

The Nature of the Church

November 10, 2014

I have never had anyone say, “Hey, let’s get coffee and talk about ecclesiology.” I’ve never been part of a church that said, “You know, we should run an ecclesiology class because a lot of people are really interested in that.” I’ve heard people wonder aloud what ecclesiology is (the study of the church) and why anyone would care.

Ecclesiology is very important. In the last two articles I’ve discussed ecclesiology. While I’ve never had anyone ask to discuss ecclesiology I’ve had a lot of people discuss it under other names – “Do you think the new membership system makes sense?” “Is our leadership system Biblical?” “I think so-and-so overstepped their bounds when they did that, don’t you?” Bad ecclesiology helps keep bad leaders in place. If you as a leader do X terribly you need only claim that the church is really about Y and so how you do X is mostly irrelevant. Alternatively, you can claim far-reaching authority that allows you to tell anyone to do basically anything and to respond to any challenge as a challenge to God Himself. One of the most visible things Christians do is church and so thinking about church should be a priority.

So what could the church do? A short list of the simpler possibilities might help clarify our thinking.

  • The church could be a teaching institution.
    1. This can be further subdivided into a teaching institution aimed at teaching outsiders (evangelism) or insiders.
  • The church could be a support network.
  • The church could be a charitable organization (this could also be tied to evangelism).
  • The church could be a temple in which worship occurs because God is especially present there (or because God has mandated that certain acts of worship occur in that space). The key here is that this explains communal worship – all Christians agree that worship is important, the question is why one would go to church to do it.

One reason I target the simpler possibilities is that when people go wrong about the church they most frequently reduce everything the church is to a single, simple axis. The simpler possibilities are also easy to trace to some sort of direct consequence or prediction. For instance, if the church is basically a teaching institution for insiders then it’s a university. In fact, church would be seminary, just done poorly and without any possibility of graduating.

If we run through the other options I’ve suggested we see similar issues. If the church is about evangelism then Sunday services aren’t particularly helpful and neither are Bible Studies. In fact, the church should mostly meet to assign people to run activities that would attract people or to engage with people in different parts of the local area. If the church is basically a support network we don’t need sermons, communion, or any actual study of the Bible. Coffee hour, however, would be critical and small groups (which might read the Bible only for uplifting thoughts) would be central. If the church is a charitable organization it’s just an NGO and there are clearly differences between a well-run NGO and a church. If the church is a temple then there’s no sense in Bible Studies (or any other small group) or any need to support one another or help outsiders.

Each of these extremes tends to attract different groups of Christians. Most of the people I know who veer towards option #1 are Reformed. Most of those who assume that #2 is what the church does are theological liberals, although they and my Anabaptist friends might also pick #3. #4 isn’t so popular amongst Protestants but it accounts for a lot of casual attendance in Catholic and Orthodox communities – get in, get the Eucharist, and you’ve done what God asked.

However, many people are smart enough to assume that any attempt to pick just one of these options is a bit silly. When I hear these sorts of simplistic mistakes being made they are often in a slightly different form: the church’s real purpose is X, but it does all these other things because they contribute to X. So, for example, the church is really about evangelism but it has a support network because outsiders will be attracted to a supportive community, it has Bible Studies because studying the Bible will make you a better evangelist, and it worships God together because this allows a supportive community, effective teaching for evangelism, and coordination of outreach. While this is better than attempting to pare away all activities deemed “non-essential” it seems to work partly backwards, trying to justify traditional church activities even when they don’t make much sense given what else you’ve claimed about the purpose of the church. I would actually find it a lot more sensible to work entirely backwards: we know what the church does, can we use that to figure out what its purpose is?

Of course, I’ve also framed this question as “what does the church do?” I do this because this is often what I’m asked, or the implicit question to which I am told the answer. The church is the thing that does X. However, I strongly suspect that the church doesn’t do, that instead the church merely is. Specifically, that the church is a community of God’s people. God’s people do things, of course, and they may arrange to do these things corporately, but the church’s purpose isn’t to do these things but merely to be a community in which God’s people work on acting like God’s people. This explains the teaching about God, the supporting of one another, the outreach towards outsiders, and the worship in community.

The first time I had to think seriously about ecclesiology was when the church I was part of decided that it would split into several locations and that one pastor would send sermons via video to the locations that he wasn’t physically located at. This decision seemed somewhat odd to me then and just plain stupid to me now, but figuring out why required asking all of these questions I have been reviewing. What was the church? If the different locations were one church was it sufficient that we were tied together by the same sermon? Didn’t that indicate that the church was mostly about teaching? If so, why couldn’t I have the sermon webcast to me at home? Or, more tellingly, if we were distributing the sermon because of its quality why couldn’t I stay home and watch or listen to sermons from some of the best preachers alive today?

Of course, as with so many things I think that the reason most people and churches adopt the models that they do is because they haven’t thought about them in depth. Something seems familiar or looks like it would streamline something and so people do it. But what we do in church and what we say the church is says something about what we think the faith is. If you ran across a supposedly-Christian church that wouldn’t talk about Jesus in church you would rapidly conclude that whatever religion was being practiced in that church it wasn’t anything like orthodox Christianity. The practice of the church would have said something about the nature of the faith. Similarly, a church that never gave to the poor would say something about the nature of that church’s faith. While these examples are easy to follow because they are extreme there are plenty of less-extreme examples as well. Each of the option I initially provided links to an idea of what the faith is about. For instance, if the church is about teaching then the faith is a body of knowledge. What we do in church comments on our faith. We should pay careful attention, then, to ecclesiology.

The Nature of the Faith

November 3, 2014

Two weeks ago I discussed the nature of Scripture with specific reference to the scriptures of other religions. The basic idea that there may be a range of functions that a body of sacred writings can fulfill is workably demonstrated by pointing to other religions. However, these examples are marred by two problems: first, few people are familiar enough with more than one religion to easily characterize how various religions act towards their sacred texts. Second, since my intended audience is Christian, I have to assume that most of my audience will understand other religions through a Christian-tinted lens. If you don’t know how Shinto, say, uses its sacred texts but you are familiar with how Baptists read the Bible you’re likely to unknowingly and unconsciously assume that Shintoism has some sort of Shinto Bible (not true). Given this, I began to think of how else to represent the range of functions a central text could have. This, in turn, opened up several interesting paths to follow in thinking about reading the Bible.

I restricted myself to central texts because it’s obvious that the Bible is a central text. One could have a large body of rather miscellaneous texts that aren’t clearly agreed upon, which nobody reads all of, and which some people ignore altogether but that would not be a useful analogy for the Bible. However, one can have very important central texts that vary widely in their function. To illustrate this imagine two disciplines: the 500-meter sprint and the history of Vietnam in the second century BC. Let us imagine that both have a central text – that there is a single volume that every serious 500-meter sprinter knows contains the best and most comprehensive material concerning the 500-meter sprint and that there is a similar work for the history of second-century Vietnam.

There are some obvious and immediate differences between how these texts will be treated. The history text is the very essence of the discipline – the discipline is a body of knowledge and the collection of that knowledge into a book makes that book the central item in the discipline. If such a book existed for the history of second-century Vietnam no one could do serious work in that discipline without engaging with that book. If the book was authored by a few people rather than being a collection of works by dozens of already-recognized experts those few authors would attain great status in their field by authoring such a work.

Compare this to the hypothetical central text of the 500-meter sprint. The essence of the 500-meter sprint is the act of sprinting for 500 meters. The book neither sprints nor causes people to sprint and is therefore much more on the sidelines. Someone who reads the book or even someone who rigorously tests its claims and extends its methods may still be a terrible sprinter and there may be excellent, world-class sprinters who have never read the book. Authoring the book would be a nice addition to one’s resume but not nearly as impressive as being or training a world-class sprinter.

This is the difference between a field which is centered on a body of knowledge and a field that is centered on the accomplishment of some task. To illustrate this difference more starkly let us consider the illiterate historian and the illiterate sprinter: one is a joke and the other perfectly plausible. But what about the illiterate Christian? Is Christianity a body of knowledge or a thing that one does? (Most people will say that it isn’t exactly either but where does the balance lie?)

Without answering this question let me turn to a question I raised last week: what is the nature of the Church (or of the local churches)? If Christianity is a body of knowledge this is an easy question to answer: churches are universities in which one is taught the body of knowledge that comprises Christianity. The sermon is central and serves primarily to teach (not to inspire any sort of emotion) and the rest of the service is less important. The character of the preacher is also largely unimportant unless it interferes with preaching and learning. So, for instance, a preacher who cannot focus long enough to really ponder a section of text would be more of a problem than a preacher who was mentally sharp and focused but also a jerk. (It does matter whether a student connects emotionally with a teacher but much less so than it does in the case of a client connecting with a counselor. So while no possible role for a minister allows one to be a jerk without consequence in some roles the penalty for such behavior is lower.) In this hypothetical church good works are also relatively unimportant. While it might be odd to have people who claimed to believe that God loves everyone but never gave to the poor what would be important was the intellectual assent to the proposition that God loves everyone and not the actions.

Most people will reject this idea of the Church (although parts of it lie very close to the evangelical standard, especially when it comes to the intellectual frameworks by which people explain how churches function). Given this there are two options: assume that since this is not how churches should be run that Christianity is not mostly a body of knowledge or assume that since Christianity is mostly a body of knowledge then objections to running churches this way are groundless. While the second option is often thought to represent clear, logical thought because it prioritizes theory over current practice it is actually guilty of a major logical mistake. We are not without evidence of how churches were run in the New Testament (nor are we without the qualifications for church leaders in that era). While working from general principles is fine when there is no other data to work with the data we actually have from the Bible tells us that this hypothetical church focused entirely on knowledge is not what the apostles created. When data contradicts theory theory loses.

This circles us back to the original idea through several steps. If Christianity were mostly a body of knowledge (like history, chemistry, biology, or mathematics) the institutions of Christianity (the churches) would function in a way that doesn’t match what the apostles set up. (Incidentally, my examples of bodies of knowledge illustrate the reason I think so many Christians think of Christianity as a body of knowledge – science and math are “serious” and so Christians trying to insist that what they think about is also serious unconsciously mimic “serious” disciplines.) Therefore the apostles were either unclear on what Christianity was (have fun with trying to make that claim!) or Christianity is not mostly a body of knowledge. If Christianity is not primarily a body of knowledge how do we relate to its central texts?

Let’s return to the illiterate Christians I asked about several paragraphs back. How much of the Bible do they need to have someone read to them or explain to them to be good Christians? Would it be possible for a kind, wise, illiterate Christian who couldn’t tell anything more than the basic plotline of the Bible to “out-Christian” a Christian who was so learned that he read the Bible in the original languages and wrote commentaries on theology? I think the answer is yes – many of the early Christians were illiterate and yet when we find pastoral letters to these communities they rarely say, “Learn more Bible stories.” Instead, many of them are focused on behavior.

Now, before someone claims that I’m working around to disregarding the Bible let me point out that when someone like Paul says, “Do X,” (say “include the Gentiles”) they do so by drawing on theology (“because God’s Messiah was always meant to draw the nations to God”). Unlike the 500-meter sprint the doing part of Christianity stems from a body of knowledge that isn’t accessible without spending some time learning in a more “organized” sense than practice. This does make the theology that we draw from the Bible very important – but important in a different way than the knowledge I draw from a mathematics textbook is to math.

It is not easy to think through and explain all the ways this might change the way we view Scripture but I think one easy application is close at hand: there is no reason to learn theology or the Bible just to learn it. Being able to quote chapter and verse of every one of the Gospels is pointless if it doesn’t translate into being transformed by those books. This isn’t a way to say, “You don’t really know the Gospels if you don’t ‘do’ the Gospels,” but exactly what it sounds like: nobody should care if you know the Gospels if you don’t do them. It’s nice that you read a 300-page book on running but if watching the Boston Marathon on TV makes your legs hurt you need to do more than read. Ideally one reads a book on running in order to run better. Similarly, one should read the Bible in order to do God’s will better.

Harboring Rotten Eggs

October 28, 2014

This blog is a hard place to follow breaking news. With a fixed update schedule (that I frequently don’t quite hit) it’s hard to respond immediately to a piece of news that I think is worth commenting on. However, there have been some interesting changes in the world of American Evangelical Protestantism in the last few months. These changes involve a pastor named Mark Driscoll. Driscoll founded the Acts 29 church-planting network, a network that kicked him and his church out in early August. He was also the founder and senior pastor of a megachurch in Seattle, a position that he no longer holds as of October 14th.

What makes Driscoll’s fall more interesting than the usual sort of fall from grace is how it occurred. Often when a celebrity pastor is fired or forced to resign it is directly linked to a specific incident – adultery, a financial scandal, or something of the sort. The incident becomes news and in direct reaction the pastor is disciplined. However, in Driscoll’s case there is no clear incident. Yes, Driscoll was accused of plagiarism (without, apparently, much effect) in late 2013. Yes, he weathered a storm earlier this year when it became clear that his church spent a lot of money to get his new book on a bestseller list. However, these incidents were over for months by the time Acts 29 acted against Driscoll. What appears to have actually brought him down were complaints about his abusive, autocratic leadership style. However, there have been complaints about this for years.

I suspect that within a few months Driscoll will have more or less fallen off the edge of the evangelical world. Already a number of evangelical leaders and groups seem to have decided that the “neutral” position on Driscoll is to dissociate from him. As more scrutiny has been brought to bear on his church more unpleasant things are turning up (including what may be the start of some major financial scandals) and I suspect that there is simply no fast turn-around for Driscoll after this. However, the people who have disowned Driscoll now will have trouble answering why they didn’t disown him last year, or the year before that, or the year before that. There’s no sharp line between now and then, just a slowly-cracking dam of public opinion that has finally let go.

This is what makes Driscoll an interesting case. (Disclaimer: I also find Driscoll interesting because I once attended a church that thought he was pretty cool. This is one reason I left that church. However, I’m interested in a lot of random things that don’t become articles on this blog.) It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that many evangelical leaders supported a bad leader for a long time. Many, many people (including myself) are entirely unsurprised that Driscoll ended up this way. We’ve been predicting this for years and see it as a natural conclusion to a ministry marked by arrogance, condescension, and just generally acting more like a schoolyard bully than a pastor. Why, given all of this, was Driscoll tolerated for so long? Can we learn anything useful from this to avoid giving safe harbor to another such leader? Can we figure out rules that let us figure out when the naysayers have a case and when they don’t?

Why was Driscoll tolerated for so long? The first reason is Christian charity. Few Christians want to believe that other Christians are unpleasant people without good evidence. Even when (as was the case for Driscoll) some of the incidents of unpleasantness are extremely public Christians often embrace the possibility of reform. Indeed, Driscoll was supposedly undergoing a period in which he was supposed to be working on his issues. Acts 29 claimed that insufficient progress had been made when they separated themselves from him but there’s reason to think that lots of people wanted to see Driscoll work through these issues. For a lot of groups at the fringe of this conflict this is probably a fine reason. Does a Christian bookstore want to refuse to sell the books of a pastor just because they bring about some controversy? Probably not – everyone interesting stirs up controversy. However, there are some real limits to how charitable people are willing to be in the face of repeated offenses.

The second reason is a siege mentality. The people who clung on to Driscoll the longest (besides the groups he had actually founded) were the people closest to his theology. Now, it’s common enough that if someone shares your views but acts like a jerk that you take pains to distance yourself from them. This changes, though, when you are hard-pressed and need every ally you can find. Driscoll was happy to ally himself to both Calvinist and complementarian camps and it’s hard for anyone to turn aside a willing ally. Complementarians, especially, tend to feel under intellectual siege (not without warrant). However, the power of Christianity comes from doing right. If Christians embrace wrongdoers as allies of convenience (something that happens almost inevitably when Christians get into politics) we lose much of our power.

The third reason is the most interesting to me – a vast oversimplification of Christianity and the church. This oversimplification comes about in part through the sorts of mechanisms I discussed in my last article where the church absorbs ideas from its environment without really processing them. In fact, Driscoll or one of his assistants appears to have directly borrowed a number of corporate buzzwords to discuss running the church.

The simplification runs like this: Christianity exists to spread itself. The core of Christianity is the gospel, which consists of a few short sentences about Jesus saving you by dying for your sins. The purpose of the church is to facilitate the spread of Christianity. The outcome of this simplification is simple: if someone is saying the correct few sentences about Jesus dying for your sins they are preaching the gospel (which is tantamount to saying that they can’t be accused of teaching bizarre fallacies – to do so would be to focus on “non-essential matters” when said teacher is getting the core issues right). If someone is saying the correct sentences and their church is growing they are doing the Lord’s work and the Lord’s work is even more or less measurable by doing a headcount of the congregation (with some awareness that demographic factors play into congregation size).

This simplification worked really well for Driscoll. He said the correct sentences and his church grew very large very fast. There’s also something to be said for part of the simplification – we don’t want to allow ourselves to get too bogged down in non-essentials. However, there’s a lot wrong with this simplification.

There’s another thing in the news that exists only to spread itself: Ebola. Is Christianity just a viral idea? Under this simplification it more or less is. Like real viruses once one has caught Christianity the rest seems to happen by itself. Unlike Ebola “the rest” doesn’t seem to involve a lot of life change. However, that’s not Christianity in any orthodox sense. Christianity is supposed to change your life. The Church is supposed to be the place where that happens. It’s actually unclear in the New Testament whether evangelism is a church activity or the activity of solo Christians who are supported by the church. What is clear is that spiritual growth is supposed to happen within the church. Indeed, spiritual growth is essential to good evangelism – the next set of evangelists will need to have “grown up” spiritually. Most Christian can think of large churches that don’t teach correct doctrine and so are in theory aware that proper spiritual development is a necessary follow-up on conversion. This leads naturally to the next issue – is it actually sufficient to preach a short “core” gospel?

The short answer is “no”. Mark wrote the shortest of the gospels and it’s sixteen chapters. None of the Epistles manages to give only the “core” gospel. This whole idea appears to be modern marketing applied to the Bible – and the “core” is often phrased in such a way that it actually draws on some specifically Protestant ideas about the mechanics of salvation. However, leaving aside the fact that it is not sufficient to preach this core and this core alone (and that it’s not really the core anyway but parts of the core with some additional speculation about divine mechanics thrown in) would preaching this core be a sufficient defense against charges of doctrinal weirdness? Of course not. If I preached this core and also sacrificial worship to the old Aztec gods the presence of these core beliefs would not make this entire message the gospel. Much of the worry about Driscoll’s teaching takes this form. For instance, Driscoll made being a Godly man (emphasis on “man”) a major focus of his teaching. (He also pulled ideas of what it means to be a man from an era centuries after the New Testament – would that all I had to criticize was his terrible scholarship.) One primary objection to this teaching was that Driscoll’s idea of a Godly man was actually just a macho misogynist. However, many people attempted to claim that as long as Driscoll was also teaching “the gospel” it was effectively unfair to bring this up.

Of all the reasons Christians can harbor bad leaders it’s this last one – simplifying the life out of our theology and ecclesiology – that worries me the most. Sure, we need to think about who we’re being charitable to when we are charitable to leaders to make sure that we aren’t simultaneously uncharitable to the badly-led. And yes, the Christian siege mentality and the willingness to accept offers of aid from all sorts of bad characters is a real problem. However, if we fundamentally rewrite what it means to be the Church and to preach God’s word so that it allows bad leaders to flourish and claim to be doing good work then the rest hardly matters. There won’t be anything to rescue from the other problems.

Scripture and Authority

October 20, 2014

I recently read two short articles by Fr. Stephen Freeman about the Orthodox view of Scripture. The first was a comparison of how Christians handle and handled the Bible versus how Muslims handle and handled the Qu’ran. The second was a response to some of the criticism leveled at the first article by Protestants who objected that Fr. Freeman had lowered Scripture and placed it under the Church. These were interesting articles that got me thinking about one of my favorite topics, how we read the Bible. (Unlike God Himself the Bible is a book and I can put it down when it scares me too much. It’s also a document and susceptible to academic study. With those two advantages it’s no wonder I frequently prefer to deal with the Bible than any other form of knowledge about God.) While I was forming vague ideas for some sort of a blog article about this I also read an article by the always-fascinating brambonius about the Islamic State. Bram’s article is split roughly in half: the first part discusses what is and is not Islamic about the Islamic State and the second part deals with the state aspect of said State. It’s this second aspect that caught my attention – modern Islamic theocracy combines modern ideas of a state with Islamic ideas of governance while rejecting (perhaps unconsciously) a medieval world in which power was less concentrated. Naturally, these articles all inform one another in interesting ways.

Let’s start with Bram’s article. The argument (which I can’t fact check but which draws from some authoritative-sounding sources) is that the French Revolution invented the idea of a modern state that intervened and interfered with everything its citizens did. Previously many sources of power competed for allegiance with one another and so a person might move from the power of the church to the power of the feudal lord to the power of the King and back again. Who had power in a given situation depended on who was able to exert it and whose sphere of influence it fell into. (This part all makes sense – the divine right of kings was invented by monarchs in an attempt to claim that they could act within the church’s sphere of power and were not subject to being blocked by the Pope. It never really worked all that well.) However, the French Revolution invented the idea of a “flat” state that did not have the levels of feudal society and which ran everything that needed running in a more or less direct way. Modern Islamic theocracy supposedly took this idea (anything that needs to be organized in society should be organized through or with the approval and oversight of the state) and combined it with some long-held ideas about Islam and governance and arrived at the conclusion that if the state ran everything and God also ran everything then the state must be theocratic. One of the main thinkers in this line of Islamic radicalism actually claimed that no one could be Muslim outside a Muslim theocracy, a crazy statement that makes perfect sense if the state really does exercise such great control over its citizens.

So, simple enough. We move from a world of many sources of power to a centralized modern world and certain parts of Islam (mistakenly) follow suite. Now is when we return to Fr. Freeman. In Freeman’s second article where he responded to criticism of his first article he takes great pains to address the complaint that he has lowered Scripture and placed the Church above it. No, he says, it just doesn’t work like that. One isn’t above the other, they are part of one whole. The Scriptures inform the Church but the Scriptures exist because the Church collected them and denoted them as such. Moreover, the Scriptures didn’t really exist outside of a church context much at all until the invention of the printing press. Instead, the Scriptures were read in church, discussed in church, and interpreted in church. Immediately I saw a link between this and Bram’s article: in both cases someone is over-centralizing authority. In one case it is Islamic thinkers adopting a centralized world from the West and centralizing their own world in response. In the other a Reformed thinker reads Fr. Freeman and attempts to identify the central authority (because there must be one!) and identifies it as the Church – except that Fr. Freeman does not think there is a central authority like that.

Let’s play with this idea a bit more. What are the Scriptures of religions outside of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim line (each of which builds on the previous one and might be expected to inherit some ideas about having Scriptures)? It’s not hard to find some collection of text for a given religion. For instance, Hindus have the Vedas. However, this is not enough. Do these texts act in the same manner as Christian Scripture? It’s not at all clear that they do. Modern Protestants expect that individual believers have copies of the Bible, that they read it, and that corporate religious life includes group study of the Bible. Do Hindus expect the same of the Vedas? What about a religions like Native American religions? These religions appeared in pre-literate societies for the most part. If they now have sacred writings those writings exist as a testament to past practice but not as the foundational documents of the religion.

In fact, this is much like what happened with Christianity. Jesus did not swing by earth to hand out New Testaments. Instead, what Jesus did was written down to aid in its transmission. Other parts of the transmission of the Messianic beliefs centered around Jesus were also written down – letters and even accounts of the early church. However, these documents were not foundational for their authors. When Luke writes the book of Acts he writes about a community that responds to God’s action as revealed by the Spirit. He records past decisions but those past decisions were not steered primarily by writing. Even these early written accounts existed alongside oral accounts and sometimes witnesses to the relevant material.

If you lived in the year 100 in the Mediterranean world you might, as a Christian, have access to Scriptures, oral tradition, and people who had at least learned from direct witnesses to some of the events of the New Testament. Which one would you trust? All of them, probably. If you had several oral traditions you would weight them against each other and against the written tradition and against any information you could get from people who should be in the know.

Even today this is how Catholic and Orthodox thinkers handle these issues. What do the Church Fathers say? Well, they don’t always agree. When they don’t agree there isn’t a list to consult that says, “Irenaeus beats Clement, Clement beats Polycarp, Polycarp beats Tertullian.” Instead, one listens to the counsel of all the Fathers, and the tradition as passed down (which hopefully carries the results of other people listening to all the Fathers), and makes a decision. If the Bible is unclear at a point the same issue arises – what other sources might clarify this issue? When those sources disagree how do we know who to trust?

(While Protestants tend to dislike this approach almost all Protestants engage in it. What does John Calvin say about this passage? How about Luther? C.S. Lewis? Spurgeon?)

I opened this article discussing the odd fusion of post-Enlightenment ideas of statehood with Islam. I did this because this is a lot like the insistence on a single source of authority, preferably written down. That’s an Enlightenment idea. Find a body of knowledge, write down something authoritative, and then consult that known authority. The Enlightenment didn’t invent the idea of attempting to synthesize all knowledge and debate on a subject into a single authoritative source but it did strongly emphasize clearly-delineated and centralized authorities. How do you know X? Because it’s written in this well-regarded source, it comes from this authority, etc. The Enlightenment created an environment where a large number of sources which all hold authority and are in dialog just seems messy and inconsistent. Surely if you know something you’ve neatened up the structure by which you know it more than that!

Fr. Freeman’s Reformed critic is making two mistakes. The first is missing the real point of divergence. If I ask you what color your car is because I think it’s a different color than my car is and you don’t have a car I’ve missed the point at which we diverge. We diverge in car ownership, not car color. The second mistake is tied to the first – by importing a concept about how knowledge should be arranged in from outside Christianity Freeman’s critic makes a bad assumption. The point of divergence is at this assumption, that religious knowledge is well-centralized with a clear (and clearly-accessible) final arbiter. If that assumption came from within Christianity it might be a good one since both parties to the debate are Christian. However, it comes from elsewhere and is apparently imported as “basic knowledge”.

Now, I don’t have time to get into the question of whether I completely agree with Freeman. However, I think the debate is important in and of itself. Why do we believe that authority exists in this centralized form? The Orthodox sometimes accuse Catholics and Protestants of being two sides of the same centralized-authority coin with Catholics saying, “The Pope!” while Protestants say, “The Bible!” but neither stopping to ask whether there should be one answer. Whatever we end up concluding about the issue of authority it’s worth asking the question: should we expect Christianity to find a central, accessible authority short of God Himself?

I’m Right but I’m Not Happy

October 13, 2014

Just under two and a half years ago I wrote an article about North Carolina’s constitutional amendment (Amendment One) to prohibit same-sex marriages and civil unions. In that article I criticized the simplistic reasoning behind the amendment: asking the government to define marriage in a particular way involves defining marriage and claiming that the government should be the final arbiter of the marriage agreement. I believe that most Christians would not be comfortable with this outside of a situation in which this accomplished some short-term goals for those same Christians. I did not expect those goals to be quite as short-term as they were though – the amendment has now been ruled unconstitutional and same-sex marriages are occurring in North Carolina. The amendment had an active lifespan of less than two and a half years.

When I wrote my initial article I left off a lot of practical concerns and focused on theoretical issues that get mishandled when people discuss same-sex marriage. In this article I will ignore the theoretical concerns about the nature of marriage, the government, and sin and I will address a series of practical concerns from a standpoint that assumes that a ban on same-sex marriage is good and proper. (This is not because I don’t care about those theoretical concerns but because if you got to those and decided that a government ban on same-sex marriage was incorrect the practical issues are immaterial to you.)

The practical issues focus on cost and benefit. Let’s examine the benefit first (again with the assumption that stopping same-sex unions by law is beneficial). Amendment One was in effect for approximately twenty-nine months. How many same-sex unions did it prevent? In Massachusetts (the state which has performed same-sex marriages for the longest amount of time) the current rate of same-sex unions is approximately 1 per 4,460 people living in the state per year. The earlier rate was much higher (we’ll return to this) but it’s leveled off now. It may still be a bit high for North Carolina since Massachusetts is probably a destination for out-of-state same-sex couples but if we use that rate and apply it to North Carolina’s population we get 5,334 weddings blocked. Except, of course, we don’t – Massachusetts saw an early spike because many people had long wanted to get married, had been unable to, and put off their weddings until same-sex marriage became legal in the state. The real total for North Carolina is harder to know but the number of marriages that actually never happened and never will happen is a smaller fraction, the fraction of those 5,334 couples who are not together anymore. The rest of those unions were merely delayed. (We should be clear that even the authors of Amendment One thought it would not stand forever – both they and I are surprised at how quickly it fell but the fact that it did fall is not surprising.)

What about the costs? Well, the pro-Amendment One groups raised more than one million dollars in funds to get votes. Then the state of North Carolina paid some unknown (to me) amount to defend the law against at least three separate suits. The vote-getting figure works out to about $6.25 per union blocked/delayed, or $34,480 per month. Now, I’d say that this was absolutely worth the cost if the law was one against murder, rape, slavery, domestic abuse, beating people with a crowbar, and dozens of other evils. However, there are plenty of things I don’t like for which I would not want to raise that amount of funding to stop. That’s enough funding to send eight students to North Carolina State University on a full-ride scholarship every month (and I’m all about scholarships for deserving, low-income children). If you can find a charity that thinks $34,000 is chump change then I’ll be amazed. There is a lot of good that Christians could be doing with that money and there’s a question about stewardship of resources here.

A more serious cost is one of public reputation. This law was always about public reputation. Orthodox Christianity has a lot to say about same-sex sexual relationships but has only recently had anything to say about same-sex marriages. A law against same-sex marriages does not prevent any sin mentioned in the Bible – unmarried same-sex couples are not prevented from having a sexual relationship in any state. Instead, laws against same-sex marriages and unions are a statement about what the state thinks people should be doing. We recognize and make official behaviors that we think are good and we refuse recognition and official status to behaviors that we merely tolerate. The fight about same-sex marriage in North Carolina was not mostly a fight about preventing sin but about saying that North Carolina does not condone specific sorts of sins. This causes two issues.

The first issue is simple: a lot of Christians spent a lot of money to say that it is extremely important that the state not condone same-sex unions. There are a lot of issues to choose from: divorce, abuse, homelessness, racism, poverty, etc., but the banner issue that needed to be publicly addressed in a major way was, apparently, gay people marrying each other. This serves as public advertising about the values that Christians have and the ones they merely say they have. I don’t think it was good advertising.

The second issue is also simple: a lot of people disagreed. A lot of people see the repeal of the effects of Amendment One as a victory of progress over religion. Christians advertised that this was a hill to die on and then died on it – to a lot of cheering. A million dollars is a lot of money but people will make more money. The people who decided that Christians are nasty, backwards bigots because this was the fight that went public (without any other fight, like one against homelessness, to counterbalance that impression) will not magically return to their former disinterested stances.

The rise and fall of Amendment One is a case study in the culture war issues I’ve written about: the sort of “victory” we saw with Amendment One is now a liability. If you are so tied to the old way of being Christian in a society that agrees with you in broad outline then perhaps it doesn’t matter – perhaps the death of that social order is your death as well. However, most of us have to get up and face the world tomorrow. We have to walk out into a world that has bad blood towards us because of that fighting retreat. As Christians we need to start thinking about the future. We need to think about what it costs us to try to hold on to power both in terms of money and in terms of social capital and what else we could be doing with that capital. We need to think about what the next chapter looks like because the page is turning and this chapter is ending. Delaying that change may seem comfortable but it may be making it a lot worse for us all in the long run.

Let Us Reason Together

October 6, 2014

I have been reading through the book of Isaiah with my Bible Study recently and an interesting line caught my eye. It’s a well-known line, Isaiah 1:18 – “Come, let us reason together. Even though your sins are as crimson they will be white like snow. Though they are red as [some kind of bright red worm, apparently] they will be like wool.” While the bright red worm is sort of fascinating in its own way what caught my attention was “let us reason together”. When I think of reasoning together with someone I generally think of figuring out some sort of problem with them that affects us both. For instance, I might sit down with a collaborator and reason together about the correct way to fix a piece of lab equipment. This does not make a great deal of sense out of this verse, though.

Hebrew is notoriously vague with some words. Some Hebrew words have a huge range of meanings and some have large ranges of meaning that still don’t line up with any English meaning clearly. The verb in question is יכח (yakach) and it’s a reasonably common verb root[1]. Interestingly it is not normally translated as “reason”. Instead, it gets translated as “decide”, “condemn” (or “reprove”), and various words for arguing. It actually shows up six times in the book of Isaiah: Isaiah 1:18 (under discussion), 2:4, 11:3, 11:4, 29:21, and 37:4. In these instances the NIV renders יכח as “settle disputes”, “decide”, “give decisions”, “defender in court” (the root has been transformed into a noun here), and “rebuke”. In all but the last instance the context is clearly judicial (and it is merely unclear in the last instance, rather than being clearly not true). Isaiah is mostly Hebrew poetry which makes extensive use of parallelism (again, Isaiah 37:4 is not in poetry) and in most of these instances the parallel explicitly references a legal court. (The list of parallels is, in order, “judge between the nations”, “judge by what his eyes see” which is followed immediately by the next pair which includes “judge the poor”, and finally “cause a person to be indicted”.)

This may clear up this odd verse a bit. The Lord is not offering to sit down over coffee to work out a vexing issue of mutual interest but to settle out of court. (Indeed, the NIV renders the key word here “settle the matter”.) I say that the Lord is offering to settle out of court because what comes next is a description of two options. If Israel opts to settle then they will eat the good food of the land. If they do not settle they will be eaten by the sword (most translations opt for something like “devoured by the sword” which makes more English sense but loses the parallel a bit more).

Indeed, this ongoing idea of a court case against Israel crops up again and again in early Isaiah, at least as far as the break at Isaiah 6 where Isaiah describes his vision of the Lord in the Temple. Parts of this case are explicit: in Isaiah 3:13 doom is announced as the Lord takes his seat in court to condemn the leaders of Israel. In 4:4 a spirit of “judgment and fire” will cleanse Israel specifically of some of the sins mentioned in the previous judgment passage. In 5:3 the Lord invites the people to judge in a case between Him and His vine in a story where the vine stands for Israel. In 5:16 the Lord will be glorified by His justice and lifted up by His righteous acts (righteousness is also a judicial term denoting either the rendering of correct verdicts or of being found on the right side of the law). However, these explicit sections are interwoven with pronouncements that seem more like Old Testament wrath and doom. It probably makes most sense to see these as the pronouncements of the court: you have been found guilty and this is your punishment. Indeed, some law-court features appear in these places too. Isaiah 1:17, 1:21, 1:23, 5:7, and 5:23 all discuss how Israel either must do justice or has been found to be full of injustice. In Isaiah 3:10-11 a short interjection assures us that the coming doom will be just – the righteous (again, those found to be innocent or the victim by the court who require acquittal or redress) will be fine but the wicked will receive all the doom that fills up the rest of the chapter.

Other features probably make sense within this court-case context. In several places God lays out His vision for what Israel should be or will be and contrasts it to what Israel is. Viewed from within the context of a legal case this makes sense – Israel is required by law to do X and is instead doing the exact opposite. In Isaiah 2:11-18 there is a great reversal – the Lord strikes down everything that is lifted up and He alone remains exalted. (Hints of this also appear in Isaiah 1:31 and 5:15.) This is also classical judgment language in the Old Testament – God comes and ruins those who have risen because of their crimes and exalts those who were their victims. This is the work of the law-court, to demand penalties of the wicked and to restore to the victims what was taken.

Not all of Isaiah 1-5 is a court case, of course. I don’t see much point in trying to shoehorn God’s diatribe against Israel’s religious rituals (1:10-15) into a court case. Instead, it seems to be a reasonable lead-up to the case: despite Israel’s religious observances God is still angry with them and their religious observances mean nothing while these larger problems are going on. However, despite some exceptions I think the larger idea of a court case against Israel is a good frame to read Isaiah 1-5.

If my claim is correct who exactly is God in the court? Is He the judge, the plaintiff, or the prosecutor? I think the answer probably goes back to the important role of a king in ensuring justice for his people (and the fact that these modern roles aren’t really correct to bring to the Old Testament). A king served as a judge (some of which I discussed when I discussed the judges of the book of Judges) and often legitimatized his reign by referencing his role in bringing about justice. However, kings are not passive judges who wait for cases to be brought to them but are also engaged in actively prosecuting cases. Part of the role of a king in bringing about justice is to seek out and remove injustice (or other legal transgressions – see the responsibility that the books of Kings assign to kings in removing places of idol worship). In this case I believe that God is acting in His role as King of Israel. In fact, I believe He is more specifically acting as a great king (or emperor) under whom serve other kings including Israel’s king.

This, I believe, is where all of this notion of law-courts begins to be directly applicable to us. God’s complaint against Israel is that He charged it with creating a particular sort of society. This society was supposed to be just (especially towards those who lack power and are easy to oppress), it was supposed to be free of idols, and it was clearly supposed to be less focused on money than it ended up being. Indeed, a lot of Isaiah 1-5 focused on the fact that the upper levels of society have become rich by impoverishing the poor. While the rich drink and “join house to house” (which is probably tied to taking land and other essentials from the poor ) the poor are denied justice. While the Law demanded a year of Jubilee in which society would be reset and everyone gets to start over with some land of their own the society has become one of rich people and the generationally poor. Some of this involves direct commission of sin on Israel’s part – like taking bribes. Other parts of this appear to involve a failing to do what is right without any direct embrace of what is wrong. For instance, the indolent rich don’t necessarily do anything directly wrong but they do get condemned apparently for not fixing things.

This is a more active concept of good than the one we tend to have. We tend to think of being innocent as simply not engaging in evil (which can give us theological trouble as we seek to convince others that they engage in active and deliberate evil on a frequent basis [which people do but it’s a hard sell]). Instead, the book of Isaiah paints a picture where the innocent actively engage in doing God’s will and the guilty are those who don’t. Evil is presented as potentially passive – the Lord told you to set things right and you sat around drinking instead. Good is active.

The other part of this that I think is valuable is that it places God’s uncomfortable Old-Testament wrath in a very understandable context. God’s wrath isn’t God getting angry and flying off the handle but is the sentence of the divine court passed down on a wicked society that has actually refused a previous offer to settle the matter out of court. Part of the purpose of the prophet Isaiah is to ask Israel to deal with this issue before it lands in court and delivers a crushing verdict. Yes, God as judge does deliver a harsh sentence to Israel but God as plaintiff also entreats Israel not to let the matter get that far out of control.

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