Monday, December 17, 2018

Church Write-Up: Tomato Wisdom, Son of Solomon, Isaiah 9, the Magi

Here is my Church Write-Up about last Sunday’s services.

A. The LCMS church that I attend has been doing a series entitled “Jesus, the son of…” The latest sermon was about Jesus being the son of Solomon.

The youth pastor in the children’s part of the service talked about how Solomon asked God for wisdom. He asked the kids what the difference was between knowledge and wisdom. He said that knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is knowing that you do not put it in a fruit salad. I had not heard that saying before. It crystallizes the difference quite well.

B. The pastor said that Solomon’s reign was looked back on as a time of Israel’s splendor and heyday. Israel was prosperous at that time. Israel also was dominant, as there was no significant foreign power challenging her when Solomon reigned. I would add that Jesus himself refers to the glory of Solomon in the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel on which the pastor focused, as Matthew 1 presents Jesus as the legal descendant of Solomon. In Matthew 6:28-29, Jesus encourages his disciples not to worry about clothing, for God will provide, as God provides for the lilies of the field. Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like the lilies, Jesus said. In Matthew 12:42, Jesus is rebuking his generation that saw his signs but rejected his kingdom, comparing it unfavorably with the Queen of the South, who came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom. Jesus said that one greater than Solomon was in his generation’s midst.

A number of Jews in Jesus’s day were looking for the restoration of the Davidic dynasty, hoping that the new Davidic king would inaugurate a reign like that of Solomon in its glory. They contrasted that hope with their own situation under the yoke of the Romans. The pastor referred to Isaiah 60:6, which states regarding the time of Israel’s restoration: “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD” (KJV). The pastor said that this passage was echoing the story of the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon. Matthew’s story of the magi visiting the child Jesus may allude to Isaiah 60:6, since the magi bring Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). Moreover, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey (Matthew 21), as the eschatological king of Israel would do in Zechariah 9:9. Similarly, Solomon rode on a mule when he became king of Israel (I Kings 1:33, 38).

But the pastor maintained that Matthew was acknowledging another dimension to Solomon. He noted that Solomon in Matthew 1:6 was called the son of David through the wife of Uriah. That recalled the shameful incident in which David departed from the will of God and used his own power as king to sleep with Bathsheba and to take her from her husband, Uriah the Hittite. Bathsheba is not even named, highlighting the shame of that incident.

The pastor talked about how Solomon degenerated spiritually, as he married foreign women and set up temples to their gods. Solomon probably rationalized what he was doing, seeing it as a practical measure of building alliances with other countries. In effect, he put the God of Israel into a nice, tidy place, alongside other gods, rather than placing God at the center.

We are much like Solomon, the pastor said. We started well, as we resolved at our baptism to follow God and to reject the works of the devil. How is that working out for us? We try to place God into a tidy little place rather than placing God at the center. We do that as individuals, and as a culture. The pastor shared that, during the 1700s, the new year in America was moved from March 25, which was the church’s feast of the Annunciation, to January 1 (see here), placing Christianity more to the margins. And, like Solomon, we rationalize.

There were high hopes that Jesus would be like Solomon when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, but those hopes were dashed when the Romans crucified him. Yet, in Jesus’s death and resurrection is God’s solution to our failures, our tendencies to marginalize God, and our rationalization, as Christ met us where we were through the incarnation and continues to meet us in his word and sacraments. God loved us while we were yet sinners, which is a remarkable thing, the pastor observed, considering that we have enough difficulty loving those who love us back, with all our jealousies.

C. The pastor conducted a Sunday school class on Isaiah 9. The Assyrians conquered Galilee in the eighth century B.C.E. This was Israelite territory, but the Assyrians replaced Israelites with foreigners who were loyal to them. Israel degenerated further into darkness and paganism, and that grew worse during the time of Jesus, as a worship site for the god Pan was located at Caesarea-Philippi in Galilee. In the midst of this deep darkness, Jesus would be a light. And Jesus would free people from spiritual darkness in an unexpected way. Isaiah 9 recalls the story of Gideon, in which God used unconventional means to deliver Israel from Midian. God used mealy-mouthed Gideon, who was not entirely sure whether he even wanted to worship God. God reduced Gideon’s army so that the victory would be attributed to God rather than Israel’s strength, and the Midianites killed each other off in panic. Similarly, God delivers people through humble, unexpected means: the death of Jesus on the cross.

The pastor went through some of the names of the son in Isaiah 9. “Wonderful counselor” literally says “wonder counseling.” God is wonderful in that we cannot get our minds around him. In Judges 13:8, an angel asks Samson’s parents why they inquire about his name, for it is wonderful, or incomprehensible. Although God is ineffable, God still acts as our counselor, imparting to us God’s wisdom.

The pastor shared another factoid. The god of Nineveh was represented as a fish. Could that be why the fish was in the Jonah story?

D. The pastor’s daughter spoke at the “Word of Faith” church. She was talking about how her kids sing Christmas carols as they hear them, with humorous results. But sometimes they hit upon a theologically profound point. “Let every heart prepare HIS room,” they sang, rather than “prepare him room.” Jesus does not only want to visit us now and then, coming when we feel we need him. He wants to live within us.

The pastor’s daughter interacted with the story of the magi in Matthew 2. The magi came to Herod, looking for the king of the Jews. Herod, an Edomite, believes that he himself is the king of the Jews and fears that his position will be unmasked as fraudulent. He wanted to be king, as many of us want to be king rather than submitting to Jesus as king. We would like more sleep rather than getting up to do our devotions. We don’t want to be in a small group, being vulnerable with other believers. (I know I don’t, and still don’t, even after hearing that message.)

The religious establishment hears from the magi and says that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, according to the Scriptures, but the scholars’ response is essentially “Oh hum.” We are like that, too, when it comes to our relationship with God, as we become preoccupied with life, the pastor’s daughter said. This religious establishment would later spit on Jesus and mock him. I think the pastor’s daughter was saying that indifference to what God was doing could easily lead to hostility towards God.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Book Write-Up: Early Christian Readings of Genesis One, by Craig D. Allert

Craig D. Allert. Early Christian Readings of Genesis One. IVP Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Craig D. Allert has a Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham, and he teaches religious studies at Trinity Western University.

This book is about patristic interpretations of Genesis 1. Allert largely focuses on Theophilus of Antioch, Ephrem the Syrian, Basil of Caesarea, and Augustine.

Chapter 1 is entitled “Who Are the Church Fathers, and Why Should I Care?” Allert criticizes Protestant Christians who dismiss the church fathers and believe that the apostolic age was a Golden Age, shortly supplanted by Catholic corruption. Allert argues that the church fathers were heroes of the faith, that Protestant founders respected them, and that reading them provides a sense of continuity with the past.

Chapter 2 essentially frames the discussion in the rest of the book. Allert critiques young-earth creationists who appeal to the church fathers to argue that the traditional position of Christianity is that God created the cosmos in six literal days. One version of their argument is to quote passages in which church fathers appear to interpret Genesis 1 as literal history. Another version is to differentiate between the “literalist” Antiochian school and the “allegorist” Alexandrian school, contending that there were fathers who adhered to the former, which young-earth creationists deem to be consistent with their own position (i.e., Genesis 1 is literal history).

Chapter 3 is entitled “What Does ‘Literal’ Mean? Patristic Exegesis in Context.” In this chapter, Allert critiques young-earth creationists’ argument regarding the Antiochian and the Alexandrian schools. But Allert also challenges how many scholars define the two schools, as he contends that the last fifty years of scholarship has undermined the conventional definitions. For one, the difference between the Antiochian and Alexandrian schools was not so much that the former valued history, whereas the latter did not. What motivated the Antiochian method of interpretation was a regard for rhetoric: the impact of a writing, particularly a narrative, in teaching an ethical lesson. Antiochians tended to focus on the narrative itself, whereas Alexandrians regarded texts as symbolic of spiritual or philosophical truths. And even here, both schools were not entirely consistent, for there are cases in which Origen (an Alexandrian) was more literalistic than some Antiochians. This chapter also argues that both the New Testament and also the church fathers did not practice the grammatical-historical method of biblical exegesis that young-earth creationists champion. Both interpret parts of Scripture in light of what they consider to be the larger Christian narrative rather than immediate context or authorial intent.

In Chapter 4, Allert attempts to refute a young-earth creationist’s argument that Basil of Caesarea rejected the allegorical in favor of the literal method of biblical interpretation. Allert highlights examples in which Basil strayed from the literal and approached allegory, and he attempts to contextualize the occasions in which Basil appears to criticize allegorical interpretation.

Chapter 5 is about creation ex nihilo. It discusses how pagans conceived of cosmic origins: Plato thought that the Demiurge formed already existing matter into an orderly cosmos, whereas others believed the universe simply was, which precludes design or intent behind it. Focusing on Theophilus of Antioch, Ephrem the Syrian, and Basil of Caesarea, Allert shows how a belief in creation ex nihilo was significant in their interpretation of Genesis 1, and what they believed was at stake. A goal of this chapter is to demonstrate that the church fathers had their own concerns, quite different from those of young-earth creationists.

Chapter 6 talks about the days of Genesis 1. This chapter, like the previous one, looks at Theophilus, Ephrem, and Basil. There was a tendency among some fathers to take the surface level of the text at face value: Basil, for instance, tries to account for the sequence of the creation order. A significant question in this chapter concerns what the light was that God created before God created the sun, moon, and stars. But there was also a patristic tendency to seek a deeper spiritual meaning in the days of Genesis 1, about the spiritual life, salvation history, or eschatology. Allert also refers to an example of Basil rejecting a literal interpretation of biblical cosmology.

Chapter 7 focuses on Augustine. Augustine seems to question a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. He thinks God created everything simultaneously. Yet, from what Allert presents, it does not seem as if Augustine thoroughly repudiates Genesis 1 as history, for he seemed to have thought that God’s simultaneous creation played itself out sequentially in time (or so I interpreted Allert), and he sought to explain how light could exist prior to the sun, moon, and stars. Allert also discusses Augustine’s attempt to explain God resting on the Sabbath. Does God need to rest, and how does one reconcile that with Jesus’s statement in John 5:17 that he and the Father work, even on the Sabbath? Augustine’s answer echoes Hebrews 4: that God created a spiritual rest in which people can partake.
Chapter 8 is about being like Moses. Moses was meek, but, according to Basil, Moses also contemplated creation when he was fleeing from Pharaoh. This enhanced Moses’s appreciation of God.

Some of my reactions:

A. Allert’s task was noble. The church fathers should not simply be quote-mined, but they should be appreciated on their own terms.

B. The spiritual and eschatological interpretations of Genesis 1 that Allert highlighted were intriguing and edifying.

C. Chapter 3, which is about the Antiochian and Alexandrian schools, is lengthy (around sixty pages), but it is important for people who want to enter scholarship on this field, or who desire a more nuanced understanding of the two schools. That said, Allert said more than once that the Antiochians did not conceive of historia as grammatical-critical interpreters conceive of history, and he was a little unclear about how this was the case. He said that they interpreted fiction (literature) as well. But the important question, I think, is this: Did they believe that the events of Genesis 1 happened as narrated?

D. It seemed to me that a lot of the church fathers Allert profiled believed that the events of Genesis 1 occurred as narrated. Why seek to explain the light that existed before the sun, moon, and stars, if it is all just symbolic, anyway? They may have believed there was a deeper spiritual meaning to the details of Genesis 1, but they seem to have accepted Genesis 1 as history: a narrative about what happened in the past. A question would then be whether there were fathers who rejected Genesis 1 as a narrative about what happened and solely saw it as allegorical. Allert perhaps could have addressed this question more directly, though he raised considerations that might be relevant: Basil’s criticism of over-literalizing, Basil’s repudiation of taking biblical cosmologies literally, Augustine’s reservations about seeing Genesis 1 as literal science, and Origen’s statement that there are cases in which the literal level of the text should be rejected as without value.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Book Write-Up: Reciprocal Church, by Sharon Galgay Ketcham

Sharon Galgay Ketcham. Reciprocal Church: Becoming a Community Where Faith Flourishes Beyond High School. IVP Books, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Sharon Galgay Ketcham has a Ph.D. from Boston College and is a practical theologian at Gordon College. She has decades of experience in ministry.

This book discusses the problem of young people leaving the church, and in some cases the Christian faith, after they leave high school.

Some points that Ketcham makes:

—-Contemporary Christianity is largely consumerist. Christian community is treated as non-essential. Worship songs have a lot of “I” in them rather than “we.” The importance of Christian community is emphasized throughout this book. Young people are looking for something real, and they see that when Christians exercise the fruit of the Spirit towards each other. In the New Testament, the fruit of the Spirit and Christian maturity concern how Christians interact with each other in community. That is where the Spirit does for people what they cannot do for themselves. Ketcham acknowledges that community is difficult and offers suggestions as to what can facilitate the Spirit’s work in encouraging community: Christians remembering that they have Christ in common, attempting to understand where people are coming from, fasting (from food or technology) as a form of self-denial, and picturing Christ standing between them and the Christian who has offended them. Ketcham also talks about communal memory and how that can tie people to the faith.

—-Unfortunately, young people are often seen as a problem, when they have much to offer churches. They can provide zeal, while the older people provide experience and wisdom.

This was a difficult book for me to read. The prose was clear and the book had its share of stories. It is easy, though, to become demoralized with communities: to be disappointed with others, and to wonder if one has a deep enough well of love to show people. Ketcham tried to address these concerns, and that is commendable. I just wonder how the Spirit works in the midst of so much hurt and dysfunction.

Then there is another side. There are plenty of friendly churches, where people serve one another and others. Yet, they struggle to hold on to young people. What are they doing wrong? Some of the case studies Ketcham talks about were in a Christian community, before they left. Obviously, being around other Christians is not necessarily a panacea, as important as it may be. Ketcham refers to some secular studies, but perhaps more would have enhanced the book. What are churches with numerical growth doing that is working, in terms of gaining and keeping young people?

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Church Write-Up: Prepare for Bleach

I have two items from the Wednesday Advent service at the LCMS church.

A. Overall, the sermon was about John the Baptist. One of the texts on which the pastor commented was Isaiah 40:3: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (KJV). The pastor said that the Hebrew word translated “prepare” actually means to clear the way. It is like clearing the way for the President to arrive. Indeed, that is what Holladay has: “piel: pf. פִּנָּה, פִּנִּיתָ, פִּנּוּ, impv. פַּנּוּ: — 1. get rid of Zp 3:15; — 2. clear up Ps 80:10; obj. house Gn 24:31; — 3. obj. derek, clear (the way) Is 40:3.”

What do we need to clear? There is our desire to be in charge, to decide who deserves love and forgiveness and who does not. There is our busy schedules, or our tendency to “nice-ify” the Christmas story rather than seriously considering its ramifications.

B. Malachi 3:2 states: “But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap” (KJV). Fullers’ soap, the pastor said, is bleach: it really whitens what it washes, even if one did not want it to get so white! We decorate for Christmas, making things look better, but God wants to purify us. God does so by forgiving our sins through Christ, but also practically.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Book Write-Up: Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar

Adam Winn. Reading Mark’s Christology under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Political Ideology. IVP Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Adam Winn has a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary and teaches at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor College of Christian Studies.

The idea that the New Testament is polemicizing against the Roman empire is popular within scholarship these days. My impression, right or wrong, is that some of the treatments of this issue are rather superficial. They seem to amount to something like: “Caesar claimed to be the Son of God, and Jesus claimed to be the Son of God! Jesus was such a revolutionary!”

Adam Winn’s book has some of that. Winn offers other arguments as well near the beginning of the book, some of which I have encountered in some way, shape, or form in scholarship or even popular Christianity. He presents arguments for a post-70 rather than a pre-70 date for the Gospel of Mark, notes that Mark uses the same word for “good news” that Roman imperial ideology used in anticipation of Roman imperial reigns, and observes that Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, like Vespasian, performed miracles.

Then the book presented mildly interesting arguments. The argument that the Gospel of Mark was responding to Vespasian’s claim to legitimacy and superiority to the God of Israel due to the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple comes to mind. According to Mark, Jesus knew that would happen, and God was the one who orchestrated that event as part of divine punishment.

It was near the middle of the book that it became truly mind-blowing. It was then that Winn argued that the Gospel of Mark was appealing to Roman political views by actually depicting Jesus as a humble servant. One can get the impression from Christian apologetics that Christianity was a light of virtue amidst a sea of selfishness and rank ambition. Christianity encouraged service and love? That was revolutionary back then, Christian apologists have implied or even flat out said. Such a narrative should not be thoroughly discarded, for, like many narratives, there are things that support it. But Winn effectively demonstrates that there was another side to the story, that Roman imperial ideology wanted an emperor who was humble and a servant due to Roman fear of tyranny. The cross was deemed shameful, but Mark sought to show that Jesus’s death on the cross exemplified the imperial service that Roman imperial ideology idealized.

That also undergirds the Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark, Winn argues, as Jesus helped people in secret rather than taking public credit for his good deeds. Of course, Winn acknowledges that there are places in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus does miracles publicly. Jesus is not consistent about the Messianic Secret, and that is one reason that scholars have posited two layers of Mark’s Gospel: Jesus as miracle-worker, and Jesus as sufferer. Winn surveys this scholarship and finds it wanting. Jesus in the Gospel of Mark sometimes did his miracles publicly and sometimes wanted to keep them a secret. The latter, for Winn, was Jesus reflecting Roman imperial ideology by being a servant-leader rather than an ambitious tyrant.

The book started out somewhat interesting, as Winn talks about his change in mind about a scholarly issue. Initially, he thought that Mark’s Gospel elevated Jesus’s suffering at the expense of Jesus’s miracle working and glorification, but he changed his mind and concluded that Mark sees the miracle working and glorification as important, too. Then the book got a little dry, as it laid out the scholarly positions on how the theme of Jesus the sufferer relates to that of Jesus the miracle worker in Mark’s Gospel; this chapter was probably essential, but still rather dry. The book was then mildly interesting in dating the Gospel of Mark. Then, the book became mind-blowing as it talked about the emperor as a servant-leader and fit the Messianic Secret into that theme. The book ended with a clear summary of Winn’s positions.

The book was also judicious in sifting through scholarly views, rejecting ideas that have been commonplace in New Testament classes. It was a pleasure to read.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Book Write-Up: Placemaking and the Arts, by Jennifer Allen Craft

Jennifer Allen Craft. Placemaking and the Arts: Cultivating the Christian Life. IVP Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Jennifer Allen Craft has a Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews and teaches philosophy, theology, and the arts at Point University, which is in West Point, Georgia.

As the title indicates, this book is about how the arts convey and contribute to Christian place-making. Craft distinguishes between a place and mere space. In reading that, I thought about a time when my Mom and her husband moved into a new house. Initially, the house was just space: empty rooms. When my Mom was through decorating it, it became a home, bearing the family’s distinct personality and history. In short, it became a place.

Craft discusses four topics, some of which overlap with each other. The first topic is nature. Nature is beautiful, awe-inspiring, and worth preserving, and humans have a divinely-imparted responsibility to be stewards of it. The second topic is hospitality and homemaking. This concerns homes and churches being hospitable, but it also has larger social justice ramifications, such as the preservation of distinct societies in the face of massive homogenizing interests. The third topic is the divine presence and place: sanctuaries and places of worship, in short. The fourth topic is God’s kingdom. This topic has the strongest social justice element, as it concerns being inspired by beauty or challenged by art and performing ethical action in light of God’s eschatological in-breaking.

The chapters interact with authors, theologians, and the Bible. Craft acknowledges tensions within Scripture: the tensions between home and exile; between Jesus telling people to leave their families and Jesus telling people to go home to their families; between feeling homeless and finding one’s home in God and finding one’s home in home; and between the priestly and Deuteronomic conceptions of the sanctuary. She talks about when desires get misplaced, as the desire for sacred place, when motivated by a desire to be like God, led to the Golden Calf.

And, of course, the work interacts with works of art that Craft believes illustrates these topics. Most of the works are from the twentieth-twenty-first centuries, but there are occasional exceptions. Craft refers to an African-American community that has been making quilts since the time of slavery. She briefly contrasts medieval and modern art on the notion of sacred space.

This book did not get as much into the artists’ backgrounds and beliefs as another book in this series that I read, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture. It did occasionally, though, as Craft honestly acknowledged that some of the artists are skeptical of religion, or may be skeptical yet respectful. She refers to Jacob’s statement in Genesis 28:16 that the LORD was in that place, and he was not aware of it.

I liked the other book that I read in the series, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, better than this book for a variety of reasons. I thought that Modern Art got more deeply into the artists’ religious beliefs, the complex nature of them, and the different scholarly conceptions of them. I also thought that the Modern Art book discussed more the different positions on art: how art performs a spiritual function. Craft’s book struck me as more homogeneous, and a lot of the points that it hammered over and over seemed rather obvious or conventional: beauty should inspire action! This is an important point, and books should make it, but it is also nice when a book can convey something fresh. Occasionally, Craft’s book had interesting insights, as when she said that Adam, in naming the animals, was giving them a sense of place. Her discussion of the art may interest readers, since she talks about a variety of pieces and thoughtfully details their message and significance, or, more accurately, how they convey the same sorts of themes in their own unique ways.

These are my impressions of the book. Others’ impressions may differ.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Church Write-Up: Son of Abraham

The LCMS church that I attend has been doing a series on Jesus being the “son of…” Last week, the topic was that Jesus is the son of David. This week, the topic was Jesus being the son of Abraham.

The youth pastor talked about libraries, and how one can access all sorts of cool things—-books, movies, video games—-for free. Similarly, Jesus offers us even better treasures for free: forgiveness, eternal life, etc. In the Old Testament, this was available to the sons of Abraham; in the New Testament, it is available to everyone.

The pastor’s sermon started with Jesus’s genealogy in Matthew 1, which starts with Abraham. Matthew’s Gospel was directed towards Jewish-Christians, as Jesus’s mission was initially to Israel. But the pastor thinks that Abraham is being evoked for an additional reason. One of our texts was Genesis 22, the story of the akedah, God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. God’s reason for commanding Abraham to do this is mysterious, but Abraham had faith that God would provide a lamb for a burnt offering. And God provided a ram, whose head was caught in thorns. Similarly, when we experience things that we do not understand, and when grief is our only friend, we can take comfort that God has provided a way of salvation.

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