The Radical Incarnation

It’s the late 100s CE. A century has passed since Roman troops have destroyed the Jerusalem temple and crushed the Jewish revolt, unwittingly scattering a sect of Jews who followed an itinerant preacher whom the Romans had crucified some decades earlier.

Over the decades, that sect had separated from its parent faith; its followers were known, perhaps derogatorily, as Christians, claiming the crucified preacher they followed had in fact risen from the dead and was the son of God, if not actually God in some way. Subject to occasional persecution by various local officials in the Roman Empire, the Christian movement nevertheless had grown to a size and influence that it reached the notice of a Greco-Roman philosopher named Celsus.

We know very little about Celsus, except that around this time before the end of the second century, he felt compelled to respond to the Christian claims – the earliest known attack on Christianity. Called The True Discourse of Celsus the Epicurean, his work is only known insofar as it’s quoted by the famed bishop of Alexandria, Origen, in his apologetic work Contra Celsus, written around 247.

Image result for the interpretation of the old testament in greco-roman paganism

In his The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Hendrickson, 2000), John Granger Cook writes: “Celsus was something of a social conservative who viewed Christianity as a departure from everything that was ancient and true in the Hellenistic tradition.” (p. 17)

To the extent Origen fairly caricatures Celsus’ argument – and to his credit he does seem to quote Celsus at length without apparent modification, though you can’t really be sure about that sort of thing – what jumps out at me, especially in this season, is how much Celsus hated the notion of the incarnation.

The bulk of Celsus’ argument against Christianity could be boiled down to just one sentence: Gods don’t do that.

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Mookie Betts, the Red Sox and Race

Image result for mookie betts public domain images

Back in my baseball blogging days, I undertook a project to rank the top 50 player-seasons in Red Sox history. That’s relevant again because Mookie Betts just finished up what by any measure is an historic individual season for a Red Sox team that completed easily the best season any Boston baseball team has ever had.

Betts easily won the American League MVP award as his reward for being the best player in baseball this season, and that’s always nice because Red Sox fans of a certain age have a somewhat tortured history with the MVP.

Continue reading Mookie Betts, the Red Sox and Race

Ted Cruz and Les Misérables

This election season, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ted Cruz and Les Misérables.

In case you didn’t know, Cruz is a big fan of the musical, which is set during the 1832 Paris uprising.

My introduction to the story and music of Les Mis came courtesy of the 2012 film, and even then, as Barack Obama was beginning his second term in office, I was struck by how timely was Les Mis’ exploration of social injustice and economic inequality.

From beginning to end, poverty and injustice are principal characters of the plot. Jean Valjean and Fantine cannot escape the marks poverty has left on them, and those scars pass down to the next generation, which fights, loves and dies in an effort to overthrow a system that perpetuates the injustices inflicted on their parents.

“At the end of the day,” the ensemble cast sings early in the musical, “you’re another day older, and that’s all you can say for the life of the poor. It’s a struggle, it’s a war, and there’s nothing that anyone’s giving. … One day less to be living.”

The callous indifference of the power elites to the suffering of the underclass is clearly unsustainable.

“Like the waves crash on the sand,” the song continues, “like a storm that’ll break any second, there’s a hunger in the land. There’s a reckoning to be reckoned, and there’s gonna be hell to pay at the end of the day!”

Entwined around these themes of injustice, oppression and poverty is the question of God. Does God care, do God’s followers care, is Christianity something that effects change or sedates the masses?

“Here in the slums of Saint Michele,” the orphan Gavroche sings, “we live on crumbs of humble piety.”

Continue reading Ted Cruz and Les Misérables

The Power of the Vote

Nineteen fifty-five.
 
It’s right around the time my parents were born. My grandparents were a little younger than I am now. A pair of large families growing larger in the suburbs of New Jersey and Rhode Island.
 
A thousand or so miles away, a pair of families grew smaller.
 
Image result for george lee belzoniGeorge Washington Lee was a Baptist preacher in Belzoni, Mississippi. He led four churches and ran a grocery store, the back room of which housed a printing press. As a successful black businessman, he used his influence to help found an NAACP chapter in the area, and used the press to encourage black residents of Belzoni to pay the county’s poll tax and register to vote.
 
As a result of his efforts, nearly all of the county’s 90 eligible black residents were registered to vote in 1955 before the local White Citizens Council intimidated them into giving up their votes.
 
Lee, however, refused to give up. Offered protection if he would end his registration drives, he rejected it. In a speech to the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, of which he was vice president, Lee told the audience, “Pray not for your mom and pop. They’ve gone to heaven. Pray you make it through this hell.”
 
Lee would not.
 
On May 7, 1955, a shotgun blast blew off half his face while he was driving his car. The local sheriff said Lee died in a car accident, and that the lead pellets removed from the remains of his head were dental fillings, not buckshot.
 
Rosebud Lee left her husband’s casket open during the funeral, and the Chicago Defender printed a photo of his mangled body – a foretaste of Emmett Till’s funeral later that year.
 

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Scriptural Perspicuity: Summary and Next Steps

Image result for bible stock imageLast part of the thrilling trilogy! Part 1 | Part 2

So returning to our original questions, it seems to me we answer them this way:

  1. How do we define scriptural perspicuity?

Very carefully! But basically that the Bible is clear enough about the basics of the gospel that any person of reasonable intelligence can understand them without mediation from an authority figure.

  1. Does the Bible claim perspicuity for itself?

I don’t think so. Parts of it claim a high level of authority for other parts of it, but none of it seems to claim perspicuity as we’ve defined it, and parts seem to expect the very mediation we define as antithetical to perspicuity.

  1. Has the church affirmed perspicuity?

It depends on the church. For 1,500 years, the church generally did not – and the largest Christian group, the Catholic Church, does not. Without researching it, I’d guess the Orthodox Church does not either. Perspicuity is strictly a Protestant doctrine, first articulated in its clearest form by Martin Luther 500 years ago.

  1. What have been the fruits of perspicuity?

Division, division and more division. Perspicuity, which relies inherently on the clarity of the text, is undermined by its own results, which show significant and vehement disagreement about the text by people whom perspicuity has taught to believe are simply seeing what is clearly there (which means others who don’t see that must be deluded by Satan or acting in bad faith).

Given those responses, I can only conclude that perspicuity is a failure as a doctrine. It is not supported by the Bible itself, relatively speaking does not have a long history of church affirmation, and where introduced leads to results that fatally undermine its own premise.

So now what?

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Facebook Flashback: Racism, Demons and Loving Our Enemies

Image result for reviving old scratchOriginally posted to Facebook on Sept. 21, 2016. It has only suffered minor edits in transplanting it here.

I just finished reading Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch, a book about the devil and spiritual warfare for people who question, if not totally reject, literal notions of demons and angels.

It cautions against overpoliticizing and over-metaphorizing those concepts because the Bible talks about them not just in relation to political power, but also to internal moral struggles found within each person. Fighting for social justice is spiritual warfare, but so too is loving others – emptying yourself for them, fighting daily against the fear of death and the fear of loss and the love of money and country and possessions that militate against radical, sacrificing love. Lots of food for thought in that book, for those who believe in a literal Satan, and for those who don’t.

Beck believes we should recover a language of the demonic, understanding that powers greater than humanity do indeed ensnare us. Call them what you will, but Nazism, Stalinism, systems of fascism and totalitarianism and apartheid are demonic. More, they are demons that burrow into the fabrics of societies and require active struggle, both collective and individual, to defeat and defang.

Our society, more than at any point in the past 50 years, is actively doing battle against the demon of Racism.

It’s a demon born to justify the much older demon of Slavery; together, they were carried aboard ships across the Atlantic. They planted deep roots in America’s urban centers and in southern labor camps. They joined with the demons of Materialism and Consumerism to build an economy unrivaled in the world. Together, they unseated whole nations, destroyed families, murdered millions. A physical war was required to break the partnership and loosen the hold of Slavery on our society. But Racism persisted. It persists. It is weaker than it was, but it is wilier. When Martin and Malcolm and Stokely and others helped to cast it out of our laws, it sank deeper into our cultures. It wrapped itself in a flag and called itself Heritage.

It remains the demon we are most likely to condemn – and least likely to confront.

Continue reading Facebook Flashback: Racism, Demons and Loving Our Enemies

Botham Jean: The Suffering Servant

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Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight.
– Isaiah 42:1a

Jean was 26 and a native of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean. He worked with at-risk boys there, visited orphanages and ministered to the sick, his mother said. … Friends and family remember Jean as someone who loved to help others and volunteered his time, as a man with a beautiful smile and a beautiful voice. (Dallas Morning News)

But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”
– Isaiah 49:4

Guyger described the apartment as being dark and she thought “she had encountered a burglar, which was described as a large silhouette, across the room in her apartment.”

Guyger drew her firearm, “gave verbal commands that were ignored by (Jean),” and then she fired two shots. Jean was shot once and died. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

He was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
– Isaiah 53:7-8a

While the arrest warrant describes Jean as being “across the room,” the search warrant says he confronted Guyger at his door. (FWST)

He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
– Isaiah 53:9

As hundreds gathered Thursday to pay tribute to the beloved man from St. Lucia, a search warrant for his apartment was made public. The document states that officers found several items in the apartment, including two fired cartridge casings, a metal marijuana grinder and 10.4 grams of marijuana.

The search warrant indicates that officers went inside the apartment looking for drugs the night of Jean’s death, his mother, Allison Jean, said during a news conference Friday with her attorneys. She accused authorities of defaming her son. …

“Twenty-six years on this earth he lived his life without a blemish. It took being murdered by a Dallas police officer for Botham Jean to suddenly become a criminal.” (CNN)

He who vindicates me is near.
Who then will bring charges against me?
Let us face each other!
Who is my accuser?
Let him confront me!

It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.
Who will condemn me?
They will all wear out like a garment;
the moths will eat them up.
– Isaiah 50:8-9

“Botham Shem Jean was not a silhouette,” family friend Dane Felicien said, garnering a standing ovation from the packed sanctuary, including Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall. “Botham Shem Jean was a fine man. And Botham Shem Jean deserves to be with Jesus.” (Dallas Morning News)

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
– Isaiah 53:12ab