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.

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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.

Continue reading The Radical Incarnation

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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.
 

Continue reading The Power of the Vote

The Irony of Scriptural Perspicuity

Part 2 of a series on the perspicuity of scripture. Part 1 dealt with defining “perspicuity” and discussing what the Bible says about itself. Today’s post deals with church history and the results of this belief.

What does the church say?

Image result for martin lutherWell, that depends on the church!

But really, just as the Bible was written in a time of few educated elites and many illiterate followers, so too did understanding the scriptures require centuries of mediation through educated church leaders.

Of course, those circumstances changed practically overnight with the invention of the printing press and the printing of the Bible in common vernacular, followed by Martin Luther’s revolution that fragmented the Western church.

Because Luther rightly objected to excesses and abuses perpetrated by a church that had grown secretive and corrupt, the notion that church leaders could be trusted to appropriately mediate the scriptures to their congregants took a severe blow. Why should we assume these greedy, mendacious priests are accurately synthesizing biblical precepts when they are using their positions to enrich themselves and maintain their temporal power?

Thus Luther, in On the Bondage of the Will, laid out for the first time an argument for the  comprehensive perspicuity of the Bible:

But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from their own blindness or want of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth. … With the same rashness any one may cover his own eyes, or go from the light into the dark and hide himself, and then blame the day and the sun for being obscure. Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear Scriptures of God. … The Scripture simply confesses the Trinity of God, the humanity of Christ, and the unpardonable sin. There is nothing here of obscurity or ambiguity. 

That last sentence seems more than a touch unintentionally ironic; the Bible of course nowhere confesses the Trinity as such, and what Christian hasn’t spent a long time wondering what exactly is “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (the one unpardonable sin, according to Jesus)? In a lengthy defense of the Bible’s clarity, Luther cites a case in which a key Christian doctrine must be inferred from the text and a notorious example of an unclear and troubling statement from Jesus himself.

So it took roughly 1,500 years and the Protestant Reformation for the church to include any prominent or official doctrine of scriptural perspicuity. Which doesn’t mean it’s not true – just that we should recognize this was a significant departure from the historical understanding of the church, one that we should therefore treat with caution.

What are the effects?

One way to test a relatively new doctrine is to assess how it changes the church itself. To “judge it by its fruit,” so to speak.

What is the fruit of this doctrine, this idea that the Bible is so clear that anyone, including children, can read it and understand the basics of the gospel?

Namely, massive division on a scale never previously seen in the church. Perhaps the ultimate irony of the doctrine of perspicuity is that it has led to the creation of literally thousands of schisms among people who felt the Bible was so clear on a certain point that they could no longer worship in good conscience with those who believed otherwise. There are easily more than 1,000 – perhaps as many as 2,000 – Protestant denominations worldwide. There are easily thousands more intracongregational and -denominational splits that have led to much heartache and bitterness.

It is no coincidence that these splits have become more common since Enlightenment modernism, with its democratic and egalitarian assumptions. There is obviously nothing wrong with those assumptions per se; they were and remain vital to the liberation of oppressed people around the globe. But when applied to the Bible, they have led to a largely unexamined embrace of the notion that anyone can and should open it without any guidance and understand the gospel – and, on the flip side, an unexamined hostility to the notion that ministers or scholars should play any significant role in mediating the text to others with less training.

Yet if we look at two traditions that have most radically adopted the democratic ethos of modernist egalitarianism (well, for men, anyway) – the Plymouth Brethren and the Stone-Campbell Movement – they are perhaps the two most schismatic groups in church history.

Both movements were born through the notion of unifying fractious denominations around the basis of just doing what the Bible says, following its plain teachings in the establishment and organization of congregations and worship, relying heavily on the “pattern” established in Acts.

Yet within 50 years of their establishment, both movements experienced massive splits – the Brethren between “exclusive” and “inclusive” camps, the Stone-Campbell Movement between the instrumental, largely northern Disciples of Christ and the a cappella, largely southern Churches of Christ. While the former eventually became a formal mainline denomination – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – the southern branch became increasingly fractious, with congregations dividing over increasingly trivial matters – down to how many cups to use in communion. Likewise, a chart of Plymouth Brethren splits and reunifications is like trying to trace strands of spaghetti cooked in a bowl.

What does it tell us about the alleged perspicuity of scripture that those who hold most strongly to it are the most likely to disagree so vehemently about what it says that they cannot remain in fellowship with each other?

Perhaps it tells us that the Bible is not so perspicuous, after all.

Part 3 will conclude with some potentially disconnected thoughts about scripture and how we should view it given the challenges it poses to the doctrine of perspicuity.

Kill the Beast: Disney Musicals, the Book of Revelation and You

Image result for beauty and the beast musicalBeauty and the Beast is probably my all-time favorite Disney musical.

My aunt took me to see the theatrical version on Broadway for my 14th birthday, and that sort of experience tends to be pretty formative (my 13th birthday was Phantom of the Opera, and I can still basically recite that play by heart without needing the music). But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the depth of the story:

  • It’s a call for open-mindedness and diversity that was pretty unusual for its day (1991) and remains relevant today.
  • Its heroine, Belle, is a much stronger woman character than had been typical to that point (only Jasmine is comparable until we hit the Tangled/Frozen era)
  • And its climactic song, unimaginatively titled “The Mob Song,” is a rousing and chilling exploration of how fear turns people into the beasts they so despise and war against.

I’ve been thinking more about this song lately, especially its 2017 live-action version, which makes the subtext more explicit when Gaston’s sidekick, Lefou (played by the wonderful Josh Gad), mutters to himself: “There’s a beast running wild, there’s no question/But I fear the wrong monster’s released.” Continue reading Kill the Beast: Disney Musicals, the Book of Revelation and You

The Pro-Life Movement Is Failing

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A rapidly shrinking generation.

The numbers don’t look good for the movement that calls itself “pro-life.”

After years of stasis, the most recent surveys are noticing a shift that bodes ill for the future of the movement that exists to eliminate legal abortion in the United States:

In the survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 were more likely to report that their views on abortion had changed in recent years — and when they moved, they tended to move in favor of abortion rights. Of those young people whose opinions had changed, 25 percent said they became more supportive of legalized abortion compared to 9 percent who became less supportive.

That poll was taken in March, and while it did not show a noticeable change in overall support for the notion that abortion should be “illegal in all or most cases” from where it’s been for the past decade (43 percent, compared to 54 percent saying it should be “legal in all or most cases”), it’s not hard to see that the millennial generation is growing as a percentage of the public. If they continue shifting leftward on abortion, the overall numbers will follow.

A separate PRRI poll of even younger Americans, age 15-24, finds an even stronger shift: the cohort opposes making abortions more difficult to obtain by a 72-28 margin – and even 43 percent of Republicans in this group oppose abortion restrictions.

The Christian pollster George Barna is seeing the same thing: “In fact, when we compared the views of Millennials to those who are 30 or older, there were consistent differences showing that the younger generation is comparatively less supportive of life and more supportive of abortion.

Continue reading The Pro-Life Movement Is Failing