Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

Light of the World… Used to Kill People

January 20th, 2010 1 comment

There is outrage in this country, but I fear it for the wrong reason.

A story just broke this week which revealed the weapons company Trijicon has been branding their military rifle scopes with Bible verses.  I have included one such example below.  The ACOG4X32 model number ends with "JN8:12" – a reference to verse 8:12 in the New Testament Gospel of John.  The fear is that this constitutes "proselytizing" and thus is outside the regulations.  People have been outraged that such blatant Christian influence was allowed to find its place in our military.


Oh believe me I am upset by this, but not for the same reasons the ACLU is upset.  It is more likely someone will convert to being a fan of Nashville Hockey by flying an unmanned drone than it is someone will become a Christian after using these sights.  What is frustrating to me is how offensive this juxtaposition of worldviews is.  In John 8: 12 Jesus says:

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.

That is written on the side of a device used so you can see people more clearly so that you can kill them.  Does anyone else see how screwed up that was?

The entire life, death and resurrection of Jesus points to a life of non-violence and sacrificial subversion.  Jesus embodies love, grace and mercy, yet his words are used to brand an instrument of war and destruction.

We might as well name our next warship the USS Martin Luther King Jr. or put a picture of Ghandi on our nuclear weapons.  I am not worried Muslims will be offended by this verse on the side of a rifle scope.  I fear they will be upset when we use this rifle scope to kill them

I guess I must admit that I do fear proselytizing, but not in the way many have expressed.  I am not worried about people sharing their faith in Christianity through verses written on a scope.  I fear people will continue to be converted to this false gospel that the way of Jesus is one of force and privilege.  I fear people will convert to seeing an American Jesus and ignore his radical message of peace, love and non-violence even in the face of oppression and persecution.

Trijicon messed up when they put this verse on their product.  Not because it broke military regulations, but because they have grossly misrepresented the savior they have claimed to serve.


December 25th, 2009 No comments

Christmas is about incarnation.

In the history of creation, there is not a more significant event than when YHWH is incarnated among his people in the form of a helpless baby in the manger.  Love comes near.  Presence is the linchpin to redemption.  The restoration of humanity comes when God takes his place in the nitty-grittyness of daily life.

God is found not in the temple, or in the mighty cosmos, but in the sweaty stinky filth of a manger.  A perfect blend of sacred and secular.  It is through the ordinary and the forgotten that salvation finally comes.  The path is ignoble and not paved in gold.  Those first reached are not the holy, but the mundane.

This is the mode of operation YHWH chooses to use.  The incarnation points to the God we serve.  It calls us to a way of living and loving in its simple form.  Even now God uses a fallen people to be his agents of redemption.  The mission of the church is reflected in this: incarnation.  God is found in and among his people as they are found among the poor and marginalized.  Presence.

Evil in conquered and hope is restored through the weakness of a infant born to teenage peasants in a world of oppression.


What is an evangelist?

October 15th, 2009 No comments

Don’t you hate it when a good word gets so loaded with baggage as to render it unhelpful.  My friend Terry is like this with the word soviets, which refer to small local governing bodies which care for themselves (like sustainable communities); you can’t really refer to soviets without spending a few minutes explaining the idea first.

I feel the same way with words like evangelical/evangelist/evangelism/etc.  These words are based on the greek word euaggelion which literally means “good news.”  In the contemporary American context we have narrowly defined this concept so that it describes “sharing your faith” or something similar. An Evangelist is someone who preaches about sin and salvation and evangelism means you invite someone to accept Jesus as their savior.

The problem with these narrow definitions is that they ignore the breadth of what the Good News (of the Kingdom of God) really encompasses.  The good news is not just about being forgiven of your sins so that you can go to heaven.  Instead, the good news is that complete redemption and restoration that has been initiated and one day will full come.  Through Christ:

  • Our relationship with creation, humanity, ourselves, and our God will be restored.
  • A corrupt earth will be redeemed and set right.
  • Pain and sorrow and death will be wiped away.
  • The poor will eat, the blind will see, the lame will walk, and the prisoners will be set free.
  • Those on the outside will invited in.

And that is just the start of it.  The Good News is holistic and encompasses all things being set right.  Our sin being forgiven so we can go heaven is just one small part of it.  How many tracts have you seen that take all this into consideration?

What bothers me more than the truncation of the concept is the understanding that the Good News is all about a message.  Even if you preach a holistic understanding of the gospel (which by the way is how euaggelion is most often translated) but consider it only a message, then you are missing the point entirely.

The Good News is about embodiment.  It is about being caught up in the story.  It is about being transformed, but also about being an agent of transformation.

Just consider these passages from the ministry of Jesus:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.  News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. ~Matthew 4:23-24

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. ~Matthew 9:35-36

You see, the proclamation of the Good News is followed by, and confirmed with, the demonstration of Good News.

This brings me back to my original point about words that have lost their full meaning because of baggage.  We should not understand evangelists as simply those who proclaim the good news, but rather, an evangelist should be one who practices the good news as well.

I would be a lot more willing to openly declare myself an evangelical if people understood the entirety of what that word means.  Likewise, I wish when people think of evangelists they didn’t stop with the great proclaimers like Billy Graham, but would also include the great practitioners like Martin Luther King Jr.

The Gospel only make sense when the message is lived out and demonstrated by those who have been transformed by it.

The Fuzzy Math of Penal Substitution

September 21st, 2009 15 comments

One of the hallmarks of evangelical theology is the concept of penal substitution.  Basically this is a form of substitutionary atonement theory which states Jesus died on the cross in place of sinners in order to satisfy the penalty of their sin.  In other words, the death of Christ is substituted for the punishment sinners should receive (which is generally understood to be “death” and separation from God.)  Christ takes our punishment so we can be forgiven.  When you hear a pastor say “Christ died for my/your sins” what you are hearing is an articulation of substitutionary atonement.

Crucifixion, D. Velázque, 17th c.

Crucifixion, D. Velázque, 17th c.

This idea of atonement has origins going back to the early church fathers, but its formal outline is generally attributed to the 11th century monk Anselm of Canterbury who preferred to talk of “satisfaction” rather than of “substitution”  (Christ’s death was a satisfactory sacrifice for our sins rather than a substitution for the penalties of our sins).  It was further developed and brought to wide spread acceptance by John Calvin and the reformers.  It should be noted that while penal substitution is certainly favored by evangelical (especially reformed) Christians/churches/theologians, it is not the only theory of atonement. Two of the other major atonement theories are: Moral influence (Christ’s death show perfect obedience and love), and Ransom / Christus Victor (Christ was the ransom for humanity’s debt to Satan.)   Other theories often combine / tweak concepts found in these approaches.

Penal substitution is based on a few premises.

  • God requires punishment for our sins to be forgiven.  (If you go with Anselm’s satisfaction concept, you would say God requires sacrifice for our sins to be forgiven).
  • The death of Christ covers the punishment / sacrifice for all sinners.

It is with this second point that things get tricky.  First, we must ask, “who is covered by this.”  Those in the reformed camp will say it is only for the elect — that is, those whom God has predestined to be saved.  Those in the free will camp will say it available for all, but only effective for those who trust in Jesus.  Finally, those in the universalist camp will say all people are covered regardless of status.   When we begin to ask who is covered by the sacrificial act of the cross, we begin to get into the fuzzy math of substitutionary atonement theory.

This leads me to a question I have pondered for years and have yet to hear a satisfactory answer:

How can the death of one person be the acceptable substitute for the sins of all humanity?

Let’s walk through the court room imagery upon which this theory is based.  So I die and stand before my creator.  God says to me, “It looks like you have sinned and thus you must be punished.”  At that point Jesus comes in and says, “I don’t want him to be punished, since I have lived a sinless life, let me stand in his place.”  Jesus is then led to the cross and crucified.

Okay, that works out great, until the next sinner comes before the throne of judgment.  Presumably Jesus is allowed to stand in my place because he lived a sin free life and is the only person in the history of the world who does not deserve punishment / judgment for sin.  His life for mine – its a fair trade.  But now that Jesus’ perfect life has been traded for my life, what is left to be traded (substituted)?

The problems don’t stop there.  If we are truly talking about the substitution of a penalty, we must examine the trade closer.   In the way this theory is generally taught, we avoid damnation (judgment) because Christ voluntarily died on the cross.  But, we must admit this is not a fair trade.  Christ experienced physical death that lasted 3 days.  Sinners on the other hand would experience eternal damnation (in addition to physical death) if it was not for the work of Christ.  Again… this does not seem to be a fair trade.

So at the end of the day, the equation looks like this:

3 Days of physical death by sinless man = eternal damnation for countless people and their lifetimes of sin

I am sorry, but that math just doesn’t work out.

The books are obviously being cooked in some way.  I have heard people claim that this equation still works because it was not just a man who died, but it was God himself.  That seems logical, but then at the end of the day we still run into problems.  How can it be a trade if God in fact did not die and did not experience damnation.  The need for judgment still has not been satisfied.  And, if we assume that this equation meets God’s standards so God can still be just, we must ask why it had to happen at all.  If God can determine what meets the standards of a fair trade, it can be assumed that he could also waive the need for a penalty.

Now lets get back to another question: who is covered by this act?  Even if somehow the math works out, and the death of one god-man can cover infinite sinful lives, then why wouldn’t this lead to universal salvation?  Why must people individually accept this sacrifice?  If it has the power to cover the sins of all, then why would it not be extended to all, especially if we believe God desires none to perish. (There are certainly some people who think that God does in fact desire some to perish, but that is an entirely different conversation into the nature of a loving God.)

The problem is not alleviated if you take Anselm’s view of satisfaction over substitution.  It does answer a few more questions because the Old Testament does teach of a sacrafice that covers an entire group of people (i.e. on the Day of Atonement)  but at the end of the day you run into the same problems concerning who is covered by this act (along with some new problems: Does God allow for, and indeed propagate, human sacrifice?).

I will be the first to admit, these are not easy questions and I do not profess to have the answers.  The things we are dealing with here are of the utmost theological importance.  We are talking about the very nature of Christ, his mission, and its effect on our relationship with God.  When we talk about atonement, we are talking about how God interacts with and responds to humanity and vice versa.  This is no minor matter.

But at the same time, I fear we have all to often assumed the only orthodox understanding of atonement is that of penal substitution without first examining the workings of such a theory.  Its not that I reject this approach, its that I don’t understand it.  This post is a sincere effort to work through my questions and I invite all my friends who take this approach to help me understand it.


10 Books

July 21st, 2009 No comments

Beth and I have taken a short break from our 10 top 10 lists in order to spend some time with family.  Today we are on list #6, which looks at the most influential books for us.  Many of the concepts raised in these books will be revisited with our final blog post, which will examine the 10 ideas that define us as people.  I have listed them in a way that illustrates how each builds on the others.

  1. Is there a text in this class?, Stanley Fish – This book examines the nature of truth as it relates to the authority of texts.  As you will see, many of the books that follow rely on an interpretation of scripture to direct a community to action.  Fish provides a framework for understanding how interpretive communities shape truth.
  2. Nature of Doctrine, George Lindbeck – Whereas Fish looks as the authority of texts, Lindbeck looks at the nature of religion to determine how they practically function.  It is his conclusion that religion is like language and culture in that it explains the world around us, but it also helps us experience it.
  3. Life in Biblical Israel, Philip King and Lawrence Stager – Once we have discussed the role of community, religions and texts, it is essentially we understand the communities of Scripture if we are going to allow it to shape our lives.  This book is approachable and practical as it outlines the world from which the Old Testament was born.  Concepts such as kinsman redeemer and house of the father unlock amazing depth in the Hebrew Scriptures.
  4. New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright – No other theologian / historian has shaped my understanding of Scripture more than N.T. Wright.  He does an excellent job of allowing the historical setting to inform a reader’s understanding of Scripture.  He is a prolific writer, but this book in particular has been instrumental in shaping my understanding of the world of the New Testament.
  5. Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann – Once the world of scripture is established, we must understand how that affects the modern people of God.  Brueggemann (my favorite OT scholar) outlines the role of the prophet in projecting a world in line with God’s will.  Sometimes it requires critisizing an existing establishment, and at other times it requires energizing a new possibility.  I always try to keep both of these sides in tension in my own life.
  6. Challenge of Jesus, N.T. Wright – Whereas Brueggemann outlines the implications of the OT prophet, in this book Wright outlines the implications of the person of Jesus.  By showing Jesus in his historical context he allows the reader to grasp the importance of the Messiah beyond simply “personal salvation.”
  7. Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas – After understanding the role community plays in shaping an understanding of truth, and then exploring the implications of the communities of scripture, Hauerwas explores what it means for Christians today to live as a community wherein we are in the world but not a part of it — living in a colony of hope.
  8. The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder – I have already confessed that deep down I am a Mennonite.  I have the utmost respect for people who are consistent in their views of the world, and practical in their faith.  This book captures Yoder’s approach to understanding Christianity by outlining a way of life that the modern people of God can follow that is consistent with the person of Jesus.
  9. Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis – Moving away abstract and into the practical aspect of being a Christian, I most often turn to the tested words of Thomas à Kempis.  This is one of the most read texts of all time.  Since we are talking about books today, I will include this quote from him: “At the Day of Judgment, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done.”
  10. Walden, Henry David Thoreau – I end with the timeless work of Henry David Thoreau.  While his existentialist thought may seem out of line in light of the previous 9 pieces, for me it is the culmination of the list because in the pages of this book I have always found the honesty and connectedness to the world that is necessary to live daily.  It was Thoreau who said “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and it is he who provides the most poignant commentary on my life as I flip through the pages of his works.

10 People

July 15th, 2009 No comments

We continue with day 2 of our 10 lists on 10 days.  Today, Beth and I have listed the 10 people we would most like to sit and have coffee with.  Of course the consumption of coffee is optional — surely it would make more sense to share a beer with a few of these folks, and others, I would rather talk with as we hiked through nature.  As always, these are in no particular order.

  1. Martin Luther King Jr. — Surely no surprise here.  After all, my daughter Mikayla Lillian is named after this civil rights leader.  King is best known for his role in fighting for equal rights for minorities.  However, he was also a passionate pacifist.  He was as opposed to the Vietnam War as he was Jim Crow laws.  I would want to share a drink with him to ask him what issues he saw as most pressing?  Would he concentration on gay rights?  Would he address war and torture?  Would he shift his attention to international issues?For me, MLK embodies the concept of the prophetic imagination (a concept we will explore in a later list).  I still cannot hear his I Have a Dream speech without tearing up.
  2. Desmond Tutu – Since we are talking about baby names, I must mention Desmond Tutu.  If our firstborn had been a male, I was advocating for the name Desmond.  Originally we were going to go with Douglas (my middle name), but I realized I would prefer my child to emulate him than me.  Tutu was instrumental in ending apartheid and symbolizes for me how a pastor can lead social change in the name of Christ.  His work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is awe-inspiring.  I want to know from him, how we can apply these concepts to our daily societal fissures.
  3. Bono – I wouldn’t have a string of questions for the lead singer of U2 like I would with many of the others, but in terms of having a good time, hanging out, discussing the ebbs and flows of life, I would think Bono would be the man.  Plus, his lyrics are so deep and harmonize the secular and the sacred.
  4. Peter Abelard – Perhaps the most obscure on my list.  Abelard was a tormented theologians in the 12th century (read about him here).  Theologically he is best known for going toe to toe with Anselm over atonement theory.  Abelard advocated for a Moral influence understanding over a substitutionary understanding.  He was quite eccentric and misunderstood.  Here is a paper I have written on him.
  5. Henry David Thoreau – I love his unfiltered commentary on life and society.  In addition to his emphasis on self reflection and the awe of creation, he is always honest with his understanding of faith.  I also have been influenced by his thoughts on civil disobedience.
  6. Stephen Hawkins – I have been fascinated by theoretical physics since I was in Middle School.  It is only a short jump from physics to philosophy and then to theology.  Hawkins not only provides an entryway into this crazy world, but the way he has approached life’s struggles epitomizes focus and direction.  As you will see in susequent posts, I am convinced quantum physics provides insights into truth.  Here is an approachable clip that will force you to reexamine your understanding of the world.  (Not Hawkins, but he works in the same areas.)
  7. John Howard Yoder – deep down I am a Mennonite, I just have not admitted it yet (well except to Brett).  I have learned more from other theologians, but I have yet to find a person who such consistency in their life, faith, theology and philosophy.  Politics of Jesus should be required reading for… well… everyone.
  8. N.T. Wright – There is not a simple person who has been more influencial in shaping my theology and understanding of the world and scripture than Bishop N.T. Wright.  I have listened to so many of his lectures I can hear him speak when I read his books.  I find so many of the concepts I regularly explain and rely on come from Wright.  I doubt I could keep up with him, but I would love to drink from the fire hydrant of his knowledge.  Plus, he has a that super cool British accent.  Here is a great resource for other lovers of his work.
  9. The Tank Man – Bravery is not something that is planned.  It is not something that is sought out.  It is something that occurs when we stand up for what is just.  I am fascinated by the story of the Tank Man – the young man who stopped a whole line of Chinese tanks through a simply act of resistence.  There are a couple reason he makes my list.  First… I want to know who this person is (to this day, it unknown).  But more importantly, I am drawn to this person because they were able to change the world with simple acts without demanding fame or recognition.
  10. Jesus – rounding out my list is the God-Man Jesus Christ himself.  I almost didn’t list Jesus.  That is not because I don’t think it would make for excellent conversation, or because I don’t have the ultimate respect, love, and devotion to Jesus.  Rather, it is because I realize I am way too like Peter (see below) and rather than sitting down with a whole list of questions, I would love simply follow Jesus as he navigated the world today.