Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Wider Church On My Bookshelf

Jeff P., host of the upcoming edition of the Christian Reconciliation Carnival, asks a great question:
Have you read articles, essays, or books by a Christian of a denomination other than yours -- and found yourself agreeing with much of what he or she wrote? How has this changed your understanding of the divisions in Christianity?
Because my background is a little different than suggested by the question, I will answer both about writers of denominations other than mine and about what experience most changed my understanding of divisions in Christianity.

The Christian writer that I have loved the most has been J.R.R. Tolkien. Some people value his Christian insights less than other writers because they are presented as fiction. Some see Tolkien's fiction as less Christian than Lewis' because Tolkien was more subtle than Lewis' semi-reenactments of the Bible in Narnia. On the contrary, I can almost hear Tolkien saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like two hobbits." The Lord of the Rings is a far more deeply Christian piece than many give it credit for being; the world has not yet fully realized what Tolkien has said.

But what has most shaped my view of divisions in the church? My first pastor had a vision of the Church that transcended divisions. Though Lutheran, he introduced me to Thomas Merton, held remembrance services for certain saints days (I still remember a sermon he gave at vespers on the feast of St. Martin), and encouraged reading C.S. Lewis. From the time when I was first introduced to Christianity, I was shown a vision of the church having a broad and deep unity underneath all her differences and divisions. We were taught to be Christians -- followers of Christ -- first and foremost, and to regard our membership in a Lutheran congregation and a Lutheran synod as a matter of spiritual stewardship made necessary by temporal circumstances. Given that background, it never came as a surprise to find myself in large agreement with the writings of Christians outside my camp. On the contrary, the part that has kept surprising me is the unfairness with which the various groups often treat each other.

The experience that most affected my view of our differences occurred one day after I shifted from my first church body -- a liberal church -- to a more conservative church. (The shift was interesting in itself; I discovered that each side misunderstood the other badly, misrepresented the other badly, and resisted the idea that it was behaving unjustly and uncharitably toward the other.) But one particular day stands out sharply in my mind. Have you ever heard the same sermon text preached at two different churches? It was a shock. This particular Sunday I attended both services, the one at the liberal church and the one at the conservative church. Both taught on the same text. In the sermon, the liberal church preached about "speaking the truth with love": the pastor explained how love was the key and how those awful conservatives had a loveless truth. The conservative church, that same Sunday, preached about "speaking the truth with love" and taught how truth was the key and how those awful liberals had a truthless love. And after I heard those two sermons, what I really took away as the message was that 1) everyone thinks the other person's sins are worse than their own and 2) the two groups really need each other; without each other we're each incomplete, caricatures of what we're meant to be. Every time we divide, we lose the gifts that the other side brings to the table, the gifts we didn't value as much; every time we divide (like Voldemort's soul) each remaining part becomes a little less human, a little less whole.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Recognizing Good and Bad Theology: The Leftover Parts Test

I have a suspicion that the phrase "bad theology" will cause some objection (while "good theology" will go without notice). It's common for discussions of good and bad theology to have no content beyond taking sides and calling names. This has led to some justifiable distaste for the whole venture of separating good and bad theology. But recognizing the good is just as important as it has ever been; the problem is identifying the bad without going overboard and losing a valid perspective or descending into petty partisanship. I intend to sketch out several posts in a series of how to identify good and bad theology without subjecting the system to the judgment of any partisan system's pet litmus test; I hope to sketch out criteria which can successfully separate the partisan systems from the whole and robust systems.

Leftover Parts?
Consider this analogy: I take apart my lawnmower and put it back together. When I am finished, I have leftover extra parts. Looking at the extra parts, I claim to have put it back together better than before. Do you believe me? Or is it possible that I didn't really understand what those parts were for and how they fit into the whole?

One way to recognize a bad theological understanding is by the leftover parts. If there are passages of the Bible that have no place in a theological system, it's a bad system; at the very least it's incomplete. You can guarantee that there is a lack of understanding of those leftover parts, what they were for and how they should have fit into the whole.

A good understanding of God and his kingdom, at the very least, takes into account the whole of the Bible. There are no leftover parts which do not fit.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

CRC #5 Topic Announcement

Jeff at The Cross Reference has announced the topic for CRC #5 which he will be hosting this coming weekend.
Have you read articles, essays, or books by a Christian of a denomination other than yours -- and found yourself agreeing with much of what he or she wrote? How has this changed your understanding of the divisions in Christianity?
Now is that a great topic or is that a great topic? Send your entries here on either the worthy topic of the month or anything of general interest to Christian reconciliation. Entries due by midnight this Thursday May 31, 2007.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

CRC #5 to be hosted at The Cross-Reference

Jeff Pinyan from The Cross-Reference has graciously agreed to host Christian Reconciliation Carnival #5. Posts are due by midnight on Thursday May 31, 2007, with the Carnival to be posted over the weekend. Click here to mail in your posts and nominations for the Carnival.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Christian Reconciliation Carnival: Call for New Hosts

It's nearly time for the next Christian Reconciliation Carnival, and I am hoping for someone new to step forward to host. It's an easy Carnival to host, taking probably about an hour to put together. I firmly believe that the former hosts' comments have been correct: when reconciliation finally happens, it will have been as much (if not more) the work of the laity than that of the church administrators. If you have an hour the first weekend of June and support Christian Reconciliation, please drop me an email to let me know you can host.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Good judgment: It may not be what you think

The first to plead his case seems right
Till the other party examines him. (Proverbs 18:17)
In some ways, we are each of us like judges. We reach decisions on important matters many times in our lives. We constantly make "judgments" about viewpoints, attitudes, and questions that come before us. But how often do we take our judgments seriously? Do we consider what is involved in "good judgment"? There is a tendency to speak as if good judgment is a matter of having intelligence -- which doesn't hurt -- or having good intuition, which doesn't hurt either. But neither of these is actually good judgment, or any substitute for good judgment. Good judgment involves having a good command of the facts and handling them with fairness. Good judgment follows a procedure:
  1. hear each side;
  2. let each view question the other;
  3. don't decide before the facts are in;
  4. don't show favoritism;
  5. don't rush the outcome but be patient with the procedure.
This is good judgment.

I can't help but wondering: in our debates amongst ourselves as Christians, in our dealings with those of other views, how often do we show good judgment?
Test everything; hold on to that which is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Feminism and Mother's Day

It's been awhile since I posted on feminism. It's not really one of my favorite topics, as the whole atmosphere tends to be dry and strident, political in the bad sense, and divisive, without much edifying in the conversation. But in reading the latest Lutheran Carnival, two of the Mother's Day entries caught my eye. The first is from Rev. Cwirla:
Some today decry the "feminization" of the Church, but I beg to disagree. What is wrong with the Church is not its feminizing, but its neutering, in which there is neither male nor female but a gnostic, androgynous, politically-correct "it." I would argue instead that the Church is not nearly feminine enough, just as her ministry is not nearly masculine enough. As fatherhood goes, so goes motherhood. We have lost the motherly nurture and care of the congregation just as we have lost the firm, fatherly authority of the pastoral office. We have lost the proper place and dignity of our being male and female, and so we are confused about our respective roles.

Recovery and reform are not to be found in chest-thumping distortions of masculinity or in strange caricatures of femininity, but in brokenhearted repentance. Kyrie, eleison!
Myself, I particularly enjoyed that a complementarian has replied so graciously to the steady stream of derisive caricatures of the complementarian position. It's one thing to agree or disagree with a view and another to resort to mockery; but it takes incredible amounts of love and prayer to respond to mockery both boldly and graciously. Whether you agree with Rev. Cwirla or not, his contribution was well-done.

Next is from Emily Carder at Quicunque Vult as she reviews Elizabeth Cady Stanton's mixed legacy:
Her success in separating women from the Word of Life is so complete that feminists now celebrate women’s experience as a grace event. Can there even be need for a Savior now that the judgment upon mankind had been removed from the Bible according to Stanton? She taught that if there had actually been a fall in an actual Garden of Eden, then "when Eve took her destiny in her own hand and set minds spinning down through all the spheres of time, she declared humanity omnipotent..." (Gaylor 1997, 134). Ethics for feminism is now deemed as whatever validates the full humanity of the woman. Refusing a woman any freedom to act as she wills is denying her full humanity; therefore, abortion-on-demand must be among a woman’s most cherished prized possessions.

Stanton's is a much more complex life and legacy, with good and bad mixed together. If, as Carder argues, "ethics for feminism is ... whatever validates the full humanity of the woman", that validation is itself a good thing. Ethics can be seen as whatever validates the full humanity of all humans, and in that sense feminism is partisan and a little bit narrower than humanism. The narrowness of focus on women alone avoids the uncomfortable humanist question of the life of the next generation while still in its delicate dependence on the mother. From a Christian viewpoint, the irony and the shame is that someone had to voice teaching "the full humanity of the woman" as if it were an objection to the Bible instead of the teaching of the Bible, which teaches that male and female are both created in God's image. From this standpoint Christianity teaches a higher view of both men and women than humanism.

And it's fascinating to me to hear the comments on Adam and Eve: "when Eve took her destiny in her own hand and set minds spinning down through all the spheres of time, she declared humanity omnipotent..."

Theologians down the centuries have said much the same thing when reading the same passage: that our rebellion against God was an attempt to displace God and crown ourselves as gods instead. We really shouldn't be too surprised if someone reads the same passage and sees humanity's declaration of independence from God, a proclamation of ourselves as gods and goddesses with no authority but our own. Such is the power of that passage that this rallying cry of rebellion from God still resounds thousands of years after it was written with the voices of those who do not apologize for it; such is the power of that passage that even those who are fully convinced it never happened may claim it as their own.

But what about grace? "Feminists now celebrate women’s experience as a grace event." I think there is a sense in which conservative, complementarian theology still needs to ponder the matter of grace. Adam's curse included death; but death is abolished in the world to come. Eve's curse included "he shall rule over you" (Genesis 3:16). In the New Creation, will all the curses be undone? Is Eve's curse borne on the tree as well as Adam's? To what extent is subordination, like death, a matter of a cursed world? Death is the door to resurrection, of being restored. If submission is the death of pride, then is submission also a door to resurrection and restoration? If some part of Eve's sin was self-exaltation, then is "women, submit" similarly sinful if spoken in self-exaltation? Where is the line between submission and subordination? When subordination is taught as good, does it lead women to search elsewhere for grace and for recognition of full humanity?

I'm not suggesting that people stop wrestling with the passages or stop taking the Bible seriously. I'm suggesting that conservatives allow themselves to take a good hard look at the fact that the Bible here presents this particular subordination as a curse, that it is just as natural for women to see it as a curse as for men to see death as a curse, just as natural to hope for release and see it as a return to a more pure and wholesome state of things. Not every instance of a woman wishing for freedom from it is a matter of pride; some of it is a wish for redemption and the restoration of a non-cursed state. In this, the Church should be firmly on the side of redemption. This leaves plenty of room for discussion on exactly how that should take shape.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Single Parenting Tips

Earlier this month a woman in our church died, leaving behind her husband and three young children, the oldest of whom is about 7. While he's grateful for the church-prepared meals, he is starting to want to get some independence again. Those of us who have walked that road before are compiling lists of easy recipes and tips for making things work more smoothly. Here are a few tips heading his way. Let me know if you have any additions.

  1. Snack tray Sunday - Take a night off from cooking every week. A snack tray can be loaded with all kinds of things: fresh fruit, cold cuts, cheese slices, sandwich quarters, yogurt, nuts, crackers, carrot or broccoli sticks and dip. Use your imagination and enjoy a night off. Make a party of it and watch a movie while having a casual dinner.
  2. Paper plate night - If you're overworked and need a break, it's paper plate night. No dishes.
  3. Snack drawer / snack shelf - With growing children, it's difficult to be personally involved each and every time they want a snack. Consider keeping a drawer or shelf stocked with things they are always allowed to have provided it's not too close to mealtimes: applesauce, graham crackers, cereal bars, raisins, anything that you would be glad for them to have. Then just set the rules for when and where they can eat, and who does the cleanup. It's handy to have juice boxes there too, and a similar area of the fridge with favorite flavors of yogurt.
  4. Sort movies by run length - Arguments about whether there's really time to watch a movie? We ended up sorting the movies by run length. 30-minute movies on the bottom shelf, under an hour on the next shelf, full length above that. If there's only time for a "short" movie, it's simple to say "pick from the bottom shelf" or "pick from the last two shelves".
  5. Grocery list stays on the fridge - Can't remember everything on grocery day? Keep a large post-it note on the refrigerator, and keep a pencil handy. Anytime you run out of something during the week, as you use the last of it, make a note on the grocery list.
  6. Bake a week's worth of potatoes - Potatoes are an easy side dish, but they take too long to bake or even microwave. Make a whole batch of them early in the week and keep them in the refrigerator. They re-warm quickly. They also make a nice economical lunch.
  7. Pre-sort laundry by day - Children too young to dress themselves or choose their own clothes each day? As you put away the laundry, group it into daily sets: a shirt, a pair of pants, socks, and underwear. It saves time in the mornings, which tend to be too hectic anyway.
  8. Fresh fruit with dinner - Picky eaters? No time to cook a side dish? Put the fruit bowl on the table and have everyone choose a piece of fruit. It's healthy, there's no argument over everyone having to eat the same thing, and you don't have to cook it. In the summer, a slice of melon works for an easy side.
  9. Let the kids help - Or, better yet, insist that the kids help. It is too easy to get caught up trying to do it all; our job as parents includes teaching them to be responsible too. To check whether the workload is balanced fairly, consider the children's ages and how much time each person spends working as opposed to resting or doing something enjoyable.
  10. Push-ups and jumping jacks - Do the kids know that you don't have time to put them in time out? Ever have them take advantage of it? Find some consequences that don't take so much time. Jumping jacks and push-ups are suitable once the children reach a certain age. It doesn't have to be a lot, just enough to get the point across: there are consequences for making things difficult.
  11. Extra chores - Someone acting up? Consider alternative discipline like organizing the pantry / videos / pots and pans. As an added bonus, it's much easier to be calm and feel good about assigning discipline when it teaches them discipline and you benefit from it as well.
  12. Slumber party Friday - If you're having difficulty getting everyone to stay in their own beds during the week, consider having a weekly slumber party. Everyone brings a sleeping bag to the living room and settles down together. With single parenting, it's too easy to fall into the trap of focusing on cleanness and schedules -- which can easily become problems when you're short a parent. Don't get so overworked that the warm side of family life is forgotten.

Anyone else with parenting tips?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Why I Like Icons

I've always been an admirer of art. The icon pictured here hangs on my bedroom wall. I bought it at the local Eastern Orthodox church's annual festival a few years back. I have a couple of other small icons as well, beautiful icons of the creation.

Mark at Pseudo-Polymath has been discussing icons, among other things. Protestants have not disowned religious art completely, but religious art certainly holds a much smaller place in Protestantism. Each of the different major groups in Christianity have different artistic styles for devotional artwork. Protestants seem to specialize in pastel pastoral scenes. Roman Cathlolics tend to specialize in the bare-chest/heart revealed artwork. And here I will give the Eastern Orthodox their due, I think they do the best at sacred visual art. They show little interest in realism; the holy cannot be directly drawn so realism does not help in representing it. But icons have been made of nearly every major scene in the Bible, carefully crafted so each color, each hand position, each element of the picture carries theological weight. The various elements of the drawing have been discussed and studied and have taken traditional forms over the centuries. The traditional forms are well-developed so that if you see Peter in one icon, you can easily recognize Peter in the next icon, even when drawn by another artist in another nation in another century. This allows a tremendous community and rich tradition within the artwork that is not really available when each artist re-imagines what each person looks like or how each building might have looked. This standardization has freed the artist from decisions about such details and allowed the artist to focus on communicating the holy. Some of the Eastern Orthodox icons are breathtakingly beautiful. And the range and variety of icons available is extensive. If you had to find Protestant renditions of every major scene in the New Testament, it might take some time and still be incomplete; for those you did find, the representations of certain people might not be recognizable from one artist's conception to the next. If you had to find Eastern Orthodox renditions of every major scene in the New Testament or likely even the entire Bible (along with parables and picturesque sayings), you could contact any of the major carriers of icons and place your orders and hope you had enough wall space for them all. The breadth of material covered is impressive.

I'm aware of the objection that Eastern Orthodox icons show no innovation in style, that they do not allow the artist much range or freedom, that the basic forms and even the representation of certain scenes may not have changed for a thousand years. To me, that's almost like complaining that the Psalms are poems that rely heavily on standard themes and internal parallelism; that's half their charm and all of their claim to unity. It's what creates the artistic impression of belonging to a set, representing a single vision of the world where they communicate with each other, grow and build from each other, each forming the background to the next. The unbrokenness of the tradition and style across many nations and many centuries has been the key to creating that unique richness of the icon tradition.

Icons and Devotion
I find icons useful in devotions in the same way that visualizing a scene from Scripture can be useful in devotions. A good set of icons can easily serve as a Bible for someone who cannot read or who does not have a Bible immediately available. They can serve as a focus for pondering Scripture, for meditating, for prayer. The "prayer" part may make some people uncomfortable. On occasions when I look at an icon while praying, I'm certainly not praying to the icon; the icon is simply useful in helping me focus on prayer. Neither would I choose to look at an icon while praying every time that I pray. It's simply helpful, an aid to devotion. And when visiting sites around the confessional Lutheran blogroll, I notice a good number of other Lutherans showing their appreciation for Eastern Orthodox icons.

Icons and Veneration
I've been to Eastern Orthodox worship services where the icons are venerated. That is to say, a line forms and each person is expected to join a line and kiss the icon. As a visitor, I've always been free to pass. And looking in from the outside, it feels as if here the Eastern Orthodox may have crossed a line. It's not the line of idolatry; they do not honor the pictures in their own right, but as visually helpful stand-ins for the realities they represent. The icons are not idols and are not used as such. The reason that I dislike the veneration of icons has nothing to do with any suspicion of idolatry. No, the reason that I dislike the veneration of icons is that it takes something which probably should be an acceptable practice (someone honoring the memory of one of the apostles by venerating their icon) and turns it into a commended practice, something very close to obligatory. There is a suspicion among the Orthodox that those who do not use icons in some sense dishonor the Incarnation in which the Word of God condescended to become visible and therefore representable in art. While it is probably helpful to almost any Christian to see icons, it does not follow that it is helpful to everyone to venerate icons, less still that it should be required. And there is an unfortunate after-effect to the ancient disputes over the place of art in the Christian community. If a thing has been disputed and has fought for acceptance, it is common afterwards that this view sees itself as "defeating" the alternative. A view which once fought to be permissible, after earning its rightful place, now increasingly sees itself as mandatory and obligatory. That is the perception I have of Eastern Orthodox veneration of icons, of a practice whose hard-fought fight for acceptance has eventually been interpreted as a something close to a mandate.

Icons and the Church Universal
If you have ever been inside an Eastern Orthodox sanctuary, you will have seen that each church has a collection of icons from the large and prominently-displayed ones of Christ to less large but still prominent ones of the apostles and the holy family and John the Baptist, and on to other icons representing the prophets of Israel and other people who have a key place in the history of the church. In such a setting, it is far easier to remember that we are part of a larger community, that there is an unbroken chain from Abraham, from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah, through Christ, to Peter and James and John, and down to our age. It is easier to remember the whole sweep of church history, the great cloud of witnesses, the saints triumphant, when it is represented before your eyes with the exact point of calling it to mind. In such a setting it is much easier to recognize ourselves in living community with the church universal, in fellowship with the believers of all ages.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Was Adam's Sin Imputed To Us?

Adrian Warnock has been blogging his way through Romans demonstrating why he believes in penal substitution as the right model of atonement. I've commented a few times that Christ is surely our substitute, but taking that alone leads to a diminished view of atonement. I'll explain more fully what I mean. I would like to begin my response focused on one key assumption of Adrian's:
The point is clear — just as Adam’s sin was imputed to us, so Jesus’ righteousness is also imputed to us! (See all of Adrian's post)
This leads directly to the question: Was Adam's sin imputed to us? This is the passage being discussed:
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned -- for before the Law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those not sinning in the likeness of Adam's transgression, who was a pattern of the one to come. (Romans 5:12-14)
This passage is at the heart of the question: exactly what do we mean by "original sin"? There is more than one view of it. I know that some read this and see something along these lines: "Adam sinned. His sin was accounted to us: in Adam's one particular sin, everyone was accounted sinful."

I would like to point out a few things in this passage that make me consider the "imputed sin" interpretation to be an unlikely understanding of original sin. First, the passage does not focus only on the primeval sin at the dawn of human history, but takes into account the broad sweep of human history full of sin and death: "before the Law was given, sin was in the world", and "nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses". Also the passage seems to indicate that everyone else sinned in their own rights. It makes the distinction between Adam's trangression and the sins of the rest of the people who lived before Moses, that while Adam had a commandment and transgressed it, the others did not have the same transgression in that they had no explicit law. Paul had developed an argument from the natural law and human conscience earlier in the letter. So while the sin of others was not accounted because there was no law, death still reigned.

On the view that the whole discussion is really about one primeval sin that is put to our account, there would be no need to argue the status of peoples' own sins up until the time of Moses, or even whether the other people had sinned at all. The passage does not say that Adam's guilt was imputed to others; it says that all sinned and references the broad sweep of history.

The view of imputing one primeval sin has never been accepted among Christians as a whole, but only regionally. There has always been at least one dissenting voice within the church: the Eastern Orthodox. Some Eastern Orthodox theologians I've read say that Rome based her view of imputation from Adam based on a faulty Latin interpretation of the Greek. The Eastern Orthodox hold a view of original sin which may possibly be more ancient than Rome's, where each of us is held responsible for his own sin, not for Adam's. If this is the case, then Adam's sin was worse than "imputed"; it opened a door so that sin and death became a part of the fabric of the world, and each of us participated in the guilt of the world by our own sins.

Death and sin enter the world not by mere imputation that leaves us unaffected and untransformed, but in reality so that even the thoughts of our hearts turn to evil. The Calvinists in particular tend to emphasize that our sinful condition is not a matter of imputing a sin to us that we did not commit, but that there is a deep-seated sinfulness in us that affects everything we do. The Calvinists write about TULIP and have much to say about total depravity and the sinfulness of our lives; in this context it is especially surprising to arrive at a conversation on atonement and see original sin referenced as a matter of imputation rather than a matter of depravity. Atonement also tackles mankind's depravity, our evil inclination. By the nature of the problem, atonement must cause the death of our evil inclination, must cause our return to God, must effect the reversal of our depravity: our repentance.

The catastrophic effects which Calvinists so eloquently describe in their doctrine of Total Depravity are not really consistent with a view that Adam's sin comes to us only by imputation, that we are affected only by representation. We ourselves are direct participants in the fall of the world. And as redeemed, we are direct participants in the new creation and the healing of the world.

If we ourselves participate in the fall of the world, if our evil inclination and our depravity are considered part of the problem, then that leads to a different view of the nature of the atonement. The atonement involves more than substitution, more than representation, more than imputation; the atonement also brings about a new reality, makes us part of a new creation.

Please note that I have never argued against Christ being our substitute. There is a very real substitution that is part of the atonement. The problem comes only when we try to make it the whole; for that leaves everything else -- the defeat of depravity and the evil inclination, repentance, faith, the new creation -- out of the atonement. If you'll pardon a bad joke, it's a view of atonement which is very limited.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Prostitute Justified by Works: The Book of James

Was not even Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
James was among the books spoken against by the early church before finally being admitted to the canon of Scripture. Of the books which were originally disputed, few were criticized in such strong language as James. His teachings on faith and works were suspect, and he was thought to give support to the sects which taught full compliance with Jewish law (including such things as clothing and dietary restrictions).

I understand the concern with the book of James. I'm aware of the part where James looks very much as if he is insisting that there is a certain "earned righteousness" going on, a status before God based on righteous acts that someone could claim as his own. But that's until you consider his examples. I'm not sure that we have really appreciated the shock value of James' choices of examples. He lists only two examples of people justified for what they did. One was a patriarch; the other was a prostitute. She wasn't a reformed prostitute, or a former prostitute; she was a prostitute. When we read about the spies and the prostitute (Joshua chapter 2), we can and should give the spies the benefit of the doubt as to what they were doing with a prostitute; but we cannot extend the same treatment to the prostitute. She was identified as a prostitute, someone known for her sexual immorality.

When the Hebrew spies came to her, she told the authorities that the spies had left, while in fact she was hiding them. This was her righteous act. It was not exactly pure on its own merits; it involved a lie. But it was an act of faith all the same. James could easily have mentioned that she was justified by works when she reformed her life; he did not. He makes his example "the prostitute justified by works".

Anyone who has read the book of James (or the rest of Scripture, for that matter) knows that there is no implication that being a prostitute is a good thing, or even that lying is a good thing. If we consider James' examples, it is difficult to imagine that he is arguing that we earn eternal life or deserve eternal life. He is simply arguing that faith that does nothing is dead. A faith which does not affect how you act is not faith in any meaningful sense at all. However, it is an abuse of the book of James to turn it into an insult to genuine faith; James makes his own point:
I will show you my faith by what I do.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Song of Solomon: The benefit of its being in the canon

BK over at CADRE Comments recently quoted an old C.S. Lewis essay on which I have been meaning to comment for some time. Lewis comments that for a religion to be adequate for the world in which we live, to have any right to contend as the true religion, it must meet certain criteria: it must have mysteries and ecstasies and celebrations on the one hand, and ethics and philosophy on the other; any religion which only contains one or the other is simply inadequate to cover the whole truth of the world, regardless of whether it might get certain individual things right. This serves as a decent introduction for my comments on the Song of Solomon, one of the follow-ups I still intend to post on the topic of the canon of Scripture.

The Song of Solomon was once among the contested books of the Bible, back when the canon of Scripture was still being formed. Being a cycle of sensual poems about romantic love, some liked it for its content, some disapproved of it as less than holy, and some allegorized it.

I have heard outspoken atheists mock Christians for having such a sensual book in the Bible; they've apparently confused sexual integrity with being cold, rigid, and joyless. That is a mistake; but it is a mistake all too commonly made. More than one religious person has taken a badly wrong turn by supposing that morality was something cold, rigid, and joyless; it has given goodness and uprightness a bad name that was never deserved. One of the Bible's best-loved characters is a king who was a shepherd, a musician, a composer of songs who was known to dance in the streets. The ancient traditions hold that it was his son Solomon who composed this particular cycle of poems.

The Song of Solomon deserves its place among our holy books for its portrayal of beautiful, playful, sensual, and devoted human love. Including a book like this in the canon makes a statement on the nature of goodness. It sets the married man free to enjoy his wife's beauty in a tender way, not in the harsh and degrading tones of pornography, but in a way that is also compassionate and dignified. It shows intimate sensuality coupled with kindness and devotion, a sensuality with decorum instead of crudeness. It sets the wife free to pursue the sensuality of spices and dancing and wine, to celebrate with her husband. It recognizes and appreciates the body without losing sight of the beloved as a person; instead it appreciates the other only because the other is the beloved. There is no talk about what the beloved's body should be like; it is simply appreciated and celebrated for what it is.

What kind of religion has sensual poetry in its sacred texts? One that recognizes the value and goodness of the world as creation; one that does not think of the material world as a distraction or a mistake but a blessing; one that recognizes the right place of unrushed private moments between a husband and wife; one that values things not only for their abstract philosophy but also for their humanity. If a religion had no place for that, is it really broad and generous enough to speak to the whole range of human experience? If a religion had disowned that text, is it really glad enough and life-affirming enough -- and personal enough -- to be entrusted with directing our lives? Imagine what a cold effect would it have, and what a loss it would be, if there was no such cycle of poems in the Bible. Our own culture is one where a healthier image of the marriage relationship is much needed. Imagine the effect it would have on the lives of people in our culture if they had an ideal in which sexuality is combined with love, devotion, decorum, and kindness; where uprightness is combined with a celebration of spices and wine and delight in the other person. That is a text that can help a confused age reclaim its humanity.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Woohoo! Christian Reconciliation Carnival #4 is up!

A great big thank-you to Mark Olson at Pseudo-Polymath. He has done a great job in putting up Christian Reconciliation Carnival #4 on shorter notice than you might have guessed, given some technical difficulties and disorganization on my part.

Stop on over and give him a read. The special topic of the month is what we can do here and now as a start, however humble, towards re-uniting the church. I like Mark's suggestions in What to do ... Now.

Please consider what post you'd like to send in for next carnival.

Anyone who is interested in hosting, send an email here: we have openings available. Hosting is easy and comes with a perk: you get to pick the topic of the month. As always, any post on the subject of Christian unity or respectfully exploring differences is welcome.