A (sort of) Book Review: “The God of the Mundane”

Matthew B. Redmond. The God of the Mundane. Kalos Press, 2012.

I am always thrilled by the offer of free books. I was especially flattered when an author offered his own book free of charge and asked me to review it. It was wonderful both in the gift of a book, but also the “shot in the arm” to me as a newbie and amateur reviewer of books. But Matthew Redmond (who is adamant in ensuring he not be confused with composer, musician and worship leader Matt Redman), who I’ve had various twitter exchanges with arranged with his publisher to get me a free digital copy of The God of the Mundane to review. It’s also a great change of pace for me- switching gears from reading commentaries and monographs and academic theology for reviews, sermons and research to reading something about life outside my own head, something about real time spirituality and discipleship.

Redmond (who blogs here) served as a pastor for several years, but recently “switched gears” and now works in the banking industry, which in part inspires the book. The first line of the introduction reads “I’m 40, I have a master’s degree, and now I’m having to learn how to be a bank teller.” Of course he goes on to reflect about some of the interactions with customers which have opened up opportunities to minister from another angle because of the doors opened by the mundaneness of the original interaction with people.

What it’s about:

Is spirituality about striving to be extraordinary? Does one have to be a missionary, pastor, or evangelist to be spiritually significant? Of course no, right? I mean we all affirm that all are equal in the eyes of God, don’t we? Well, why then do we idolize the stand outs? Is God more present in the lives of folks whose vocation is Christian ministry? Or is there a God of the mundane? Is God present in the “average” Christian’s life? That’s what Redmond is asking. He concludes (as the title gives away) that God is very present, active and alive in the “mundane” tasks of life- changing diapers, mopping floors, working in a secular profession, etc. There ought not be the sharp distinction between the work of the stay-at-home-mom, plumber, banker and the third world missionary.

Redmond critiques the celebrity culture of Christian leadership, in which pastors push their congregations to be exceptional, to be great, to be world-altering people. Redmond astutely points out that Paul wrote to congregations which are made up of mostly anonymous Christians, whom he even encourages to live a “quiet life” (1 Thess 4:10-11, 2 Thess 3:12). The New Testament’s existence speaks to the need for Christians who continue to do the mundane where they are. Many of the Christians of Corinth and Ephesus who heard Paul’s letters read aloud didn’t become apostles. They didn’t plant churches. They didn’t preach sermons or build schools in needy communities. They worshipped with the Church, and the raised families, and did jobs, and cooked and ate meals, and died and we don’t even know their names now. Redmond suggests that it’s ok to be unspectacular. To do the simple, unremarkable things well honours God, and lives out the Kingdom. The Kingdom, if I’m reading Redmond right, includes an understanding of God’s presence with us in the daily tasks of life. And God will remember and honour that testimony.

What Redmond is putting forward is a call for Christians to see value and possibility in simple things and for pastors to stop berating their congregations for not doing more to serve God and the Church.

The Good:

People need to hear this- both laity and pastors alike. Most folks need to hear this to be reminded that God is very much present in their daily walks. The guilt of “not being involved enough” is a pressing reality for too many people. I’m sure many would look at their daily lives and see little “Kingdom value”. Redmond tells us that yes, there is inherent value in being; being what and where God has placed each of us (or where we’ve found ourselves to be, depending on your theological slant 😉 ).

It’s a quick read- less that 100 pages. Which can be good or bad. In this case, it’s probably for the best. The point he’s making doesn’t need to be beleaguered more than Redmond does. He makes his point, and doesn’t try to do too much with it. Sometimes, authors let the page count run and it weakens the point. I’ve read a lot of books like that. You know, the ones that are 200+ pages, and only needed to be 75. Some books need to be long. This one doesn’t. It’s basically a collection of 15 short reflections on the same general theme of finding God and Kingdom in the everyday, mundane stuff. Each reflection is only a few pages, so there are natural breaks, and you can stop and take stock of what you’ve just covered. Not all books can do this, I realize, but when possible, it’s a nice feature, especially in a book which is more reflective and less academic.

Redmond demonstrates a great ability to tell stories and paint pictures. He vividly describes scenes and people and situations which allow you to see what he sees. Whether it’s describing the warm and humble folks showing Southern hospitality in a small-town restaurant and catering company, or the nostalgic love of the old house of his grandparents, or the customer at the bank who just got awful news, he paints the scene to depict the real emotive value of a seemingly inconsequential event, place, interaction. He is able to flesh out the value in these, to show what he’s getting at with the overall work.

The Not-so-good

Ever have a book that feels like it’s both too short, and still not short enough? That’s the feeling I’m left with here. It’s hard to explain, but here’s my best shot; it’s a simple and short book. The point he’s making is fairly clear. All 15 chapters all simply reworked versions of each other. There’s not a ton of development and expansion of the point he made at the beginning. You want him to build the discussion, expand, clarify, add nuance. He shows signs he will, but then doesn’t quite get there. The final chapter (“Be Nobody Special”) does some of this, ending on high note. He states “This little book is not a call to do nothing. It is a call to be faithful right where you are, regardless of how mundane that place is.” So you can see he is ending right where he began. Sometimes books come back around to the opening point, but here, the trip to get back to where he began was short one. He didn’t travel far from that point. Which is why I wonder if the book was too long. He could have made the point quicker, or expanded the trajectory and done more.

My preference would have been for the latter- to add more “meat” to the basic thrust, to expand, and give more content, more to chew on. I agreed with his basic “thesis”, but I wanted to be challenged more. I wanted more biblical/theological content. More of Jesus’ prodding me towards where Redmond was trying to get me to go. I would have preferred to see him draw from various resources to put more flesh on the skeleton if you will. Aside from a few scripture references, there isn’t much beyond story telling and personal reflections. Even in a book like this there is room for drawing deeper from the well we have in Scripture and church tradition and historical theology.

Overall

This little book is of significant value. If you’re looking for an in depth study the theology of vocation, this isn’t it. The value is in hearing the stories, and re-imagining our own mundane experience within the context of Kingdom and grace. It was a nice change of pace for me, a break from my usual reading of commentaries and academic theology. It’s a humble, and well crafted reflection on a theme needing exploration in Western Christianity with its incredibly celebrity driven style of Church. In a world where Christians look to mega-church pastors with book deals and a full schedule of conference appearances as the model of faithfulness and holiness and Christ-likeness, this book speaks needed truth. A waitress’s smile, or a mother’s care in changing a diaper, or plumber’s integrity in how he does his job all speak to the grace which God has given, which is molding his people into loving, gracious, people of integrity and humility. Redmond calls us to turn aside from the flashy, celebrity culture which casts shame on the stay-at-home-mom, the plumber, the bank teller who aren’t doing more, because they don’t have the time or the resources or the seminary degree to change the world and become notorious leaders.

I am grateful to Redmond and to Kalos Press for providing it to me.

A (Sort of) Book Review: Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not

“Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not”

McKnight, Scot and Joseph B. Modica (eds). Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2013

I was quite excited to pick up this book. Scot McKnight has become one of my favourite authors lately. He is well known for his work on the New Testament and the Apostolic proclamation. He is the author of a dizzying number of books, including the recent book TheKing Jesus Gospel which made some waves. He is also the author several commentaries (his commentary on Galatians in the NIVAC is stellar), and an editor of the IVP Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (the IVP Dictionary set is a must have resource in my humble opinion). McKnight and his colleague (whom I admittedly haven’t read) Joseph Modica (Eastern University) have edited this volume of essays on the topic of Empire Criticism in New Testament studies. They gathered several authors to contribute essays on specific books of the New Testament (plus one which is an introductory survey of the whole New Testament, and another which is an introduction to the Roman Imperial Cult).

So, for those not familiar, what is Empire Criticism? In his review of the same book, Peter Enns suggests it is “an approach to New Testament studies whereby the New Testament’s message is seen primarily as a criticism of the Roman empire. Put another way, the proclamation ‘Jesus is Lord’ is not simple an expression of religious devotion but political subversion, since Caesar was also known as ‘lord.’” In other words, scholars using this approach assume that the primary thrust of the New Testament is depicting Jesus and the True Lord and Caesar as the false lord, and the text of the New Testament is designed to challenge the Emperor and Empire’s claims by exalting Jesus as the foil to Caesar.

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not, is designed to probe the findings of the scholars who see Empire criticism everywhere in the New Testament and scrutinize these claims, and see if they hold any real weight. Is the claim that the New Testament is first and foremost Anti-Roman rhetoric valid?

The contributors are an interesting group. I have to admit, I was not familiar with several. They have a variety of research interests, but broadly, they all have made prior contributions in terms of the social world of the New Testament, and so were familiar with the sources using the Empire criticism approach to New Testament interpretation. But as can be expected with most essay collections, some essays will catch the reader more than others. Same can be said of this book and its reader; I found a spectrum of feeling captivated at times and not so much at other time by the various contributions. This may simply be my own biases as a reader. I found some essays riveting, and others somewhat dull and disappointing.

Overall their conclusions are similar. Most of the authors (and the editors in their conclusion chapter) agree that most Empire criticism goes far beyond what the text allows for; although there are hints of Empire in some places, and some of the statements about God in Christ have implications for the Imperial Cult, the motivation of New Testament authors are not specifically targeting Caesar or the Empire. The New testament is concerned first a foremost with demonstrating that Jesus is Lord. That Caesar is not, is of secondary importance (see for instance Bevere’s introduction to his essay on Colossians and Philemon). The notable exceptions to this (not contrary, but simply seeing more interaction with imperialism and the imperial cult) are Michael Bird’s superb essay on Romans, and Dwight Sheets’ brief but engaging assessment of the book of Revelation. These authors do not suggest that the main concern is critique of Empire, but that in both cases there are definite declarations that Christians cannot give to Rome the type of allegiance and credit Rome may demand.

So the overall “thesis” (if can say a collection of essays has one unified thesis) is that while the New Testament contains material which colours how Early Christians were to navigate life in the Roman Empire, but overall, Empire criticism goes into the process of eisegesis (a “reading into the text” something which is not necessarily there) and proper exegesis cannot support the extent of the claims of advocates of Empire criticism.

The Good

I’d love to get into each of the contributions individually as they each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but doing that would be excessive and I’m sure most of my readers would drop off pretty quickly and not finish that post which would be very, very long. So I will only highlight some particular highlights from a few of the contributions.

As a whole, the contributions are quite strong, but Michael Bird’s essay on Romans in probably the stand out for me. It does argue that Empire is certainly there in the text, and Bird argues that Paul is trying to help the Christians in the Imperial Capital live in that context. There is a clear push by Paul there (and elsewhere in his letters, e.g. Philippians) to recognize that Jesus is Lord over all other powers, which does indeed mean Roman claims to supremacy over all the earth are false. However, Bird does also emphasize that Paul is not first and foremost anti-Empire, but pro-Jesus. He writes, “Romans is not a political manifesto. It is pastoral theology, albeit one not divorced from the sociopolitical realities of the Roman Mediterranean. The universal vision of Paul’s gospel clearly competes with Roman vision for its universal reign.” (161). This take, I believe is helpful.

Other particularly strong tidbits deserve recognition. David Nystrom’s introduction to the Imperial Cult and Roman ideology is very helpful to get the reader situated. That essay is brief, but solid in terms of content (effective use of written space, which is always to be commended). For readers not well versed in Imperial Cult or Roman Imperial history, this is very helpful. My own background in history made this essay not completely foreign, but nevertheless, this was very helpful to reestablish my understanding of the context for the Empire criticism discussion.

Judith Diehl’s overview of Anti-Empire Rhetoric in the New Testament, although long (especially given that many of the New Testament books would be covered in subsequent chapters) was very well done. Diehl provides some wonderful insights into what New Testament texts would look like within the sociopolitical milieu of the first century, as well as covering the tricky business of persecution in the first century, which is not quite what many have assumed. Little evidence exists to suggest widespread government back persecution of Christians during the time of the New Testament’s composition. However, social marginalization and local persecutions do seem to be evident for some congregations. Keeping this in mind clarifies some statements which can be read as condemnation of Caesar and the Imperial power.

Dwight Sheets short, concise and less technical essay on Revelation was a fun read. Any academic contribution featuring a Star Wars analogy is worth highlight. Kudos to Sheets for making such a risky choice for an academic contribution. Overall the essay was convincing but not as intense as the other contributions. It features a shorter bibliography, fewer pages and a more “broad strokes” approach, which I found odd given the fact that Revelation arguably contains the greatest amount of interaction with the authority of Rome. But Sheets effectively condenses the material and covers only the most relevant material. With all the comments on Revelation available, wading through this is difficult but Sheets manoeuvres well.

Bevere’s article on Colossians deserves mention for being the most upfront, and decisive piece. Bevere gives his overall assessment in the first couple of sentences, tipping his hand right away, which I appreciate in this type of context. Some authors like to tip-toe around, but Bevere cuts to the chase. There is no wasted space in his contribution, and he doesn’t use nuanced language to give a complex thesis. He simply says Colossians is not Empire focused, but has implications for Empire.

Overall, the scholarship is impeccable and extensive. The research poured into this publication is top-notch. The extensive bibliographies and references indicate a detailed reading of proponents of Empire criticism and a few other relevant works. I was thrilled to see Empire in the New Testament (McMaster New Testament Studies) pop up regularly. It’s always an uplifting experience to see folks who taught you and studied with you getting recognition (the contributors to that volume are largely connected to McMaster Divinity College where I studied).

On a note I often harp on, I was thrilled to see in this work the use of footnotes and not endnotes. Thank you to IVP and the editors and contributors for sticking to this. It is very much appreciated by this reader.

The Not-So-Good

As I found the argument(s) compelling, and hard to critique in any significant way (a few minor details which I might take issue with, but not anything in terms of the overall argument) the most notable issues to make note of are merely structural not content related. Overall the conclusions are solid, the research is meticulous and hard to find any problems with (perhaps a biblical scholar would be more capable of engaging on that level than myself), so that leaves less to critique.

One issue which arises for me is the vastly different amounts of space given to one contribution over another. Some of the articles are significantly longer and more detailed, while others are brief, with less thorough interaction with the other written material. For example, Bird’s bibliography is three pages, whereas Sheets’ is only eight sources. The unbalance there is obvious. I would assume Revelation would have more to go on and would perhaps warrant a more detailed and extensive treatment, and more source material to go on than some others. I would have loved to have seen Sheets go deeper, and perhaps Willits’ offering on Matthew trimmed. Willits’ essay on Matthew’s gospel was the only article I would call a disappointment (although that term seems a bit harsh). I found his article a bit tedious and dry (not to pick on Willits who is an exceptional scholar, I just had trouble getting into his work here which mainly critiques the work of Warren Carter who has written several works on Anti-Empire rhetoric in the New Testament).

The only other thing to make serious note of the fact that I really wanted McKnight and Modica to lend their voices more. The intro and conclusion were very brief, and didn’t feel like the lent much to the overall impact of the book. While the introduction does dip into some of the issues of overlapping terminology (kyrios, soter, euangellion which are used in both New Testament and imperial rhetoric), I would have liked to see these two gentlemen offer up more of their own to the discussion.

Overall

Having read a lot of NT Wright lately, who does not go as far as other proponents of Empire criticism but nevertheless makes a point of declaring that the Gospel proclamation of Jesus is Lord is at it’s core also a condemnation of the claims of Caesar, I found this counterpoint refreshing. This book serves as a helpful balancing out of the readings which may push too far in one direction. While I don’t read much of the Empire criticism material out there, I am at lease aware that it’s there, and through NT Wright is coming into a broader readership, so this publication is timely. The discourse of of the academics often needs voices bringing the discussion back from getting too far in one direction. The New Testament was written by people living in the Empire. That context inevitably colours their understanding and writing. But to what extent? That is why this book is needed. It strikes a balance I think. While the majority of the content leans towards limiting the Empire’s direct influence on the New Testament, Bird and Sheets make it clear that the early Church’s proclamation was in fact a challenge to the claims of the Imperial cult. Dean Pinter (who writes on Luke’s gospel) and Drew Strait (Acts) reveal the way that Luke writes in a way which is not entirely Anti-Empire, but encourages his readers to carefully navigate the Empire carefully. Caesar may demand allegiance, but Jesus is Lord of all. Caesar may be a king, but God is King of kings (114, 144-5). So, Strait concludes that Luke may “subtly critique Caesar” but not directly. Bevere sees similar content in Colossians, that although Paul is not writing a piece of anti-Roman propaganda, his proclamation of Christ has indirect consequences for the Christians’ relationship to Rome.

The overall value of this book is somewhat specific. It speaks to a specific discussion within the academic field. So it may not appeal to a large audience. But the overall reception from the reviews I’ve seen are generally positive, and I also would lend a positive assessment to this collection. As a pastor, this book may not generate a lot of help for sermon writing, but is helpful for solidifying a careful hermeneutic. How we read Scripture matters, and we have to be careful to try to take from the text what is really there, and not impose on the text what doesn’t belong. Several authors refer to the growth in Empire criticism as a result of pot-colonialism, and that contemporary context colours our own readings of the text. We see anti-Imperialism in the New Testament because so many see American foreign policy imposing on others.

This collection is a good reminder that Rome is part of the context of the New Testament, but it is not the main point of the New Testament, which instead points to Jesus, the promised Messiah of YHWH, who overcame death at the hands of Rome. The New Testament is not written to promote anti-Roman sentiment, but to encourage the people of God that YHWH is above all powers. It proclaims that the promises the God of Israel are fulfilled in Jesus. The language used to talk about Jesus is borrowed from the Scriptures of Israel, and have implications for Caesar, but are not specifically a subversive attack.

McKnight and Modica have created here a helpful contribution to the world of New Testament studies. The contributors have all presented with rigourous research, and have effectively demonstrated what they set out to do- to put the conclusions and methods of Empire criticism under close scrutiny to see if they hold up. And they have found the discipline lacking.

Chiasm in the Book of Revelation?

Darrell W. Johnson, (Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey Through the Book of Revelation. Vancouver: Regent College Pub., 2004) proposes a chiastic structure (in this case an ABCBA) of the Book of Revelation (see his Appendix B, p. 391ff). He notes the bracketing around the “Great sign in Heaven” (Rev. 12-15). A former classmate of mine, Andriy Rozalowskiy said via facebook regarding the suggestion of chiasm, “Nice discussion point… but in the hands of some *everything* is a chiasm!” Point taken. But I think there is something to be said for Johnson’s observation. I do see a need to tweek his outline (he has 11:19-15:4 as the central section, but I think that misses the mirrored references to the 144,000 and the two witnesses and their antithesis in the two beasts). So here’s my own modification of Johnson’s outline (ABCDCBA):

A. 1:1-1:8 – “things which must take place” / Behold! I am coming” / I am Alpha and Omega…”

B. 1:9-3:22 – Jesus appears and speaks / use of “overcomes” (NIV “one who is victorious”) / Blessings promised

C. 4:1-11:18 – “After these things, I looked” / Throne / 4 Living Creatures / Seven seals & trumpets / 144,000 / Two witnesses

D. 11:19-12:17 – “A great sign appeared in Heaven”

C. 13:1-19:10 – Two beasts / 144,000 / Seven bowls / “After these things, I looked” / Throne / 4 Living creatures

B. 19:11-22:21 – Jesus appears and speaks / use of “overcomes” / Blessings fulfilled

A: 22:6-22:21 – “things which must take place” / “Behold! I am coming” / “I am Alpha and Omega…”

As you can see you have mirrored content on either side of 11:19-12:17. The prologue and ending contain the mirrored “I am the Alpha and Omega” with more content in the epilogue; “the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (arche and telos)”. But the epilogue also contains the added statement “I am the Root and the Offspring of David (see 5:5), and the bright Morning Star” (22:16) which may seem innocuous enough, but this is a key element, Johnson suggests, and I’m inclined to agree. The additional descriptor from Jesus here is profound, that Jesus, as the morning star, indicates a new day dawning with his appearing. Now, this works on two levels. His second coming (the longed for appearing of the bridegroom who promises “behold! I am coming soon”) will bring the fullness of the Kingdom, and the final victory, but his initial appearing indicates the “beginning of the end” for the enemies of God. The birth of Christ signals a new day approaching, breaking in, though not yet realized. So, what’s this got to do with chiasm? Well, look to the centre of Revelation, what do we see? The morning star appears to signal the darkest part of night is over, and dawn is coming. What is the “great sign in Heaven” at the centre of Revelation?… “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth… She gave birth to a son, a male child, who ‘will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.'” Who in their right mind ever read Revelation and thought the point of the book was Christmas? But there it is. The one who calls himself the “bright morning star” tips us off regarding the point of it all; that the arrival of Christ on Earth ushers in a new day when the dawn draws nearer, and closer to the inevitable fullness of day. Though the darkness is still not done away with, it’s fate is known, it’s end is inevitable. Though we see darkness still now, we know the dawn is coming, so we need not lose hope. John was writing to seven churches which needed a reminder. They needed to hear that the Lamb overcomes, and those who are joined to him overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the testimony (See 12:11). They needed to be encouraged to not cave to the coercive threat of violence (and even death) of the beast, or be lured by the temptations of the harlot, or be deceived by the false prophet.

So this should cause us to read Revelation differently. The symbols and weird visual imagery are confusing, and we often think of Revelation as about the Apocalypse (of course, apocalypsis – the Greek title of Revelation means not the end of the world specifically but simply revealing or unveiling). But the Book of Revelation is Christological- it’s about the Lamb who wins. The Lamb who was slain stands on the throne of Heaven and is worship by the Angels and the Elders gathered in heaven. When the Lamb appears everything changes. Weeping turns to worship. Darkness turns to light. Death turns to life. Chaos turns to a beautiful city. War turns to a wedding feast.

The blood of the Lamb and the testimony brings victory now and in the future. The victory promised to us is an extension of the victory of the Lamb, who has triumphed and purchased us with his blood and overcome death and lives forever (1:18). The purpose of Revelation is not a detailed chronological plan of the future, but a call to see the Lamb.

A (sort of) Book Review: “Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?”

J.R. Daniel Kirk, “Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?”

I just recently picked up J.R. Daniel Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?” A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011). Given my usual reading habits, I usually require a long time to get through a book, as I usually have a lot of them on the go at the same time. But this one, I managed to complete in a very short (for me) two weeks. This should tell you something right away about my appreciation for this book. It may also indicate it’s size relative to some of the other stuff I’m reading (a very manageable 200 pages).

What’s it about?: Kirk (assistant professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, Northern California Campus) writes to address a problem in New Testament interpretation: the idea that Paul’s message found in his letters seems in tension with the message of Jesus presented in the gospels. Kirk points out that some critics have suggested that Paul “invented” Christianity as it came to be understood, and we have now a Christianity which reflects Paul not Jesus, and our theology lifts up Paul as the “manual” for the Church. Or on the flip side are the critics who marginalize Paul as someone who “got it wrong” and dismiss his letters and focus only on the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So, Daniel Kirk seeks to address this situation by framing the question differently- with the use of narrative. Kirk proposes framing Paul letters within the narrative he is trying to present and live out. This narrative which Paul works out of is the Jesus narrative- the narrative of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Israel narrative. Kirk suggests that Paul’s letters place him in that same narrative trajectory as the Gospels- that humanity has been infected by sin, and God has begun a great work of redeeming the cosmos. This narrative which focuses on Israel and the covenant of God reaches its climax in Jesus, who fulfills God’s intentions by bringing all of creation under his Lordship which is the Kingdom (or reign) of God bringing the final conquest over sin and death (future, eschatalogical victory) into the present to redeem the cosmos through Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection. Kirk proposes that if we realize that Paul is firmly entrenched in this presentation of the cosmic reign of God coming through Christ to reconcile creation, we see more and more that Paul is not at odds with Jesus, and the issues which seem to present tension can be in many ways resolved or lessened.

Chapters 1 & 2 are basically a summary and comparison of the Gospel message of Jesus and the Gospel message of Paul. Jesus preached the arrival of the reign of God in himself. Paul makes little reference to the Kingdom. But as Kirk points out, this is merely a terminology issue. Paul brings a message of the victorious resurrected Lord of the cosmos. This cosmic lordship of Christ which we see in Paul is very much the point of Jesus’ message, that in him, God is reconciling, redeeming and gathering that which is his to himself. Jesus as Son of God and Son of Man is declaring that he will reign as God’s viceregent in creation- a job initially described as belonging to humanity, who have failed to faithfully perform their role. Thus, the design of God described in Genesis is being re-established in Christ. This is the narrative we see reflected in the gospels and in Paul.

From there, Kirk goes into several key issues which some have interpreted as tension or disagreement between Jesus and Paul. Kirk does this from the perspective that all these topics flow out of the same narrative of God’s redemptive work fulfilled in Christ, which should provide our hermeneutical approach to Paul’s teaching. So, issues like community, women, inclusion and sexuality take up the following chapters. I wish I had room to get into each chapter individually, but this space hardly allows for that. But I do want to highlight a few points.

Kirk argues that for Paul, as for the gospel writers, we, as followers of Jesus, are called to “live out” or into the Jesus story. Our calling is to set aside our own selves, and be “in Christ”, and live out that life. For Jesus and Paul, our behaviour should be modelled after Jesus’ cruciform love. In all things, whether thinking about community, our view of women, our view of social justice, our view of sexuality, etc. we ought to be focused on the redemption of the other, bringing Christ’s love to bear on all things. So when we proclaim homosexuality as counter to the creation intent of God, how does that impact our calling to love our neighbour as ourselves? How do we live out that love in a way which is redemptive not permissive? Does Paul provide teaching which is condemnation things like homosexuality, or does he present a message in which there is redemption a new creation?

So, although on the surface, it seems that Paul is more “conservative” than Jesus, and seems to uphold things which Jesus seems to be tearing down (gender inequality, slavery, exclusive community based on moral success, etc.) when we dig a bit, Kirk argues we find that Paul is actually calling the churches to selfless, mutually submissive, redemptive love. That Paul’s teaching is a calling, like that of Jesus, to be drawn more in line with the life exemplified by Jesus. He is not saying slavery is ok. Instead he is calling slave and slave owner to live out the cruciform love of Christ in their own situation. Instead of upholding a male-led household, Paul is calling husbands and wives both live out the redemptive, self-giving, sacrificial love which Christ demonstrated. When we read that story into Paul’s ethical instructions and the “household codes” (e.g. Eph. 5:18ff, Col. 3:18ff) we see not an upholding of the old order of things, which Jesus appears to be subverting. Instead we see Paul radically reorienting the old order to reflect the cruciform Jesus story which fulfills the larger cosmic story of God responding to humanity’s failure and working to redeem and reclaim his creation.

The Strengths:

Like I said, this book is manageable. It is strongly academic, but still manages to be inherently applicable, readable and practical for a variety of audiences. Pastors and well-read laity can take much from this book, and because it comes in at 200 pages, it doesn’t drag or overwhelm as some scholars can. Kirk, though definitely an accomplished scholar (his previous book on resurrection and justification in Romans is on my “to read” list, but is a much more scholarly approach to writing, judging by the gleaning I’ve done of the bibliography and footnotes), is still almost pastoral in tone at times. Kirk doesn’t write with complete scholarly distance. He is passionately engaged, and cares deeply for the implications of his conclusions. This comes through clearly in his writing. He wants the church to appreciate Paul and see in the Pauline corpus the redemptive love of Christ and see them live out Paul’s understanding of loving, forgiving, grace-filled community which reflects the standards set forth by Christ.

Secondly, I must say, his argument is convincing (although, I should admit a bias towards this perspective before picking up the book). I admit, some passages in Paul (particularly in the Corinthian letters) have caused some tension in my mind. Kirk’s narrative approach allows us to see Paul not as an ethical treatise writer, but a bold preacher pushing his audience to hear the Jesus story and seek to live it out in their own context. Paul’s ethics flow from the redemptive power of God expressed in the Gospel that Jesus enters history to fulfill the trajectory of God’s redemptive work through his covenant people, which culminates with victory over sin and death. Kirk’s response to more conservative readings is gracious, but also successfully confronts interpretations of Paul which suggest he is out of step with Jesus.

Kirk’s chapter on Christian community (chapter 3) is among the best things I’ve read with regard to the church. Kirk directs us to the fact that God’s redemptive work is completed through community. We experience Christ’s work, and fulfill his work in the context of mutually submissive community. That the ideals of love, forgiveness, grace, compassion, justice, etc embodied by Christ are lived in with others with whom we share in the possession of the image of God, and the light of Christ.

Equally helpful is Kirk’s take on Paul’s words regarding women. The complementarian position (in households and in male only pastoral ministry) relies heavily on Paul. Many have observed that Jesus welcomes women, and seems to empower them in ways which would be subversive in his historical context. But then it appears that Paul undoes any advances in the status of women which Jesus may have provided his female followers. Kirk, using the narrative approach demonstrates how Paul’s words concerning household codes are very much in the same subversive vein as Jesus. Paul, argues Kirk, puts forward a relationship of husband to wife which demands selflessness and cruciform love from both sides, and points to Paul’s declaration that men and women give their bodies to each, and yes, the woman has authority over the man’s physical body (1 Cor. 7:4). He also highlights Paul’s admonishment of female ministry leaders in Romans 16, and the implications of 1 Cor. which seem to assume women have been providing leadership in the Church by prophesying, teaching, etc. This scholarly approach to the issue of the role of women which takes seriously Paul’s seemingly anti-women in leadership stance is a voice which is very much needed in the debate. For another evangelical scholar to push this encourages me. All too often more conservative folks dismiss the arguments in favour of leadership open to women as the work of liberals who reject biblical authority or who have a low view of Scripture. So, here is an evangelical, New Testament scholar interacting intensely with the text of Scripture and holding it up as authoritative and saying yes, women can preach.

Kirk tackles some thorny and messy issues which the church has not always handled well, and speaks grace into them. He boldly tackles the issue of sex and devotes a chapter to homosexuality specifically and handles it with admirable grace and biblical integrity. His examination of Romans 1:26ff is a take I was blown away with. Most folks take Paul’s two verses which proclaim homosexuality as a result of people rejecting the creator and condemn homosexuals and stop reading Romans there (or skip ahead to chapter 8 where the good stuff is). The whole point of Romans 1-3 is that under the law, all people are guilty. Kirk then provides encouragement to think through the implications of “love your neighbour” and “do unto others” in light of this. We are to love our neighbour (whatever their orientation may be) and do for them what we would want to receive from our neighbour (whatever their orientation may be).

Overall, I find Kirk’s hermeneutic helpful, and his conclusions sound. Emphasizing Paul as a proclaimer of the Gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord who is redeeming the cosmos allows us to see Paul’s ethics as cruciform, not imposing.

The Weaknesses:

I really can only point to two things I would call weaknesses.

First, I am a tad disappointed with the lack of secondary source interaction. Kirk’s endnotes (and as I noted in other reviews, I seriously prefer footnotes) reveal that there isn’t a lot of interaction with other theologians. There are several places where such interaction would be warranted. For instance in introducing the discussion and purpose/intent, he mentions a general dislike of Paul by some who see him and not lining up with Jesus on several key issues, however, he doesn’t get into the arguments of any authors making this suggestion. Or, in the discussion of women in the church, he doesn’t make any references to complementarian sources. It would have been nice to see a greater level of interaction with this. What are others saying which differ from me, and how do I respond? There are a few points when Kirk reiterates several key points to remind the reader what he’s up to, which can be good, but trimming some of those reminders down to leave some page space for more interaction with secondary sources would have strengthened the overall outcome. Many of the sources Kirk does interact with fall into his own tradition or “tribe” of like-minded theologians. In other words, he quotes and refers to theologians he generally agrees with (Wright, Hays, Gorman, McKnight and Barth make up the bulk of his secondary source interactions), and not those who disagree (he does refer to Piper once, but not in his chapter on women or sex, but perhaps it would have been helpful to see Kirk interact with Sproul, Packer, Carson, Keller or Catholic & Orthodox authors).

The second “issue” which deserves to be noted is the use of primary source material (i.e. the Bible). While Kirk is intensive in his study of relevant bible passages, he does what the vast majority of us do: rely on some passages over others (canon within a canon). We all (those who study and communicate theology, whether pastors, or academic theologians) do this to some degree (I’ve only written one sermon from Thessalonians and the Pastorals combined). This book, which is designed to be an approach to interacting with Paul doesn’t cover the scope of the Pauline corpus in a way I would consider ideal. If you take a peak at the Scripture index you see what I mean. We see only a few references to Paul’s oral material presented in Acts, and some of Paul’s writings get significantly more coverage than others, and a few of the Pauline epistles get left out entirely (2 Thess, 2 Tim, Titus & Philemon). Of course this isn’t surprising given the more extensive nature of other Epistles, but interacting in some way with the breadth of the Pauline corpus would be helpful. Romans and the Corinthian Epistles take up far more space than any others. Colossians comes up only 3 times (none of the references to Col. include the wonderful Christological content of Col. 1), and Eph. chapters 1-4 are also completely absent. I would have loved to see more interaction with the breadth of the Pauline corpus, and I even spotted a few places where specific passages would have been handy to include (e.g. a chapter called “Living Out the Jesus Narrative” could have used some interaction with Eph. 5:1-2 or Col. 1 and a chapter on the Christian Community could have used some input from Eph. 4).

Overall Assessment:

This is an incredibly valuable work. I give it my full recommendation to anyone wrestling with the Pauline letters (which we all probably should be doing). It will help us to frame Paul within the Gospel. The Gospel proclamation which we see Paul thoroughly engaged in within the book of Acts, is the retelling of the work of Christ, which has implications. The Pauline Epistles are Paul’s working out of that redemptive work of the Messiah, which Kirk depicts as the eschatalogical reality of redeemed creation being brought to bear in the present. Obviously, how the future truth of the Kingdom translates into the present is going to be difficult to sort out. As the old order is subverted by God’s people to embody the Kingdom here and now, what God’s people look like now has some areas which we need to wrestle with. The Pauline corpus is not a series of rules for conduct but a depiction of what happens when the reign of God collides with the old order in real life. We have to look at them from multiple angles. Paul wrote to a Church he had interacted with in Corinth to address specific things happening in Corinth which were part of the Corinthian Christians trying to figure out how the reign of God would look in Corinth. We can learn much from that. What does it mean for Christ’s followers 1900+ years later in St. Thomas, Ontario to embody the reign of Christ here. It won’t be the exact same. Were Paul to write to an Epistle to Centre Street Baptist Church, it likely wouldn’t look like any of the New Testament Epistles.

What Kirk has provided is a narrative framework- the Gospel narrative- with which to interpret Paul, which can also be used to frame our own work now. So while this book is an academic theological work, it has something to it which can be brought to bear on the work of 21st century communities of followers.

Bite Your Tongue: Gossip, Lies, and Other Stuff Christians Never Do

Christians are pretty good at sinning.

Sometimes it seems we are as good as everyone else at getting ourselves in trouble. But there’s this one thing which we really excel at. There’s this one sin (or group of sins) that for one reason or another catches even the best intentioned Christian.

Gossip. Rumours. Backbiting. Slander. Criticizing. We’re great at that.

Because of the close-knit nature of the Church we are privy to a lot of personal information about one another. This can and should be a good thing. We can assist, comfort, pray, rejoice with, mourn with, etc. We are called to be one, to be engaged, involved, close to one another, belonging to one another even. But this closeness is supposed to edify, build up, strengthen. As iron sharpens iron.

But what happens when the closeness of community is misused or abused? Sin is often just the misuse of something which good. Having information is not in and of itself bad. In fact it’s good. Being close with people is good. Confiding in one another is good. The ability to speak is something good. Human communication is a gift. God speaks. We are made in his image. That ability is a blessing, but a blessing with inherent risk attached. We have the potential to cause unimaginable damage to one another if we aren’t careful with our words. We all to easily spread gossip- rumours. We use our words to hurt another person, or we cause destruction by saying things which aren’t true.

We share with others information about another which would be better kept to ourselves. This is an abuse of community. So is the slander and back biting so many “church people” have become notorious for. We speak ill of our brothers and sisters. We critique our leaders, but not to their faces. We whisper in the corners to one another trying to rally the troops to sympathize with me and my cause. I’m not getting my way and other people are doing things I don’t like, but I won’t confront them. I’ll just call that person a jerk to my friend over here and smile and shake hands with that very same jerk on Sunday after telling other that he’s a jerk on Saturday.

We have this reputation. Jesus said we are to be known by our love. But out there, are we described as a loving people? Sadly no. Just read through the Barna Group’s research (UnChristian, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) and see how we’re described by those not in the church; hypocritical, sheltered, anti-homosexual, too political, judgmental. Not the words we should have attached to us. A lot of this stems from a failure to present ourselves through words of grace and love.

Words should build up, encourage, instruct, maybe provide godly and gracious correction if necessary. The community should be better by everything we say.

Our communities should be open. We should have enough trust in one another to share our hurts with people confident that we will show support to each other without fear that what we share will be used against us or spread around in whispered voices… “oh did you hear about so and so.” “Oh how awful”.

Our words have such potential. And if we misuse them, we are in big, big trouble.

Consider Proverbs 6:16-19,

“There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.”

Did you catch that. Notice how lying is in there twice. God hates false witness and spreading lies (so much so that he included it in his “big 10”). But he also hates stirring up conflict. Even if something is true (or perhaps especially if), it can still stir conflict and create disunity in the community. Just because it’s true doesn’t make it ok to spread around. We are called to protect the dignity of our neighbours. Public shaming and spreading information about someone’s shortcomings never helped anyone. We should take a cue from Jesus. He gently told sinners leave that path. He didn’t publicly shame people for making mistakes or being in sin. He never said “Hey Peter, did you hear what Matthew did last week?”

Prov. 16:28, “a gossip separates close friends.” Gossip has this way of driving wedges between people. Gossip is basically meant to make one person think less of another, to pit one brother or sister against another. This should never happen among Christians. And somehow it keeps happening.

This isn’t news I hope. We all “know” that gossip is wrong… but somehow it persists. For whatever reason Christians somehow get sucked into it and we destroy each other. We drive people away from the Church, and we cause divides, and we leave people feeling discouraged, hurt, angry, and humiliated.

We talk about others like they’re somehow vile offenders. Like they’re somehow worse than us. I can’t believe so and so would do that. That’s terrible.

With social media it’s gotten even easier to do this. We don’t even have to know someone to talk about them. We can challenge their doctrine, expertise, character and even question their salvation from the comfort of our computer desks. We can commit character assassination while sipping our morning coffee. We can stay at home in our pyjamas and still manage to stir up dissent and disunity in the body of Christ. Technology is great isn’t it?

The ability to destroy a life by spreading word around became quite evident over the past week and a half. We recently saw another teen suicide stemming from cyber bullying. A young girl abused, and mocked online because of it lead to her feeling so void of hope that she took her own life. And if we think oh that’s what the world is doing, that’s what those evil ungodly kids are doing, let’s keep in mind American mega-church pastor and author Rick Warren who faced the most immense grief imaginable when his 27yr old son took his own life after battling depression his entire life. The immediate reaction we should have is immense sympathy and mourning with those who mourn and that’s mostly what happened. But some took to social media to condemn Matt Warren, and one commenter even blamed Rick Warren and his wife Kay. If they’d raised their son right this wouldn’t have happened.

It’s heinous, really. Christians are just as often guilty of this sort of thing as everyone else or even moreso.

We’re (when I say we I mean the body of Christians, I’m not specifically talking about us, because we’d never engage in this sort of criticizing, right?) failing so miserably at this holding the reins of our words (spoken and written words).

James suggests that anyone who claims to be religious but has no control of their words is deceived (1:26). If we don’t watch what we say to or about our neighbours, and then claim to be God’s people there is a clear hypocrisy and disconnect between our claims and our behaviour. How can we use our mouths to praise God on Sunday then cut down our neighbour on Monday?

Here’s James 3:9-12,

“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”

How can we be people who praise God while using that same mouth to attack someone made in God’s image. Notice it’s human beings made in his image, not just Christians. We should be treating all people with the same level of respect and dignity.

Our mouths have enormous power. We can do some incredible good with our words. A simple word of encouragement and kindness can make all the difference. Our mouths are gifts, and should be used for God’s glory and our neighbours’ benefit.

But if we don’t keep control of our words, they can cause irreparable damage.

James writes (3:3-5):

“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.”

Or to put it another way: “The tongue is like a lion. If you let it loose it will wound someone” -Ali Ibn Abi Talib

Now I want to make a distinction here. Godly correction and what I’m talking about are two different things. We are to help our brothers and sisters when they’ve strayed by graciously and privately but in some case firmly directing them back. But that process looks very different than what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the heaping of insults and criticism and character attacks done to bring a person down not up. Correction says, hey let’s fix this situation together. Back biting says so and so is wrong, shame on him/her.

Paul tells the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4:9-12) to strive to live quiet lives, working with their hands. Plural “you” by the way. Mind your own business. Stay out of quarrels. Stay on task. The church should be so focused on living out God’s redemptive mission that gossip has no room to wedge itself in there. Notice what spurs that instruction: you are doing a good job of loving one another. Just go further. Commit yourselves to living well, and being faithful. Even the Thessalonians who loved one another needed to be warned to steer clear of these dangerous conversations.

By living in a such a way in which we are quick to listen and slow to speak, people will see something in us that we claim to have. If we claim to be the beloved children of God and the body of Christ but spend our time and energy ripping each other apart instead say… helping someone, well, that sends a very clear message doesn’t it?

If our claims of being a place of love coexist with hostility and backbiting, well, basically we’re just a bunch of lying hypocrites. We have to do better.

This should cause us to stop and think for a second. I’m not trying to just be critical and harsh. I’m calling for us to become more like Christ. I’m calling for a renewed commitment to speak with grace. To use our words to build up. To stop and THINK when we speak. I usually find these sermon acronyms a little cheesy, but this one is pretty helpful.

THINK

is it True?

If you don’t know if something is true. Don’t say it. Don’t share things about a neighbour until you know the facts are straight. If you are unsure, don’t say anything. And avoid opinion based statements. So and so is not a very caring person. How do you know that? What are you basing that type of statement on. You may be surprised to discover that the person you accuse of being uncaring is a very caring person but you’ve caught them on a bad day, or just haven’t really spent time there. Just avoid making those statements. Even if they are in fact true.

Even honest mistakes can cause unimaginable damage.

is it Helpful?

Will the hearer be better off for this. Will you be better off? Will the person or people who come up in the conversation be better off? Even if it’s a true statement, it may not need to be shared. If the information you’re sharing won’t benefit anyone involved, don’t say it.

If it doesn’t build anyone up, hold your tongue.  So often we just share all the information we have assuming that it should be shared. People have a right to know. Why? Is there a constructive point behind the things you say in general and the things you share about others specifically?

is it Inspiring?

Will this information result in positive action? What will the recipient of my words do in response to what I’m sharing? If you share something that causes someone to think less of another, you created disunity, conflict, embarrassment. Our words should spur one another towards Jesus.

is it Necessary?

Does anyone need to know this? All information is really on a need to know basis. Just because you know something doesn’t mean everyone else needs to know.

is it Kind?

Not just in content, but also in delivery. How we say things can be as important as what we say. Is there grace in what I’m saying?

If the person you’re talking about was standing right there would you still say it? If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, why is it ok to say it behind their back?

Stop and think before you speak.

Consider what will happen if people actually listen to you. I don’t have that problem, I know most of what I say isn’t listened to.

Make a commitment to watch your choice of words. Commit to be quick listen and slow to speak. Refuse to speak from your anger. Anger is not wrong, but it’s something that needs to be harnessed.

Decide to use your mouths for God’s glory and the church’s edification. Can we commit to that sort of thing? Can we as community make it our goal to strive to demonstrate grace with out words? To be known as a people who speak well.

Can we refuse to participate in gossip, criticism, slander, and defamation? Can we encourage other Christian communities to join us in rejecting these tactics?

Can we chose to be imitators of God, who love like Jesus did, and use our words to glorify God like Jesus did?

Some Photo Highlights from Lebanon

I will follow this up with some reflections on the ministry happening in Lebanon, but it is taking considerable time process it all and put it together in an accessible way. But for now, here’s a few of the historical/touristy highlight of our journey:

Mohammed Al Amin Mosque (Sunni) in downtown Beirut.
Mohammed Al Amin Mosque (Sunni) in downtown Beirut.
Temples of Jupiter (foreground) and Bacchus, Baalbek
Temples of Jupiter (foreground) and Bacchus, Baalbek
St. Paul's, Harissa
St. Paul’s, Harissa
The Crusader Fortress which overlooks the ancient city of Byblos (Jbeil).
The Crusader Fortress which overlooks the ancient city of Byblos (Jbeil).
The ruins of the Phoenician city of Byblos
The ruins of the Phoenician city of Byblos
Deir el Qamar
Deir el Qamar
Pigeon Rocks, Beirut
Pigeon Rocks, Beirut

Scot McKnight on Atonement

This video is worth a watch. It’s a tad lengthy, but hang in there, it’s a very good run down of the tensions in penal substitution. This comes from What did Jesus do?: the Atonement Symposium. See more videos from that symposium here.

Scot McKnight, “Did Jesus Preach the Gospel?”

If you enjoy this, or just want to get more insight, Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel expounds this discussion further.

Gregory of Nyssa on Baptism

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For as the child new-born is free from accusations and from penalties, so too the child of regeneration has nothing for which to answer, being released by royal bounty from accountability. And this gift it is not the water that bestows (for in that case it were a thing more exalted than all creation), but the command of God, and the visitation of the Spirit that comes sacramentally to set us free. But water serves to express the cleansing. For since we are wont by washing in water to render our body clean when it is soiled by dirt or mud, we therefore apply it also in the sacramental action, and display the spiritual brightness by that which is subject to our senses. (Oration on the Baptism of Christ)

So was Gregory a paedobaptist? He here seems to deny original sin and guilt, which lead Augustine to conclude infant baptism should be required (even though Augustine’s christian mother did not baptize him). In the Great Cathechism, Gregory writes:

Baptism is a spiritual birth, but he who is born by spiritual birth must recognize by whom he is born and what kind of creature he must become. In physical birth, those who are born owe their life and existence to the impulse of their parents, but the spiritual birth is in control of the one who is being born. It is the only birth where we can choose and determine what kind of beings we are to become.

Choice and free will, recognition of God’s power to transform are part of the process of being reborn and entering baptism. In other words, Gregory of Nyssa is a credobaptist, as already demonstrated by an awesome essay I just came across by Everett Ferguson, “The Doctrine of Baptism in Gregory of Nyssa’s Oratio Catechetica” in Dimensions of Baptism: Biblical and Theological Dimensions, New York: Sheffield Academic, 2002. You can read the whole essay on Google Books!