Tuesday, January 30, 2007

New Prison Ministry

Next week I'm starting a new ministry in a local prison on Monday nights. I'm involved in a parachurch ministry on Tuesday nights at a maximum-security prison about seventy miles from home. I'm very thankful that the organization provided me the platform to get back involved in prison ministry after about a decade off (mainly to get my academic career established).

After almost three years of work with them (which is continuing), I wanted to try to write a more distinctly "Lutheran" curriculum, something a little less law-based and nested in the overall theme of Christ's forgiveness. So I'm writing the material now, a couple of weeks of introductory stuff, then a twelve-week program I've titled, "A New Man."

Actually, I'm not all that big on what the men will learn (from me, at least). Rather, my idea is that the study provides the opportunity to visit the men. I talk about Jesus and the Scriptures all the time with my personal friends anyway, so it's not a stretch to fellowship over Christ in a prison setting.

Still, it's the first time I'll be "leading" an effort of this sort, and my organizational capabilities are sizable only in comparison to other academics. So please pray for me, the men, and the other volunteer.

"The Departed" (spoilers)

Last night was my last free Monday night for a while. I went to "The Departed." A hard film to watch, although a good-looking one, as you would expect from Scorsese. The story had some nice turns -- the mafia had infiltrated the MA state police, as the state police had infiltrated the mafia. It was sort of an updated Cold-war flick in that sense.

It was violent. Really violent. None of it redemptive, which was a nice change of pace for Hollywood. Indeed, there was no redemption in the story (and I don't mean that as an insult, I complained below about the "cheap grace" in Apocalypto by focusing the story on the surviving exception-to-the-rule).

DiCaprio and Damon turned in creditable performances. Jack Nicholson is, of course, Jack Nicholson. Still, his character in this movie seemed to me little more than a cross between his character in Prizzi's Honor and his role as the Joker in Batman.

Also, DiCaprio's and Damon's relationship with Vera Farmiga's character didn't quite work for me. Here is a woman who is supposed to have a Ph.D./M.D. and counsels police officers and criminals as her profession. The probability that she gets romantically involved with a patient in either category, let alone each of them, strikes me as infinitesimally small. (That being said, the incidence of women volunteers who become romantically attached to prisoners is non-trivial, in spite of it being a stupendous breach of common sense, not to say a breach of official prison rules.)

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Original "Show about Nothing"

I read most of P.G. Wodehouse's "Jeeves and Wooster" stories when I was in graduate school -- it was a delightful way to relax after a hard evening of studying. Later I watched many of the stories adapted for the T.V. and broadcast on "Masterpiece Theater."

I've begun receiving the "Jeeves and Wooster" T.V. productions via Netflix. The family often watches a show on Saturday and Sunday night. (The kids aren't allowed to watch TV during the week, and Meg and I watch very little.) They're very funny.

Last week, though, it dawned on me that the "Jeeves and Wooster" stories were really "stories about nothing," to quote the Seinfeld characterization. Nothing goes on in the stories except for the lives of the characters, and then their lives are full of fluff and stuff. I don't at all mean that as a criticism. Not that there's any direct correspondence. But it seems to me that Seinfeld borrowed somewhat from the "spirit" of the Jeeves and Wooster stories. That being said, the Seinfeld stories do seem to become dated with the passage of time. Jeeves and Wooster seems fresh as ever. I don't really know what accounts for the difference.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"Children of Men" (Possible spoilers)

Meg and I went to the movie Children of Men. I'd heard good things about it, and the movie is entertaining enough. So I didn't mind shelling out for the price of the movie and the popcorn.

The most interesting thing about the movie was the story platform -- that humanity had gone sterile (apparently as a result of a flu epidemic). I would have liked a story that focused more on the platform. But the action in this film was a chase movie grafted onto this platform. The chase story could have worked with any number of platforms (stole a million bucks from some gangsters, mistaken I.D., being stalked, etc.). So I thought it was a pretty pedestrian story, overall. Well executed, to be sure, but a pedestrian story after all.

I'm beginning to wonder whether I'm too hard on the screenplays. The thing is, though, that I read a lot of fiction, both old and new, that suggests to me that novel and interesting stories are out there. So I get irritated that Hollywood doesn't seem to produce many of those stories (let alone a story that I don't know). Or maybe it's just a function of the price. I spend $20 for a book, spend ten hours reading it, and usually feel that I've gotten my money's worth almost no matter what. (Although I'll soon blog about a non-fiction book that I felt was a waste of time and money.) I shell out half as much money for a quarter of the time, and I feel as though I deserve a story equal to what I'd get in a book.

I'll probably try to see some of the Academy-award nominated films over the next few weeks (since they're in the theaters here now). Maybe that will change my mind.

Questions about whether the Supper is a “covenant renewal ceremony”

Keith blogged about the Lord’s Supper being a covenant renewal ceremony. The idea of the Supper as a covenant renewal ceremony does seem to have appeal for sacramentally-oriented Calvinists. It provides a way to articulate a high view of the sacrament within the traditional Reformed construct of covenant theology. As such, I have little problem with the notion. Whatever it takes to get to the real presence is fine by me.

I have not, however, seen a sustained argument as to why we should think of the Supper as a covenant renewal ceremony. To be sure, Jesus introduces the rite with the comment that the cup “is the new covenant” in his blood. But it seems quite a leap to me to jump from this statement to the conclusion, then, that it is a covenant that fallen humans renew.

So here are some questions I’ve had about the idea that the Supper is a “covenant renewal” ceremony.

First, which covenant is it, precisely, that is renewed in the Supper? You might say, “well, duh, Jim, the New Covenant.” But, on reflection, I don't think that makes sense. Only the persons who make a covenant can renew that covenant. It seems to me that while fallen humanity is the third-party beneficiary of the New Covenant (thanks be to God), we are not parties to the making of the covenant.

As I understand it, there are only two options regarding the number of parties to a covenant. A covenant can be a unilateral covenant, wherein one person unilaterally covenants to provide a benefit to another person, or a covenant can be a bilateral covenant, where two people exchange promises. (Unlike contracts, however, failure to perform by one party does not free the other party from performing his covenantal obligation. Also, there would also be multilateral covenants, but they are in principle no different than bilateral covenants as far as making them is concerned.)

First, if the New Covenant is a unilateral covenant, then God could be its only maker, and fallen humanity cannot “renew” that covenant.

So, if humans can "renew" the New Covenant, it seems as though the New Covenant has to be a bilateral covenant, a covenant between God and humanity. But there’s a rub – God already had a bilateral covenant with fallen humans. It was called the Mosaic covenant. Israel continually failed to perform her covenantal obligations, and she was judged. Indeed, it seems as though the Scriptures themselves anticipated the need for a New Covenant precisely to solve the problem that fallen humans could not perform covenantal obligations. (A number of theologians have articulated that view; NT Wright has forcefully articulated the view in his writings.)

The solution to the problem of the Mosaic covenant is Jesus. The New Covenant is a covenant between God the father and humanity’s perfect human representative, Jesus.

But while fallen humanity is the beneficiary of this covenant, we did not make this covenant. And since we did not make it, we cannot renew it. Therefore the Supper cannot be a “covenant renewal ceremony” in which “we” as fallen humans “renew” a covenant that we made.

Jesus made the covenant. Jesus does not need to renew the covenant. While forgiveness, which is the benefit of the covenant, is distributed to us in the Supper, and we receive God’s forgiveness by receiving the Supper, fallen humanity did not make the covenant through which that benefit is provided to us. Indeed, the idea that you and I renew the New Covenant when we celebrate the Supper, seems to me to threaten to rob Christ of his singular glory. Only Jesus could make a New Covenant that would definitively secure God’s blessing to humanity. We did not share in actual ly making that covenant. (If the success of the covenant depends on us, on our vows and promises, then it seems as though it would fail as the Mosaic coveanant failed.)

Finally, I might note that the liturgies of the Supper (at least those that I know) do not support Keith’s claim that we renew our vows and promises in the Supper. It would be very easy to do so - we'd repeat vows and promises as part of the cermony. Instead, the Supper is usually celebrated by reading the words of institution, a text in which forgiveness is promised by God. In response to the grace that God distributes to us in the Supper, we may as a forgiven and renewed humanity walk away from the Supper with a renewed intention to walk in the new life that God created in us in baptism. But that would be an effect of the grace distributed to us in the Supper, not a condition for it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

"Do not worry about what you will eat . . ."

Here's a thought that occurred to me when reading Psalm 78.

Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will eat in Mt 6.25 (vv. 25-34, more generally). This undoubtedly applies to different people in different times -- it's a general lesson we can all learn. Nonetheless, I wonder whether the lesson might have been somewhat more directly aimed to the audience who heard it directly from the lips of Jesus. After all, Israel sinned in the wilderness time and again precisely because they were anxious about what they would eat (Ps 78.17-20). So perhaps Jesus' message was more immediately a renewed appeal to Israel for faithfulness to her Lord and King. "Unlike your forefathers in the wilderness, you, do not worry about what you will eat."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Bucher’s “The Ecumenical Luther”

I recently read Richard P. Bucher’s book, The Ecumenical Luther: The Development and Use of His Doctrinal Hermeneutic (Concordia Academic Press, 2003). I found Bucher’s treatment of Luther’s hermeneutical canons very helpful. Bucher also included what I found to be a very insightful discussion of the Gospel as it is offered to us in the Lord’s Supper. I found much more problematic the way that Bucher (and Luther) deploys the canons to argue that some doctrines are in fact “articles of faith,” that is, those doctrines that one must confess to be a Christian.

I think that the canons are pretty well known; at least I’ve heard other people discuss them. Bucher identifies two hermeneutical canons, a “scriptural canon” and an “evangelical canon.”

Luther’s scriptural canon is that no doctrine can be an article of faith unless it is found in the Scriptures. (Sometimes Bucher renders it as a requirement that a teaching be “clearly” taught in the Scriptures.) Luther does not argue that Christians should not believe doctrines that are not taught in the Scriptures, only that belief cannot be essential to the Christian faith. Thus, Luther is willing to concede the papacy for the sake of peace, as long as Rome is willing to concede that the papacy is not an article of faith, because it is not taught in the Scriptures. (Bucher includes an extended treatment, and for me a helpful treatment, of what it means for something to be taught by the Scriptures. But this post will already be long enough without dipping into details there, except to note that I learned from Bucher’s discussion.)

Luther’s “evangelical canon” states that a doctrine cannot be an article of faith unless it is necessary for salvation. He asks the blunt question whether a doctrine “will make one a Christian or not.”

Bucher then discusses how Luther used these canons in “ecumenical” discussions with sixteenth-century Hussites, with Zwingli (et al.) at Marburg, and in preparation for a general council that would include both (Augsburg) evangelicals and Roman Catholics.

I followed Bucher’s (and Luther’s) arguments on most of the doctrines discussed there. There were two arguments on a doctrine constituting an article of faith, one argued by Bucher, the other by Luther, that I didn’t quite follow.

The first, argued by Bucher, concerns the ordination of women. And let me be clear about my own position before interacting with Bucher’s argument: I do not believe that women can be ordained as pastors (or pastoresses, as the case may be). My own opinion is that gendered relationships were created to image Christ’s relationship with the church. (Note the causal direction: the type is human marriage, the anti-type is Christ and the Church). That’s why human marriage passes away in the eschaton, Mt 22.30.) My comments focus only on whether Bucher provides a compelling argument that at least one of Luther’s canons implies that communions that ordain women are, in fact, non-Christian churches.

Bucher writes: “[T]he doctrine of the holy ministry is an essential article of faith. Why? Because the one preaching office is grounded on clear Scriptures and primarily because the one holy ministry of Word and Sacrament is connected to and bound up in the Gospel. It is connected to the Gospel because, by the will of God, it conveys salvation (cf., Ro 10:14-15: ‘And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”’ . . . [I]t is because the holy ministry is a necessary doctrine that the question of the ordination of women, by derivation, becomes essential” (p. 158).

While I don’t close the door on there being some argument that women’s ordination violates one of the canons, this argument – which is almost the whole of Bucher’s argument – seems to me insufficient to prove the case that affirming women’s ordination means that one is not a Christian. To be sure, preaching is essential to the spread of the Gospel, but this argument does not suggest to me a reason why a woman preaching the Gospel necessarily denies the Gospel. It seems to me that Rome could make a similar appeal: “The papacy is an article of faith because the holy ministry is a necessary doctrine. So by derivation, the papacy becomes essential.”

Bucher seems to me to expand the evangelical canon by the end of the book. He writes that “the basis of unity can only be the doctrina evangelii . . ., that is, necessary doctrine that conveys or is connected to the Gospel and grounded in the Scriptures alone” (p. 154). There seems to be a lot of wiggle room in the proposition that any doctrine that is “connected” to the Gospel is also an article of faith. I don’t see how Lutherans or non-Lutherans could apply that standard in even a relatively consistent or predictable fashion.

A second example is Luther’s argument that the real presence is an article of faith. That is, that denial of the real presence makes one a non-Christian. As with the above point, I’m open to argument. I also am unequivocally committed to the doctrine of the real presence, and believe that its confessional affirmation (or lack thereof) is a basis for ecclesiastical division. And I also think that Bucher’s discussion of Luther’s dispute with Zwingli is a helpful discussion.

Nonetheless, here is how Bucher summarizes Luther’s argument: “The cross was the source of forgiveness, the Lord’s Supper one of the means of its distribution” (p. 111).

Without meaning to be sophistical, when one thing is “essential” or “necessary” to another thing, that means that the latter does not exist unless the former also exists. But if there are several “means” by which forgiveness is distributed, and the Lord’s Supper is only one of those means, then the Lord’s Supper cannot be “essential” or “necessary” to receive forgiveness, and therefore it doesn’t seem to me that it can be an article of faith on the premises that Bucher lays out. (Jesus’ statement in John 6 might be just such a premise. But I’ve always heard that Luther denied that Christ was discussing the Supper in John 6.)

None of this is to say that I don’t think that the book is a worthwhile read. And I should underscore that I found other examples of necessary doctrines persuasive. It’s just that I needed a more argument on these examples.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Diverse Meanings of "Religious Freedom" & "Religious Establishment"

People often speak as though the meanings of "religious freedom" and "religious establishment" were univocal. Yet, historically, there has been a range of meaning, encompassing a number of diverse institutional arrangements between church and state.

Here's the list I've come up with so far. These are "pure" types; actually existing arrangements can mix and match. Feel free to suggest additional types if my list isn't exhaustive.

● Civil officers can hold church positions (e.g., the king of England is the “head of the Church of England”). Civil officers can appoint church officials (the “investiture” controversy in the eleventh century).
● Church officials can exercise civil power. (Article 23 of the Augsburg Confession begins its discussion of “the power of bishops” talking about bishops exercising civil power. Think also of “bishoprics,” still exemplified in modern times by the power of the “bishop” in chess games.)
● Church officials can require that government implement given policies, on threat of excommunication or ecclesiastical discipline.
● The state can enforce doctrines and practices, and legally suppress disobedience or dissent. (Lots of examples historically, including the forced merger of Lutheran and Reformed churches that prompted the immigration that led to the forming of the LCMS. But also see the subscription list at the beginning of the Book of Concord.)
● The government provides tax support to authorized churches, but does not suppress dissent. (Massachusetts Constitution, 1780, which protects "freedom of conscience" while establishing tax support for churches.) The government requires the paying of the tithe to church officials.
● Government officials may be required to affirm certain religious beliefs. (In the past U.S. states have required office holders to affirm belief in the “Trinity,” “Protestant religion,” monotheism, etc.)
● Government constitutions or officers may affirm or acknowledge religious beliefs. (State constitutions that start with verbiage like, "Recognizing the blessings of the Almighty", Washington's addition of, “So help me God,” the Scottish Covenant, etc.)
● Laws may reflect the preferences of religious people (preferences that non-religious people may not share). (These preferences would nonetheless be based on natural reasoning, so this is different than laws that may reflect revealed, as opposed to natural, truth.)

The Confessions certainly reject the first two types of establishment, and just as clearly accepts the propriety of the last type of "establishment." I think that the other five types of establishment have been practiced by Lutherans at one time or another (a some have of these are arguably recognized, if not endorsed, by the Confessions). That does not necessarily mean that the logic of the Confessions endorses those practices. But I'm willing to entertain the possibility that the Confessions admit a wider variation in practice than does the U.S. Supreme Court's understanding of religious establishment.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Church Growth

(I posted part of this as a comment on Wayne's blog. But I wanted to add a little more.)

I don't want to be overly cynical, but I suspect that filling a church would be pretty easy if we weren't so picky (i.e., exclusionary). My impression is that, for example, a church known to be open to ex-offenders would have people pounding down the doors. Of course, they're not the people "we" want to build a church with.

It becomes tougher to fill the church when the question isn't - "how do we reach the unchurched," - but instead is, "How do we reach the 'unchurched' in the narrow demographic that we feel comfortable interacting with."

Perhaps I'm wrong, and it would be hard to get ex-offenders (and other folk who have very different backgrounds and/or odd looks or behavior) to come to our churches as well.

Part of the problem seems to me to be the "voluntary" nature of church. You reach a tipping point of different type of folk in your church, and I suspect many of the middle-class stalwarts might feel uncomfortable, and take their families and their money to the church down the street in which they feel more comfortable. In this case, the invisible hand of the market seems to lead to "cherry picking" - church competition drives away ministries to less desireable folk (in the world's eyes) and rewards devoting resources to "ministries" that middle-class folk like.

Another thought, as long as I'm on the topic. So much of the discussion about "works" in Lutheran circles takes on a somewhat abstract quality. I think that's because most of us are (generally) law-abiding, pillar-of-the community type of folk. So when Paul writes, "Let him who steals steal no longer" (Eph 4.28), that seems obvious. Few of us are caught up in a life of theft, after all.

But to many guys in prison, this command has bite real bite. That's the way that they live in the outside world. So the admonition, "Let him who steals steal no longer," is a real call to live a transformed life. To be sure, it also speaks to the rest of us - don't steal from your employer by loafing on the job, don't steal from the government by lying on your tax form, etc.

But I wonder if some of the "moralism" of the early church fathers is a reflection of the type of church growth that they experienced. People living on the margin of society often times have blurred thinking about right and wrong, as a result of repeated sin and/or repeated abuse. In that case, their pastors need to lay sanctification on a little more thickly than they do after 2000 years of Christendom.

Just a thought.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Apocalypto (spoiler)

I went to Apocalypto on Monday night, while Meg and the kids were at BSF. It was less gory than I expected (qualitatively on the level of, say, the Civil-War movie, Glory). But the story was also less than I expected. I thought it a bit thematically cheap to focus on the one guy with the "happy ending." And I thought the whole series of "incredible escapes" a bit cheap as well -- O.K. in a James-Bond movie, but out of place in a story of tragedy of this magnitude.

It's not a waste of money to see the film, but in my opinion it's not a "must-see" movie.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution

Several blogs that I visit favorably mentioned Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irresistible Revolution. So I bought a copy and read it over the holidays. I guess the other blogsters enjoyed Claiborne’s enthusiasm, which is fair enough.

There is also a commitment to service – a commitment to obedience – that is refreshing as well. Particularly in Lutheran circles, Christ’s commands are often taken only to be “law” intended solely to make us feel guilty (so we can then repent and receive forgiveness) rather than as calls to action addressed to the new man that God’s forgiveness in Christ creates in us.

Claiborne also had an emphasis on what I’d call personalism (I don’t recall if Claiborne called it that). By which Claiborne means getting involved face to face in serving the people that Christ would have his church serve. I’m undoubtedly more sympathetic to check writing that Claiborne is, nonetheless, I agree that something important happens when we come face to face with those we serve in Christ. (I’m not entirely sure what that important thing is, but whatever it is, is transformative and radicalizing.)

So all this is just fine. What I didn’t find just fine, however, was that, as best I recall, there wasn’t one left-wing bromide that Claiborne didn’t hold as a requirement of the “Gospel.” Ignoring the issue that, for Lutherans, a “Gospel requirement” is something of an oxymoron, the book treats the positions he assumes as though they were obviously taught in the Scriptures. Whether pacifism (yes), capital punishment (no), market economics (no - even if capitalistic acts are between consenting adults!), etc., the book reads as a PC check list. If Claiborne struggled with what the Bible says about any of these issues, he doesn’t mention that struggle here in any great detail (and the book is something of an autobiography).

And then there’s the continual carping about making the Gospel relevant for today rather than just about heaven. I don’t know about Claiborne, but I don’t hear that many sermons about heaven in many churches today. For me, the Christian life makes sense only in light of eternity and the cross. I think the problem is that modern Christians don’t spend enough time “seeking the things above, where Christ is” (Col 3.1-2). I certainly grant that as we do so our lives in the here and the now will change dramatically. But that’s because of our heavenly orientation, not in spite of it.

So, ultimately, I’m unsure what prompts the enthusiasm for the book. It’s the quasi-autobiography of a 30-something, Sojourner-type Anabaptist. I can commend the enthusiasm, but heterodoxy is not a requirement for enthusiasm.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Jesus as the anti-Rehoboam

Israel comes to Rehoboam to make him king. He asks his elders for counsel. They say, “If you will be a servant to this people today, will serve them, grant them their petition, and speak goods words to them, then they will be your servants forever” (1 Kings 12.7).

He then asks the young men with him, they suggest he say this to Israel, “Whereas my father loaded you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke . . .” (1 Kings 12.11).

Jesus comes as the King to his people. Yet he confounds and subverts our expectations of how a king behaves.

Unlike Rehoboam, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my load is light” (Mt 11.28-30).

Rehoboam’s elders counsel him to serve the people. He rejects their advice, insisting that Israel will serve him. He thereby alienates Israel (1 Kings 12.16). Rehoboam acts as God told Israel their kings would act (1 Sam 8.10-20).

Turning these expectations upside down, Jesus says: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt 20.25-28).