Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Resurrection Misunderstanding

I'll give "The Questioning Christian" credit for being honest. He puts his cards on the table without bluffing:

... I think there are more plausible explanations for the fact that Jesus’ followers found ‘his’ tomb to be empty on the morning after the Sabbath, and that later on some of those followers decided that they had encountered him — as recorded in questionable stories written down decades later in a different language.

Okay, so he wants to be a Christian but he doesn't want to believe that anything "really happened" with respect to Jesus' tomb being found empty or that there's anything grounded in reality when it comes to the eyewitness accounts of seeing Jesus alive again as a flesh-and-bones person after his death by crucifixion.

So why, if someone thinks that the resurrection of Jesus is a "misunderstanding" rather than the central claim of the Christian faith on which everything hinges, should we call ourselves Christians and soldier on for this "misunderstanding" (bearing in mind that predecessors and contemporaries have given their lives for this "misunderstanding") with "ample reason to celebrate Easter." If it's a "misunderstanding," a "mistake" that can be cleared up by other, more sensible, rational and enlightened means, why participate in liturgies that say otherwise? And why would anyone be willing to suffer and die for this claim when, after all, it's a mistake? (If the martyrs had only known the truth, it would have saved them a lot of trouble!)

Here's the rationale for soldiering on offered by "The Questioning Christian":

The Resurrection misunderstanding catalyzed both a belief system and a social organization. For nearly two millennia, that belief system and that organization have provided inspiration and assistance to billions of people in helping with the continuing creation of the universe.
Not all of that assistance and inspiration have been positive by any means. But we do seem to do our best work in that area when we try to follow the Summary of the Law that was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. The Summary’s simple rules of thumb seem to capture something fundamental about the universe. Their utility gives us plenty of reason to try to follow Jesus simply because of what he taught, and because of his extreme faithfulness to what he saw as his call from the Creator.

So the fact that "the Resurrection misunderstanding catalyzed both a belief system and a social organization" makes celebrating Easter worthwhile. And perhaps that also makes it worth dying for a misunderstanding (if one is pressed to such unfortunate lengths).

This begs an important question that a questioning Christian should surely ask: how in the world did a "misunderstanding" - and a "resurrection misunderstanding" at that - so successfully catalyze and establish a belief system and social organization that could withstand almost 2,000 years of history, much less get off the ground in the first place? There were other pretenders to the title "Messiah" in and around the time of Jesus. They were killed by the might of the Roman empire, just like Jesus was. And, just like Jesus' disciples, the followers of these false Messiahs faced a choice: carry on the cause of their now dead leader by finding someone to succeed him, or abandon the cause as a failure.

In contrast to other contemporary cases, Jesus' followers claimed that their leader had been raised bodily from the dead. They didn't try to find a new leader, nor did they abandon their cause. Instead, they proclaimed that their Lord was bodily alive again after bodily death. And they proclaimed this message even though doing so would be regarded as ridiculous by Greek and Roman philosophy and religion, and preposterous or even heretical by the theological norms of Judaism in Jesus' day.

But perhaps we don't have to face such questions of history (which are comprehensively addressed by N. T. Wright in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God). Instead, we can circumscribe the significance of Jesus within the limits of (practical) reason alone. All we have to do is embrace the teachings of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus may be a "misunderstanding," but it's a worthy "misunderstanding," because, according to "The Questioning Christian," "the heart of Jesus' teaching" is what "capture[s] something fundamental about the universe."

It may be true that Jesus' teachings "capture something fundamental about the universe." But it's worth noting that hyper-intelligent atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche would find such a claim ludicrous at best. For atheists like Nietzsche, nothing about Jesus' death and the "misunderstanding" of his resurrection in any way vindicates his teachings. Instead, they serve as examples under the heading "Misguided" or even "Sick." And if "The Questioning Christian" is right, he's conceded the key point, for if the resurrection is a misunderstanding, then Jesus is dead. And so "The Questioning Christian" gives the Nietzscheans and atheists everywhere just the opening they need to say: "God is dead. And we make our way through life as our preferences - and our might - allow us."

There are other problems with this position for accepting the resurrection as a misunderstanding. Jesus wasn't the only good moral teacher of his day. Indeed, his moral teachings, taken by themselves, are hardly unique. So why not establish churches in honor of other rabbis and moralists of that era and worship in their names? Indeed, why not do so with figures closer to our own time whose life, witness, words, and example are religiously inspiring, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Surely, any claims that Dr. King has been raised from the dead constitute a misunderstanding, but we can overlook such a misunderstanding on account of the fact that his teaching and preaching are so inspiring and relevant for our lives.

C. S. Lewis' observation is appropriate : "If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years. A bit more makes no difference."

And it doesn't help to cite Jesus' "extreme faithfulness" if the reward for that faithfulness is that he's dead. It's hardly an inspiring moral example to say to people: "Look what happens when you're 'extremely faithful' to God like Jesus was: you get tortured and crucified for it. Now go out and live like Jesus!" If Jesus' "extreme faithfulness" was not vindicated by resurrection in a real, historical, and bodily sense, then being faithful to such a "god" would be sado-masochistic madness.

Luke Timothy Johnson is right: "The most important question concerning Jesus … is simply this: Do we think he is dead or alive?" If we say that the resurrection is a misunderstanding, we are saying that the central claim of the Christian proclamation from the days of the early Church to our own times is false. It's a lie because, in reality, Jesus is dead. And so we Christians worship a dead Christ.

If that's true, I have better things to do with my time, talents, and treasure.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Too Good To Be True?

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter
RCL, Year B: Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Listen to the sermon here.

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is!”

We’ve all heard and perhaps used that phrase. It can express skepticism or even pessimism, but also prudent caution. A daughter telling her mother about her wonderful new boyfriend might hear it in her mom’s response: “Be careful, dear. He sounds just a little too perfect.” And if you got the e-mail I recently received saying that you’ve been selected for a cash prize of 2 million euros in the Powerball draw held on April 10, don’t respond to it. It’s definitely too good to be true.

Even in the New Testament we can find skepticism and prudent caution. It pops up several times in response to hearing the news of Jesus’ resurrection and even to seeing the risen Jesus in person. We heard it last week from John’s Gospel, when Thomas refuses to believe when his cohorts tell him “We have seen the Lord!” (cf. Jn 20:25, NRSV). We read it in Matthew’s Gospel, when the risen Jesus claims all authority in heaven and on earth and commissions his followers to baptize and make disciples of all nations, only to be told that “some doubted” (Mt 28:17, NRSV). And when the women who discover the empty tomb tell the other male disciples that Jesus has been raised, Luke tells us that “this story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11, NJB).

Skepticism and disbelief: we see it again in today’s Gospel reading from Luke as Jesus appears to the eleven and their companions. Initially, Luke tells us that they were “startled and terrified” to see Jesus (Lk 24:37, NRSV). Who wouldn’t be rattled to encounter someone that they knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, had really died? This simply cannot be. It must be a ghost! In spite of Jesus’ efforts to reassure them that he’s a real, flesh-and-bones person, skepticism remains. I’m struck by how the Revised English Bible translates the disciples’ response: “They were still incredulous, still astounded, for it seemed too good to be true” (Luke 24:41).

That response becomes all the more understandable when we consider what resurrection is really all about. Resurrection is not about the resuscitation of an almost-dead person (as though Jesus didn’t really die on the cross). Resurrection does not refer to an apparition or a vision of someone who has died, as though, in their grief, the disciples thought they saw someone who’s not really there. Nor is resurrection a merely “spiritual” or “experiential” phenomenon, as though it means that an otherwise dead Jesus lives on in the hearts and minds of the disciples as an empowering memory.

Taken in its biblical and historical context, resurrection means bodily life after bodily death. And that challenges everything we think we know about the world and how it works. Just as the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun displaces humanity from the center of the universe, Jesus raised from the dead displaces human reason as the supreme authority and sufficient arbiter of truth. That was true even in the pre-modern, pre-scientific world of 1st Century Palestine. Nobody, including especially Jesus’ disciples, was expecting anything like this to happen. It’s not a matter of rocket science, but of universally available common sense. Dead people stay dead. Dead bodies decay. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and that’s it. End of story. And everyone has always known this.

Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, for instance, death was considered all powerful.[1] There was no answer to death. Whether you were one of Homer’s shades who wished you could have a new body but couldn’t, or a philosopher like Plato who thought being a disembodied soul was the best way to spend eternity, the route to the underworld was a one-way street. Nobody came back to life with a body. And so, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the very idea of resurrection was ridiculous.

Even within the spectrum of Jewish belief available in Jesus’ day, resurrection – bodily life again after bodily death – was believed to be a future event, something that would happen at the end of time on the last great day when God raised the dead for judgment, giving them new bodies and renewing the world. It’s not something that happens to anybody before then. To say otherwise – and especially about a Jewish peasant crucified as a criminal by the State – was preposterous at best, and a blasphemy against orthodox teaching at worst.

And yet, that’s precisely what the earliest Christians said had happened to Jesus. It was no metaphor. On the contrary, they claimed that it had really happened. God had raised Jesus from the dead as a whole, embodied person. Not only was the tomb empty, but people had also seen Jesus alive after his death. And so we get the New Testament’s insistence on the physical, bodily reality of the risen Jesus.

Viewed through this New Testament lens, the resurrection is a divine revolution that overturns commonsense, explodes the myth of the omnicompetence of human reason, and disarms tyrants of their ultimate weapon: death. No wonder the “powers that be” over the past 2,000 years have tried to either eradicate or domesticate this revolutionary claim of the Gospel. But the fact that the resurrection so deeply conflicts with basic human experience has also made it difficult for many who are otherwise sympathetic to accept it. Construing the significance of Jesus within the limits of reason alone remains a tantalizing temptation. But the claim that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead and that this really happened in history – that it wasn’t just a subjective experience or grief-driven mistake – is not an optional addition to the Christian faith. On the contrary, it’s the claim that lies at the very heart of the Christian faith.

Christ is risen: that’s the claim that ties the diverse writings of the New Testament together into a unified whole. Christ is risen: that’s the claim that inspired the early Christians to challenge the Lordship of Caesar with the Lordship of Jesus, even when it meant facing down lions and gladiators armed with nothing more than love. Christ is risen: that’s the claim that has fed the Church with hope, keeping her alive during times of hardship and persecution, empowering otherwise ordinary men, women, and children to choose imprisonment, torture and even death rather than renounce Jesus as Lord and Savior. Christ is risen: that’s the claim we celebrate during the Great 50 Days of Easter and in the liturgy for Holy Eucharist on every Sunday of the year, and that’s the claim on which the truth of the Christian faith stands or falls. And if it’s really true, if God really did raise Jesus to bodily life again after bodily death, then death is no longer a one-way street and the ancient Jewish hope for God’s restoration of a broken world is unfolding to fulfillment.

Writing about the significance of our Lord’s resurrection, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says:

When we celebrate Easter, we are really standing in the middle of a second ‘Big Bang’, a tumultuous surge of divine energy as fiery and intense as the very beginning of the universe.[2]
The resurrection unleashes the power of God’s divine energy into a broken world to heal and restore, putting things right and making all things new. This is why the apostle Paul describes the resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17) and the risen Jesus as the “first fruits” of this new creation (1 Cor 15:20). It’s a creation continuous in many ways with the world as we now know it. That’s why, in the post-resurrection Gospel accounts, Jesus walks, talks, and eats. You can reach out and touch him. He’s not a ghost. He’s a real flesh-and-bones person. But this new creation God has started by raising Jesus also differs from the world as we now know it, sometimes in unexpected and startling ways. And so the Gospel writers portray Jesus’ resurrected body as a transformed body. It’s a body no longer subject to sickness, death, and decay. And it’s a body that serves as a harbinger for God’s intention to ultimately redeem all of creation.

One Episcopalian puts it like this:

When Jesus rose from the dead, he was the first installment of what would come at the last great Day. We who took to him will be raised, in bodies fit for all eternity and with spirits that trust him completely and joyfully. And the whole physical creation will also be raised and restored. The book of Revelation speaks of a ‘new heaven and a new earth,’ one that is no longer sullied by sin and deformed by death. The resurrection of Jesus is a foretaste and a guarantee that all this earth, so wonderful even in its fallen state, will not be wasted or left behind.[3]

The resurrection is not pie-in-the-sky escapism, nor is it about going to heaven when we die for an eternity of disembodied bliss. The resurrection of Jesus Christ as a fully embodied person is just as much about this world as the next. It’s about justice and transformation. It’s about God’s determination to set the world to rights. It’s about “the reaffirmation of the universe of space, time and matter.”[4] The resurrection is a sign of just how much God loves, not just our souls, but also our bodies, and also trees, animals, sun, moon, and stars, and all of creation. The resurrection gives us the assurance that not even the power of death can thwart God’s desire that there be life in abundance. And the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a reality that opens “every moment of our history … to a future of healing and promise.”[5]

The resurrection of Jesus Christ to bodily life after bodily death may sound too good to be true. But the same God who is greater than death and decay is greater than our doubts and skepticism, and also a God who invites us to trust a truth so incredibly good that it quite literally changes everything.

And so we are bold to say:

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia.

[1] For views on life after death among ancient Greeks & Romans, ancient Judaism, and early Christianity, I’m drawing on N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008), pp. 35-51.

[2] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 95.

[3] The Rev. Charles Sutton, “He Rose Again,” The Anglican Digest 51/2 (Easter A.D. 2009), p. 12.

[4] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003), p. 729.

[5] Williams, op. cit., p. 96.

Friday, April 24, 2009

"Buddhist" Bishop-Elect Revises Liturgy for Baptism

Even though only the General Convention of the Episcopal Church has the authority to revise the liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer, "Buddhist" bishop-elect of Northern Michigan Kevin Thew Forrester has taken it upon himself to revise the liturgy for Holy Baptism.

Here's an example from an Easter liturgy at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Marquette, MI in which Mr. Forrester has taken the liberty to rewrite the Presentation and Examination of the Candidates for Holy Baptism (I've added a couple of headers in red to provide points of reference for the discussion to follow):

Presider: The Candidate for Holy Baptism will now be presented.

Parents and Godparents: I present N. to receive the Sacrament of Baptism

Presider: Will you be responsible for seeing that N. is brought up in the Christian faith and life?

Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Will you, by your prayers and witness, help N. to grow into the full stature of Christ?

Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Do you seek to awaken to the eternal presence of God, who is your very heart and soul?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

The Renunciations
Presider: God forever invites you to let go of self deceit to dwell in the house of honesty, where eternal Hope reigns. Will you accept this invitation?

Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: God forever invites you to let go of all fear to dwell in the house of courage, where eternal Faith reigns. Will you accept this invitation?

Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: God forever invites you to let go of all anger to dwell in the house of serenity, where Love reigns. Will you accept this invitation?

Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help.

The Act of Adherence
Presider: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as the way of Life and Hope?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

Presider: Do you put your whole trust in Christ’s grace and love?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

Presider: Do you promise to follow Christ as the way of life?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

We stand as we are able.

Presider: Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support N. in her life in Christ?

Assembly: We will.

See the Easter booklet here, and the program insert here.

There are some who charge that the baptism administered to this child is not valid, but from my perspective, the validity of the sacrament is not in question (in spite of the illegal liturgical revision, the sacrament was administered with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit).

My concerns center around the theological shift taking place with Forrester's revision. Comparing the revised Presentation and Examination of the Candidates to pages 301-303 in The Book of Common Prayer, the first thing that strikes me is the addition of this question to the two that precede the renunciations in the Prayer Book:

Do you seek to awaken to the eternal presence of God, who is your very heart and soul?

It's not entirely clear in this context what exactly the language of "awakening" refers to. But read in the larger context of Forrester's other writings, it carries gnostic or "new age" overtones that suggest a theological anthropology in which one's true self ("your very heart and soul") is identical with "the eternal presence of God." Our "salvation" lies in waking up to this "true self." Our problem is a lack of proper knowledge and insight about our divine nature, not anything as dire as the Christian conception of sin.

Perhaps this explains the absence of the renunciations, in which the baptismal candidate (or, in the case of infants, his/her parents and godparents) say "no" to three levels of evil:

1. Cosmic Evil - Nature and History Are Unmanageable

Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Answer I renounce them.

2. Systemic Evil - Human Affairs and Social Systems Are Unmanageable

Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer I renounce them.

3. Personal Evil - Our Lives Are Unmanageable

Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer I renounce them.

The renunciations in the Prayer Book acknowledge the tragic reality that our world is messed up by sin and evil, and they affirm that a central vocation of the Christian way of life is to say "No!" to this sin and evil. By contrast, Forrester cuts out the renunciations, replacing them with"invitations" to let go of self deceit, fear and anger. Regardless of whether or not this sounds more Buddhist than Christian, this suggests that our lives and our world are manageable. We can simply choose to accept an invitation to live another way. We have the power to do this within ourselves. The consequence of this revision is an utter failure to take seriously the Christian claim that something is deeply awry with God’s good creation, that there is a desperate need for healing and redemption that requires divine intervention from a Savior, and that those who pledge their allegiance to this Savior commit themselves to ongoing resistance to the sin and evil that run amok in the world. Instead, Forrester's revised liturgy suggests (like his Trinity Sunday sermon) that there's no need for outside intervention and divine transformation. We don't need a Savior, we just need to accept the invitation to live our true selves.

Just as troubling is the way in which Forrester has revised the act of adherence. If the renunciations state the overwhelming magnitude and unmanageable character of the problem of sin and evil, the act of adherence acknowledges where we find the answer. Taken in conjunction with the renunciations, the language affirms the need for conversion. As Leonel Mitchell notes, the language of "turn to" in English "translates the Latin 'convertere,' from which we derive the word 'convert' [Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer (Morehouse, 1985), p. 98] :

1. Conversion: We Affirm A Power Greater Than Ourselves That Can Save Us

Question Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer I do.

2. Conversion: We Affirm That We Can Trust The One Who Has This Power

Question Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer I do.

3. Conversion: We Acknowledge Jesus Christ As The One Legitimate Power And Authority Over Our Lives

Question Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
Answer I do.

In contrast to the Prayer Book's language about accepting Jesus as Savior, Forrester's revised language is about accepting Jesus as "the way of Life and Hope." And in contrast to the Prayer Book's language about following and obeying Jesus as Lord, Forrester's revised language is about promising to follow Jesus as "the way of life." In short, Forrester's revision rejects Jesus as Lord and Savior, and thus the need for conversion as understood in a Christian sense.

This revision is consistent with Forrester's addition of the language about "awaken[ing] to the eternal presence of God" within one's self coupled with his jettisoning the renunciations. That language suggests that all of us are divine sons and daughters of God. There's nothing unique about Jesus in that respect. Instead of being our Lord and Savior, Jesus is more like a sage who shows us the path to enlightenment which leads us to recognizing our own divinity. We'd know this truth if we could only see it. So Forrester's revised liturgy affirms conversion (or "enlightenment") to the truth of our own divinity rather than renunciation of sin and evil and conversion to Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Forrester's writings and sermons are sufficiently distressing to call into question his fitness, not only to be a bishop, but to even be a priest. Add to that the fact that Forrester adds stuff to the liturgy like a reading from the Qur'an in place of the appointed lesson from the apostle Paul, while also taking away from the liturgy the renunciations, and also so thoroughly revising the theological grounding of the act of adherence that it bears little resemblance to anything specifically Christian.

Given what we know from his sermons and liturgical experimentation/revision, I think there is little basis for believing that Mr. Forrester, if consecrated as a bishop, will heed the call "to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 517). It's much more reasonable to expect that he would continue doing what he's already been doing: departing from the core tenets of the Christian faith and revising the liturgical practices of the Episcopal Church accordingly.

My discussion of the renunciations and the act of adherence draws on John Westerhoff and Caroline Hughes' Living Into Our Baptism: A Guide to Ongoing Congregational and Personal Growth in Christian Faith and Life Revised Edition (Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, 1992), pp. 28-32.

Help Rebuild St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Long Beach, MS

Check out this moving video and prayerfully consider a financial gift to help our brothers and sisters in Christ rebuild St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Long Beach, MS after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Any gift, no matter how large or small, will be deeply appreciated.

Here's the contact info for St. Patrick's:

St. Patrick's Episcopal Church
P.O. Box 550
Long Beach, MS 39560
(228) 863-7882

Click here for contact information for all of the Gulf Coast churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Song of Anselm

This comes a day late for the Feast of St. Anselm, but I thought this (taken from James Kiefer's site) was too lovely to not share:


Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you:
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children;
Often you weep over our sins and our pride:
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment.

You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds:
in sickness you nurse us,
and with pure milk you feed us.

Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life:
by your anguish and labor we come forth in joy.

Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness:
through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.

Your warmth gives life to the dead:
your touch makes sinners righteous.

Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us:
in your love and tenderness remake us.

In your compassion bring grace and forgiveness:
for the beauty of heaven may your love prepare us.

Monday, April 20, 2009

St. Paul on the Resurrection

"If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:19-20).

Does this really make sense if all St. Paul means by the resurrection is some sort of "spiritual experience" of Christ's presence after his death?

Doesn't equating the term "resurrection" with "spiritual experience" fall precisely into the category of having hoped in Christ for this life only?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Challenge of the Resurrection

Last year, beginning during Lent and continuing through the Great 50 Days of Easter, I read N. T. Wright's comprehensive study and defense of the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus entitled The Resurrection of the Son of God. One reviewer for the Associated Press describes the 817-page book as "The most monumental defense of the Easter heritage in decades" that "marches through a clearly organized case that confronts every major doubt about Easter, ancient and modern." It is an impressive display of the breadth and depth of Wright's historical and biblical knowledge, as well as his ability to mount a cumulative argument for the central conviction of the Christian faith. No wonder Wright won the prestigious Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing in 2005 for this book.

I've been re-reading parts of it again recently. Coming across the following passage, I was struck by the ways in which Wright makes the case for how the resurrection of Jesus - if it really happened and is not a mere metaphor - poses fundamental epistemological, social, cultural and political challenges to our deeply taken-for-granted beliefs about how the world works.

I encourage you to acquire a copy of the book and read it all.

The challenge, for any historian, when faced with the question of the rise of Christianity, is much more sharply focused than is often supposed. It is not simply a matter of whether one believes in ‘miracles’, or in the supernatural, in general, in which case (it is supposed) the resurrection will be no problem. If anyone ever reaches the stage where the resurrection is in that sense no problem, we can be sure that they have made a mistake somewhere, that they have constructed a world in which this most explosive and subversive of events – supposing it to have occurred – can be domesticated and put on show, like a circus elephant or clever typing monkey, as a key exhibit in the church’s collection of supernatural trophies. The resurrection of Jesus then becomes either a ‘trip to a garden and a lovely surprise’, a happy ending to a fairy story, or a way of legitimating different types of Christianity or different leaders within it. No: the challenge comes down to a much narrower point, not simply to do with worldviews in general, or with ‘the supernatural’ in particular, but with the direct question of death and life, of the world of space, time and matter and its relation to whatever being there may be for whom the word ‘god’, or even ‘God’, might be appropriate. Here there is, of course, no neutrality. Any who pretend to it are merely showing that they have not understood the question.

In particular, any who insist on being post-Enlightenment historians must look in the mirror and ask some hard methodological questions. The underlying rationale of the Enlightenment was, after all, that the grandiose dogmatic claims of the church (and a good deal else besides, but the church was always a key target) needed to be challenged by the fearless, unfettered examination of historical evidence. It will not do, after two hundred years of this, for historians in that tradition to turn round and rule out, a priori, certain types of answer to questions that remain naggingly insistent. The large dreams of the Enlightenment have, in recent years, been challenged on all kinds of levels. In some cases (colonialism, the global triumph of western capitalism, and so on) they have been shown to be politically, economically, and culturally self-serving on a massive scale. What if the moratorium on speaking of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, which has been kept in place until recently more by the critics’ tone of voice than by sustained historical argument (‘surely,’ they imply on the edge of every discussion of the subject, ‘you cannot be so impossibly naive as to think that something actually happened?’), should itself turn out to be part of that intellectual and cultural hegemony against which much of the world is now doing its best to react? What if the resurrection, instead of (as is often imagined) legitimating a cosy, comfortable, socially and culturally conservative form of Christianity, should turn out to be, the twenty-first century as in the first, the most socially, culturally and politically explosive force imaginable, blasting its way through the sealed tombs and locked doors of modernist epistemology and the (now) deeply conservative social and political culture which it sustains? When I said there was no neutral ground at this point, I was not only referring to patterns of thought and belief. Indeed, the holding apart of the mental and spiritual on the one hand from the social, cultural and political on the other, one of the most important planks of the Enlightenment platform, is itself challenged by the question of Jesus’ resurrection.

N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God
(Fortress Press, 2003), pp. 712-713

Friday, April 17, 2009

Defending Ourselves Against the Bible

My blogging friend and clergy colleague Greg Jones has posted some critical reflections on Bart Ehrman's new book Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them). Here's how he begins:

University of North Carolina religion professor Bart Ehrman writes in the first paragraph of his new book Jesus, Interrupted that while the Bible "is the most widely purchased, extensively read, and deeply revered book in the history of Western Civilization" it is also likely the most "thoroughly misunderstood, especially by the lay reading public." This sentence, while in some sense factually true, bears within it a seed of what's wrong with Bart Ehrman's entire project.

Among Greg's many helpful observations, he notes the following:

... the notion that modern Western scholars somehow better "understand the Bible" is likewise predicated on a definition that frankly is unacceptable to any believing Christian (or Jew.) For we who believe in the God of the Bible -- "the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord." In other words, "understanding the Bible" is a goal which can only be reached (however partially in this life) by prayerful study of the Bible from within the community of faith.

That's right: no individual, no matter how scholarly - can "understand the Bible." The Bible belongs not to the 'public' or the individual reader, but to the Church (or in the case of the Hebrew Scriptures to faithful Jews.) It is the Church which together -- with one heart and one mind -- engages the Bible. We use the God given gifts of memory, reason and skill in this pursuit. We recognize that from time to time we will have to accept tensions, disagreements and what logical inconsistencies. We do this trusting that the goal is Spirit-inspired Wisdom, not 'man-based knowledge.'

For Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, mainline Protestants, and Jews, the Bible is much more complex and inspiring than the paper-thin, literalistic book of straw that Ehrman likes to knock down. We don't deny the many inconsistencies between the two testaments, three original languages, multiple literary genres and sixty-six individual books which comprise the sacred library of Scripture. Rather, we uphold these in tension, just as we likewise uphold the incredible depths of intrabiblical harmony which also cohere these many pieces of writing together into something we recognize as inspired by God's genius.

And here's how he concludes:

I have said this before (the last time he wrote a book with almost the exact same content), but I'll say it again: Ehrman is a fundamentalist who's lost his faith, but has found nowhere else to look but back, and there with a bitter and critical eye.

Read it all.

I think that in addition to the issues Greg raises, scholarship like Ehrman's also fosters the illusion that we can be biblically literate when it comes to the New Testament without confronting a central thrust of its writings: the call to discipleship in community. Bracketing that call reduces biblical study to an armchair exercise - an intellectual venture divorced from commitment and obedience to anything higher than one's own theological preferences and perhaps also to prevailing academic standards (which, like all fashions, change over time).

What a strikingly different mindset this is from what we find when we turn to those predecessors in the Christian faith we call the Church Fathers. Echoing points made by Greg Jones above, Christopher A. Hall notes the importance of the context of reading, studying, and interpreting scripture for the Church Fathers:

The fathers affirmed a deep connection between the spiritual health of biblical interpreters and their ability to read the Bible well. For the fathers, the Scripture was to be studied, pondered and exegeted within the context of worship, reverence and holiness. The fathers considered the Bible a holy book that opened itself to those who themselves were progressing in holiness through grace and power of the Spirit. The character of the exegete would determine in many ways what was seen or heard in the text itself. Character and exegesis were intimately related. ...

Neither Athanasius nor Gregory [of Nazianzus] envisioned exegesis or theology as the academic activity of biblical scholars or theologians divorced from the life of the church or personal spiritual formation. Rather, the fathers believed, the best exegesis occurs within the community of the church. The Scriptures have been given to the church, are read, preached, heard and comprehended within the community of the church, and are safely interpreted only by those whose character is continually being formed by prayer, worship, meditation, self-examination, confession and other means by which Christ's grace is communicated to his body. That is to say, the fathers argue that any divorce between personal character, Christian community and the study of scripture will be fatal for any attempt to understand the Bible [Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity Press, 1998), pp. 41, 42; emphasis added].

Viewed through the lens of this perspective, agnostic and atheistic scholars like Ehrman are, at best, unreliable guides to understanding the New Testament.

All of this reminds me of a passage from the 19th Century Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard found in the anthology Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (see the section entitled, "Kill the Commentators!"):

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament (emphasis added; e-book "Copyright 2007 by Plough Publishing House. Used with permission." ).

If Kierkegaard were alive today and had the opportunity to peruse the works of scholars that line the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble such as Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, etc., and if he also took note of just how popular such scholars are among so many within the Episcopal Church, he would no doubt file that information away under the heading: "Defending Ourselves Against the Bible."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Everything Hinges On This

Some thoughts on the centrality of the resurrection from Luke Timothy Johnson:

The existence of Christianity is inexplicable apart from the experience and conviction that the story of Jesus did not end with his death, but rather entered a new and more powerful phase. As Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19, responding to some who said that there is no resurrection of the dead:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain [or “empty”], and your faith has been in vain [“empty”]. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ – whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile [or “foolish”] and you are still in your sins. Then those who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Paul’s language is extraordinarily strong. As much as any subsequent critic of Christianity, he recognizes that everything hinges on this article of the creed (see 15:1-3), and yet it is the article that most conflicts with any other human experience and is therefore the most difficult to assert. In a word, Paul acknowledges that if Jesus is not resurrected, the gospel is a lie, preachers (like himself) have been false witnesses, and Christians have been gullible and self-deluded fools who have wasted their lives. Nietzsche could not have put it more crisply.

Paul saw clearly that if Jesus was important only for what he did during his mortal existence, he was of no value to the Corinthians who gathered in his name. Jesus may have been a good teacher or a powerful prophet, but if he was not resurrected, he was at best a moral exemplar like other teachers or prophets. If he had not overcome mortality, he could not lead others to as hare of life greater than the merely mortal. If Jesus is not raised, Christianity is simply another cult or ethical society, and not a particularly attractive one.

The same is just as true today. Those contemporary forms of Christianity that focus only on the humanity of Jesus believe in vain. They have, sadly, capitulated to the mind of the Enlightenment …. If religion can hold as true only what is “within the bounds of reason,” and if “reason” is defined in terms of the empirically verifiable, then the resurrection is excluded by definition. But if the resurrection is excluded, why should Christians continue to revere Jesus, who is then only one of many figures from antiquity worthy of attention and honor? If Jesus is only the “historical Jesus,” then Christianity is a delusion and a waste of time. But if Jesus is raised as Lord, everything changes radically.
(Doubleday, 2003), pp. 179-180.

Bart Ehrman on the Colbert Report

Bart Ehrman explains why the Bible is a big fat lie and Stephen Colbert is an idiot for believing it.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Breakfast Song

This has got to be one of the most delightfully bizarre songs I've come across in a long time. It truly deserves wide exposure:

As much as I love this song, I disagree with the premise. If the Christian hopes means anything, surely it means that when God completes the work of restoration and transformation begun in the resurrection of our Lord, a fulfillment which the book of Revelation points to when it speaks of "a new heaven and a new earth" (21:1), breakfast will not be a thing of the past. On the contrary, every meal will be as awesome as a bowl of Cap'n Crunch.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Church Must Stop Trivializing Easter

It is refreshing to see a New Testament scholar and a bishop of the Church wage an uncompromising defense of the historical, bodily resurrection of our Lord. Witness N. T. Wright's Easter Sunday piece from The Times of London entitled, "The Church must stop trivialising Easter":

Easter was the pilot project. What God did for Jesus that explosive morning is what He intends to do for the whole creation. We who live in the interval between Jesus's Resurrection and the final rescue and transformation of the whole world are called to be new-creation people here and now. That is the hidden meaning of the greatest festival Christians have.

This true meaning has remained hidden because the Church has trivialised it and the world has rubbished it. The Church has turned Jesus's Resurrection into a “happy ending” after the dark and messy story of Good Friday, often scaling it down so that “resurrection” becomes a fancy way of saying “He went to Heaven”. Easter then means: “There really is life after death”. The world shrugs its shoulders. We may or may not believe in life after death, but we reach that conclusion independently of Jesus, of odd stories about risen bodies and empty tombs.

But “resurrection” to 1st-century Jews wasn't about “going to Heaven”: it was about the physically dead being physically alive again. Some Jews (not all) believed that God would do this for all people in the end. Nobody, including Jesus's followers, was expecting one person to be bodily raised from the dead in the middle of history. The stories of the Resurrection are certainly not “wish-fulfilments” or the result of what dodgy social science calls “cognitive dissonance”. First-century Jews who followed would-be messiahs knew that if your leader got killed by the authorities, it meant you had backed the wrong man. You then had a choice: give up the revolution or get yourself a new leader. Going around saying that he'd been raised from the dead wasn't an option.

Unless he had been.
Read it all.

Proof of the Resurrection: Lived, not Argued

The 2009 Easter Sermon from the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Douglas Williams, is now posted on-line. It’s entitled “Proof of the resurrection has to be lived, not argued.” Here’s an excerpt:

Do you know that God exists? the interviewers ask; or, How do you know Christian faith is true? There are two tempting ways of responding, both wrong. There is the apologetic shuffle of saying, ‘Of course, I don’t really know; this is just the truth as it appears to me and I may be wrong’. And there is the confident offer to prove it all to the hearer’s satisfaction; here are the philosophical arguments, here is the historical evidence, now what’s the problem?

Two kinds of mistake: the first because it reduces faith to opinion and shrinks the scale of what you’re trying to talk about to the dimensions of your own mind and preferences; the second because it keeps you at arms’ length from the whole business by making it impersonal: here are the proofs and it doesn’t much matter what I or anyone may be doing about it. It’s just true in much the same way as it’s true that Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles. You may say, ‘Well, there you go’ but are unlikely to fall to your knees.

St Paul in today’s epistle makes it clear that to speak of Jesus’ resurrection is also to say something crucial about who and where we are, not just to make a claim about the past.. Now we should not doubt for a moment that Paul means what he says and that he takes for granted that the resurrection of Jesus is not a piece of fantasy or wishful thinking but the actual emptying of a grave. However, the point of Paul’s entire teaching on the resurrection is to take us much further than that. This event, the emptying of the grave, has done something and has brought the Christians of Colossae – like all Christians – into a new universe. They are living in a new climate, with new ‘thoughts’ – a climate in which the various ways in which we’ve put up barriers between ourselves and God have been shattered and our old selves are dead. We may still go on trying to put those barriers back up again, but something has happened that opens up a new kind of future. Our selfish and destructive acts and reactions can be dealt with, overwhelmed again and again by the love shown in the cross of Jesus. Because of Jesus’ death and rising from the dead, our resurrection has started, and our citizenship in heaven has begun. There is a hidden seed of glory within us, gradually coming to its fullness.

Resurrection has started. How do we know? Not by working it out and adopting it as well-founded opinion, not by deciding that this idea suits us, not by getting all the arguments straight, but because we are dimly aware of something having changed around us. For Paul’s converts in Colossae, Corinth, or wherever, it’s about the impact on them of his early visits: here was someone who although he wasn’t a good speaker or a charismatic teacher (so he himself tells us) was so intensely aware that the world had changed that he changed the world for those around him. They trusted him; they were prepared to risk all the mockery and harassment and worse that Christians had to put up with because they were able to say, ‘It’s so real for him that we can sense the sort of imperative urgency in what he says and what he sees; whatever he believes, this is life at a new level’.

That’s why the two sorts of defence of faith I mentioned earlier aren’t good enough. It’s not that this is an attractive theory that I’ve decided to try out – but I may be wrong. Nor is it that I now have a knock-down argument that will convince everyone. There is something compelling here. I can’t help being drawn to this promise of life and freedom, it isn’t about my opinions only; yet I know that I can’t put this into neat words that will make everyone say, ‘Oh yes, it’s obvious really’.

For a great many people, the burning question about faith is not just, ‘Can anyone believe this?’ but ‘Can anyone live like this?’ Is it possible to live ‘in heaven’, in such a way that our selfishness is eroded? To live on the basic assumption that people can be healed of their miserable compulsions to fear and resent each other and to cling to their grievances and injuries? …

It’s no use talking endlessly – preaching endlessly – about reconciliation and forgiveness and liberation. No argument can persuade anyone about this, only the lived reality.

Read it all.

I think that Rowan Williams is right to note that how we Christians live is an integral part of our witness to the reality of our faith in the resurrection. Even if we have airtight arguments that silence every skeptic, that’s not necessarily the same thing as converting them to the faith. I note, for example, N. T. Wright saying that one of his former philosophy tutors from Oxford - an atheist - read his book The Resurrection of the Son of God and responded: “Great book. You really make the argument. I simply choose to believe that there must be some other explanation even though I don’t know what it was.” What else is needed to make the difference here?

New Testament scholar Richard B. Hays makes a point in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics that supports the basic gist of Rowan’s Easter sermon. It surfaces in his discussion of Luke-Acts, and of how the way in which the early Christians lived - the example of their way of life - was the most compelling evidence for the reality of the risen Lord and the presence of the Spirit:

The book of Acts gives no evidence of the apostles seeking to reform political structures outside the church, either through protest or by seizing power. Instead, Luke tells the story of the formation of a new human community - the church - in which goods are shared and wrongs are put right. In this way the apostolic testimony to the resurrection is made effectual. The question that Luke-Acts puts to the church - then and now - is not “Are you reforming society?” but rather “Is the power of the resurrection at work among you?” The community’s sharing of its material resources so that there is no needy person among them is the most powerful sign of the Spirit’s liberating work [The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperCollins, 1996), p. 135].

I see it as a both/and: we need to give compelling reasons for the faith and hope we hold, and we need to live compelling reasons for the faith and hope we hold. That’s a fitting Easter charge for the Church.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Reality of the Resurrection II

Craig L. Nessan, professor of contextual theology at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, discusses four points about the reality of Jesus' resurrection over at Beliefnet.com (reprinted from The Lutheran magazine). Here's an excerpt (including a summary of the four points):

Jesus' resurrection has stirred doubt and debate since the women ran back into Jerusalem telling stories about an empty tomb. A few decades later Paul had to defend the Resurrection to skeptical church members at Corinth: "Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:12). Even then Jesus' resurrection was questioned.

We depend on the faithful testimony of those who have gone before us. They passed on an unfathomable message: "Christ is risen!" Generation after generation of believers have received and struggled with that message.

Contemporary theologians continue to probe the meanings of the Resurrection. Their insights can help us claim its truth anew. Here are four.

  1. The Resurrection is a historical reality, not just the believers' subjective experience.
  2. The resurrection verifies Jesus' identity and the truth of his message.
  3. Jesus' resurrection means mission.
  4. Jesus was raised in the body.

Read all of Nessan's article.

The Historical, Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

N. T. Wright, Anglican bishop of Durham, England, biblical scholar, and author of the magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God (for which Wright won the prestigious Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing in 2005), lays out reasons for believing in the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus (in just under 2 1/2 minutes!).

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Reality of the Resurrection

Here are a few thoughts on the reality of our Lord's resurrection from the Easter 2009 issue of The Anglican Digest.

First, there is this excerpt from a piece by the Rev. Charles Sutton of Trinity Episcopal Church in Whitinsville, MA:

Over the whole course of the Christian faith, there have been those who do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Usually those who have denied his resurrection have been those who did not believe in him as the Messiah. However, for the last century or so, there have been many people who try to say that they worship God through Jesus but who do not believe that Jesus was physically raised from the dead. They claim that belief in a physical resurrection is from a credulous age and that we know better now. They explain the resurrection as wishful thinking , as mass hallucination, or as a recognition that Jesus lives on in his teaching and in the powerful memories he leaves behind. Resurrection is, at best, a "spiritual" event, not a physical one. ...

When the Apostles proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, they risked their very lives. Unbelieving Jews hated the idea of Jesus as the Messiah. The Romans wanted no rivals to Caesar as Lord. The Apostles said that they knew that Jesus was Messiah because he rose from the dead. If they had invented the story as a way to get attention, it would not have been long before one of them, threatened with death, would have said, "You know, Jesus was a wonderful man, but he is still in the tomb. We wanted him to be the Messiah, but he has died." If the resurrection was not a physical event, the Apostles would surely have decided that a pretty story was not worth dying for.

But in fact, every Apostle except John was executed, and even John endured years of prison. They were utterly convinced that they had met Jesus in the flesh after Good Friday. He was not a cherished memory, so powerful that it was as though he were still alive. They had not seen a spirit. Everyone in those days believed in ghosts. Seeing the spirit of one who had died was not that special. A ghost might be frightening, but seeing it would not persuade anyone that the deceased was worth dying for. It would not have motivated them to proclaim a risen Lord. ...

The full, physical resurrection of Jesus affirms that creation was indeed "very good." The physical is not merely a stage needed for full development; it is good in itself. The full physical resurrection also affirms the fullness of redemption. It is not only our souls that are saved; it is the totality of each individual who belongs to Jesus. ...

When Jesus rose from the dead, he was the first installment of what would come at the last great Day. We who took to him will be raised, in bodies fit for all eternity and with spirits that trust him completely and joyfully. And the whole physical creation will also be raised and restored. The book of Revelation speaks of a "new heaven and a new earth," one that is no longer sullied by sin and deformed by death. The resurrection of Jesus is a foretaste and a guarantee that all this earth, so wonderful even in its fallen state, will not be wasted or left behind.

And then there's this excerpt from the Rev. Richard R. Losch of St. James' Episcopal Church in Livingston, AL:

Without a faith in the Resurrection of Christ, it is unlikely that the Church would ever have survived. Jesus' moral and ethical teachings contained little that was new. They are consistent with most of those of the Jewish prophets, as well as with those of other morally-focused religions of the time. His teachings and his Messiahship would have relegated him to the rank of charlatan or madman had they not been authenticated by his Resurrection. Even his crucifixion was consistent with the fate of most of the prophets, and was even similar to the fate of the founders of many other world religions. It was his Resurrection that made all the difference.

Without the Resurrection, "the Way" (as Christianity was originally called) would probably have survived at most a few years and then would have disappeared or would have been absorbed into some other movement, just as the movement begun by John the Baptist was absorbed into Christianity. Without the Resurrection, it is unlikely that the name of Jesus of Nazareth would be known at all today, even as a mention in some ancient document.

The Resurrection, then, is the basis of our faith. Among other things, it authenticates Jesus' divinity, and proves to us (through faith) that he was not just a great teacher of two millenia ago, but was truly the incarnate Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

Christos Anesti!

Fire, Water, and a Risen Savior: The Great Vigil of Easter

Returning from this morning's pre-baptism instruction and rehearsal in preparation for tonight's Easter Vigil, I came across an interesting article from Christianity Today. Written by Jennifer Woodruff Tait, adjunct professor of church history at Asbury Theological Seminary, it describes the practice of the Vigil in the early Church, its fall into disuse in the wake of the Reformation, and its revival in the wake of the liturgical renewal movement. Here's a teaser:

Of all Christian celebrations of the events of Christ's life, our modern Easter traditions have perhaps strayed farthest from the ways the early church marked the day—or rather, the days, for they saw Holy Week, and especially its holiest hours from Thursday night to Sunday morning, as an indivisible unit. The New Testament makes clear that early Christians began to meet on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7,11) to "break bread" and celebrate Jesus' resurrection. But though every Sunday was thus a "little Easter," the early church also drew attention to the events of Jesus' last days through what they called the Pascha (taken from the Hebrew word for Passover, and held at the same time of the year). They read Scripture and celebrated the Eucharist to commemorate Jesus' triumphal entry, Last Supper, betrayal, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 may be a New Testament reference to this festival, and it was certainly being celebrated by the second century, when controversy arose as to whether it should be commemorated on a Sunday or on the date of Passover itself.

Because Paul had described baptism with the imagery of death and resurrection (Romans 6:4-5), the time surrounding Pascha became associated with the baptism of new converts. Tertullian's treatise on baptism (ca. 200) mentions Passover as the most appropriate time for this sacrament. The famous third-century liturgical document The Apostolic Tradition is one of our earliest descriptions of a period of fasting on the Friday and Saturday before Easter, culminating in an all-night vigil on Saturday evening. (In addition to emphasizing a symbolic movement from darkness to light, the vigil took over the idea from Judaism that the religious day begins at sundown.) That night, new Christians were baptized, anointed with oil, and received their first Communion with the community. The inscription on the Lateran baptistery in Rome, which dates from a century or two later, expresses the mood of this celebration: "Sinner, sink beneath this sacred surf that swallows age and spits up youth. Sinner, they know no enmity who are by one font, one Spirit, one faith made one. Sinner, shudder not at sin's kind and number, for those born here are holy."

Read it all.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Central Christian Belief

"The central Christian belief is that Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. ... Theories about Christ's death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. My own church - the Church of England - does not lay down any one of them as the right one. The Church of Rome goes a bit further. But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanations will ever be quite adequate to the reality. ... We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed."

"The time had now come when, at last, God would rescue his people, and the whole world, not from mere political enemies, but from evil itself, from the sin which had enslaved them. [Jesus'] death would do what the Temple, with its sacrificial system, had pointed toward but had never actually accomplished. In meeting the fate which was rushing toward him, he would be the place where heaven and earth met, as he hung suspended between the two. He would be the place where God's future arrived in the present, with the kingdom of God celebrating its triumph over the kingdoms of the world by refusing to join in their spiral of violence. He would love his enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile. He would act out, finally, his own interpretation of the ancient prophecies which spoke to him of a suffering Messiah. ...

"The pain and tears of all the years were met together on Calvary. The sorrow of heaven joined with the anguish of earth; the forgiving love stored up in God's future was poured out into the present; the voices that echo in a million human hearts, crying for justice, longing for spirituality, eager for relationship, yearning for beauty, drew themselves together into a final scream of desolation.

"Nothing in all the history of paganism comes anywhere near this combination of event, intention, and meaning. Nothing in Judaism had prepared for it, except in puzzling, shadowy prophecy. The death of Jesus of Nazareth as the king of the Jews, the bearer of Israel's destiny, the fulfillment of God's promises to his people of old, is either the most stupid, senseless waste and misunderstanding the world has ever seen, or it is the fulcrum around which world history turns.

"Christianity is based on the belief that it was and is the latter."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Watching and Waiting in the Garden of Gethsemane

"Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane ..." (Matthew 26:36).


" ... he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered" (John 18:1).


Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane


A 2,000-year-old olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane


The Church of All Nations (aka the Basilica of the Agony) located on the Mount of Olives next to the Garden of Gethsemane


Inside the Church of All Nations


The bedrock inside the Church of All Nations on which tradition says that Jesus prayed before his arrest: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want" (Matthew 26:39). In Luke's account we are told: "In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground" (Luke 22:44).



Good Friday is Not a Funeral for Jesus

While the tradition of highlighting the mournful character of Good Friday and the agonies of our Lord's suffering persists in parts of the Church (underscored by veiling crosses in black and by using black for vestments and hangings as a "liturgical color" for the day), that practice is deeply at odds with the actual liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer assigned for the day. Yes, it is a solemn liturgy. Yes, it acknowledges the reality of Jesus' suffering and death. But it is also a liturgy that highlights the theme of Christus Victor, the victory of Jesus over sin, suffering, and death.

Liturgical scholar Leonel Mitchell puts it well:

The Good Friday liturgy is a solemn commemoration of and participation in the great events of this day, the salvation of the human race through the victory of Christ, who by dying destroyed death, not a funeral for Jesus. The older custom of wearing black vestments, and the Anglican custom in some places of vesting choir and acolyte in black cassocks without surplices on this day, tends to reinforce the funeral theme. This latter custom apparently stems from the recognition that the Three Hours was not a liturgical service, hence the 'vestments' were not worn, but only the cassock, the 'street dress' of the clergy. The liturgical color of today is Holy Week red, for Christ the King of martyrs, and albs or surplices are appropriately worn [Lent, Holy Week, Easter and the Great Fifty Days: A Ceremonial Guide (Cowley, 1996), pp. 69-70].

The theme of Christ's victory surfaces in several places in the Prayer Book's Good Friday liturgy. In the prayer that concludes the Solemn Collects, for example, we read this:

... let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord (BCP, p. 280).

Already, on Good Friday, we anticipate the victory of Christ's resurrection.

This becomes even more clear in the Good Friday anthems recited or sung as a devotional response to bringing a wooden cross into the church. Consider this part of Anthem 1:

We glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection;
for by virtue of your cross
joy has come to the whole world (BCP, p. 281).

The theme of victory sounds again in Anthem 2:

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;
if we endure, we shall also reign with him.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world
(BCP, pp. 281-282).

One of the rubrics after the anthems again highlights the Christus Victor theme of the liturgy: "The hymn 'Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,' or some other hymn extolling the glory of the cross, is then sung" (BCP, p. 282).

And then, of course, there's the fact that the assigned Passion Gospel for every Good Friday comes from the Gospel according to John. And in John's Gospel, the moment when Jesus is lifted high upon the cross is paradoxically both his moment of greatest humiliation and his moment of greatest exaltation. For John, Jesus' death by crucifixion is also Jesus' victory over the powers of sin, evil, and death (cf. Jn 12:31-33).

So wearing black and fixating on the violence and gore of Jesus' suffering misses the central point. This is not a funeral for Jesus, and it's not a liturgical version of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." The Good Friday liturgy is a Christus Victor liturgy. How our churches enact that liturgy should reflect this reality.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Entering Holy Week: The Sunday of the Passion

"Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."
The Book of Common Prayer, p. 272



Saturday, April 4, 2009

“Buddhist” Bishop-Elect Adds Reading from the Qur’an to Sunday Eucharist

Just when you thought things can’t get any more bizarre in the case of the so-called “Buddhist” Bishop-elect of Northern Michigan, they have. Greg Griffith at Stand Firm reports that on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany in 2008 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Marquette, MI, the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester dropped the New Testament Epistle reading assigned in the lectionary for that Sunday and replaced it with a reading from the Qur’an. Apparently, the problems associated with his announcing that he “now walk[s] the path of Christianity and Zen Buddhism” are the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s what the congregation should have heard from the lectern that Sunday morning:

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (
1 Corinthians 1:1-9).

Instead, they heard this:

In the name of God most merciful most compassionate. Is he, then, who knows that what has been revealed to those from thy Lord is the truth, like one who is blind? But only those gifted with understanding will reflect. Those who fulfill God’s pact and break not the covenant. And those who join what God has commanded to be joined, and fear their Lord, and dread the evil reckoning. And those who persevere in seeking the favor of their Lord and observe prayer and spend out of that with which We have provided them secretly and openly, and repel evil with good. It is these who shall have the best reward of the final Abode. Amen. (Qur’an sura 13:20-23)

Check out the bulletin insert.

At the conclusion of the reading, the lector says: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.” And the congregation responds: “Thanks be to God.” I note that this is the same conclusion and congregational response used for the Old Testament reading from Isaiah in this service.

So Forrester has not only substituted a reading from the Qur’an for the New Testament Epistle reading; he’s also liturgically framed that reading in such a way as to put the Qur’an passage on an equal footing with the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. For all practical purposes, this effectively includes the Qur’an within the canon of Holy Scripture for Christians.

To call this an egregious violation of one’s ordination vows is an understatement. Note, for example, the wording of the “Oath of Conformity” which every priest in the Episcopal Church has publicly made and signed (twice: first for ordination as a transitional deacon, then for ordination to the priesthood):

The Bishop says to the ordinand
Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?

I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.

The Ordinand then signs the above Declaration in the sight of all present.

The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 526-527

Including a reading from the Qur’an (or any other non-Christian sacred text) in the context of a Sunday Eucharist is a serious departure from the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. There are no provisions in the Prayer Book’s rubrics for this action. The expectation is that the “One or two Lessons, as appointed” will come from the Bible (BCP, p. 357). I note that the rubrics for the Daily Office say this: “On occasion, at the discretion of the Minister, a reading from non-biblical Christian literature may follow the biblical Readings” (BCP, p. 142). But even here, the rubric is clear that the non-biblical reading must be a Christian reading. There is no similar provision made for non-biblical Christian literature (much less non-biblical, non-Christian literature) in the rite for Holy Eucharist.

In violating the “Oath of Conformity,” Forrester’s action also expands the meaning of it. Whereas the wording of the oath is clear that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God that contain all things necessary to salvation, including a formal reading from the Qur’an in the context of Holy Eucharist also suggests that the Qur’an is the Word of God that contains all things necessary to salvation on an equal footing with the Old and New Testaments. This would be consistent with my reading of Forrester as a proponent of the common essence approach to religion.

In a previous posting on the case of the now-defrocked Rev. Dr. Ann Holmes Redding (who claimed to be both a Christian and a Muslim), I noted that while there are similarities and points of overlap between Christianity and Islam, “each of these faith traditions make rival and incompatible truth claims about God and Jesus.” For the sake of clarity about what is at stake in Forrester’s act of including a reading from the Qur’an in the context of the Holy Eucharist, I think it’s worth remembering what makes Islam deeply and utterly incompatible with the Christian faith. Here’s what I wrote in an earlier posting about this:

… while it is true that the Qur'an portrays Jesus in a very positive light as one of the special prophets, even going so far as to affirm the virgin birth, his teachings and miracles, and his return to act as judge at the end of time, it is also true that the Qur'an categorically rejects the divinity of Jesus. Instead, Jesus is "only an apostle [or messenger] of God" (4, 171).

Furthermore, here is what the Qur'an says about Jesus' death:

"So [the 'people of the Book'] were punished for ... saying, 'We killed the Christ, Jesus, son of Mary, who was an apostle of God;' but they neither killed nor crucified him, though it so appeared to them. Those who disagree in the matter are only lost in doubt. They have no knowledge about it other than conjecture, for surely they did not kill him" (4, 155 & 157).

Orthodox Islam not only rejects the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but also his death by crucifixion.

If the Qur'an is the norm, then the Christology of the Gospel of John (and the New Testament in general), the Ecumenical Councils, the early Church Fathers, and the Eucharistic Prayers in The Book of Common Prayer constitute "the one unforgivable sin in Islam," that of associating (shirk) something with the one true God [Frederick Mathewson Denny, An Introduction to Islam (Macmillan, 1985), p. 93].

In addition, if the Qur'an is correct, then the symbol of the cross we so prominently display in our churches and wear around our necks is an empty signifier. For the belief that Jesus was crucified (a rather prominent theme in the New Testament) is false. At best, Jesus only appeared to die on a cross. It follows that when Christians recite the Nicene Creed's words that Jesus "was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried," they are propagating a lie about one of God's special messengers.

I also note how offensive Forrester’s action would be to an orthodox Muslim. To take the holy scripture of Islam and read it in the context of a service that celebrates the death by crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (both being claims which contradict the teachings of the holy scripture of Islam), with wine (the use of alcohol is strictly forbidden in Islam), and with language that has cannibalistic overtones (eating Jesus’ body, drinking his blood) – this constitutes a desecration of the holy scripture of Islam. There are places in this world where Forrester would have to watch his back, and perhaps fear for his life, as a consequence.

Forrester’s failure to conform to the ordination vows he's already taken on two occasions (first as deacon, then as priest) - and perhaps also with opportunities for renewing those vows - suggests that he either doesn't understand what it means to voluntarily give up the “right” to ecclesial disobedience and/or innovation, or that he does understand but doesn’t care. Either way, it should be troubling to imagine someone who can so publicly dismiss solemn promises serving in a bishop’s role as a guardian of “the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church” (BCP, p. 517).

In addition to choosing to walk “the path of Christianity and Zen Buddhism,” Forrester has chosen to walk the path of innovation rather than the one he has twice promised to walk in his ordination vows: the path of conformity. And in doing so, he has not only parted company with the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. He has also shown disrespect for Islam.