Yes, That’s the Book For Me

Sometimes in my classes I place a book on the syllabus that I haven’t read before.  It gives me a chance to incorporate fresh new material and learn a new perspective together with my students.  There is certainly the potential for some “misses” here, but as long as an assigned text is notable and/or well-reviewed, it probably won’t be that bad as a pedagogical tool.

In my “Discipleship and Spiritual Formation” course this semester I have assigned MOVE: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth.  Coming out of research done by Willow Creek Community Church (megachurch and early leader in the seeker-sensitive movement), the survey touched upon over 250,000 individuals in more than a thousand churches.

Though I do have questions about the details and reliability of their methodology and conclusions (as do others), one cannot argue with the sheer size of the undertaking…and the willingness to admit that their own church needed to change the way it was operating.  One of their ideas that I really find fascinating is this: “not only do we find the same top priorities for the dissatisfied and satisfied….[but] helping people understand the Bible in greater depth is one of the top two priorities for those who are dissatisfied across all the believer segments.”  Their study lifts up the Bible as of prime importance through all stages of a believer’s movement towards becoming a mature Christian.

The Bible.  Imagine that.  After all the time, money, and energy dedicated to a study of this sort we come right back to the basic building blocks of Christianity: the story of God.  If this study’s information is accurate, it fills me with great hope as I continue to encourage ministers to engage others with and in the biblical narrative.  Even if the findings aren’t at 100%, I agree that a renewed emphasis on the Word is essential.  Far more than simple memorization of Scripture, this kind of engagement should seek deep identity with the themes, teachings, and story of the Bible.  If the holy narrative is truly alive by the power of the Spirit, it is then not simply something “out there,” but something which must rather be deeply interior– not just to our minds, but to our worldviews and corresponding actions in our daily lives.

As my students are presenting on the findings in the book this week and next, I’m excited for the direction it will take our discussions of spiritual formation and discipleship.  We’ve been utilizing the false dichotomy of discipleship as “what you know” vs. “what you do” as a way of framing the discussion thus far, and it seems that the findings and conclusions of this study will only serve to further our reflections as we consider what it is for our whole lives to be spiritually formed.


The Conscience of the King

In a great little historical flight of fancy, has just published an article entitled “Who Was the Most Religious President of All Time?”  The answer: Jimmy Carter.  Close behind him was James Garfield (actually a clergyman).

Deciding who is most “religious” is, of course, a rather subjective thing.  In order to come to any conclusion, religion must be defined in a certain way that may exclude certain parts of what it actually means to be “religious.”  Outward professions and observable facts are and must be favored in this kind of analysis over inner states and relationships.  Are we, after all, talking about spirituality here, or adherence to a specific set of Christian beliefs and practices?  For the purposes of discussion, is a religious person one who “paints within the lines” of orthodox Christianity, or someone for whom “faith seeking understanding” is predominant?

These are just some of the issues implicitly raised by an article like this and, more regularly, historians of religion.  Understanding the place and importance of faith in a person’s life is akin to deciding “how much” someone loved their wife.  At times, it is an effort to quantify the qualitative.  We can make some very educated guesses, but there is a sense in which–things like private journals and other direct comments from the historical actor notwithstanding–we may have a difficult time.  The author of the article on Slate tips his hand to the complications involved in a postscript: “While Thomas Jefferson was called an atheist—he rejected the virgin birth, called the Book of Revelation the ‘ravings of a maniac,’ and described the Trinity as a ‘hocus-pocus phantasm’—in his private life he was still a religious man who went to church and prayed.”  Complicated matters indeed.

For fun, the article also attempts to identify the “least religious presidents”: Ulysses S. Grant and James Monroe.  Very interesting.  Neither Jimmy Carter (widely understood to be a failure) nor Ulysses S. Grant (successful general but possible alcoholic with an administration accused as corrupt) are generally seen as overwhelming successes.  Interesting, then, that neither being very “religious” nor “irreligious” seemed to help them make the top tier of American leaders.*  A word of warning, perhaps, in this and any election year.

All of which, of course, brings us to Abraham Lincoln, a man for whom the inner questions of faith percolated but who in practice may have been considered less than religious.  He is an American cipher:

…it may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether…”  (Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865)

*Monroe, though, would seem to rank higher than Grant.  But then I guess winning the Civil War does get your face on the 50 dollar bill.

Mormon Style

I’ve recently completed Paul Gutjahr’s monograph “The Book of Mormon”: A Biography.  Short and to the point, Gutjahr details the debated origins of the text that Joseph Smith found/plagiarized/completely made up in the first half of the 19th century, its development within the larger Mormon community, and its place in visual media and (briefly) the more contemporary American scene.  Particular notable here is Gutjahr’s discussion of the process and challenges of translation  together with questions related to Mormon biblical scholarship as they developed over time.

The book’s aims are modest: to tell the story of The Book of Mormon.  Despite the fact the narrative gets a little bogged down near the middle as it discusses details related to the various editions of the book, on the whole it is a succinct walk through the relevant topics.  Those desiring a more in-depth look at Joseph Smith or the history of the Mormon movement will be disappointed, but for those who want a brief introduction to the specific subject matter will be satisfied…even if this satisfaction only whets their appetites for more.

In this year of the Mormon candidate, it serves us to pay more attention to the LDS movement–a truly American phenomenon if there ever was one.  Historically, sociologically and religiously, they remain a fascinating study.  Theologically, both the Mormons and their book confront Christians with questions both familiar and unique: rather than just deciding what counts as the minimum amount of belief to be “in” the Christian faith, the existence of something like the book of Mormon also asks–in some ways–how much other stuff can you add on top of the Bible and still be a Christian?

I’d love to hear from (and perhaps be corrected by) others who are much more familiar with Mormonism concerning the challenges, questions, and issues posed by the existence of this growing sect.

An Historiographic Moment

As part of a yearlong conversation Northwest University is having with its second year faculty, the following topic has been posed for discussion: “Select and describe a presupposition from your academic discipline that does not align with your understanding of the Christian faith.  Explain how this dichotomy affects your teaching, research, and/or service.”

In the field of history, a prevailing assumption (postmodern protestations notwithstanding) is that scholars are to have a certain sense of objectivity–operating, in other words, in the truest sense of the term “social science.”  Though not exactly historical determinism, the field generally prefers to assume that all human events are the products of social factors, economic realities, volition acts, and inner psychology.  Many historians prefer not to answer the ultimate questions of human existence, but rather describe and explain “what has been.”

When it comes to matters of faith, history as a discipline takes at worst an atheist perspective and at best a kind of agnosticism or Deism.  In other words, if there is a God, He stepped off of the stage long ago; it would therefore be irresponsible to try to insert Him in the “scientific” discussion we are having.  God is only present for many historians as a perceived object of faith or idea.  Never a person.

For the historian who is an orthodox believer, a perspective of this kind creates a problem.  Christianity is, after all, an historic faith.  Christ (God incarnate) did live in space and time, and we believe the God can and does intervene in our world.  To ignore the reality of God would be faithless; to assign Him a definite role in every instance seems suspect and agenda-driven. Reconciling the history and Christian reality can be a little tricky.

My perspective tends to be a cautious one with regards to “inserting God” into the historical narrative.  With many of my fellow historians, I prefer to shy away from ultimate questions in favor of observable phenomena.  As a teacher, I prefer to work in terms of a narrative of themes, individuals, and events.  I reject the lazy historical shortcut “Well, God did it” in favor of the more complicated questions of what and why human beings acted.  Students need to think deeply about the past on its own terms, and only then come to some idea–never final, for we do not speak for the Almighty–about the mysterious hand of God at work in our midst.

I believe God intervenes and acts in human history.  In teaching and research, however, I prefer to let the historical actors and events speak for themselves.  It is enough, I think, to see things through their eyes (including their perspectives on faith) and let students and readers draw their own conclusions.  To be sure, my choice of academic discipline (Church history) and dissertation work (the Charismatic Movement in the 20th century) both reflect my faith commitments, but rarely if ever will you hear me say “God was really at work in X century,” or make normative statements about matters of faith.  By the same token I do not–like many historians–reject the presupposition that God is at work in the world.  That God is present is not to be debated.  How and why He is present?   This I leave to the personal reflection that follows after one understands the past.  I also leave it to my colleagues the theologians.  🙂

I consider my task more modest: to recall the past as best I can and provide the necessary tools for others to understand the perspectives and worlds of those who went before. For believers this understanding means learning the ways in which people very different from them lived their faith; for nonbelievers it means helping them comprehend the importance of the life of faith to so many throughout human history.  In so doing I would hope to offer the best testimony to the presence and place of God throughout human history: the lives of those He has touched.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Introducing Mr. and Mrs. Jesus

You’ve heard the story.  “Ancient Papyrus Proves Jesus had a Wife!”  Well, not exactly.  Not exactly at all.

As it turns out, the papyrus in question is only a fragment, dates from over 300 years after the time of Christ, and has a meaning that may be less than literal.  Hmmm.

Every few years or so, the media likes to remind the public that there were lots of extra “gospels” floating around in ancient days–all of them apparently authentic.  The same narrative normally concludes that a rigid and authoritarian Church clamped down on those teachings and actions of Jesus they did not like, thereby removing them from the biblical canon.

Not really.  You see, while there are extra documents in the ancient world that are often called “gospels,” either their authorship, dating, authenticity, or take on Christ seem very questionable (and did even during that time).  By contrast, the four actual gospels accepted by Christianity all likely date from around the first century and broadly agree in their perspectives.  John offers a slightly different perspective and may have taken longer to gain full acceptance, but all the same is not considered out of bounds.

These “other gospels?”  Well, some of them (like the fragment currently in the news) may date from substantially later.  During the intervening centuries additions and legendary tales accreted together with agendas alien to the teachings of Christ.  Few if any in the early Church thought these obscure writings worthy of adoption.  Errant teachings in the first century would have easily been corrected or rejected by the living witness of those who had actually known Jesus, and later questions could be answered by a recourse to known stories about Christ that had been passed down.

Plus, there’s this: secret gospels sound rather exciting until you start reading them and find out how bizarre, wrong, and/or boring they can be.

The “Gospel” of Thomas: “Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.’  Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.'”

The Infancy “Gospel” of Thomas: When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. And he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent, commanding them by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed.  Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him.

The “Gospel” of Judas: “The twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries constitute their father, with six heavens for each aeon, so that there are seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries, and for each [of them five] firmaments, [for a total of] three hundred sixty [firmaments …].  They were given authority and a [great] host of angels [without number], for glory and adoration, [and after that also] virgin spirits, for glory and [adoration] of all the aeons and the heavens and their firmaments.

The Gospel of Mary: “The Savior replied, ‘Every nature, every modeled form, every creature, exists in and with each other. They will dissolve again into their own proper root. For the nature of matter is dissolved into what belongs to its nature. Anyone with two ears able to hear should listen!'”

Do these sound a little strange or just wrong to you?  If they do, than you stand with the early Church in deciding they don’t belong in the Bible.  They are not the same as our accepted gospels.  As a matter of fact, they ought not even to be called gospels, because so doing confuses the whole matter.

Did Jesus have a wife?  Despite the fact that there is zero direct evidence he did, I suppose it is within the realm of possibility (though if he had children it does raise some interesting questions).  Whatever the case, the question of whether Jesus was married can almost certainly not be answered by this strange piece of papyrus.  The only thing it does tell us definitively is that some people may have been talking about the possibility of Jesus having a wife 300 years later.  It would be like us debating about Benjamin Franklin’s favorite childhood toy.

Still curious about Christ’s matrimony?  Take a look at the Twitter hashtag #ifJesushadawife.  Fascinating.

#ifJesushadawife could you imagine being her second husband? Sure, you make more money, but…

#ifJesushadawife, she would get to use the phrase, “I don’t care if you were born in a barn, close that door!”

“What – you think you’re God’s gift?!” #ifJesushadawife

Enjoy your weekend, and please, feel free to comment (especially you  historians and New Testament scholars out there.)

By the Waters of Babylon

In my Church History I course, we’re currently focused on the first few centuries of Christian history–a time when the status and security of early believers was anything but secure.  Surrounded by a hostile Roman Empire that neither understood or appreciated them, Christians of the first century were the subject of disgust and disdain.  Rumors about them were spread impugning the Faith and Christians were sporadically persecuted and harassed.  Some even paid the ultimate price of martyrdom.

During the Church’s infancy, Christian believers had little trouble remembering some of what we have forgotten.  In words made immortal in the book of I Peter, we are told the following:

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (I Peter 2:11-12)

Exiles.  Foreigners.  Christians are, in other words, not about what the world around them is about.  There is a difference.  Yet it is a difference that many in the Church forgot when, less than a generation after the fiercest Roman persecution ended, the Emperor Constantine himself because a Christian.  The Empire–and the lives of the faithful–changed forever.  In the centuries following, at least in the West, the line between the ways of the world and the ways of God were much less clear.

Yet in many ways we in the modern West now understand the exilic perspective of Christianity better than any generation since Constantine.  Christian exclusivity garners disdain, just as it did during Roman times.  Religious syncretism in various forms is a pervasive tendency.  The Church is derided (sometimes rightly, often wrongly) for being ignorant, hateful, and vile.  Once again, we realize we are exiles…and maybe, just maybe, we’ve been exiles the whole time.

Consider: the continued  removal of the veneer of “Christianness” from our society might actually be a good thing.  After all, do we really want “In God We Trust” plastered on our money?  Is this even true?  Has it ever been?  Do we want our politicians saying “God bless America” if they don’t even mean it?  Do God and politics ever mix?  As old and faulty assumptions fade, the distinctions the Scripture has no problem drawing may become a little clearer for all of us.  In the process it just might help us to lives our lives a little more humbly.

Like the early believers, we might then spend less time trying to maintain society’s adherence to the outward trappings we often assume are necessary, and more time as Christian witnesses, apologists, and servants in a world that will never be our home.

There are a host of issues a perspective like this raises…but surely it is worth considering, no?

Let’s Kill Football

After Monday night’s game featuring the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, former NFL quarterback and current commentator Steve Young had this to say about the replacement referees currently filling in for their striking counterparts:

“Player safety? Doesn’t matter in this case. Bringing in Division III officials? Doesn’t matter. Because in the end, you’re still going to watch the game…there’s nothing that changes the demand for the NFL.  So they want to break the union or send a message to them, they don’t care about player safety. It doesn’t affect the desire for the game. If it affected the desire for the game, they’d come up with a few extra million dollars.”

The cold hard dollar and America’s addiction to football are realities in today’s sports world.  But it goes beyond replacement refs.  It has to do with the NFL’s issues with regard to players’ health and safety (read: concussions) even when the game is played under the best conditions.  It has to do with the vast amounts of money tied up in advertising and television contracts that make the sport sacrosanct.  It has to do with hordes of rabid fantasy football fans that care more about the numbers on their computer screen and the bragging points they can get after a good week than the actual human beings that create those numbers.  Football is our new god.

Panem et circenses.  The NFL is rapidly becoming victim to the worst parts of cold capitalism and a base human nature that would rather be entertained than consider reality.  For many in America, football (and/or sports in general) is transforming into the only religion that really matters.  So let us together call it what it often is: a garish, greed-based, gladiatorial idol.  We forget, of course, that football as sport is supposed to be re-creation, not actual Creation or the Creator Himself.

For all these reasons….perhaps, my friends, it is time to considering ending it–for our own good.  That’s slowly becoming my fantasy.