The Pietist Option (Review)

There are an abundance of options that Christians have to help them cope with the Western world at this particular cultural moment. The “option” language all started with Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which he wrote about in his columns at the American Conservative for years before he published a book by that name. Since then others have come up with (among others) the Augustinian Option, the Kuyper Option, and the Walker Percy Option.

Now, not all of these options are necessarily at odds with one another or even anything new. In fact, I’m convinced that a lot of this “option” conversation is just people taking advantage of Dreher’s new nomenclature to argue for the same theological commitments they’ve been boosting for years.

5194At any rate, last fall, historian Chris Gehrz and pastor Mark Pattie gave us another option—The Pietist Option (IVP Academic, 2017), which calls modern-day Christians to learn from the renewal movement, later called “Pietism,” that Philipp Jakob Spener kicked off with his 1675 book Pia Desideria (“pious desires”).

The book comes in two parts. Part one consists of two chapters that introduce the state of contemporary American Christianity and make the case for adopting a hopeful attitude in spite of difficult circumstances. Part two is much longer, and consists of six specific proposals for renewal of Protestant churches drawn from Pia Desideria:

  1. A more extensive engagement with the Bible
  2. A renewed emphasis on the priesthood of all believers
  3. An understanding of Christianity as a way of life, not merely an assent to certain doctrines
  4. A commitment to an irenic spirit in the face of theological disagreements
  5. A commitment to spiritual formation for the whole person for the whole of life
  6. A proclamation of the good news rooted in the proclaimer’s own experience of God

In many ways these are standard evangelical beliefs. In fact, Gehrz and Pattie are up front about the fact that “Pietism has disappeared not because it failed, but because it succeeded” (4). It was a renewal movement that did its work of renewing, and The Pietist Option is Gehrz and Pattie’s argument that we need another, similar renewal movement in our time.

I was not an impartial reader when I came to The Pietist Option; I was predisposed to like itIn my young adulthood as a Christian, I was more influenced by the Reformed stream of Christianity: My family has roots in the Christian Reformed Church, and I attended both CRC and Presbyterian churches (but also, for most of my childhood, a Southern Baptist one). I would not even now explicitly repudiate that stream of Christian belief, but during my time in seminary I was drawn more and more to the ethos of Pietism. As Gehrz and Pattie write, Pietism is more about instincts than particular beliefs. I found that I shared those instincts: I wanted an engagement with the Bible that shaped my identity, not just my beliefs (though beliefs were incredibly important, I found they were not the whole story); I wanted to have an irenic spirit whenever possible; I was committed to the whole mission of God, but in terms of proclamation and service. Eventually, I came to the point that I joined the Evangelical Covenant Church, where I continue to make my home.

Yet not everyone likes the Pietist Option. Notably, there was a review from the (Reformed-leaning) Gospel Coalition that said: “The same Continental Pietists who gave us Pia Desideria and Wesley’s ‘strangely warmed’ heart also gave us Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher.”

But did they? Isn’t it just part of living in a fallen world that good things may be corrupted? As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” Wouldn’t it be better to say that when you detach Pietism from a conscious dependence on the Spirit you end up with Schleiermacher, just as when you detach Calvinism from Calvin’s own focus on the Spirit you end up with Protestant Scholasticism and, later on, Max Weber or even modern-day New England? Simply because something may be corrupted doesn’t mean it is in itself bad. As for myself, I am not convinced that the theology of Schleiermacher is inherent in Pietism.

In this time when “evangelical” has become a term loaded with negative political baggage, I wonder whether the term “Pietist” will make a comeback. I’m hopeful about it, but am not entirely sure it will; in some people’s minds it still has negative connotations of individualism, quietism, or (as in the TGC review) theological liberalism. I don’t know what a resurgence in Pietism might lead to down the road, but I think in the short term those who are looking for renewal and revival in American Christianity could do a lot worse than recovering a Pietist spirit that seeks to foster a living faith and love toward God and neighbor.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

 

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The Southern Steps and the Wailing Wall

This is the twenty-fifth and last post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 28 AM

After emerging from Hezekiah’s Tunnel and taking vans back up toward the Temple Mount, our group made our way to the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall through an ancient sewer. I’m still not sure why we went through a sewer to get there, but it was kind of neat. It didn’t smell like a sewer, at any rate.

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At the base of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall, we could see heavy stones scattered on the ground, some of them possibly right where they fell when the Romans destroyed the temple in AD 70. Above us was what is left of Robinson’s Arch. To our left, and up, was the entrance to the Western (or Wailing) Wall. One of the stones on the ground in front of us was a replica of the top corner stone from the Temple Mount that had fallen among the others. On it were carved instructions that indicated a shofar was to be blown from there at various times such as the beginning of the Sabbath. The original is in the Israel Museum.

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From the southwest corner we made our way east to the Southern Steps, which were where the main entrance to the temple was in Jesus’ day. As we walked we heard a haunting, guttural call to prayer from the gray-domed al-Aqsa Mosque above us. At first it was hard to know what it was; the loudspeakers distorted it so that it hardly seemed like a human voice. It may also be that it sounded strange because we were hearing multiple calls to prayer from other mosques in the area.

fullsizeoutput_277fAfter walking around on the Southern Steps and looking at the gates that had been closed up there, we went back around the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, where we had lunch before we went through security to enter the area next to the Wailing Wall. Before I went, I was a little confused about what the Wailing Wall was, so I’ll explain it here. It is one section of the western side of the retaining wall around the Temple Mount. It isn’t all that remains of the temple, but it is the closest place that Jews can get to where the temple used to be and pray. On the Temple Mount itself, only Muslims are technically allowed to pray.

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Inside the area, there are separate spaces for men and women, with the men’s area being larger. When we were there, most of the people were Jewish, with a few other non-Jews like us sprinkled in. Anyone who wants to can go up and touch the wall and pray, and find a crack to insert a written prayer. Before approaching to pray, Jews wash in ceremonial basins that are set back from the wall. I went up to the wall, touched it, and prayed, but I didn’t write a prayer down to leave in the cracks.

After spending some time there, several of our group walked back to our hotel through the Muslim Quarter, stopping to get a smoothie along the way. Later that afternoon I would go back out and walk along the Via Dolorosa by myself, and we would have our farewell dinner at a rooftop restaurant and gather once more back at the hotel to share our reflections on the trip, but the official itinerary of our trip ended at the Wailing Wall—so I’ll end my reflections here too.

fullsizeoutput_2859As I mentioned when I wrote about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I found myself conflicted over what it meant for me to visit the Wailing Wall. On the one hand, I think it’s entirely plausible that this is very close to where the ancient temple was, and in it the holy of holies where the God of Israel manifested his presence in a special way. It’s a significant place because of that fact alone.

Yet as a Christian who believes that Jesus is the true temple, the fullest manifestation of God’s presence there has ever been in the world (Matt 12:6), and that his church, united to him by his Spirit, is also the true temple of God (1 Cor 3:16–17), I do not believe that anyone needs to come to the Wailing Wall in order to get closer to God or have his ear. When Jesus came, the temple became redundant. God’s presence is not closer here than it is anywhere else.

So here is where I get into my opinions on geopolitics, which I haven’t really shared during this series describing my trip to Israel. While some Christians believe in an end-times scenario that requires the temple to be rebuilt, I do not. While I do believe that Jesus will return, I don’t think he requires the temple to be rebuilt, or Jews to be occupying the land of Israel, for that to happen. That is based on a particular interpretation of biblical prophetic texts that I disagree with. I think there are pragmatic reasons for the United States to be allied with Israel (they’re a representative democracy in the Middle East, they’re probably a nuclear power, etc.), but not theological ones.

I think it’s important to clarify this because just couple of weeks ago I overheard a man in a restaurant discussing President Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The man in the restaurant said that all Christians believed Jerusalem is the capital and the temple should be rebuilt. But he’s wrong.

I don’t know what the solution is, but I think that decisions in this matter should be made out of concern for justice and the flourishing of all people involved, not because certain actions would fulfill prophecies. I believe there are no prophecies of Christ’s return that depend on Jerusalem being the capital or the temple being rebuilt for their fulfillment.

Nevertheless, in this Christmas season where we celebrate Christ’s first advent, I still look forward to his return and pray with the early church: Marana tha! (Come, Lord)! (1 Cor 16:22)

 

Hezekiah’s Tunnel and the Pool of Siloam

This is the twenty-third post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 28 AM

Leaving the calm environs of Saint Anne’s, our group walked outside the east wall of the Old City through the Lions’ Gate. The day was cloudy, and cooler than pretty much any other day of the trip so far. Once outside, we made our way south, with the wall of the Temple Mount on our right and the Kidron Valley on our left.

There is now a Muslim cemetery in this area, but also a walkway that allows you to pass on through without having to weave in and out of tombstones. This pathway took us past the Golden Gate, walled up since the Middle Ages.

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At the southeast corner of the Temple Mount, our group leader, Tim, stopped us and pointed out the differences between the stones of the wall around the Temple Mount. The smaller stones toward the top date to the Middle Ages, and the larger stones below date to Herod’s temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.

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Once past the southern edge of the Temple Mount, we arrived at a narrow hill running north-south called the City of David. The City of David contains ruins that have been labeled the Royal Quarter. This may include the palaces built by David and Solomon, though I think that hasn’t been established definitively. When we got there our Israeli tour guide, Ariel, told us about what had been excavated there.

For us, the main point of interest in the City of David was the Siloam Tunnel, also known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel after the eighth century BC king of Judah who likely had it built between the Gihon Spring and the Pool of Siloam (according to 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:2–5, 30). An inscription was found written on the walls of the tunnel that describes the day it was completed. The original inscription has been removed, but there is a copy of it inserted where the original used to be. Here is how it read:

[ … when] (the tunnel) was driven through. And this was the way in which it was cut through:—While [ … ] (were) still [ … ] axe(s), each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, [there was heard] the voice of a man calling to his fellow, for there was an overlap in the rock on the right [and on the left]. And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed (the rock), each man toward his fellow, axe against axe; and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1,200 cubits, and the height of the rock above the head(s) of the quarrymen was 100 cubits.

—James Bennett Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament , 3rd ed. with Supplement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 321.

The tunnel is open for people to walk through, and has cool water in it that ranges from the ankles to the knees. The height of the tunnel varies quite a bit. The clearance is very high in some places and requires stooping in others. There is also no light inside, so we all made sure we had sandals or water socks on, got out our flashlights, and trooped through single-file. It took about 20 minutes. We stopped at one point, turned off our flashlights, and sang the first verse of “Amazing Grace.”

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(A couple of minutes later I jokingly suggested to Kurt, who was walking in front of me, that we sing the classic passing-the-time tune “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” which he proceeded to do. He was later blamed for this act of levity, so I want to make clear that I suggested it to him. And others joined in. You know who you are.)

At the western end of the tunnel is the Pool of Siloam, which, like the Pool of Bethesda, played a role in one of Jesus’ healings (he told a blind man to wash his eyes there in John 9:7). Thanks to this trip, I’ll never get them confused again. Unlike the Pool of Bethesda, though, this site is only partially excavated. The remainder of the original pool is located on land owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, and they have not given permission to dig.

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I could probably say this about any of the sites we visited on this trip, but what struck me most about Hezekiah’s tunnel is that this is the stuff of real life. The ruler of a tiny ancient kingdom was worried about Assyria, the fiercest military power of his time, and wanted to prepare Jerusalem in advance of a possible siege. So he expanded the city wall in a certain spot and dug a tunnel to bring a water source inside the wall.

When the siege did eventually happen, in 701 BC, Hezekiah and Isaiah the prophet cried out to God, and the besieging army of Assyria was annihilated overnight. The tunnel Hezekiah had dug created a pool that was still there seven hundred years later when Jesus told a blind man he had just healed to go wash in it.

The sudden death of much of an army, the healing of a blind man—these are very unusual events. Miracles, even. But the Bible places them side-by-side with the kinds of things, like an engineering project, that we see every day. God acted in the midst of everyday life—and, I believe, continues to act. Am I looking for what he is doing?

 

How to Interact with People Who Disagree with You (Review)

Like many (maybe most) people who use social media, I have a like/hate relationship with it (“love” would be too strong, but “hate” isn’t). On the one hand, I find it useful for connecting in small ways to people I already know, and getting to know a few people I didn’t know before (although I never accept friend requests from people I don’t know on Facebook, and rarely interact with people I haven’t met in person on Twitter).

On the other hand, a whole lot of the time social media looks like everyone on it has collectively decided that the foolishness described in Proverbs 18:12 (“Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions”) is actually wisdom after all. It seems that these days, in real life as well but especially on social media, there are only two options when you’re faced with a substantial area of disagreement with someone else:

  1. ignore it (this is for when you want to maintain cordial terms with someone you interact with in real life); or
  2. vanquish the enemy.

9780451499608In his book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Alan Jacobs presents a third, seemingly forgotten way: thinking. Not burying your head in the sand, as in #1 above, and not assuming you know the solution from the beginning and using any means necessary to destroy those who stand in your way, as in #2 (what Jacobs calls “Refutation Mode”), but thinking. Using your noggin. Exerting the little grey cells, as Hercule Poirot used to say.

This is a short book, at just 157 pages. In spite of its somewhat grandiose title (but more in keeping with its more modest subtitle), this is not a book about how to think in general but more specifically about how to get past social and psychological barriers that prevent you from thinking in the first place. Because the problem is not merely that we aren’t trained to think very well, but that even if we have been trained, we don’t tend to do it. It’s hard. It doesn’t give us the rush of blood to the eyeballs that vanquishing the enemy gets us. But then, vanquishing the enemy doesn’t usually work either, since enemies almost always don’t stay vanquished for long.

Alan Jacobs tells us the circumstances in which we are most tempted not to think, so we will be on guard in just those situations. For example, when we are tempted to circle the wagons around our own group: “The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures, confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup” (23). And when we tend to repeat keywords, metaphors, and myths whose primary purpose is to communicate that we are part of a particular group: “In search of social belonging, and the blessed shortcuts that we can take when we’re in the presence of like-minded people, we come to rely on keywords, and then metaphors, and then myths—and at every stage habits become more deeply ingrained in us, habits that inhibit our ability to think” (105).

When it comes to advice on how to think, though, Jacobs doesn’t exactly give us a to-do list. There is a “Thinking Person’s Checklist” on page 155, but it is less a checklist and more a list of things to remind yourself of from time to time, like “4. Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness,” and “Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing,” and my favorite, “12. Be brave.”

This is a fun little book; Jacobs clearly derives a good deal of joy from writing, and it’s contagious. Sadly, though, I think the people who are most likely to need this book are the least likely to read it. They are still trying to vanquish the enemy, and they haven’t yet seen the shortcomings of this approach.

People who already show a degree of epistemic humility, who acknowledge that they don’t have the answers and like to seek out the best counterarguments, are most likely to read it but are the least likely to need it. You have to want to be that kind of person in the first place to derive benefit from this book. Somewhere in life, you need to be humbled. You need to come to the realization that the world is more complex than you can understand, that you can’t get everything you want by looking for the right levers to pull. It’s a good realization to have. I wish it for everyone, and myself on a daily basis most of all.

So here’s my recommendation: if you’re just starting to see the futility of “vanquish the enemy” mode, please please pick up this book.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Pool of Bethesda and Saint Anne’s

This is the twenty-second post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 28 AM

First thing in the morning on the last full day of our pilgrimage to Israel, we gathered outside our hotel and made our way out the New Gate. Our first stop of the day was on the other side of the Old City in the Muslim Quarter, just north of the Temple Mount and close to the beginning of the Via Dolorosa.

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We were here to visit what remains of the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed a lame man according to John chapter 5. It is quite large and deep, and you can descend the steps into it (there is very little water in it now).

After an introductory talk from our group leader, Tim, the group split up and poked around in the ruins for a few minutes while we tried to imagine what it would have been like to be at this pool when it was a gathering place for “the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” who were waiting for an angel to trouble the waters.

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Then we went into Saint Anne’s Church, which is right next to the pool. It’s a medieval church built by Crusaders, and in virtually any description of Saint Anne’s in any tour book you will see a mention of its remarkable acoustics. When you enter the church, you have an overwhelming urge to sing. So we gathered in the space in front of the altar and did.

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Then we went back outside to the leafy courtyard between the church and the street and split up into our “family groups”—bunches of about four people each that we always kept an eye out for when we moved from place to place so we didn’t lose anyone. We then spent some time sharing prayer requests and praying for each other.

This stop, with an ancient site right next to a medieval church, gave me a window into a very different kind of trip to Israel. Our trip was largely focused on archaeological sites, which I was very grateful for; I loved being able to walk around the ruins, feel the heat, and imagine what it would have been like to have been there during biblical events.

A different kind of trip would have focused more on Christian history—on the ways in which the church over the centuries has commemorated biblical events and taught about them. I’m glad our trip focused on archaeological sites, and I’m glad we got to go to some sites that you don’t always see on an Israel trip itinerary, like Arad. And we did visit a few churches—St. Anne’s, of course, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the church built over Peter’s house in Capernaum.

If I ever go back to Israel, though, I think it would be nice to supplement this first experience by exploring a few of the churches we didn’t make it into, like the Church of the Beatitudes or the Church of the Nativity.

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Shrine of the Book and Church of the Holy Sepulchre

This is the twenty-first post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 27 PM

Once we got to Jerusalem, the hiking part of the trip was largely over. On this day, we had gone to the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Herodium, and Bethlehem, and had barely broken a sweat. The final stop in the afternoon was the air-conditioned and comfy Shrine of the Book, where several of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display along with the Aleppo Codex. The roof of the building looks like a lid on one of the clay jars where the famous scrolls were found.

fullsizeoutput_2764The Shrine of the Book is on the grounds of the Israel Museum, which is focused on art and archaeology. Also on the grounds, close to the Shrine of the Book, there is an open-air model of what first-century Jerusalem looked like before the revolt that began in AD 66 and ended in the destruction of the city, including the temple.

We weren’t able to visit Qumran during our time at the Dead Sea during this trip, but I’m glad we made it to see the scrolls themselves. And the model is fascinating. Here’s a panoramic view of it, looking toward the temple complex from what would have been the Mount of Olives:

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We boarded the bus and passed by the Knesset, then returned to our hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem with a couple of hours to spare before dinner. My dad and I wanted to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was not far from our hotel in the Christian Quarter, so we hustled over there and looked around for a bit before heading back to the hotel in time to eat. But at dinner, our group leader, Tim, said he would lead anyone who was interested to see the church, so my dad and I went back and spent a bit more time inside.

Is978At this point I can’t remember what I noticed on the first visit versus the second visit a couple of hours later, so I’ll just give some overall impressions. Just inside the entrance to the church is a large stone slab. I didn’t know what it was, but I saw several people (mostly women) kneeling around it with bags they had brought with them. Out of these bags they took items like small crosses or pieces of cloth and rubbed them on the slab, then put them back in the bags. I found out later that this is called the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus was allegedly prepared for burial.

Both the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial are also supposed to be inside the church. To get to the site of the crucifixion, you climb some stairs just inside the main entrance to the right. The site of the burial is in a rotunda on the main floor, to the left of the Stone of Anointing. In the center of the rotunda is a shrine, a small building called an aedicule, outside of which pilgrims form a line so they can be let inside a few at a time by an unenthusiastic priest. When we were there, the aedicule was encased in scaffolding.

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The aedicule and the dome above

 

Once inside the aedicule, you crouch through a low doorway, three or four at a time, into a cramped space with another stone slab (smaller than the Stone of Anointing) on the right. Under this slab is, according to tradition, where Jesus was buried. You kneel for a minute or so in front of the marble slab. You can touch it. Then the unenthusiastic priest tells you your time is up. I didn’t take any pictures inside, but National Geographic ran a photo essay last fall on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that included this picture of the inside:

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Source: Unsealing of Christ’s Reputed Tomb Turns Up New Revelations

I know that many people have had meaningful spiritual experiences inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and maybe at another time it would have been the same for me. But on this visit, being inside the church was more disorienting than anything. Maybe it is because I went in cold, not really knowing what to expect. It began with the trinkets being rubbed on the Stone of Anointing, and continued throughout. I was constantly looking around to see what other people were doing, and wondering why they were doing what they were doing.

It’s not that I don’t think the site has significance. The site of the crucifixion and burial don’t look anything like what they would have looked like in the first century, but I have no reason to doubt that these are really the places where Jesus died and was buried. Because longstanding tradition has placed it here, I do think this is likely where it all happened.

But as I wandered through the church, from the site of the crucifixion to the Stone of Anointing to the aedicule to the Chapel of Adam, deep in the bowels of the building, this was my prayer: I’m so glad you’re not here anymore. It’s amazing to think that a site could be so important because Jesus rose from the dead and left it: “He has risen! He is not here” (Mark 16:6).

Herodium and Self-Preservation

This is the twentieth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 27 AM

After being turned away at the Temple Mount and then visiting the Mount of Olives on the morning of our first full day in Jerusalem, our group traveled south to an ancient site called Herodium, which is today in the West Bank. This was one of several palace fortresses built by Herod the Great. Out of all of them he decided that he wanted to be buried here, according to the Jewish historian Josephus (Wars of the Jews 1.673). The archaeologist Ehud Netser found what is likely Herod’s tomb in 2007. When it was found, the ossuary (bone box) in the tomb had been smashed. It may be that a generation after Herod’s death, during the Jewish revolt from AD 66–70, the Zealots rebelling against Rome took hammers to what was left of Herod.

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Herodium is an impressive spot, built into the top of a flat-topped hill. From this hill you get panoramic views: to the northwest you can see Bethlehem, and even Jerusalem a bit farther away due north. To the southeast you can see the wilderness sloping down toward the Dead Sea. And though Herodium is in the Judean desert, you get a nice breeze at the top of the hill. Maybe that’s why Herod liked it so much.

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The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say where the magi met with Herod to speak with him about the birth of Jesus, though it does say they went to Jerusalem initially (Matt 2:1–12). Since Herod loved this spot, it’s not impossible that they met him here. In any case, when standing on top of the hill, it’s not hard to imagine the wise men (however many of them there were) coming out of the wilderness to the east. And with Bethlehem so close by, it’s also not hard to imagine jealous old Herod looking down on it and fretting about this new king who was entering the world right under his nose.

He did all he could to preserve himself and hang on to what he’d worked for—including killing opposition leaders, young children, and members of his own family—and it was still taken from him. It’s hard to submit, hard to let go of control, but in the end we will all be forced to do so whether we want it or not.

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After enjoying the views and hearing about the history of the place, we went down into the tunnel system built into the hill, where we took a pause in the coolness, prayed, and sang. Then we continued through the tunnels out of the fortress and drove into Bethlehem.

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In Bethlehem we had lunch and browsed around one of the few souvenir shops we visited on the trip. I bought a miniature olive-wood nativity scene, because how can you not when you’re in Bethlehem? I also bought a small icon magnet of St. Nicholas that now adorns our refrigerator. Of course, St. Nicholas has nothing to do with Bethlehem, but he’s come to have a lot to do with Christmas.

On the way back in to Jerusalem, we got stuck in traffic and one of us (this is the internet, so I’ll never say who) had to go to the bathroom and ended up going by the side of the road, shielded by umbrellas. Whenever our group of travelers gathers again, it seems that moment always comes up in conversation.

How Do We Think about Privilege? (Review)

When The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege was published earlier this year, I wanted to read it and I didn’t want to read it. I requested it from the publisher for review, because I knew it would be good, and then it sat there for most of the summer. Because as good as I knew it was going to be, I knew it would also be challenging. Even if you are committed to racial equality, it’s still hard to confront how you have benefited in life merely because of the color of your skin.

Ken Wytsma knows this, and that is why he wrote this book. He is a pastor in Bend, Oregon, president of Kilns College, and founder of the Justice Conference—and he’s white. When Helen Lee at IVP asked him to write a book on racism, he balked at first. What could he say that couldn’t be said better by a person of color? But the more he thought about it, and saw racial bias in person, the more he thought that some white people were simply able to hear this message better (at least initially) coming from someone like them.

4482The book comes in three parts. In Part I, Wytsma briefly tells the story of race in America, from the age of exploration to modern segregation. In contrast to those who might argue that we have now largely moved on from our racist past, Wytsma maintains that “one of the central arguments of this book, as we uncover the roots of injustice and privilege, is that the effects of state-sponsored racism in America are very much present today” (75). But even now among the dominant evangelical culture, civil rights for minorities are not a priority: “A thin personal gospel, along with an oversimplified understanding of deeply entrenched racial systems (what I’ve called ‘the myth of equality’ in this book), has often allowed race to be made secondary to other foreign, domestic, and spiritual concerns” (65).

In Part II, Wytsma looks more closely at this “thin personal gospel.” He says that many of us have what he calls an “aristocratic itch,” where we place our own comfort above working for justice: “It is common for me to talk to people want to pursue justice but only after they have taken care of themselves first” (90). He also argues that the gospel of Jesus, properly understood, is not just about personal salvation. It is a gospel of reconciliation, which inevitably involves justice issues, but white American Christians have been blinded to this fact by our adoption of the dominant (and un-Christian) cultural narrative of consumeristic individualism. Instead of living according to this narrative, Wytsma calls the church to prophetic engagement in justice issues.

In Part III, Wytsma challenges white Christians to become more aware of implicit racial biases. Again, this goes against a commonly held narrative, and so is hard for many white Christians to hear. Wytsma writes, “I often encounter people who tell me that we may not have equality of outcome in America, but there is definitely equality of opportunity. I used to believe this, but it’s not true. Implicit racism in the United States today leads to the same results as the explicit racism of the Jim Crow era” (144, emphasis added). And again, “For Christians who are working for a society of the equality amid diversity that is God’s dream for the world, implicit bias is the battleground where we need to fight the hardest” (145). White Christians need to not stop at including different voices; we need to share power and opportunity, answering the biblical call to community. In sum,

We have to challenge the impulse and aspiration toward aristocracy—power and privilege permitting a life of leisure. We have to honor our brothers and sisters and learn to make the common good part of our aspirations. This goes against the grain of American individualism. It cuts against our deep inclinations of self-realization and advancement. Ultimately, it cuts against empire and the way we are shaped as consumers. The kingdom is a wholly different reality. None of us will get it perfectly right, but we must be committed to that narrow road where we are found in our love of enemy, love of neighbor, and life in the communion of saints. (191)

This is the first book of Wytsma’s that I’ve read, and I was impressed. He does a masterful job of anticipating objections and arguing for a biblical view of racial justice. I was most grateful for his blending of humility and boldness throughout. He knows that the privileged do not always respond well to being told that they are privileged, and he does so skillfully by calling them to a higher standard rather than simply lambasting them. He also knows that his is not the last word on the subject, and ends the book with several pages of recommended resources. I recommend this book for people, especially white Christians, who want to live out the gospel but are intimidated by discussions of race in America and don’t know where to start.

Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

FURTHER READING:

My friend James wrote a great review of The Myth of Equality a few months ago.

Ken Wytsma was interviewed on the podcast Seminary Dropout a few weeks ago.

Seeing Singles as People (Review)

When I first heard about One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church by Gina Dalfonzo, I thought it would be a book with a “how-to” bent. I know that in many churches, the response to the sexual revolution over the last several decades has been to focus on the nuclear family to the neglect of people in other stages of life (forgetting that the church itself is spoken about using “family” language in the New Testament). I thought it might be nice to get a few tips on avoiding the temptation for churches to neglect people who are not married.

9780801072932But it is not a how-to book, and for that reason I had the hardest time getting into it. It comes in three sections: The first, called “Stigmas, Stereotypes, and Shame,” states the problem: single people are too often seen in American churches as problems, pariahs, or projects. In the second, called “How We Got Here,” Dalfonzo gives a history lesson that begins in the ’90s with the courtship craze started (or at least fueled) by Joshua Harris’s book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In the third, called “Where Do We Go from Here?” Dalfonzo paints a picture of what churches could look like if they did really welcome single people for who they are, rather than as potential married people.

As I mentioned, I had trouble getting into it, probably because in the first section does a bit of preaching to the choir. People who pick up a book like this are likely to be sympathetic readers, so stating the problem of how singles are often treated in the church over three chapters and 70 pages seemed excessive.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that I kept going. I enjoyed her take on the courtship craze in part 2, and I note that even Joshua Harris has been reevaluating the ideas in his famous book (he has been working on a documentary film called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which he talks about here).

Also, one nugget in particular from the third section of the book has stuck with me. Dalfonzo wrote, “I really believe that a large part of the reason married churchgoers are often thrown for a loop by the singles is that, deep down, we are completely wedded to the idea that we should be able to control our own lives” (170). How can it be, the thinking goes, that you could really want something and not be able to get it? You must not be trying that hard. In this scenario, dependence on God as the source of life and giver of gifts goes out the window.

I think Dalfonzo is onto something there regarding how the American ideal of individual autonomy has played out in the area of how married Christians can treat single ones. This idea that we are atomistic individuals who ought to be able to control our own lives is a pernicious lie (not a uniquely American one, but one that is particularly influential here), and to counter it we need to believe the truth: that we are dependent on God for all things; and that the church he has started (including the singles in it!) is our true family.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

The Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, and Nearing the End

This is the nineteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 27 AM

On our group’s first morning in Jerusalem—the first day of the trip that did not dawn already blazing hot—our first stop was going to be the Temple Mount. We trooped outside the old city wall to the bus, rode around to the other side of the old city, got out and through the Dung Gate, and settled into the security line before it was scheduled to open.

We waited.

And we waited some more.

Then we received word that there had been some unrest on the Temple Mount the day before, and the opening for that day was delayed indefinitely. It would eventually open later that day, but by that time we had already decided to get back on the bus and move to the Mount of Olives. We would not get to visit the Temple Mount this trip.

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On the Mount of Olives in my standard uniform for the trip: broad-brimmed hat, hydration pack, breathable shirt (shorts and hiking boots not pictured)

On the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley east of ancient Jerusalem, we sat in a small amphitheater while our group leader, Tim, talked to us about Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he said, the Sunday before Passover, on the day the lambs were being selected for the feast. Around ten years before this, Josephus tells us that Thaddeus claimed to be messiah and around 4,000 people were killed. Tensions, in other words, were high.

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The pilgrims

When Jesus appeared at the top of the Mount of Olives, the crowd accompanying him shouted “Hosanna” (“Save us”). They waved palm branches, the Zealot symbol of freedom, which was earlier used on coins from the Maccabean period (Luke 19:31–37). But instead of inciting a revolt, Jesus wept (Luke 19:42–45). He was indeed claiming to be king, and he was indeed making a political statement—but not in the sense that he was setting himself up as the kind of kind the world was used to. He was forcing the hands of those who were opposed to him. He knew that this would get him killed.

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The many burial plots on the Mount of Olives

From the top of the Mount of Olives, we walked down toward the Temple Mount to Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed on the night that he was arrested. “Gethsemane” means “olive press,” and there are many olive trees still present there. Of course, as is the case with so many places mentioned in the Bible, it isn’t clear where the exact spot Jesus prayed is. A few places compete for the honor, and we went to two such places on this morning. But as I wrote in my post on Nazareth, I think standing in the exact spot is overrated. We spent some time contemplating in one spot, then took a quick walk around the walled garden next to the Church of All Nations.

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A very old olive tree in the garden next to the Church of All Nations

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus in Gethsemane said he was not leading a revolt, and the disciples fled (Matt 26:55–56). Perhaps they fled because they realized only then that Jesus would not lead an open rebellion against Rome. Perhaps also Judas betrayed Jesus because he wanted to force Jesus’ hand and spark a revolution. I first heard of this theory from Dorothy Sayers’s book The Man Born to Be King, and I think it has a lot of merit. Ultimately, though, no one knows exactly why Judas betrayed Jesus. The important thing is that Jesus knew he would die, and he went to his death willingly. And he calls those who follow him to take up their crosses as well (Mark 8:31–38).

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The facade of the Church of All Nations, with the retaining wall around the Temple Mount to the right