Making Sense of “End Time” Scenarios

A Little “Believing Thinking

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The release of the “Left Behind” major motion picture in theaters this past weekend so closely on the heels on HBO’s popular “The Leftovers” series on cable television brings “eschatology” [from the Greek ἔσχατοςeschatos” meaning "last" and λόγος, “-logy” meaning “Word” as in "the study of"] back into the forefront of our cultural consciousness. And at the edges of this conversation there are already some completely predictable and well-defined responses.

Secularists, skeptics and cynics dismiss the very suggestion of a divine intervention in the course of human history to judge and rescue humanity in preparation for the final establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth as being a ludicrous proposition from the very start. Their worldview cannot accommodate the idea.  President John F. Kennedy once said, “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” And that saying stakes out the secular response pretty concisely.

Confidence in human goodness, potential and ingenuity is the engine that drives every expression of secular hope. Education and legislation will save us. “Every day, in every way, we are getting better and better,” or at least we could and would if we just had more and better information, and the right people running things in Austin and Washington D.C.   And this isn’t just a “secular” response; it’s widespread in the church these days as well.

J.C. Wynn’s (a professor of pastoral theology at Colgate Rochester Divinity School/ Bexley Hall/ Crozer Theological Seminary) 1977 book Christian Education for Liberation and Other Upsetting Ideas (Abingdon) included the essay “Why the Conspiracy of Silence about Eschatology in Church Education?” In answering this question, J.C. suggested that -

Church educators are too imbued with a secular belief in progress to find much place for a doctrine that speaks of calamity and utter finality. The marked influence of progressive education upon the Sunday church school… imported a pervading optimism about humanity and expectation of inevitable progress…. (91-92)

The “eschaton” [The “End”] is completely beyond the ability of men, even the educators, to affect or to control… Eschatology faces the reluctant church educator with a reminder that none of us moves toward God so much as God comes toward us. God does not wait for us to inch our way to Him, but invites us, leads us, falls into step with us.  This encounter is not something that clever men have thought up, but a leading of the Spirit.  His is the divine initiative. (94-95)

Church education tends to assume that its goals are so earthbound that we seem limited to teaching persons for here and now. The conviction that Christians are strangers and pilgrims on earth, en route to a city whose maker and builder is God, is too seldom emphasized… If our citizenship is elsewhere, as the New Testament holds, that hope is underplayed… Christian hope is equally for the first hour of life and for the last. …Christian education dare not avoid the nearly impossible task of teaching persons both for the next things and for the last things as well.  (96)

At a Regional men’s retreat on the topic of hope a number of years ago I was asked to lead a workshop on what the Bible had to say about it. And so I used the occasion to orient the participants to the New Testament’s vocabulary of eschatology (The “Rapture,” the “Antichrist,” the “Tribulation,”  the “Millennium,” the “Signs of the Times,” the “Second Coming,” the “Final Judgment”), to introduce some of the major schools of the interpretation of these words and concepts (Realized Eschatology, Existential Eschatology, Symbolic Eschatology, Historicist Eschatology and Futurist Eschatology), and finally, to lead them in a discussion about why it all matters, about what these “events” and theories tell us about who God is and what God is doing in our lives and in our world.

When I was finished I got pulled aside by an Area Minister who was really quite upset with me for having “wasted” his time and that of all the participants on such an “irrelevant workshop.” He accused me of filling their heads with nonsense and of failing to offer them anything of practical value for when their lives got hard and they needed something specific, concrete and helpful to hang onto. “You sounded like a wacko in there,” he told me, “like someone you would hear on the radio late at night!” And as he stomped away (it was the very last time that this man ever talked to me), I remembered J.C. Wynn’s observations about the “conspiracy of silence about eschatology” in the church and better understood just how pervasive and even militant it could be.

Eschatology is not even on the table for consideration in many of our churches; we don’t have the tools to think about it intelligently and we don’t take the time to talk about it helpfully.   All we do is try to distance ourselves from it, abandoning the field to the extremists; derisively dismissing them as “ignorant fundamentalists” as we smartly walk off feeling superior.  And there’s no doubt, as theologian Gabriel Fackre put it, that eschatology has become the peculiar domain of overzealous interpreters who “with their lush apocalyptic imagery and confident descriptions of the temperature of hell and the furniture of heaven sometimes claim to know more than the Son of God about the how and when of His coming” (Matthew 24:36).

This is the equal but opposite “predictable and well-defined response” to movies like “Left Behind” and TV shows like “The Leftovers.”  They stir the religious imagination of some believers, and believe me, they will throng to their screenings.  When the dust settles, “Left Behind” will make money and have fans, and that’s because there is an audience for such productions.  In a frightening world people are looking for hope, and while the theology of “Left Behind” is not mine, I think that only a fool would stand outside throwing rotten tomatoes at it, mocking the sincerity of the faith of those who made it or the depth of the hunger of those who are going to see it.

I once knew a preacher who told me that he had preached on the book of Revelation every Sunday night for the full length of his more than ten year ministry in a particular church, and that he still wasn’t done when he left. And when I asked him if his people ever got tired of his singular focus, he told me that on the contrary, that they couldn’t get enough of it! Personally I’ve attended the protracted meetings of traveling Bible teachers with their charts and time tables who style themselves as “Prophecy Experts.”  I’ve read their books and listened to their tapes.  I know the passion and precision of their arguments, and while they never personally persuaded me of their particular positions, I spent enough time with them to know that they were serious and sincere, and that they deserved my respect rather than my ridicule.  It’s not enough just to call them stupid, and I’m not prepared to concede to them the domain of Biblical eschatology.

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“Left Behind” is the popularization of an indefinable interpretive tradition of eschatology. Because it generates popular novels and movies, and because we operate in the shadow of Dallas Theological Seminary and within the sphere of C.I. Scofield’s lingering influence (the Scofield Bible Church is not more than 2 miles east of Northway’s front doorsteps and many of my church members could produce a Scofield Reference Bible if asked), Dispensational Premillennialism (the name of the “identifiable interpretive tradition of eschatology”) holds a certain primacy in the public perception of what it is that Christians believe. And some Christians do believe it, fervently.  But Dispensational Premillennialism is not the only eschatological option available to a Christian who is trying to be Biblical in his or her beliefs.  Despite its popularity today, especially in the American Bible Belt, Dispensational Premillennialism has never been the majority opinion of the church on eschatological matters.  Augustine wasn’t a Dispensational Premillennialist, and neither were Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Alexander Campbell, Barton Warren Stone, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II.  Democracy – who wins the popular vote – is a lousy way of arriving at theological truth; but when most of the church’s big hitters from across the centuries of church history took a different interpretive path than that of Dispensational Premillennialism when it came to matters of eschatology, that should be duly noted in one’s own deliberation.

Because it’s never enough just to criticize what somebody else believes, when the release of a movie brings into cultural awareness a question of Biblical interpretation and theological conclusion, we should welcome the opportunity to enter into the conversation fully. But that requires us to have given the matter of faith that has made its way into our field of vision some careful thought.  I am not a Premillennial Dispensationalist in my eschatological beliefs; but I am something.  I have some settled convictions, and they are the fruit of a sustained engagement with Scripture and the Christian tradition over many years.

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Millard J. Erikson in his magisterial 1998 systematic theology Christian Theology (Second Edition) [Baker Books] helpfully laid out some of the big theological questions that one has to come to terms with on your way to your own personal eschatological conclusions and convictions (1160-1161)  -

Is eschatology (the study of last things) thought of as pertaining primarily to the future (dealing with matters still remote from us) or the present (dealing with events in the here and now)?

Is your view of the future of life here on earth primarily optimistic (an improvement in conditions) or pessimistic (a general worsening of the circumstances of human existence)?

Is divine activity (supernaturally realized) or human effort (familiar and natural processes) thought to be the agent of eschatological events?

Does your particular eschatological view speak of hope for the church alone or for the human race in general? Do the benefits anticipated accrue only to those who are believers, or are the promises to all?  If the latter, is the church the agent or vehicle of the good things coming to all?

Does your eschatology hold that we will come into the benefits of the new age individually, or that their bestowal will be cosmic in character?

Is there a special place for the Jewish people in the future occurrences? As God’s chosen and covenant people in the Old Testament, do they still have a unique status, or Are they simply like the rest of the human race?

The way that I personally answer these questions make me a Historical Premillennialist. This is the interpretive tradition of eschatology that makes the best sense of the Biblical witness to me, and that I believe roots me in the faith of the early church.  But I refuse to make my eschatological conclusions tests of Christian fellowship or fidelity.  My Historical Premillennialist conclusions belong in the arena of “inferences,” conclusions that I have drawn from Scripture, but a construction that is separate from Scripture, that goes beyond Scripture.   Other equally serious and sincere Christians can and do arrange the same biblical materials in different ways, and I welcome faithful conversations with Christians who have drawn different conclusions than I have.  I want to be thoroughly Biblical in my faith and practice as a Christian, and if somebody can help me do this by challenging the way that I think about what the Bible says, then I’m all in.  But, in this, I understand that we are just arguing the details.

I don’t think that the theological point of view that is at work in the movie “Left Behind” is the best way to make sense of what the Scriptures say or the best way to keep faith with the historic teachings of the church.  But having said that, let me quickly add that I still have so much more in common with them, mistaken as I think they are, than I do with those parts of the contemporary church who are part of the conspiracy of silence about eschatology.

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As George Eldon Ladd, the teacher from whom I got my Historical Premillennial leanings, used to say, a Christianity stripped of its eschatology is a Christianity that will be “forever incomplete.” At the center of the Gospel “past” is Christ on the cross and at the center of the Gospel “future” is Christ returning in glory; remove either of these poles from Christianity’s equation, and you wind up with something very different from what the New Testament proclaims and the church has historically embraced. DBS+

 

 

 

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“And I was a Stranger”

A Little Believing Thinking

child

Our most recent “Faiths in Conversation” session was on what our respective faith traditions (Judaism, Christianity & Islam) have to say about the “other,” the “stranger” and “sojourner.” As I wrote about last week, our tendency on topics like these is to jump immediately into the arena of public policy and political action.  And while I would be in full agreement that not to act on our faith’s convictions is the very definition of unfaithfulness (Matthew 7:21-27; James 1:22).  But I would also argue that not to root out actions in careful Scriptural reflection is equally unfaithful.  If being “hearers of the Word” but not “doers of the Word” is spiritually dangerous, then no less dangerous is our tendency to be “doers” without first being “hearers of the Word.” And so in this Interfaith presentation I attempted to summarize the New Testament’s primary teachings about the “stranger” and the “other,” and to describe the characteristic way that we as Christians have tried to keep faith with them.  DBS+

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Faiths in Conversation
“The Other & the Stranger” – September 14, 2014 – 7 pm
A Christian Perspective   (Second Revision)

Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
Northway Christian Church
Dallas, Texas

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The theological foundation for this conversation here this evening from the Christian perspective is Creation. The Apostle Paul writing to the Ephesian church reminded them that when he got down on his knees to pray, that he was talking to the God who is “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (3:14-15).  Our creation by God makes us all members of the same human family.  This is what Paul meant when in his sermon to the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens he told them that we are all God’s “offspring” (Acts 17:28), that “He made from one blood every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth” (17:26).

Having said this, I think I could sit down right now, and feel pretty confident that I had fulfilled my assignment here this evening of explaining the Christian perspective on “The Other and the Stranger.” Our Creation by God makes us one people, one family, and technically this means that there are no outsiders, no strangers, no “others.” “On paper,” in principle, this is absolutely true. This is the way God intended things to be; His “Creative intent.” But the fact of the matter is that things right now are not the way that God intended them to be.

Following the opening picture of shalom in the book of Genesis where everything and everybody fit together with everything and everybody else in a web of perfect harmony and well-being just like the pieces of a puzzle making a beautiful picture, the stories that follow that portrait of “original blessing” are descriptions of its gradual unraveling.  The scholars talk about the stories of Genesis chapter 1-11 as “etiological” stories, stories of origin that explain why things are the way they are.

We have an innate sense deep inside us – what some of the more poetic theologians have called an “echo of Eden” – that tell us that things are supposed to fit and work together in perfect harmony.  But our experience of life in this world is anything but this, and so the stories that the Bible tells after the stories of creation are stories that explain why it is that we feel so estranged from God spiritually, and so estranged from our own selves psychologically, and so estranged from creation ecologically and so estranged from each other socially.  While we are all one family by design, all the children of the same God, we nevertheless experience each other by the things that make us different.  We divide from each other on the basis of things like race, gender, economics, geography, culture and language.

Donald Kraybill, a Mennonite Theologian and Sociologist, describes our familiar pattern of social interaction to a checkerboard.

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Each square on the board represents a particular category of persons… Boundaries emerge to set groups apart from each other.  Members have a clear sense of whether they are “in” or “out” of a group… Social interaction is organized around the boxes and lines on the social checkerboard.  We relate primarily to persons in our own square and in nearby squares. (225)

And, we grow increasingly leery of those in squares away from our own.   This is what the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 11 is all about.  Since the separation of that scattering we have become strangers to each other.  We have lost Creation’s bond of shalom that makes us conscious of our connection with each other as members of the same family, and we have settled into different squares on the checkerboard where we become strangers and relate as “others.”

As Christians, when we talk about God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, we believe that what is being repaired is what has become unraveled; what is being restored is God’s original creative intent for us and the world, it’s about getting us back to the garden. And part of this healing is a movement away from the separation of Babel that has made us strangers, and a return to our more foundational identity as members of the same family.

The New Testament ends with a stunning vision of a new heaven and a new earth with a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God when the work of salvation is finally complete. And the great architectural feature of this coming city of God are its four walls with four gates on each side, 12 in all, open every day and all night long so that the people of the nations can stream in bringing their glory and honor with them to lay before the throne of God (21:24-27).   And in the glimpse that John was actually given of God’s throne, it was surrounded by people of every tribe and tongue (Revelation 5:9).  In the end, by the grace of God, the human family makes its way “back to the Garden” where once again there are no strangers in God’s Shalom.

Until that day comes, we as Christians try to embody what we know about what it is that God is in the process of bringing about in Jesus Christ as best we can. We lean into that future that we believe that God is bringing about.  We who are Christians regularly pray – “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – it’s the first part of our family prayer.  And believe me when I tell you that you can’t pray these words, and mean them, and then just sit idly by, indifferent to what it is that you know God wills for us and for the whole world. As John Killinger put it, when you pray these words –

You want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk.  You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear.  You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things. (115)

And you want strangers to be treated with respect, dignity and compassion because the New Testament makes it absolutely clear that this is something that God wants.

In Matthew chapter 25, in His instructions on the kinds of things that He expected His disciples to be doing out of their devotion to Him, Jesus Christ talked about taking in the stranger (25:35; 38; 43). “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” Jesus said (25:35).   Behind this spiritual truth was the literal truth of Jesus’ own experience as a refugee.  Matthew tells us that when King Herod went on his rampage killing all the baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem after Christ’s birth, Joseph packed up his family and fled to Egypt where they lived as sojourners and strangers.  Somebody welcomed them there; provided for them there, and in turn, Christ expected His disciples to do this same thing for others (2:13-23).

In Romans 12:13, the Christians of the Roman church were told to practice hospitality. The word that appears in that Greek text for hospitality is “xenophilia” which literally refers to loving the stranger, the exact opposite of the word that is probably more familiar to us – “xenophobia,” the “fear” or “hatred of the stranger.” Paul understood “loving the stranger and the sojourner” to be a characteristic of someone who is being “transformed” by the person and work of Jesus Christ in their lives (12:2).  In other words, this is something Christians characteristically do.

And the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews makes this same exact point when he or she wrote: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers” (Hebrews 13:2). “Entertain” here does not refer to inviting them to the movies, or buying them a nice meal, or singing them a happy song.  No, what it meant was opening their hands, their arms, their hearts, their homes and their churches to them.  And according to Adolf von Harnack, the important German theologian and church historian from a century ago, the impact of the church in the ancient world was in no small part due to the way that the first Christians did exactly this.

They loved people in specific and concrete ways: by giving alms to the poor, especially to widows and orphans; by caring for the sick, the infirm and the disabled; by providing for the needs of prisoners and those languishing in the mines; by taking care of the dying, the enslaved, and those devastated by natural disasters like earthquakes and floods; by finding work for the unemployed and taking care of the unemployable; and by welcoming the sojourners and making room in their lives for the strangers.

When Christianity jumped from its exclusively Jewish incubator to the whole wide world in the front room of the house of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 10), Peter stated the principle that has informed Christian conscience ever since: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (10:34).  Now understand, Peter didn’t come to this conclusion quickly or easily.  The ways of Babel are strong in us; that checkerboard is tattooed on our soul.  This truth had to hit Peter like the proverbial 2×4 up the side of a Missouri mule, and then it had to grow in him gradually from the inside out.  And as a Christian, this is how I believe that it still works.  Things change for the better in ourselves and the world from the inside out.

When he was asked what the Bible was all about, Gardener Taylor, one of the great African American preachers of the last generation said, “God is out to get back what belongs to Him.” Starting where the Bible starts, Dr. Taylor saw the estrangement of humanity from God that the story of the Garden of Eden tells as the great fact of the human condition.  The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden made them spiritual refugees from their own true native land with God, and the story that the Bible tells from Genesis through Revelation is the story of what God did to bring His people home again to Himself.

In the New Testament, this is the dominant thought when the subject turns to strangers and sojourners.   It’s first and foremost a category for a Christian’s own self-understanding.  We find it in the second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians, where the saving work of Jesus Christ gets framed as the way that Gentiles, people who had been spiritual aliens and strangers to the covenant of God, get restored to their place in His family.

Through Christ we have access by one Spirit to the Father… so that we are no longer strangers and aliens… but have become members of the household of God. (2:18-19)

In the Hebrew Scriptures the treatment of the stranger and the sojourner by God’s first covenant people was conditioned by their memory of having once been strangers and sojourners themselves (Deuteronomy 5:15). And in the same way, we who are Christians are commanded to treat strangers and sojourners in ways that are consonant with our own spiritual identity as strangers and sojourners ourselves.  A heart that has been welcomed home to the love of God in Jesus Christ is a heart in which room will be made for the other and the stranger because that’s what God wants, and that’s how God works.

Sources

Barrs, Jerram. “Francis A. Schaeffer: The Later Years Lesson 8.” Basic Bible Study Themes, III. http://www.covenantseminary.edu
Harnack, Adolf Von. “The Gospel of Love and Charity.” Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries.    http://www.ccel.org
Killinger, John.  Bread for the Wilderness, Wine for the Journey. Word Books. 1976.
Kraybill, Donald. The Upside Down Kingdom. Herald Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Changing Laws ~ Changing Hearts

monument

 

Dr. Bill Baird, my professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School, and the reason why I wanted to go to seminary in Ft. Worth in the first place, used to say that our natural reflex is to use Biblical texts as “springboards” to Washington D.C.

What he meant by this was our tendency to move immediately, unhesitatingly and uncritically from Biblical teachings to some specific public policy proposal. We get political in the blink of an eye and become partisan in a heartbeat. Both the Christian right and the Christian left pronounce their particular take on a pressing social issue of the day and leave the distinct impression that it is the only conscientious position that a serious Christian can take.  We call it being “prophetic,” and we think that it’s how we speak truth to power.

As Christians, we use the Bible politically to speak to the world. But when I read my Bible, in context, more often than not, what I encounter is not a word that’s being spoken to the world at large, but a word that’s being spoken instead to the community of faith, both to whole congregations and to individual Christians.  When He was in front of Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ explicitly disavowed the suspected grab for worldly power through a political strategy that made Him a cause for concern to Rome.   “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said (John 18:36).  And when addressing a problem about sexual expression in the Corinthian Church, Paul explained –

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. [1 Corinthians 5:9-13]

I know, I know, these verses beg many important questions, but for right now try to focus just on the inside/outside distinction that Paul was making here; the difference between what the church is supposed to say to “anyone who claims to be a brother or sister,” and what the church is supposed to say to “the people of this world.”

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” Paul asked, assuming that his readers knew that the answer was “none” — that it’s not our “business” to hold people in the world accountable to the moral and spiritual standards that we who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ hold sacred.  “Are you not to judge those inside?” And again, Paul assumed that his readers knew the answer to this rhetorical question as well. “Yes,” we are supposed to hold ourselves accountable to each other within the community of faith for the things that we say we believe are true, and right, and good.

Don’t try to play the trump card of Matthew 7:1-6 here. Even in context, Jesus’ “judge not lest ye be judged” assumes a capacity on our part to be able to identify “specks,” “logs,” “dogs” and “swine.” And within a mere 8 verses of this teaching, Jesus was warning His disciples about “false prophets” and the necessity for His disciples to be able to know who they were by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20).  The appeal to Matthew 7:1 as a universal prohibition to judging that we like to use to avoid the hard work of getting clarity for ourselves or being challenged by others about what it is that we believe and value ignores what the verse actually says in context and attempts to have it bear more freight than it was designed to hold, which brings us back around to the inside/outside distinction and to the question of who the Bible is talking to?

The reason why we use Biblical texts as springboards to Washington DC is because we think that the primary way that the world will be changed, made more just and compassionate, will be through legislation. And while I’m not unaware of the necessity of political action or unappreciative of the way that good legislation and responsible government can serve the establishment of justice and liberty for all, neither am I naïve.  I’m truly glad that racial segregation and discrimination was officially outlawed in the United States by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but as the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, 50 years later have painfully shown us, it’s one thing to change the law and another thing to change hearts.

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The “takeaway” from Carl F.H. Henry’s 1964 book Aspects of Christian Social Ethics for me was his strong emphasis on Christianity’s “supernatural resources” for social change. This was his restatement of Pietist Christianity’s traditional approach to addressing social problems and fueling social improvement.

The twentieth century has cherished high hopes for socio-politico-economic reconstruction. First it trusted mass education to propound a new vision of society, then domestic legislation and possibly even international jurisprudence, and more recently it has looked to mob pressures and revolutionary techniques to being about rapid social fulfillment. (9)

But the Christian Church ought to rely on the spiritual regeneration of individuals to transform society. (72)

History shows that the thought of Christ on the cross has been more potent than anything else in arousing a compassion for suffering and indignation at injustice. (29)

Supernatural regeneration is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian movement… Evangelism and revival remain the original wellsprings of evangelical humanitarianism and social awakening. To ignore or lay aside this chief armor of apostolic Christianity for reliance on other social dynamics means retreat from the peculiar glory of the New Testament to the world-wisdom and world-power of the Greeks and the Romans.  Those who in social agitation sponsor a morality of compulsion, or simply trust the word and will of unregenerate men, thereby betray their skepticism of the adequacy of spiritual reserves latent in the Christian religion. This gnawing doubt is manifest in the notion that social problems are not wholly responsive to spiritual solutions. Consequently, the Church has often turned aside from its evangelistic and missionary priorities, attempting to chart a socio-political thrust alongside rather than in and through the evangelistic thrust. (26-27)

The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “dynamis” (power) for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration. Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order.  (25)

The Gospel is the Church’s distinctive message and its distinctive dynamism for social transformation. (79)

When the New Testament addresses a social issue like slavery in Paul’s letter to Philemon, what it says was not being offered as a plank in the platform of a political party, or as some specific political policy proposal. Rome wasn’t listening.  The Emperor didn’t care.  What the New Testament had to say about social justice was a word that was addressed to the hearts of believers who then as salt and light and leaven would penetrate the world around them.  And my hope as a Christian today for the emergence of a more just and compassionate social order still depends less on the persuasiveness of a political argument and the results of the next election than on the spiritual transformation of people by the power of the living, loving God in their lives through the Word and the Spirit.  As Edward Beecher, Lyman’s son, put it –

Great changes do not begin on the surface of society, but in prepared hearts; in men (and women) who by communion with God, rise above the apathy of the age, and speak with living vital energy, and give life to the community, and tone to the public mind. (Wirt 147)

In closing, I put into evidence in support of this argument a story that J. Mack Stiles told in his book Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel (IVP 2010).

When our missionary friend, Mike McComb, tried to introduce protein into the diets of the largely illiterate Guatemalan farmers, it was a masterful combination of expertise, training, and strategy. He started his work towards the end of the murderous civil war. During that time Mike also faithfully shared the gospel. And Mike noticed it was the gospel that allowed protein to get to the people.

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When the gospel was understood and accepted in villages, Mike reported, men stopped getting drunk and beating their wives. As they attended church, they started to attend to their crops and their children’s education. Tomas, the mayor of Nebaj, told me that it was only when the gospel came to the Ixil lands that real change happened. Mike says that the preaching of the gospel did more to eliminate hunger than fish farms or crop rotation ever did. We must never forget that the Gospel brings more long-term social good than any governmental aid program ever developed.

Changed hearts change the world.  DBS+

 

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My “Defining” Books; The Serious Titles

books

A few weeks ago I listed the ten “popular” spiritual books that have had a strong hand in shaping my soul.  These were some of the books that I read before I was 20 years old, and that have remained on the bookshelf of my heart ever since because of the ways that they set the table for the rest of my spiritual life.  None of these books were “scholarly.”  None of them were written in the academy or for the academy.  They were written for ordinary Christians living ordinary lives as members of ordinary churches.

This week I turn to another category of “defining” books for me, what I am calling my “serious” collection.  These are ten of the books that have had the greatest influence on my theological formation.  How I think about who God is and what I understand God to be about have the tendrils of my soul all over these books.  They are the veritable lattice work that has held me up and given me direction as I have grown.  In fact, on my own personal spiritual Mount Rushmore, it would be four of these theologians who faces would appear – Augustine, Calvin, Bonhoeffer and Brunner.  These ten books demand more of the reader than the ten books that appeared on my “popular” list a few weeks ago, but none of them are beyond the capacity of a serious reader who is prepared to go slowly and thoughtfully.

bald
Before giving you my list, let me first honor the man whose personal and professional example provided me with the example of how genuine believing and critical thinking can combine in a life of great faithfulness.  Dr. William Richardson was one of my professors of New Testament and Church History at Northwest Christian College in the early 1970’s.  He “had me” the day he began a lecture by opening his Greek New Testament and translating the text that we were going to be discussing that day right there on the spot.  I knew then that when I “grew up” I wanted to be just like him.  Dr. Richardson was brilliant, insightful, whimsical, engaging and fully invested in the learning process.  He was instrumental in showing me what Jesus meant when He told us to love God with all our minds (Matthew 22:37).  Paul talked about the foundation he laid that others would later build upon (I Corinthians 3:11).  Well, Dr. Richardson laid my theological foundation that these ten thinkers with their defining books later built upon.  Even now, with every book I read, every sermon I preach, every article I write, and every thought I have, I do so knowing that I stand on the foundation that my “wise master builder,” Dr. William Richardson laid so skillfully in my head and heart some 40 years ago, and my life and ministry of “thinking believing” has just been “a poor attempt to imitate the man.”  My desire and capacity to read books like the ones that appear on this list were instilled in me by the way that I watched Dr. Richardson’s faith seek understanding.  He inspired and empowered the same pursuit in me.

green book

As I studied theology I often found myself captivated by what a certain theologian had to say, and that would send me off to the library to read a biography of them.   More often than not, the gap between the kind of people they turned out to be, the bad moral and spiritual choices they made on a personal level, and the profundity of their insight into the truth of Christianity staggered me.  It was and remains a mystery to me how somebody can grasp the meaning of Christianity with the brilliance of a great theologian, and not be seized by its truth in a way that produces a Christ-like character in that theologian who is thinking those thoughts and giving them such powerful expression.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the great exception.  His life was the laboratory in which he worked out the truths that he explored in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship.  Ostensibly a commentary on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, this book challenges “easy-believism” and “cheap grace” as terrible substitutes for the obedience of faith  (Romans 1:5) to which we are called by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  If you were to read just one book from the list of 10, make it this one!  It has the power to change your life.

quest book

My sister gave me a copy of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus for my 12th birthday.  It was not because she perceived me to be a theological prodigy that she bought it for me.  No, it was because the book cost $2.95 new in 1965, which met her budget requirements, and it had “Jesus” in the tile, and she knew that since I was “religious” that I would probably like it!  It wouldn’t be until my first year in seminary, more than 10 years later that I would actually read this book with any degree of understanding. But once I had, I knew that the questions it asked were among the most crucial for the Christian Faith.  Like Bonhoeffer, the example of Schweitzer’s life is a stirring endorsement of the things that he concluded about who Jesus Christ is and why He matters. And while I don’t wind up in exactly the same place as Schweitzer did, I nevertheless believe that he got many things right, and it’s those things that have become and remained some of the most basic presuppositions in my own thinking and talking about Jesus Christ to this day.  This is a great book of stunning theological importance, one of the most crucial of the 20th century.

faith book

I was sitting in the second floor student lounge at Brite Divinity School in the spring of 1976 when the door opened and a box of books were flung in.  A wild-eyed student stood there in the doorway for just a moment after throwing in the box of books before announcing, “I quit!”  And then as he turned to walk away he muttered that the books were ours for the taking, if we wanted them.  The dozen student sitting there fell instantly on that box of books like a pack of hyenas tearing at a fresh carcass.  Every so often from the middle of the scrum a book, a “discard” would get tossed out, apparently holding no interest for the alpha dogs, and that’s how I came into possession of my copy of Gustaf Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Faith.  Peter said of Jesus Christ, “the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (I:2:7), and that’s kind of how I feel about this book.  I got it because nobody else wanted it, and through the years it has become one of my “go to” systematic theologies.  Aulen had a perspective on the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross that recovered the ancient church’s understanding of the atonement as God’s confrontation with the powers of darkness and His triumph over them in the Resurrection, Ascension and Second Coming of Jesus Christ that has real power in our world today.  It’s this strand of interpretation together with his keen awareness of the reality of evil in the world that makes Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Church one of those books that I’ve read multiple times throughout my ministry, and to which I turn frequently for understanding and strength.  If I was told that I could just have one systematic theology from my library of dozens for the rest of my life, this is the one that I would gratefully take with me and continue to use until that day when my faith finally becomes sight.

Romans book

Seminary, at least in the Mainline Protestant tradition, breeds a kind of skepticism about what is perceived to be the naiveté of the affirmations that the church makes in her historic creeds.   You are taught to be suspicious of every faith claim and critical of every belief no matter how central or precious it has been to your spiritual development and vitality.  It was Karl Barth who helped me find my footing in this intellectual storm, and it was his book The Epistle to the Romans that sounded the clarion bell of God’s revelation of Himself and His purpose in Jesus Christ that provided me with my sense of spiritual direction in those days when everything was up for review.  Barth is not an easy read; there is still so much in what he wrote that I struggle to understand; but with that said, the broad sweep of Barth’s argument is clear enough for any of us to grasp, and for me, it has proven foundational.  Someday I intend to take a year or two to read Barth’s magisterial Church Dogmatics in its entirety (14 volumes… thousands of pages… very small print…) but until then, his Epistle to the Romans keeps me spiritually grounded and properly oriented.  Barth staked out the theological middle ground between the uncritical theological conservatism of my Christian College days and the hypercritical theological liberalism of my seminary days.  I owe him my soul.

Christ book

I love this book, and have for years.  I read it for the first time in Christian College in a class on culture as part of the missions’ curriculum.  And I knew, even as I was reading it for the very first time then, that its importance and insights transcended the narrow application that we were making in that class.  In many respects, H. Richard Niebuhr lived in the shadow of his brother, the theological giant Reinhold Niebuhr.  I mean no disrespect to the other brother’s genius.  Reinhold Niebuhr may very well be the most important theologian that America has ever produced; although Jonathan Edwards might have something to say about that.  But the Niebuhr I love most is H. Richard, and the book that I cherish the most is his Christ and Culture.  Since the moment that Jesus Christ first sent His disciples into the world with the warning that they were not to be “of the world” (John 17:16), the church has struggled with how to remain faithful to Christ while actively penetrating that world.  The categories that this book establishes as the way the church has gone about this throughout history are the continuum of alternatives out of which the church still operates today.  Robert Webber wrote a kind of “Cliff’s Notes” version of this book called The Secular Saint, and it is a good place to begin the exploration of this question.  But don’t settle for Webber’s introduction alone.  Read Webber as a way of dipping your big toe into the water, and then jump into the deep end to Christ and Culture, I think you’ll find the plunge to be invigorating!

essential book

The late Donald Bloesch showed me how to be a serious theologian with Evangelical convictions serving in a Mainline Protestant denomination (The United Church of Christ).  I chose his 2 volume work Essentials of Evangelical Theology for my list because it is easily his most accessible work, and because it is his comprehensive exploration of what it means to be an Evangelical Christian, but I could have easily chosen his 7 volume Christian Foundations series, or his absolutely magnificent book on the theology of prayer (The Struggle of Prayer), or any of his incisive books on the state of the church’s life and faith at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century (Crumbling Foundations: Death and Rebirth In An Age of Upheaval, The Future of Evangelical Christianity, or The Evangelical Renaissance).  Bloesh was not fancy.  He rarely dazzles.  He was no flash in the theological pan, an intellectual acrobat turning spectacular somersaults in a phosphatized suit high on the flying trapeze to the amazement of the crowds below.  Instead, Donald Bloesch undertook the proverbial “long obedience in the same direction,” and for that I am forever grateful.  His theological breadth, depth and maturity was always a powerful encouragement to someone like me who has spent his life and ministry trying to walk the same path that he travelled.

doctrine

Back in the days when I was reading Karl Barth for the very first time, and really struggling with the complexity of his thought and expression – again, he is not an easy read – somebody told me that for English speaking readers, the writings of Barth’s contemporary and sometimes rival, theologian Emil Brunner are so much more accessible.  And so on my next trip to the theological bookstore, I picked up a copy of the first volume of Emil Brunner’s Systematic Theology – The Christian Doctrine of God – and dug in.  Before I had gotten through the first 10 pages I was hooked.  I now have dozens of books that Brunner wrote, all dog-eared and thoroughly highlighted.   If I cut my theological teeth on Francis Schaeffer, it was Emil Brunner who then seasoned and deepened my theological appetites.   Whoever it was who pointed me in Brunner’s direction did me a great favor.  I understand Brunner, and I deeply appreciate his perspective, the same perspective that Barth had, only in a much more approachable way.  His little book Our Faith is the perfect introduction to both his particular theological perspective and to the scope of systematic theology as a whole in my opinion, and it’s online @ http://www.religion-online.org/showbook.asp?title=2075.  This easy and even entertaining little book will give you a good feel for his style and his perspective, and if it whets your appetite to go deeper, then I think that the three volumes of Brunner’s Systematic Theology are as good a set from the school of Neo-Orthodoxy as you will find.

black book

I came out of Christian College thinking that everything that was wrong with Christianity could be laid at the feet of just 2 men – the Emperor Constantine and the Protestant Reformer John Calvin.  Needless to say, when I went to the bookstore to get my textbooks for the first theology class that I took in seminary, I was more than just a little bit alarmed to discover that John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was going to be our primary text.  I swallowed hard and bought the set.  And then the next few months were spent reading and discussing what Calvin had to say, and slowly I came around.  Today I am a Calvinist in the same way that Jacobus Arminius was a Calvinist, which is to say that I regard John Calvin to be the formidable theological force from the Reformation era that can’t be ignored or avoided.  You can’t go around him; you’ve got to go through him, and when you do, Calvin changes you.  You may disagree with him and his conclusions, but you can’t dismiss him, especially if you purport to be working from Scripture on matters of faith and practice.  In many respects John Calvin has become my theological baseline, the theologian I use to check the things that I am going to say about God as a preacher and a teacher.  I don’t want to be found “misrepresenting” God (I Corinthians 15:15); the stakes are just too high (Matthew 18:1-9; James 3:1).  And so I let John Calvin function as my theological speed bump.   He forces me to slow down and to think carefully, reasoning all of my positions, theological and moral, from Scripture.

confesstions

If Calvin is the theological giant you can’t avoid from the Reformation era of Christianity, then Augustine is the theological giant you can’t avoid in the era between the Apostolic age and the Reformation.  He is the station through which every train of thought must pass, and the turnstile into this station is Augustine’s spiritual autobiography, Confessions.  This book is part of the canon of Western Civilization.  It would be hard to think of yourself as educated and not to have spent some quality time with this book.  Written in the form of a prayer, Augustine reviewed the journey of his soul with God, reflecting on the experiences, encounters and ideas that brought him into a meaningful relationship with God in Christ.  It is timeless, however, everything depends on the translation.  People who complain that they just don’t “get” Augustine, are usually the victims of a lousy translation.  The two best that are out there are Frank Sheed’s and Maria Boulding’s.  I also highly recommend that you companion read Augustine’s Confessions with Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography.  Brown’s work puts Augustine in context and that’s a key to understanding, and understanding Augustine is crucial for an informed faith.  After the New Testament, Augustine is the next great voice that echoes down the corridors of time.  You need to hear what he was saying.

Theo

I went to Fuller Theological Seminary in 1976 to study with George Eldon Ladd.  I had been introduced to his work in Christian College, and I found him to be both challenging and clarifying for my faith at the same time.  Another Evangelical in a Mainline Protestant church (American Baptist), I viewed him as another role model for serious scholarship.  The New Testament Theology class that I took at Fuller was supposed to be taught by him, but health concerns precluded him from being able to do so.  And so I studied his book with his hand-picked substitute.  I felt like Dr. Ladd was being “channeled” by this teacher, and it was probably the next best thing to actually having Dr. Ladd there himself.  And the end result was positive, spending an intensive semester working through Dr. Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament.  This experience, in my first semester of seminary, was the theological bridge between my spiritually nurturing undergraduate experience at Christian College, and my spiritually challenging graduate experience at seminary.  And I have always been grateful that it began with three months of drilling down hard into Dr. Ladd’s text.  It set out the markers for the field on which my consciously Biblical faith has played ever since.  The way I think about what the New Testament is and what the New Testament teaches were both decisively shaped by this book.  In fact, next to the New Testament itself, this just might be the most important book that I have ever read; it certainly has had the most enduring consequences for my believing and my behaving.

So, there it is, my list of the ten “defining” serious books in my life.  Just like the last list, there are so many others that deserve to be here – books by Carl F.H. Henry, Alister McGrath, Thomas Oden, David Bosch, Bruce Metzger, T.F. Torrance, P.T. Forsyth, Anthony Hoekema, Roland Allen, Hermann Bavinck, Gordon Fee, Harvey Cox; books and authors who have challenged my thinking and impacted my believing.  But these ten are somehow the most “foundational.”  Together they form the slab on which my life and ministry have been built.  DBS+

 

 

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“Wars and Rumors of Wars”

A Little “Believing Thinking”

tank

When Jesus Christ was born the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is well pleased” (Luke 2:14).  But it wasn’t long after His birth, and it was directly because of His birth, that King Herod in his raging had all the baby boys of Bethlehem executed by his soldiers (Matthew 2:13-18).  This captures in a nutshell the dilemma that we who are Christians face when the drumbeats of war sound anywhere in the world.  It’s complicated.

We hail Christ as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), and we hear His call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).  But we also know that in the week when He was crucified that Jesus Christ pulled His disciples in close and told them that “wars and rumors of war” (Matthew 24:6) would characterize life in this world until He came again in glory to establish His kingdom that has no end.  It’s complicated.

Jesus told us to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44) seemingly making pacifism the preferential moral option for His disciples in times of war, but He also told us to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) making obedience to the governing authorities within the dictates of conscience (Acts 4:19-20) a matter of discipleship, and the State “does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4).  It is the divine mandate of the state to establish justice through the execution of wrath on those who practice evil.  In fact, the church is commanded to pray “for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (I Timothy 2:2).  The community of faith benefits directly from the stability that the State secures through its strength.

It’s complicated, and what makes it so is the commitment that many of us who are Christians have to what’s known as the principle of the “whole counsel of God’s Word” (Acts 20:27).  What this means is that everything that the Bible says on any particular question of faith and practice must be taken seriously by us.  Before settling our position on any issue, a Christian has to take the whole witness of Scripture on that issue into careful consideration.  The Christian conscience cannot be settled by an appeal to a single isolated verse, no matter how compelling that single verse may be.  Richard Hayes, the New Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School calls this the “synthetic task” in Biblical interpretation – “finding coherence” in the “chorus of diverse voices” with which the Scriptures speak.

For example, in addition to loving our enemies, Jesus Christ told His followers to love our neighbors.  This was the whole point of Jesus’ famous Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  But what if the Good Samaritan had arrived while the man on the side of the road was still being beaten and robbed instead of right after it had happened?   Would the command to love his enemy have required him to stand idly by until the brigands were done with their violence before stepping forward to love his neighbor by binding up his wounds and attending to his needs?

Steve Brown, a pastor from Wisconsin observes: “If the command to love your neighbor collides with the command to love your enemy, when an enemy would kill your neighbor, then you must love your neighbor by protecting him against his enemy.”  And that’s just one of the many collisions of commands that a Christian who is conscientiously attending to the whole counsel of God’s Word is going to have to learn how to navigate.

It is the complexity of all this that has led most Christians through the centuries – Catholic and Protestant alike – to adopt some version of the Just War theory as their stance on the question of war.  It poses each military action of the country in which a Christian lives as a moral and spiritual dilemma that must be conscientiously sorted out before one’s support of or participation in it can be offered. When Caesar goes to war, each Christian is left to struggle with how best to keep faith with Christ’s multiple commands: with the social obligation of citizenship that Christ enjoined in His command to His disciples to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, with the love of neighbor that can be the legitimate motivation of a nation’s military action, and with the love of the enemy against whom that military action is taken.

hmmmm
Francis Schaeffer, the Christian thinker on whom I cut my theological teeth, coined the phrase “fighting grievingly” to describe what he believed was the only proper attitude of a Christian in times of armed conflict.  He wrote -

I am not a pacifist, because pacifism in this abnormal world, this world that is not the way that God meant it to be because of the fall, means that we desert the very people who need our help the most. Let me illustrate what I mean: l am walking down the street one day when I see a great big burly man who is beating a little girl, and so I approach him and plead with him to stop. But what if he won’t stop, what does love then requite of me?  I believe that Christian love means that I stop him in any way that I can including, quite frankly, hitting him; to me this is what Christian love demands of me in a fallen world. If I desert the little girl to the bully, I have deserted the true meaning of Christian love, and my responsibility to my neighbor. … There are lots of things in this world which grieve us, and yet we must face them…

If a war is “just” then the participation of a Christian is deemed – by the majority opinion of the church through the centuries, at least – to be morally warranted.  But the way that a Christian then participates in that conflict, no matter how just, must still be governed by the love of God in Jesus Christ as it is known in his or her heart, and this means that he or she can only “fight grievingly,” with real regret and anguish, and with a very clear moral and spiritual obligation to the one who has been determined to be the enemy.

Echoing the command of Christ for His disciples to love their enemies, the Apostle Paul told the Christians in Rome -

18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This teaching has profound implications for individual Christians in times of war, whether it be a war of the nation that is their own earthly home, or a war between nations who are their neighbors. These obligations can be summarized nicely by some of the core principles of the Just War theory itself – (1) A predisposition to peace experienced as a real reluctance to fight, seeing it always as the very last and the very worst resort; (2) The absolute refusal to dehumanize the enemy and an insistence that enemy combatants be accorded the dignity that their humanity requires; (3) An overarching concern for the safety and welfare of noncombatants; and (4) A commitment to the genuine reconciliation of the antagonists after the cessation of the conflict and the restoration of order.

A Christian’s support of war is not supposed to be easy, and it’s certainly not supposed to be automatic.  Minimally, taking Jesus Christ and His teachings seriously must erect some speed bumps for Christians when the drumbeats of war are rushing their nation’s decision-making process and the rhetoric is heating up, and then when a war is actually being prosecuted, the teachings of Jesus Christ have to set some boundaries for Christians in its conduct.  Even when it is deemed “just,” war is still tragic, and a Christian’s support of it and participation in it must be reluctant at best.  “Wars and the rumors of war” are symptoms of the sinfulness of this world and its people, and every bullet that flies, every bomb that is dropped, every soldier who dies, and every family that mourns their losses is evidence of humanity’s desperate need for a Savior.

mustache
Somewhere I’ve read that when the author Robert Louis Stevenson, a Christian himself, received word of a war among the people of his adopted country of Samoa, that he fell to the floor writhing in pain and weeping uncontrollably.   And while this is not all that there is to a Christian’s response to war, in closing I want to suggest that this is at least where it must begin.  Sadness and not anger is what must lie beneath the surface of a Christian’s response to war.  When in the course of human events a war becomes necessary, Christians can only support it with tears in our eyes and anguish in our hearts.   This is what people need to see first and most from us who are Christians in times of war.  DBS+

 

 

 

 

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My “Defining” Books; The Popular Titles

 

books
William Barclay said that there are two kinds of minds – “springs” and “cisterns.”  Springs are constantly bubbling up new thoughts.  Cisterns conserve and convey those thoughts.

I am a cistern.

My experience of life with God has been deeply shaped by others, many I have never actually met face to face, but who have nonetheless been my “companions” (Latin: “com” – “with” + “pan” – “bread”).  I have known them through their books.  C.S. Lewis liked to say that he read “to know that he was not alone.”   And I know that I am not alone spiritually because there are people who came before me and who surround me still who struggle with the same questions and fight the same battles that I do, and some have written about what they have discovered along the way.  Some of them have become treasured friends of mine, and I would like to introduce them to you.

This week I want to introduce you to the ten popular spiritual books that have profoundly shaped my thinking and believing.  Next week I will introduce you to ten of the academic or scholarly books that have had a direct and strong hand in arranging the architecture of my soul, but this week I want to start with the books that first got me going spiritually.  These are mass market books, books that you can readily find at Barnes and Noble or at Half Price Books. They are not technical.  You don’t have to have a University degree in history or philosophy to be able to read them with understanding.  In fact, I had read all of these books between my 12th and my 18th birthdays.  They are foundational, the veritable building blocks of my spiritual life.  Just as Picasso couldn’t paint until he knew his colors, and Shakespeare couldn’t write sonnets until he knew the alphabet, and Brahms couldn’t compose symphonies until he knew the musical scale, so, spiritually there are some things we need to know, or at least have given some thought to,  before we can soar.  These books were my colors, letters and notes.

practice
My spiritual awakening took place on a silent retreat at a monastery when I was 13 years old.  The little booklet I read that weekend was Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God.  This is what spiritually primed the pump of my awakening for me.  When the Presence of God broke in on me powerfully and personally that weekend, it was what Brother Lawrence had explained about what it means and how it unfolds that created the categories for my own expectation and experience of it.  This book opened up to me the possibility of a personal encounter with the living God.

Pbook

It’s not so much this book as it’s teaching that has been spiritually decisive for me.  Being raised in a spiritual tradition that “prayed by the book,” Rosalind Rinker’s invitation to and explanation of “conversational prayer” in Prayer: Conversing with God was liberating to me.  A few years back, when Christianity Today polled its readers about the most important books in their spiritual formation, this one was the most frequently mentioned!  I know it’s had that kind of impact on me.  This book gave me permission to talk with God in Jesus Christ as a friend with a friend.

New Book
Not long after my spiritual awakening, I began to read the Bible; “devour” it might be a better description.  I knew that it mattered and I knew that I really needed to be conversant with its teachings as a Christian, but I didn’t really know why.  It was reading F.F. Bruce’s little book on the reliability of the New Testament documents that helped me come to terms with why what the Bible said mattered, and why it could be trusted in what it told me about God in Jesus Christ.  As you know, I regard the authority of the scriptures to be a watershed issue for Christianity, and this book sent me in the direction of having some real confidence in what the Bible says rather than beginning with suspicion and doubt. F.F. Bruce provided me with the example of a reasoned and intelligent defense of Biblical authority.  This book provided me with the map that I needed to help me navigate between the fundamentalism of Scylla and the skepticism of Charybdis.

Damien

I read a series of Christian biographies published by Image Books when I was in middle school, and this one made the deepest and most lasting impression on me.  Fr. Damien, the Beatified leper priest of Molokai, became one of my spiritual heroes and pastoral role models as a result of this book. The example of his sacrificial commitment to his Lord and Savior and his willingness to go wherever Jesus Christ needed him to be no matter the cost has challenged and inspired me to live my life by the same sort of commitments.  This book honed my sense of call to ministry.

god small

This was the first “theology” book that I ever read.  J.B. Phillips was more familiar to me for his modern translation of the New Testament – the first “contemporary” version of the Bible that I ever owned and read, but it was this book that had the greater and more enduring impact on me.  His description of the “unreal” gods that we hold dear and the urgency of finding the real God was the first exercise in critical thinking about God in which I ever engaged.  And when J.B. Phillips went on to explore the basis for knowing who the real God is because of how He has gotten focused for us in Jesus Christ, the excitement I felt as I watched the unfolding of the theological argument was plapable, and became the itch that the rest of my life has been spent scratching.  I still love this little book, and read just about every year as a way of getting back in touch with what it was that first ignited the great passion of my life – faith seeking understanding.  This book introduced me to the joy of loving God “with all my mind.”

 

The Christ
This book was a text for the “Life of Christ” course that I took in my first semester of Christian College.  It is E. Stanley Jones’ exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, and his argument that it was how Jesus Christ lived and not just what He taught.  It’s argument that Christianity involves both creed and deed, both belief and behavior, both an orthodoxy of conviction and an orthopraxy of character, both a redemptive side and an ethical side, was absolutely compelling to me them, and now.  I have turned to this book so often in the past 40 years that I have literally worn out copies of it.  This book cast the vision of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ for me.  It has been a blueprint for my Christian life.

conscience

Billy Graham gave me this book, actually it was his Evangelistic Association.  They would occasionally send books to people who supported them financially, and not long after I had sent them a small financial gift, this book showed up in the mailbox.  Sherwood Wirt was the editor of the monthly periodical of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Decision, and this book spelled out a perspective for Christian involvement in social concerns that was deeply rooted in one’s conversion to Christ and that was a consequence of one’s sanctification by the indwelling, empowering Spirit.  Neither a substitute for nor a rival to the personal Gospel of salvation, this book created the category in my thinking for the Social Gospel as its full partner and necessary consequence.  This book forced me to think in “both/and” ways when it would have been very easy for me to slip into an “either/or” way of thinking.

church book

I cut my theological teeth on Francis Schaeffer.  This was another book that was assigned as a text for a class I took my first semester of Christian College, and the experience of reading it was intellectually intoxicating for me.   I have heard other Christian leaders of my generation say that it was reading Francis Schaeffer in the early 1970’s that showed them that you could be a Christian and still be intellectually serious and culturally engaged.   Schaeffer pushed me to go deeper than the popular, warm-fuzzy kind of Christianity that like cotton candy tastes good but dissolves quickly.  From his own spiritual struggles he came to terms with the good and sufficient grounds for Christian faith, and he challenged me to approach my own believing with that same kind of rigor.  This book convinced me that Christians don’t have to park their brains at the door of the church when they go in.

body life

The Charismatic Movement was in full blossom as I started Christian College.  The Holy Spirit had made His presence known in the life of the church and in the lives of Christians, and as has always been the case with movements of spiritual revitalization and renewal, together with the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit blowing through the staid corridors of Christianity came a fair share of excess and sheer silliness.  It was Ray Stedman’s book Body Life that provided me with balance and perspective.  In fact, it convinced me that being a Charismatic Christian was something that I myself needed to seek.  Now, his understanding of what it meant to be a Charismatic Christian went way beyond the fascination with the showy spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy that captivated the imagination of the church in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, just as it had 2000 years before in Corinth.  His core conviction was that it is the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit with His sovereign distribution of the spiritual gifts to Christians that enables the church to function as the Body of Christ.  This book has been the foundation to my understanding of what the church is and how the church is supposed to work.

baptism book

This book by one of the great spiritual giants of the 20th century, John R.W. Stott, was what helped me make sense of my Charismatic experience when it finally happened.  A careful Biblical study of who the Holy Spirit is and how the Holy Spirit operates, Baptism and Fullness provided me with normative Biblical categories for understanding contemporary spiritual experience.  Measured and reasonable without becoming dismissive or overly critical, this book not only helped me sort out my own spiritual experience, but it also helpfully modeled a gracious way to affirm Biblical authority without being petty or becoming brittle.  In an age when the emphasis is clearly on spiritual experience, this book has helped me to appreciate and embrace the strengths of this approach to Christianity while avoiding its dangers and weaknesses.

In so many respects this is an artificial, “forced” exercise. There are other books and other authors; so many others:  Philip Yancey, Calvin Miller, George Mallone, A.M. Hunter, Thomas Merton, Elton Trueblood, Lewis Smedes, C.S. Lewis. J.I. Packer, Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen…  But trace back through the 50 years of my spiritual growth and change, and these ten will be very close to my roots.  DBS+

 

 

 

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Race, Faith and Ferguson

ferguson

A Little “Believing Thinking”

On the morning that we left for our long planned and greatly anticipated trip to see family in Minnesota in August of 1965, the Watts Riots were well underway in South Central Los Angeles.  As we drove east out of Southern California I remember sitting in the back seat of the family sedan with my two sisters beside me and seeing the orange glow of the city burning in the predawn sky, and being truly afraid. We are all products of our experiences and perceptions, and this is part of mine.  The confusion I felt as a 12 year old boy watching the streets of his city become a battlefield drawn along racial lines and the very real fear that I had that when we got back that there would be nothing left, that our home and neighborhood would be gone, burned to the ground by angry lawless mobs, no doubt contributed to my “law and order” mentality.

A product of the 1950’s, I was already living an “Ozzie and Harriet” life in an Eisenhower Republican household where authority was respected and those who wielded it were believed to be invariably just and fair, only looking to serve and protect, with our best interests always in mind.  These assumptions framed my perceptions then, and continue to shape them now.  And so, after a week like this one that we have just been through as a nation with the racial violence and civil unrest in a St. Louis suburb flaring up daily, I find that all of those old fears and convictions get stirred up in me once again.

Today I know that authority routinely gets abused, that those who wield it can often be cruel and corrupt, and that power in the service of prejudice and systematic oppression is utterly demonic, and yet my basic orientation is still on the side of law and order.  Romans 13:1-5 looms large in my thinking, both spiritually and politically.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.  For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

I still want to believe in freedom and justice for all, in the structures of authority for the establishment and maintenance of the social order, and that the system, while frail and flawed, will not fail if left to run its full course.  With this as my interpretive grid, I view the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in a certain way.

I truly grieve the death of Mike Brown, and I want to give the benefit of the doubt to law enforcement.  I am respectful of the constitutional right of peaceful assembly and public protest, but I am disgusted by the rioting and looting.  I want the investigation of what happened to be allowed to objectively unfold without a rush to judgment from either side, and if it should turn out in the end that the tragic death of this young man was unjustified, then I want the structures of law and order that we have established as a people to serve the interests of justice to be brought to bear and the police officer who was involved in this incident to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

In my world, from the vantage point of my experiences and perceptions, this all seems to me to be completely reasonable.  But I know that my African American brothers and sisters have a very different set of experiences and perceptions that lead them to some very different conclusions.  Where I can trust, they are suspicious.  The structures that have served me and my interests so well throughout my life have oppressed them, and the system from which I have directly and repeatedly benefited has dramatically failed them at any number of points throughout our long national history, and so while their most natural reflex to an event like this one is pain and powerlessness giving way to outrage, mine is patience and perspective grounded in the belief that justice will finally prevail.  This leaves us sitting and staring across a wide divide of differing experiences and perceptions at each other, mystified at the conclusions that the other is drawing, and perhaps even a bit skeptical of the sincerity and depth of the faith that the other asserts is at the very center of their being, thinking and acting.  So, how do we break this deadlock?  How do we move forward together as a people, especially as people of faith?

man

Theologian Miroslav Volf argues that in order to navigate this kind of social divide that we as Christians have got to come to terms with “the inner logic of the cross” (Exclusion and Embrace 214).  He explains that he had just finished preaching on Romans 5:6-11 during which he had passionately argued that “we ought to embrace the other as God has embraced us in Christ” when he was asked if this meant that he could embrace a Cetnik, one of the notorious Serbian fighters who in the winter of 1993 were desolating Miroslav’s homeland and destroying his people?  Could Miroslav, a Croat, embrace a Serbian soldier?  And his honest answer was, “No, I cannot – but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to” (9).

It was the tension between his allegiance to the God who on Calvary’s cross set out to embrace those who were estranged from Him, and his own personal and painful experience of estrangement from the Serbians, his people’s despised enemies, that caused Miroslav to reflect deeply on how we can embrace those from whom we are estranged.  And he concluded that the only way we can do this is by learning how to “enlarge our thinking.”  He said that “in a creaturely sort of way” we need “to emulate God’s way of knowing” in Jesus Christ (251).  This is what’s at stake when we talk about the Incarnation, about how God became one of us, about how Christ was “fully God” and “fully human.”  In the mystery of God putting Himself in our place and carrying the full range of our experiences as human beings from birth to death into God’s very own heart, we have a model for how we can and must move from hostility to hospitality ourselves.

While not denying our own individual identities, experiences or perspectives, we have to risk taking a step outside ourselves just like God did in Christ.  We must cross over the dividing wall of suspicion and hostility that separates us from each other.  And we must enter the world of the other deep enough to be able to hear with their ears, to see with their eyes, and to feel with their hearts.  And then when we cross back over the divide that separates us from each other, we must then be prepared to bring bits and pieces of their world back with us into ours so that the perspective of the other always stands beside our own, in dialogue with it.

hands

This is how the stranger, the other, can become the familiar, the friend.  But to do this the barrier of fear must be deliberately breached.  The wall of suspicion must be consciously stepped over.  The divide of enmity that separates us must be crossed.  New possibilities in our relationships with each other must be envisioned.  And Miroslav Volf says that it’s the cross of Christ that inspires and empowers us to be able to do this.  In the outstretched arms of Christ on Calvary we can see the embrace of God taking in those who were once separate and strangers, and it pushes us to do the same thing.  “God’s reception of hostile humanity into divine communion is a model for how human beings should relate to each other” (Volf 100).  It takes effort, and it takes time, and it takes sacrifice, but as followers of Jesus Christ we really have no other choice. “The love of Christ constrains us” (2 Corinthians 5:14).  DBS+

mike

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