Archive for April 2009
While reading through my JPS Torah I came across this translation of Gen. 3:15:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel.
Notice anything different? I mean, besides the obvious bold and italicized font? At the heart of this problem is whether “offspring” is an individual, referring to a specific child, or whether it is to be taken as a collective singular, referring to many children. The Hebrew term for “offspring/seed” (zera’ – I’ll use the 2 English words interchangeably) is a masculine noun but is somewhat flexible. In Gen. 4:25 it clearly refers to one person (Seth), whereas in Isaiah 41:8 it refers to Israel as a nation. If one takes “offspring” as referring to an individual (as in the Christian tradition), then the following pronouns (in bold) would be “He shall strike…” and “his heel.” If one takes “offspring” as a collective singular then the JPS translation can be substantiated.
How do we figure this out? Well, rather than deliberately retrojecting the NT understanding of “seed” into Genesis lets first argue from the text itself. In the OT, “seed” seems to follow both lines of thinking mentioned above. Since the woman’s seed struggles against the Serpent’s seed, we can infer that it has a collective sense. But since only the head of the Serpent is represented as crushed, we can expect an individual to deliver the fatal blow and to be struck uniquely on his heel. Additionally, biblical Hebrew employs a grammatical gender (“he,” “she”) agreeing with its it’s antecedent. In other words, “seed” is a masculine noun and should thus be followed by masculine pronouns – “He shall strike” and “his heel.” But that only eliminates whether or not the phrase should be translated “she”, which is totally out of the question (but used some older Catholic translations!). The real problem is if it should be translated “they” or “he”. The most impressive evidence against “they” is the Greek Seputagint (LXX), our oldest translation of this text (third or second century B.C.), which translates this phrase with “he” (autos). This is noteworthy given that the Greek antecedent is neuter (sperma), which means that the oldest translation of Genesis deliberately avoided “it” and understood 3:15 as referring to one person (see R.A. Martin, “The Earliest Messianic Interpretation of Genesis 3:15″ JBL 84).
Who, then, is the seed of the woman? The immediate seed is probably Abel, then Seth (Gen. 4:25 – “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel”). The collective seed is the holy offspring of the patriarchs (Gen. 15:5; 22:17). After Genesis we do not hear again of the promised seed until God promises David a seed (2 Sam. 7:12), which should also be understood in both ways. Moving to the NT, the unique fulfillment of this seed promise, however, is Jesus Christ, who comes into the world through the seed of the woman: the patriarchs and David. Paul refers to the seed of Abraham as the individual Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16) but then also includes the church in Christ as Abraham’s seed (Rom. 16:20; Gal. 3:29).
Conversely, the seed of the Serpent is/are not little snakes, nor demons (since Satan does not father demons), but most likely those who are in rebellion against God. There are the elect, who love God (John 8:31-32), and the reprobate, who love themselves and are of their father, the devil (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8). Each main character in Genesis, then, is portrayed as either the seed of the woman (like Abel and Seth) who carries on God’s promise of Gen. 3:15, or the seed of the Serpent (like Cain) that reproduces the Serpent’s unbelief. In the end, although both individuals will be grievously wounded (“strike” and “crush”), this struggle with the Serpent is ultimately won in the suffering of that Seed (Isa. 53:12; Luke 24:26, 46-47; Rom. 16:20; 2 Cor. 1:5-7; Col. 1:24; 1 Peter 1:11).
Therefore, I believe we can agree in part with the JPS translation (and others) of “they shall strike” and “their heel,” but only if they mean a collective seed and are not simply avoiding the singular notion for fear of adopting a Christian worldview (of Jesus!). The better translation would keep the singular intact, “he shall strike” and “his heel,” which suggests a promised offspring that will project a new spiritual race into this fallen world.
All OT challenges aside.
Tonight I’ve listened to two sermons at the recommendation of my pastor. I believe that this one is the best sermon I’ve ever heard.
Don’t let the title deter you from listening.
There are many textual difficulties in the OT, to be sure, most of which take lengthy essays or articles to explain. The task in this series, “Interpretive Challenges in the OT,” will be to examine these puzzling texts, survey the conclusions proposed by other writers and scholars, and arrive at a succinct and cogent explanation. Pray for me…
One of the first problems one might face when reading through the Bible from cover to cover (if he or she does that) is the question of who God is addressing in Genesis 1:26. In particular, who is the “us” and the “our” in God’s words, “Let us make man in our image.” Before delving into the text itself I want to briefly summarize the many options proposed to explain the “us.”:
- “Us” refers to a various gods in the ancient Near East, and thus perpetuates the mythological origins of Genesis.
- “Us” refers to the creation itself, which means that the creation not only has life but personality and will.
- “Us” is an honorific plural, much like Elohim (“God”), which is a plural word that speaks of a singular God.
- “Us” refers of God’s self-deliberation (a “plural of self-deliberation” was first proposed by Gesenius).
- “Us” refers to the Trinity.
- “Us” refers to the divine council, i.e. angelic beings in God’s presence.
The first two views can clearly be set aside since the whole aim of Genesis 1 is a polemic against polytheism. The third view is not likely since honorific plurals occur only with nouns (like Elohim, “God”) and not pronouns (like “us”). The fourth view may be discarded on the basis that no other text supports God self-deliberating within himself. The fifth view, however, is another kettle of fish. Traditional orthodoxy has asserted “us” as being a reference to the Trinity. This makes sense theologically on a number of grounds. First, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all identified as Creator (Job. 33:4; John 1:3; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2). Second, it seems that the Holy Spirit is mentioned in Gen. 1:2 – “And the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” Third, it would make sense that the Hebrew name for God, Elohim, would be a plural word since the Trinity is three distinct persons.
However convincing the Trinitarian perspective may be, the arguments are flawed to some extent. For instance, while the Spirit is clearly present in creation based on later texts it is hardly possible that Moses, writer of Genesis, had a multi-personed view of God at the time of his writing. Based on the antecedent context the only possibility of a plurality of deity is Gen. 1:2, but even that verse is more likely translated “wind from God” (cf. the recreation in Gen. 8:1 and the “wind” that blows over the waters after the flood). Furthermore, it is against the rules of grammatico-historical exegesis to read the theology of later texts into early ones. While the doctrine of the Trinity is clearly attested elsewhere in Scripture, it is faulty to try and locate ambiguous texts to support that doctrine when they are not clearly present. Be minded, I am not denying the existence of the Trinity nor their role in creation. But based on the text it doesn’t seem like the other persons of the Godhead are mentioned until later revelation.
A more coherent explanation of Gen. 1:26, I believe, is view six; that “us” refers to the divine council/angels. This view is affirmed by most OT commentators (cf. Waltke, Sarna, Wenham, Gentry, and others; contra V. Hamilton, Mathews, Alexander). Waltke (“The Bruce”) notes the contextual support for this view by taking Gen. 3:5 into consideration:
“The Serpent, who becomes identified as Satan in later revelation, tempts the man and woman to eat forbidden fruit to gratify their pride: ‘You [plural] will be like divine beings [Elohim], knowing good and evil.’ Conceivably, Elohim here is another honorific plural for God, but its attributive modifier, ‘knowing’ (lit. ‘knowers of’), is plural.”
Normally, whether a word is plural or singular is decided not only by its form but also by its accompanying modifiers. For example, for the first clause at the beginning of 3:5, “God” (Elohim) and the modifier, “knows,” are both singular, which clearly means Elohim is to be taken as singular. But at the end of the verse Elohim takes a plural modifier, which means Elohim should be rendered, “divine beings”, instead of the usual, “God.” This is confirmed in Gen. 3:22 when God says, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.” Without understanding the final clause in 3:5 as “divine beings” v. 22 would make no sense. The Serpent knows of the divine counsel, and thus his temptation in 3:5 refers to that very group. Additionally, we must keep in mind that there are two other passages in the OT that mention God in the plural but do not seem to be referring to the Trinity (Gen. 11:7; Isaiah 6:8). Out of these I think that Isaiah 6:8 is the strongest evidence against a Trinitarian understanding of “us.” In that passage God is surrounded by heavenly Seraphim who constantly bring him praise, and Isaiah hears God asking them, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (6:8). This is not God self-deliberating, nor is it a reference to the Trinity, but a scene in which God acts jointly with the heavenly court (Seraphim). In sum, all four uses of “us” in conjunction with Elohim in the OT refer to divine beings and not a plurality of deity (i.e. the Trinity).
But does this mean that Gen. 1:26 says humans are made in the image of God and the angels, and not just God? Far from it! That stance is flawed theologically. Humans are not made in “their” image, but only God’s (1:27 – “his image”). However, when God addresses the angels it does not mean they are taking part in the creation or part of the divine image. Rather, God is the addresser of his court: the addressees. He is the primary actor, so to speak, but acting in concert with the divine beings.
One final point may help my argument, which comes from Psalm 8:5-8:
“Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings [Elohim] and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”
It has been argued elsewhere that this passage is a commentary on Gen. 1:26-28, to which I agree. Regarding Elohim as noted in this Psalm, it must be maintained that our oldest translation (LXX) has “angels” and not “God” in the first sentence. The writer of Hebrews also goes this route in 2:7. Moreover, throughout the Psalm David refers to God in the second person (“your”). It would be odd for him to suddenly switch (e.g. “Yet you have made him a little lower than yourself“). I believe, then, that David, drawing his thought from Gen. 1:26-28, understood the “us” suffix as referring to the heavenly court and not as a plurality of deity.
To conclude, while interpreting Gen. 1:26 as Trinitarian may be attractive in light of the NT data, this view is textually and contextually flawed. All OT examples of Elohim in the plural refer to divine beings, as well as David’s meditation on this passage in Ps. 8:5-8. A better route would be to see “us” as referring to the divine council/heavenly beings, an interpretation that is justified on solid exegetical grounds and grammatico-historical exegesis. Although this present essay is not exhaustive, my hope is that it has stimulated your thought on this difficult matter and helped you in understanding the text.
Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology and Genesis: A Commentary
Victor Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, in NICOT
Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, in NAC
Peter Gentry, Kingdom Through Covenant: Humanity as the Divine Image, in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Vol. 12 No. 1
Nahum Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary
Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15, in WBC
I found this quote from the blog at Reformed Reader helpful in thinking about preaching Christ in all of Scripture. Many pastors, young and old, continue to do a disservice to the OT text by bludgeoning Christ upon every jot and tittle.To those who make it their practice to do so, I think these wise words from Sidney Greidanus are instructive:
The christocentric method complements the theocentric method of interpreting the Old Testament by seeking to do justice to the fact that God’s story of bringing his kingdom on earth is centered in Christ: Christ the center of redemptive history, Christ the center of the Scriptures. In preaching any part of Scripture, one must understand its message in the light of that center, Jesus Christ.
It should be clear by now that our concern is not to preach Christ to the exclusion of the “whole counsel of God” but rather to view the whole counsel of God, with all its teachings, laws, prophecies, and visions, in the light of Jesus Christ. At the same time, it should be evident that we must not read the incarnate Christ back into the Old Testament text, which would be eisegesis, but that we should look for legitimate ways of preaching Christ from the Old Testament in the context of the New.
Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, pgs. 227-28.
A solid reminder that while we must not allegorize Christ all over the OT, as though we could make him explicitly mentioned in every verse, we must recognize that every verse providentially exists where it is as part of a canonical Bible that centers around God’s redeeming work in none other than Christ himself. Thus to preach a given verse as though it had nothing to do with Christ and his finished work is to misunderstand the OT as Christian Scripture.
Darren Aronofsky, director of “The Fountain,” “Pi,” and “Requiem for a Dream” recently sat down with Peter Sciretta of slashfilm.com and spoke about some of his upcoming film projects. One of his future movies is a “religious film” dealing with the biblical character of Noah. Here is part of the interview:
Peter Sciretta: The only thing I wanted to ask you about is when you were in San Francisco with The Fountain, you told me about your next project, which is going to be a religious film…
Darren Aronofsky: That was Noah.
Peter Sciretta: Yes, Noah, what’s happening with that?
Darren Aronofsky: We have an amazing screenplay.
Peter Sciretta: Who wrote it?
Darren Aronofsky: I wrote it. Me and Ari Handel, the guy who worked on The Fountain. It’s a great script and it’s HUGE. And we’re starting to feel out talent. And then we’ll probably try and set it up…
Peter Sciretta: So this isn’t something you can make for six million dollars?
Darren Aronofsky: No, this is big, I mean, Look…it’s the end of the world and it’s the second most famous ship after Titanic. So I’m not sure why any studio won’t want to make it.
Peter Sciretta: You would hope so?
Darren Aronofsky: Yeah, I would hope so. It’s a really cool project and I think it’s really timely because it’s about environmental apocalypse which is the biggest theme, for me, right now for what’s going on on this planet. So I think it’s got these big, big themes that connect with us. Noah was the first environmentalist. He’s a really interesting character. Hopefully they’ll let me make it. Oh that’s right I forgot I told you that whole religious thing.
It is interesting to see how our culture views biblical stories – outside the metanarrative of Scripture and inside their personal worldview. For Aronofsky, the flood narrative of Genesis 6-9 is about an environmental apocalypse, with its main character being the Al Gore of the ancient Near East. For Christians, the story is much bigger. A few things struck me as I read this interview: 1) Noah’s story is the biggest theme going on in the planet. 2) Noah’s story does connect with us. Not only are we all longing for a savior (just look at all the superhero movies that have been made in the last 5 years), the whole creation is groaning inwardly, eagerly awaiting the redemption of sons (Rom. 8:18-25). 3) Noah’s ark is much more famous than the Titanic. 4) Noah’s story is very timely.
Noah was no environmentalist or weatherman. Noah was a savior. More to the point, Noah was typological of the coming Savior who not only saves people from judgment, but also saves them from their sins. In return, those who are united to him receive life. Noah’s story is about the flood, yes, but what Aronofsky doesn’t realize is that Noah’s story is about Jesus. Unlike Noah, Jesus was (is!) an environmentalist – he walks on water (Matt. 14:22-33) and the winds cease at the sound of his voice (Matt. 8:23-27). Like Noah, Jesus ushers in a new creation as the last Adam (Rom. 5:14). Yet while Noah preaches the gospel by calling the people to turn from their wickedness and enter into the salvation that God provided, Jesus is the salvation. Jesus is the gospel.
If “Noah: The Movie” is ever made I will probably see it. But Hollywood will never get it right. The flood narrative is not the end of the story. It only points to the one through whom all men will be reconciled.
“By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” – Hebrews 11:7
Walter C. Kaiser Jr., distinguished professor of Old Testament and president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is an excellent scholar and leader in evangelicalism. Before coming to Gordon-Conwell he served at TEDS and as president of ETS, which alone vounch for a positive repuation. There he wrote one of his most significant publications, Toward an Old Testament Theology, which I read this week while off from school. Although some may consider his work passé (it was published in 1978), Kaiser is still masterful in presenting the canonical shape of the Hebrew Bible, exhibiting keen insight and exegetical skill throughout the book. The division of the book is threefold, and I want to make a few observations for the interested reader, all of which occur in the first section of the book.
I – Definition and Method (the best section of the book)
II – Materials for an Old Testament Theology (walks through each section of the Hebrew ordering of the Bible and explains the theology)
III – The Connection with New Testament Theology (a helpful transition into the Christian era)
An initial observation deals with the nature of the Bible. Kaiser makes clear that, at the time of his writing, biblical theology had failed to restate and reapply the authority of the Bible (as was the case with Gerhard von Rad and Walter Eichrodt). It is therefore his intention to do so. The OT is not a set of detached periods with little or no unity, says Kaiser. Rather, the OT is God’s inspired and infallible Word, as it claims to be, and should be treated as such:
The nature of the theology of the OT…is not merely a theology which is in conformity with the whole Bible, but it is that theology described and contained in the Bible and consciously joined from era to era as the whole previously antecedent context becomes the base for the theology which followed in each era (9).
The most useful way to confirm this authority lies in an inductive reading. In contrast to the method used by systematic theology called the Analogy/Rule of Faith, Kaiser utilizes what he calls the Analogy of Antecedent Scripture to approach his task. In his own words,
While the Analogy or Rule of Faith is deductive and collects all materials regardless of its relative dating, the Analogy of [Antecedent] Scripture is inductive and collects only those antecedent contexts which were in the Scripture writer’s mind as he wrote this new passage as indicated by the same terminology, formulas, or events to which this context adds another in the series (19).
For Kaiser, the text begs to be understood and set in a context of events and meanings. To that end, the exegete must depend on the theology of the periods preceding his given canonical text. Otherwise, he will be using new material in the NT or subsequent OT passages in trying to grasp the meaning of a given text. Kaiser asserts that this would be “an outright rebellion against the author and his claim to have received divine authority for for what he reports and says” (19). On the other hand, by employing the Analogy of Antecedent Scripture the exegete will come to understand the theological core of the canon, which is absolutely crucial to Kaiser’s method. In my own research, albeit limited, I’ve found this method to be very helpful and true to the original intent of the author.
The second (and most important) observation is in Kaiser’s identification of a canonical theological center in the OT. He sees the problem many face as twofold: 1) Does a key exists for an orderly and progressive arrangement of the subjects, themes, and teachings of the OT?, and 2) were the writers of the canon aware of such a theme (20)? Many attempts have been made to answer these questions but Kaiser finds them unsatisfactory and ambiguous. Therefore, he sets out to do so from the text itself and without the critical presuppositions others have brought to the table. Simply stated, God’s unifying plan is bound up in the terms “promise” and “blessing,” for “the divine promise pointed to a seed, a race, a family, a man, a land, and a blessing of universal proportions – all guaranteed, according to Genesis 17, as being everlasting and eternal. In that purpose resides the single plan of God” (see Gen. 3:15; 9:25-27; 12:1-3 as the key OT passages on the promise). The promise is textually confirmed in the vocabulary of the canonical books themselves, as well as certain epitomizing formulae which summarize the central action of God in a succinct phrase or two. Kaiser calls this the tripartite formula of promise – “I will be your God; you shall be My people, and I will dwell in the midst of you.” This formula is repeated in part or in full in Genesis 17:7-8; 28:21; Exodus 6:7; 29:45-46; Leviticus 11:45; 22:33; 25:38; 26:12, 44, 45; Numbers 15:41; Deuteronomy 4:20; 29:12-13; et. al. Later it appeared in Jeremiah 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezekiel 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; 37:27; Zechariah 8:8; 13:9; and in the NT in 2 Corinthians 6:16 and Revelation 21:3-7 (33-34). Therefore, according to Kaiser the promise is the theological center of the OT. It is indeginous to the text itself, united and supported in all parts of the canon.
This answers the first question, but what about the second? Were the biblical writers aware and actively working according to this promise? Without going into too much detail, the organic unity of the text is rooted in history through the work of the authors. Thus, history is the unifying principle. This is clear in that the entire focus of the OT lies in the content and recipients of God’s covenants. God has promised in the biblical authors that he would freely do or be something for all men as he did in the past. His “oaths,” “pledges,” “declarations,” and the like all attest to his promissary “word” that he has acted in the past, is acting in the present, and will act in the future.
At this point I’ve mentioned only positive details about Kaiser’s work, the reason being that I didn’t find too much to be critical about. I will mention, however, that Kaiser fails give attention to the literary structure of certain key passages, which, as I’ve learned from Drs. Gentry and Garrett, aid immensely in interpretation (passages like Gen. 1-2; Exod. 15; poetic forumlae in the Proverbs; resumptive technique in Isaiah; the chiastic structure of Zephaniah, etc.). Kaiser also limits his treatment of the Psalms to a few pages, breezing over key ideas and themes so clearly present. Yet Kaiser generally comes to the same interpretation nonetheless. It is understood from the beginning that Kaiser does not intend to write a biblical theology in toto, such as in the works of Brevard Childs, Gerhard von Rad and Bruce Waltke (much later, of course). Instead, he has given us a concise theology, much like Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty. As an aside, it would insteresting to compare Kaiser’s work with Dempster, but that study will have to wait, and this blog is already long enough! At this point I would probably recommend Dempster over Kaiser, but mainly because Dempster draws upon Kaiser’s previous (antecedent!) work, and is more up to date.
In the end, while reading Kaiser I was constantly reminded of the truthfulness of God’s Word in the OT, indeed the whole Bible, and the confidence Christians can have in handling it rightly. If we only had preachers to lead them in this task! I highly recommend this book for pastor’s, scholar’s and seminarians, but not necessarily for lay people. The language is often technical (but readable) and a knowledge of biblical Hebrew is a must.
Although I am always interested in most things Mark Driscoll writes or preaches I had no intention of purchasing Vintage Church. But after a recent course in Missiology I’ve been thinking much about church planting and missions, and have had many questions as to the “how’s” and “where’s” and “why’s” of the subject in general. To be specific, if I were ever to plant a church in a city in the U.S. or abroad, where would I begin? How would I (and some close friends Lord willing) start such a thing? Knowing that Driscoll has successfully planted a church (and continues to plant more), and after reading an endorsement for the book by Driscoll himself, I decided to give it a try with hopes of learning from Driscoll’s experience at Mars Hill. I picked up the book from Lifeway, quickly discarded the dust jacket (very annoying), and dove in.
Vintage Church is part of a series of works by Resurgence Literature (Re:Lit) and published by Crossway. The first book to appear in this series was Vintage Jesus, which I skimmed but have not yet read. As the titles suggest, “Jesus” and “Church” are timeless and timely; that is, although ancient they speak the same truths to our culture and generation. Yet whereas Vintage Jesus sought to provide timeless answers to timely questions, Vintage Church seeks to combine timeless truths with timely methods in order to provide a biblical, attractive and influential model of “doing church.” Like Vintage Jesus and Death by Love (see my review here), Driscoll co-writes with professor Gerry Breshears of Western Seminary. Driscoll writes the bulk of each chapter and Breshears provides answers to expected and common questions at the end of the chapters, which are listed below:
1. What is the Christian Life?
2. What is a Christian Church?
3. Who is Supposed to Lead a Church?
4. Why is Preaching Important?
5. What Are Baptism and Communion?
6. How Can a Church be Unified?
7. What is Church Discipline?
8. How is Love Expressed in a Church?
9. What is a Missional Church?
10. What is a Multi-campus Church?
11. How Can a Church Utilize Technology?
12. How Could the Church Help Transform the World?
As you can see, any seminary student can answer the first 8 or 9 questions, or at least I hope they can. In this sense there is nothing new to learn in Vintage Church. Driscoll is clearly influenced by reformed theology and most matters of church polity and practice follow suit. Throughout the book he quotes from Grudem, Piper, Erickson and Calvin, which is to be expected. There are, of course, the open-handed differences that distinguish one denomination from another, such as credobaptism over paedobaptism, complementarian over egalitarian (maybe not so open-handed), male and female deacons (Driscoll holds to both), and the expressions of the Spirit in tongues and prophecy (also held by Driscoll). But for the most part his ecclesiology is thoroughly evangelical and God-honoring. The only unique material comes from Driscoll’s anecdotes and personal stories, which are always enjoyable, and from the final 3 or 4 chapters. To that end I don’t necessarily recommend the book, mostly because I don’t see the necessity of another book on ecclesiology. Certainly the church must change and adapt to the culture around them, that is agreed. But why waste 300 pages regurgitating what has already been written? Moreover, don’t we already have enough books floating around about missional, multi-campus, technologically advanced churches? Perhaps I’m being overly simplistic. I’ll leave that up for you to decide. Maybe I’m not “vintage” enough.
In the end, I had more fun reading the many “driscollisms” splattered throughout Vintage Church than the rest of the book. The man has an uncanny ability at turning a phrase. Here are some highlights:
“The people who showed up [in my early church plant] were generally non-Christians, new Christians, legalistic Christians, anti-Christians, and bitter, burned-out, de-churched maybe-Christians who all wanted to be in authority over themselves and do whatever they wanted in the name of community, which was code for mini-riot anarchy.”
“I once visited a church that gave me a free copy of the pastor’s sermon – on tape – even though I have not seen a tape player since the days when Michael Jackson was male. Looking around the room at the obvious lack of anyone younger than Methuselah, it seemed obvious that their traditionalism had run off emerging generations, thereby dividing their church into the two groups of BT (before tapes) and AT (after tapes).”
“The fact is that when our church was small, I, like many jealous, petty, and ill-informed young buck who know everything but have done nothing, liked to take my shots at well-known pastors of large churches. Now that I am one, I must confess that I was much like the out-of-shape guy with a bowl of chips sitting at home on the couch watching television and criticizing trained professional athletes, which is far easier than actually playing the sport.”
“Admittedly, churches do some incredibly goofy things when they pursue relevance for the sake of being uber hip and ultra cool. one pastor I know go so many piercings that he looked like a rack of lures at the Bass Pro Shop and started skateboarding, despite the fact he was a grandfather.”
Perhaps no other author can lock me into a book so quickly than David McCullough. His moving biography of John Adams is a favorite of mine, as is the fast paced 1776, both of which I commend to anyone interested in the history of our nation. Of course, all of us know that a book should not be judged by its first few paragraphs, and to this I think McCullough would agree. I can think, however, of many books I’ve picked up recently where reading the first chapter is like walking through heavy mud. McCullough is not of this sort. As a historical novelist, he walks the reader into the story so that he may feel, taste, hear and see the world about which he reads. After trudging through three J-term courses this winter, I decided to read leisurely while waiting for my upcoming, and last, semester. I picked up McCullough’s first book, The Johnstown Flood, and instantly felt like a character in this incredible story.
Johnstown, Pennsylvania, located southeast of Pittsburgh, was a small but thriving factory town of about 30,000 citizens in 1889. The people were diverse, hardworking and content, typical of late 19th century American industrialism. Their town, however, sat at the fork of two rivers (the Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh) that overflow their banks every other spring when heavy rains drench the area. But since no one ever died there was never any attempt to control the waters up to that point, and the floods became commonplace. About 10-15 miles up the Little Conemaugh river was a resort for the Pittsburgh wealthy, which included a large lake upheld by a small, old dam built of stone. The dam contained a spillway which fed into the Little Conemaugh. Johnstown’s residents knew that if the dam were ever to break the flood waters would likely wipe out their town, yet they did nothing to secure the dam or assure that high water on the lake would not spill over. Numerous engineers and others suggested the dam be rebuilt or somehow stabilized, yet the Johnstown public repeatedly balked at the idea. After all, money was tight and resources costly. When the flood waters came year after year the dam continued to hold, which bolstered the confidence of Johnstown. But no one expected the the events of May 31st, for that flood wasn’t like any other.
On May 30th a torrential downpour caused the lake at the dam to rise as much as one inch every ten minutes. Through the night the water at the crest of the dam rose from six feet to only two feet. The caretakers of the resort and dam knew that if the rain kept pouring Johnstown could be in for a natural disaster, so they wired to Johnstown hour after hour in an attempt to alert the citizens of a possible break at the dam. By morning of the 31st Johnstown was already partially flooded, about knee-high, which was a typical spring soaking. For them there was no reason to fear, so they went about their day as usual. After hearing the alerts about the dam, most chuckled at the prospect of a break. This concerned the caretakers of the resort, and a few even came down on horseback to alert the citizens themselves. However, only some in Johnstown fled to the hills, and most didn’t take notice. Most striking was the lack of attention given to the dam by Johnstown’s politicians, who likewise neglected to leave their own comfortable homes, let alone inform the public about an impending disaster. Yet about 2:50 P.M. the dam finally gave way and the waters rushed on, picking up trees, houses, debris, mud, rock and barbwire as it headed to Johnstown traveling 15 miles/hour. It was not a wave like those that crash into the Florida coast. Rather, it was a was a giant hill, 30-40 feet high of blackness, “a blur, an advance guard, as it were as mist, like dust that precedes a cavalry charge.” One onlooker described the wave as “a cloud of blackest smoke I ever saw.” Most impressionable was the terrible sound of the thing, and the ambivalence of those in Johnstown who neglected to leave the city. McCullough writes, “most of the people in Johnstown never saw the water coming; they only heard it; and those who lived to tell about it would for years after try to describe the sound of the thing as it rushed on them.”
The flood came upon Johnstown with great force, and McCullough describes the catastrophic event with precision and detail. In the end, 2,209 people lost their lives, many whose bodies were never found. Although thousands came to help the recovery and rescue effort, the clean-up would take months, even years. Many tried to sue the resort and caretakers of the dam for the loss of life, but the blame, writes McCullough, should be shifted. Indeed, the overarching theme of the book concerns the complacency of Johnstown’s own residents and leaders. In this light it is important to notice that the Johnstown flood is not simply a story about a natural disaster. It is a different subject than, say, the stories of the Chicago fire or the great San Francisco earthquake. It is more like hurricane Katrina. The theme of the Johnstown flood is that it is extremely risky, perhaps even perilous, to assume that because people are in positions of responsibility they are acting responsibly. The Johnstown flood, then, is a story of human irresponsibility, of shortsightedness of the clear “writing on the wall,” as it were. It is about man at his most thoughtless and naive.
Aside from the obvious downside of the flood itself, I loved this book. McCullough is a historical writer par excellence, and I highly recommended his works to anyone, young or old, for a satisfying and informing read.
I usually stay up to date with the ministry of Mars Hill Church and their pastor, Mark Driscoll. Although controversial, I have admired the way in which his ministry has reached Seattle, WA (the most unchurched city in America). Indeed, Mars Hill (not to be confused with Mars Hill of Rob Bell fame) has penetrated the culture with the gospel and thousands have been saved. As Driscoll has said elsewhere, Mars Hill seeks to combine a message that is timeless with a ministry that is timely, and I’m inclined to agree.
Aside from pastoring and teaching at conferences Driscoll has written many books, the latest of which is “Death by Love: Letters from the Cross,” published by Crossway as part of Mars Hill’s Re:Lit ministry. After seeing this provocative video I picked up the book this week and read it.
I won’t spend much space on this review, but to say that I endorse the book and pray that it has an impact on other Christians. The book is structured as 12 letters to 12 different people, most of which have been held captive by certain sins. All 12 are real people with real situations that Driscoll has counseled throughout his pastoral ministry. After meeting with each person, Driscoll writes them a letter explaining how Jesus’ substitutionary death and resurrection penetrates their individual situation. While Driscoll writes the bulk of the book, there is supplemental theological material by Dr. Gerry Breshears (prof. of theology at Western Seminary) at the end of each letter. What this amounts to is solid pastoral insight (Driscoll planted and has pastored Mars Hill for 12 years) with solid theological underpinnings.
There is much to be commended about the book, but I don’t encourage everyone to read it. Driscoll is not afraid to rebuke those who are held captive to sin. His language is often vivid and provocative. However, his language is sincere and his writing is filled with Christ. To that end, he takes his job seriously, and his impact for the church at Seattle has been very fruitful. I pray that we all would likewise be devoted to the gospel as Driscoll.
Having just completed Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice, I thought it necessary to post some of my thoughts. To sum up, this fictional account traces the life of the historical Jesus as a young boy (between 7-8 years of age), dealing mainly with his journey from Egypt to his hometown of Nazareth, and then back to Jerusalem for the Passover. In a nutshell, Christ the Lord is a novel about Jesus understanding his true nature; namely, awareness that he is the Son of David spoken of in the Old Testament. Although he doesn’t fully comprehend this nature by the end of the book, he nonetheless accepts his role with faith and assurance that God will show him the path he must make. While the journey out of Egypt was long and difficult with many trials along the way, Jesus has his own journey to make, one that he must keep secret until the appropriate time.
There are many strengths and weaknesses in Christ the Lord and I will try to mention them in light of the biblical data. First, there is much to commend in Rice’s historical research. She provides many intricate details for the setting in life in which Jesus lived. This is helpful because it gives us a grasp on the “humanness” of Christ. We see that he was taught from the Old Testament (and had to study hard!), that he worked as a craftsman with Joseph, and that sometimes he fell ill. While Rice is clearly writing a fictional account and taking liberties in doing so, she provides these details with precision. We must understand that Jesus was fully man yet without sin. I believe that Rice’s book is useful in this regard.
However, the book is no literary masterpiece. Certain features are clearly forced, mainly for literary tension and to support the theological presuppositions of the author (Rice is an ardent Catholic). For instance, in order to guard the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of Mary (based on the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which implies that Mary was not born in original sin and therefore lived a sinless life), Rice explains that Mary has never had sexual relations with any man, including Joseph: “I have never been with a man, not then, not now, nor will I ever. I am consecrated to the Lord” (53). Of course, this creates problems, the first being that of James, Jesus’ brother. We find out later that James is not Jesus’ brother by birth but his half-brother. Joseph, before marrying Mary, had a former wife who died after their son, James, was born.
A second issue deals with Jesus’ miracles. While the gospels present his miracles as signs that prove Jesus is the Son of God, in this account Jesus unknowingly performs them. Power simply slips out of him when he wants something done, usually out of the goodness of his heart. In the first chapter alone Jesus causes stone sparrows to be real sparrows, and raises a little Jewish boy to life! Later he heals his uncle, Cleopas, who was dying from illness. When in the Temple for Passover, Jesus has compassion on a blind man, and after praying the man receives his sight. Miracles are great, but miracles without a message are magic tricks. Jesus was not a 1st century David Copperfield. There were plenty of those floating around (Acts 8). In the gospels Jesus clearly knows what he is doing. Power doesn’t spurt out of his hands like Harry Potter’s wand. Rather, the power of Jesus is the power of the Father, fully manifested in him, to show he is truly God’s Son.
Many other issues are troubling. Caiaphas is somehow related to Jesus. This is probably to heighten the tension between the two when the time comes for Jesus’ trial and execution (Rice plans to write more novels in this mold). John the Baptist meets Jesus as a young boy, always staring at him and not knowing why. We learn later that John becomes an Essene, an extremely pious Jewish sect who lived in caves north of the Dead Sea. Of course, this is all speculative. One of the more disconcerting elements occurs in the Temple, where Jesus and the male family members go to sacrifice before Passover. When the sacrifice is done we learn of Jesus’ thoughts: “It is finished. Paid in full” (293). But it is not finished! It is not paid in full (as far as this story goes). Only when Jesus dies as the once-for-all sacrifice is the payment made in full. Only when he is bruised for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities can he cry, “It is finished.” The work was never complete in the sacrificial system of the Law. The sacrifices according to the Law are a foreshadowing of the coming sacrifice. As the book of Hebrews contends, “he has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (7:27). Further, “he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (9:12). Only by means of his own blood is the work complete.
One last point is not to be missed. After Jesus offers his sacrifice (he is about 8 years old) he wanders into the court of the Rabbis seeking answers to his questions. He stays with the Rabbis, we learn, for about 3 days, after which Joseph and Mary find him. Upon meeting him Mary says, “Why have you done this? We’ve been in misery searching for you.” Jesus replies, “Mother, I must know things now…things I’m forbidden to ask to you or Joseph. I must be about what it is that I have to do” (307)! At first glance nothing seems out of place with the story in Luke 2. But the implication is far reaching in Rice’s account. First of all, Luke explicitly states that Jesus was 12 years old when these events occurred (2:42), and that the Rabbis were listening to him teach, not the other way around. Furthermore, Luke records Jesus telling his mother, “did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business” (2:49). Rice’s account implies that Jesus was asking the Rabbi’s for information about who he really was (as if they would know), while Luke’s account seems to indicate that Jesus already knew his nature and purpose. Not only is the factual evidence distorted, so is the meaning of the text.
Other particulars can be pointed out and applied, which I will remain from doing here. The overall consensus? Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt is an enjoyable book that seeks to show the reader how Jesus lived during 1st century Judaism, but more importantly how he came to understand his kingship. However, the story is skewed by the many false assumptions underlying the plot. As fully human Jesus must have come to a knowledge of his true nature in some way or another (most likely by his reading of the OT). But to come to these conclusions outside of the inspired text (Rice quotes the Apocrypha on occasion) is conjecture, which can lead many away from the truth.
I was once told that there is no such thing as an unbiased historian. I’m inclined to agree. Rice is no historian, but she has taken historical accounts and placed them in a literary framework outside of Scripture. Instead, she reinterprets the Gospel story with theological presuppositions. The question for us is as follows: without endorsing the book, should we recommend such reading to others in our churches? Should all such literature be ruled out? Before jumping to conclusions, think about The Passion of the Christ movie, or popular womens fiction like The Atonement Child or And the Shofar Blew, which are based on biblical stories. What about theological fiction such as The Shack? Are such works edifying to the church, or distracting?