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Archive for the ‘Theological Op-Ed’ Category

I put up the following post last year on December 15th. I reread it and felt it still adequately (perhaps fallibly) represents my musings on Christmas, God, and the nativity relevant for this season. If you didn’t get a chance to read it before, please take a moment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

As a budding biblical studies scholar, I have spent the better part of my educated life studying the biblical texts and the world in which the texts were written. To be sure, my understanding of Jesus and my faith has gone through periods of growth, stagnation, deconstruction, and reconstruction. Indeed, Christmas continues to be a very special time for me in terms of my faith and my understanding of Jesus. Around this time of year, the Christian church in the Western world traditionally underscores the importance of Jesus’ birth  in terms of salvation. That is to say, the emphasis on the importance of Jesus’ birth tends to be projected on the individual salvific plane in so far as Jesus was sent by God, born the incarnation of God, in order to save the world from their sins. After years of careful reflection, both in terms of my personal faith journey and in terms of my own theological development, there are several further issues that I would like to set forth that now resonate deeply with me during this season. While I certainly affirm, personally, the validity and importance of the traditional emphasis of Christmas, in what follows I will seek to articulate a few equally important perspectival aspects that are evoked in my own heart and mind as to the meaning of Christmas, that is, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God.

First, my study of Second Temple Judaism and the gospels, has helped me to see Jesus’ message cast forth through his disciples in the narratives we call “gospels” in a fresh and revealing light. What did the nativity of Jesus mean to those who first heard the Gospel of say Luke or Matthew? This question seems straight forward enough, often we tacitly assume that it means exactly what we have always held it to mean, namely, Jesus, God’s Son, was born to save “us” from our sins. However, it is important, I think, to take seriously the thought-world in which the story was put forth, that is, to appreciate the canvas as it were upon which the Jesus’ story was painted. Jesus’ nativity was not the only dominant or uniquely religious nativity in the first century of the Common Era. Rather, in Roman ruled Palestine, during the age of Augustus Caesar there was already a commonly heralded “gospel.” The word ευαγγελιον in Greek means “good news” and is the word we simply transliterate in order to describe the type of literature that the narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John represent, namely, the Gospel accounts of Jesus. However, with the advent of the Roman Empire as the world superpower and its transformation under Julius Caesar towards a centralized empire with an emperor, things changed significantly. Now the empire was united under a single leader—the living Ceasar. Although Julius’ life was short lived, it was not long after his death that he was deified making his son Octavian (later “Augustus”) “son of a God” (divi filius). Most importantly, the “gospel” of Augustus was the herald of his birth, with great benefit for the whole world. The well known Priene calendar inscription, dating to 9 BCE, offers us linguistic evidence for the way Augustus’ birth was championed by his devotees. Paulus Fabius Maximus came up with the idea that the local lunar calendar should be altered and thereby reckoned by the Julian calendar—a calendar beginning with the birth(day) of Caesar Augustus! In fact, Augustus’ birth is called “the beginning of all things” since gave a new look to the entire world which would have suffered utter demise had it not been graced with the birth of Caesar. Furthermore, the inscription petitions the local Greek Assembly in the province of Asia to reckon the calendar by the great “savior’s” birth. In the inscription, Augustus’ birth is heralded as the birthday of “our God” and “the beginning of good news (ευαγγελιον) for the world because of him…[and thus we should] reckon time from the date of his [Augustus’] nativity.” This is no small matter. For the Christians to proclaim the “gospel” as that of Jesus’ birth ipso facto devaluates the claims of Caesar. Thus, Christmas demarcates the birth of the Christian God, thereby challenging the political establishment, heralding a new “savior” one whose birth is joy for the world by virtue of his divine mission to usher in the “kingdom” of God over against the kingdoms of this world. What does this mean for us now? Christmas is a celebration of God’s decisive action in sending Jesus to the world, in establishing a ruler above all rulers, a kingdom above all kingdoms. Christmas is a time where the rulership of the world is called into question, where rulers and ruling regimes are challenged by God, by Jesus, and by his followers who uphold righteousness and truth.

Secondly, Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as the messiah of Israel. To the first century Yahwist, Jesus’ messiahship necessarily meant liberation from oppression and oppressive regimes who sought to marginalize and subjugate the people of God. Hence, Christmas demarcates the beginning of the end of oppression and injustice, a claim Christians believe happened, is happening, and will be fully actualized in the future. Christmas is a time to reflect on God’s power to overthrow injustice, to reconcile humanity to each other and to God.

Third, on a more theologically abstract plane, Christmas is significant for the gift given—Jesus. Christians proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God, the divine Son who was sent from heaven to become incarnate. Furthermore, Christian orthodoxy has instantiated its stand as Trinitarian. This is extremely important with respect to the incarnation. On one hand, the Son left the Father. On the other, the Father gave the Son up to death. This too is of no little significance. For it necessarily implies change in the Godhead and thus the realities of this process. While we understand, or perhaps better understand that we do not understand, there are several things implied by the incarnation, I think. The incarnation demarcates a tangible change in the Godhead according to orthodox Christian Trinitarian “orthodoxy,” which suggests that prior to the incarnation Jesus was not embodied, thus, the Godhead takes on flesh, or perhaps better nuanced a person in the Godhead takes on flesh, lives, dies, is resurrected, and exists now in a resurrected state. Perhaps through the incarnation, God himself enters time as it were and thus takes on temporal succession throughout eternity from thence forth. Yet, most significantly to the incarnation at Christmas is not necessarily the issue of God and time, but rather the significance of the Father and the Son being separated through Jesus taking on the sins of the world, if traditional atonement/soteriological understandings are correct. Then Moltmann is correct in his The Crucified God that the Father experiences and Jesus experiences genuine estrangement by virtue of Jesus taking on the sins of the world. In effect, the Father abandons the Son on the cross to complete the mission. Thus, the Father suffers and the Son suffers and therefore suffering enters the experience, tangibly, of the Godhead. Thus, Christmas is joy for the world, but pain for God. The pain of loss, estrangement, otherness all come to the fore then through the giving of the Son at Christmas. What does this mean for Christians today? I suggest it may mean the following: (a) that God suffers and thereby is our representative in suffering. God feels the pains of suffering, estrangement, loss, etc. that we feel and thereby the “captain of our salvation” has been “made perfect” and our perfect advocate with the Father. Thus, we can relate to God and God to us; (b) that Christmas is a celebration of the joy of giving and the pain of giving one’s most valuable commodity—themselves, their love, their affection, their loyalty; and (c) that Christmas is a time to place the value, joy, and worth of others above ourselves.

I do not mean to suggest that these are the only implications of Christmas, but rather that in my own reflection and journey theologically these issues are important. They are formative in my understanding of the worth of Christmas, of the meaning of Jesus’ nativity, and the reason for the season, as it were. Christmas is about the decisive action of God on behalf of humanity, at a great cost to Godself. Christmas is a challenge to the rulers of the world on behalf of God’s justice and justness exemplified towards and required of the world. Christmas is a time to celebrate togetherness because of the gift given by God of personal estrangement and loss in order that followers of God might have reconciliation with each other and with God. These things have helped me to greater appreciate the nativity of Jesus.

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My contention in this post is that “Evangelicals” have fundamentally evolved into a group intolerant to diversity of thought, even within the strictures of their already narrowly defined theological dogma.

Why is the National Association of Evangelicals unable to find stable leadership? It wasn’t long ago that the NAE President Ted Haggard was exposed for being involved with a homosexual prostitute, despite being a prolific “warrior” against the social progress of LGBTQ equal rights. Now, the most recent resignation comes from the NAE Vice President of Governmental Affairs , Richard Cizik, (See here). He was ousted because he didn’t sufficiently repress and subjugate individuals espousing alternative sexualities. That is to say, he thought it was okay policy in the United States to permit homosexual civil unions. In my estimation, that is not tantamount to saying that one necessarily endorses the life-style as a normative or morally valuative practice.

I thought that the conservative Evangelical position was that homosexuality was a sin. However, this man was ousted ipso facto that he didn’t take a political orientation toward domestic policy in a empire that is not distinctly oriented to a religious group or ideology. America is not a theocracy, and most Christians, even conservative Evangelicals that I know, don’t want it to be. However, “evangelicals” have been high-jacked by fundamentalists who desire power to purge the “wicked” (=those not conforming to the exact litmus test of theological dogma of the one judging) from their midst. There was a time, history tells us, when evangelical was a broad term encompassing many confessing, moderate Christian individuals (and denominations). But now, who would want to be associated with a term that continues to be defined by narrow, bigoted, hate-mongers that herald themselves as the last bastion of truth, when in fact they fail to look even remotely like the Jesus of history or his earliest followers.

I suppose there is a reason that I do not aspire to participate in distinctly Evangelical circles, a sad reason. They feed on their own. There is no room for thought, for difference, for diversity. This is a case in point. He said things the President, Leith Anderson, didn’t think represented the association. Thus, despite his “regret” expressed (See the NAE account here), he was (as is implied) forced to resign. Is that what being an evangelical means? Does it mean opposing civil unions for homosexuals? Is that really it? Is that what Jesus would do? Are there any who call themselves evangelical out there that disdain this behavior?

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The gears in my tiny noetic apparatus have been spinning… While apocalypticism, hermeneutics, classical Hebrew prophecy, and of course the infamous Son of Man have been weighing deeply upon my mind, I would like to share and query with you regarding something more practical.

I just finished the best class I’ve ever had. This professor exemplified everything a student could possibly desire, simply masterful pedagogy, engagement with the data, moving through the material in a timely and insightful way, all I can say is WOW. Now I know for sure that someone is actually doing education the way I aspire to, critically, unapologetically honest with the data, and willing to follow the evidence where ever it leads.

What makes a great teacher? Is it charisma? Is it brilliance? How do we measure brilliance? I know one or two of the top tier people in their niche areas, but does that make them the best teachers? In fact, some of the people who write incredible books have pitiful classroom etiquette; conversely, I know of at least one professor who has published extensively in a variety of modalities from popular level to monographs and yet is also likely one of the top teachers in terms of in-class engagement.

As of today my thoughts are:
The Best Teachers/Academics are (in biblical studies):

  1. Individuals committed to analyzing the data from all vantage points fairly. That means being willing to genuinely entertain, critique, and valuate each argument on its own merits (regardless of the religious implications). The best example of the mentality not to have (an anecdotal quote no less) is one that “my beliefs are battle-tested, unshakable…” (yes, I actually read that somewhere). All this signals is fundamentalism, which at base is no different that hardened liberalism which refuses to entertain anything remotely orthodox (whatever orthodox means).
  2. Committed to the highest quality scholarship and desirous not “to put the cookies on the lower shelf” (I hate that expression). Students should be taken deeper, pushed further than they can go, stretched farther than they can stretch—this in my estimation is real learning.
  3. Intentionally push viewpoints contrary to the normative student body’s theological orientation. If you don’t teach people to think, they will wind up losing their faith because no one had the nerve to be honest. If, in the face of the data, they choose to walk away from faith—so be it. Nothing is more aggravating that the tired rhetoric of pseudo-“pastoral” protection by educators who choose not to entertain the hard questions. When professors are known only to tow the party line and fail to engage the difficult questions honestly (often admitting there are not clear and certain answers that are comforting) then they fail their students and their vocation. Students see through the mirage and coming from a lifetime student, it is almost impossible to have respect for someone being paid to educate who views their vocation as some sort of “ministry of encouragement” wanting only to “teach people what to believe.”
  4. Kind, merciful, and just. Justice is grading critically, but fairly. However, I have little compassion for those students who always have some emergency or excuse. Who has time for that crap? Life or death, sure I understand. But good teachers are firm, yet just.
  5. Are committed to guiding their students both in life and most importantly in their future vocation. If that means training a student to be more academic, teaching them how to write better, or pointing them in correct directions for doctoral and other work then so be it. These are teachers who care about their students enough to 1) be honest with them about the state and limitations of knowledge and 2) to pour into their lives something of the character, values, and insights the educator has pertaining to academics.

I have only seen education like this modeled in a handful of individuals in my life. That statement is itself a travesty. What do you think

Enough of my hobby horse, lets talk prophecy.

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Granted I’m a white American male, I have been pondering for some time now the discussion about calling God (=deity) “she”, now likely “old” by normal standards, but now that I voice my thoughts in the blogosphere I think its time I said something about this issue. As the first statement highlighted, as a male I can neither be a “feminist” theologian nor (in lieu of my ‘Caucasianaity’) a “womanist” theologian (is there such a thing as a ‘former-heroin-addict-theologian’?). However, as a follower of Jesus and a theologian I do have an opinion on the matter. And I think if anyone is honest with themselves and does their historiographical homework, it is difficult to deny that the Ancient Near East devalued, subjected, oppressed, silenced, and ridiculed women. Further, Judaism itself (as far as I have studied) is a deeply patriarchal tradition.

Now, it is true that one could read the Jewish scriptures and note a distinct bestowal of honor upon women in a completely egalitarian light, especially in the creation motif of the Imago Dei. Yet, the beauty of this created order of divinely instilled unity and equality is fundamentally shifted as the story proceeds through the marring of the Imago Dei through the so-called “fall” narrative. I do not buy into the conservative argument for so-called complementarianism (maybe better called “patriarchal capitulationism”). As I read the creation narratives, I think whatever one asserts from the stories, the principle regarding gender relations seem to be that through the “fall” event that the “seeds” of antipathy and active antagonism characterize the reciprocal relationships between the genders. Moreover, I am also compelled by my reading of Galatians 3:28, that indeed, there is no more slave or free, male nor female because of the reconciliation of Christ (There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female–for all of you are one in Christ Jesus [Gal 3:28; NET]). However, I think if there is a conflictual theology in the New Testament or one that is problematic for that matter, it is Paul’s. But the evidence is far from conclusive on the inclusion of the deutero-Pauline corpus (so if you are wanting to wallop someone with the Pastorals, not me!). Indeed, my reading of the gospels and the message of restoration is one of complete restoration, equality included! And please don’t respond to this with some kind of “functional” justification.

Having then established in brief my reading of that conflict, underscoring my own egalitarian reading of Jesus and the New Testament (granted I did little to argue my case, because, well, that is not he primary thrust of my post). Thus, the Kingdom of God, whatever else it may be, is God’s restorative kingdom characterized by peace, reconciliation, and equality. And recognizing that patriarchalism has dominated the Jewish tradition and by and large the Christian tradition from virtually its inception, I think merely as a socio-religious corrective to in some sense push the pendulum back to the egalitarian middle that for several decades or a century we should refer to the trinity (Jesus excluded) as she. I do not believe godself has ontological gender, neither male nor female. And yet for better than two millennia God has been referred to as “he, him, father” etc. I realize there are many times in the biblical narratives in which God is described as “father.” Conversely, there are also passages that imply feminine characteristics to God and regardless, even the male references are just that, references or anthropomorphisms (or possibly we should call the gynepomorphisms!) Since ontology is never on the table, besides offending the King James only folks and the ultraconservatives who subjugate their own women (in theory more than practice [follow some of them home at night and see who really “rules the roost”]), is there really any harm in employing the feminine pronominal when referring to deity? I think not, in fact, I think a healthy corrective to the complicity of Christianity and the empire it has been co-opted by, exploited by, and ultimately subsumed (e.g. “Christendom”) and reproduced would be to call god “she” instead of “he.” This would likely be the most deeply felt at the pew-level, inspiring “shock and awe”, causing alarm, and indeed capturing the attention of humanity within the sphere of Christian influence that a transformation of the destructive and repressionistic modes of praxis are being shed as the people of God are working out practical ways of showing greater fidelity to the true Jesus and the message he heralded.

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