20 July 2015

go set a watchman

The recent publication of Go Set a Watchman has left the literary world abuzz, which is quite understandable since it is only the second novel published by famed author Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird is a literary classic. It is because of my great love for Mockingbird, along with so many others, that I made it a priority to read Watchman. I have also read a number of articles surrounding the release of Watchman, leaving me wondering if my impressions are more of a minority report on the book's significance.

I confess at the outset that I am not a literary critic, nor do I pretend to be one. I am a thinker and have been trained in my own field, but I readily admit that I do not keep up with the ins and outs of literary criticism to be able to engage a work such as this at the level it probably deserves. My comments are not intended to be an interaction of the book's artistry – other than what I thought was enjoyable and meaningful reading – as much as they are to be a thoughtful engagement of the message and content as best as I understand it.

The context of Watchman is that it is set twenty years after the events of Mockingbird, with a number of changes to the characters that were present in the first book. (I am aware that there are a number of 'inconsistencies' in the plot and story details between the two books but, again, that is not within the scope of this review.) Scout, who now goes by her given name of Jean Louise is returning home to Maycomb from her home in New York City, where she encounters a much different world than the one she remembers leaving. Her brother died a number of years before, Dill is off in Europe, Atticus suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, and the entire subculture is trying to move forward in the wake of recent moves of desegregation.

Much press surrounding Watchman haphazardly throws out there that Jean Louise returns home to discover that Atticus is a bigot. I caught this blurb just before I began reading the book itself, and was a bit nervous on what I was going to encounter. Those who run with this flat notion want to speak about Atticus being the 'fallen hero' that we all have in our lives, or that he was 'too flat' of a hero in Mockingbird, which is now remedied. It is at the halfway point of the book that Jean Louise runs headfirst into a situation which makes her wonder if racism has taken over her community, most importantly her father. And it takes the remainder of the book for her to work through this, and for Harper Lee to make some powerful points about society as a whole, with desegregation as the vehicle.

There is more power in this novel than is being recognized.

Any discussion of racism in Watchman is proven to be complex; there are no flat renderings of the issue in this novel. There is a spectrum being presented, with some characters going too far and others caught in situations which they most likely do not understand. (It is mentioned that Atticus once attended a KKK rally, but it is explained away in reasonable terms.) But there is more going on as well, and Atticus speaks straightforwardly in distancing himself from other voices that he finds appalling. But, for some reason this isn't being recognized. I wonder how many reviewers have read (and understood) Watchman in the first place.

One of the most significant scenes in the book is a drag-out-verbal-battle between Jean Louise and Atticus towards the end of the book, whereby she conveys her disgust for his 'bigotry' and 'racism,' being further angered by his unwillingness to become emotionally charged. He gives her reason throughout the discussion but she is unwilling to hear it. This is one of life's truisms, you cannot reason with emotion. It matters little to Jean Louise what Atticus says in this moment, in fact it will be Atticus' brother that will have more of a breakthrough moment with her when he is able to exhaust her emotional energy a bit. But there is a lot to commend in Atticus' words that merit closer attention.

In his own defense, Atticus makes a number of points about his belief on the desegregation of races – which has recently been thrust upon the South with Brown v. Board of Education. He speaks of keeping the races in their 'rightful place' which, to Jean Louise and most modern ears, sounds exactly like bigotry. But in his explanation of it he asserts that the Negro population is not yet ready for the many responsibilities that are now available to them, most notably civil leadership and government. He sees a certain equality among all persons but fears the dynamic that would occur if those who have never been in power at all were suddenly given the reigns without learning the responsibility. In this he calls out activism: "The NAACP doesn't care whether a Negro man owns or rents his land, how well he can farm, or whether or not he tries to learn a trade and stand on his own two feet – oh no, all the NAACP cares about is that man's vote."

This point is built upon the shared disappointment that both Atticus and Jean Louise have regarding the method of desegregation – namely, that it was the Supreme Court that issued a ruling without regard for the 10th Amendment. In this there is the feeling of being forced into a belief and way-of-life that comes with a legal decision rather than with the progression/evolution of human reason within the local communities. And Atticus tells Jean Louise that it is his role in this community to be an agent of change, not by condemning the community but by working from within the community itself to facilitate the change of heart and mind. (Just as he did in Mockingbird.) He also believes that it is Jean Louise's place to return to Maycomb and do the same.

It is fascinating to me that Harper Lee completed this novel in 1957, and was so keenly aware of the changes that were to come in generations being pushed by political activism. She was right about the 10th Amendment, and she is right about a forced equality that would never be satisfied (no matter how equal we all became) so long as it was driven by activism. I can not say just how Harper Lee would articulate these views herself, because of health issues and her own preference for silence she will allow her novel to stand on its own. But there is much more to say here than the headline of Atticus Finch being a racist, for it is Scout who discovers her own bigotry by the time all is said and done. (Perhaps the veil is lifted on the rouse that says anyone who disagrees with activism's tactics and rhetoric are automatically filled with hatred.) And maybe the same can be said for those who have seen race as an issue, rather than as about people. We are never as good when we are about a cause as when we are about our fellow man and woman, and this book is a strong statement to that reality.

There are other issues that can, by analogy, be interpreted in light of the discussion had in Watchman, it doesn't take too much for us to be reminded of them. Atticus is not presented as a racist in this story, though it is clear that some modern ears are so conditioned that they can only make such a charge because they don't know what to do with those who dare disagree with the language and ideology of political correctness. In other words, just because he criticizes the work of the NAACP and the like (for turning people into issues), Atticus isn't a bigot. Harper Lee is showing us in this alone how the world was beginning to change in the days that she completed this work, and how it is running amok in our present day.

So, that might be the minority report on those talking about Go Set a Watchman, and I'm all right with that. These were my observations of the book, and how the black community has been let down in so many ways by such activist groups these past few generations. Today's lack of equality is less about the pursuit of happiness in our country and more to do with the work of running ramshod over a people and culture to achieve a short-sighted political agenda ... at the expense of people, who too share the imago Dei.

15 July 2015

continue in him 3

In the correspondence given to the ancient believers in Ephesus, there are a number of words given as pastoral instruction to the church. There is a certain tone in one pastor speaking to another that shapes and colors these letters, for of central concern is the well-being of the community as it seeks to put its theology into practice. Those who have been called to leadership among such groups have an important role in setting the tone for the church. The pastor's voice speaking to Timothy comes in this context, which elevates the language from simple Christian idealism to a pragmatic expression of the gospel.

"I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Timothy 2:1–2).

In all godliness and holiness

One of the key words in this passage is what many English Bibles translate as godliness. According to Trebilco's in-depth study, this concept was used widely in popular Hellenistic culture (361). I find this sort of claim interesting, although not in a way that makes me doubt its accuracy. There is a tendency among cultures to carry a concern for what is spiritual and mysterious, often described in terms of what is godly, or even holy. We can not say that the Hellenistic culture of ancient Ephesus was compatible with the ethics of the Christian message – the letters written to the believers in this community are clear that such is not the case. But there is ample evidence from all sides that the Hellenistic culture was quite enamored with deities and spiritualities, which led to the inevitable clash of cultures once the exclusivist claims of Christ came to town.

The spiritualized culture prized those who were able to demonstrate a certain piety which was deemed acceptable in their world. Congratulations were bestowed on those who were faithfully committed to the idealism of which society approved. The words of the pastor into this context was aware of this tension of definitions, which is why he emphasizes peace and encourages the believers here to demonstrate the gospel to everyone, regardless of disposition or devotion. And, in a world where ethics and laws were most-often (if not exclusively) dictated from the ruling class to the ordinary citizen, these petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings are to also begin there.

And so we have here a clash of meanings, both linguistically and morally, though this is not the primary concern of the pastor's heart. Though his command of language shows that he is quite able to debate the meaning of words, here he instead keeps his focus on the behavior of the believer. Words, like concepts and lives, can be redeemed if we have the humility, strength and courage to demonstrate the gospel. While the world applauds those who exemplify the approved morality of the day, the believer is called to demonstrate godliness as a means of life before the God who is revealed in the gospel. Such lives show the true meaning of holiness in a world filled with hallow parodies.

Furthermore, it is important that we recognize that there is a season for every activity under heaven in this context. The voice of the pastor is not ignorant to the reality of suffering and martyrdom that so often comes as a result of this clash of cultures – his world had its fair share of dangers the he could not ignore such a possibility. But here he speaks of living peaceful and quiet lives, which is a powerful message for the riots in Ephesus that had accompanied the gospel's work in the community. At this moment it was time for those who were expecting the church community to be a difficult group to get along with to be met with the love and grace and peace of a gospel of life.

Societies will have their own popular barometer of what is right and wrong, which comes along with a set of ethics that will hand out its own merit badges of self-righteousness. Along with this are the alternate definitions of words, phrases and concepts. This does not change the truth of the gospel, nor does it derail its mission. But it sets its work into a context that must be recognized, lest having found the words of eternal life lack the ability to point anyone to them. The strange and dark days that presently fill our culture are not too far from those things that made Hellenistic Ephesus what it was. If we can still hear the voice of the pastor, we might find that a more dedicated lifestyle to the true meaning of what truly represents godliness might be more powerful than all of the debates and riots we could ever initiate.

13 July 2015

on that which is natural

Over the course of the last ten years or so, I have come to think that one of the major problems with modern Christian theology is that we lack in our understanding of creation. For many, especially American evangelicals, the opening chapters of Genesis are intended to show little more (perhaps no more) than a proof that God made this world and did not rely on evolution. But that is not only a wholesale misrepresentation of the text as it stands, it fails to open up the message to the depth of understanding of God's creation. In short reminder: creation is not a scientific proposition, it is a theological statement.

Goldingay asserts, "'The beginning' of Israel's story was not David, or Joshua, or Moses, or Abraham (or Jesus), but creation" (Israel's Gospel, 76). The Jewish scripture demonstrate this high view of creation, a developed understanding that permeates their entire understanding of the world and its Creator God. This will be the basis for understanding the idea of covenant, for it is God's act as Creator which gives him ownership and right over the cosmos – he is the one who has ordered it and shaped it to operate by his will. "The foundations of Judah's life have collapsed, but each day people still see day and night alternating, and this actually provides a basis for believing that the foundations of their life remain intact. Things are still the way they were at the beginning" (Israel's Gospel, 92, emphasis mine).

Within this framework of understanding the fuller theology of creation is presented. The theological statement of God's activity in creation is seen in the purpose that is infused with his work. Walton points to the notion of God giving functionality to the world (Lost World, 47–71), and voices such as Fretheim unpack the relational quality of the creation narrative (God and World, 29–68). These, amidst other perspectives that could be listed here, serve to demonstrate the richness of God's character in creation. This is the story about the one Creator God establishing his one created universe – the specifics of how he accomplishes this are not drawn out in this text, the account of Genesis is unconcerned with such questions as our modern minds wish to impose.

The world which God makes is declared good, once he has set it in its proper place and motion. The final piece of this is the creation of humanity, where God first sees its incompleteness and remedies the situation in the creation of both woman and man. "In underlying structure and fleshly covering, man and woman are the same" (Israel's Gospel, 107). That is to say, there is commonality in humanity that bears the image of God, and this is what Adam recognizes in the woman, even as he recognizes that she is also different from him. In the singular universe that God has made, the world that has been brought forth, it is the complimentary nature of creation that makes a complete whole. It is, as The Bishop will often remind us, that "heaven and earth were never intended to be far apart" – indeed, they are to overlap one another in God's design.

A day is made complete by both light and darkness, the earth by both land and water. Humanity is completed in that there is both man and woman, instinctively drawn together by divine design and intention. This is the embedded story of creation, and it underlies the story of Israel from beginning to end, with the culmination of God's work to be the restoration of heaven and earth the way he intended it to be.

So when we reference Paul's words on the exchanging of natural relations for unnatural ones (Romans 1:28), there is more at stake than simple cultural engagement. He makes reference to the deeply embedded theology that reflects the Creator's intention for the universe. Paul speaks of the 'mystery' of this union – man and woman as reflective of Christ and the church – because it is a reflection of the way God made the world (Ephesians 5).

It is important that we keep in mind that Paul was not a modern American speaking to modern Americans. His world was different than ours – sometimes dramatically, other times overlapping, but all in its own context that ought not be ignored. The attempts by some to reread his language fall short because of the larger narrative from which he speaks. Some will suggest that Paul's language of natural relations is referring to the freedom to live out the desires that have been placed within the individual – 'natural heterosexuality' in contrast to 'natural homosexuality,' and the two should not be confused. Such a reading tries to read Paul through the lens of postmodern politically-corrected speech, but fails to understand Paul's theology. He speaks from the grand narrative that began with creation, to which the Creator will bring to its rightful fulfillment – a world that exists naturally according to its intended creation. In short, Paul is not talking genetically, but ethically and theologically.

Paul's context was made up of many overt sexual images and practices – such was the life of ancient Greece and Rome. It was prevalent and inescapable, and undoubtedly found itself coming through the doors of the church. The early believers thought this was a good thing, however, because they knew that whatever was dragged into the community of faith could be met with the overwhelming love of God through Christ Jesus. The alternative was disaster – the kind that could be described as the wrath of God being experienced upon a culture that had so distorted those things natural and unnatural – and this went far beyond the singular issue of homosexuality.

Missing a right understanding of God's creation has brought about a society in which all sorts of ungodly behavior occurs, according to Paul. Removing the important foundation of creation has dramatic effects, for both church and culture. Perhaps evangelicalism's apparent obsession with pseudo-scientific discussions about evolution have made its own contribution to the lack of understanding of what is natural in our world today. The church has forgotten to tell the gospel that begins with creation and culminates with a renewed heaven and earth being restored at long last. It is a story that gives us the foundation for what is natural and unnatural – right and wrong. For we must remember that everything that we do against the natural ordering of God's creation will be judged and made right as he makes his restored creation a reality.

The people of God fail to be ministers of the gospel if we do not explain God's grand narrative and design, for we allow the world to continue on a path which has been given dire warnings. This is why Paul's language can be so difficult for our ears to hear – these are words that we have been told by our culture are not 'loving' and caring and graceful. In reality they are loving, for in the story to which he invites all humanity, regardless of their struggles, shortcomings, or sins, it is God's story of creation which begins to explain what a life more abundant – a life of blessing – truly is.

03 July 2015

an oppressed majority?

On the eve of the two-hundred-thirty-ninth anniversary of the Declaration that this People would be free from the bonds of tyranny, this great nation under God finds itself more inwardly divided than when it stood at war with itself. It has also become apparent that this country has now been brought to its knees, though not for the first time in our history. I speak not only of the rulings of courts, but of the general tenor that has risen up from within – the aggression that sees not brother and sister in Liberty, but rather malice and suspicion against neighbor. If we were to fight for our independence today we certainly would break apart without the common bonds of unity in cause or creed.

Even more troubling than this current fracturing of our nation is that we are indeed presently engaged in a battle for our freedom from tyranny. And, because we are either unwilling to see it or take up liberty's cause,  we are losing the sacred values that once made this People strong. It is not God Bless America because he deems us more worthy, or that we are exclusive to the rest of the world. His presence has been with us insofar as we commit ourselves to his way, thus securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

What happened one week ago is a disgrace to the foundation of this great nation, and to the Divine Presence from whose Word this country has been forged. The genius which sought to give a balance-of-power has been disregarded, and not even the law of the land holds power to stop tyranny's march. Today there is a ruling class – the type of society which the Framers wanted to guard against. And the voice of the People has been declared irrelevant, along with the values to which they hold.

I do not wish to presently discuss the moral issues of healthcare or homosexuality. I readily acknowledge that there are many firm beliefs in this area, and we could go to great lengths to list out all of the nuance of society's handling of such issues. Suffice it to say, over 50 million of our fellow country men and women have stood firm on the conviction that same-sex marriage is unacceptable, and that five individuals have thrusted the scales in a different direction. This course of action has done much more than allow for the civil recognition of homosexual relationships. We are now seeing this put forward as a civil right, one that will quickly impede on religious liberty and free speech.

There will be much to say about this in the coming weeks and months – at least, before the window of such public discourse is all-but-silenced by the tyrannical force that now threatens our nation's Freedom. In the last few days, however, I have not been able to shake off that one statistical fact – 50 million overrun by five. The Constitutional discussion has its own fight here, but my perspective considers the morality. Although we stand on the brink of no uncertain national disaster, it is imperative that we remember the 50 million who stand together against the 'new morality' that is being thrown at this nation. Perhaps the fight is not as lost as we are being led to believe.

It seems to be in the best interest of tyranny that the People think that their cause is lost – this is the fastest course to securing its own power. The end achievement is to have, even in a Republic, an oppressed majority that must conform to the demands of the few elites. When we consider what has been placed upon our nation these last years – especially these last few days – it is quite clear that such is destination of our current path. The looming question is whether there will be men and women who will forge together bonds of faith and fellowship in order to overcome the villainy that threatens this great land of liberty.

And this is a markedly Christian issue, not for the sake of keeping open the paths of least resistance and persecution, but for the cause of freedom that is sought on every page of our written Word. The Creator's Spirit is one of life and liberty, and indwells his own for the purposes of freedom – a forecast of heaven for those of us who presently reside on earth. Throughout the ages such freedom has been the cause of God's people, and we now stand as the first generation to willingly surrender our freedom while still struggling for faith.

This is not a call to arms, for there are much better ways to achieve the Creator's intended design for a free people. But it is a call to faith – the kind of faith that is made manifest in works of the gospel, the life-giving good news that comes from the Almighty. If we cannot see today, then we will have nothing more but to mourn what once was known as liberty.

08 June 2015

continue in him 2

In the seven oracles given in Revelation 2–3, mention is made of the Nicolaitans. This group had been a factor in the Ephesian community (2:6), though not much is known about them. So it is difficult to assess what sort of challenge the Nicolaitans presented to the church, but the Ephesians are commended for deeming such theology and practice as false. The name Nicolaitan means something along the lines of "conquered the people," and Bauckham has wondered if this isn't a statement about those who would follow the ways of conquering, in the same manner as the Beast in later Revelation.*

If this is the case, then Bauckham further gives us insight in to the name Nicolaitan being connected to Balaam and Jezebel, both also mentioned in the seven messages to the churches. This gives us some better footing on which to understand the influence of the Nicolaitans, and the challenge they presented to the Ephesians.

Acclimating the Gospel

In the seven messages to the churches in Revelation we are hearing the words of Christ. He speaks as one who walks among the lampstands, which represent each of the congregation (2:1). Thus, he has intimate knowledge of these churches, and is close in their struggles. When he offers his commendation and criticism he does so from within the situation, not as a far-off bystander. It is common for scholarship to speak about John's polemic here, but he is seer who simply writes what he sees and hears – it is the risen Christ who evaluates his church, a point that many historians will not likely accept. We can be certain that John does not approve of the Nicolaitans, but his position is formed by the powerful presence of Jesus before him.

Clearly, the Nicolaitans were advocating a way that was contrary to the gospel that was first brought to Ephesus under apostolic authority. On the surface we see a conflict arising from food sacrificed to idols, and idolatry itself. For the modern world these appear as foreign practices on many levels, although beneath the surface there is a great theological battle being waged. The Ephesians were inundated with pagan religion; the presence of idols and their sacrifices was a constant presence in Ephesus. This was a very real and present danger for those cities in the Roman Empire, and Ephesus was the third largest in this dominant civilization.

The Nicolaitans advocated for more openness and accommodation to the larger culture, believing that there was a less-rigid way of being a people in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world than had previously taught by the apostles. They thought that culture could be experience without surrendering one's theological commitment to the Christian message, and that the more mature believer was equipped to navigate the more mature aspects of society. Advanced spirituality meant an increased participation in the life of the city would not contaminate the truly committed heart. (While we are mentioning it, it is probably safe to say that this was an ancient voice that would have denied the existence of a 'slippery slope,' if the phrase had been around.)

The Nicolaitans were probably attractive to many because they appeared to have mastered the art of faith and civic life, and they didn't suffer as much persecution as a result. On a very important level, they were chameleons in the city – Christians who did not awkwardly stand out in a crowd, even if they were supposed to be.

Our present culture might not struggle with what to do with food sacrificed to idols, but when it comes to adapting our Christian spirituality to the wider culture we have proven ourselves to be masters of the art. The common evangelical in America can go through every aspect of life without raising an eyebrow, perhaps even achieving such blended spirituality as to never give the world any reason whatsoever to think about gospel in the same breath as the individual.

What is worse, we have churches and leaders who advocate this interaction – even celebrate our assimilation into the pagan culture. This is done under the guise of Christian freedom, but is nothing more than adolescent faith masquerading as something advanced – the foolish being used to appear as wise. The church is being made to accommodate culture, a practice that, whenever God's people are guilty, is referred to as spiritual whoredom. So it is no surprise that the evaluation of the risen Christ here is that he "hates" the practices of these Nicolaitans – those who would act as conquerers in the manner of the Beast, as opposed to being victorious in the Lamb.

The Ephesian church is here commended for evaluating the teaching of the Nicolaitans and rejecting them. They do well in this part of their faith, though they still fall short. It appears that maybe the Nicolaitans might have had a different effect than they intended, for they were able to take the Ephesian church off their game. For while this congregation had won a theological battle, they are still summoned to get back to their first love by working out their faith as they had when they first believed. So, theirs is a matter of practice driven by theology. Now that they had their theological understanding of how to live, their summons was to indeed live as the church in the midst of the great city of Ephesus. As John writes these words he can envision the hard work that lay before the church, who could hear the Spirit and become victors in the kingdom of God.

*Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 127.
**For this series, see the detailed study: Paul Trebilco, The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).