The Church in Exile

Wright

Theologian N.T. Wright has a new book out titled God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath. I have a review copy, but I have not the time to look at it yet. Stay tuned.

Wright has published an excerpt at Time. Here is a taste of “Should Churches Reopen? The Answer Lies in Thinking of This As a Time of Exile“:

Of course, part of the point of Psalm 137 is precisely that this Psalm is itself a “song of the Lord.” That is the irony: writing a poem about being unable to write a poem. Part of the discipline of lament might then be to turn the lament itself into a song of sorrow. Perhaps that is part of the way in which we are being called right now to be people of lament – lamenting even the fact that we can’t lament in the way we would normally prefer. We need to explore those questions, and the new disciplines they may demand, in whatever ways we can. Perhaps this, too, is simply to be accepted as part of what life in Babylon is like. We must, as Jeremiah said, settle down into this regime and “seek the welfare of the city” where we are. But let’s not pretend it’s where we want to be. Let’s not forget Jerusalem. Let’s not decide to stay here.

Read the entire piece here.

Three Sundays in April (Part 4)

If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

This is how I started our short series titled “Three Sundays in April.”

On April 19, 2020, the Sunday after Easter, Donald Trump watched the service at Jack Graham’s Prestonwood Baptist Church in West Plano, Texas.

What did he hear?

Jack Graham is sixty-nine-years-old and a life-long Southern Baptist. He has a Masters of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Southwestern in “Church and Proclamation.” After serving several Southern Baptist Churches in Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida, Graham came to Prestonwood, a prominent Dallas-area megachurch, in 1989. Today the church claims 45,000 members. Graham was president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2002-2004.

Graham has strong court evangelical credentials. Here are some of his greatest hits:

  • Has has defended Trump’s immigration policies.
  • He is part of the Southern Baptist faction who opposed Russell Moore’s criticism of Donald Trump.
  • He has supported Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.
  • He believes that Trump is the “most pro life president” in his lifetime.
  • He rarely misses a photo-op with Trump.
  • He was one of the several evangelical leaders who prayed for Trump at the “Evangelicals for Trump” gathering in January 2020. (I wrote about this event at USA Today).
  • He signed a letter criticizing Christianity Today after former editor Mark Galli wrote an anti-Trump editorial. (He said the magazine was “increasingly liberal and out of step and out of touch with conservative Christians and churches”).
  • He defended Trump during impeachment, calling the proceedings against the president “ludicrous” and a “sham.”

When Donald Trump pointed his browser toward Prestonwood Baptist Church he watched a few praise songs and then saw Graham interviewing Texas governor Gregg Abbott. The Republican governor knew that his primary audience was not Graham or those sitting on their couches at home awaiting Graham’s sermon. Abbott was talking to the President of the United States. Abbott said that “Texas wants to lead the way” in opening the nation’s economy. He told Graham, “put your faith in God and Texas will once again rise-up to be the number one economy in the United States of America.”

Graham’s sermon was titled “We are Alive.” It was based on Acts 2, a passage chronicling the coming of the Holy Spirit and the first days of the early Christian church. Christians around the world celebrate these events on Pentecost Sunday. This year, May 31 is Pentecost Sunday. Since Southern Baptists do not follow the historic Christian calendar, Graham felt comfortable preaching on Acts 2 six weeks early.

Graham’s delivered a standard 3-point message. Based on the text, he exhorted his listeners to “exalt” Christ, “evangelize” the world, and “engage” the life of the church. Because several listeners had made professions of faith (by contacting the website on the screen) the week before–Easter Sunday–Graham wanted to make sure that these people got connected with a church characterized by these three practices. Those in the evangelical world call this “follow-up.” Billy Graham (no relation to Jack Graham as far as I know) would have new converts fill-out “decision cards” and the Graham organization would “follow-up” with them to make sure they got connected with a local congregation. This became very controversial during the 1957 Billy Graham New York Crusade when some of the decision cards were distributed to the “liberal” churches of the Protestant mainline. Jack Graham does not want this to happen to his new online converts.

In Graham’s first point, “exalt Christ,” he came closest to reminding Trump that because of the events of Holy Week there is another leader in charge. (Unlike Greg Laurie on Palm Sunday and Robert Jeffress on Easter Sunday, Graham never acknowledged the fact that Trump was watching). “Christ is King,” Graham said, and “there is no president or King above him.” I am not sure Graham meant this as a political statement addressed to the current President of the United States, but he said it nonetheless and it is true. But such a statement does not seem to match-up with Graham’s court evangelicalism. I don’t think he has teased out the full political implications of Christ kingship. He is not alone. Most evangelicals have not thought about the Kingdom of God in this way. As a minister, Graham represents an alternative Kingdom. Yet he wants to rely on the corrupt king of an inferior kingdom to advance the mission of the superior and victorious Kingdom to which he holds his higher loyalty. If you view the world through the eyes of faith, this does not make sense. It is also a form of idolatry.

Graham’s second point, “evangelize” the world, represent the classic evangelical understanding of the church’s mission. Christians should preach the “simple” message that Jesus died for the sins of the world, rose again on Easter Sunday, and offers eternal life to all those who believe. When Christians do this, Graham notes, they are following the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20. In that passage, Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Italics mine). Jesus had a lot to say during his ministry about the ethics–including the political ethics–of His Kingdom. The Great Commission is not just about evangelism as Graham defines it. It is also a call to discipleship.

Graham calls himself a “gospel preacher” and subtly distinguishes this kind of preaching from the kind of preaching that helps Christians grow in their faith. “Gospel preachers” like Graham are always trying to ignite a revival. They want to get people saved in the way I described above.  Revival is thus a major theme in Graham’s April 19 message. Such an appeal to revival might even perk-up the ears of Donald Trump, especially since Graham talks about “revival” during this service in both spiritual and economic terms. The message is clear: President Trump and Governor Abbott will revive the American economy and spur a spiritual revival. People will return to church, preach the Gospel, and lead more people to salvation. We know that Trump already thinks his presidency is responsible for a great revival in the church. Now Graham, by inviting Abbott to his service, is implying that Trump will continue to be such a spiritual leader by opening the economy. These two ideas are inseparable in the mind of this president.

But again I ask, what might such a revival look like? Graham said that once the economy comes back, the church will “turn the world upside down.” If this is true, did Trump get the message? Does Graham understand the meaning of such a message?

Graham believes that a revival will come when people accept Christ as Savior, but “turning the world upside down” seems to be a revolutionary political act. I imagine that Graham thinks this means revived Christians will turn the world upside down by reclaiming it as a Christian nation characterized by conservative Supreme Court justices, the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, a restoration of biblical values related to marriage, the defense religious freedom, and the flourishing of a free-market economy. When the revival comes, America will be great again.

As I listened to Laurie, Jeffress, and now Graham talk about the large numbers of people making “decisions for Christ” after watching their coronavirus services, I thought about the mid-20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr‘s critique of this kind of evangelism. Writing in the context of Billy Graham’s New York crusade, Niebuhr said that Graham’s success depended on “oversimplifying every issue of life.” Evangelicals like Billy Graham, he added, failed to address “the social dimensions of the Gospel.” Billy Graham’s gospel, Niebuhr argued, “promises new life, not through painful religious experience, but merely by signing a decision card” (Life, July 1, 1957).

So I return to my question: What might Jack Graham’s revival look like? Will it announce the Kingdom of God by speaking truth to the corruption and immorality of this presidential administration? Will it cause Christians to address the structural problems of race in America? What will such a revival mean for the “least of these”–the poor, the immigrant, the unborn, the elderly? How might such a revival inspire Christians to care for the creation?  Or will this be a Christian nationalist and capitalist revival? Or perhaps it will be solely a pietistic revival, with little effect on sin-infested social institutions and practices.

N.T. Wright has been a lodestar for me during this series.  Here Wright in The Day the Revolution Began:

True, in recent years several thinkers have made a distinction between ‘mission’ (the broadest view of the church’s task in the world) and ‘evangelism’ (the more specific task of telling people about Jesus’s death and resurrection and what it means for them); but the word ‘mission’ is still used in the narrower sense as well, often referring to specific events such as weeklong ‘evangelistic rally.’  Part of my aim in this book has been to widen the scope of the ‘mission’ based on what Jesus did on the cross without losing its central and personal focus. I hope it is clear, in fact, that this task of telling people about Jesus remains vital. But I have also been arguing that the early Christian message is not well summarized by saying that Jesus died so that we can go to heaven  That way of looking at the gospel and mission both shrinks and distorts what the Bible actually teaches. It ignores Jesus’s claim to be launching God’s kingdom ‘on earth as in heaven’ and to be bringing that work to its climax precisely on the cross. It ignores the New Testament’s emphasis on the true human vocation, to be ‘image-bearers,’ reflecting God’s glory into the world and the praises of creation back to God.” (p.356-357)

According to Wright, the vocation of the image-bearing Christian extends beyond Christian Right talking points.

Finally, in point three of his message, “engage the church,” Graham talks about how the church grew in numbers, prayed together, and studied the scripture. This is good. But it is also a pretty selective view of Acts 2. For example, Graham fails to mention Acts  2:42-47:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

What might this passage mean in the larger context of debates over the opening of a capitalist economy defined by individual accumulation of property and possessions? How might this passage in Acts relate to the “spiritual awakening” Graham believes is coming to America and the world?

I have been reading Eugene McCarraher‘s provocative book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. In his discussion of early 20th-century businessman Edward Filene, McCarraher writes, “‘The right and power to buy must lead to a great new religious awakening,’ Filene proclaimed, ‘a religious experience such as humanity has never had an opportunity to know before.”

If Trump managed to make it through the entire service, he learned that his attempts to open-up the economy will lead to a religious awakening that will make America great again and secure him the evangelical votes he needs in November.

What Should We Make of Ralph Reed’s “Christian Case” for Trump?

GOP political operative Ralph Reed recently appeared on the Eric Metaxas Show. Watch:

Thoughts:

2:45ff:  The interview begins with a discussion of the quarantine. Reed seems to be making a case that coronavirus deaths and the shut-down of the economy are both “life” issues. This is certainly true. I am glad to see Reed is extending his understanding of pro-life politics beyond abortion. If Reed is willing to think about what it means to be pro-life in a way that takes him beyond abortion (or disease-based deaths), perhaps he is open to going a step further by starting to think about pro-life policy in terms of poverty, immigration, and the environment.

5:00ff: Reed says that Hillary Clinton was an “unspeakable alternative” in 2016. I understand why he said this. I have argued that Hillary Clinton’s decision to ignore evangelicals in 2020 was a huge political mistake. But I also think Reed’s views on Clinton are based more on recent history than theologically-informed politics.

The history of anti-Hillary sentiment among conservative evangelicals reaches back at least to Bill Clinton’s first campaign, when Hillary defended working in her law practice during her husband’s governorship by saying, “You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” To many who embraced the importance of traditional family roles, this seemed like a disparaging attack on their values. Then, when revelations of her husband’s marital infidelities surfaced, conservatives who challenged his character saw only defensiveness–and maybe something of a double standard–in Hillary’s response. She seemed willing to overlook her husband’s shortcomings, but she was ready to attack her husband’s accusers to advance a political agenda. In a Today interview in 1998, following the Monica Lewinksy affair, Clinton said that the impeachment allegations against her husband were little more than a “vast-right-wing conspiracy.

Many of these values voters have been so deeply influenced by the political playbook of the Christian Right that they were incapable of seeing Hillary Clinton, a devout mainline Methodist, as anything but an enemy. Fear of a Clinton victory blinded them to the fact that, not only did she have far more experience than Trump did, she also championed a position on paid leave that would have strengthened families, had a humane immigration policy, and defended the rights of women, children, the poor, and people of color. Many Christians see plenty of biblical themes at work in her positions, but these are not the themes long championed by the Christian Right. It is worth noting that there were evangelical leaders, including Ronald Sider and Thabiti Anyabwile, who said she was the best evangelical choice in 2016.

Notice how Reed does not use the words “unspeakable alternative” to describe Trump.

13:45: Reed says: “As Christians we hold a dual passport. We are citizens of a Kingdom that is here and yet to come, but we are also citizens of the United States. And we have to be good stewards of that citizenship.” This statement speaks volumes. Reed seems to imply that these dual identities are somehow equal. (I don’t think he really believes this, but political captivity makes people say strange things). If the Kingdom of God has a “here” dimension (in addition to a “yet to come” dimension), as Reed acknowledges, then the Kingdom of God is an alternative political community. What else could it be? It’s a Kingdom, right? And if Jesus reigns over this Kingdom, then its citizens–Christians guided by the Holy Spirit– must say something by way of moral critique to the earthly powers and kingdoms that rival it.

What does it mean, as Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, and Matthew Bates, among others, have argued, that Jesus is King? What role do Christians play as a royal priesthood, proclaiming the truth of God to the darkness and, as Wright puts it, “reflecting God’s wisdom and justice into the world.”And there’s the rub. Reed’s Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God as understood by many conservative evangelicals, looks the other way when a ruler from another kingdom (so to speak) practices immorality. They do not seem to take their citizenship in this Kingdom as seriously as they take their American citizenship or, at the very least, they seem unwilling to say more about the tensions between the two. (There is, of course, a deep history behind the conflation of these two kingdoms).

14:05: At this point, Metaxas starts to sing the praises of the Christian Right political playbook designed in the late 1970s to win the burgeoning culture war. As I have argued multiple times, including in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, this political playbook teaches Christians that fear, power, and nostalgia are the predominant ways of engaging political life. This playbook is barely Christian. Yes, as Metaxas goes on to say here, Christians must speak to the culture as representatives of the Kingdom of God. He is right to criticize the rapture culture of modern evangelicalism that tells us not to worry about this world because we will be leaving soon to meet God in the air. But Metaxas’s public theology (if you can call it that) is severely limited. Kingdom ethics teaches Christians not to put their trust in political strongmen and grasp at worldly power. He is correct in his desire to engage the culture, but wrong in his approach. Sadly, he has the majority of American evangelicals on his side and this enables him to sustain his brand.

14:48:  Metaxas references his recent debate with David French. (See the transcript here and see my commentary here). Metaxas argues that Trump is a man of character because he has “fulfilled his promises” to evangelicals. Does Metaxas really believe that Trump is somehow different from any other first-term politician who wants to fulfill campaign promises to get re-elected? Metaxas is scraping the bottom of the barrel. His Trump cheerleading seems to have blinded him from the possibility that evangelicals are being played. Is this what evangelical political engagement has come to? Are we now defining presidential character–something that our founding fathers said a lot about–on whether or not a president keeps his election promises? Is “Make America Great Again?” all we’ve got?

16:25: Reed mentions Joe Biden’s ethical challenges. Here, in my view, Reed misses the point. Trump is not a man of character. His tweets and public statements are not only disgusting, but they mobilize the ugly populism that make-up a significant part of his base. They should not dismissed, as Reed does in this interview. Trump’s racist remarks at Charlottesville empowered white supremacists. His immigration policies, including keeping humans in cages, is unChristian. His narcissism got in the way of his ability to handle the coronavirus effectively and lives have been lost as a result. He worked with a foreign country to influence the 2020 election.

I don’t know all the details about this Tara Reade-Joe Biden controversy. If it turns out that Biden harassed Reade, I will condemn it. Granted, it looks like we will have an imperfect choice to make in November, as we often do. But Joe Biden’s character as a man far exceeds Donald Trump. Moreover, his policies are more just, humane, and in some ways more Christian than Trump. (See my comments on Hillary Clinton above).

20:00: Reed addresses the charge that pro-Trump evangelicals who condemned Bill Clinton for his moral indiscretions in 1998 are hypocritical. (I and others have made this charge on multiple occasions and have documented this here at the blog and in Believe Me). Reed argues that with Clinton it was more than just sexual because he also lied and obstructed justice. But if you read the 1998 remarks of James Dobson, Franklin Graham, Gary Bauer, and Wayne Grudem, it is clear that they all thought Clinton was ill-equipped to serve as president almost entirely because of the sexual affair and his willingness to lie about it. Of course, Trump has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women (granted, not in the Oval Office, as far we know) and he denies every charge. He has also told thousands and thousands of lies to the American people unrelated to his sexual escapades. And, if I remember correctly, Trump was also impeached for obstructing justice and trying to cover-it-up. I can’t get my head around Reed’s logic here. What am I missing?

20:30: Reed claims that he did not disqualify Clinton because of his immoral past, but instead disqualified him on the issues. Fair enough. It sounds like Reed does not belong in the Dobson, Graham, Bauer, Grudem camp here. (Does someone want to check him on this one?). But then he says this:

My argument in the book is: if you’re going to exclude someone from serving in society because they’ve made mistakes in the past and because they’ve come up short, then I think that is not only contrary to good citizenship, I think it’s contrary to the Gospel. Throughout scripture, God takes people who are the dismissed, the demeaned, the failures, the outcasts, the people who came up short, the prostitute, the women who had five husbands and was then living with the Samaritan women at the well–these are the people who Jesus reached out to. And I personally think that what Christians did with Donald Trump was they extended grace to him, they hoped for the best out of him, and they accepted him for who he was and where he was and they  hoped to move him along by loving on him instead of throwing rocks and judging him.

It is hard to argue with grace and love. Indeed, Christians are called to pray for those in authority. I hope Reed will apply the same test to the next Democratic president, whether it is Joe Biden or someone else. But at what point does the grace period end? In the Old Testament, God decided Saul was not His guy. And we can think of other similar examples in scripture. Granted, God’s grace to human beings is endless. He will never stop pursuing Donald Trump. But isn’t there a difference between God extending grace to Donald Trump in his personal spiritual life and evangelicals looking the other way on Trump’s indiscretions and then justifying their behavior by invoking Christian grace? Please stop using the doctrine of grace as a political tool.

What about love? If Reed and evangelicals truly love Donald Trump they should take him aside and tell him that his character, rhetoric, narcissism, and many of his policies make him ill-equipped to serve in this role. They will tell him that God is not happy with his behavior. They should give him some hard-love, like the prophet Nathan did to David in 2 Samuel 12. They should lovingly speak truth to power and tell him it is time to go. Why don’t the court evangelicals use their “unprecedented access” to the White House to channel the voice of God to the 45th President of the United States?

22:10: Eric Metaxas wonders why non-evangelicals have such a “cartoonish” view of evangelicals. He fails to realize that evangelicals are mostly to blame for how “secular” people view them. They have damaged their witness, but instead of reminding his listeners of this, Metaxas chooses to play the victim.

I’ll stop there.  Watch the video and draw your own conclusions.

The Problem With Providence

c7789-trump

Over the last year I have received a lot of critical e-mails questioning my faith because I am not willing to assert that Donald Trump is God’s anointed servant to save America from the liberals (mostly Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama).

In the last couple months, I have also received e-mails from Christian anti-Trumpers who write to tell me that COVID-19 is God’s punishment on the United States for electing Donald Trump.

Even if you believe in the Christian doctrine of providence,  as I do, both of these positions are theologically problematic.

Does it make theological sense to invoke providence in political debates? Should we build our approach to politics and government on this doctrine? How do we reconcile providential claims–and the sense of certainty that comes with them–with St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13: 12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”  The Christian scriptures teach that God is the “blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords” who “lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” (1 Tim. 6:15-15). And let’s not forget Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,/ neither are your ways my ways,’ / declares the LORD.’ / ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, / so are my ways higher than your ways / and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

St. Augustine is helpful here. In book 20 of The City of God against the Pagans, he reminds us what Christians can and cannot know about God’s work in the world. History will end with the glorious triumph of the Son of God. But as we live with this hope, we must be cautious about trying to pinpoint the specific plan of God in history. We must avoid trying to interpret what is hidden from us or what is incomprehensible, because our understanding is so limited. As Augustine writes,

There are good men who suffer evils and evil men who enjoy good things, which seems unjust, and there are bad men who come to a bad end, and good men who arrive at a good one. Thus, the judgments of God are all the more inscrutable, and His ways past finding out. We do not know, therefore, by what judgment God causes or allows these things to pass.

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who had a strong view of God’s providential ordering of the world, warned us about trying to get too specific in explaining the ways in which God’s work manifests itself in the world. In his book, American Providence, the late theologian Stephen Webb notes, Barth went so far in “advising restraint, modesty, and caution in the use of this doctrine that he nearly undermines his own insistence on its importance.”

The great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther was also clear about what Christians can and cannot know about the will of God in human history. Luther always erred on the side  of mystery: God is transcendent and sovereign; humans are sinful and finite. During the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther was quite candid about the human quest to understand God’s purposes in the world. “That person, Luther wrote, “does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.”

When it comes to politics, Christians would do better to embrace an approach to citizenship with a sense of God’s transcendent mystery, a healthy dose of humility, and  a hope that one day soon, but not now, we will all understand the Almighty’s plans for the nations. We should again take comfort in the words of Augustine: “When we arrive at that judgment of God, the time of which in a special sense is called the Day of Judgment,…it will become apparent that God’s judgments are entirely just.” The will of God in matters such as these often remain a mystery. As theologian Charles Mathewes notes, “The lesson of providence is not that history can be finally solved, like a cryptogram but that it must be endured, inhabited as a mystery which we cannot fully understand from the inside, but which we cannot escape of our own powers.

I like to season any providential invocations with words like “perhaps” or “maybe” or “might.” Or as theologian N.T. Wright has argued, “When Christians try to read off what God is doing even in their own situations, such claims always have to carry the word perhaps about with them as a mark of humility and of the necessary reticence of faith. That doesn’t mean that such claims can’t be made, but that they need to be made with a “perhaps” which is always inviting God to come in and say, ‘Well, actually, no.'”

Evangelical Christians: Today the Press is Doing What the Church is Supposed to be Doing

Here is theologian N.T. Wright:

These two methods of speaking truth to power–official opposition parties and the media–regularly fail. As we all know, opposition parties often collude with governmental folly and wickedness, and newspapers can easily egg them on in precisely those areas where critique is most needed. The church’s vocation of speaking truth to power has thus been taken over by two systems that aren’t up to the job. We urgently need the voice of Christian wisdom to approve that which is excellent and to call to account that which isn’t. Of course, when we try to do that, the media regularly tries to rule the church out of order, not just because it doesn’t like what we might say but because we are treading on turf they took from us, and they don’t want us to have it back. So, once again, we have colluded with this diminishing role and God-given vocation; or, worse, we have been herded like sheep into the lobby of this or that party, swept along on agendas we assume too readily to be God’s agendas and unable to differentiate between the whim of the party and the conscience of the Christian.

If you are a Christian reader who has issues with the so-called “mainstream media,” then please step-up to the plate. The press is doing our job for us.

Today, Trump showed the following video during his coronavirus press conference:

This, of course, is little more than a carefully-edited propaganda video.

Then the questions began. Here CBS reporter Paula Reid:

Here is my transcript of that exchange:

Reid: What did you do with that time that you bought. The argument is that you bought yourself some time and you didn’t use it to prepare hospitals, you didn’t use it to ramp-up testing. Right now nearly 20 million people are unemployed. Tens of thousands of Americans are dead. How is this video or this rant supposed to make Americans feel confident in an unprecedented crisis?

Trump: You’re so disgraceful. You’re so disgraceful the way you say that. Listen, I just went over it. I just went over it. Nobody thought we should do it and when I did it…

Reid: But what did you do with the time that you bought? The month of February? That video has a gap. The entire month of February.

Trump: You know what we did. You know what we did. What do you do when you have no cases in the whole United States…

Reid: You had cases in February.

Trump: Excuse me, you reported it. Zero cases. Zero deaths. On January 17th

Reid: In January. The entire month of February? Your video has a complete gap. What did your administration do in February with the time that your travel ban bought you?

Trump: A lot.

Reid: What?

Trump: A lot. And in fact we’ll give you a list what we did. In fact part of it was up there [on the video].

Reid: It wasn’t there.  There was a gap.

Trump: Look. You know you’re a fake. You know that. You’re whole network, the way you cover it, is fake. And most of you, but not all of you. And the people are wise to you. That’s why you have a lower approval rating than you’ve ever had before times probably three.

Reid: 20 million people are unemployed. Tens of thousands are dead.

Trump: Why did Biden apologize. Why did he write a letter of apology…

Reid:  I don’t think the American people care right now about why Joe Biden apologized.

Trump: No, that’s very important. Why did the Democrats think that I acted too quickly? You know why, because they really thought that I acted too quickly.

Reid: [Inaudible]

Trump: Now, I could have kept it kept it open. And I could have done what some country’s are doing. They are getting beat-up pretty badly. I could have kept it open. I thought of keeping it open. Because no one’s ever heard of closing down a country, let alone the United States of America. But if I would have done that, we would have had hundreds of thousands of people that would right now be dead. We’ve done this right. We really have done this right. The problem is the press doesn’t cover it the way it should be covered.

Some fact-checking is in order:

  1. Travelers from China continued to come into the country after Trump apparently closed down travel from China.  This was not a ban on Chinese travel to the United States. Since Trump claimed he stopped travel to the United States from China over 40,000 people have arrived in the United States on direct flights from China.
  2. We also know that the president was warned about the potential for a pandemic on multiple occasions well before the virus hit American shores and did little about it.
  3.  We know that several previous U.S. presidents warned the country about this possibility.

But back to Reid and the other journalists who challenged Trump today.  I’m not sure I can put it any better than Christian writer David Dark:

What is the Role of the Church During This Pandemic?

Christianity

As readers of this blog know, I have taken some comfort and instruction during this pandemic from the writings of Anglican clergyman and Oxford University theologian N.T. Wright.  Churches may be closed, but the church–as the Christian people of God–still speak and act in the world.  But what should this kind of acting and speaking look like?

In his book God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today, Wright writes:

…when God wants to change the world he doesn’t send in the tanks…he sends in the meek, the mourners, the merciful, the hungry-for-justice people, the peacemakers, the incoruptibly pure in heart. That was never a list of qualities you  need to try to work at in order to get to heaven. It was always a list of human characteristics though which God would bring his kingdom on earth as in heaven. That is how God works. And by the time the bullies and the arrogant have woken up to what’s happening, the meek and the mourners and the merciful have built hospitals and schools; they are looking after the sick and the wounded; they are feeding the hungry and rescuing the helpless; and they are telling the powerful and the vested-interest people that this is what a genuinely human society looks like…

The church has another role in times like this.

Here is Wright from Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues:

From pre-Christian Judaism to the present, God’s people have claimed the right and responsibility to speak truth to power, sometimes with words, often with bodies. Martydom has frequently been the most powerful statement of all. The post-Enlightenment world has developed two other ways of speaking truth to power, but neither has done the job well.

On the one hand, we have opposition parties, which easily generate a two-party-culture-war polarization, which both Britain and the United States suffer from. Every issue is seen in black-and-white terms of us and them…

On the other hand, we have the electronic and print media, the increasingly complex world of journalism that takes on itself responsibility of holding government, and indeed the opposition, to account…

These two methods of speaking truth to power–official opposition parties and the media–regularly fail. As we all know, opposition parties often collude with governmental folly and wickedness, and newspapers can easily egg them on in precisely those areas where critique is most needed. The church’s vocation of speaking truth to power has thus been taken over by two systems that aren’t up to the job. We urgently need the voice of Christian wisdom to approve that which is excellent and to call to account that which isn’t. Of course, when we try to do that, the media regularly tries to rule the church out of order, not just because it doesn’t like what we might say but because we are treading on turf they took from us, and they don’t want us to have it back. So, once again, we have colluded with this diminishing role and God-given vocation; or, worse, we have been herded like sheep into the lobby of this or that party, swept along on agendas we assume too readily to be God’s agendas and unable to differentiate between the whim of the party and the conscience of the Christian.

Acts of love and mercy. Speaking truth to power. That is pretty good advice to build on.

“It is part of the inalienable task of God’s people…to speak the truth to power.”

Wright God in PublicI have been reading a lot of N.T. Wright lately.   The Anglican New Testament scholar and theologian has been helpful as I try to think about how to speak faithfully in our current political moment in the United States.  In his book God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power TodayWright offers what he calls a “rough sketch of a Christian political theology.”  His sketch includes four points:

First:

…the creator God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic. The order in question is to be a human order: that is to say, God intends that there should be human structures of government.  God does not want anarchy.  Just as God intends the world of plants and crops to work under human management, so God intends that human societies should be wisely ordered under human stewardship.  This pattern, of delegated authority if you like, goes all the way back to the human vocation to be God’s “image bearers.” It corresponds to the pattern of God’s actions in and through Jesus Christ.  That is what Paul says in Colossians 1:15-17.

Colossians 1:15-17: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Second:

…if God intends that there should be power structures; if he wills that humans should find ways of running the world and bringing it to wise order–then, within a world in rebellion, this call to power translates all too easily into a temptation to the abuse of power.  As soon as you make someone a steward of creation…you challenge them to navigate past the temptation to use that power for their own advantage, to become, in other words, part of the problem to which they are supposed to be part of the solution….

Third:

…it is part of the inalienable task of God’s people, of those who worship the creator God, whom we see in Jesus and know through the Spirit, to speak the truth to power.  This calling will mean reminding governments, local councillors, authorities in every sphere, including church leaders, of their calling to selfless stewardship. It will mean pointing our fearlessly (but also humbly: arrogance will spoil the whole thing) where this trust is being abused, in whatever way. Once more, God is not nearly so interested in how rulers get to be rulers as he is in how they behave as rulers. That is why the church has the vital task of reminding them of their proper vocation and of calling them to account.

Fourth:

…it is the task of the followers of Jesus to remind those called to authority, in whatever sphere, that the God who made the world intends to put the world rights at the last. It isn’t simply a matter of reminding the authorities of duties they have always had.  It is a matter of calling them to acts of justice and mercy which will anticipate, in the present time, God’s final setting of all things to rights, God’s wiping away of every tear from every eye. This calling–which many authorities and rulers dimly recognize, though many alas glimpse it and turn away to more seductive options–is, whether people recognize it or not, the call to live under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Wright summarizes:

The doing of justice and mercy in the present time by those called to power locally, nationally and globally is thus to be seen within the framework of the historical victory of Jesus in his death and resurrection and of the future, coming, final victory of God over all evil, all violence, all arrogant abuse of power.

And this:

It’s no good saying “Jesus is telling you to do this” to someone who has no time for Jesus. But if the church can translate what we believe Jesus would say into the language, and the coherent argument, of the wider world then such obedience can become a possibility.

Teaching Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”

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On Monday we wrapped-up the “Creation” unit in Created and Called for Community.  I began the class with a review.  Over the last two weeks we read:

  • Genesis 1 and 2
  • Bruce Birch’s theological commentary on Genesis 1-3: “The Image of God.”
  • James Weldon Johnson’s poem on Genesis 1 and 2: “The Creation
  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.”

We spent the last day of the Creation unit discussing Alice Walker‘s 1983 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” As is our custom, we began by “sourcing” the text.  Here is a taste of my colleague Kerry Hasler Brooks‘s introduction to Walker:

Alice Walker is a celebrated American writer, intellectual, and activist who has becoming a guiding voice of black feminism.  Drawing on her childhood in a small Georgia town gripped by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow oppression, [Walker is the] author of more than 40 works of poetry, fiction, scholarship, memoir, and children’s literature.  Walker is best known for her 1982 novel The Color Purple.  This Pulitzer Prize-winning story celebrates the brave survival of black women assaulted by sexual abuse, racism, and poverty in the American South in the early twentieth century….

Walker’s essay added yet another layer of complexity to our understanding of creation and its implications for how we live. As we have seen, the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth. I was pleased to see how many students made a strong connection between this Christian view of human identity and their critiques of racism, poverty, and patriarchy.

But I wanted my students to take a deeper dive into the text. I encouraged them to consider Walker’s story in the context of what we have learned about the Christian’s call to creativity.  I reminded them of Tolkien’s idea of “sub-creation.” God created the world. We are created in the image of God.  We should thus be engaging in the advancement of God’s creation through our earthly labors.  As Tolkien taught us in “Leaf by Niggle” (with the help of the eschatological reflections of N.T. Wright that I introduced), our creative work, even if incomplete or unfinished, will one day be part of what the New Testament describes as the “new heavens and new earth.”

Walker’s African-American women–including her own mother–showed creativity amid the worst kinds of systemic oppression.  I asked the students to provide examples from the essay of how the creative work of these women revealed their dignity as God’s image bearers.  Racism, poverty, and patriarchy has tried to strip these women of their dignity. But their creative impulses, born of the divine spark within them, could not be squelched so easily.  The creative impulse is resilient within us because it comes from God. I wondered aloud if this impulse might even be a way to prove the existence of God.

Several students wanted to talk more about Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry.  Walker writes about the “contrary instincts” that Wheatley felt as both a writer  and “a slave, who owned not even herself”:

Yet because she did try to use her gift for poetry in a world that made her a slave, she was “so thwarted and hindered by….contrary instincts, that she…lost her health…”  In the last years of her brief life, burdened not only with the need to express her gift but also with a penniless, friendless “freedom” and several small children for whom she was forced to do strenuous work to feed, she lost her health, certainly. Suffering from malnutrition and neglect and who knows what mental agonies, Phillis Wheatley died.  

Wheatley wrote, she created, amidst her frailty and weakness. I asked students to bring Wheatley’s story into conversation with the final pages of Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle.” All of my students agreed that the obstacles to Niggle’s creative energies were trivial when compared to Wheatley’s, but there were also some similarities. If Tolkien and Wright are correct, one day her poetry, which brought some light to the darkness of eighteenth-century slavery in America, will contribute to the new heavens and the new earth that creation “groans” for in Romans 8.  And that light will be much, much, brighter.

Other students referenced Walker’s story about the “anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago” who stitched a quilt that now hangs (or at least it did in 1983) in the Smithsonian Institution. Walker writes, “Though it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.” I have a few history majors in my courses so I asked them to tell us something about what life might have been like for Black woman in Alabama in 1883. They were gave their fellow students a quick lesson about segregation and Jim Crow America. This quilt teaches us, again, that race-based systems of oppression cannot kill the creative impulse. Why? Because such an impulse is part of our DNA as human beings created in the image of God. (Repetition is important in a class like this! 🙂 ).

Another student commented on Walker’s mother as a story-teller.  Here is Walker:

But the telling of these stories, which came from my mother’s lips as naturally as breathing, was not the only way my mother showed herself as an artist.  For these stories, too, were subject to being distracted, to dying without conclusion.  Dinners must be started, and cotton must be gathered before the big rains.  The artist that was and is my mother showed itself to me only after many years.

By this point in the class, several students were making connections between Walker’s essay and previous readings. The stories that Walker’s mother told have not only enriched Walker’s life, but will also enrich all of us in the coming Kingdom.

Walker ends the essay by describing how her mother brightened their “shabby house” with flowers and gardens:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible–except as Creator: hand and eye.  She is involved in her work  her soul must have.  Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty. Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life.  She has handed down respect for the possibilities–and the will to grasp them.  For her, so hindered and intruded upon in so many ways, being an artist has still been a daily part of her life.  This ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work black women have done for a very long time.

For Walker, her mother’s gardens left her with a “heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength.” In “search of my mother’s garden,” she writes, “I found my own.” This is a wonderful reflection on how we connect with our personal histories. It should also inspire the work of the historian as she mines the past in search of forgotten stories of human beings–African-American women in Walker’s case–who engaged in acts of creation amid suffering. (And by telling these stories in compelling ways the historian also participates in the work of sub-creation). Walker’s essay should also inspire Christian historians to seek out these untold stories and interpret them as small glimpses of a coming kingdom where shalom will replace the brokenness of the world in which we create.

One day, hopefully soon, we will all get to enjoy the beautiful gardens of Alice Walker’s mother.

Today we move to the “Community” unit. We will begin with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Follow along here.

CREATE!: Teaching Tolkien’s “Leaf By Niggle”

LeafYesterday in Created and Called for Community (CCC) we read and discussed J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.” Here is a summary of the plot from Wikipedia:

In this story, an artist, named Niggle, lives in a society that does not value art. Working only to please himself, he paints a canvas of a great Tree with a forest in the distance. He invests each and every leaf of his tree with obsessive attention to detail, making every leaf uniquely beautiful. Niggle ends up discarding all his other artworks, or tacks them onto the main canvas, which becomes a single vast embodiment of his vision.

However, there are many mundane chores and duties that prevent Niggle from giving his work the attention it deserves, so it remains incomplete and is not fully realised.

At the back of his head, Niggle knows that he has a great trip looming, and he must pack and prepare his bags.

Also, Niggle’s next door neighbour, a gardener named Parish, frequently drops by asking for various forms of help. Parish is lame and has a sick wife and genuinely needs help. Niggle, having a good heart, takes time out to help—but he is also reluctant because he would rather work on his painting. Niggle has other pressing work duties as well that require his attention. Then Niggle himself catches a chill doing errands for Parish in the rain.

Eventually, Niggle is forced to take his trip, and cannot get out of it. He has not prepared, and as a result ends up in a kind of institution, in which he must perform menial labour each day. Back at the home to which he cannot return, Niggle’s painting is abandoned, used to patch a damaged roof, and all but destroyed (except for the one perfect leaf of the story’s title, which is placed in the local museum).

In time, Niggle is paroled from the institution, and he is sent to a place “for a little gentle treatment”. He discovers that this new place is the country of the Tree and Forest of his great painting. This place is the true realisation of his vision, not the flawed and incomplete version in his painting.

Niggle is reunited with his old neighbour, Parish, who now proves his worth as a gardener, and together they make the Tree and Forest even more beautiful. Finally, Niggle journeys farther and deeper into the Forest, and beyond into the great Mountains that he only faintly glimpsed in his painting.

Long after both Niggle and Parish have taken their journeys, the lovely place that they created together becomes a destination for many travelers to visit before their final voyage into the Mountains, and it earns the name “Niggle’s Parish”.

We read “Leaf by Niggle” as part of our ongoing discussion of creation and its implications for the way we live as Christians.  Tolkien’s short story is about the ongoing work of creation.  As women and men created in the image of God we are called to participate in God’s creative work. In John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens he called Christians to the work of “co-creation.” (Tolkien used the term “sub-creation” to describe something similar).  We can view Niggle’s painting as his imperfect attempt at co-creation.  As inhabitants of a broken world scarred by sin, our efforts to create will always be imperfect.  Our finest art cannot express all the beauty of God’s holiness.  Throughout our discussion of “Leaf by Niggle” I tried to get students to put the story into conversation with Bruce Birch’s essay, “In the Image of God.”

There are several ways to approach “Leaf by Niggle” in a course like CCC. This became abundantly clear when I surveyed the room.  Several students wanted to talk about the tension between competing goods.  Niggle has a gift for painting, but he is constantly distracted by his needy neighbor Parish.  Though Niggle often complains privately about assisting Parish, and sometimes he finds him to be an annoyance, he never ceases to help his neighbor.  How do we balance our call to create–through art, writing, entrepreneurial innovation, scientific discovery, the cultivation of ideas, feats of engineering, sports or dance–with the everyday demands of service to others that might get in the way of our creative efforts?  This question made for some good discussion.

Some students brought up Niggle’s lack of preparation for his “journey.” They pointed out that Niggle was a procrastinator and easily distracted. When death arrived he could have been better prepared. A few students were disappointed in him.  They wished he had finished the painting.  Others were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for his lack of preparation for the journey because he was so busy helping Parish and his wife. Whatever the case, Niggle’s story prior to his journey seemed to elicit much anxiety among my students. This, I suggested, is the anxiety we all feel as inhabitants of a broken world.

But as anyone who has read “Leaf by Niggle” knows, the story does not end there. After his purgatory-type experience, Niggle is brought to a place of great beauty (Niggle’s Parish). Here he encounters his incomplete painting in all its fullness. Here his relationship with Parish is transformed.  The anxiety gives way to peace and happiness.  All of the brokenness is made whole (Shalom).

I cannot teach “Leaf by Niggle” apart from my understanding of Christian eschatology. Lately I have been studying the writings of the Anglican New Testament theologian N.T. Wright.  Wright’s books Surprised by Hope and History and Eschatology enabled me to teach Tolkien’s short story in a way I was unable to do when I last taught “Leaf by Niggle” eleven years ago.

A major theme of Wright’s work is what Revelation 21 calls the “new heaven and the new earth.” Wright challenges longstanding Christian beliefs about heaven. The ancient Jews and the early Christian church never understood heaven as place distinct from earth.  God will not destroy this earth and “rapture” believers to a heavenly realm.  Instead, he will transform this earth.  He will one day make the post-Genesis 3 world whole.  Shalom will be restored.  We will rise from the dead because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter morning (I Cor. 15). The New Testament teaches that we will enjoy this new heavens and new earth with new resurrected bodies.  Read Romans 8: 18-25:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Wright argues that this new heaven and new earth, or the Kingdom of God, was initiated when Jesus rose from the dead. We still live in a broken world, but we get occasional glimpses of the new creative order when we see acts of compassion, justice, reconciliation, mercy, and love.  Moreover, when we do creative work that is good, beautiful, or based in truth we are, in some small way, building this new kingdom.  What might look unfinished or incomplete in this world will one day be made whole.  This, it seems to me, is what Tolkien is trying to teach us in “Leaf by Niggle.”

I closed my class on Monday with a quote from Wright’s book Surprised by Hope:

But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain.  You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.  You are–strange though is may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself–accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.  Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness, every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world–all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.

Niggle’s leaf, which ended up for a short time in a museum, became part of an entire landscape in the so-called “Niggle’s Parish.” Our creative work will one day contribute to the new creation as well. We don’t know how God will use it–1 Corinthians 13:12 says we see through a glass dimly–but it will be a part of the wholeness God will one day bring.

Here is Wright again:

What you do in the present–by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself–will last into God’s future.  These activities are not simply ways of making the present life less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we will leave it behind altogether (as the hymn  so mistakenly puts it, “Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away”). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

A Historian and a Theologian on History and Progress

HuntFrom the middle of the 1800s to the middle of the 1900s, more or less, the search for exemplars gave way to the second approach to history: the projection of progress.  History came to be seen as a single linear progress encompassing every region of the globe.  The future came to stand for improvement, rather than degeneration from a previous golden age or simply a product of inevitable cycles of rise and fall.  As a consequence, the past could no longer serve as an infallible guide to the present; it had to be overcome, even rejected.  Historians now viewed modern peoples as superior to the ancients, and, as corollary, portrayed Western Europe and eventually the West as superior to the rest of the world.  The belief in progress–validated by the triumph of reason and science–helped solidify the Western sense of ascendancy over other regions…If history is not a progression toward freedom, then what meaning does it have?  Is it about the rise of capitalism, the spread of modernity, the increase of globalization, the growing power of centralizing states–all these or something else?  Would a non-teleological history, a history without an inner impulse , even be interesting.

This comes from Lynn Hunt’s helpful little book History: Why it Matters. 94, 96.

I realize that the study of history has changed a great deal since the mid-20th century.  But has such a progressive view of history really died? Isn’t it alive and well among the majority of historians affiliated with the American Historical Association?

On the same day I read Hunt’s book, I read some interesting passages from N.T. Wright‘s 2018 Gifford Lectures, published as History and Eschatology: The Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology(I should add that the index for this book is awful).

Here are those passages:

p. 24: The idea of progress was, then, in part a secularisation of the Christian optimism (itself fueled by Jewish eschatology) evident in the early eighteenth century, and with that, an older doctrine of Providence…Its central claim, which took root in European thought, was that the old order was being swept away and that new and better days were not just happening but that they were, in some sense, happening automatically. All one had to do was get on board (and push aside any who didn’t see the point).

p.24: For right-wing Hegelians…”progress” was to be a smooth evolution.  From this there emerged the social and cultural implication that within progress’ lay hidden the steady advance of the kingdom of God itself.Wright Eschatology

p.25: By the end of the nineteenth century it was widely assumed, in Britain and Germany at least, the the spectacular achievements and advances of Western civilisation were part of what Jesus must have meant when he said that “the kingdom of God” was at hand.  This was “natural theology” made easy: look at our wonderful civilisation and see the handiwork of God!

p.25-26: Likewise, the idea (particularly invoking developments in medicine) that science and technology are making the world a better place is more than a little ambiguous.  Industrial pollution, atom bombs and gas chambers tell a different story.  At the popular level, however, the ideology of progress simply ignores these counter-examples.

p.27: The movements hailed as “postmodernity” in the later years of the twentieth century were, among other things, direct challenges to the narrative of progress.  Wisdom, many insisted, does not advance chronologically.  But even with the horrors of the twentieth century to brandish as counter-examples, the postmodern protest hasn’t made much headway.  The idea of progress has embodied its own principle: it has just gone ahead, pushing everything else of the way.  Sustained in its optimism by the exciting fruits of science (not least in medicine) and technology, it has been assumed more and more widely.  It has applied, to the future as a whole, the principle that had already been applied to politics, science, eeconomics, history and even Jesus: rethink them all without an external divine figure directing the traffic.  We can do it all ourselves.  Providence without God.

p.27: There is also, indeed, the myth of scholarship, that scholars build firmly on the solid foundation of their predecessors, so that the subject automatically “advances.”  Folly indeed.

p. 27 …those who advocate the “progress” ideology today seem to assume that every passing decade will see moral, social, and cultural “advance” to match the technological “advances” of smart phones, driverless cars and, not least, high-tech weaponry.

A lot to think about here.  Stay tuned.

Theologian N.T. Wright on the State of the American Church

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Emma Green of The Atlantic interviews New Testament scholar N.T. Wright about the American church.  Here is a taste:

Emma Green: Do you worry that the strong association between Christianity and politics in the United States—and specifically the alignment between the religious right, evangelicals, and the Republican Party—will permanently shape the image of Christianity?

N. T. Wright: Part of the problem here is the word evangelical. I know a lot of people who have basically abandoned it since the whole [Donald] Trump phenomenon.

In England, people are a bit embarrassed about the word. But I’ve taken the view that the word evangelical is far too good a word to let the crazy guys have it all to themselves, just like I think the word Catholic is far too good a word for the Romans to keep it all to themselves. And while we’re at it, the word liberal is too good a word for the skeptics to have it all for themselves. It stands for freedom of thought and exploration.

Everything gets bundled up together, whether it’s abortion or gun rights or homosexuality or whatever. All issues are seen as either you’re on that side, and it’s the whole package, or you’re on this side, and it’s the whole package.

Read the rest here.

N.T. Wright on Christmas

WrightThis Advent season, on the recommendation of several The Way of Improvement Leads Home readers, I am reading Biblical scholar N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

I don’t know Wright’s body of work very well, but I am sure that somewhere he has written about the incarnation.  But in Surprise by Hopethe focus is on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, even to the point of taking a few shots at the church for spending far too much time commemorating Christmas and not enough time celebrating Easter.

A taste:

Christmas itself has now far outstripped Easter in popular culture as the real celebratory center of the Christian year–a move that completely reverses the New Testament emphasis.  We sometimes try, in hymns, prayers, and sermons, to build a whole theology on Christmas, but it can’t in fact sustain such a thing.  We then keep Lent, Holy Week, and Good Friday so thoroughly that we have hardly any energy left for Easter except for the first night and day.  Easter, however, should be the center.  Take that away and there is, almost literally, nothing left. (p.23).

And this:

…we should be taking steps to celebrate Easter in creative new ways: in art, literature, children’s games, poetry, music, dance, festivals, bells, special concerts, anything that comes to mind.  This is our greatest festival.  Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else.  Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity; as Paul says, you are still in your sins.

I think Wright may have overstated his case here about “taking Christmas away” because it is only referenced in two chapters in two Gospels.  But I get his point.