A Case for Christian Nonviolence: A Review

How should Christians respond to injustice and evil? Is it acceptable to use violence? How do you define violence, anyway? The debate over how to answer these and other questions has gone on for a very long time, with Just War theory holding the upper hand over pacifism since about the fourth century.

Ron Sider’s contribution to this conversation has a provocative title: Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried. However, it cannot really be characterized as a contribution to the debate over whether Christians may justifiably use violence. And that is a good thing, since this debate usually spirals into dueling hypothetical situations that are ultimately unhelpful for giving guidance on how to live in the concrete situations of life.

Rather, Sider challenges both Just War theorists and pacifists to explore the possibilities of nonviolent action. If Just War theorists argue that killing must be a last resort, he says, “after a century in which Gandhi, King, and a host of others demonstrated that nonviolent action works, how can Christians in the Just War tradition claim that the violence they justify is truly a last resort until they have invested billions and trained tens of thousands of people in a powerful, sustained testing of the possibilities of nonviolent alternatives?” (xiv) To pacifists he says that they should not just be anti-war, but pursue peace in ways that require risk and sacrifice: “How can their words have integrity unless they are ready to risk death in a massive nonviolent confrontation with the bullies and tyrants who swagger through human history?” (xiv)

Sider spends the bulk of the book giving historical example after historical example of successful nonviolent campaigns, whether they were led by Christians or non-Christians: the aforementioned Gandhi and Martin Luther King, as well as the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, the Polish Solidarity movement, and the Liberian Mass Action for Peace. In multiplying these examples, Sider is essentially saying that if so many nonviolent campaigns have worked with a relatively small amount of committed practitioners, just think what could be accomplished if people were trained on a global scale to embrace nonviolent means of effecting change. In light of this history, Sider says, we need more study centers, training centers, and organizations for nonviolent peacekeeping.

In all, this is a thought-provoking, challenging, and even inspiring contribution to contemporary Christian ethics. It is not likely that Sider will convince Just War theorists to change their thinking on war, but that is not his aim. Rather, his aim is to convince everyone, both pacifists and Just War theorists, that nonviolent action can work (and often better than violence) when it is backed with commitment and training.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Power Was Made for Flourishing: A Review

The word power has the ability to make even the least squeamish among us flinch. It can call to mind images of violence, abuse, and selfishness. When we hear the word power, we think of Lord Acton’s saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is bad guys who have power, we think—even though it was He-Man, not Skeletor, who said “I have the power” in every episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Even people who want to use their power for good (so common knowledge tells us) must wield it cynically, unable to keep themselves from being dirtied by it. People who don’t want to compromise must avoid power at all costs.

Andy Crouch will have none of this kind of thinking. His contention, in his book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, is that power is good. It is a gift. It is, he writes, “the ability to make something of the world” (17). He sets out to show us in this book what power was meant to be, and what it still can be. It is not always a zero-sum game, in which my increase in power means a decrease in someone else’s. We have been taught to think this way through the influence of thinkers like Nietzsche and Foucault, and it is reinforced during even the most civilly contested elections—which theoretically exist, somewhere. No, the best kind of power is when powerful people create new power in other people without the total power being reduced, as when a teacher teaches a student. In other words, not all power is domination. When we believe that all power is domination, and that the ultimate nature of reality is a power struggle, we believe a lie.

Instead, Crouch argues that the ultimate nature of reality is that God created us to bear his image. When we fail to worship God as his image bearers, we worship idols. “The question is whether we are making idols—investing created things with ultimate significance—or whether we are being ‘idols’ in the sense of Genesis 1:26, images and signs of the ultimate truth about the world” (97). The bad uses of power that we see on a regular basis are not the inevitable result of the nature of power itself. Rather, abuses of power are brought on by idolatry, and “in the beginning it was not so.”

Probably the most eye-opening parts of this book for me were the chapters “The Hiddenness of Power” and “The Lure of Privilege.” I am, like Crouch, a white male citizen of the United States. By virtue of those three things alone (not to mention other factors like education), I am privileged, and in ways that are mostly invisible to me. For example, I once heard a few friends, who were women, talk about their experiences of hearing whistles and catcalls as they walked down the street. Before hearing that conversation, I thought that sort of thing only happened in the movies (and old ones, at that), not in real life. I have never had that degrading experience, merely because being a man has granted me certain privileges that I did not ask for, and that I mostly take for granted. Crouch writes of Jesus that while he did not give up exercising power, he did give up the privilege and status that could have accrued to his power. I’m not entirely sure I agree with Crouch’s precise distinction between privilege and status, but I do agree that inherited power can be good at some times and bad at others.

I haven’t even touched on Crouch’s chapters on institutions, which are a helpful challenge to people who are suspicious of institutional power. This book is worth pondering slowly, and perhaps with a group of people. I found it difficult to read quickly. It is not that Crouch’s prose is undecipherable; he is in fact a clear and lucid writer. But his subject matter is such that I had to pause frequently and reflect on what he was saying. This book is worth reading, and re-reading, especially for anyone who is suspicious of or cynical about power.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Slavery of “Freedom”

We Americans love to talk about freedom.

We call ourselves “the land of the free”; our Declaration of Independence talks about liberty as an “inalienable right”; there are still few things that can get an American riled up like the threat of a loss of freedom.

But our freedom is in jeopardy, says Os Guinness in his new book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (there is a very good three part interview with Guinness by Timothy Dalrymple). Guinness doesn’t find the primary threat to our freedom in an external source, like another nation, or even “big government” or “big business” or special interests. No, the enemy is us. Freedom cannot be won for all time and then left alone; it needs to be sustained. And, Guinness writes, Americans are failing to sustain the freedom our nation’s founders worked so hard to win: “The problem is not wolves at the door but termites in the floor. Powerful free people die only by their own hand, and free people have no one to blame but themselves” (37). The vision of freedom we Americans are pursuing is “short-lived and suicidal” (29).

(Side note: The title A Free People’s Suicide might seem bombastic, but it comes from a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”)

The problem with our vision of freedom is that the freedom we love to talk about and claim for ourselves focuses exclusively on freedom from external constraints. There are two kinds of freedom: freedom from constraint (negative freedom) and freedom for cultivating virtue and becoming the people we ought to be (positive freedom). Modern Americans are only interested in negative freedom. We claim rights and entitlements for ourselves, but do not care about duty, virtue, character, or pursuing excellence. Negative freedom alone is unsustainable. Freedom from external restraint, without self-restraint, undermines itself.

What can be done? Guinness argues that we need to return to the founders’ vision of freedom, which he calls the “Golden Triangle of Freedom.” He demonstrates that the founders did not have a vision of freedom that stopped with freedom from constraint. Rather, their vision of freedom was part of an interdependent triangle: freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; faith requires freedom.

Perhaps the most controversial part of this triangle of freedom in our time is faith (Eric Metaxas wrote a good review of this book in the Christian Post focusing on this point). The point for Guinness, and I agree, is not necessarily that the founders were Christians (though some were). Rather, the point is that the founders (even the Deists) were unanimous in their approval of faith of any kind, because faith fosters virtue, and only a virtuous people can remain free.

Guinness’ book is intended not just for Christians or religious people, but for all Americans who care about freedom. For that reason, I understand his arguing for faith as part of the golden triangle of freedom on pragmatic grounds (he follows the founders in adopting this tactic). Nevertheless, I think his argument ought to have particular force for Christians. The Bible also understands freedom as not merely freedom from constraint.

Seven times in the book of Exodus, God (through Moses) says, “Let my people go so that they may serve me.” (Exod 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3). Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36), but he also said, “Take my yoke upon you” (Matt 11:29). One of the earliest Christians’ favorite self-designations was “slave of Christ” (Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 7:22; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Titus 1:1; Jas 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1; Jude 1; Rev 1:1). Freedom, for the Christian, can never be merely about freedom from external constraints. It begins with freedom from constraint, but doesn’t stop there. Christian freedom is not just freedom from, but freedom for: freedom to serve God and others. From a Christian perspective, those who begin by thinking freedom is merely the absence of external constraints end by becoming slaves to their own appetites: greed, lust, and desire for power.

I applaud Guinness’ effort to prod Americans to do the hard work of sustaining freedom. I hope his argument gains a wide hearing. In particular, I hope his argument gains traction among Christians, who are just as prone to only care about negative freedom as anyone else, but who have the least reason for doing so.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy.

Book Review: Fixing the Moral Deficit

In his newest book, Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget, Ron Sider writes that there are three crises facing America today: a deficit crisis, a poverty crisis, and a justice crisis. Seen together, these three add up to a moral deficit. This short (171 pages, including notes and an index) book is his attempt at a solution.

In the brief first chapter, Sider argues that the crisis is a real one. He then argues that in order to solve the crisis, we need an understanding of the economic facts (which he provides in chapter 2) and a set of biblically grounded moral principles (which he provides in chapter 3). Then in chapter 4 he looks at current proposals, such as the budget proposed by Republican congressman Paul Ryan last year (Ryan, a Catholic, was in the news recently when he was criticized by Catholic bishops and Georgetown University faculty for saying that his economic views were informed by Catholic social teaching). In chapter 5 he gives his own proposal. In a short concluding chapter, he makes a final appeal for readers to take the crisis seriously and do something about it.

The greatest strength of this book is that it is a serious attempt to look at a huge public issue from an explicitly Christian standpoint. The current state of U.S. political discourse puts pressure on people to conclude that there are only two political choices: radical individualism on one hand, and communal collectivism on the other. Christians all too often allow this pressure to push them into one camp or the other, rather than questioning the terms of the debate. Sider does this, and concludes, I think rightly, that “[b]iblical faith combines an amazing personalism with clear communalism” (44). He critiques both the followers of Marx and of Ayn Rand.

From his examination of the Bible, Sider comes away with seven foundational principles, which I think are important enough to quote in full:

1. In our understanding of persons we must hold together two truths: persons are made both for personal freedom and responsibility, and for communal interdependence. Radical individualism and sweeping collectivism are both fundamental mistakes.

2. We do have responsibility for our neighbors. Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. But genuine love for neighbor requires not unending handouts but a tough love that does what is in the genuine long-term interest of the neighbor.

3. God and God’s faithful people have a special concern for the poor. Since God measures societies by what they do to the people on the bottom, we must evaluate proposals to end the deficit crisis by what they do to the poorer members of society.

4. Justice does not demand equal income and wealth, but it does require that everyone has access to the productive resources (land, capital, education) so that, when they act responsibly, they will be able to earn an adequate living and be respected members of society. It also requires that those unable to work (children, the disabled, the elderly) enjoy a generously sufficient living.

5. Economic equality is not a biblical norm. But economic inequality that harms the poorer members of society and prevents them from gaining access to productive resources (e.g., quality education) is wrong. Furthermore, economic inequality that places most of the political power in the hands of a few will almost inevitably lead to great injustice.

6. Government is only one of many crucial institutions in society, and its power must be limited. But in biblical teaching, there is a significant, legitimate role for government in caring for the poor and promoting economic opportunity. It is simply unbiblical to claim that caring for the poor is only a responsibility of individuals and private organizations but not the government.

7. Intergenerational justice is important. One generation should not benefit or suffer unfairly at the cost of another. Scripture clearly teaches that parents should act in ways that help their children to flourish (Deuteronomy 6:7; Psalm 78:4; Joel 1:3). To continually place current expenditures on our children’s and grandchildren’s credit cards is flatly immoral (69–71).

It would be a huge step forward if all Christians followed Sider’s example and talked about the deficit crisis from a particularly Christian perspective. In other words, there is a theological debate that we should be having, rather than simply taking our cues from the wider cultural discourse. We should be asking what people are for, and what our responsibilities are to our neighbors, and what the Bible says about all of this. Too often we just kind of drift into the political tribe that our friends and neighbors are a part of. That’s irresponsible.

I’m sure that not even everyone who agrees with the above principles will agree with Sider’s specific policy proposals, but everyone will benefit from reading a thoughtful discussion of budget issues that is not shrill or accusatory.

Note: I received a copy of this book from Intervarsity Press as part of the Goodreads “First Reads” program. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Book Review: Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics

This is the second edition of Steve Wilkens’s introductory survey of ethical theories. Wilkens, who teaches at Azusa Pacific University in southern California, devotes chapters to cultural relativism, ethical egoism, utilitarianism, behaviorism, evolutionary ethics, situation ethics, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, narrative ethics, natural law ethics and divine command theory. The chapters on evolutionary ethics and narrative ethics are new in this edition.

The idea behind this book is that various ethical theories can be summarized in short slogans, or “bumper stickers.” Even people who do not think about ethical systems organize their lives around one or more of these slogans, and Wilkens wants to bring the theories behind the bumper stickers out into the open so they can be evaluated. Wilkens writes from a Christian perspective, and places the ethical theories in the book into three categories: first he looks at ethical theories that contradict aspects of the Christian worldview, then theories that can be compatible with, but do not require, a Christian worldview, and finally theories that begin from a Christian standpoint.

In each chapter, Wilkens introduces the reader to an ethical theory, primarily interacting with one or two proponents of that theory. For example, in his chapter on ethical egoism he interacts with Ayn Rand, in his chapter on evolutionary ethics he interacts with E.O. Wilson, and in his chapter on narrative ethics he interacts with Stanley Hauerwas. Then he gives the positive aspects of each theory—he believes that all of them have some truth; otherwise they would not be so attractive to so many people—and potential weaknesses.

One potential weakness of the book is that dealing with just one or two proponents of an ethical theory can lead to oversimplification. Wilkens is conscious of that risk, but believes that it is a risk that must be taken in an introductory survey (217). Also, in the chapter on natural law, Wilkens talks about the U.S. Constitution setting forth the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He means the Declaration of Independence (185).

In spite of small weaknesses, I highly recommend this book. All people organize their lives according to some ethical system, and relatively few people take time to reflect on where their ethical system came from and what its implications are. After reading this book, some Christians may realize that the ethical system they have adopted is not as rooted in a Christian worldview as it ought to be. This is a book that is especially well suited as a textbook for an introductory ethics class in a Christian high school or university.

February 2011: Books Read

1. Dune by Frank Herbert. This is a classic work of science fiction that, before I read it, I knew next to nothing about. I knew they had made a movie from it (which I had never seen), and that the movie had Sting in it. That’s all. It was a fun read, though I kept wishing that the action would move a bit faster. To me, the reading experience felt like this: foreshadow foreshadow foreshadow foreshadow foreshadow SOMETHING HAPPENS foreshadow foreshadow foreshadow foreshadow foreshadow foreshadow foreshadow SOMETHING ELSE HAPPENS foreshadow foreshadow foreshadow foreshadow foreshadow, etc. It got a bit tiring, after a while.

Also, I had a conversation with a co-worker while I was reading it. This co-worker said that he had read the book when he was young, and was quite taken with Frank Herbert’s world-building ability until he got a bit older and found that he stole a bunch of what he wrote from the Arabs. This, I found, was quite true. It’s impossible, I think, to build a complete fantasy world from scratch with no reference to the real world. But it’s a lot more entertaining when you can cover your tracks a bit. An interesting read, but I don’t understand what the fuss is about.

2. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God by Christopher J.H. Wright. From the early church on, the issue of how to interpret the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, if you prefer) has been a live one. Are its laws still binding on Jewish Christians? Do Gentile Christians have to start living by its laws? Some answers regarding how to interpret it are found in the New Testament, but we modern types have still more questions: What about the destruction of the Canaanites? How did the Israelites view the environment? Do the laws God gave to the Israelites reflect the ideal way to govern a society, or was it a condescension to the Israelites’ culture? If the Old Testament law is an ideal, what about its regulations concerning slavery? And on and on.

Wright’s book is a fantastic one for answering such questions. He writes in dialogue with other scholars, but on a level that is intelligible to the average person who has never studied Hebrew or the Ancient Near East. It is neither a quick read nor a light read, however, so I would only recommend it to those who are seriously seeking to investigate how Christians should view the Old Testament.

3. Mister God, This is Anna by Fynn. This is an inspirational tale about the friendship between a young man (I believe he is around 19) and a young girl in London. Fynn, the narrator, finds Anna as he is wandering around the city at night. She has run away from home, and he takes her into the home where he lives with his mother and a steady string of other tenants. Soon he discovers that Anna is spiritually sensitive beyond her years, and much of the book consists of conversations between the two of them in which Anna confidently discourses on life and Fynn laps up her wisdom.

There was a lot that I enjoyed about this book, but at the end I thought it was too sentimental. In particular, it came across as an idealization of childhood, and of Anna in particular. She seems almost otherworldly, and this depiction of Anna as otherworldly even extends to the picture on the cover of the book. It depicts Fynn and Anna walking together. Fynn is drawn as a regular human being and Anna is drawn as a ghost. Fynn tells us that it is a true story, but Anna seems a little bit too much like an oracle.

4. Someday You’ll Be a Good Preacher: A Homiletical Memoir by Stan Mast. This book was given to me by my grandparents, and the author is the preaching pastor at the church they attend in Grand Rapids, MI. It is, as the subtitle says, a homiletical memoir, and Mast walks his readers through his development as a preacher, paying particular attention to his critics (those who paid him the backhanded compliment of saying he would be a good preacher someday) and how their criticism (constructive and otherwise) spurred his growth. This is a quick read, and I enjoyed it. I’d recommend it to those who preach, and especially to those who can relate to Mast’s experience as a minister in the Christian Reformed Church.

5. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters by Timothy Keller. This is a book about idolatry. All too often when we think of idolatry, we imagine ancient people literally bowing down before a statue. That is not all idolatry is, says Tim Keller, and idols are alive and well in the modern world. “A counterfeit god,” Keller says, “is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would hardly feel worth living” (xviii). The only way to get rid of them is to replace them; not with other idols but with Jesus, the only God worthy of our worship. Fascinating and convicting.

August 2009: Books Read

1. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving From Affluence to Generosity by Ronald J. Sider. This book came out in 1977, and is regarded by many as a “classic.” The version I read was the fifth edition, updated in (I think) 2004.

The book comes in four parts: the first part depicts the state of the world today, in which there are billions of poor people and millions of affluent people who could help. The second part shares a biblical perspective on poverty and possessions. The third attempts to answer the question, “What causes poverty?” And the fourth shares practical steps that Christians in rich countries can follow to both simplify their own lives and make wise contributions to making the world a more just and fair place.

This was a challenging book for me. Although I don’t think of myself as affluent, I certainly live in an affluent part of the world and enjoy many more conveniences than those people who have to live on a few dollars a day. The main things that I got out of this book were 1) practical tips on living more simply, while simultaneously fostering community, and 2) a greater understanding of the economics of poverty. Lack of understanding the latter, I think, is a major obstacle that keeps Christians from helping the poor. We think that the foreign aid rich countries give to poor countries is a lot, but most actually give less than 1 percent of their GNP in foreign aid – and much of this aid is tied to their own foreign policy interests. We think that this aid is more than enough to make up for inequalities caused by things like tariffs and the abusive practices of some multi-national corporations, but it is not. This is definitely a book that all Christians in wealthy nations should read. Even if not everyone agrees with Sider’s practical proposals, the problem of poverty is something that all Christians – if they are reading their Bibles and are genuinely seeking to be more like Jesus – are called to address.

2. Praying With the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today by Scot McKnight. McKnight was raised in a Christian tradition that had no use for daily set prayers, but as an adult he has come to appreciate and even love them. Like McKnight, I was raised in a Christian tradition that did not have set prayers (though we did recite the Lord’s Prayer and the “Gloria Patri” every week in church). As an adult, I have been more and more interested in the practice of daily prayer times as I have come to understand how deep they go in the Christian tradition.

McKnight’s book is a quick read and it comes in two parts: the first deals with Jesus’ own use of set prayers (Jews of his time recited prayers daily, and what we call the “Lord’s Prayer” is Jesus teaching his disciples something to pray every day). The second part serves as an introduction to four prayer books: the Orthodox Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and Phyllis Tickle’s modern ecumenical Divine Hours. I would recommend this book to anyone who, like me, wants to have a richer prayer life and who is less familiar with the tradition of set prayers and how to use a prayer book.

3. The Ascent of a Leader: How Ordinary Relationships Develop Extraordinary Character and Influence by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNichol and Ken McElrath. Throughout my time in graduate school, I felt that it was more important to spend my time reading deep theology books than leadership books. But as I grow closer to (hopefully) taking on more leadership in a church setting, and as I become more aware that it is rarely bad theology that gets pastors kicked out of churches, I’ve become more interested in leadership literature. Earlier this year I read Now, Discover Your Strengths, and I’ve just recently completed The Ascent of a Leader.

The “ascent” the authors talk about is climbing the “character ladder” rather than the “capacity ladder.” The capacity ladder is what leaders are able to do on their own, and it comes with four rungs: discover what I can do, develop my capacities, acquire a title or position and attain individual potential. Climbing up just this kind of ladder can lead to loneliness and failure. Rather, spurred on by environments and relationships of grace, leaders should climb the character ladder: trust God and others, choose vulnerability, align with truth, pay the price and discover destiny. Once you start to climb the character ladder, you can integrate it with the capacity ladder, “leveraging our capacities far beyond what we could have accomplished without character” (143). I found this book to be a good reminder of how important character is in everyday life.

4. The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight. I’d heard a lot about this little book in recent months, and when I was at the Covenant’s annual meeting in Portland this summer, I was able to pick it up. The title comes from a time when McKnight was sitting in his backyard and saw a strange blue bird that he had never seen before. Turns out it was a parakeet that had escaped from someone’s cage. The “blue parakeets” of the title are “oddities in the Bible that we prefer to cage and silence rather than to permit into our sacred mental gardens” (208). Issues like Sabbath, foot washing, tithing and women in ministry are blue parakeets that many of us don’t quite know what to do with: do we try to retrieve all practices from biblical times? Do we try to retrieve only what we can salvage for our day and our culture? Do we read through tradition? Or do we read in dialogue with tradition? McKnight counsels us to read the Bible as a Story. We should read this Story in order to get to know the God behind it. And we should discern through God’s Spirit and in the context of our community how to continue living that Story in our own day. McKnight provides an example of discernment in the issue of women in ministry.

This is a wonderful book, and I hope it finds its way into the hands of lots of people. All Christians interpret the Bible in some way, but there are so few books for a popular audience on how to best interpret it. As a result, many are left thinking that the way their pastor or their immediate community interprets the Bible is self-evidently the only way. This is unfortunate.

This isn’t a perfect book, by any means. Since it is short, and meant for a popular audience, McKnight ends up dealing with some complicated issues very briefly. As a result, I doubt whether he will convince many people who, for example, are thoroughly antagonistic to women’s ordination. But since the book is for a popular audience, and no popular book can deal with these issues in great detail, I still highly recommend it.

5. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I have never seen the movie version of this book, and I was surprised on reading it to find that Scarlett O’Hara is one of the more malevolent and despicable literary protagonists I have ever read about – and I have read Anna Karenina. Like Anna Karenina, the real hero of this book is someone besides the main character: in Anna Karenina it is Levin (who, I’ve heard, Tolstoy modeled after himself), and in Gone With the Wind, it seems to me that the heroine is really Melanie Wilkes. But in both books, the intended hero is far overshadowed by protagonists who are such finely written, true-to-life characters that, despite their badness, they steal the show. It’s a great credit to Margaret Mitchell that she could create such a believable character as Scarlett – even if she is so believable that I genuinely didn’t like her.

6. The Theology of the Book of Revelation by Richard Bauckham. We have been reading through the book of Revelation in our Bible study, and I have taken it on myself to do background reading and lead the discussion. Part of that background reading has been this fantastic little book (it’s only 169 pages). Bauckham, who retired a couple of years ago from being Professor of New Testament at St. Andrews, digs into the theological content of Revelation and finds that it has perhaps the most developed trinitarian theology in the New Testament. He doesn’t spend a lot of time criticizing various interpretations of the book, but it’s clear that he doesn’t think futurist or historicist interpretations do a very good job of making sense of the imagery in the book. This is a dense little book, and it doesn’t move chronologically through the text. For those who want to read it, I’d recommend reading Revelation first to get a sense of it, then read this book, and then go back and read Revelation again with new eyes.

Truth Project 12: Community & Involvement (God Cares, Do I?)

Now we have reached the final “tour” of the Truth Project, on Community.

Del begins by quoting Matthew 22:33-40, wherein a Pharisee asks Jesus what the greatest commandment in the Law is. Jesus responds (referring to Deut. 6:4-9), “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Del also quotes a similar passage from Luke 10:25-29, in which the Pharisee, wanting to “justify himself,” asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

Then Del takes us back through the “spheres” that he has introduced in the last several tours: God, the family, the church, the state, the general economic model and the labor sphere, saying that God has stamped his divine image on each one. Then he says that the sphere of community looks a little different because it doesn’t have any “authority” roles, but only “responsibility” roles. He says maybe this is why we neglect this sphere, because there’s no power in it.

Returning to the passage in Luke, Del says that the Pharisee, in asking who his neighbor was, was looking for a checklist. Instead, Jesus told him what we think of as the parable of the Good Samaritan. Del calls it the “Story of the Good Neighbor.” In telling the story, Jesus didn’t answer the Pharisee’s question; he responded with what the man needed to hear. “He said what a neighbor was, and told him to go be a neighbor.” Del draws the “sphere” of community on the board, with Christ at the top, the neighbor below and to the right, and the needy below.

Del quotes a series of passages from the Old Testament (1 Sam. 2:8, Job 5:11, Ps. 12:5, Ps. 72:4, 138:6, 12:5) and sums them all up by saying that “God has a deep heart for the needy.” Then he asks, “Who are the needy?” It’s the poor, orphans, widows, the sick and prisoners, but it’s also outcasts, the unpopular, the neglected, the left out, the homely, the last and others. Del tells two stories to illustrate how the needy are everywhere: the first is of a girl who everyone made fun of when Del was in school, and the second is of his first school dance, where Del’s dad called his attention to the fact that there were girls whom no one was asking to dance.

Del then quotes another series of Bible passages, and ends by asking, “What other gods have a heart for the lowly?” This causes him to focus on the nature of God. He quotes Matt. 11:28-9, and says that for him, it was easy to think of God as powerful but the idea that God was humble was foreign. This is hard to miss in Jesus, though. At the Last Supper, he washed his disciples’ feet, and in John 14:4-9, he says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

But Del hastens to point out that humility is not timidity. He read a book about Jesus once called Man of Steel and Velvet. This is what Jesus is like.

Then Del plays two videos. The first is of Fr. Robert Sirico, who says that Christian charity is different from philanthropy because of its view of the person as sacred. He quotes C.S. Lewis as saying, “You’ve never met a mere mortal.”

The second video is of Flash, a tattoo artist who has made several appearances in previous video segments. In previous segments, he has come across as rough-edged and hostile to Christianity, but in this one he tells his story of abandonment and abuse, of pain and rejection by the church. He says, “I’ve only met a few Christians who act like what they say they are.”

Del then asks why we are not involved. Sometimes it’s because we don’t care. But if you want to follow Jesus, you must get involved. If we don’t engage the culture, he says, how are we going to understand where people are coming from, their needs? “We have a serious credibility gap.”

Then Del turns to the book of Jonah, in which God calls the prophet to go to Nineveh and prophesy but he runs away. Del says the focus of the story is on Nineveh. God cared about it and wanted to save it. “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” Del asks, “Do you think God’s not concerned with our culture?”

Del says that we are called to transform culture. He says that Christianity changed the world through involvement. He points to the British anti-slave trade campaigner William Wilberforce as an example. He points to five characteristics that Wilberforce had that we can learn from:

1. HIs whole life was animated by a deeply held, personal faith in Jesus Christ.
2. He had a deep sense of calling that grew into conviction that he was to exercise his spiritual purpose in the realms of his secular responsibility.
3. He was committed to the strategic importance of a band of like-minded friends devoted to working together in chosen ventures.
4. He believed deeply in the power of ideas and moral beliefs to change culture through sustained public persuasion.
5. He was willing to pay a steep cost for his courageous public stands and was persistent in pursuing his life task.

There have been many Christians like him, Del says, and we are in good company. So what do we do? What is the next step? Del says that he has no clue. He isn’t going to advise people on what to do. But he does know the one who does: God.

I thought that this was a great “tour” to end on. It would be easy for people to go through this whole curriculum and say, “Well, now I have a Christian worldview. Good for me,” instead of actually having it change the way they live. I liked the way that the title frames the question: “God Cares, do I?” God is not content to sit comfortably in church and scoff at the world; should I be?

I also thought that the video of Flash was very powerful. As noted above, he comes across as being pretty rough around the edges, and in earlier tours he said some harsh and disturbing things. It was important to see the story behind who he is, and show that he is a human, made in God’s image, who God calls us to love and respect.

And finally, I think on the one hand that Wilberforce is a great example of Christian cultural involvement, and on the other it was wise for Del to refrain from saying what people should do next. They should look for God to call them to what he wants them to do.

There are just a few nitpicky things about this tour to point out. The first is that Del again bases a “sphere” on God’s internal relationships, saying that “He stamped that divine image on each [sphere].” I’ve already mentioned a couple of times, especially in Tour 7: Sociology, that I think this is a mistake and unbiblical. We can say that God wants our relationships to be a certain way, but I don’t think there’s enough biblical warrant to say that he wants our relationships in these “spheres” to look like the Trinity.

Second, I liked that Del came across in this tour as concerned about where people are coming from. But I wonder whether this is enough to counteract the scoffing and dismissive tone he adopts elsewhere in the Truth Project. For example, in tour 10, he scoffs at people at Harvard, saying, “I’m not even sure they know what [truth] means.” In an earlier tour, he scoffs at his college philosophy professor, dismissing him by saying, “How foolish!” Del appears conflicted. On the one hand, he seems to have a real heart for people, and knows that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12). On the other, he seems at times to get carried away into an “Us vs. Them” mentality. I wonder which Del watchers of the Truth Project will listen to more?

Finally, Del says that “we’re called to transform culture.” I don’t think this is the best way to frame things. Culture is a big thing (within our society, you could even speak of several different cultures), and transforming it is really out of our control (I get this idea from Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making, which I read recently). Even making laws can’t transform culture; laws are downstream from culture. Instead of talking about “transforming culture,” I would be more partial to the language of “being faithful” – listening to God’s call, and following him as faithfully as we can. We can make culture, but we can leave the culture transforming up to him.

The Year of Living Like Jesus

For the past two years, when I have gone to visit family in Grand Rapids, MI, I have gone to Rob Bell’s Mars Hill Church. I am an unabashed church tourist, and I enjoy going to well-known churches just to see what they are like. I’ve been to Saddleback, the Crystal Cathedral, McLean Bible Church, John MacArthur’s church (I forget the name), and even the other Mars Hill Church (the one pastored by Mark Driscoll) in Seattle.

On neither of the occasions I visited Mars Hill did Rob Bell speak. I don’t know whether he just likes to take time off over Christmas or what, but both times I’ve gone I’ve heard Ed Dobson speak instead. Ed Dobson is the former pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, and he stepped down several years ago because he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Even though the church tourist in me would have liked to hear Rob Bell, I am grateful to have heard Dr. Dobson (no relation to the other Dr. Dobson) speak, and to have had the opportunity to learn more about who he is.

This past year, after reading A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically (which I also read, and reviewed here), he decided that he was going to spend a year living as much like Jesus as he possibly could. He grew a beard, read the Gospels every week, prayed for his enemies, voted the way he thought Jesus would want him to vote, and even went down to the bar a few times (after all, Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard).

Here is a link to the story (plus a video interview) on ABC News:ABC News: Spending a Year Living Like Jesus

I pray that all Christians have the courage to do this kind of thing more deliberately.

Reinhold Niebuhr. Again.

When I started this blog back in September, I didn’t think that I would write two posts on Reinhold Niebuhr in the first five months. I have never even read an entire book by him (though I have read articles). And yet, here is number two (Here is number one):

Over the break, one of the books that I read was a biography of Reinhold Niebuhr by Richard Fox. I got this book for free last year from a pastor in Burnaby, BC who was retiring and giving away much of his library. I read it now because I have heard a lot about Niebuhr in my time as a theology student, but I was still a little foggy about how to classify him. Or even whether or not I agreed with him.

The book, I must say, was a great help. It dealt with the development of his ideas and his actions based on those ideas in a very helpful way, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in “Reinie” (as his friends called him) and is a little bewildered by the sheer amount of what he wrote over his long public career. It only makes sense that people should be bewildered; after all, he did write some seemingly contradictory things. Here is a quote from the epilogue:

In retrospect his centrifugal career tends to fragment into its component parts. Latter-day disciples seize upon the particular Niebuhr they prefer. Neoconservatives flock to the Niebuhr of the late 1940s and 1950s: the vehement opponent of Soviet communism, the persistent adversary of left utopianism. Liberals and left-liberals take heart from the Niebuhr of the 1920s and 1930s: the zealous antagonist of business hegemony, the angry critic of the consumer culture. Theological scholars meanwhile debate his religious works, cut off from the historians and social scientists who analyze his political thought. In life Niebuhr always confounded those who stressed one side of his career or one segment of his standpoint at the expense of another. He confused his comrades as often as his detractors.

– p. 294

In the end, although he did have interesting perspectives as an ethicist, as an evangelical Christian I was taken aback by his theological liberalism (and, though he did criticize liberals a lot over the course of his career, he remained liberal himself throughout his life). Here are a couple of quotes from the book:

…for all its attention to Christ crucified and risen, the book [The Nature and Destiny of Man] offerend only a very abstract Incarnation and scant assurance of the eternal life most believers yearned for. Niebuhr did not want to give ‘comfort to literalists,’ as he wrote to Norman Kemp-Smith. . . . ‘I have not the slightest interest in the empty tomb or physical resurrection.’

– p. 215

For him religion was not doing good, feeling holy, or experiencing the transcendent; it was grasping the evil in one’s efforts to do good, recognizing one’s finitude, realizing that the transcendent was unattainable. . . . His religion, for all of its Biblical allusions and ethical drive – was more like a philosophy of life than a mystical encounter.

– p. 172

I must say that recognizing one’s finitude is a good thing. But in the end, I’ve got deep reservations about Niebuhr because his God simply doesn’t act in history. His God is not the God who revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth. If his ethics has this belief in the background, I’ve got to take whatever he says with a huge grain of salt. Niebuhr had conflicts with his brother Richard over this very point during the course of their lives, and I think Richard is the more orthodox of the two.