May 27, 2007

The Discipline of Secrecy

I have been working my way through Dallas Willard's Divine Conspiracy over the past weeks, and have been continually struck by the depth of his insight. This book is a prolonged reflection on and interpretation of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, and in many places Willard turns Christian assumptions and common interpretations on their heads. But through it all is a constant challenge to deepen our understanding and practice of the Christian life, the new life, that we have been given.

One place where his comments resonated deeply was in his discussion of Jesus' instructions about giving in Matthew 6:3-4: "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." Willard comments on this "discipline of secrecy":

The discipline of secrecy will help us break the grip of human opinion over our souls and our actions. A discipline is an activity in our power that we do to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort. Jesus is here leading us into the discipline of secrecy. We from time to time practice doing things approved of in our religious circles—giving, praying, fasting, attending services of the church, and so on—but in such a way that no one knows. Thus our motivation and reward for doing these things cannot come from human beings. We are liberated from slavery to eyes, and then it does not matter whether people know or not. We learn to live constantly in this way.

May 22, 2007

What I'm Reading

Just scribbling out a little note about what's on the bed-side table these days.

Richard Dunn, Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students. This book has been spectacular so far. Dunn shows a great pastoral concern for kids, and has great insight into how to practice ministry. It's not about programs, but about a "pacing-then-leading" relationship. I'll blog more later about this one, to be sure.

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy. Willard gives an insightful reading of the Sermon on the Mount. More comment certainly to follow.

Still reading: Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle. I've had to put it down because of some other pressing matters, such as preparation for teaching, but it's certanily not forgotten. A monumental work!

And I'm also reading some short stories by G. K. Chesterton about his famous Father Brown.

May 20, 2007

Evangelicals and Other Christian Traditions

Evangelicals certainly aren't the only Christians. Christianity is made up of a diversity of views and emphases, embodied in numerous denominations, and embodied in various strems of thought that transcend these. One way of look at these is to characterize them broadly as "catholic," "liberal," and "evangelical." Now these certainly don't exhaust the diversity of Christianity (Orthodox Christianity is conspicuously absent), they may provide helpful ways of thinking about who we are and how we think. So how do evangelicals think about people from other streams of thought? Are they the enemy? Are they totally wrong? Maybe they aren't even Christians at all? I think this is a question that must be faced, squarely.

Too often, evangelicals get caught up in the question of who is in and who is out. It would sometimes seem that that is the primary pasttime of the Evangelical Theological Society (or at least one of its favorite diversions), as the row over Francis Beckwith this past month has made plain.

I was reading this morning from a letter by Andrew Goddard from Fulcrum, part of a dialogue between Andrew Goddard and Giles Goddard on the issues facing Anglicanism today. And he speaks insightfully about these streams of tradition, and how evangelicals should view them:

"I am an evangelical by conviction through commitment to such matters as the supreme authority of Scripture, the centrality of the cross and Christ's atoning death, the priority of mission including evangelism and the call for conversion. I am an Anglican by conviction not only because I see those central evangelical marks as central to Anglicanism. It is also because, as an evangelical Christian seeking to be faithful to Scripture, the church is also important and I am aware those evangelical emphases on their own can and have led to some evangelicals losing sight of this and other important aspects of Christian belief and discipleship.

"Anglicans from a 'catholic' tradition remind me of the importance of the whole church and Christian tradition (not least for reading of Scripture) and the need to set my evangelical emphases in the context of worship and relate Word to sacrament. 'Liberals' remind me I need to be open to new insights and developments, to question received wisdom and not (in Archbishop Rowan's words) 'close down unexpected questions too quickly'. They also (as you note through reference to human rights) have a passion for justice and require me to take seriously the social, political and intellectual contexts of both Scripture and our contemporary mission field.

"To be honest I think all of these are also part of evangelicalism at its best but as evangelicalism is - like all human traditions - rarely at its best I'm grateful to be in an Anglican Communion where other traditions can often more faithfully bear witness to these features of following Jesus."

Well put.

May 19, 2007

Bible Translations and Inclusive Language

Bible translation is tough work, I'm sure. And it is impossible to understate how important it is. The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, but the vast majority of us only see it in translation, and very frequently, only in one translation. So how do you translate something across millenia and across huge cultural boundaries? There are a number of different strategies, from wooden and literal to "dynamic equivalence" (going thought by thought more than word by word, like the NIV) to modern-language paraphrases that border on not being "translations" at all. And each of these has merit. But I think the first think that is important to notice is that it is important to understand how the translation you consult works, and to be in the habit of checking various translations during study.

This is all by way of introduction to another important issue, that of inclusive language. In some circles, this issue is entirely a non-issue ("of course you should always use inclusive language whenever possible"; or even "of course you shouldn't use inclusive language, because of the importance of masculine superiority"), but in may circles it is an important issue. I had a chance to read a a great article this morning by New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, and found it to be extremely helpful and insightful on this issue. He specifically looks at the debate as it relates to the issue of the TNIV in 2002. This release by Zondervan and the International Bible Society brought down a storm of criticism from some important and influential conservatives, such as Focus on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention, and World magazine. Their main claim related to the obscuring of the "masculine" nature of God, the skewing of important texts toward an egalitarian understanding of gender, and the change from masculine to plural that would obsure individual application or Messianic prophecies. Blomberg takes up these criticisms, and shows that they are largely unfounded.

But the biggest benefit of his article is the careful notice he takes of some of the extremely important improvements in the TNIV, both improvements that have nothing to do with gender (these make up the majority of the changes) and with regard to how gender issues are treated. I believe it warrants a careful read. Blomberg has helped me see the issue from a broader perspective, and made me want to pick up a TNIV.

If you are looking for more info, you can check out the TNIV web site, which includes passage explanations for some of the most visible changes, and also has an extremely impressive list of endorsers, including quite a list of evangelical Biblical scholars from quite a variety of denominations and schools.

You can also research the opposing viewpoint on the web site of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Happy reading. In the end, it is my hope that evangelicals can embrace the enclusive-language renderings in almost everyc ase, because they reflect the way English is now used. At the end of his article, Blomberg relates how a friend of his ten-year-old daughter came to a church service, and near the end of a gospel presentation, their Children's Ministries Pastor quoted a verse from the KVJ from 2 Corithians that says if "any man is in Christ, he is a new creation." This immediately caused their daughter's friend to ask, is this the way people always talk in this church. Even kids are extremely attuned to the chauvanistic overtones of that type of language. That's not meant to be an ultimatum, nor a call to any type of uncritical and haphazard translation, but an important notice that we need good reason to leave gender-exclusive language.

May 17, 2007

Immigration Reform, the beginning of a theological perspective

Lawmakers in the United States announced today new bipartisan legislation to overhaul the immigration laws. News sources are announcing the deal, and describing it as a compromise. I haven't had a chance to do a lot of research yet into the bill itself, beyond reading today's releases. But it is an issue that warrants careful theological thinking.

One dimension of immigration that requires careful thought is the question of national borders: specifically, what are they? It seems easy in a discussion of immigration to get into an "us verses them" mentality. We need to be sure we are keeping them out, so they don't take our jobs or benefits. And this type of logic holds a lot of sway, if for no other reason that the political reality that it is voters who hold the jobs and pay for the benefits that immigrants would take. But before we get too far down this rather easy path, we need to stop and ask if it is a legitimate path to take. What makes someone worthy to enter our country, and someone else less worthy? Or, who qualify as us and who qualify as them? There are few things more fundamental to the logic of the New Testament than the truth that we are all equal in standing before God, regardless of our race, gender, or occupation. And this wasn't an easy lesson for early Christians to learn, especially considering the importance of the us-verses-them mentality of Second Temple Judaism. But learn it the early Christians did. So how does this apply to immigration and our understanding of national borders? I admit the question is a complicated one, but one that must be confronted in all of its complexity.

National borders are important, especially to a comparitively rich country like the United States. Without them, one could envision an avalanche of immigrants overwhelming schools, government services, and major population centers. It seems probable that illegal employment would flourish, with its low pay and poor conditions, and along with it, many "Americans" would loose their jobs to immigrants willing to work for less and have a lower standard of living. It would eventually unravell the fabric of the country. But at the same time, we need to always keep in mind that these people are people too. They deserve a chance at a better life, and are no more deserving of life in a run-down shack with tainted water and spoiled food than you or I.

A second theological perspective that must be explored with regard to immigration is the approach to those people already in the States illegally. As someone who tends to be a rule-follower, I have always tended to the perspective that these people (notice the them mentality) have broken the law, and must bear appropriate consequences. And that is true, because our society, like any successful society, is based on the rule of law, and the expectation that those laws will be respected and enforced. But this is far from the only consideration. As many people have pointed out (often on campaign stops, I'm sure), many of the people who inhabit the States illegally are contributing members of our society. They hold jobs, support their family, etc. And even beyond that, many of them transgressed our immigration laws out of desperation and hope. And that can't be ignored. In the end, we must remember that people without legal status before the United States government are still people in full standing before God. They are to be loved like any other, and maybe even more so. And its not hard to recall quite a number of verses from the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' other teachings that would point toward the importance of a compassionate solution. And that leads me to the summation of these beginning reflections, with the reminder that these people are our neighbors, in many senses of the word.

"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Some notes on the news

I read this morning that Tom Hanks and Ron Howard are in final negotiations for a film version of Dan Brown's earlier novel, Angels and Demons. And even though I found their earlier attempt at a Dan Brown movie a rather sad and boring one, I'm looking forward to Angels and Demons. It, like Da Vinci Code, is kind of a fun read, and could make a fun ride for a movie. But even better, I think it raises some great questions about theology and provides a great opportunity to learn and educate others about some of the great themes of Christianity. I can't remember another time in recent history when the status of the books in the Christian canon or the origin of the belief in Christ's divinity have been main-stream questions in the public sphere, but Code did this. And I loved it. I got to learn a whole bunch, and got to teach a bit to others as well. And A&D raises another great set of questions, both about histoical elements of Christianity, but also about the nature of reality and about the relation of science to theology and to belief. I look forward to the conversations.

In another note, the Baptist Press has an article about a survey of college professors that shows very unfavorable feelings toward Evangelical Christians: they received the largest unfavorable rating among religious groups that were part of the survey. I think this shows two things. First, it shows that it is an okay thing in today's culture to be anti-evangelical, and second, I think it shows that there really has been a loss of the Christian mind in evangelicalsm. Though some of these profs probably have unjustified biases against evangelical Christianity, many of them are probably reacting to the quality of the students they see every day. And I think a large part of it has to do with the common evangelical attitude that science as commonly practiced today is antithetical to Christian belief. Yes, there are some scientists who believe that science is antagonistic toward faith, but that is the minority. The two need to have a fruitful interaction.

May 14, 2007

The Logic of Roe v. Wade

Over the last weeks, the US Supreme Court has issued a landmark decision upholding a 2003 ban on so-called partial-birth abortion. In and of itself, the decision is an important and valuable ban on a procedure that horrified even Justice Kennedy, who is no opponent of abortion rights. Killing an infant in the birth canal by a gruesome process I'd rather not recount is something that a society can't condone. But, as has been noted, it won't necessarily save a single life, since it only bans one method of abortion, but it may be an important step in the right direction.

Christianity Today has a very good article about the decision, and its significance:

What is the logic behind a ban on abortion, and what is the logic behind the pro-choice position. There are a few different streams of thinking that feed into these decisions. One factor that is often part of the discussion is the health of the mother. And certainly the mother's health is a viable concern, but pro-choice advocates have noted that this cuts both ways, as can be seen in Justice Kennedy's opinion in this last decision (noted in the article above). Abortion may do lasting emotional and mental harm to the mother, and this concern may pave the way for further restrictions.

But the logic that is more at the heart of the debate has to do with autonomy. Is a woman an autonomous person, free from any "roles" and expectations society places on her, free to do with her body as she chooses? This seems to be the core concern at the heart of the Roe v. Wade debate. And I think it is an important question. But I don't think it is a question that pertains particularly to women, say over against men. Instead, the corresponding question needs to be asked, are men autonomous as well. And I think the answer must be a resounding no. Now, from a Christian standpoint, this is easily defensible. And in fact, a Christianity Today article from last week, Holy to the Core, makes a great case for this. Our lives are not our own. We are not free to do as we wish, even if we were capable of it. Instead, we live in community, and even more so, we live in community with God. We cannot act with total disregard to all around us. My own power and self-determination are not the highest good. And in fact might just be an obstruction to it. And I think this abortion debate illustrates this perfectly.

So how does this logic play out on the political field. What is the publicly accessible root to our interdependence. It seems that America needs to recover its core values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, realizing all the while that these are only possible in society. They are only possible in the space made by an agreed-upon framework in which we communally seek after the good. The US Constitution does a landmark job of preserving individual rights, but this cannot and shouldn't be read as a carte blanche for self-determination. By that logic, our whole society falls apart. Things like "privacy" become the buzz words of this new logic.

I don't have all the answers to where this logic comes from, nor the best way to retain what is good in the American spirit of individualism while correcting its serious flaws. But I think it is essential that we think in these terms. Because the whole abortion debate, and the very fabric of our society, turns on these questions, whether we realize it or not.

May 12, 2007

Home Schooling, Divorce Rates, and What kids fear most . . .

Here is a great collection of articles from the Minneapolis–St. Paul Star Tribune. Some of them are thought provoking, and a couple are must reads.

I've been rethining my own opinions on home schooling over the past months, and this article just deepens my own reflections. As a teacher in a private school, I see the values in a classroom education, and especially in one that is oriented around Christ. And with a wife who has spent six years in the public school system, I see the values there too. But home schooling is definitely becoming a more viable option (not that it hasn't been for years), and there are a growing number of curricula and helps to really make it a great experience. It's something at least worth considering. What a great way to disciple your kids.

I haven't been rethinking marriage (as my wife will be glad to hear, I hope). In fact, the longer I'm married, the more I believe in it. But I don't see the younger generation valuing it very much. And Katherine's article on the divorce rate gets behind some interesting figures to even more interesting causes. Are people living together in "training-wheel marriages" really a good thing? I'd say clearly not. And, as she points out, what about the kids!