Wednesday, February 24, 2010

reviewing a reviewer

It is perhaps a testimony to my cheapness that I am here commenting on someone's review of a book, rather than reviewing the book myself. The truth is that nothing, not even a morbid sense of curiosity, has yet made a good argument for me to pass over what has to be almost $30 for McLaren's new book. I figure I must have much better ways of wasting my money than to purchase a book that I know is full of egomanical rot.

And, anyway, the review, by one who made not a few rather colorful comments here a few months back, has not a few bits of interest in itself. So saying, tally ho...!

The first thing that I think is important is to remind ourselves that McLaren is not saying anything new or radical here. He’s reminding us of something we need to be reminded of and urging us to conform our lives around right belief, but the meat of his argument is recognized and accepted by most everyone (well, almost). What’s the argument? Bottom line: Plato, a Greek philosopher from the 4th century BCE, looms larger than life in the minds of us Westerners. What did Plato teach nearly 300 years before the advent of Christ? Essentially that the physical, material world is an illusion and that ultimate reality, the things that really matter, are those that are spiritual and non-material. This body we find ourselves in is a prison, more or less, and the goal of human life, the greatest good, is to transcend the ugly, sick, doomed, perishing world of matter. One of the ways we can do that is through philosophy – by studying. The mind is a beautiful thing that operates on ideas and ideals – the best stuff of life.

These sorts of discussions (along with critiques by Aristotle, a student of Plato), was the life-blood of the Greeks and then the Romans. As philosophers abounded and debated the only things that really mattered (recall Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17) the Greek/Roman mind became accustomed to dualism. The mind would always see the world divided in two – the doomed, profane physical world our bodies are trapped in and the sacred, spiritual world of ideals, ideas and eternality (which, by the way, is unchanging. Change, they would argue, is weakness and something only material matter undergoes (e.g. flowers bloom, wither and die)).

From this dualism it is easy to see how a form of elitism would (and did) emerge. The Greeks/Romans saw themselves as superior to every other culture and saw it as their duty to bring the “peace of Rome” to other lands, graciously giving them a culture and knowledge that would help these “barbarians” transcend their dismal existences (One cannot help but overhear mission statements of the church when it comes to world evangelism. “Let’s save the heathens!” was a call to action disguised in racial and intellectual and cultural bigotry). The good life, the Greeks/Romans believed and taught, was one where the physical world was mastered and the spiritual world was preferred and accessed through the mind. Though you may never have heard of Plato there is no mistaking his grip on our minds even today.

I think it is Pagitt who gets into the whole "platonic dualism" thing. My concern here isn't to deny that Plato may have been a dualist, in a sense it's something that doesn't even matter; rather, one must ask why we should assume that Plato is the father and author of all things dualism. Whatever else good or bad we may have gotten from the Greek philosophers, is it accurate to say that all instances of dualism in the Bible are to be blamed on the Greeks?

Now, if you're going to dismiss all dualism as brought in from the outside, you have to do some very interesting things with the Bible. You have to explain why God accepted Abel's sacrifice while rejecting Cain's, especially since we aren't really told why. You have to explain why God put all of the world under judgment, but "Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord". You have to explain why God chose just one man, and not even all of his family, in order to found one people to be His chosen. You have to explain why God loved Jacob, a rather interesting character in his own right, and hated Esau. You have to explain why, out of all of the people in slavery in the world at that time, God sent only one of the them a Moses for them, and Himself worked miracles, many of a destructive sort, in order to deliver them.

And instances of dualisms in the Bible could go on for a long while, with the most important ones being the New Testament--sheep who are welcomed and goats who are cast out, wise virgins who are ready for the bridegroom and foolish ones who are left out, wheat that is kept and weeds that will be burned, the Pharisee whose prayer is self-praise and the publican whose prayer is for mercy. And most important of all, those who have been made Children of God and those who are children of wrath, those who belong to God and those who are still of the world, those who are believers in Christ and those who reject Him.

It is entirely too simple to look at every instance of dualism one can find, and expect that claimings "platonism" is an adequate answer.

Finally, I want to deal with his ridicule of missions at the end of that excerpt. As one who was in missions for a few years, and know people from many different countries and cultures who have been in missions in order to take the Gospel to people, I can only find this writer's words distasteful and disgusting. But having read the words of Emergents no small amount over the past few years, I can think of nothing more incongruous, nothing Emergents would find more distasteful themselves, than the notion of Christian missionaries trying to convert people from their false beliefs to believing in the true and living God. As one writer I recently read noted, there is nothing in Emergent theology worth giving one's life for, worth dying for, worth suffering persecution and martydom for. I would almost say that the whole point of Emergent thought is to avoid the painful necessities that make for persecutions and martyrdoms.

It would, I think, but most accurate to say that, if Jesus had been Emergent, He would not have died like He did. More likely, he would have been some kind of cultic quack who had a few followers, maybe caused a tad bit of trouble, but on the whole could be ignored.

And concerning missions, what message could an Emergent missionary give? "I'm ok, you're ok, let me go pray to Allah with you, and don't buy that car because you'll only be increasing global warming"? "I'm not concerned with you becoming a believer in Christ, I just want you to join my simply-living commune and eat nuts and berries the rest of your life"? "Yes, you live under an oppressive Communistic government that tries to keep Christianity from you, but you have to understand, we're leftists, too, and your place is actually much better than those freedom-loving, car-driving, oil-burning, meat-eating, Capitalistic countries in the West."?

Is it just a coincidence that the dominant story line we find in the Church today is one where God is furious with the created realm, places higher value on right thinking and belief over right action and living (we are saved, so the story goes, by getting our thinking right about God, irrespective of whether or not our physical lives change), where sharing the gospel is reduced to ideas and mental consent, where sharing the gospel in that way is more important than sharing a glass of water or a meal or a home, and where this world, in the end, will be vacated by a rapture and destroyed by fire while those of us with enlightened minds watch from the spiritual, pure, changeless heavens above.

Is this how Jesus would have read the Bible or how Plato would have read it?

Well, let's see...

We know a bit about how Jesus read the Scriptures of His day, because we have recorded instances of Him using them. He referenced the account of Noah in a way that suggests that He considered it to have really happened. He used Deuteronomy to answer Satan's temptations. He talked about Abraham as if he not only lived, but was still alive and even aware when Jesus came to Earth and was happy when He did. He even answers the Sadducees, who denied life after death, but pointing out that God was still the God of the Fathers because they still lived.

But he likely doesn't want to think that Jesus took the story of Noah seriously. How unscientific of Jesus!!

The question of how Jesus would read the Scriptures, then, depends on if they teach the things the writer lists. Is God furious with the created realm? Not sure where he got that, but there are reasons in the Bible to think that God is angry with the unrepentent-- "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness" Romans 1:18; "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him" John 3:36 "Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the might and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?" Revelation 6:15-17

Are right beliefs and thinking more important than right actions and living? Well, let me put it this way--how can you know what are the right actions and the right way to live if you do not have right beliefs and are not thinking right? The fact is, right beliefs and thinking are the things the help us determine right actions and right ways to live. As Christians, we are saved by grace through faith, not by works. We are saved by repenting and believing in Christ, a belief that must mean some measure of right beliefs about Him. But we are saved to do good works, and our works show our faith. But the right beliefs come before the good works.

And the idea that Christians who truly believe do not share with others is simply abject nonsense on this writer's part, a baseless accusation that is refuted a million times over by believers who share what they have with those around them, and give even when it strung a little. It is the sign of a bad argument when it has to tastelessly accuse Christians (I won't say "fellow Christians" because one making such an accusation needs to show something to even be considered worthy of that noble title) of what they do not do.

Finally, the rapture and the end of the world. I'm not sure how one cannot say that the world will one day end, given that the Bible is clear that "By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungoldy men", II Peter 3:7, and "...The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the everything in it will be laid bare", II Peter 3:10.

Whether Heaven will be "changeless" or not, or whatever that may mean, is something that cannot be known except by being there.

The God of Israel, Elohim, looks very different from the god we Greeks/Romans have made. Elohim delights in his creation, is perfectly happy with change (even instigating it!), is forgiving and full of mercy to a fault and his punishments are not to destroy or inflict eternal misery but to correct, discipline, encourage and redeem. This is a God who looks a lot more like Abba (Daddy!) than the Greco/Roman god we descendants of Plato created.

Some of this may be biblically obvious, but others are puzzling. The God of Israel doesn't punish to destroy? Perhaps Achan and his family could say otherwise, or the ones who stood up against Moses and God opened the ground to swallow them. Or how about those who occupied Canaan before God sent Israel to claim it for themselves. Even Israel could testify against that, for they no doubt remember the times God sent the armies of Babylon and then Rome to destroy the city of Jerusalem and the Temple.

we have stolen Elohim from the Jews and turned him into Theos (the greek name for “God”)

This is one of those things that simply doesn't make sense. We stole Elohim from the Jews? Really? When and were? Does the fact that the Jews of Jesus' day and in the time of the Apostles largely rejected Christ not come into the picture?

But even more puzzling are these last statements.

I once heard Dr. J. Kameron Carter, professor at Duke Divinity, say that we Gentiles are getting the story right only insofar as the Jews who are listening can nod in assent. To put it another way, to the extent the Jews disbelieve our Jesus as the Messiah of the world is the same extent to which we have butchered the story. Given that most Jews doubt our Jesus as Messiah gives me reason to think we need to rethink the narrative we have been telling and living.

This is such an absurd criterion that I doubt he's even thought how it could be implemented. Are we suppose to take a random survey of Jewish people and see what they think of a what the Gospels tell us about Jesus, and the ideas with the most votes are ok? Shall we gather a focus group of Jewish people together and let them discuss Jesus' life? What if they don't agree on things? What if we get several focus groups, and they all have disagreements? What kinds of Jewish persons are acceptable--actively practicing religious Jews, largely secular Jews who don't practice any religion, Messianic Jews who believe in Christ? Are half-Jews ok, or quarter-Jews acceptable?

And the topper, that last sentence. If that were really a sound criterion, we would be left with the conclusion that since most of the Jews of Jesus' own day doubted that He was the Messiah, than He should have rethought the narrative He was telling and living.

But then, what can you expect from a Blue Devil but nonsense.

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