Friday, September 12, 2014

The Myth of a "Plain Reading" of Scripture: Calvinism and Modern Naiveté

St. Augustine
A couple weeks ago, four Christians authors came together in Chicago to debate Calvinism. It consisted of two Calvinists (Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones) and two Free-Will Theists (Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd). You can watch the debate here and here. There was one point that was made by Montgomery that I thought needed a focused response. Zahnd responded to it but unfortunately didn't have time to drive the point home. I would like to do so here.

Zahnd at one point said when we're talking about Scripture we need to be reading scholars of Scripture, and he mentioned N.T. Wright and a few others. Montgomery in his response said, "I understand we should read guys like . . . N.T. Wright. 'The Great N.T. Wright.' But I'm like, 'We need to read more Paul. We need a plain reading of Paul." A plain reading of Paul, he suggests, would lead us to the doctrines of Calvinism.

The huge problem with this understanding is that there is no such thing as a plain reading of Paul. This is the arrogance of modern readers: we presume to be a post-ideological society in which we can divorce ourselves from our subjectivity, we can be disinterested readers approaching texts objectively, without any biases or preconceived ideas. Such an understanding is incredibly naive.

In the West Side Story song "I Feel Pretty," Maria sings "I feel pretty and witty and gay." We today don't often use the word 'gay' to mean happy, but we know there was a time when that's what was meant when the word was used. Let's say a 100 years from now the word 'gay' is solely understood to be 'homosexual' and no one knows of any other meaning. When people of that time hear Maria's song, they'd think she was saying she felt homosexual. A "plain reading" of the song would suggest such an understanding. But of course we know this would be mistaken. What they would need to do, we are aware, is study the historical usage of the word 'gay' to understand what it meant to the author of the song.

It is the same with Scripture. And that's just a minuscule example. We are separated from the historical Paul culturally, geographically, linguistically, ideologically, etc. Paul wrote 2000 years ago to specific communities in specific situations with specific needs. You're telling me we don't need to understand any of that context to get at what Paul is saying? We can just naturally extract Paul's meaning from the page?

We all have lenses through which we read Scripture. Truth-seekers will call their lenses into question, study other lenses, recognize the limitations they have in understanding certain things because of their lenses, etc. Truth-seekers don't pretend as if their lenses don't exist and then act like the conclusions they draw from their "plain readings" are true.

A "plain reading" of Paul is impossible for us.

Daniel Montgomery sees Calvinism in Paul because he is separated from the context of the writings, because he was taught such a reading, and ultimately because of Augustine. It was Augustine a few hundred years after Paul who first extracted Calvinist-like doctrines from Paul's letters. And the lens Augustine read through was a Neo-Platonism/Christian synthesis.

If Calvinism is what Paul meant when he wrote, why did it take a few hundred years for someone to read it that way? And why was it only after someone combined Christian theology with Neo-Platonic ideas?

It is easy for modern people to see Calvinism in a plain reading of certain biblical texts because we have been subjected to that reading. It is inception: the thought is given to us, followed by the text. We can only start to understand Paul when we study the historical context--the Sitz im Leben. It's the difference between exegesis and eisegesis.

If you think Calvinism is what was meant by what Paul wrote, you better have good reasons based on a study of Paul's context. I am open to hearing such a case and being proven wrong, but after an extensive exegetical study of the passages in question, I have found Calvinism wanting. In fact, I don't see how someone studying the historical context can still be a Calvinist.

And that's why it's so difficult, but also why it's so important.

See also my discussion of various Calvinist proof texts:
"The Historical Romans 9, or Why Everything You Thought You Knew is Wrong"
"Predestined in Christ: Ephesians 1 and Calvinism"
"Calvinism in Acts of the Apostles"

Sunday, September 7, 2014

11 Books that Changed My Life

1) The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann 

This book changed the way I read the Bible. Brueggemann is responsible for the social reading of the Bible that I have developed over the past couple years. There isn't a page where something profound isn't said. It's hard to come up with something to say that encapsulates this work. It's just so good.

2) The Suffering of God by Terence Fretheim 

I read this during a biblical prophets class and it changed the way I think about God. It put into words what I had been feeling for so long: God shares in my suffering. It was also the first book that subjected me to open theism. Fretheim is a master and has been one of the most influential theologians in my life.

3) The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis 

The imagery in this book is just amazing. Lewis articulates ideas so well through the images he uses. The artistry is masterful and the book is profound. I read a chapter of it when I was in the emergency room after a suicide attempt and found it not only moving but incredibly encouraging. This is a book I will read again and again throughout my life, and I expect to always gain insight after insight through each reading.

4) Love Wins by Rob Bell

This was perhaps the first book that radically altered my theology. At the very least, it affirmed the kinds of questions I had been asking for years and encouraged me to dig more. It is also the book that is responsible for me eventually embracing the theology of universal reconciliation. Even if you don't agree with everything he says (which I don't), it is a challenging book that has a lot to teach.

I should also mention Velvet Elvis here, which should probably also be on this list, as it was the first book that subjected me to the importance of studying the historical context of the Bible. I realized through reading the book how much I love doing that and that I wanted to do it in the future. Bell, through these two books, made me passionate about digging deeper into biblical study.

5) In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen 

While it wasn't the first Nouwen book I read--and such a first probably deserves to be on this list because Nouwen is that amazing--it's the one I return to the most. It's so simple, so short, and yet it's another book that doesn't go a page without saying something profound. You could read it in one sitting, but I would recommend taking days to read it, ponder it, and let it sink in.

6) The Prophets by A.J. Heschel 

Like The Prophetic Imagination and The Suffering of God, this is a book I was exposed to during my prophets class. And like them, it radically changed my theology. It not only articulates so well the idea that God shares in our emotional experience (which may be the most valuable theological concept I have ever embraced) but details how a prophet shares in the emotional experience of God. It not only changed my theology, but also the way I approached God in my personal life. Heschel is my favorite theologian, and this may be my favorite theology book.

7) God the Economist by M. Douglas Meeks 

While I had already caught on to the idea that God has radical economic insights for us before reading this book, Meeks wrote down not only what I had been sensing, but also what I needed to read in a systematic way. If I were to recommend only one book detailing a Christian approach to economics, it would without a doubt be this one.

8) The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd 

While I have strayed slightly from the Christianarchist views that Boyd espouses in this book, it is still well worth being on this list. I was for so long upset with the current state of Christian political thinking, and Boyd said everything I was thinking and more. Every Christian concerned with politics should first read this. Boyd is relentless in his insistence that we base our political thinking off of Jesus, and equally relentless when he details the radical assertions that that entails. Even if you don't agree with everything, Boyd has a message that most Christian Americans today need to hear. (It was also the book that inspired me to become a pacifist.)

9) Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns

Along with helping me come to terms with how to think about Scripture and what to do with some of the problems that the Bible poses, Enns reintroduced me to my love for studying the Hebrew Bible. At the time, I had strayed far from Hebrew Bible studies and had become only interested in theology, even planning to one day write a systematic theology (a notion I now think to be ridiculous). I was growing disinfatuated with theological discussions before I read this and when I did I realized once again how much I love studying the Hebrew Bible. This definitely isn't the best thing that could be said about Enns' work, as his thoughts on the Bible offer so much insight, but this is the most significant way that the book affected my life at the time.

10) The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter

I read this in my Psalms class and, at the risk of sounding repetitive and dramatic, it changed the way I read the Bible. It opened me up to the possibility of the literary analysis of the biblical text. Alter offers what was a profound insight to me at the time: the Bible is literature, beautiful literature, and it should be respected as such. I didn't learn growing up that I could analyze a passage in the Bible the same way one analyses a William Blake poem; it was Alter who introduced me to that notion, and I am quite thankful for that.

11) You Are Special by Max Lucado

This was perhaps the first book that profoundly affected my life. It was definitely the first one to make me cry (it sometimes still does). As a kid, I would read this and feel the truth of the statement as if I was hearing from God (and I think I was!): "You Are Special." It's a beautiful story with a message that impacted me as a kid in the greatest possible way. I highly doubt I'd be who I am today without it. In fact, I wouldn't be who I am today without any of these books. So, you should read them. They're amazing.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What God Cannot Do

There's an old saying, "If there is no God, everything is permitted."(1) This statement follows the train of thought provided by those like C.S. Lewis who claim that our sense of morality points to the existence of a moral God. Without such a God determining what is moral, we can have no moral compass and so "everything is permitted."

Slavoj Žižek, on the other hand, turns this around. He says, "It is precisely if there is a God that everything is permitted."(2) He says this because the concept of God gives people something beyond themselves to appeal to in order to justify their actions. As "the instruments of God's will," they "practice a perverted version of what Kierkegaard called the religious suspension of the ethical: on a mission from God, one is allowed to kill thousands of innocents."(3) He explains,
The vast majority of people are spontaneously moral: torturing or killing another human being is deeply traumatic for them. So, in order to make them do it, a larger "sacred" Cause is needed, one which makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial . . . : without it, we would have to feel all the burden of what we did, with no Absolute upon whom to off-load our ultimate responsibility.(4)
We all know this happens. The crusades, the inquisitions, executions of heretics, the list goes on. And is it not the rationale for justifying the darker sides of Calvinism? "Yes, it sounds horrible to us that God would create billions of people just to damn them to hell for ever and ever; yes, it sounds horrible to us that God would raise up Hitler and Stalin to torture and kill thousands, or to bring about 9/11--but it's what the Bible says and we just have to trust God. Who are we to question him?"

This rationale is also used when evangelical Christians talk about the violent actions attributed to God in the Bible. When asked if it was moral for the ancient Israelites to enact genocide, Tremper Longman said, "Yes, by definition it was moral. I may struggle with it, but God defines morality--what is right and what is wrong. If it is initiated by God, it is moral. God defines morality."(5)

Along the same lines, Daniel Heimbach says, "because God defines morality for us and not the other way around, it must therefore be that God acting as a bloodthirsty warrior is sometimes morally justified; and it must also be that at those times fighting on God's side on crusade terms, allowing no surrender, showing no mercy and sparing no one, is also entirely justified."(6)

I cannot overstate how dangerous this thinking is. Not only has it been used throughout history to justify atrocities, but it can and will be used again.

If God is our standard for morality, then it must be an actual standard. If killing a child is morally wrong, it shouldn't be morally right just because God does it. Relativising morality in such a way not only makes morality meaningless, but the answer to the question "What is moral?" becomes up for grabs. Suddenly, whether or not killing children is moral becomes a matter of interpretation. Suddenly, everything is permitted. If Christians really want to claim God as a moral standard, it has to be consistent.

Rather than saying "God determines morality so even if he does something evil, it is good because he does it," we should say, God cannot do anything evil, but only does what is good. There is a standard of morality that God cannot violate, precisely because it is in God's nature to be good, and God cannot be something God is not. Goodness is necessarily part of God so that God's actions cannot contradict it. Thus, if an action is evil, it is evil for God as well and God cannot do it.(7)

Is everything permitted if God exists? No, not if the God we serve cannot possibly initiate atrocities.

How do we avoid the moral relativism often associated with theism? Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the moral standard, and even more, Jesus reveals to us who God is, so that if Jesus wouldn't do it, neither would God. Christian theology should start and end with the question, "What kind of God does Jesus reveal?"

Would Jesus command people to kill men, women and children? Would Jesus create millions of people just to damn them to hell forever and ever? Would Jesus cause Hitler and Stalin to do what they did? Would Jesus bring about 9/11?

Many verses could be cited in response to these questions, but I will just leave you with this simple one: "it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that any of these little ones should perish" (Matt 18:14).

Notes:
(1) According to Žižek, the statement "is usually traced back to The Brothers Karamazov, [but] Dostoyevsky never in fact made it (the first to attribute it to him was Sartre in Being and Nothingness)." Slavoj Žižek and Boris Gunjević, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012), 43.
(2) This quote is from the film The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (2012), directed by Sophie Fiennes. He makes a similar statement in God in Pain, 46.
(3) Žižek and Gunjević, 44-45.
(4) Ibid., 45.
(5) Tremper Longman, III, quoted in William L. Lyons, A History of Modern Scholarship on the Biblical Word Herem (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010), 153-154.
(6) Daniel R. Heimbach, "Crusade in the Old Testament and Today," in Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem, eds. Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 190.
(7) For more along these lines, see Thomas Jay Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2010), particularly chapter 5.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why take a biblical history class?

In a couple weeks, I'll be starting my biblical history class. From September to May I'll be going over the entire story of the Bible with the students. Since I am going through the biblical text, you may be wondering, Why can't I just read the Bible? Why take a class on biblical history?

It'll be helpful to explain some of the things I'll be doing in the class. I won't just be going over the stories in a surface-level fashion, providing the same kind of experience a simple reading of the biblical text would provide. Nor will I be going over the biblical stories and offering devotional messages as a pastor would. The class is meant to introduce the students to a deeper level of understanding of the biblical literature.

This will include looking at the historical context of the respective biblical accounts, and seeing how that context informs our understanding of the situations. It will also include introductions to some of the scholarly debates concerning the biblical texts. For example, did Moses write the Pentateuch? Why do some people say he did and why do others say he didn't?

I also want the class to be a resource for the questions the students have. I'll do my best to give the students what they need to seek a solid understanding on the issues they care about.

It will not be the John Daniel Handbook to the Bible. That is, I will not be teaching my own opinions or my theology. Not only do I plan to offer different viewpoints concerning the accounts and discussing the issues with the students, but my ultimate goal is to inform people about the Bible and to help them gain a new appreciation for it. The students will be the center. I will do my best to just be a humble guide.

It's free. It starts September 4th and will take place on Thursdays at 7pm.

There will be a 3-6 page paper due every 7 weeks. A mid-term, a final, and sporadic quizzes will also be included, but they won't be anything to worry about or fret over.

There will be 29 class sessions total, with weeks off for holidays, or if something comes up and we need to cancel.

If you just want to attend the sessions without committing to the class, that's fine too, even if your attendance is sporadic. I'd like to engage as many people as I can.

So please sign up! :D And tell people about it. I'm really excited!

Email me if you have any questions, including the location info (for the sake of the family at whose home the class will be held, I have not included the address here).
johndanielwashere@gmail.com

God bless!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Some Companies I Will No Longer Support, and Why

You may not know this, but many, probably most, of the commodities we regularly consume have slave labor behind them. I am vowing to do my hardest to ensure that I do not support companies that are benefiting from slave labor. As long as people keep buying products from these companies, nothing will change. It takes voices and boycotts for them to take workers' rights seriously.

This is why I'm extremely thankful for free2work.org. This website grades companies in different industries on their policies, transparency, monitoring, and worker rights. The grades are very detailed and easily accessible. Below are some companies whose products I will no longer be buying. I chose them because I have often purchases things from them so they have a direct correlation to my life.

I also plan to write each company informing them of my decision to stop buying their products and why. I encourage you to do the same.

Look up companies you buy from on free2work.org. What are their grades? If they're bad, are you going to stop buying from them? If  you do stop, are you going to inform the company?

There are more slaves today than there have ever been. It's one thing to paint a red X on your hand, it's another to actually change the way you live your life so as to support the fight against slavery and oppression. Join the fight!

Apparel:
C+ Vans
C- Calvin Klein
D+ Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch, Walmart
D Aeropostale, Express
D- Forever 21
F Lacoste


Chocolate:
D+ Rolo, Reese's, Milk Duds, Hershey's, Kit Kat
D Butterfinger, Nesquick, Baby Ruth
D- M&M's, Milky Way, Twix, Snickers

Electronics:
C Sony, IBM
C- Blackberry
D Amazon Kindle, Nintendo
D- Canon

Friday, July 25, 2014

I'm releasing an album next week...

Click on the image to access the album page
So, I'm releasing an album next week for my music project Temple Autonomy. It used to be called John Daniel Was Here, but I had grown tired of that name, and I didn't think it fit the kind of music I was writing. My songs are serious to me, and that name didn't quite capture the reflective nature of my music. I am much happier with Temple Autonomy.

The album is called Like a Burning Fire in My Bones and it will be released next Friday, August 1st. You must be thinking, "Dang, he really likes that little phrase!" Well, I do. But it's more than that. Jeremiah's cry to Yahweh that he is like a burning fire in the prophet's bones, too weary to ignore and deny, resonates with my experience so perfectly. It describes quite nicely the struggles in my life thus far, and it is reflected in the songs I write. Because it captures so well the experience which led to the 10 songs I wrote for the album, I just couldn't think of a more fitting title.

The songs that made it on the album span a long period of my life, from late 2010 to this summer. There were several other songs that I wrote in the last couple years which I felt didn't belong on this album, either because I still need to work on them or because I became disenchanted with them.

I started recording in the Fall of last year. When I began, I told myself I would take as long as I needed to make the album everything I wanted it to be. I realized over time that this just wasn't going to happen. It seemed that the harder I tried and the more time I put into perfecting a song, the worse it got. What I found over and over was that the songs were best when I just sat down and recorded them live, with minor changes in the editing process. I found out that I don't like making musically tight songs, edited to perfection. When you listen to the album, I want you to be able to tell that there's a real human on the other end.

The result is an album with some imperfections and mistakes. Not re-recording certain songs or not editing out mistakes was not an act of laziness and a desire to just get the album done already. It is the way it is because I finally got the songs to the point where I could say, "Yes, that's the song I wrote." I wanted to capture the moments in which the songs were conceived, and those weren't moments of musical perfection. They were moments in which whatever I was experiencing finally burst forth into music and a little bit of my soul expressed itself in the form of words and notes.

That's what I wanted to create with this album: a kind of musical journal, each song a window into the most somber and reflective times of my life in the last few years. It doesn't capture everything, but what it does capture I am happy to share with you. I hope you enjoy it.