Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Turns Out...It Really Happened

Craig A. Evans, N.T. Wright. Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened. ed. Troy A. Miller. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009). 116 pages.

The three essays in this book were originally written as lectures for a symposium for pastors and scholars regarding several of the issues surrounding the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The book has edited the three essays for more popular consumption, though the average reader will still need to read a little slowly, and will happily learn several new things about the general topic of Easter.

To give away the ending, the authors believe that Jesus really was crucified, really died, really was buried, and really did rise from the dead physically.  The first two essays, written by Craig A. Evans, take a look at first century Jewish and Roman execution and burial practices.  The third, written by N. T. Wright, is a look at what the early church believed about Jesus' physical resurrection from the dead and argues for the conclusion that they believed he did, and, he really did.

Dr. Evans, a recognized and prolific New Testament scholar, tackles the question of whether the Gospel accounts of Jesus' trial, death, and burial are likely to have happened the way they are recorded by the Evangelists.  Combing through copious amounts of source materials regarding how Jewish and Roman culture and legal systems worked in the day, he builds a strong case for why Jesus was opposed by the Jewish authorities, the Passover pardon of Barabbas, the scourging, his death on the cross, and his burial in the tomb.  For the faithful, these seem to be simple and obvious details within the Easter story, but as Dr. Evans shows throughout, there are plenty of modern-day theories which attack each.  In the end, however, he shows that each theory which opposes these details has the burden of proof, and it is a heavy burden indeed.

Bishop Wright, possibly the leading living scholar on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, takes for his approach a kind of definition and explanation of the word "resurrection."  What was the Old Testament (and thus prevailing view in Jesus' culture) understanding of it?  Was the general, ancient view of resurrection something compatible with what became the Christian understanding? And finally, what was the Christian teaching regarding Jesus' resurrection?  He argues convincingly that the Christian view is a distinct departure from their Jewish heritage, the pagan cultures around them, and is shockingly stable and unified through the years.  The explanation for this break and persistent belief?  Jesus physically rose from the dead and became the Christ-follower's hope.

In the end, this volume tackles many of the details that we often either take for granted or don't even pay attention to when we come around to Easter.  The way the details are handled provide further support for the traditional Christian belief about the last days (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ, and make it harder for the skeptic to simply brush the whole story off as ancient and simplistic legend.

If this review was helpful, please say so on the Amazon page.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Putting Papal Possibilities in their Place

Mary Eberstadt nails it in this NPR interview.  She is able to speak to the nature of the Catholic and Christian church well, and deal with the persistent and even a little confused line of questioning that cannot believe that the Pope isn't going to accommodate Western, progressive sensibilities.
The progressive reaction to the new Pope had been nothing short of misguided and at times amusing.  As has been said a few times since the election of Pope Francis, the media expected a secular progressive to become Pope and were shocked that he was a Catholic.
As Eberstadt notes in the interview, the Pope's role is not about modernist sensibilities, or a culture that is accustomed to molding and shaping their elected officials and lifestyles.  The Christian faith is about Truth - "capital 'T' Truth" - as she put it.  Christian doctrine and moral teaching has been molded and shaped for us and handed down for centuries.  By contrast, secular progressivism is inherently about change and "progress." Toward what and to what end, there is no real answer.  And for what reasons there is no compelling argument. By its very nature progressivism is subject to public whim and political power.  And that is what frustrates and confuses progressives about the Catholic church and the Christian faith - it will not bend to modernizing whims just because some Americans think it should.  And even if the progressive point of view succeeds in lulling mainline Protestant denominations into a dogmatic slumber and eventual suicide, the Truth remains untouched by them. 
The modernist reaction has been a lot of sound and fury.  But it does not necessarily signify nothing.
It does signify the deepening cultural reality of individualist subjectivism and its odd consequences.  More and more, and in all kinds of arenas of life, people in Western culture have become accustomed to shaping reality to their whims. Consciously or unconsciously we treat fast food stands in the same ways we treat our politicians, careers, and our families.  The self is supreme, and the desires of the self are unchecked by any moral reflection or robust external authority system (like the Christian faith, even as represented in the Catholic church).  As a result, the typical modern is unable to understand that there is a reality to which they are responsible, and which will not change according to polling results.
Thankfully, the Vatican could not care less what nominal, progressive Catholics in the U.S. think it should do with the priesthood, marriage, or contraception.  Let us hope their courage rubs off on more evangelical and Protestant bodies.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Should Come As No Surprise...

In case you missed it, or didn't believe it the first dozen times you read about it, Rob Bell has officially come out in favor of "marriage equality," or the legitimization of homosexual marriage.  Bell has been a lightning-rod figure in Christian circles for several years now, drawing loving adoration from some circles of (typically young) Christians and ministers who see his point of view as a new way of talking about the faith, and stinging criticism from others who see in him the seeds and saplings of heresy.

Part of Bell's allure has been his ability to not answer every question.  He is able to take direct questions about doctrinal and moral matters and answer them in slippery ways which have kept him from being quoted as directly contradicting Christian orthodoxy - at least the majority of the time, and at least until now.

The Huffington Post reports, "This Sunday Rob Bell spoke at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral and openly endorsed marriage equality... In response to a question regarding same-sex marriage, Bell said, "I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it's a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs -- I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are."  So he is on record with both his conviction and his argument.

It should not surprise anyone who has read Bell and who has a grasp of Christian theology in the last 200 years that he has now openly contradicted clear teaching of Scripture and consistent teaching within the church for the last 2000 years.  When an individual drifts left-of-center with their theology, they necessarily begin to unmoor themselves from such things as Scripture and tradition and begin to wed themselves to the spirit of the age.  Bell is not nearly as concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy or truth (a topic he slides out from under later in the piece) as he is with acceptance from the latest fads among leftist elites.  And he will receive plenty of invitations to exclusive cocktail parties where grateful people will pat him on the back.

But the spirit of the age is a fickle and demanding deity.  What is in vogue today will become tomorrow's stepchild.  And this deity will not stop in its pressure for a self-proclaimed christian to accept one item in its buffet of political correctness.  It will demand all.  And it will eventually take all from Bell.

Though you will not be able to find the direct quote yet, it may not be long before Bell openly denies the uniqueness and divinity of Christ.  The spirit of our age can't swallow the Jesus of Christian orthodoxy, so, in time, neither will he.

And notice as well how weak his reason is for his decision, "I think the ship has sailed."  This isn't an out-of-context pull quote, it is the very spirit of the promotional video for his new book.  Traditional Christian beliefs are now like Oldsmobile cars - once useful but unable to keep up with social changes.

Don't let his gift of communication fool you - the power of the Christian faith is not in the multiplication of questions with no real answers, it is in faithfulness to Christ and the teaching once and for all delivered to the saints.

Sir Isaac Said What?

“…the true God is a living, intelligent, powerful Being…he governs all things, and knows all things that are done or can be done…He endures forever, and is everywhere present….As a blind man has no idea of colors, so have we no idea of the manner by which the all-wise God perceives and understands all things.” Sir Isaac Newton, Principia

Newton, Sir Isaac. 1934, Principia. Translated by Florian Cajori. 2 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 543-47.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Our Senses and Prayer

I was recently struck by a poem written by Gerard Manley Hopkins I had not read before, The Habit of Perfection.  It was written early in his career and so several commentators do not see it as refined a work as his later poetry, but I find it of incredible value when viewed through the lens of prayer and interaction with God.  Hopkins was a devoted Christ-follower, so it is entirely appropriate to read his work with Christ and discipleship in view.

As a whole, the poem treats all our bodily senses ironically as means of interacting with God.  As a result it is good advice to the believer who is wondering how to pray.  The first stanza:

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon by whorled ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Here, we catch a glimpse into how to use our ears to better hear God - and we begin with the fact that our ears are battered with cacophony, and thus are tuned to hear all the wrong things.  We grow accustomed to the constant din of meaningless - or even worse, destructive - noise.  We learn to process meaninglessness because we listen to it all the time.

So the power of silence becomes the power of re-tuning our ears to hear "The music that I care to hear."  Ironically, in silence from the noise of this world we find another song, and this time it is a symphony instead of cacophony, and our ears become attuned to a different sound.  God is not in the whirlwind of advertising or the earthquake of 24/7 news and social media.  He can be heard, however, in a whisper.  But I can only hear a whisper in silence and when I am listening for that voice.

Silence takes time.  Most of us are unaccustomed to silence - many of us find it hard to find.  But we ought to cultivate it.  For the good of our minds and souls we should find ways to disconnect from the noise of the world around us and learn to listen for a different voice.  Take the Word of God with you into silence - not to be read, but held in your mind and heart.  God has spoken through his written Word and the more comfortable you are with that language, the better positioned you will be to hear his spoken Word.

The music of the other world is beautiful - beautiful and transformative.  Find it and your life may begin to sing it.