Monday, January 26, 2009
There certainly isn't anything wrong with the 'fear of the Lord' as a key motivation in life. It is a healty perspective that simply acknowledges that I am accountable to a righteous and loving God. Living in the fear of God means, among other things, respecting the Person who loves and cares for me night and day. It also means realizing as I am prone to live life on my own terms at the expense and to the neglect of others, I know God has the right to correct me. Sometimes that correction may be painful and I fear it. I think that both elements are basically what it means to 'fear God.'
THE PASSION TO CONVERT.
But growing up in a fundamentalist context may include a negative factor that goes beyond a healthy fear of God. There was this incredible fear of hell, a place so terrible and horrid that there is nothing on earth to compare with it. It was this fear of going to hell that plagued me regularly during my early teenage years. It would especially haunt me in quiet moments--like when going to bed at night. That, with the regular pressure to 'walk the aisle,' made those quiet moments intensely oppressive. Partial relief for this anxiety came through my own mother's wise counsel. She took some of the pressure off by telling me that I could make a decision for Christ once I understood it better. That seemed to contradict the 'urgency of the gospel' that the preachers were telling me, but it went a long way to help me feel, knowing very well that I really didn't understand 'how to be saved.'
Like many, I had walked the aisle to answer the alter call, but though I meant well, nothing really happened to me. I was basically scared into it, going up to the preacher, shaking his hand, praying the sinner's prayer, and getting baptized. Nothing much happened after that. I felt no different. I had no 'assurance' that I had spiritually passed from death to life. It merely compounded my guilt. It was crappy.
Later on in life, I would come to question, and even despise, this type of pressure filled evangelism. I view it largely as human pressure added by preachers to convert people. Some call this 'man-centered evangelism,' the idea that conversion can be manipulated by strong emotional pressure. Very often, this kind of conversion seems to wear off. There is a good possibility that it turns some permanently away from God. Who wants to go through such humiliation and defeat. Could it be that many find religion a goofy thing for this very reason? Emotionalism insults our basic intelligence. Could it be that some are atheists now who had to endure such experiences? I'm convinced it could.
WHAT IS EVANGELISM?
Just as important to consider is this: Was this the way the Gospel was originally designed to operate? Did Jesus, Paul, and the early church preach the gospel in this manner--with alter calls, sentimental music, and the threat of going to hell at any minute? And exactly what is hell, anyway? Did the preacher have it right? Who was I to question at such a young age? I simply went along with it and made the best of it, painful at it all was. Ironically, later on, evangelism and mission would become major interests of my life. But as I would journey through in theological studies, evangelism and missions would take on a different meaning---one that I was sure was more biblical and meaningful.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
This feature of the service was called 'the invitation.' Gospel songs were sung in the background, reinforcing the preacher's urging the congregation to 'surrender to God' in the form of 'first time salvation' or 'rededication' and consecration to God. The most favorite and most appropriate hymn was 'Just AS I Am.' To resist such powerful calls to conversion took a lot of willpower ('hard heartedness'). To spurn God's invitation through the preacher was to resist the call of the Spirit and court disaster. 'My Spirit will not always strive with man' was frequently quoted as proof that we had been sufficiently warned. This kind of revivalism with its heavy doses of fiery pressure sent many of us down the aisle more than once. It must have been the same drama that we read about in school when in the 18th century the famous New England preacher, Jonathan Edwards, would move congregations to faint and cry, desparately calling out to God for mercy. I would later learn that my church heritage had descended in part from the spiritual movement called 'revivalism.'
There is a certain power and fascination about revivalism that is unique and perhaps useful. It certainly has the advantage of making people realize that God and the gospel are serious issues. Down the road, I would learn that there were other ways and traditions to communicate the gospel. Nevertheless, this was my church tradition--my family tree, if you will. God uses different means to accomplish his own ends. "The Spirit blows where it wills' and apparently 'how he wills.'
Saturday, January 24, 2009
This may seem strange to say, but I don't really know if I was truly raised a Fundamentalist Christian. I mean, our family went to church and all. And the church was quite fundamentalistic, but I still don't know if I was raised to be a fundamentalist. Certainly, our Southern Baptist (Grapevine Missionary Baptist!) church was very conservative and the central social and theological concern was 'getting saved." You had to get saved, you had to get other people saved. This persuasion was expressed in the most emotional way. Our pastor was, by any measure, a kind of Elmer Gantry-like preacher. He could move about the front of the church---raising his voice, preaching on the afterlife, and, in general, scaring the hell out of us. As I will explain later, this eventually took a toll on me emotionally, but I think one of the things that tempered this impact and made it somewhat bearable was the kind of family I had. Also, there were plenty of other distractions along the way. Church was a regular part of my life, but it wasn't the only part, it certainly wasn't the main part. My friends and I were busy doing other things. Going to school, playing hard, getting into mischief, watching Westerns on television, and participating in sports. Church was what we attended on Sunday mornings, or it was the youth programs I was involved in. But mostly, church stopped there. It wasn't something we took home with us much. We had church friends, but we didn't disect sermons and discuss the Bible. Church and Bible were kind of mysterious stuff--stuff about 'getting saved'--whatever that was.
But since I decided to 'give my life to Jesus' at age 16, the church experience started to become more meaningful. I started going to church more often, even attending Wednesday evening prayer meetings. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was becoming a fairly serious Christian. I even tried to get a couple of other people 'saved.' Yet, it was probably after I left home for college that I truly became a Fundamentalist Christian. Up to then, Christianity was about my church, my friends, and some good times.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Biblical Texts summarize for us.
First, it is important to realize that the Old Testament was written over a very long time. Who wrote it and when are vexed questions that puzzle the best of scholars. But again, I want to take a shortcut and look at the typical way that the Old Testament summarizes itself---and it does! ('ll add some texts later when I find some time.) Yes, there are texts which summarize what's up. Most of these are found in the Psalms. These Psalms contain confessions of faith in Israel's God, YHWH (usually pronounced as Yahweh) and are telling us what this God is like. How do they do that?
God was understood through history.
In a nutshell, they tell us what God is like by rehearsing what he has done for his people, Israel. They aren't lectures in systematic theology with big words that begin with omni-. They are simple words that lay out the amazing story of God's love expressed in his historic deeds among the people. Sometimes they mention his original creation of the world, but always they tell of something that was strategically important to the nation as a whole. These will variously include references to God's covenant with Abraham, Moses and David, his deliverance from Egyptian bondage, his gift of law (Torah), his gift of land, his deliverances from the enemy, etc. In other words, Israel confessed her faith by telling the interconnected story from exodus to exile and beyond.
History is at the heart of the Bible.
If we want to understand the Old Testament, we have to be in touch with its national history. Its a bit like our own need to understand America in terms of European migration, entering the new land, encountering its original inhabitants, its gradual settlement and expansion, the fight for independence from Great Britian, the establishment of an independent political body, etc. Only by learning those historical details and the order in which they happened is an immigrant going to understand the country they are making their own. Likewise, only when we grasp something of the history of Israel as recounted in the Old Testament are we in any position to make Old Testament faith our own. As we shall see later on, Israel's history is the very early part of Jesus' history and our history too.
A Nation is promised.
So let's briefly review the direction and details of that history. First, there was the need for the nation Israel (Genesis 1-11 basically says the world is a mess) to shine God's ultimate blessing of restoration back into a dark world. Israel is called to redirect the world from going its own way to going the way of God. That begins with the call of Abraham, the father of the nation. He was promised an innumerable offspring (seed) and he was promised a land to provide a home base for them to live. This plan of seed and land is basic to Old Testament theology.
A Nation is born.
Second, God allowed this growing nation to become enslaved in Egypt. They were like a child that was ready to be born through birthpains. God was giving birth to a son. That nation is born when it is abruptly removed from her womb down in Egypt. There, under the power and afflicting hand of Pharoah, Israel cried out for rescue and deliverance. Of course, here is where YHWH revealed himself so deeply by being the God of the Exodus--literally the God of their salvation. Israel was delivered from the impossible through the mighty acts of God. They were set free under the leadership of Moses.
A Nation is bound to God by a covenant.
After the deliverance from Egypt, Isreal wanders in the wilderness for forty years before she is ready to enter the promised land (a great tract of land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea), 'a land flowing with milk and honey.' But in advance of entering the land, they were led by Moses to the foot of Mount Sinai where God gave Moses his covenant law. Here is where Israel must pledge allegience to be loyal to YHWH throughout all generations. If they obeyed the voice and law of God, they would experience prosperity and wellbeing. If they disobeyed, they would experience God's chastening hand. The ultimate chastening would be exile, violent removal from the land of promise. God's law was a codified instructional wisdom that told them how to live in love with God and each other. If they as a society followed that wisdom, all would to well. If they forgot the principles of love and respect for all members of their society, disaster would come. If disaster would come---and indeed it would---they would only be restored to their promised land through repentance and renewal of heart.
A nation is punished.
The first few years in the land were difficult and challenging, but they were years were they were preserved through God's faithfulness. Enemies often attacked them. Often they lapsed in their faithfulness. There were cycles of obedience, followed by disobedience, followed by repentance, followed by deliverance. There was even the choice to move to a dynastic governance where a king and his royal family would lead, guide, and protect Israel. Often, this kingship was a mixed blessing. The royal family had their own problems. Eventually Israel split apart and rival thrones and separate governments were erected. But ultimately each nation continued to crumble internally as social injustice and idolatry increased. Both nations were carried into exile--a reminder of infidelity to God.
A nation waiting for the future.
As Israel's political place in the land evaporated, there were various prophets sent by YHWH to create a new vision for the future. The themes of those visions were various, but centered on the hope of 'return from exile.' Though, there would continue to be ups and downs, ultimately God would again deliver Israel from her bondage to the pagan nations. Israel was in exile, but her there were various signposts placed alongside them, prophets who pointed the way forward. There was still the need for Israel to be the light to the nation. Yet, now they too were part of the dark problem of the world. They had become just like the other nations. God would have to do what only he could do. He must once again, act like the God of the exodus. He must defeat their enemies, restore them to the land. Only then, could the rest of the rest of the world benefit from her original vocation to restore the nations to God. Only when Israel was like a faithful Son could God use them. Only when they were resurrected to a new life in the world, would they become the means of salvation to all mankind.
The history of Israel is shaped by a pattern of death and resurrection.
In a nutshell, this is the Old Testament story. Promise, exodus, covenant, disobedience, and hope for future release from exile. These are the historical themes that unite the narrative. Pressed upon the story of Israel are the dual themes of exile and restoration, or as the prophets stated it, death and resurrection. The Old Testament is an incomplete story. It awaited a final chapter. It ends in exile, it looks forward to deliverance and salvation. It ends in a curse, it looks forward to a blessing.
N. T. Wright, renowned New Testament scholar and Christian theologian,
is challenging Christians around the world to think deeply about the Bible. Wright is not your typical heavy dude locked away in some academic classroom, but is, in addition to his many duties as an Anglican pastor and church leader, constantly preaching and lecturing around the world. Very recently, he lectured before the national meeting of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Many of his lectures and sermons end up being published as best-selling books.
Rethinking our destiny.
One area where Wright has challenged conventional thinking is in the matter of what happens to humans after death. He would have us look more closely at the actual teaching of Scripture, and not simply rely upon traditional impressions we might have of heaven and hell.
Overcoming stale thinking.
For example, Wright explains that many of our images of hell are drawn from long-standing popular writings and paintings from the past or from overly literal interpretations of the biblical text. These impressions are deeply ingrained in the Christian imagination. The same is true of the subjects of heaven and purgatory. What Christians need is a fresh start with Scripture, one that takes the subjects seriously, but managed with carefully interpreted study. Many of us are convinced that Wright is an excellent guide through the Bible on such matters. His massive book (600+ pages) on the Resurrection of the Son of God is already a classic Christian text that is bound to be the standard for a long time.
Surprised by Hope.
However, one need not worry or feel guilty if such reading seems too time-consuming and difficult. Wright is an excellent communicator who can break things down so that almost anyone can understand. He has written small articles and manageable popular books that are widely appreciated. One book that has really made an impact is entitled Surpised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008). In this book, Wright is not only keen to explain the nature of our future in God's new world, but also to show how absolutely meaningful that is to our present mission and work as Christians. If God is going to redeem our world and make all things new, then we should be living, praying, witnessing, and laboring for a new world in the present. The present and the future are vitally joined together by the Spirit and the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. Our works do matter and they matter in ways that are bound to surprise and excite us. Read this book and most likely you will never think the same about the future of our world and what you should be doing with your world.
Resurrected into God's new world.
Central to Wright's thinking is what is also central in the New Testament: the resurrection of Jesus physically from the dead. But Jesus is raised as the beginning of a new creation. His body is both the same and yet different. It is still physical as before, but with new resources and possibilities. It is the model and prototype of the same kind of resurrection in which we too shall participate. That body will be our new 'home' in the newly transformed world of the future. Floating around on clouds and singing choruses forever and ever doesn't quite cut it. That is an example of poorly reading symbolic texts and walking all over texts that are often crushed beneath our exegetical feet. Mankind was created to be stewards of the earth and in those great texts that speak to those issues, he/she will be fully restored to his rightful vocation.
And what about heaven and hell? What happened to those cherished ideas? Didn't Jesus speak over and over about hell? Didn't he issue stern warnings about what was going to happen to people who don't accept him as their personal Savior? Well those are important questions as well and Wright does a bang-up job of working through them one by one. And though, he is only scratching the surface, here are a series of video interviews that you can watch where he gives brief answers. Each video is only a minute to three minutes long.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Monday, January 19, 2009
We believe in Jesus Christ,
who was promised to the people of Israel,
who came in the flesh to dwell among us,
who announced the coming rule of God,
who gathered disciples and taught them,
who died on the cross to free us from sin,
who rose from the dead to give us life and hope,
who reigns in heaven at the right hand of God,
who comes to judge and bring justice to victory.
We believe in God,
who raised Jesus from the dead,
who created and sustains the universe,
who acts to deliver God's people in time of need,
who desires everyone everywhere to be saved,
who rules over the destinies of people and nations,
who continues to love us even when we turn away.
We believe in the Holy Spirit,
who is the form of the God present in the church,
who moves us to faith and obedience,
who is the guarantee of our deliverance,
who leads us to find God's will in the word,
who assists those who are renewed in prayer,
who guides us in discernment,
who impels us to act together.
We believe God has made us a people,
to invite others to follow Christ,
to encourage one another to deeper commitment,
to proclaim forgivenss of sins and hope,
to reconcile people to God through word and deed,
to bear witness to the power of love over hate,
to proclaim Jesus the Ruler of all,
to meet the daily tasks of life with purpose,
to suffer joyfully for the cause of right,
to the ends of the eath,
to the end of the age,
to the praise of Christ's glory.
I have before suggested that at the core of the Bible is a controlling narrative about God and his creation. What begins at the creation of heaven and earth culminates in a new creation, the new heaven and earth. These polar points are like two book ends that contextualize all that is found in between. Navigating the Bible is a matter of seeing how this story unfolds between these two book ends. 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth' (Genesis 1) relates ultimately to 'then I saw a new heaven and a new earth' (Revelation 21). What connects the two is the metastory of creation in trouble (evil and death) to creation rescued and renewed (redemption).
God's good intentions for creation
Genesis 1-3 prepares us for all that is to come. God creates a world in which everything is declared good, at least it was intended to be that way. The work of creation culminates in the making of mankind in God's image and likeness. As God's image-bearers (representatives), they are charged with the stewardship of God's world. Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.
The reversal of creation
When God's image-bearing representatives define their existence by going against God's commands, they introduce corruption and death into what was to be a prosperous and peaceful world. Genesis 1-11 is the tragic recounting of how evil becomes the colossal reversal of creation, taking it back to primitive chaos and confusion. With creation now in trouble and going astray, mankind experiences grief, pain, death, alienation, corruption, and violence. God was grieved at the new sight, the whole earth filled with corruption and violence. The flood and Babel stories summarize the progress of evil and God's attempts to halt it. His grief moves him to destroy all living things, but each time his mercy moves him to show grace and begin a new project to preserve and then ultimately rescue creation.
The rescue of creation begins . . .
with the call of Abram to begin a new people for God's purpose. The divine choice and formation of this community becomes grand epic of the Old Testament. The purpose of Abraham's offspring (his 'seed') is to overcome the tragic loss of the nations from the good purposes of God for his creation. In Abraham's seed, all the nations of the earth were to be blessed. What now is taking shape in an exclusive choice of a particular people (immediately excluding others) will by God's grace and design culminate in the inclusive blessings to all mankind.
The rescue of creation climaxes . . .
in the story of Jesus. The rescue of God through Israel cannot be fully understood apart from Jesus. The story of Jesus to rescue mankind cannot be fully understood apart from the call of Israel. Jesus is the central theme of the New Testament, as Israel is the central theme of the Old Testament. There stories are inter-locking, inter-dependent stages in God's purpose to rescue and renew his creation. Creation is restored as Jesus bears the evil and suffers the violence that has infected his good creation. Jesus is raised to new life to head a new creation, a new people. He is head of a new humanity. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head of over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in everyway. God's ultimate new heavens and new earth will be headed up under God's new rule where mankind will again be stewards of creation.
The biblical scholar, Arnold B. Rhodes, creatively llustrates the whole biblical narrative in this concise diagram.
--------------------------------- Adam and Eve
---------------------- The Remnant
-------------The One---Jesus Christ
---------------------- The Apostles
-------------------------------------- The New Creation
Sunday, January 11, 2009
I think it is important to do this because a lot of us don't really get the opportunity to think about what the bible is actually doing for us. Sure, it is a source of what we believe. It opens up a view of God, Jesus, and salvation found nowhere else. But how does it do this? Through a list of unarranged doctrines for us to look up and sort out? And what is the central operation of the Bible? What actually is up with the Bible? Asking questions like these forces us to have to come to grips with some sort of summary so that we can get a handle on things. I call this summarizing the Bible. But the goal is to summarize the Bible on its own terms, not so much according to the dictates of my own agenda. Here's a start doing just that.
It seems utterly reasonable to notice that the Bible is mostly stories or narratives. As much as two-thirds of the Bible is narrative. The next observation is that these stories fit into a connected larger narrative. They aren't just unrelated stories recorded individually for their own sake. There is, in other words, an over-arching narrative--a meta-narrative. Finding that meta-narrative, mapping it out, and taking it into account, seems to be the very best way to summarize the Bible in its own terms. The best way to say this may be this: The Bible tells a story about God and his creation. It has a beginning, a plot, and a end.
Of course, we all know something about this story already. We know that in the beginning God created all things. The opening line states, God created the heavens and the earth. We also see that the Bible moves through much history until it reaches the 'end' of the story, when there is a new heaven and a new earth. Already we are summarizing--albeit it, in extremely large stroke--what the Bible is. We shall return to this subject later.