Being Human – Genesis 1-2

What does it mean to be human?  What is the nature of humanity’s relationship to God, one another and the world around us?  These are the kinds of questions philosophers and theologians have wrestled with since before the dawn of recorded history.  They are precisely the kinds of questions that science, for all its strengths and wide range of application, can shed very little light on.  And, while most people don’t live within a consistent systematic philosophical or theological framework, we all have some semblance of a personal philosophy and theology.  Some of these frameworks are more helpful to us than others, but even the most carefully pondered systems are subject to reconsideration – the realities of life from time to time will prove our current assumptions to be inadequate to meet the challenges that come our way, so, we reassess.  This is true of even the most devout Christians.  Even the most orthodox and/or ‘Spirit-filled’ Christian will eventually discover that the God of their theological framework and understanding is insufficient for the moment.  When these points of crisis come, we have a few options.  We can stay in a state of emotional and intellectual denial and pretend that there is no tension to resolve and somehow force our round pegs to fit into square holes.  Another option is to stop looking in our own ‘theological/philosophical yard’ and start looking into other territories.  This can result in an abandonment of one’s framework altogether in favor of another system altogether (i.e., another religion, no religion, or similar).  While quite common (and fairly black and white), these approaches rarely lead to long-term success.  A third option would require one to carefully and thoughtfully reassess the assumptions underlying their philosophical and theological conclusions and begin to challenge them.  For many, this might feel like ‘compromising’ long held convictions, but it’s usually the only approach (especially for those clinging to something resembling a Judeo-Christian framework) that will leave one with an approach that is sufficiently mature to deal with the legitimate complexities of life – without completely discarding the kinds of deep truths that would be too scary to live without.

The Hebrew Scriptures (Christian Old Testament) are filled with incredible reflections on what it means to be human.  The reflections in the early chapters of Genesis are particularly insightful to the nature of the human condition – who we are, and how we relate to God, one another and the world about us.  Unfortunately, the most important insights found in these reflections are largely lost on Christians from traditions similar to my own.  Having bought the lie that science is the only (or at least best) means to communicate truth, we find ourselves busy trying to reconcile these reflections with evolutionary theories and geologic eras or explaining how we have light without a light source or whether 2 persons is a sufficient starting point for a biological species (of any sort) or whether we can reconcile the descriptions of Genesis 1 with the descriptions of Genesis 2.  Of course, these are anachronistic considerations.  Most of us approach these reflections as 21st century post-moderns (or 20th century moderns, or, if one is particularly tied to traditional Christian theological systems we might even view the material through 19th, 18th, 17th century – or older – European lenses) so these are the considerations we bring to the table.  None of these, however (even the idea of creation ex nihilo) are native to the time, place, and culture of these texts.  So, while one might reasonably touch on some of these considerations by extending the reach of the texts through appropriate logical and/or philosophical applications, there is no direct connection.  But our insistence on viewing these reflections through anachronistic lenses means that we not only are led to inappropriate conclusions from the texts, but we miss out on the unbelievably powerful statements that these reflections ARE intending to make about what it means to be human.

So, what kinds of assumptions SHOULD we bring to the text?  This is a good question as none of us are presently in the ancient near east.  While scholarship differs on many of the particular details (of some importance), there is a good deal of consensus shared among both liberal and conservative leaning scholars that give us a pretty good place to start.  What follows is by no means exhaustive, but should suffice for our purposes.

  1. Consider Genesis 1 and Genesis 2,3 two separate reflections on the same basic questions surrounding the nature and meaning of being human.  Don’t try to reconcile them, they are separate stories looking at the same general themes from different perspectives.
  2. Eliminate ALL modern scientific concerns, timeline considerations, etc.  These ARE NOT descriptions of material creation.  In fact, both reflections begin with a pre-existent world/material.  This IS NOT the concern of the texts – no matter how much we would like it to be.
  3. These texts nowhere try to prove the existence of God, it is assumed.  In fact, EVERYONE originally addressed by these reflections would agree that humanity and the whole of creation can be traced to a/the god(s).  The only question is which one(s).
  4. Both of these reflections offer a significant polemics (differences, points of distinction) with the views of the surrounding cultures (whether they be Egyptian, Canaanite, Mesopotamian or otherwise – the particular culture in view is not especially important for our purposes).  They do so using the language and cosmological framework of the surrounding cultures so that everyone encountering these reflections (at that time) would understand EXACTLY what is being addressed.
  5. The structure of Genesis 1-2:4 (seven days) follows a pattern common to several of Israel’s neighbors – that of temple building and/or sanctification.  This is a literary/story element that gives us the paradigm necessary to understand what kinds of things this reflection is getting at.
  6. The structure of Genesis 2:5 and following also deals with the creation of ‘sacred space.’  This time, rather than the creation of a temple, we have the creation of a sacred garden – which were typically associated with a temple.  Moreover, we have the installment of a caretaker/guardian of the garden – in the ancient near eastern world, this would be the priest.

So, with these things in mind, what is Genesis 1-2:4 saying about humanity and our relationship with God, one another and the world around us?  Here are a few conclusions we might draw:

  1. Note that if we are dealing with temple building days 1-3 deal with the creation of sacred space while days 4-6 fills that space with sacred objects.  Conclusion?  All of creation is sacred/holy before God – that is, they have a special, God ordained purpose and place.
  2. Again, if this is temple building, then the whole of creation is God’s home – His palace.  One might consider the implications of this and the previous point when considering the scope of the command given to mankind at the end of day 6 (to subdue and have dominion – not over one’s own home, but as regents given charge in the stead of the King).
  3. In ancient near-eastern temple stories, the final object placed in the temple is the idol of the deity – which would be incarnated by the presence of the deity (I’m choosing my words carefully, here).  In this reflection, humanity (male and female) is the idol of God – incarnated by His presence.  Please note, while mankind resembles God and is incarnated by God, we are not ourselves god.
  4. The addendum to the first creation reflection (day seven) indicates that even time itself is holy/sacred.  This will be borne out later in the ties with the Decalogue.  Perhaps something worth noting, the language of ‘rest’ is not the same as ‘taking a nap.’  Rather it is the language of a king who has secured the realm now taking his place on his throne to rule and reign (this might clear up some of the questions in regards to the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews, too).
  5. Continuing into the second creation reflection… if this is really about sacred gardens and its priesthood, then ‘the earthling’ (later becoming ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’ – only generalized terms are used, no proper names are used in this reflection until we get to Genesis 3:20 if memory serves me right) are being installed as keepers of the sacred garden – that is, priests of the sacred space (the world).  As priests we are charged to care for the world (tend to and protect).  This is especially instructive when we consider the role of Israel as a kingdom of priests with the same language being applied to the church in later epistles as the reconstituted Israel.
  6. Whatever else we might say concerning the relationship between ‘the man’ and ‘the woman,’ the ‘earthling’ was incapable of fulfilling his role of priest on his own.  Not until the Creator split the ‘earthling’ into ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’ do we find a unit/entity (the two distinct parts working together) capable of executing the whole of the priestly duties in the sacred garden.  This view of male/female is in better keeping with the implications presented in chapter 1.
  7. People are social creatures and we work and fulfill our purpose best when we are meaningfully connected with one another.
  8. Human sexuality, traditional gender physiological distinctions/identities are themselves sacred and a gift from God.  This does not mean that traditional gender roles are necessarily defensible, only that the differences between and complimentary nature of male and female are sacred and an integral part of what it means to be human and how we relate to one another.

All of this is pretty important stuff and we’ve only just scratched the surface.  Any of these things are far more important to living than the particular recipe God might have used in making everything or the details of His timetable.  It tells us who and what we are.  How we relate to God, creation and one another.  The fact that Christians spend far too much time trying to connect these reflections with scientific text books means that we have spent far too little time considering what these texts actually do say.  As a result, our world is turned upside down because we have failed to engage it with the kind of philosophical and theological reflection that would help all to gain a fuller appreciation for what being human is really all about.

Pastor Jim Kushner

Sheep, Goats and Syrian Refugees – Matt 25:31-46 (longform)

Syrian Christian Refugees

I likely won’t write too much more about this, but in view of some well meaning concerns brought to me by some dear friends, I thought a little fuller treatment was warranted.  I don’t apologize for getting political as faith should indeed impact our political reasoning, but that doesn’t mean all that all Christians will end up at the same conclusion.  However, some conclusions have better Scriptural merit than others – but that is not the sole concern for those in public service.  With that, here we go again!

While I don’t always agree with it, I’ve always enjoyed the National Review.  Usually well thought articles and interesting takes on things.  I think the David French article (‘The Left’s Dishonest Biblical Argument for Taking in Syrian Refugees’ – you can find the link on my personal FB page) has some merit.  His premise that there should be a tiered reading of the Old Testament (individual vs. government) is fair.  Government by virtue of its God ordained role has the responsibility to act in ways that individuals on their own may not for the benefit of the community.  Also his point that most of our efforts need to be focused on helping ‘them over there’ is also fair and, frankly, the only plausible option for most of the refugees.  Likewise, Mr. French correctly points out that American generosity in these matters (extending aid, often through NGO’s and private contributions) is laudable and unmatched in the world.  Finally, I wholeheartedly agree that security is among any government’s leading concerns.  However, in the final analysis, I think Mr. French’s argument is misguided.

First, the whole Obama disingenuousness.  I, indeed think, that the administration NEEDED to do more to establish protected zones in the region – both for those displaced by the current fighting AND for the Christian communities that have been all but exterminated.  In his defense, the political realities in Syria are quite different from what we had with Iraq and the new Kurdish regions extending to Turkey.  The biggest issue is that Syria has a longstanding relationship with Russia – any indiscriminate action there on our part would dangerously imperil our already strained relationship with Moscow.  One may be able to make the argument that what is happening in Syria now (at least to some degree) is part of an ongoing proxy war between the U.S. and Russia.

Second, while the vast majority of U.S. assistance for the refugees MUST take place IN THE REGION (anything else is just unrealistic), it is ludicrous and unfair (and frankly sinister) to suggest that giving entrance (or whatever the proper technical term) to some 10,000 displaced Syrians is nothing more than cynical political posturing by the President.  Of course, 10,000 is a rather nominal amount when compared to the scope of the situation – except for those who actually win the lottery.  Their lives, and that of their posterity, will forever be changed for the better.  While 10,000 is a somewhat symbolic gesture, in this war (and make no mistake, this is part of a multi-generational war with jihadist and other radicalized elements) symbols are crucially important.  The radicalized jihadists are banking on the fact that the West will simply ignore this situation because the victims are Muslim.  They are banking on the fact that the refugees will become more hopeless and pushed to despair, thus creating a whole new crop of thousands of young men (and women) who can be easily manipulated and radicalized.  They will not differentiate between nice western people and cold western governments – they will be viewed as one and the same.  Every refugee that is given a hope and a future in the west is western civilization’s best deterrent against future attack and our best hope to neutralize radical movements in the Muslim world – but it will take time, likely several generations.

As for Mr. French’s assertion that ‘we know’ that the extremists are trying to sneak people over here – I’m sure that’s true.  HOWEVER, as per the excellent analysis done by the CATO institute (a libertarian think tank – no friend to big government, you can follow the link a few spots up/down on my personal FB feed), the current vetting process of Syrian refugees has been extremely thorough and successful (unlike the plan offered by the House Republicans which would tie everything up in bureaucracy and essentially eliminate all migration from the region without adding any practical level of security – THAT is, in fact, the very definition of disingenuous policy making:  sounds good, adds nothing of substance, achieves a goal that is too distasteful politically to do in an upfront manner).  Refugees from this region currently remain in the camps during the vetting process.  The process is multilayered and takes between 2-3 years to complete (on average).  Only a small percentage of applicants actually are given passage, usually children, their families and the elderly.  Presently 1 in roughly 230,000 of those given admittance have later been found to have had ANY tie to radical elements.  Compare that to the roughly 1 in 22,000 current Americans who will commit murder (let alone some other violent act).  I know there’s a difference, I’m just trying to give perspective.  NOTHING is a 100% guarantee – but that doesn’t give us an excuse to never admit another distressed person of Middle-East origin.  The greatest risk of radical jihadist elements in our country (and the cells are ALREADY here) comes from short-cut student visas and (mostly) from radicalized U.S. nationals (this has also been the pattern in Europe, although proximity to the region skews the stats somewhat there to include other factors).  All this to say, neither the Obama administration, nor any thinking ‘bleeding heart’ (or this conservative, but independently thinking Christian) would ever suggest that we forego due diligence and simply throw the doors open and just let everyone march in.  The Republican rhetoric on this is intentionally disingenuous and misleading because of their political hatred of the President.  Again, it was wrong when Democrats and liberals did/do this with Republicans/conservatives, and it is wrong for us to do it.  Nothing changes until someone chooses to change.

Some would suggest that all assistance should be done on an individual basis, but on a practical level, that makes no sense.  Individuals can’t relocate refugees.  Some of it HAS to be done on a federal level.  Governors have very little say with regard to the relocation of displaced Syrians to the U.S., it is a federal concern, except to fear-monger.  The current Republican governors’ actions ignores the statistics on the matter, ignores the safe guards already in place, and leverages a humanitarian crisis for political one-upmanship.  It’s just wrong.  Also, personal giving for these kinds of things traditionally flow through faith communities (though not exclusively).  The problem, of course, is that American involvement in faith communities has plummeted from something north of 80% to something approaching 25%.  Private action alone won’t even begin to address the need.

Finally, David French’s assertion that the Biblical charge to house and feed the alien is simply a matter of personal responsibility and not a matter of state is simply wrong.  No, it doesn’t mean that ALL foreigners should be given free reign, but IT IS a matter of state concern (with or without the Mosaic complications that would be ‘distasteful to the latte-left’ – I’ve never been equated to that, but I do like latte).  I can’t even begin to get into all the reasons why, but let me try a few.  FIRST:  when the Bible references itself (OT in the NT, AND early OT in later OT), it uses a short-hand – only a phrase or term is used to reference an entire body of context (i.e. when ‘the poor’ are referenced, its drawing on the whole body of work dealing with the poor, the widow, the orphan AND the alien – there are wider cultural contexts that are also referenced by this convention, I won’t get into that now, but with limited writing supplies and storage, one can quickly see the advantage of a shorthand that doesn’t need to be literally exhaustive to indeed directly intend for the whole gamete to be in play).  In light of this, the prophets not only declare judgement on Israel/Judah, but also the surrounding pagan nations for their treatment of the poor.  This reference intends to connect to the fuller range of concerns – which includes the alien.  And with respect to the pagan nations, the judgement IS NOT a matter of personal neglect, it is a condemnation of public policy.  This isn’t just an interpretive convention of the liberal theologian to rig the Bible to say something that it doesn’t ‘say directly’ by our standards – it is the recognized convention of NEARLY EVERY leading Bible scholar – conservative and liberal.  Second, the only person that is commanded to personally own and daily read a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures is the king.  The point being, whether the writings are directed toward individuals or the community, as he governs the king in expected to be guided in all his actions by God’s word – meaning even public policy will be informed by the whole of biblical concern.  It is then up to the king to wisely apply the full counsel of God’s Word to the present situation.  Oh, just a side point, very little if ANY of the Bible is specifically directed to just personal concern – the ancient near eastern mind wouldn’t have conceived of that, the fact that we do that is simply a product of our western culture – it’s an anachronism.  The Bible typically addresses individual concerns through their connection to the community.  Finally, and I don’t want to push this point too far, just take it as something to ponder, consider Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.  First, I know that parables are not morality tales or allegories, but I would suggest that they are far more multifaceted in meaning than conventionally held (though there are certainly limits).  Jesus states that he speaks in parables in order to reveal the heart of the hearer – which suggests that they probably can be taken in more than just one way (again, with contextual limitations).  In THIS parable, it is the nations that are gathered to be judged and the people are separated (is this by individual or by nation – the text is ambiguous – but my reading implies that by nation is the intent – I understand the potential concerns, but perhaps parables of the judgement are simply meant to give us a picture of God’s concern/agenda and not a blow by blow accounting of how things will occur).  On what basis, then are the nations judged?  By how they dealt with the disenfranchised.  On this level, Jesus gives a critique of empire and power (Rome, Zionism) and how things must be different with the kingdom of God.  Of course we might even go a step further with this – who was given/not given aid in this parable?  The least of these my brothers.  Now this could easily mean any person, but from the context of Matthew’s Gospel, brother could also be a disciple of Jesus.  The implication being, the kingdoms of this world will be judged on the basis of how they deal with those who identify with the emerging kingdom of God.  Interesting in light of Western inaction with regard to the extermination of Christian communities in regions controlled by radical jihadists.  In conclusion, it is more than just a little plausible that Jesus is critiquing national level policy in light of the Kingdom of God – that is, how nations deal with the poor, the widow, the orphan, the prisoner, and the alien.

Pastor Jim Kushner

Syrian Refugees in America? 2 Cor 6:14

SYRIArefsIt’s been awhile since I’ve done this.  Had some stuff to work out and felt it best not to post as I was sifting through things.  Not sure everything’s settled (actually, I’m sure it’s not), but probably sufficiently so to ensure that I won’t post something I’ll seriously regret (just things that might get me into hot water).  There’s quite a bit going on that I have some interest in commenting on – more than I’ll be able to at this time.  So, let’s go with a world/national news event that the church should speak to with a great degree of unanimity – unfortunately that unified voice seems to be sorely lacking.  Of course, I’m referring to the growing humanitarian crisis – what should America do with regard to Syrian refugees?  Nothing like a simple issue to ease back into the blogosphere.

Let me begin, in interest of full disclosure, with some personal history.  I’m pretty conservative by upbringing and disposition.  I grew up in a Republican home.  I’m a registered Republican and have been for 30 years.  I’ve been an officer in the Army National Guard and my son is an Army cadet.  I’m an unapologetic proponent of the United States and its place in the world.  I believe that security is any government’s chief (though not only) responsibility.  I’m a minister with a Biblically (and socially) conservative denomination, and have been for almost 25 years.  Nevertheless, as a student of (and all too poor a follower of) the Bible, I find that from time to time my Bible seems to say things that challenge my natural inclinations – my conservatism, my Republicanism, my Americanism, even my Pentecostalism (or at least caricatures of these things).  And as one who tries to take the Bible very seriously and who tries to let it reshape and reform my opinions, positions, and convictions I find myself actively struggling with Biblical texts and my desire to rationalize my preferences and/or fears.  It’s frustratingly difficult, incredibly humbling, and at times rather scary.  Nevertheless, if I’m going to be serious about being a Biblically informed Christian, then I must wrestle with the implications the Bible has with regard to my various positions and, at the very least, nuance (if not outright change) my positions to allow them to reflect a Biblical priority.  Few things are clearer in the Bible than God’s insistence that nations (and individuals) treat the alien/foreigner – refugee – with kindness and compassion (i.e., receive and make provision for them).

This priority is clear throughout the Genesis/Exodus narrative and the laws that follow.  It is clear throughout the Prophets, Psalms, and Proverbs.  Its violation can invite divine retribution on an offending people.  Even in the New Testament, we see the more personalized implications of this imperative for individuals and small bodies of believers.  My conclusion?  Christians ought to have a resoundingly unified voice insisting that our nation (and our states/communities) play an active role in receiving what refugees we can – it is the Biblical thing to do, and therefore the Christian thing to do – whether or not it is the Republican, Democrat, or American thing to do.  May I be blunt?  I have never been more ashamed of my party.  The idea of using a humanitarian crisis as a point for political posturing – just because the President that’s calling for action happens to be a Democrat – is short-sighted, small minded, and inexcusably shameful.  It was wrong when Democrats did this kind of thing with Republican administrations, and it’s wrong now.  Moreover, I’ve rarely been so embarrassed by the plethora of sincere, but Biblically ignorant Christian voices who are playing right along with the same shameful rhetoric.  We are followers of Christ first, then American, then Republican/Democrat/whatever – we dare not mix the order up.  In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul charges the church not to be unequally yoked.  This wasn’t a charge against ‘mixed’ marriages (Christian/non-Christian).  Paul was correcting them for putting the teachings and philosophies of ‘false apostles’ and various non-believers on par (and often above) the teachings of Paul, Apollos, the other recognized Christian voices and the Scriptures, hmmm…

We all know what France is facing.  France also proudly declares itself to be a fully secular state.  Yet, in the face of turmoil, it insists on the Biblical humanitarian priority that Republican governors (many of whom proudly insist that they belong to the party that upholds Judeo-Christian principles) refuse to honor because of ‘safety concerns’ (as if the typical 16-22 month vetting process that most refugees go through before gaining entrance isn’t sufficient to confirm identity and allegiance – yet somehow, France thinks they can walk and chew gum at the same time).  And no, I don’t care what Saudi Arabia and the other Middle-Eastern states do – I don’t take my policy or moral cues from the Saudi’s.  I take them from the Scripture and the notion that, despite current protests to the contrary, the founding principles of the United States were intentionally derived from an historic Judeo-Christian ethic.

So, ask yourself, ask your leaders – with whom are you yoked?

Pastor Jim Kushner

Anticipating Noah

I must admit that my taste in movies is a bit skewed.  Normally I like ‘fantasy’ epics (think all things based off Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and various recreations of Greek/Norse mythology, Sci-Fi thrillers, etc) and superhero stuff (though the quality here is a VERY mixed bag – often TOO much action, with insufficient pause to allow tension to grow).  Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy ‘serious’ films and biographies & stuff (usually in the comfort of my home), but if I’m going to blow what few discretionary dollars I have, I want to escape ‘reality’ and have fun (and all the better if the story has some cleverly disguised social commentary woven in, just nothing too over the top, please).  So, it probably comes at no surprise that I’m really looking forward to this weekend’s major motion picture release of ‘Noah.’

Now, I’m probably going to get myself in a lot of trouble by lumping the story of Noah into the kinds of films & stories that I just mentioned.  I’ve seen a bit of what’s been written by religious leaders about the film.  Some are concerned that the movie isn’t literal enough (I’m not sure what that means, as the entire account of Noah spans merely Genesis 5-10, and the first and last chapters are essentially genealogies).  A wooden reproduction of the text might be sufficient for a 20 min feature in a cartoon video for a 5-year-old, but hardly sufficient for a 2 hour + major feature film.  I suspect there will be a lot of creative license and some over-the-top fanciful insertions.  The assertion is that these things will make the Biblical story ‘unbelievable’ (a largely fundamentalist assertion – whose views of the Biblical material and greater cultural activity do little to aid their cause).

So, just why am I looking forward to this movie?  First, I’m usually supportive of anything that gets people talking about the Bible and/or biblical themes.  Everyone knows the basic source material here.  Most also know that the story is about sin, judgement, salvation, and grace.  Second, I really like it when people (Christian or not) re-imagine the themes and stories of the Bible in fresh and relevant ways.  It doesn’t mean that all views are equally acceptable, but when things are presented in a new light, it helps keep the familiar from becoming stale.  Third, I like a good story – and if there’s one thing that Hollywood has become particularly good at, it’s telling a compelling story.  Story helps to grab the imagination of the viewer (hearer, reader) and immerse them in the tale so as to help the point of the account to become intensely real and personal.  In the end, anyone who is serious about the Bible and what it has to say HAS to be interested in having its stories and message inspire the hearts and minds of today’s culture to higher and greater things – just as it has for countless generations past.

– Pastor Jim Kushner

For Whom Does Freedom’s Bell Toll – Matthew 8, 9

In Matthew 4 we are introduced to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (starting with the imprisonment of John the Baptist).  From that point, Jesus begins to ‘preach that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ and to heal and deliver the sick and oppressed.  The Kingdom’s arrival is both proclaimed and demonstrated.  Matthew then unpacks the two-pronged ministry in chapters 5-9.   In chapters 5-7 we have a summary of how Jesus’ declared the arrival of the Kingdom, then the following narrative block (ch 8,9) illustrates Jesus’ demonstration of the Kingdom’s arrival with ten mighty deeds.

That there are 10 mighty deeds listed is no coincidence.  Matthew is illustrating the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry by placing it within the context of his people’s story (the story of Israel).  Here, Matthew takes Jesus, who just gave a ‘new law’ on a mountain (like Moses on Sinai), and makes another Mosaic connection.  In Exodus, God at Moses command, gives 10 signs that are designed to illustrate both to Pharaoh AND Israel that Yahweh truly is Israel’s deliverer.  In similar manner Jesus shows his credentials as the newly reconstituted Israel’s (the one including faithful Gentiles) true deliverer.  What follows are several healings (a leper 8:1-4, a servant from long distance 8:5-13, Peter’s mother-in-law along with others 8:14-17, a paralytic 9:1-8, a chronically ill woman 9:20-22, two blind men 9:27-31, and a mute man 9:32-34), deliverances from demonic oppression (8:28-34), a resurrection (9:18-26), and a truly amazing demonstration of divinity (calming the storm 8:23-27).  Many of these signs become the very things that Jesus both commissions His followers to perform in ch 10 and uses to validate His identity to the imprisoned (and likely disillusioned) John (ch 11).  Given that Matthew has gone to great lengths to structure his gospel in a particular way (these aren’t a random list of actions), what is it that he is trying to say about Jesus and the Kingdom He is ushering in? Continue reading For Whom Does Freedom’s Bell Toll – Matthew 8, 9

Caricatures – Making Straw Men out of Pharisees

Western political-cultural (including religious) discourse in recent centuries (though, I’m sure the practice goes back further) centers on making caricatures of the opposition.  As I’m sure you know, a caricature is a stylized drawing that exaggerates certain features in order to convey a message about the subject (their stupidity, inflexibility, silliness, etc).  Of course, this can be done in the way we verbally describe an opponent or their view.  Sometimes we call it ‘building a straw man.’  It works well on TV and talk radio as well as  in college lecture halls and pulpits.  In the face of short attention spans engaging the general public requires polarization, controversy, and oversimplification.  Subtlety and shades of grey rarely translate well when bottom line emphasis require media & presenters to simply tell people what to think rather than help them learn how to think.  My greatest challenge in the pulpit is balancing the fact that most people want things boiled down to 1-3 simple things to do or believe when the Bible itself is a collection of documents – each of which are closely tied to its particular cultural setting.  Understanding it well requires an appreciation of very foreign, long past cultures, history, and literary genres.  Narrative and sophisticated word-play are not part-in-parcel with our culture.  The push to translate what’s happening often leaves pastors marginalizing complex individuals and opponents in Scripture – often to the point of allowing our listeners to simply dismiss them.  As a result we miss out on the subtle connections we ought to be making with ourselves, our churches, and our culture at large.  Nowhere is this trend more pronounced than with the Pharisees (and later ‘Judaizers’) in the New Testament.

Continue reading Caricatures – Making Straw Men out of Pharisees

Hounds and the Holy, Pigs and Pearls

I remember growing up and being taught in school the importance of ‘critical thinking.’  It’s a valuable skill to be able to look past the face-value of things and see what’s going on behind the veneer (of course, this can sometimes become a problem with interpersonal relationships where we’re supposed extend the benefit of the doubt – not everything is political or agenda driven).  However, in practice (at least in school), it rarely accomplished the goals the instructors stated.  Instead it degenerated to one of two things.  First, critical thinking was only applauded if it resulted in an outcome consistent with what the instructor was looking for (usually), otherwise it was marginalized (not everyone feels that way …. really I thought that was the point of an argumentative essay, that’s just your opinion …. no matter how much documented research was provided from well-respected sources).  Second, in practice, it usually simply became a fancy name for criticism – a skill I’ve mastered.  I think the subtle difference between ‘critical thinking’ and ‘criticism’ is akin to the difference between ‘evaluating’ and ‘judging.’  Clearly the writers of Scripture envision the church (and individual Christians) judging situations at some level.  Yet, at the beginning of ch 7, while not forbidden, ‘judging’ itself is certainly brought under the microscope. Continue reading Hounds and the Holy, Pigs and Pearls