CULTURE

  • WHERE REZA ASLAN’S “ZEALOT” GETS IT WRONG ABOUT THE HISTORICAL JESUS 

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews, Culture

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    As I mentioned weeks back, I finished Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and came to many different conclusions from the book.  Among those is that Aslan overcorrected his fundamentalist upbringing by tossing out the baby with the bathwater.  51lP2ZBJ7hL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

    Aslan forcefully argued for the narrative of Jesus the historical figure transforming into a divine “Christ of faith” through the exploits of Paul and later century figures.  He saw that after the many messianic claims of the early centuries, the belief that Jesus the Nazarene was God is purely wishful thinking from later followers of Jesus.  However, I find his thesis lacking, and let me tell you why.*

    Something Crazy Happened

    Here’s what we know concerning the claims of the New Testament and First Century Palestine:

    • Messiahs were meant to lead military revolutions in First Century Israel.
    • Messiahs and good Jews do not typically claim to be god/God.
    • Jews worship on Saturdays.
    • Women are not reliable legal witnesses.
    • Resurrection of the dead was believed to happen at the end of history.

    Here’s what we know from common sense:

    • Dead men stay dead— this is a fact of nature.
    • If you make something up, at least make the leaders look somewhat intelligent.

    As the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out in Surprised by Hope, something happened that turned Second Temple Judaism on its head.  There was a historical Jesus who had a group of followers and he eventually was crucified for insurrection (claiming to be like God, claiming to be a king).  Instead of disbanding, as so many followers of crucified messiahs did, the disciples started saying he rose from the dead.  They claimed to have seen him as a physical person.  Not only that—women were the first to encounter the empty tomb and connect the dots to a resurrection!

    As alluded to above, if you are going to make something up in the First Century, don’t say women were there first.  Because in the First Century, women were not legal witnesses.  If you made something up, why not show Peter as the smart, faithful one?  Why not tell the great exploits of the early leaders and simply remove the asinine stories that portray the disciples as faithless, prejudiced people?

    The four gospel accounts recorded in the Bible provided differing accounts of the Jesus and are not four similar copies.  Aslan is certainly correct in this.  However, four witnesses will often times provide four different takes on a single event.  The existence of narrative tension does not make the four different accounts false.  It would be less believable and reliable if all four gospels were in unanimity in relaying the history (and theology) of Jesus the Messiah.

    On another point, to be Jewish meant that you worshipped at the Synagogue or Temple on Saturdays.  To move your worship day as a Jew to Sunday is a tremendous move.  Moving days is not just a convenience factor, instead it is a reflection of the culture-shattering resurrection of Jesus.  This is another element to hearing out the argument for a historical resurrection.

    Concerning the resurrection, a lot of Jews at that time believed in the bodily resurrection of the just.  Of course, this resurrection would occur at the end of time, when God intervenes in history.  They did not expect for a resurrection to occur at that particular time.  They certainly did not have a category to affirm a bodily resurrection in the Hellenistic Greek understanding either.  Unless something out of the ordinary happened.  

    James vs Paul?

    Surprisingly, Aslan created a narrative that pitted Paul against James the brother of Jesus and the Jerusalem church.  He suggested that Paul took the teaching of Jesus and perverted them, turning the vast majority of the diaspora (Jews who did not live in Israel) and Gentiles against the traditional Jewish church in Jerusalem.  However, this is grasping at straws, since Paul went throughout the Mediterranean collecting money to financial relieve a Jerusalem church.  He also came under their authority several points in Acts (not to mention his writings are the earliest ones we have).

    It is pretty well known that Martin Luther saw the Book of James as a sketchy book, propping up the false religion of works over faith in God.  Aslan flips Luther’s idea over and suggests that Paul attacked James in his writings.  However, the faith that Paul wrote about is not in opposition to the works that James wrote about.  We are saved for good works, not saved by them or from them.  This was his weakest point, because even a cursory look at how Reformational scholars interpret Paul and James shatter his hypothesis within a few pages.

    If Christ Was Not Raised…

    With all that said, Zealot is a well-researched book that is a very captivating read.  However, this book is done with a motive.  My guess is that Aslan’s work was written as a type of antidote to kids caught up in the subjective fervor of contemporary evangelicalism.  Yet, reading the New Testament with modern eyes is just as pervasive in secular heads as it is in orthodox Christian heads.  I simply do not think you have to separate the Christ of faith from the Christ of history.  Because something happened in the First Century that changed everything.  Something happened that has mystery to it.  Something happened that is not found on a recorded video.

    The Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith are the same person.  Jesus the Messiah changed the cultural script for a conquering messiah and he meant to die a brutal death on the cross.  It was not an accident that he died in his thirties.  This was his mission: to give his life as a ransom so that we can enjoy a life with God both now and forever.

    Maybe the reason why people argued with Jesus and rejected him at that time was because he claimed to be God and claimed to be a messiah who would not overthrow the Romans in a glorious coup d’etat.  Maybe the reason why people rejected him then is the same reason people reject him now: he interrupts our lives and our own preconceived notions of what it means to truly live.

    *I am indebted to the works of the brilliant scholar NT Wright for these arguments, and I commend you to read his material on the Early Church

    Photo: Christ Cleansing the Temple by Bernardino Mei (Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum)

  • THE GOD(S) WE WORSHIP

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Culture

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    1god

    noun \ˈgäd also ˈgȯd\

    1 capitalized :  the supreme or ultimate reality: as

    a :  the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe

    b Christian Science :  the incorporeal divine Principle ruling over all as eternal Spirit :  infinite Mind

    2:  a being or object believed to have more than natural attributes and powers and to require human worship; specifically :  one controlling a particular aspect or part of reality

    3:  a person or thing of supreme value

    4:  a powerful ruler

    Who are your gods?  Can you name them?

    In the Christian tradition, there is one true God whose name was revealed to Moses as YHWH and was personally revealed in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah.  However, the religious marketplace of the Ancient Near East was vibrant, as Baal, Zeus, Aphrodite, and many others vied for attention.  And the Bible captures this quite well, as the stories recount the clash of cults between YHWH and other gods (Elijah and the prophets of Baal is probably the most memorable).

    If I can be so bold to say: in American society, work is a god.  Busy-ness is a god.  Beauty and prestige are gods.

    Throughout the annals of history, the gods of this world competed for our attention with a refrain of constant noise.  In the ancient world, Israel’s God—YHWH—claimed to be the only God among the other false gods.  There simply was no other.

    Today, there aren’t too many idols on desks at work.  Instead, we have idols of a busy calendar, bigger paycheck, better looks, more sex, and a better society.  Productivity, paychecks, taking care of ourselves, and building a more just society are all good things; however, they became nefarious when they become the only thing.  When they become the highest thing and our lives gravitate around the position.

    As I close out this musing for the day, I want to ask you to consider whether a god competes for your attention.  What vies or your focus?  Busy-ness?  Fame?  Wealth?  You?

    What god clamors for your worship?

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  • IN DEFENSE OF FR. JUNIPERO SERRA

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: History

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    In last week’s address to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis brought an eloquent and powerful sermon to the halls of power.  Using four great leaders from American history, the pope reminded the leaders of this nation that we do have great ideals.  As Francis sees it, Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton each embody certain aspects of the American character, and I enjoyed his unpacking of these four ideals.

    In a not so subtle response to criticism over the canonization of Junipero Serra, the founder of the California mission system, the pope stated in his address that we cannot judge the past by the standards of the present.  I simply could not agree with him more and let me tell you why.

    Every person is a mixed bag.

    As a lay theologian, it is important to remember that every person is flawed.  We are sinful, and the pope would be the first to assert this truth (I’ll be the second!).  At the same time, we do have a measure of good in this fallen world, thanks to common grace (which is a Reformed theological concept).  There is good that God blesses society with apart from the salvific work of Christ.  Sin is not fully corrosive in the world, thanks to the restraining grace of God.  However, when it comes to humanity, we are created good but existentially strained from the righteousness of God.

    Serra is a mixed bag, like all people.  He did good things and not so good things.  However, how does he compare with the rest of his contemporaries?  How does other historical figures we admire compare with others of the same time?

    Don’t be a chronological snob.

    C.S. Lewis has a great section in one of his works where he argues that people who stand in the current century and judge the past are guilty of chronological snobbery.  We sit judging other people based on our own “self-evident” truths, when in reality we could very well be just as guilty (or more!!) if we were in their situation.  As a friendly reminder: nobody is perfect (see above).

    It takes a great person to walk away from power, as George Washington did after the American Revolution, and I might not have done the same thing as he did.  Would you have given up all power when it was in your historical right to proclaim yourself as the conquering king?  Yes, he did own slaves, but what about his contemporaries?  Step away form your Twentieth Century world and into his.

    Would you have placed your life on the line over the abolition of slavery?  Would you have walked across the bridge at Selma and confront the ugliness of racism?  Seriously though, think about it.

    Of course I can see the flaws of Lincoln or Calvin or ______, but does that mean I would have done any better in their shoes?  Would you?

    Judge historical characters by their own present.   

    If you want to be a good historian, tell a story.  Get inside of their world and see what the historical figure saw—tell their story first.

    Of course it is impossible to be objective, our own beliefs will always impact our thought process; however, we might learn to see that historical characters have merits and flaws.  Reflecting on the past character by their own present reality will show us something new, and it just might make us more empathetic when it comes to listening to others in our own present.  Maybe through this exercise we can regain the lost art of listening well before offering our own opinion.

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  • IS LOVE THE MOST IMPORTANT THING?

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Bible Talk, Culture, Growth

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    There was a Buzzfeed video circulating around last week featuring millennial Christians explaining what makes a Christian.  While a lot has been said over the feature, the thing that most struck me was the complete lack of explicit Christian theology.  There was no mention of the crucified Christ, the hope in the resurrection, about justification by faith, and our sanctification through the Holy Spirit.  No Trinity, grace, repentance, prayer, or historicity of the faith.

    What was there?  Love.

    There was a lot of love talk; however, it was not a costly love.  It was cheap grace, to borrow from Bonhoeffer.

    What I mean by cheap grace is that it doesn’t cost us anything.  It’s an invitation to tolerance, but not to self-sacrificing love as demonstrated by the Messiah.  It’s not an invitation for others onto the path of following Jesus, which means we have to put our own self-loving idols in the trash heap.  Is it an invitation to perfection?  Absolutely not!  Christians will screw up time and time again, but we follow the one who did not screw up (to quote from the Greek…) and who restores our broken relationships with God and others.

    Jesus calls us to follow him and to carry our cross.  He calls us to discipleship, which is incredibly difficult!  He calls us to deny our desires at times and to come to terms that some of our desires will be unfulfilled this side of the grave.

    But you know what Jesus promises?  It will be worth it.

    It will be worth it, for he calls us to go into battle—even if the battle will be a long struggle.  Paul had a thorn in the flesh that bothered him throughout his ministry and Jesus had an unfulfilled desire to not be crucified.  We too might have a thorn in our side that will never go away.

    The message of the Buzzfeed video was it is necessary to be loved and accepted, instead of it being necessary to follow Jesus in countercultural ways.  Be kind to others, of course!  But be rooted in the particular call of the gospel and the call to a discipleship that is shaped by the cross.

    I am a Christian who does not have it all together, who is flawed, and does not have all the answers.  But I have hope because of the faithfulness of Jesus.  Let’s journey together, looking to the founder and perfecter of our faith.

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  • THE ART OF WORK: A LIFE WELL LIVED

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews

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    Have you noticed there has been a recent influx of “find your calling/passion” sort of books?  Fortunately, I have also found that Jeff Goins is a brilliant voice in the middle of such a crowded field of authors.  Goins’ work came into my life several years back through a little ebook he wrote called “You are a writer, so start acting like one.”  I am happy to say that Goins does not disappoint in his recent book “The Art of Work.”

    Goins attempts to provide a pathway for those seeking what they are meant to do.  For those searching for their calling, he breaks down our trajectory to these major topics:

    Finding our passion through listening to your life_140_245_Book.1544.cover

    Connecting with a teacher through apprenticeships

    Practicing with purpose

    Making intentional decisions through

    Failing well

    Mastering a trade

    What I found refreshing toward the end of his work, was how he summed up his message.  For Goins, art is not the main thing.  Borrowing from Stephen King, life is not a support system for art.  Art comes secondary, art comes through the experience of life.  Our life, in a sense, becomes the magnum opus, and no amount of success is worth losing the ones we love.

    As you continue on your adventure of life, I would recommend that you consider picking up “The Art of Work.”  It is more than the typical “go find your passion” sort of book, instead it is filled with gracious wisdom and encouragement.  Find your passion, of course, but don’t let it consume you.  Live life and realize that your work will never be done.  Ultimately in Jesus, our life’s story will be woven into the tapestry of God’s Kingdom and our work will not be in vain.

    _____

    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255  : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

  • GOD’S DIRTY LAUNDRY: THE SKELETONS IN GOD’S CLOSET

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews

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    Have you ever felt like there were dark stains in the Bible that you were embarrassed about?  In a new book by Joshua Ryan Butler, the Portland-area pastor speaks to three common stereotypes of God in his work “The Skeletons in God’s Closet.”  Tackling the topics of hell, judgment, and holy war, Butler seeks to reframe our understanding of God in a modern world.

    Butler sees these three tough topics differently than many in the more secular areas of the West Coast.  He sees that God has mercy in hell, that judgment is incredibly gracious and just, and that holy war in the Old Testament is actually full of hope.  Butler is up front in his philosophical framework, arguing from a place that God is good—regardless of our understanding.

    What I appreciated about Butler’s works is that he did not shy away from these topics, but instead chose to paint the big caricatures first.  Hell is a torture chamber with people begging to get out, Jesus is over the top in his judgments, and God is too violent (after all he ordered his people into genocide).  He does not diminish objections, but systematically addresses them one by one in a gracious manner.

    Butler does not leave it at diminishing opponents’ arguments though, what he does is so much greater.  He chooses to offer something more productive through the reframing of arguments and constructing alternate narratives about God.  He does take some interpretive license at times, so I would recommend doing your homework as you walk alongside Butler in his arguments.

    For those who might be struggling with the harsher skeletons in the closet, I recommend Butler’s “The Skeletons in God’s Closet” for an open conversation on the dirty laundry of the Christian faith.

    _____

    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  • UNCOVERING GOD’S RHYTHM OF GRACE

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews

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    More.

    It seems as if the fast paced society we dwell in craves more.  More of our time, talent, and treasure.  Kerri Weems stands in the gap and boldly proclaims that we don’t have to buy into the demands of more.  Instead, we need to step into God’s gift of Rhythms of Grace.

    Weems argues that we pace ourselves to the wrong rhythm, the rhythm of more and “mammon.”  The true pacesetter ought to be God and the Shalom he offers.  Shalom, as defined by Weems, is peace and wholeness that comes from walking in the rhythms of God, full of rest and grace.  Shalom does not come from productivity, it’s experiencing more of God’s peace in the midst of all the things we have to do.

    After making her case for Shalom, Sabbath, and Grace, Weems pivots to practical applications of combating pace stealers by guiding her readers to embrace saying yes to their needs (which are really God’s means for sustaining his creation).

    Rhythms of Grace is very approachable and easy to digest.  I especially enjoyed her study questions given in the back of each chapter.  With that being said, this book is clearly geared toward women.  There weren’t too many examples geared toward males, so I would recommend this to my female friends for an engaging devotional read to challenge the underlining cultural narrative or more.

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  • “DAVID LIVINGSTONE, THE ABOLITIONIST, I PRESUME”

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews, History

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    I must confess, the only things I knew about David Livingstone prior to this past month was his quest for the source of the Nile River and the famous line, “Dr Livingstone, I presume.”  I thought Livingstone was a mere explorer and had no idea that his deep faith shaped him in tremendous ways. _140_245_Book.1345.cover

    Jay Milbrandt’s “The Daring Heart of David Livingstone” painted a wonderful picture of this complex man who embodied the spheres of science, exploration, and missionary work so well.  Livingstone was a driven, complex man who was painfully aware of his own deficiencies.  Often times he would not yield to counsel, but instead would press on out of his driven (or perhaps, stubborn) nature.  After initial triumphs, he experienced setback after setback, ultimately dying in the land he loved.  His drive to expose and abolish the East African slave trade ultimately cost him his life and his family.

    One of the major themes that struck me was how Livingstone did not live to see the fruit of his life’s ambition.  He instead died nearly penniless and separated from his family.  He never saw the abolition of the slave trade in East Africa, never discovered the source of the Nile, and had only one convert to his missionary goals.  Like Moses, he never entered into the promised land he so desperately wanted to see.

    Milbrandt’s work was well done and thoroughly researched.  The book was riveting and full of lively descriptions of the expeditions.  Upon closing the biography, I felt like I knew Livingstone better and understood in part the East African slave trade.  I also appreciated how Milbrandt brought out the imperialistic vision of Livingstone and let him argue for this movement, allowing history to be its judge.  Overall, Milbrandt is an excellent biographer.

    If you are into biographies and want to learn about a relatively under-the-radar historical figure, I recommend Jay Milbrandt’s “The Daring Heart of David Livingstone: Exile, African Slavery, and the Publicity Stunt That Saved Millions.”  His narrative style and honest portrayal of a flawed yet heroic man is certainly well worth the read.

    ——

    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <http://booklookbloggers.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  • “LET ME PRAY ABOUT THAT”

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews

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    “Let me pray about that”

    Have you ever said those words to someone?  Have you ever said those words and either forget to pray about what you committed to pray about (No, I have never done that…)?  What about committing to pray for the decision because you actually did not want to commit to volunteering for X or contributing to Y or going to Z.

    Yeah, me neither.   WP

    Odds are, if you have ever been in the Christian context for some time you have used those words as a call to pause.  A call to pause and consider the will of God and the next step of action.  Praying for a lightening bolt to strike and mark the way.  Little do we know that God wants us to stop praying and start doing.

    At least that’s what Greg Darley’s “Waster Prayer” is challenging us to consider.

    Darley is quite clear from the beginning.  This is not a book on salvation, for salvation is a gift from God and can never be earned by us.  This is a book on discipleship and following Jesus our Messiah.  Obedience to Jesus and building for the Kingdom of God necessitates that we stop praying and start doing.

    Praying without ceasing is a very important point to Darley’s argument.  Our lives need to be cultivated in such a way that we are constantly communicating with God and creating a real relationship with him.  We become more focused on our relationship with him instead of fixating on a transaction.

    A powerful argument Darley uses is the stories found in the Bible.  There are so many individuals both within the OT and NT that acted when God called them.  They did not pause to pray for a week, instead they were obedient to God’s call.  They jumped, even when it was scary.  But they jumped out of already having a real relationship with God.

    Sometimes we need the nudge from God and remain faithful to his leading, even when it seems unclear.  Even when it seems risky, sometimes God’s call is one for an adventure that will lead us down precarious situations only to end up right where he wants us to be.  Stop procrastinating by praying.

    Prayer without action is wasted.

    ——

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    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <http://booklookbloggers.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

  • JOY IS THE SERIOUS BUSINESS OF HEAVEN

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Bible Talk, Culture, Theology

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    Confession:  I love heavy dramas.

    I love Breaking Bad and House of Cards.  I enjoy several shows on HBO and also many heavy movies.  It’s not that I don’t like comedies or lighter fare (I really do!), it’s just that I’m Reformed and these shows validate total depravity.

    But I need to laugh.  I need to enjoy the lighter side of life, enjoying fun for fun’s sake, and reveling in the God who is the epitome of joy.  While we have a moral obligation to act happy* for the sake of others, we have a moral obligation to embrace joy and happiness even in the darkness.

    Joy, as CS Lewis once noted, is the serious business of heaven.

    As Christianity Today wrote concerning the ascendency of Jimmy Fallon to The Tonight Show, Fallon brings fun, silliness, and joy to the cynical side of comedy.  Instead of hammering people and laughing at them, Fallon reminds us to laugh at ourselves.  And that is pretty refreshing!

    As the Preacher in Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time for anything and everything.

    There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

        a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,

        a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,

        a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,

        a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

        a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,

        a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,

        a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

    Friends, let’s remember to laugh even if we are serious about total depravity.

    —–

    *see Dennis Prager for more on this.

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