Jesus or Paul?

I return today to Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel.  Tony Jones is blogging on the book each day this week, and while I’m taking breaks to think about The Hunger Games and other matters, I’m trying to stay involved in the conversation there.

**DISCLAIMER:  I am not a New Testament scholar.**

McKnight builds his whole argument around the idea that modern evangelicals have truncated the breadth of the true gospel.  What was meant to be the “good news” about the fulfillment of the story of Israel, an elevation of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, the resurrection, and the final culmination of all things in the eschaton has become simply about Jesus as MY personal Saviour.  The result is a sad emaciated gospel devoid of much of its power.

His is an interesting approach.  But while an important reminder, after reading the book I can’t help but feel that he promises a more radical insight than he actually delivers.  Yes, the gospel is about more than us individually.  It concerns the story of God and God’s Creation.  I get that.  Tell me more.

McKnight builds his case first from 1 Corinthians 15 before defining his perspective on this broader gospel.  He then turns to ask whether Jesus preached the gospel (uh, yea…) and how the early apostles proclaimed this news.  His investigation asserts marked similarity and agreement between these approaches.

Theoblogy asked a great question yesterday regarding McKnight’s starting point: “one has to wonder why Scot is using Paul as his entrée into the gospel.  Why not start with Jesus?”

Why start with Paul?  To be sure, Paul’s words (especially 1 Corinthians) are widely considered to be the some of the earliest canonical Christian writings.  1 Corinthians certainly predate the gospels and Acts.  So there is an argument to be made there.  I’m more than a little uncomfortable with this, though, because my longstanding policy has been that everything else needs to be read through the lens of Christ (not vice versa).

While the gospel accounts are certainly four different perspectives on the gospel and the life of Christ, they point directly to him and his sayings and agree frequently on a lot of this.  Since I’m a Christ-ian and not a Paul-ian, it makes sense for me to listen to Christ first, and then read what Paul is saying in light of that.

If McKnight had begun with Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God arriving in Luke 4 or the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 as the hallmark of “gospel,” his perspective may have changed somewhat.  If historical precedence is important, then he could just as well have turned to Mark’s gospel.  Widely considered to be the first gospel written, it begins as follows:  “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” before explaining throughout the book exactly what that means.

It is quite possible that one will draw the same conclusions as McKnight by starting this way.  But even if you didn’t, you would be drawing them from the words of Christ.  So I ask, then,  what’s to lose?

My question of the day:  Jesus or Paul?  Which is a better starting point?  Poll away:

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The Hunger Games and Adolescence

We’re discussing Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games in my class “Foundations for Youth Ministry” this week.  The book is a classic example of both young adult and dystopian fiction.  It is currently in the top ten list of Amazon’s bestsellers, and has the potential to follow in the footsteps of both Harry Potter and Twilight as a literary juggernaut and (soon-coming, in the case of The Hunger Games) box-office blockbuster.

Having painfully struggled through the Twilight series (books and movies), I can honestly say that The Hunger Games is a superior piece of young adult fiction and, based on the movie trailer, looks to be a much more engaging film.  I assigned the book for my class not because I liked it so much, but rather because its rising popularity and ability to offer insights into the world of adolescents mark it as a key text in which to engage in some practical theological reflection.

But first, some background.  The Hunger Games is set on the North American continent at some unknown point in the future.  The world as we know it is gone, replaced by the land of Panem and consisting 12 “districts” that mostly labor in poverty in order to serve the needs of the central “Capitol.”  The sending districts rebelled at some point in the past, but were brutally repressed by the Capitol.  In an effort to remind them of their subjugated state and keep them in line, the Capital (a decadent, media-obsessed city) decrees that each year two teenagers (male and female) be chosen at random from each of the districts and forced to fight to the death in a wilderness arena while the whole of Panem watches on television.  The lone survivor is declared the winner and gets to retire in comfort.  The rest of the districts mourn their losses and move on.

The hero of The Hunger Games is Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who volunteers for the games after her 12 year old sister is chosen in the lottery.  Her emotional journey through the novel–and the Hunger Games themselves–make for compelling reading.  (For more, please check out the Wikipedia description or, better yet, buy the book!)

On Monday, the question for in-class discussion was: “Where are we?”  In other words, what does this book (both by its popularity and literary insight) tell us about our world today?  In the same way, what does it tell us about adolescence?

*Some of our thoughts:

  • The world of The Hunger Games is one of great inequity, reminiscent of many aspects of our world today.  Ask the Occupiers.
  • In the midst of the arena of battle, the 24 teenage Tributes are forced into a position of “every man for themselves,” a kind of cold individualism.  Katniss and a few others resist this by choosing to work together, thus attempting to defeat the system.  It is the same system that keeps each of the districts separate and weak but which could be overcome through cooperation.
  • The institution of the Games themselves seem to smack of a kind of ill-thought-out hubris.  A kind of peace for the Capitol, yes.  But only peace at the edge of a sword.
  • As one point, I asked my students to describe the characteristics of the society of Panem.  These included: confusion, “peace,” a desensitized culture, class warfare, barriers erected to keep people from uniting, corruption, the contrast between the petty concerns of the haves and the life-and-death situations faced by the have nots.  I asked my students this question:  “What is Panem?”  The answer, I think:  it’s us.  It is the West and the rest of the world.  We Americans are the Capitol.  But, like them, we don’t realize it.

Regarding themes of adolescence:

  • Insecurity and a sense of fighting to stay on top.  Katniss and each of the teenagers selected as “Tributes” face this in all its immediacy.  High school really can feel like a battle to the death when in the throes of adolescence and yet many adults (just like Katniss’s upbeat and empty handler Effie Trinket) simply pat them on the head and send them on their way.
  • The Hunger Gamesis a coming-of-age story in some sense for Katniss, but at the same time inverts the whole idea.  As a teenage girl whose father died in a coal mining accident and whose mother slipped into a debilitating depression not long after, Katniss years before the Games was forced to grow up on her own.  Much like, I think, many adolescents today.  By the time their societally-sanctioned rites of passage arrive, they have already grown up much more than we know.

    Effie & Katniss

  • The adults in this book are almost uniformly absent or failed human beings.  Katniss’s father is dead, and appears only in flashback.  Her mother is a shell of a woman that has little impact on her life.  Her advisor from the Capitol, Effie Trinket, is profoundly superficial and oblivious to the world around her.  Her coach, Haymitch Abernathy, is an alcoholic veteran of the Games who very often treats her poorly.  In the wake of these retrograde examples of adulthood, Katniss the adolescent is often forced to make her own way and create a world divorced from the adults around her…much like so many young people.
  • Speaking of adults and adolescents, what does it mean that the major solution to the problems of the adult world of Panem must be solved by forcing their children to fight?  Just as adolescents today are often (sadly) pawns in the machinations of adults, so too Katniss is in many ways not her own.  Her fight in the arena, as much as it is to survive, is also to “stick it to the man” who has been trying to co-opt her agency as a human being.  Powerful stuff.

On Thursday I’ll post the results of our classroom conversation about the following question:  “Where is God?”  We’ll be looking at theological themes and questions raised by The Hunger Games.  In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.

*At least some of my discussion leadership (and these blog posts) derived from the book The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy by Leah Wilson.

Have Evangelicals Sold Their Birthright?

In coordination with Theoblogy, I’m reading through a new book called The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited.  The author is New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, whose provocative thesis is this: the “gospel” most Christians talk about today is not the same as the actual gospel defined by Scripture, lived by Jesus, and taught by the apostles.

A self-proclaimed evangelical, McKnight takes his co-religionists to task over focusing the definition of the gospel too narrowly on salvation.  Evangelicals, he reminds us, take their very name from the word gospel/evangel.  Yet in their drive for the gospel to be all about individual justification before God, they in the end become more like salvationists/soterians.  This for McKnight is an unfortunate turn…and one he hopes to correct.  While he has nothing against the idea of personal salvation, he understands it to be only one part of what the gospel is about.

It is as if we have all interiorized Luther’s Turmerlebnis and are constantly stuck in that single moment (p. 18):

Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples…Evangelism that focuses on decision short-circuits and–yes, the word is appropriate–aborts the design of the gospel, while evangelism that aims at disciples slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles.

What then is the true gospel?  As McKnight sees it (p. 61):

..the salvation-unleashing Story of Jesus, Messiah-Lord-Son, that brings to completion the Story of Israel as found in the Scriptures of the Old Testament.  To “gospel” is to declare this story, and it is a story that saves people from their sins.  That story is the only framing story if we want to be apostolic in how we present the gospel…this story begins at creation and finally only completes itself in the consummation when God is all in all.

Far from being simply about propositional truth, a moment of “decision,” or four spiritual laws, McKnight places the gospel firmly in the midst of a much larger story.  Many Christians today ignore this, he says.  We’ve all seen it happen from time to time.  A desire to get people to “cross the line of faith” through emotional manipulation, logical argument, or simply browbeating before leaving them as we move on evangelize others.  Dangerous stuff that ignores the larger message of Scripture and example of Christ…but I wonder if McKnight’s claims about the pervasiveness of this mentality is a bit overblown.  I’m teaching a class on discipleship and spiritual formation as a part of my courseload this semester, and I’ll tell you: there’s a lot the Church is doing in this area as well.

My question for today is therefore this:  has much of modern Christianity really lost the true gospel?  Have evangelicals and others really become soterians to the exclusion of the actual gospel?

I think here especially of my Pentecostal brothers and sisters who early in their history–and often throughout–have sought proclaim what they consider to be “full gospel” truths: Jesus Christ as Saviour, Baptizer in the Holy Spirit, Healer, and Coming King.  Though there has been a marked evangelical leavening of Pentecostalism, these four hallmarks persist with power.  Plus, Pentecostal attention to the Luke-Acts narrative makes a single-minded soterian focus somewhat difficult to keep up (Luke 4:14-21):

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.  He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.  He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me    to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.  He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

For Reformed evangelicals concerned more with the classical issues arising from the time of Luther/Calvin, I can imagine McKnight’s assertions being more true…but the level of biblical myopia he asserts is still a little hard to swallow.  Can we, en masse, really be so blind to the Scriptures so as to make gospel always, ever, and only about personal salvation? Surely it cannot be quite as bad as McKnight says.

Confession: I’m not finished the book yet and am still working through his arguments.  At times McKnight is rather obtuse and his argumentation is muddy, but his thesis remains interesting.  On Wednesday I’ll offer some reflections on his picture of the gospel and how our understanding of this might or might not affect our Christian lives and “gospeling.”

In the meantime, what do you think?  Have modern Christians (especially evangelicals) become so focused on getting people to a decision for faith that they’ve ignored the majority of what the gospel is about?

Twilight: A Fundamentalist’s Dilemma

I saw the new Twilight movie the other day.  It wasn’t too bad.  By this I mean that unlike two of the other films in the series, I was not bored to tears for long stretches.  There was actually a substantial amount of drama in the film.  Kristen Stewart even showed a little emotion.

SPOILER ALERT:  The plot is bizarre, but easy to explain.  Vampire Edward and human Bella get married, then consummate their marriage.  Edward is afraid said consummation will hurt his frail human bride, and he’s not entirely off base.  Wife Bella has plans for Edward to turn her into a vampire before the end of the honeymoon so that they can spend eternity together.  Midway through their vacation she discovers she is pregnant with a vampire-human spawn that is growing at a heavily accelerated rate within her body.  The child is stealing so many nutrients from her that her life is in danger.  Though she’s under a lot of pressure to terminate the pregnancy and fetus, she refuses and consistently refers to her spawn as “the baby.”  She dies giving birth, but thanks to the rejuvenating power of vampire venom, is turned into one of them at the last minute.  Thus ends “Breaking Dawn, Part I.”

What a movie, huh?  Tough to watch at parts, but better than watching Bella stare at the wall.

I’ve already talked about Mormons with reference to Twilight, but I will say it again: there are a lot of traditional family values present in this movie.  Hyper-conservative and fundamentalist Christians should in particular have a lot to appreciate.  Consider:

  • Valiant Edward refuses to have sex with his very willing girlfriend until AFTER they are married.
  • Their consummation, though difficult, is portrayed as a beautiful and appropriate expression of marital intimacy.
  • The elevation of marriage as THE appropriate path in life.
  • Rather than waste time in the world, Bella marries at 18 and “gets on with her life.”
  • How the move for Bella from family of origin to the new family of her husband happens swiftly and powerfully.
  • The not-so-subtle reminder that sex and marriage has consequences: the possibility of pregnancy, regardless of whether you thought it possible.
  • How time and  again, Bella refuses to consider the possibility of abortion.  The life of her child (not fetus) is simply too important.

Mary Pols of Time hated the movie, but confirms its particular view of the world:

The world’s most insipid young lovers, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), finally consummate their love in Breaking Dawn—Part 1, the fourth installment in the Twilight series. This is cause for celebration only because it means our death march through the movie adaptations of Stephenie Meyer’s twisted but steadily puritanical saga is finally nearing its end…

This is Meyer’s worst offense — her disturbingly Victorian attitudes about sex and love, which this movie falls modestly in lockstep with, even though it concludes years of cinematic foreplay. Twilight came out in 2008, but it feels like we’ve been waiting a decade for these two to get past first base. I know it’s too late in the game to get all hot and bothered about the basic premise. But there are so many scenes of people standing around doing nothing and posing ridiculously, like models in a commercial for high-end jeans, that I had time to reflect on both the petty (like how peculiar Bella’s gown is, ill-fitting spandex in the bodice, Priscilla of Boston lace panels in the back) and the perverse. This is the stuff of gothic novels…Bella relinquishes control, sexual pupil to Edward’s century-old rake, while he wakes up in the morning full of mopey self-loathing (“How badly are you hurt?”). Maybe Meyer never got over her own teenage Georgette Heyer phase.

There is also something extraordinarily deflating about realizing that you are sitting among a throng of blissful fans content with such a static enterprise.

It is these “blissful fans” that intrigue me.  Author Stephanie Meyer and the Twilight films may have actually done something here that years of preaching and attempted Republican legislation have failed to do: they’ve made family values cool.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if it is Bella and Edward rather than the youth pastor or purity ring that keep adolescents from “giving it up” too soon?

I’m not that naive, but it is an interesting phenomena.  While I don’t agree with all the perspectives the film shares about marriage, sex, and the like, I do find some things to admire.  Those on the very conservative end of things should be in love with the film.  But that’s the irony, of course.  The more theologically conservative one becomes, the more the values depicted in the film become important.  Yet these would also be the same people who would reject the film outright as a work of the devil.  It is about vampires, after all.  And it features a soundtrack with secular music.  And it is rated PG-13.  And (gasp!) its not super preachy or evangelistic.

Conservative and evangelical Christians tend to like “safe” movies that give a good message in a family-friendly way.  They also tend to make horrible movies.  I still remember sitting through a viewing of “Facing the Giants” with my youth group and feeling the need to deeply apologize for what a stupid film it was.  That movie–and others like it–will never attract the kind of rabid fans or widespread influence that these Mormon vampires will.

If evangelicals, fundamentalists, and other conservative Christians could get over their fears in this area, they might just have a chance to speak into the culture in a way that wasn’t so stilted and out of touch.  However modern reviewers may feel about the stilted romance in the Twilight films and books, they are anything but out of touch.

P.S.  Forget Twilight.  Next week my youth ministry class will be discussing a superior piece of young adult fiction (and a forthcoming movie) that has the potential for some powerful youth ministry reflection:  The Hunger Games.  Be excited.  Be very excited.

A Long Time Ago In A Third Dimension Far, Far Away

I was at the theater last night to see the new Twilight movie.  Yes, that’s right…Twilight.  More on that tomorrow.  While I was there, I noticed a poster for an upcoming release:  Star Wars Episode I in 3D.  Here’s the trailer.

Over the next few years, the plan is for the theatrical release of all six Star Wars movies in 3D.  A lot of people will look at this as yet another pathetic money grab by George Lucas.  I have no doubt that it is at some level.  But I’m also somewhat interested.  Corniness and bad acting aside, Star Wars at its best is a lot of fun.  I enjoyed seeing the original trilogy re-released to theaters during my high school years, and I think a new generation just might too.

I’ve heard some griping about the fact that there are releasing them in numerical order (I, II, III, etc.) rather than chronological order (IV, V, VI, I, etc.).  I don’t mind.  As a matter of fact, I’m one of the few people my age that actually LIKE Episode I.

In the spirit of Fridays, my list of Star Wars movies from best to worst:

  1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.  It’s hard not to choose this one.  It has long been held to be the best of them, and it has a lot to commend it.  Family intrigue, romance, war, mysticism, humor, and sorrow.  It plays like an epic drama, and only leaves you wanting more.
  2. Episode IV:  A New Hope.  The sine qua non.  A good movie that helps us take “a step into a much larger world.”  Earnest, playful, and occasionally mournful.  Seeing Luke Sykwalker yearn to escape his twin-sunned planet with his theme music swelling in the background speaks to the hearts of youth the world over.
  3. Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith.  Confession time.  I love the emperor.  Though, yes, evil, I think he’s amazingly awesome as a character.  All of Star Wars fanhood had been waiting for him to finally make his move…and when he does in this film the battles that ensue are as epic as they are tragic.  Obi-Wan is another favorite, and he remains strong throughout the film.  There are flaws here, most notably the strange business with General Grievous and the continually bizarre and stilted romance between Anakin and Padme.  And then, of course, “I have the high ground.”  Give me a break.
  4. Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi.  My previous favorite, probably because of the presence of the emperor.  He’s a hoot.  A great conclusion to the first trilogy and fitting sendoff for our heroes.  The redemption of Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker is a powerful moment.  Lucas did get a little too kid-friendly with those darned Ewoks, but even that has a charm all its own.
  5. Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  I like this movie.  Is it a little too “kiddish?”  Yes.  Is its plot setup a little Byzantine?  Yes.  Is Jar-Jar Binks the worst creation in all of cinema?  Meesa thinks so.  But in its freshness, fun, light-hearted spirit, and adventure the film wins me over.  In contrast to the black and grey world of the original trilogy, this new film introduces us to a world alive with color and Jedi and everything good…”before the dark times…before the Empire.”
  6. Episode II: Attack of the Clones.  The only real dog on this list.  I’ve only seen it once, and like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, that was enough for me.  All the flaws of the other films seem condensed here: bad acting, bad writing, overly complex story, lack of the emperor, etc.  I admit that the film may be better than I remember it, but I can’t see it moving up more than one spot on this list.  Yoda’s fighting skills?  I’m still not sure what I think about all that.  Lucas had the chance with this film to redeem fans’ disappointment with him over Episode I .  Instead he confirmed their worst fears: the magic had left the room.  At least Obi-Wan had a big role.

Is C. S. Lewis Overrated? (w/ poll!)

Upon recommendation from my mother, I recently took a look at a new book published by Renovare:  25 Books Every Christian Should Read.  After reviewing a sample of the text and the Table of Contents, I enthusiastically added it to my class “Discipleship and Spiritual Formation.”  The Purpose-Driven Church has its place, but nothing beats the communio sanctorum for helping us grow spiritually and reflect upon the work of God in the world.  Here’s what they include:A pretty heady list.  Some I’ve read.  Some I’m just aware of.  Others?  I sheepishly admit there are a few about which I know nothing.  Nevertheless, I’m excited to walk through these classics with my students.

Theoblogy noted the book approvingly last week, but did offer a few critiques.  One of them was this:  “C. S. Lewis is overrated.”  I have to say I kind of agree.

C. S. Lewis died 48 years ago yesterday (22 November 1963).  Two famous men died with him that day (John F. Kennedy & Aldous Huxley).  While Kennedy’s story has lived on, both he and Huxley’s legacies have not seen the immense growth in popularity that Lewis’ has.  Evangelicals have adopted him, often carte blanche, as their patron saint.

I’ve engaged in the C. S. Lewis lovefest myself.  I’ve read a number of his works, from the well-known (The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters) to the obscure (Letters to an American Lady).  I even took a C. S. Lewis course in college.  Make no mistake: he has a lot to offer.  Yet as I’ve reflected over the past few years–especially on his apologetic work–my passion for the man has been tempered.  Mere Christianity, often seen at the exemplar of his work, is one of my least favorite.  Why?  Because it goes about the apologetic task in a way suited for the Modern era, the world of science and propositional truth.  Josh McDowell’s infamous Evidence That Demands a Verdict also fits in well with this paradigm.  Lewis died well before the 1960s took full force, and with them the growing Postmodern temperament that devalues overarching metanarratives in favor of various contextual truths. In short, he wrote to a different world.

I think about Mere Christianity now and admire its construction and argument, but don’ t think it has much to say to contemporary Western society.  Lewis’ contemporaries George Orwell and Winston Churchill (indeed, the kind of people for whom it was written) would have been able to engage the material by means of acceptance or rejection.  Today’s young person might simply read it and say, “OK.  So what?”  Therein lies the postmodern dilemma, and why I’m convinced apologetics in the style of Mere Christianity are passe.

I disagree, however, that Lewis is completely overrated.  The genres he worked in were diverse, with propositional apologetics only one part of his larger project.  Stories like Narnia or Perelandra speak of truth narratively, and something like A Grief Observed is the emotional portrait of a Christian man honestly grieving the loss of his wife.  This kind of writing is in many ways well-suited for a postmodern narrative apologetic even as they are pieces for spiritual reflection in and of themselves.

Times change and the spiritual needs of and modes of reflection for Christians change with them.  As much as I love history, I realize that something does not need to be old for it to be useful.  Indeed, sometimes the passage of time can make things less and less relevant.  This is, of course, the problem with too much Lewis-olatry.  While he is a powerful writer and reflective thinker, we live in different times than his.  Too much focus on him will ignore the pressing issues of our own day and time and the ways in which our world calls of for answers, even as Lewis’ did. 

Beyond this, it is never a wise idea to so heavily favor one thinker or writer that we exclude or devalue others.  Lewis didn’t do this, and neither should we.  Is Lewis the only theologian we should consider? No.  Is he the only recent spiritual writer to which Christians should turn?  Absolutely not.  Are there writers who are doing some amazing work in these areas right now?  Absolutely.  Get your head out of The Magician’s Nephew for a second and take a look at Anne Lamott if you want to be smacked over the head with some postmodern narrative faith.  It will be worth you time.

So, then.Is C. S. Lewis overrated?  I’ll let you decide via this poll:

P.S.  The day after Dr. Clive Staples Lewis died, a new doctor premiered on the BBC.  48 years ago today.  Doctor Who?  Exactly.