ReFrame ReView: Living Out of the Christian Story

Many Christians are wondering how their faith can possibly relate to their everyday life. Often we see our faith as private—something that we do in our spare time or on the weekends, not something that shapes how we work and play every day. Even if we do bring faith into our everyday lives, it can seem tacked on. It is as if faith is limited to certain activities, and not something that comes out of the core of who we are.Screenshot 2014-11-13 20.50.55

To help us learn how faith relates to all of life, the folks at the Regent College Marketplace Institute (RCMI) have released ReFrame, a video course that explores what it means to follow Christ today. ReFrame seeks to explore how, in the words of Colossians 1:17, “in [Christ] all things hold together.” The introduction to each video in the course includes the following words, spoken by presenter Mark Mayhew:

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ reframes everything, bringing hope, life, and meaning to every part of human culture. And yet many of us can’t see how our faith shapes much of everyday life and experience. What are God’s purposes for us? What does it mean to be made in the image of God? How do we live in the world but not of the world? We’re exploring, “How does the biblical story reframe our story?”

The course comes in ten episodes, each about 40 minutes long. Each episode includes a TED-style talk as well as brief interviews with various people like Eugene Peterson, Scot McKnight, Ruth Padilla DeBorst, Andy Crouch, Loren Wilkinson, J. I. Packer, Krish Kandiah, Soong-Chan Rah, and Katherine Leary Alsdorf. Since ReFrame is a product of the RCMI, it is not surprising that most of these have a connection to Regent College, whether they have been professors or taught summer school courses. I was very excited about this because of my own connection to Regent (I attended there 2004–08 and graduated with an MDiv), but I think this will be exciting to a much broader audience than just Regent nerds like myself.

The ten episodes are as follows; I’ve included the speakers in the list so you can see what an all-star cast it is:

1. The ReFraming Story (Speaker: Paul Williams)

2. Cultural Stories (Speaker: Sarah Williams)

3. Creation & Fall (Speaker: Iain Provan)

4. Israel’s Calling (Speaker: Phil Long)

5. Jesus the King (Speaker: Rikk Watts)

6. New Heavens & New Earth (Speaker: Rikk Watts)

7. The Church & the Spirit (Speaker: Bruce Hindmarsh)

8. Strangers & Exiles (Speaker: Paul Williams)

9. Ambassadors (Speaker: Paul Williams)

10. Joyful Living (Speaker: Polly Long)

In addition to the talks and brief interviews, each episode also features the story of (usually one) person who is trying to live out his or her Christian faith in a particular area. For example, Strangers & Exiles features the stories of teacher George Sanker, physicist Jennifer Wiseman, and car dealer Don Flow. Here is a promo for the series, and as you can see, the production value is great:

In addition to the videos, ReFrame comes with a Leader’s Guide and Participant’s Guide. Each session is intended to take about two hours, including the watching of the 40-minute video. The Leader’s Guide looks very similar to the Participant’s Guide, but includes notes for leaders next to the main text. Here is a page from the Participant’s Guide:

Participant Guide Sample

Here is the same page from the Leader’s Guide:

Leader Guide Sample

If you have been following this blog for a while, you know that back in 2009 I reviewed a video series called The Truth Project that was billed as a “Christian worldview experience.” I anticipate that, since the two may be seen to have similar goals and I have seen both, I might be asked which one I would prefer. I would definitely say ReFrame, not least because it has a better flow from being built around a story rather than topics. Also, while The Truth Project is very well done in many ways, there are a few spots where it has trouble differentiating between a Christian worldview and the worldview of culturally conservative Baby Boomers (for example, in its treatment of American history). As such, while much of the series is very valuable, I believe that it is unlikely to have much lasting cachet outside that demographic.

I wish that I could go through every episode of ReFrame in detail, but I don’t have the space or time to do that here. Perhaps if I go through the course with my small group or a larger group from my church (which I definitely want to do), I’ll be able to sit down and write an episode-by-episode review. In the meantime, if you want to get a closer look for yourself, you can watch episodes one and five in their entirety at this link.

I highly, highly recommend this course for group study, whether it is as a small group or as a church. I pray that God will use ReFrame to powerfully influence Christians around the world to live more fully out of, and show others how to live more fully out of, the most compelling and beautiful story there is.

Note: Thanks to the Regent College Marketplace Institute for a copy of ReFrame for the purpose of review, with no expectation as to the nature of the review.

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Laing Lectures 2008: Walter Brueggemann (3 of 3)

This is the third in a series of three summaries of the 2008 Laing Lectures given by Walter Brueggemann (part 1 is here, and part 2 is here). Update: the audio of all three lectures is available for purchase here.

The third in Brueggemann’s series of biblical expositions was called “Receiving Salvation and Doing Justice: From Vision to Imperative in Isaiah.” It was given on Thursday night, and the place was packed. But unlike the first lecture on Wednesday (when I had to sit in overflow seating), I showed up 45 minutes early, got in line until the doors opened, and got a pretty good seat.

Brueggemann opened with a couple of clarifications about how he was planning to interpret Isaiah. First, he wasn’t going to get into the issue of who wrote so-called 1, 2, or 3 Isaiah. He was going to view it as a whole, the way it was received into the canon. Second, it is popular among Christians to interpret many Isaiah passages Christologically. Brueggemann wanted to avoid interpreting Isaiah with reference to Christ, and attempt to look at it in its context.

The book of Isaiah, said Brueggemann, is a rumination on the city of Jerusalem according to the dominant ideological claims of the Jerusalem establishment. These ideological claims were vindicated by the miraculous rescue of the city from the Assyrian threat in 701 BC. Some scholars believe that Psalm 46 was written in response to the deliverance of the city. Brueggemann believes that the book of Isaiah both appeals to this Jerusalem tradition, and also calls it into question.

Brueggemann thinks that Isaiah is really about Jerusalem. The book has an initial harshness toward the city (chapter 1), shifts to promissory tenderness (chapter 40), and ends with ultimate hope (chapters 65-66). However, he suggests that Jerusalem, in Isaiah, represents an instance of a failed urban economy. He wants to extrapolate from this particular failed economy to talk about a failed economy of our own day: the United States, when its temples of the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked.

First, the book of Isaiah is about loss. Chapters 1-39 are about loss as divine judgment.

Second, the book of Isaiah is about grief. Some scholars, Brueggemann notes, think that we ought to insert the book of Lamentations between Isaiah 39 and 40. Loss that is grieved permits newness, but loss that is denied creates dysfunction and violence. In a failed urban economy in the West, pastors need to think about loss and public grief.

Third, the book of Isaiah is about hope – but only hope that can happen after grief has been articulated. This is what chapters 40-45 are about. Verse 9 of chapter 40 contains the first intentional theological use of the word “gospel.” 52:7 is the second.

There is a second aspect to hope: a challenge to imperial reality. Brueggemann here refers to 41:21 and following, where the author imagines a courtroom trial where the Babylonian gods are taunted. Verse 25 begins YHWH’s testimony, where he refers to Cyrus, who would deliver his people.

The third aspect of hope is the presence of God; 41:13-14, “do not fear, for I am with you.” These words, spoken to exiles, are the most quintessential expression of the gospel.

The fourth dimension of hope is the location of divine assurance in human agency. If you read this Christologically, it points to Jesus. But before Jesus, you come to Cyrus. 45:1 – Cyrus is God’s anointed. This is extraordinary, in that the poet can imagine that a Gentile can become the savior of the Jews. One can imagine some Jews protesting this, and Brueggemann thinks they do, in verse 9.

The fifth dimension of hope: there is a contest between YHWH and Babylon. It’s the poet vs. the empire. The writer makes fun of Babylonian gods who have to be carried on the backs of donkeys in chapters 46-47.

The sixth aspect of hope: a summons to depart from the empire. This can be seen in 51:17, 52:1, 52:11, and 52:12, where, according to critical judgment, 2 Isaiah ends. It is another exodus. Brueggemann suggests that it is the task of the followers of the gospel to depart – not in a physical way, but by imagining oneself in a context where one can obey in joy. These, he says, may be ways to practice evangelical faith in an economy that has failed.

“So they departed.” Some did, at any rate. Brueggemann calls these who returned to Jerusalem the elite, or the fanatics, who became the principal bearers of Judaism. They left, dancing to the lyrics of 2 Isaiah, but then found Jerusalem in shambles. So when you move to 3 Isaiah, you move from the indicatives of the gospel to imperatives. 3 Isaiah begins in chapter 56 with commands.

There are five ingredients of the imperatives of 3 Isaiah that are important to us (although I only caught four):

  1. Membership. Who is the pure Jew? Who is included? Those who keep Torah.
  2. Worship. Don’t be pious while oppressing workers. Worship has to do with the practice of neighborliness.
  3. The book of Isaiah imagines a Jubilee economy, as seen in chapter 61.
  4. Engage in a large vision of what is possible.

Brueggemann concludes by saying that he has taken the leap of taking this as a paradigmatic script for us today. It is not clear that life can be construed beyond the empire. But poets have to try, because they are poets. They never arrive, because poetry would turn into a program if they did. The book of Isaiah is an argument that the old Jerusalem must be relinquished, and the new Jerusalem must be constructed. The poets (that is, the prophets) teach us to embrace the practice of loss, and grief, and hope, and eventually, to act.

Phil Long characterized his responses in terms of “amens” and “ahems.” He did point out, though, that his responses were based on the printed text of Brueggemann’s lecture, rather than how it was delivered. There were a few things Long mentioned where I was thinking, “Huh? Did Brueggemann talk about that?” But apparently he did in the printed text of his lecture, so I’ll pass on everything that Long mentioned: First, the amens: Long liked Brueggemann’s emphasis on Sabbath rest, on the need to re-think worship (which in many contexts has devolved into self-indulgence), on his fresh reading of Isaiah as presenting Jerusalem as a city with a deep fissure.

Long’s “ahems” were as follows: First, there was an exegetical point; Long wasn’t sure that the fissure in the center of the Isaiah narrative is in tension with the dynastic promise to David in 2 Sam. 7. The promise foresees just such failures as we see in Isaiah. Second, Long isn’t sure why we need to leave out Christological readings. If Christological readings were good enough for Jesus, they should be good enough for us. Third, Long appeared to be not sure what Brueggemann meant when he called divine wrath a rhetorical strategy. Long’s big question at the end was one Brueggemann did not answer: Where do we go from here? How do we live out our counter-loyalty in the face of empire? But, as Brueggemann said, the poets can only point. Brueggemann responded later with a good story: he had heard a preacher preaching about the exodus not long ago. He said that the water of the Red Sea didn’t open up until Moses had already waded in. We should begin to act now, rather than waiting for a whole program to be revealed.

Paul Williams, the second respondent, had an observation, a question, and an affirmation. The observation: we need to relinquish the idea of Christendom. We still have the idea that the West is a Christian society gone bad. Instead of trying to regain control, we should embrace exile. We also need to relinquish rank individualism and the culture of therapy, in which Christianity is seen as a means to my own self-fulfillment.

The Question: What is the basis of our hope? How do we move from indicative to imperative? We need the prophetic imagination, but we don’t only want to follow skillful rhetoric. Hananiah was skilled at rhetoric, but Jeremiah was the true prophet. Brueggemann then responded that in Jerusalem, the hope in YHWH became situated in human institutions, which was a mistake. Martin Luther, against Catholicism, thought the church should be classed along with fallible humanity rather than divine reality. This also applies to misplaced American hope in our Constitution and other institutions.

The Affirmation: Loved the idea of insterting Lamentations between Isaiah 39 and 40. We’re often detached and separated, but we need to make an extra effort to hear the cries of suffering around us.

Laing Lectures 2008: Walter Brueggemann (1 of 3)

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann came to Regent College to give the Laing Lectures on October 8 and 9. I graduated from Regent in the spring, but currently I don’t live too far away, so I decided to hoof it up to Vancouver to see friends and listen to some good lectures.

The lecture series was titled, “The Church in Joyous Obedience: Biblical Expositions.” Brueggemann lectured for about 50 minutes each time. Then he was responded to by Phil Long, who teaches Old Testament at Regent, and by Paul Williams, who teaches Marketplace Theology at Regent and is trained as an economist.

The first lecture was titled “From Exodus to Sinai: The Journey to the Common Good.” I’m going to summarize the lecture here, but be warned: I’m working from my notes rather than a transcript, so I may not present Brueggemann’s, Long’s, or Williams’ ideas quite the way they would. But I’ll do my best. Update: The audio of all three lectures is available for purchase from Regent Audio here.

Brueggemann began by saying that the great crisis among us is the crisis of the common good. The journey that we must make is the journey out of our selfishness to the common good. He then proceeded, in the first part of his lecture, to look at one impediment to the common good in the Old Testament: Pharaoh’s Egypt.

Pharaoh’s Egypt, Brueggemann says, is the paradigmatic example of a threat to the common good. He begins looking at Egypt in the latter portion of Genesis, when Pharaoh has a nightmare about a coming famine (chapter 41). Joseph then interprets the dream and becomes Pharaoh’s second-in-command. He proceeds to create a food monopoly that makes Pharaoh wealthy and, by Gen. 47:25, creates a nation of slaves who are grateful to be slaves. We know of Exodus deliverance, but we don’t acknowledge that slavery to begin with was a result of manipulation in the interest of power. By the beginning of Exodus, everyone is anxious: the slaves, who have submitted themselves to the state monopoly, and Pharaoh, who is scared to death of his own workforce. This anxiety, Brueggemann says, produces insanity in policy. The anxiety system of Pharaoh precluded the common good.

But then, he goes on, suffering comes to speech. There is a cry, a prayer, declaring publicly that the social system has failed. This cry reaches the ears of YHWH, whose ears are a magnet for the cries of the abused. YHWH then sends Moses, a human agent who can dream outside the imperial reality. There is a juxtaposition between Pharaoh’s nightmare of scarcity and Moses’ dream of liberation.

The second part of the lecture has to do with God’s abundant provision. The plagues come, the Israelites are freed, but by Exodus 16 they want to go back. They are still living under Pharaoh’s terms of anxiety. God provides them with quail and manna, and in Brueggemann’s words, “they wondered what it was, and it turned out this wonderbread did not fit their categories.” Manna, Brueggemann says, “is a show of YHWH’s inestimable generosity that stands in contrast to Pharaoh’s nightmare of anxiety about scarcity.” In fact, bread is a recurring sign in the Old Testament of divine generosity: 2 Kings 4:42-44, Isaiah 55.

All empires, says Brueggemann, act according to the principle of scarcity. All are anxious and think they need more, whether it be manpower, bread, oil, land, etc. But the quotas of the empire can never be met. So he asks, “Why do you bust your ass to serve the empire?” Why are baptized people in the rat race? The text issues a summons away from the ideology of scarcity.

The third part of the lecture deals with God’s act of generosity breaking the anxiety of scarcity. The 10 Commandments, Brueggemann maintains, are about an alternative grounded in generosity. Commandments 5-9, for example, tell us that all kinds of neighbors are not to be exploited as they are in Egypt. Commandment 10 condemns predatory practices that make the little guy vulnerable to the big guy. This Brueggemann related directly to the recent economic collapse. Commandment 4 encourages the Israelites to undertake community enhancement and activities that have no production value.

Brueggemann concluded his lecture with a few points of instruction: first, people who live in anxiety and fear have no time or energy for the common good. Second, it takes an immense act of generosity to break the grip of anxiety. Third, those who receive generosity can care about their neighbors. You can’t just preach to those wrapped up in the ideology of anxiety; they must be able to receive generosity.

He also pointed out some applications: First, Pharaoh’s kingdom of anxiety is alive and well today. Second, there is an alternative to the kingdom of scarcity. Theological education is learning the act of departure from this kingdom. Third, the journey from scarcity to abundance to neighborliness is a journey that all must take. Fourth, this journey is entrusted to the church and its allies. Brueggemann referred here to the New Testament feedings of the 5000 and 4000. With these signs, Jesus says that wherever he is, the world of scarcity is transformed into the world of overwhelming abundance. In Mark 8:14-21, the disciples didn’t understand because their hearts were hardened – just like Pharaoh. But those who receive the bread of abundance, Brueggemann says, have energy beyond themselves for the sake of the world.

After the lecture, Phil Long was given the chance to respond. Here are just a couple of things he pointed out, or asked questions about: first, was Pharaoh’s dream just a nightmare, or was it also a providential dream? Second, how do we understand the phrase “common good”? Even the builders of the Tower of Babel were working for their understanding of the common good. Third, how do we understand “abundance”? Is it to be seen in socioeconomic terms? Long hinted that he thought a good understanding of abundance is connected to the word “Shalom” in the Old Testament. This is deeper, and can exist even in socioeconomic adversity.

Paul Williams had more things to say, but as with Long, I wasn’t able to write them down quickly. He asked whether it was the case that the crisis we’re in is that we’ve reached an ideological dead end, with multiple competing definitions of what the common good is. We should not just appeal to a vague common good, but to a particular good, and a particular God. Williams commended Brueggemann for using the phrase “consumer militarism,” rather than “consumer sovereignty.” Brueggemann responded that he came up with the phrase because of his observation that, in the United States, you can’t maintain our level of consumption without a strong military that wrests resources away from others. Finally, Williams also expressed surprise that Brueggemann had not mentioned the notion of Jubilee from the Old Testament as a way of further defining what the “common good” was.