January 31, 2007

Overwhelmed by evil: "Blood Diamond"

I had a chance to watch the movie "Blood Diamond" last night. It is a great but challenging story about the illegal diamond trade in Sierra Leone and Liberia. And it reveals a graphic and very dark tale of Africa, with its civil wars, masacres, slavery, and poverty. A few scenes are still emblazoned on my mind. The first is the opening scene of the movie, where the RUF (the anti-governmet rebels of Sierra Leone) mercenaries come into a small fishing village and murder or capture many of the inhabitants. The utter disregard for life, and the lack of respect for the rights and value of fellow human beings stands as a stark reminder of the evil that is present in the world. The second scene that illustrates the overwhelming size of the problem is a scene at a refugee camp that has over one million inhabitants. The huts stretch over hills and valleys.

I always enjoy movies like this that challenge and expand my worldview. It is so important to understand the scale of violence and poverty that holds sway in much of the world. But there is often another emotion that accompanies this: helplessess. What can I reallly do? The problem seems to large. It's the same feeling I often have driving around Lima—the utter poverty so much of this large city lives in seems overwhelming. Can anything I do really make a difference?

It's good to remember that I'm not the only one who has ever felt this way. I think of so many Psalms where the Psalmist is nearly overwhelmed by despair. Enemies often seem to have the upper hand. The unjust seem to win the day. Psalm 119 provides just one example of this, as the Psalmist meditates on the love of God's law, but notes "The wicked are waiting to destroy me" (v 95), "Trouble and distress have come upon me" (v 143). Yet, he persists, "My heart is set on keeping your decrees" (v 112), "your commands are my delight" (v 143). Even in the face of tall odds, of difficult situations, we rest in God. I also think of Jesus' discussion of the sheep and the goats, where feeding, clothing, and inviting in are characteristics typical of those who do what God desires. For "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me'" (Mt 25:40). Every action we can take, every bit of compassion we can express, every life we can effect, is an action for Christ. Somehow, even amidst the daunting amount of poverty and evil, that makes it all seem worthwile. Every action can make a difference.

January 30, 2007


I have been using some of my summer vacation (remember, this is South American summer) to read Miroslav Volf's The End of Memory. Volf is a distinguished evangelical theologian who holds a professorship at Yale. I have enjoyed and been challenged by a few of his earlier writings, and have been looking forward to taking on his latest book. His topic is an interesting one: What does it mean to remember. Or, to put the issue more in Volf's terms, what does it mean for a person who has suffered wrongs to remember those wrongs if that person desires neither to hate nore to disregard but to love the wrongdoer. As can already be seen, Volf sets out on an important road. Here I'm going to try to digest a few of his insights, because I believe they are vital for a fuller understanding of what it means to live out our faith in Jesus Christ, and because I believe they are highly relevant for living in the world today.

The firs theme Volf sets out upon in his book is simply to "Remember!" This is a call that has become commonplace in our world today, in the wake of a number of high-profile atrocities in the twentieth century (two world wars, numerous attempts at genocide) and one very American atrocity at the dawning of the twenty-first (the 9-11 terrorist attacks). It's easy to hear ringing in our ears the call to remember. Remember the lost, remember the pain, remember the injustice. You can't turn a corner in Washington D.C. without coming upon a memorial meant to call to memory some event, either an atrocity or a triumph. Clearly, this is a good thing, right?

In this first section of his book, Volf alerts us to the moral ambiguity of memories of past wrongs. Clearly, these memories can be used for good, and that is probably the primary intention of those who call for us to remember. But memories can be used in so many ways. They can overwhelm the opressed with the feeling of victimzation. Remembering victimization can in fact help us to prevent others from suffering a similar wrong, but it could also cause us to act in whatever way possible to avoid suffering a similar pain again ourselves, no matter what the expense. Focusing on our vicitmization also means we will in some senses revel in our victimhood, and define ourselves by our own memories and impressions of the events. Those who victimized us will be forever in our minds as wrongdoers. Our view of the world becomes intrenched in our minds, no matter how flawed.

Clearly memory has some important—even essentail—value to our lives as human beings. As the aphorism goes, if we don't remember the past we are doomed to repeat it. But we must also realize that just the act of memory alone is full of moral ambiguity.

In his book, Volf moves on from this foundation to look at how we should in fact remember, and then moves even further to the point of when we should forget.

I think it is clear from the outset in reading Volf's book that, though at first the topic might seem rather random or "untheological" in some strange sense, Volf has elegantly found a way to enter into a valuable discussion of how a Christian is to deal with sin, both as perpetrator and as victim. What does it mean to live in a sinful world, among sinful people? And what does Jesus' death and resurrection, and the unmerited favor that is extended to us from God, mean for how we live? Important issues to which we shall turn as we continue.

January 14, 2007

Books, books, books

I happen to love books. Especially books about theology and biblical studies. I've had a chance to go to AAR/SBL (the big academic conference for people in the fields of theology and biblical studies), and felt like a kid in a candy store, surrounded by thousands of books. And I've worked in the book business, though I sadly don't anymore, and sure do miss the free books! So now, living in Peru, thousands of miles from a good academic book store, and without most of my library, I have to ponder all the more carefully over my book purchases. So here are some sites and insights that I've really enjoyed and appreciated as I've made my latest round of purchases (more about those books later):

I have lately been appreciating Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog, and he has some very good stuff to say about reading and books. Here's some top-ten lists for books in various categories: http://www.jesuscreed.org/?cat=14.

Prof. McKnight also has some insightful comments about publishing in the past year and what books and publishers to watch: http://www.jesuscreed.org/?p=1718 (I too am looking forward to looking over R. Jewett's massive Romans commentary!).

Check out the right margin of James Merrick's blog (http://jamesmerrick.wordpress.com/)—he has tons of Amazon lists he has put together, about books worth reading on a number of subjects. He is a very well read doctoral student at TEDS! I'm jealous.

Here are some book reviews by the Faith and Theology blog: http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/2006/12/book-reviews.html. Poke around their site for some other insightful comments about blogs.

Here is an great annotated bibliography on NT books by the Denver Journal from Denver Seminary: http://www.denverseminary.edu/dj/articles2006/0200/0201.

And there's tons more! Enjoy.

January 12, 2007

Albert Wolters, Creation Regained

Understanding the Christian worldview is essential for Christians as they engage the world and be obedient to Scripture. So says Albert Wolters in Creation Regained. In this short book, Wolters sets out to explain what a worldview is, and therefore its importance, and then briefly outlines the major components of a specifically Christian worldview. He then concludes with a discussion of how this worldview can be put into action through using the categories of structure and direction to discern appropriate ways of life and action. He works from what he calls a “reformational” perspective—that is, a perspective that seeks to recognize the biblical concepts of sin and redemption as central to understanding life, as well as a perspective that recognizes the need for constant “reformation” of the Christian life as we seek to always conform more and more to God’s will.

Wolters begins by defining worldview as “the comprehensive framework of one’s beliefs about things” (2). This careful definition points to a number of major themes that define what a worldview is: it is about things, that is, everything from politics to cosmology to God; it involves belief, that is, reasoned and committed assertions; and it is a comprehensive framework, meaning that it involves a system of interconnected beliefs that define how we see the world. Wolters goes on to assert that worldview is an essential field of study, because everyone has a worldview, whether they know it or not, and our worldview helps define how we see the world and understand ourselves in it. After laying this important groundwork, Wolters spends the next three chapters defining and elaborating on the three major components of a Christian worldview: creation, fall, redemption.

The first major theme of the Christian worldview is creation. At the heart of how Christians understand the world is the basic assertion that God created, and that all that is is God’s creation. An important theme for Wolters as he discusses creation is law, which he defines as the totality of what God ordains in creating and upholding the world. Law can be understood in both the sense of natural laws, which are enacted in a direct way by God upon that which he has created, and norms, God’s standards and intentions woven into creation but which humans are responsible to uphold and follow. Here he also asserts the essential need to distinguish between law and gospel, between God’s actions and ordinances in creating and God’s actions and ordinances in redeeming that which has been created.

A few important insights come out of this discussion. The first is that all that is is God’s creation, and is therefore within the puriew of a Christian worldview. All things are subject to God’s laws, whether understood as natural laws or as norms. This includes all aspects of human civilization, not just some separate realm of “ethics.” A second important theme is that God’s “wisdom” can be seen in creation. All things witness to God and God’s designs and intentions for the world and for human life. Through God’s special revelation in Scripture, we can discern God’s will in the creation, and also seek to discern God’s will for our lives, as we seek to conform our lives to that divine Wisdom. A final important note about creation is that God created it to be a developing creation. God created humans to be stewards of what had been created, and to till the soil, and be fruitful and multiply. This implies the development of culture, family, agriculture and commerce, as well as many other human endeavors. These too fit under God’s good creation. As Wolters simply puts it, the Bible begins with a garden and ends with a city.

This leads us to the second main theme of a Christian worldview: fall. Once we have understood that all things have been created by God, the second thing we must include is that, though created good, the entire earthly realm has been marred by sin. In Adam’s fall, human life, and with it all of God’s earthly realm, has been tainted by sin. God’s good work and intention has been distorted. This includes the natural world, with disease and death, our personal lives, with relationships and choices, and also our societies, with misguided politics and priorities. Things are not as they should be.

As with creation, Wolters offers some important insights that can be gained from this perspective, and also that help to clarify it. One of these is that “sin neither abolishes or becomes identified with creation” (57). Sin is a parasite on creation, and we must therefore understand the world in terms of two orders, that of creation and that of sin. It is at this point that he introduces what will become the basic categories he will use to apply the Christian worldview: structure and direction. Structure is the good way in which God has created something, its essence, the way something is as part of the order of creation. Direction is the orientation of that thing, its use and development along the plane of sin and redemption. These two concepts will become the filters through which all things are seen, as Christians seek to determine what about a thing is structural, that is, what components or dimensions are part of God’s good creation, and what about a thing is directional, what is in conformity to God’s will and what is against God’s design and intention.
The third major component of the Christian worldview is redemption. God has created the world and has a good plan and intention for it, but it has been tainted and distorted by sin. But God doesn’t leave it there. God’s intention is redemption, the new creation of all things. Central to Wolters’ understanding of redemption is that it is restoration, the bringing of all things back to conformity with God’s will. But this restoration is not simply a return to the garden, a repristination, but instead will incorporate and redeem all of God’s creation, including the redemption of those things that humans have developed, such as society, technology, and art. A second important emphasis about redemption is that its scope far exceeds “personal salvation,” the saving of humans souls for heaven, and includes all that God has created. God’s kingdom is an earthly kingdom in the sense that it involves the whole of earthly reality, brought from sin to a right orientation and relationship with God.

An important component of Wolters’ discussion includes a rejection of any type of “two-realm” or “two-kingdom” thinking that divides the world into sacred and secular arenas. Christians can and should engage all of life as God’s creation, as good, fallen, and awaiting redemption. A Christian can and should live out the Christian life in art, politics, or accounting just as much as one should live out this life in pastoral ministry or other ecclesiastical positions.

Wolters concludes his discussion with a final chapter on discerning structure and direction, the applying of this Christian worldview to life. Through the use of a number of examples, such as sexuality, aggression, and dancing, he illustrates how these two categories, understood in light of the three major movements of the Christian worldview (creation, fall, redemption) can help to illumine difficult questions and help propel Christians forward into the world. It doesn’t provide easy answers, but does help give Christians some guidelines and tools for discerning God’s will in all areas of life.

This second edition of Creation Regained also includes a Postscript authored by Wolters and Michael Goheen, discussing the role of a Christian worldview, and explicitly placing it within the biblical story and the missional life of God and his community on earth. These helpful thoughts ensure that Wolters helpful discussion isn’t seen in isolation from these important and foundational dimensions of the Christian life.

Wolters has written an important study on what it means to be a Christian in the world. Worldview is an absolutely essential category for understanding the Christian life, and for understanding Christian interaction with all of life. His categories of structure and direction are especially illuminating as they help Christians to recognize and affirm the good that God has created in all areas of life, far beyond the church, but also help Christians to name those dimensions of reality that are distortions of God’s will and intention. It is a good introduction to these topics, written at a level that all intelligent readers will be able to appreciate and learn from. Wolters has done an admirable job of challenging Christians to be reformational Christians, God’s reforming representatives throughout all the world.