Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Temple in the Book of Mormon

I posted a version of this over at Joel Martin's blog, A Living Text.

In the Book of Mormon (BOM), a group of Israelites leave Jerusalem (right before the exile, as I understand it) to establish a new promised land. The BOM states that a temple is built in the new land (and, ultimately, more than one), and that there are groups and times in which the people are entirely obedient to the Law of Moses.

While there are details in the BOM with which one may quibble, my initial difficulty with it is the inconsistency of the BOM's overall narrative with the history and practices the Spirit reports in the Old Testament.

As an initial matter, there is a huge problem with the idea that a group of observant Israelites would purport to build a new Temple in a land that is not Israel.

We might initially locate the Temple in the broad sweep of OT history: After Babel, redemptive history narrows to Abraham and a people gathered specifically to the land in which Abraham sojourns and is promised (Gn 12.7, 17.8). Redemptive history doesn’t open up again to all peoples until the anti-Babel on Pentecost. (This doesn't mean that there weren't a lot of saved Gentiles in the OT. There were. What it means is that God did not dwell with the OT Gentiles as he dwellt with OT Israel, and as he again dwells with Christian Gentiles and Jews in the NT.)

In between Bable and Pentecost, God works uniquely through Israel in the land of Israel. And God dwells uniquely in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Scriptures describe the unique locus of the temple in the promised land; it was where God would uniquely dwell among men (Dt 12.5, 13-14).

So, too, in the establishment of the Temple, those from other nations would look to Jerusalem — not other places — to pray to God (2 Chr 6.32-33). And when Jews traveled to other countries, they faced the Temple in Jerusalem, because that is where God promised his unique presence.

The Temple in Israel is the center of OT piety. Exile was a curse (Dt 28.26) because it meant being away from God’s presence in the Temple. As I understand it, the BOM picks up just prior to the exile. But God’s faithfulness is demonstrated in that, even while Israel was in exile, God loved his people and would redeem his promise, restoring them to Israel, the promised land (Dt 30.3-5).

The idea that a group of Jews would embrace permanent exile by pioneering some foreign area would be a frank repudiation of the God of Israel. God’s promise for an Israel that repents in exile is not that he would permanently establish them away from the promised land in other countries, but that he would restore them back to the land promised to Abraham, Israel's forefather (Neh 1.9).

While I find much that is edifying in the BOM on the level of a sort of Narnia-like narrative (a comparison which I do not at all mean as an insult), nontheless, as a candidate for revelation, it is tone deaf to one of the most important lessons that the Spirit seeks to teach us through Israel in the OT.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Rounding Off Beards & Body Cuts in Lev 19.27-28

Here's a speculation about Lev 19.27-28 maybe echoing back the law in Ex 25.25.

Below I remarked about the possibility that humans are, as it were, human altars. Altars were supposed to be made out of earth, like humans are (Ex 20.24, Gn 2.7) & etc. (see the argument below).

So in Exodus 20.25, God tells Moses that "If you make an altar of stone for me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it."

Now think about what's going on in Lev 19.27-28: "You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads not harm the edges of your beard. You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD."

Here the Israelites were prohibited from "wielding [their] tools" on themselves to makes cuts in their hair or skin. Just like they were prohibited from wielding tools to make an altar of cut stones.

I wouldn't insist on it, but the law in Leviticus might be an echo of the law in Exodus, teaching the Israelites (and us) that they are God's true temple, a temple to be made with "living stones" rather than with stones of rock (1 Peter 2.5).

The Cloud of Incense in Lev 16.13

In Lev 16.12, God commands the high priest to place two handfuls of incense into a firepan full of coals from the altar, and to bring it within the tabernacle's veil. Then "He shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony, otherwise he will die" (v. 13).

Ok, so I always figured that this command was for a sort of "smoke screen." I.e., when the high priest approached this close to God -- this close to the cherubim with the flaming sword (1 Chr 21.28-30, see Ex 25.18, 26.31 which would seem to represent Gn 3.24, cf., Lev 10.1-3) -- that the only way he could live was to create a smoke screen that, as it were, hid him from the cherubim.

Eh, maybe. If correct, this makes a nice contrast with the assurance with which even the lowliest Christian may approach God's throne in the New Covenant (Heb 10.19-22).

I've been wondering about that, however. It might draw the distinction between the Old and New Testament rather more boldly than it should.

Here's an alternative that struck me the other day: At critical junctures, the theophanic glory cloud indwells the tabernacle, excluding those who were present who nonetheless had permission sometimes draw near to God. Specifically, Moses was excluded from the tabernacle by the investiture in Ex 40.34-35 and the priests at the dedication of the Temple in 2 Chr 7.1-3 (by implication also in Lev 9.22-24, which is at the first offering in the tabernacle).

So the glory-cloud excludes, because God's glory is so powerful that even great OT saints couldn't stand it.

So how about this: the incense pictures the indwelling of the glory-cloud, in the sense of the expectation or promise that some day people would be qualified to stand in God's glorious presence rather than be excluded by it.

Well, this occurs at Pentecost, the point at which humans not only stand in the presence of the glory-cloud, but are actually indwellt by the glory-cloud itself (Himself?), something that even Moses and David were excluded from experiencing because God had not yet come in the flesh.

So in this sense, Lev 16.13 is, as it were, a promise of the Spirit, as in Gal 3.14, "that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might comes to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith."

Note that the condition of receiving the promise of the Spirit is that the blessing of Abraham comes to the Gentiles, which Paul earlier calls the very Gospel itself (Gal 2.8).

What commends this reading is that it is consonant with what I take to be the overall theme of Leviticus -- the blessing of being allowed to draw near to God. So Leviticus, even though access is constrained relative to access in the New Covenant, it provides amazing access relative to the OT standard. Further, the incense-rite in Lev 16.13 also provides a foretaste of the blessing to come when the messianic priest finally comes. (Note that the priest in Lev 16 is dressed up to look like the glorified Jesus, cf., Rev 1.)

So rather than being about the lack of assurance, the priest in Lev 16 enters into God's presence as sweet incense, picturing the full blessing to come when redeemed humanity will once again dwell on most intimate terms with a holy and glorious God.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (a few spoilers)

I read the book on Saturday. It wraps up the series quite adequately, but it's not the best book in the series. My favorites remain volumes six and five (in that order).

I've enjoyed the series. J.K. Rowling developed rich and fun "magical" world, particularly when events focused on or around activity at Hogwarts.

In my opinion, Rowling does a better job with the "details" of the world she describes relative to the bigger themes. The supporting cast of characters are typically fun and compellingly quirky. The background tapastry of the broader magical world is rich and enjoyable. I think those are the highpoints of the books.

That's also one reason that book seven doesn't quite measure up to most of the earlier volumes. Of necessity, the story focuses on the final showdown with Voldemort, and focuses on the central cast of characters.

So a few observations about these:

[1] The big controversy over "racial purity" in the wizarding world, I think, is derivative and lame. This, finally, transmutes into dominion over the muggles in volume 7, and that works a better. But it comes too late to do much good. Aside from a clunky echoing of Hitlerism, there ultimately is little explanation for why anyone would really care about someone with the gift of magical powers being born of muggles. Basing evil in the books around this theme, in my opinion, evinced a real imaginative limitation on Rowling's part.

[2] The main characters didn't mature much in the last three or four volumes in the series. I actually thought that Harry, Hermione, and Ron were a bit flat in this last book. Given less attention to the supporting cast of characters, that also contributed to this book's (relative) weakness. The ex deus machina also didn't work when Dobby saved Harry et al. (Although Kreacher's development was fun, but precious little payoff for all of the attention to house elves in an earlier volume. And the development of the relationship with Goblins in volume seven never paid off either. The Goblin just runs away at the bank.)

[3] I thought the whole middle part of the volume seven just clunked along. So, too, the thing with Snape and Harry was finally explained, but all in a rather obvious way, and just inserted into the story. The explanation provided in the story, in my opinion, left a lot of Snape's hostility unexplained. So I didn't really buy the nod that Harry gave to Snape's sacrifice in the book's epilogue.

[4] The theme of loving sacrifice was just fine. But I think could have been handled a lot better. My friend, Keith Ghormley, wrote a more compelling "King's Crossing" chapter than Rowling did. Again, I thought her ending was perfectly adequate, but I think she left a lot of pathos on the table.

[5] The Dursley's are shuffled out of the story early on in volume 7 (although Petunia makes a brief comeback via Snape toward the end). Dudley turns out to be a decent guy after all (although with nothing more than "You saved my life"). Here, again, I think that Rowling left some good material on the table -- Harry being called on to sacrifice himself for the Dursley's, I think, would have made Rowling's point in a more compelling way, and I don't think it would have taken too much imagination to have written it in.

[6] [Spoiler alert]: Few of the deaths moved me all that much in the book, certainly not relative to Dumbledore's death in volume six. Oddly, the deaths that affected me most in volume seven were those of Tonks and Lupin.

This is all not at all to say that I didn't enjoy the books. I did. They were fun summer reads. As I said above, I think the best part of the series was the rich "wizarding" world that Rowling developed. When Rowling interacted with that material, her books were very good. When the story moved away from the broad world, the books were just fine, but little more than just fine.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

So Much for So Little

My other weekly prison program ended just this last Tuesday. The program has a limited duration, lasting three or four months then ending. This has costs as well as benefits. On the plus side, there's always a waiting list of 100 or more prisoners who want to go through the program. So the program needs to end at some point so others who want to take it can do so.

On the other hand, it's really hard after getting to know a group of guys over a four month period just to end it, knowing that you probably won't see most of them again. (I keep in contact with a few, but can't do much more than that.)

So it's sort of sad, also.

On the last night of the program, we traditionally bring in some snacks from the "outside." With a new warden at this facility, it was a bit iffy this time. He originally denied us permission to do so, although we've been doing it at the end of these programs for years and years. The chaplain talked to the warden, though, and explained that the end-of-the-program treats contributed to the program by giving the men a little something to look forward to if they persevered in the program over the months. (If someone misses more than two weeks they are automatically cut from the program.) He explained that since the state wants the men to come to these sorts of programs, and since the small celebration encourages attendance, that permitting it helps the warden to achieve his and the state's goals for the men.

So the warden approved the celebration after all. All the food needs to be in professionally sealed containers, which limits the options we can bring in.

So we brought in salad (with the trimmings), soda, cheesecake, and cookies.

I was eating with a few men from my group. Oscar looked at me and said how much he appreciated the snacks. I told him that he was welcomed, but that it wasn't that big of a deal for the volunteers to bring this stuff in. He said, "Jim, it may not be a big deal for you, but it's a big deal for us. I drank Pepsi all the time when I was on the outside. It was my favorite drink. Tonight is the first time in eighteen years that I've had a Pepsi. It means a lot to have people care."

A Pepsi. A freaking Pepsi. It's next to nothing for the volunteers; a few minutes at the grocery store before we drive over to the prison. The whole program is pretty much like that. We show up for just a few hours every week, and the guys treat us like celebrities. I suppose it's just one more divine irony, that the volunteers give so little and yet the men receive so much. But it is an irony. And I cannot but be humbled by it.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Infant Baptism in Irenaeus

I posted this as a comment on "Confessing Evangelical's" blog, but thought I'd post it here as well.

Regarding infant baptism in the early church. Of some interest might be this passage in Irenaeus’s “Against Heresies,” which is thought to have been written sometime between 182 A.D. and 188 A.D.:

“For [Jesus] came to save all through means of himself — all, I say, who through him are born again to God — infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men” (bk II, ch. 22, para. 4).

I trust that no one will deny that the early fathers all affirmed baptismal regeneration (as do the Scriptures). Nonetheless, as far as Ireneaeus is concerned, consider:

“And again, giving to the disciples the power of regenreation into God, he said to them, ‘Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’” (bk III, ch 17, para. 1).

And from Fragaments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1):

“‘And dipped himself,’ says [the Scripture,] ’seven times in Jordan.’ If was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [it served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions; being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared, ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’” (XXXIV).

In this regard, recall that the OT purity laws would require the baptism of infants when they were unclean (skin disease or inside a tent or house when grandma passed away during the night), and 1 Co 10 says that “all” were baptized into Moses in the Red Sea, and Paul twice emphasizes that this, with other events, serves “as an example” to the Christian church (vv. 6, 11).

C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy

I found my wife's old copy of Out of the Silent Planet,when I was looking for another book. So I read it, and purchased the other two books in his space trilogy, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.

I will confess from the start that I am not a huge fan of Lewis's. I find him to be a somewhat uneven writer.

To be sure, I adore The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I about fell out of my chair laughing when I read the opening of the book:

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can't tell you how his friends spoke to him for he had none. He didn't call his Father and Mother 'Father' and 'Mother,' but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and tee-totallers, and wore a special kinds of underclothes. In their house they were very little furniture and very few clothes on beds and the windows were always open.

"Eustace Clarence liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card. He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools."

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is very good as well, and I enjoyed Prince Caspian a lot also.

I must confess, however, that I thought the stories in the other books in the Narnia series a bit clunky and the characters a bit one dimensional.

In Lewis's space trilogy, without a doubt my favorite is the last, That Hideous Strength. I cared about Jane and Mark (more on that below), and thought the fantasy elements pretty well integrated with the rest of the story.

My least favorite of the trilogy was the second book, Perelandra. At about one-third through the story, if not earlier, the upshot of the story was pretty obvious, and I kept wishing that Lewis would speed up the tempo and get it over with. I thought the plot provided a pretty heavy-handed treatment of the themes.

I thought Out of the Silent Planet was a more than passable work of fantasy.

The relationship between husband and wife, and gender relationships more generally, receives sustained attention in That Hideous Strength. Lewis builds in echos of Ephesians 5, and raises the topic in other ways as well. I think it would be a fun book to read as part of an (open-minded) book-reading group of husbands and wives. So That Hideous Strength goes on a rather short list of fiction that treats the wisdom of modern gender relations as an open question. In that sense, this book goes next to Henry James' The Bostonians, which is also remarkable for portraying the seeming "naturalness" of male headship.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Bo Giertz, "The Hammer of God"

This is a cheeky, albeit winsome, book. In it, the now deceased Lutheran Bishop, Bo Giertz, spins a series of apologetic vignettes. In each story, a young pastor faces unbelief and heterodoxy within himself or within his congregation. The sterility of theological modernism, the legalism of pietism and the holiness movement, the faux spirituality of Pentecostalism and antinomianism, the impermanence of enthusiasm, and the pseudo-biblicism of the case against infant baptism. These young pastors face these temptations within themselves and within their congregations. In each case, they find the solution to the problems raised by heterodoxy in the orthodox confessions and practices of Augsburg evangelicalism. The solutions are quiet and unassuming, but they gradually press themselves on those open to the Spirit's leading through the Scriptures.

Some parts of some of the stories are a bit more didactically heavy handed than I think necessary. Nonetheless, I could wish that every Lutheran ingest the attitude of solid, imperturbable, yet winsome and unassuming orthodoxy manifest in the characters in this book and, presumably, in the author as well.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Virtue, "Happiness," and the Declaration of Independence

Here is a semi-brief meditation on the Declaration. I thought I'd link it to celebrate July 4th.

The chapter is from Daniel Palm (ed.), On Faith and Free Government (1997).

The chapter ends with this:

"Modern Christians may legitimately recognize that a vocabulary rich with Christian commitments and concepts is not as alien to the American political scene as they may believe. Still, this is not to say that modern Christians can simply pick up where things were left. In addition to facing residual hostility among anti-Christian elites, Christians -- particularly evangelical Christians -- must face and own up to a century in which their world view was narrowed and crabbed by anti-intellectualism, cultural withdrawal, and a continuing lack of intellectual seriousness. Furthermore, a century or more of revivalism, popular Pelagianism, and the concomitant success of Anabaptist ecclesiologies expressing little more than baptized versions of individual autonomy, are serious obstacles to a wider, more serious public engagement on the part of Christians. If the Christian vocabulary of the founding has been ignored, it has as much to do with Christian neglect as it does with secularist exorcism."

Another thought on close communion

A man and a woman come to a pastor saying they want to get married. The pastor starts counseling them, and the man soon makes it clear to the pastor that he does not believe that going through the marriage ceremony changes anything.

"The marriage ceremony," the man says, "is merely a public expression of the love I feel for this woman. The ceremony, however, does not bind me in any way to this particular woman."

The pastor responds, "The whole point of the marriage ceremony is to bind two people together in a special way. If one (or both) parties to the rite deny that it accomplishes this, then there's no point to undergoing or administering the rite. It wouldn't make any sense to do it."

That the man responds and says, "Well, that's your view of the rite's purpose. I simply disagree. It's Jesus' ceremony after all."

What can the pastor do, but respond, "I believe you're wrong, and I need to act upon my conscience. Something real happens in a marriage ceremony, and people who deny that something real happens in the ceremony deny the whole point of the ceremony. It would be a joke to proceed with the rite in that case. I won't participate in the ceremony if that's what you think."

Or how about this? A Lutheran brings a baby to a baptist pastor, and requests that he baptize the baby. The baptist pastor refuses. "I believe that the person being baptized needs personally to have confessed his belief in Christ in order to be baptized. Since I don't believe that babies can believe in Jesus, they can't be baptized, the rite has no meaning in that case."

The Lutheran responds, "Ah, pastor, that's just your belief. Baptism belongs to Jesus."

The pastor responds: "You just don't get it. There's no point to administering the rite if the recipient can't personally believe in and confess Jesus. Sure, that's my belief, but I can't do anything but act on that belief. I'm not going to baptize your baby."

The whole point of the Supper is that, in receiving the Supper, we receive Christ's forgiveness in receiving the real body and blood of Christ in the Supper. If a person doesn't believe that, then there's no point to them participating in the rite. It's like undergoing the form of marriage while denying its power, for a baptist, it's like adminstering baptism to an infant.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Some Thoughts on Close Communion

The LCMS takes heat from other evangelicals because of its practice of close[d] communion. Close[d] communion means that a common confessional affirmation is required in order to celebrate the Supper together. In LCMS churches, the requirement is that communicants at least confess the doctrine as they've learned it in the Small Catechism, and particularly affirm the real presence. Practices vary among LCMS congregations how the table is fenced.

I don’t fret about close communion a whole lot. I think the LCMS position is a position implied by the nature of the Supper itself, as it creates and expresses our unity with Christ both vertically and horizontally. Lots of evangelicals disagree.

Internet Monk (IM) recently posted an extended entry criticizing practices that are typical at many (although not all) LCMS churches (http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/jesus-the-paperwork).

Here are some random observations.

Almost every person I know who objects to close[d] communion attends a church that in fact practices close[d] communion, even though they say their church practices open communion.

For example, IM observes the practice of what he styles “open" communion includes the following:

“Baptized believers (Apostle’s/Nicene level) are invited to participate, but if you are a guest, it’s an honor system. Since you are a guest, no one is going to ask you 20 questions. We’re all guests of Jesus at his table.”

There are two aspects of close communion. First, does your church require anything of those who come to the table for the Supper? Secondly, what level of review does your church provide to those who say they meet those requirements?

On the first level, IM manifestly endorses doctrinal requirements that must be satisfied prior to receiving the Supper – you must be baptized and you must agree with the Nicene creed.

I gather that IM nonetheless says that this is “open communion” because, even though only “believers (Apostle’s/Nicene level) are invited to participate,” whether you do so is a matter of your own judgment. “Since you are a guest, no one is going to ask you 20 questions. We’re all guests of Jesus at his table.”

So here are some observations:

[1] Where, exactly, is the rub? Is it having doctrinal requirements, or is it the honor system?

If an LCMS church simply said, “All who agree with Augsburg are welcomed at the table,” and simply accepted that those who approached the altar agreed with the Augsburg, would he think that that is open communion? (To my knowledge, many LCMS churches fence the table only verbally, and serve anyone who comes forward.)

On the other hand, if a Baptist church required only affirmation of Nicaea, but insisted that you touch bases with the pastor or a deacon (or elder) prior to the service in order expressly to affirm that belief, would he reject that as too close to “20 questions”?

So it’s unclear, at least to me, whether IM’s problem with the LCMS is with having a confessional affirmation – any confessional affirmation – or whether it’s that he thinks that the LCMS has the wrong confessional affirmation, or whether it’s that the LCMS doesn’t use the “honor” system to determine whether someone agrees with the confessional affirmation necessary to commune at the table.

[2] Why draw the line at Nicaea? Why not Chalcedon? Why not Constantinople II? Why not “salvation through grace alone by faith alone,” the confession on which the faith depends, but is not a topic of dispute covered by Nicaea?

Or even, why not less than Nicaea? Why not accept a simple affirmation that “Jesus is lord,” and allow non-Nicaeans to commune? On what argument does IM (and others) say “this far is necessary, but no further”?

[3] “Since you are a guest, no one is going to ask you 20 questions. We’re all guests of Jesus at his table.”

We’re all guests of Jesus at his table, sure enough. It’s unclear why this mean that churches should rely only on the "honor system" and should not ask unknown communicants whether they believe in Jesus or even whether they've been baptized.

The Didache, for example, would seem to draw precisely the opposite conclusion from IM's premise that "it's Jesus' table."

“[L]et no one eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptized into the name of the Lord, for the Lord has also spoken concerning this: ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs’” (9.5).

We’re all guests at Jesus' table because we belong to Jesus. Why is asking a visitor whether he belongs to Jesus and, hence, whether he belongs at Jesus’ table, so terrible? On what basis is it worse to ask “20 questions” of a visitor than it is to serve the Body and Blood of Jesus to one to whom it does not belong?

I appreciate that IM’s conscience tells him one thing, but why could not another agree with the perspective of the Didache, concluding that the risk of profaning the Body and Blood of Jesus is worth asking a question or two and not relying solely on the “honor system”?

So what conclusions?

First, IM seems to me to endorse a system of close communion. He would restrict access to the table to “baptized believers” who affirm Nicaea. So IM is quite willing to engage in line drawing. It just happens that he prefers where he and his churches draw the line rather than where LCMS churches draw the line. That's fine, but I have yet to see an argument as to why his version of close communion is in any way more biblical than “my” version of close communion.

Further, how does he answer his own argument for inclusion? “We’re all guests of Jesus at his table,” right? So why not include Arians, JW’s, Mormons or others? Why not make it a truly open table to anyone who can affirm that he “believes” in Jesus? On his own terms, how would IM justify excluding non-Nicaean believers from Jesus' table? We're all guests at the table, after all. On his own terms, what right does IM have to exclude anyone?

Finally, if the table is for “baptized believers” only, then what’s wrong with asking someone whether they’ve been baptized, whether they believe in Nicaea (or whatever)? Biblically speaking, why must we rely on the honor system? I'm not necessarily opposed to fencing the table verbally, I just don't see where the Bible limits a church solely to the "honor" system.