Thursday, May 31, 2012

Homosexuality and the Christian, Part 2: Sodom and the Levitical Holiness Code

For thirty years or so the wider culture of the West has exerted increasing pressure on Christians to accept the moral legitimacy — for that really is what the notion of "tolerance" involves in cultural parlance — of both homosexuality and homosexual practice.  Not surprisingly, as I pointed out in a previous post on the issue, many Christians have, rightly or wrongly, succumbed to this pressure, particularly many who have resolutely sought to be culturally "relevant" in their discipleship.  Whether it is due to the biblical mandate to love one's neighbor, a two- or multi-tiered approach to biblical authority (e.g., a priority given to Jesuanic material over that of Paul, let alone the Old Testament), a tendency to derive "ought" from what "is," or simply the human response of sympathizing (true empathy, after all, being impossible for those of us having the majority's heterosexual impulses) with others deemed oppressed, many Christians are open to the notion of "welcoming" homosexuals without the criticism of such behavior that has traditionally characterized the church.

Nowhere is this pressure exerted more strongly than in the academy.  Over the past generation a steady stream of revisionist literature has appeared, arguing, for various reasons, that the traditional Christian antipathy toward homosexuality has no basis in a hermeneutically responsible reading of Scripture.  Some of this, in my view, is attributable to a "hermeneutic of wishful thinking" that certainly isn't the sole preserve of liberal scholars.  Much, likewise, is the result of the shift from modernist to postmodernist presuppositions and approaches to the text (many will no doubt be unsurprised to hear of the existence of what adherents refer to as "queer hermeneutics").  Exacerbating the problem for responsible traditionalists is the presence, in their midst, of a rampant "plank in eye syndrome" that resolutely overemphasizes the Bible's opposition to homosexuality while ignoring their own blatant sin and hypocrisy (for a particularly vile example of such, see this).  Why, so the thinking goes, should we follow (outdated?) biblical prohibitions against homosexual behavior when so many supposed "evangelicals" turn a blind eye to similar biblical prohibitions against divorce and are quick to forgive other extra-marital sexual behavior (to say nothing of massive dereliction of duty with regard to treatment of the poor and materialism)?  That's a good question, but the fact remains that inconsistency of application of biblical mandates should point to the need for more consistent faithfulness in application rather than the marginalization or elimination of the mandates already followed, if indeed such mandates are shown to have continuing validity.  Hypocrisy and moral inconsistency speak to the (lack of) character of the hypocrite, not necessarily to the truth of what they inconsistently proclaim and practice.

In the next few posts I plan to to look at the major biblical texts dealing with this issue to determine what the Bible actually says about homosexual activity in the conviction that faithfulness demands theological discernment as well as the love to which we as Christians are called.  In the present post I tackle two major passages from the Old Testament Torah (Law) and seek to provide (all-too-brief) answers to the counterarguments often given today by pro-homosexual advocates.

1.  Sodom (Genesis 19:1-29)

The Charge:  The story of Lot, the angels, and the men of Sodom is irrelevant in view of Ezekiel 16:49, which locates the precise sin for which the town was later destroyed: "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy."  Indeed, Ancient Near Eastern custom would have located the town's sin as a lack of hospitality.

Answer:  This charge is a classic example of a false disjunction.  In other words, it should be understood as a "both-and" rather than an "either-or" situation.  Whatever the possible literary or oral prehistory of the Sodom narrative, the text as we now have it is a constituent part of the Torah which, as we will see, clearly presents same-sex intercourse as an "abomination."  Hence the desire of the men of Sodom to "know" these men — they were blissfully unaware that they were in fact angels, and that they consequently were, as Jude (Jude 7) later put it, "going after 'strange flesh' (sarkὸς traς, i.e., angelic flesh)" — was as sinful in the eyes of the Law as was their implicit and inhospitable impulse to rape them (the same goes for the intentionally parallel story about the men from Gibeah narrated in the Deuteronomistic Judges 19:22-25).  Their inhospitality, to put it differently, consisted in their desire to engage in illicit, same-sex relations with the visitors.  Later Jewish tradition clearly interpreted the sin of Sodom in this light (e.g., Testament of Naphtali 3:4; cf. J. A. Loader, Tale of Two Cities: Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament, Early Jewish and Early Christian Traditions [CBET 1; Kampen: Kok, 1990], 82 [text pointed to me by Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice {Nashville: Abingdon, 2002} 88 n. 121]).  Moreover, the "arrogance" with which Ezekiel charges them cannot be limited to a mere disposition.  Rather, as Victor Hamilton argued, it entails "arrogance, cynical insensitivity to the needs of others, and presumption. It is both a disposition and a type of conduct (both of which are inextricably connected)" (TWOT, 1:143, s.v. גאה).  "Arrogance" is in essence the prideful rebellion of the creature against his or her maker, as ben Sira later noted (Ecclesiasticus 10:12).  Such, the biblical authors believed, was illustrated clearly in the case of sodomy.

2.  The Holiness Code (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13)

 The Texts:
Leviticus 18:22 — "Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable."

Leviticus 20:13 — "If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."

The Charge: These laws are contextually and temporally limited to Jews living under the Sinaitic Covenant and hence do not have universal validity.  After all, the Holiness Code likewise forbids, inter alia, interbreeding of cattle, sowing more than one kind of seed in a field, and wearing garments made of multiple types of material (Lev 19:19).

Answer:  Of course the Holiness Code does not, in all its particulars, have universal and transtemporal validity.  What educated Christian does not recognize that?  Indeed, such a viewpoint is the mirror image of a simplistic, unexamined fundamentalism that accepts the universal validity of everything commanded in Scripture without hesitation or interpretation.  And it thereby betrays the same sort of hermeneutical lack of sophistication. (One wonders at times whether or not such learned advocates of such a position as Jennifer Wright Knust don't know this, but continue to use such an argument in popular presentations because of its superficial persuasiveness and emotional power.)

Indeed, the common distinction often made by Christians between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws is an anachronistic one that finds no clear basis in the Torah itself.  All the laws were covenantally-based, and all were meant either to distinguish the people of Israel from the surrounding peoples (whether universally/transtemporally valid or metaphorical/temporally limited object lessons), manage their relation to God, or regulate their civil life as his covenant people.  Thus, while Christians have, as Paul put it, "died to the Law" (Romans 7:4) as a covenantal obligation, they still are those in whom "the righteous requirement of the Law" is fulfilled by the Spirit (Romans 8:4) in fulfillment of the New Covenant promise that God would put the Law in the hearts of his people (Jeremiah 31:33).  Mere inclusion in the Holiness Code, like that of the Torah as a whole, is no definitive argument against the continuing applicability of any particular laws.

With regard to the Levitical prohibitions against same-sex erotic behavior, two significant factors must be observed.  First, the Levitical prohibitions are correlated with similar prohibitions of other sexual vices, including those even pro-homosexual advocates proscribe (i.e., adultery, incest, and bestiality), which are all punishable by death.  These, in other words, are not matters of "ceremonial uncleanness" that can be rectified via sacrifice, offering, or time.  Both the prescribed punishment and the "company" homosexual behavior keeps are, at the very minimum, suggestive. 

Second, the stated reason why such acts are condemned is worthy of an extended quotation:
“‘Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled.   Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.  But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled.  And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.
 “‘Everyone who does any of these detestable things—such persons must be cut off from their people.  Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the Lord your God. ’” (Leviticus 18:24-30, NIV)
Such illicit sexual activities are deemed "detestable" and explicitly labeled as "sin."  Moreover, it was because of such sins that God had judged the original inhabitants of the land with the judgment of eviction.  And, contra such scholars as Knust, the prohibition applied to all people living in the land, not just the covenant people.  If one wonders why such a harsh judgment is leveled against such activities, one need look no further than the creation narratives of Genesis 1-2.  God created humanity (ādām) as "male" (kār) and "female" (nebâ), the latter gender meant to "correspond" or "complement" the former, so that the two together form a sexual whole (part of what is meant by the "one flesh" relationship between a man and his wife).  What incest, adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality have in common is the desecration of this divinely-intended union via either incompatible unions (different species, insufficiently distant relations, identical genders) or the willful breaking of a compatible union once consummated.  All such activities flout God's stated design for human sexuality.

It must be emphasized that the Torah by itself cannot settle the question of contemporary validity in view of the complex nature of how Jesus "fulfilled" it (Matthew 5:17).  To act as if it does opens one unnecessarily to the ridicule of people all-too-eager to point out the Levitical dietary and clothing laws.  Indeed, the hermeneutics of contemporary application of both the Old and New Testaments is exceedingly complex, not least with regard to questions of the enduring validity of certain biblical commands in light of the inbreaking of the New Creation in the midst of the the Old.  One who disregards this complexity in favor of a simplistic "following of the Bible" is hardly a serious student of the text.

We must also emphasize that the Torah speaks only of same-sex erotic activity, not predispositions to such activity or any putative same-sex orientation.  Indeed, nowhere in Scripture is such a concept even considered, and confusion on this issue has led far too many Christians down the path to an ungodly hatred of people who have a predisposition along these lines.  That being said, one cannot with a straight face seriously propose that the Torah presents any ambiguity about the appropriateness of homosexual activity. One certainly has the right to disagree with the perspective of the Hebrew Scriptures, but one should at least be honest enough to admit what it clearly teaches.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My Take: The Top 50 Roots/Rock Albums of All Time (##31-40)

Here are numbers 31-40 in my countdown of greatest rock and roots records of all time.

40.  Aja (Steely Dan [1977])

No band, not even Chicago or Blood, Sweat & Tears, ever incorporated jazz into their rock music more seamlessly or without pretension than Steely Dan.  By the time of this, their 6th album, the "group" in effect consisted of Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, and an impressive assortment of session musicians.  Nonetheless, this represents their high water mark in songwriting, arrangements, and production values.  The album contains two bona fide hits, "Peg" (with a wonderful guitar solo from Jay Graydon) and the classic "Deacon Blues."  Indeed, rock is eclipsed in this song cycle by jazz, R&B, and pop, evidenced most spectacularly in the opener, "Black Cow," and the complex title track, graced with a great tenor solo by Wayne Shorter.

39.  Hard Again (Muddy Waters [1977])

 Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) was the greatest of all Mississippi-bred Chicago blues singers. His classic Chess records, recorded in the late 40s and 50s, remain the cornerstones of the genre. By 1976 the 64 year-old Waters was an elder statesman, and Johnny Winter got him a recording contract with Epic. The first fruits of this partnership was this album, which contains one Chicago blues classic after another, played brilliantly by Waters, the deferential Winter, and Waters's touring band. The pinnacle arrives at the outset, with a thrilling remake of Muddy's swaggering "Mannish Boy." HERE is the blues in all its glory.

38.  Sticky Fingers (The Rolling Stones [1971])

Though this album does not contain much of the up-tempo blues-rock for which the Stones are famous, one it does include is an all-time classic, the sleazy, tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek "Brown Sugar," based on an inimitable Keith Richards riff and containing a sneering Mick Jagger vocal. Mick Taylor provides some nice lead guitar work in the coda of "Can't You Here Me Knocking?" And the lads shine on the delta blues of "I Got the Blues," the country of "Dead Flowers," and the beautiful closer, "Moonlight Mile." But the surprise star is the beautiful, irony-free — rare for Jagger — and affecting country ballad, "Wild Horses."

37.  Hotel California (The Eagles [1976])

Before this album, the Eagles were a successful California-rock band with a string of deservedly-successful singles. For this album they toughened their sound up considerably with the addition of blues/rock guitarist Joe Walsh without losing any of their former strengths. The metaphorical and musically complex title cut (with a dueling, flamenco-inspired guitar solo in the coda by Walsh and Don Felder), the country ballad "New Kid in Town," and the tough rockers "Life in the Fast Lane" and "Victim of Love" shine, but the real star is the epic social commentary, "The Last Resort."

36.  Tonight's the Night (Neil Young [1975])

This album, to put it mildly, is not an easy first listen — inconsistent tempos at times, sloppy playing, and Young's always-shaky voice cracking and straining at the high notes — but it is one that rewards patient and repeated exposure. The sloppiness reflects the pain that lies at the heart of the record caused by the recent, heroin-caused deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and CSN&Y roadie Bruce Berry, the latter memorialized on the haunting title track. Other standouts include "Tired Eyes," the classic Crazy Horse country rocker "World on a String," and the melancholy, reflective "Roll Another Number" and "Albuquerque."

35.  Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Derek and the Dominoes [1970])

Here is the band with the greatest guitar section of all-time: Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. The two-part title song (written by Clapton about George Harrison's then-wife, Pattie Boyd) is one of the greatest songs ever recorded, with Allman's slide adding immeasurably to the appeal of the piano figure dominating the second half. The other hit is Clapton's "Bell Bottom Blues," but the real gem is their blistering cover of Billy Myles's "Have You Ever Loved a Woman?" Clapton's strained, passionate vocals convey the most profound of human emotions, and the guitar interplay of Clapton and Allman produces goose flesh.

34.  Blood on the Tracks (Bob Dylan [1975])

Blood on the Tracks finds Dylan in a transparently reflective mood, at times bitter, at times wistful, at times sorrowful (which may or may not relate to the breakup of his marriage to Sara Lowndes, depending if you take his word or that of his son, Jakob).  The best track is, no doubt, the multi-layered folk rock classic "Tangled Up in Blue," but classics abound: the beautiful "Simple Twist of Fate," the bitter put-down "Idiot Wind," and especially the regretful "Shelter from the Storm," chock full of metaphorical Christ references and lament over how he had thrown away the love of one who had provided shelter to him while he was "burned out," "buried," "poisoned," "hunted," and "ravaged."

33.  Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles [1967])

This record is considered by many, including Rolling Stone, to be the greatest album of all time.  No doubt it is the most historically significant in its use of innovative recording techniques and its undisputed status as the pinnacle of psychedelia.  Likewise, its sheer diversity of musical forms and influences, from rock 'n roll to music hall to Indian to classical, are noteworthy.  Nevertheless, in my view, the songs themselves are somewhat inconsistent, some being slight ("Lovely Rita"), others hardly worthy of the Beatles' talent ("Good Morning, Good Morning"), and others almost unlistenable (Harrison's "Within You Without You").  On the other hand, the opening three songs (the title cut, "With a Little Help from My Friends," and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds") are outstanding, and the closer, "A Day in the Life," is the greatest song the band ever recorded, and among the best ever recorded by any rock artist.

32.  Nebraska (Bruce Springsteen [1982])

One hundred years down the road, this album may become the Boss's most respected work. Dissatisfied by his attempts to arrange these songs for the E Street Band, Bruce decided to release these austere, acoustic demos. The bleakest of his albums until 1995's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," "Nebraska" is populated by lost working class characters who largely fail to navigate the streams of a hard life, even while many find some "Reason to Believe" at the end of the day. Standouts include the title cut, written from the standpoint of 1959 serial killer Charlie Starkweather, "Atlantic City," in which a man contemplates a job working for the mob in the newly-transformed gaming town," the blues-soaked, despair-filled "Johnny 99," the tale of fraternal betrayal and loyalty, "Highway Patrolman," the straight-ahead Chuck Berry-style rocker, "Open All Night," and the tense, foreboding "State Trooper," whose protagonist — implicitly on the run from police for some unmentioned crime — hopes not to get stopped by the trooper, but concludes with the nihilistic "prayer," "Hey, somebody out there, listen to my last prayer/Hiho silver-o, deliver me from nowhere."

31.  The Doors (The Doors [1967])

The Doors' debut remains by far their best album. Jim Morrison's rich baritone is complemented well by Robby Krieger's tasteful, understated guitar and Ray Manzarek's funereal organ in this group of songs that mix blues, jazz, and classical elements into their psychedelic rock stew.  "Break on Through (to the Other Side)," "Twentieth Century Fox," "Soul Kitchen," "The Crystal Ship," Willie Dixon's "Back Door Man," and the overblown, Oedipal "The End" are all here.  But the undisputed highlight is Krieger's "Light My Fire," which defined the organ-driven blues psychedelia that characterized the band at its best.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

More Thoughts on "Social Darwinism"

"Providential" or not, Roger Olson has pointed to another op-ed piece dealing with "Social Darwinism" in Sunday's Minneapolis StarTribune entitled "Is it raining libertarians, or what?", by Stephen B. Young, global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.  Young, like Olson, shares many of the same concerns I articulated in a post last week.  His contribution is to provide historical context for the rise, fall, and resuscitation of this political/socio-economic viewpoint and its counterintuitive popularity among "evangelical" Christians, especially among Reformed types whose theological beliefs should, in my view, lead them elsewhere.

Young rightly points out that the "Darwinism" is a misnomer, in that the philosophy was originally articulated in 1851 by Englishman Herbert Spencer.  As the 19th century wore on, the political divide that now divides America took shape:
Out of their experience after the Civil War, America's Republicans came to believe in a philosophy called Social Darwinism, with its call for individual self-reliance, free markets and limited government. Most Americans who rejected Social Darwinism became Democrats.
One further, religious element was somewhat peculiarly thrown into the mix:
Social Darwinism never won much acclaim in England. But in the United States, after the Civil War, Spencer's thought merged with American Calvinism, adding religious zeal and the doctrine of predestination to a secular program of limited government and maximum market freedom.

From the post-Civil War American Calvinist perspective, winners were seen as the chosen of God and losers were those whom God had forsaken for their sin and weak character. Since a just God was believed to control destiny, one could win or lose only depending to the degree one had received God's grace and favors. Victory in the struggle to survive, it was argued, came from following God's instructions.
Young certainly misunderstands the dynamics of Calvinist theology, but he is certainly correct to see the particularly American connection of Calvinist religion (at least in its Scottish, if not Dutch, form) and Spencerian social thought.  I would argue that the roots of this connection lie in two factors: first, a peculiar understanding of America's "Christian" character and divine mission/destiny (clear in the English-derived Puritans, but also evident in a somewhat different form in the Scots-Irish Presbyterians who supported the War of Independence); and second, in an anachronistic reading of Calvin's theology of work and commerce, unwittingly fused with the human vice of pride and the Reformer's characteristic teaching on election and predestination.  On this understanding, economic "success" was validation of the ethic of "hard work" and the sign of God's "blessing" on his elect people, as opposed to the masses of Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland and southern Europe, not to mention the native Americans and African-Americans who languished at the bottom of the social order.  Young writes of this impulse thus:
From the post-Civil War American Calvinist perspective, winners were seen as the chosen of God and losers were those whom God had forsaken for their sin and weak character. Since a just God was believed to control destiny, one could win or lose only depending to the degree one had received God's grace and favors.

It should surprise no one that I reject such a form of "Calvinism" as a bastard development of the Reformer's ideas.  The essence of Calvinistic thought is based upon the Augustinianism that fueled the Protestant Reformation, and which is nowhere more succinctly stated than in the famous question asked by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:7:
For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
The Calvinism I adhere to is one that acknowledges my own, as well as everybody else's, unworthiness, and hence attributes all blessing to the grace of the sovereign God.  All human pride is therefore ruled out in every sphere of life, economic as well as salvific.  Moreover, any Calvinist should know — at least if he or she has read Qoheleth, Amos, or the Gospels — that one cannot simply equate material "success" with God's "blessing," let alone the activity of his distributive justice.  And that means I, as a new covenant Christian, must take seriously what my Lord said in his famous Sermon on the Mount: "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Matthew 6:3).  Yes, I know that he is talking about almsgiving, what we would today call private "charity."  Well, of course.  But note that Jesus doesn't limit his listeners' largess to the "deserving" poor.  Even more importantly, history has demonstrated beyond serious doubt that such charity, while it plays an indispensable secondary role, is not sufficient to meet the inequities inherent in 21st century life (which will not magically disappear through platitudes about "equal opportunity").  Simply put, too many people fall through the cracks, and that should not be acceptable to any who claim the name of Christ. 

Before anyone misunderstands me, I am not simply rubber-stamping the "liberal" or Democratic agenda (though I clearly prefer it to the far right agenda that characterizes the present GOP).  As I see it, the "liberals" have made the same fundamental error as their political antipodes, i.e., the capitulation to an economic view of human existence.  Calvin Coolidge famously said, "The business of America is business."  It may be, but as a citizen of the kingdom of God, I reject such an elevation of the economic to the privileged position it now occupies, especially now that it has been wed to the extreme form of individualism Americans have taken to a new level.  It is here that citizenship in the kingdom of God can and should motivate Christians to shed their America-first identity and, for a change, truly act as salt and light in the midst of a fallen world.

Monday, May 28, 2012

My Take: the Top 50 Roots/Rock Albums of All Time (##41-50)

Recently Rolling Stone published a list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time."  In this day and age, when people get their music from the internet, almost always in the form of free-floating, decontextualized singles, such a list appears hopelessly quaint.  Indeed, one cannot but believe that this exercise in nostalgia was tacit acknowledgement of that fact.  When one looks at their list, it becomes obvious that the venerable magazine, the one-time mouthpiece of the 1960s' counterculture. clearly views the decades of the 60s and 70s to have been the high-water mark of this music.  I agree.

As I write, the age of the long-playing record album is fading farther away in the rear-view mirror.  As one who is now well along into his 6th decade and whose youth and young adulthood was spent devouring great albums from multiple genres of music, this leaves me more than a little sad.  Moreover, I view the demise of the record album/CD, like much else in today's world, as an unfortunate development for lovers of real music — creative, yet rooted in traditional forms, played by artists who play their own instruments and write their own songs, and who release whole albums of material intended to be listened to as a whole

In a series of posts over the next few weeks, I hope to provide an annotated list of my fifty favorite albums of rock and roots music — no hodge-podge, greatest hits compilations allowed (exceptions made in a few older cases when "albums" as we know them were rarely made). The difficulty was in whittling my favorites down to fifty. If I compiled the list last week, many would no doubt have been different.

One further thing: music criticism is based on both objective and subjective criteria.  It doesn't take a Juilliard-trained musician to realize the superiority of the Beatles over Britney Spears or Taylor Swift.  Nevertheless, musical styles, like food, are still subject to individual taste.  I am reminded of Ralph Vaughan Williams's respect for, rather than love of, Beethoven.  While I consider Beethoven the pinnacle of the western art music tradition, I feel somewhat less enthusiastic towards Mozart, great though I acknowledge him to be objectively.  Similarly, I find that I have some idiosyncratic opinions and unusual choices in my list.  But these are the 50 albums that have made the greatest impression on me.  My tastes are oriented to blues, jazz, and old-fashioned rock 'n roll.  Pop music, to me, should be limited to small doses.  While I can appreciate the merits of old-school country artists like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, my preferences lie rather in the blues-derived segments of the music of my era.  And the less said about disco and dance music, the better. 

Here are numbers 41-50:

50.  A Hard Day's Night (The Beatles [1964])

This soundtrack album marks the high point of the early Beatles and, indeed, the early British Invasion. From the rousing opening Gm7 add 11 chord of the title track to the somewhat haunting closer, “I'll Be Back,” the album is consistently excellent, displaying a singleness of purpose and approach by Lennon and McCartney seldom to be seen later. Two absolute classics here include “And I Love Her” and “Can't Buy Me Love.”

49.  Every Picture Tells a Story (Rod Stewart [1971])

Stewart's aggressively commercial trendiness in the mid-70s ("Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?") and beyond tends to make people forget that he at one time was one of the most respected vocalists in rock. This album, a solo album recorded while he was a member of the Faces, demonstrates why this respect was well-founded. Largely an acoustic, folk-rock album, it nevertheless rocks hard with the best. The classic “Maggie May” and “Every Picture Tells a Story” are unforgettable, as are the beautiful closer, “Reason to Believe,” the country ballad, "Mandolin Wind," and the blistering cover (with The Faces) of the Temptations' “(I Know) I'm Losing You.”

48.  The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (Bruce Springsteen, 1973)

Here is Bruce Springsteen before he had become "the future of rock and roll." This is the Boss at his most "Jersey," with a free-wheeling mix of rock, R&B, folk, and even jazz, with similar prolix lyrics and serpentine arrangements to those found on his debut, but with better songs and no obligation to sound like the "new Dylan." "Rosalita," the famous concert closer, is here, but the real stunners are the two songs that bookend it on the original side 2, "Incident on 57th Street" and "New York City Serenade." The contributions of jazz pianist/organist David Sancious, who subsequently left for a solo career, are especially to be noted.

47.  Chicago II (Chicago [1970])

Hard to believe, Harry, but there was a time when Chicago was considered avant-garde and didn't write the type of saccharine love songs that would sustain their popularity a decade later. This excellent follow up to their triumphant debut shows the band's sound expanding and diversifying, with excellent songwriting contributions from trombonist James Pankow and bassist Peter Cetera joining those of keyboardist Robert Lamm. Highlights include Pankow's classically-inspired suite, “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon”  and Lamm's hard rocker, “25 or 6 to 4,” including a tour de force Terry Kath guitar solo his peers could only hope to duplicate.

46.  War (U2 [1983])

“War” was U2's breakout album, and arguably still their best, with a harder musical and political edge than found in their earlier recordings. The rousing opener, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” demonstrates Bono's ability to connect current issues (in this case, the notorious “troubles” of Northern Ireland) with the implications of Christianity (here he exhorts to “claim the victory Jesus won”). Even better is the Polish Solidarity-inspired anthem, “New Year's Day.” Also of note is the closer, a reworking of Psalm 40 entitled simply “40.”

45. Bridge over Troubled Water (Simon and Garfunkel [1970])

Simon and Garfunkel's last album is also their best, despite the increasing distance between the old collaborators.  The exquisitely beautiful title track is Art Garfunkel's finest moment, but for my money the highlight is Simon's "The Boxer," a metaphorical examination of the immigrant life in his native New York.

44.  The River (Bruce Springsteen [1980])

The late 70s and early 80s were a prolific period for Springsteen. Here he collects a double album worth of material — less thematically and musically coherent than usual — but uniformly excellent. The album is chock full of excellent straight-ahead, roadhouse rock 'n' rollers (“Crush on You,” “You Can Look [but You Better Not Touch],” “Cadillac Ranch,” “I'm a Rocker,” “Ramrod”) and Jersey rockers (“The Ties that Bind,” “Sherry Darling,” “Out in the Street”). But he introduces more mature subject matter in the Hank Williams-inspired “Wreck on the Highway,” “Independence Day,” and the classic title cut.

43. Harvest (Neil Young [1972])

“Harvest” is Neil Young's most accessible album, and this has caused some critics to dismiss it. But such critics are wrong. His most famous song, the country rock classic, “Heart of Gold,” is found here. But it is not alone. Other standouts include the shambling country opener, “Out on the Weekend,” the blues-based rocker, “Are You Ready for the Country?”, the folk-inspired “Old Man,” the sloppy rocker, “Alabama” (which earned him a rebuke from Lynyrd Skynyrd), and the live, acoustic “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Young even got the London Symphony Orchestra to accompany him on "A Man Needs a Maid."


42.  Physical Graffiti (Led Zeppelin [1975])

No album encapsulates the vast legacy of Led Zeppelin better than “Physical Graffiti.” By this time, they continued to mine the vast riches of the blues (a terrific version of Blind Willie Johnson's “In My Time of Dying”), but their range had expanded considerably. Everything from acoustic, blues-based traditional rock 'n' roll (“Boogie with Stu,” “Black Country Woman), funk (“Trampled under Foot”), country (“Down by the Seaside”), to blistering hard rock (“Custard Pie,” “The Rover”) is found here. The high points, however, are the light and shade of “Ten Years Gone” and the almost symphonic, Middle Eastern-tinged “Kashmir,” one of the great songs in rock history.

41.  Sunrise (Elvis Presley [1999 {1954}])

 Here are Elvis's history-making earliest recordings for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. The first two songs set the template: take a blues/R&B song (Arthur Crudup's “That's All Right”) and a country/bluegrass song (Bill Monroe's “Blue Moon of Kentucky”), hop them up and create something entirely new—rockabilly. This process is explicit in his recording of Kokomo Arnold's “Milk Cow Blues.” After a suitably slow intro, he stops the band and instructs them to “get real real gone for a change.” What follows is a classic of early rockabilly/rock 'n' roll. After this, Elvis would move on to RCA and worldwide fame. But he never got better than this.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

On Atomizing and Creating Biblical Models

In his blog post today, Michael Bird brought back to my attention a nearly 50-year old statement I read years ago from the pen of one of the 20th century's great New Testament scholars, Oscar Cullmann:
[T]he fountainhead of all false biblical interpretation and of all heresy is invariably the isolation and the absolutising of one single passage. (The State in the New Testament, 47).
This is undoubtedly true, and it coalesces with some concerns I have had lately about the state of Christianity in America as well as a post yesterday by Pete Enns entitled "What Biblical Scholars Do (since you were likely losing sleep about it)."  Enns has in his sights the "average Christian reader" from the "evangelical" tradition who believes in Scripture's "inerrancy" and "perspicuity" — a fancy theological term that means "clarity" — and presumes that all one needs to do to understand it is to read it "straight" according to its "plain meaning."  On the contrary, Enns points out:
Biblical scholars build models.

A model is a way of accounting for as much of the available data as possible in as coherent and persuasive manner as possible, producing along the way as little cognitive dissonance as possible.

A model is a hypothesis of what the “big picture” looks like. Models do not focus on biblical issues in isolation, but are after the big picture. All biblical scholars–fundamentalist to liberal and everything in between–have models that form the intellectual parameters within which they handle the particulars of biblical interpretation.

Ideally, biblical scholars understand that the model and the data (the forest and the trees) are in dialogue. They are self-consciously aware of the paradox that models can both guide and distort biblical interpretation. A good biblical scholar will embrace that tension, which means being on the lookout for when the model moves from help to hindrance.
Most Christians are aware of the various theological models scholars have devised to "make sense" of Scripture, whether such opposing systems as Calvinism and Arminianism or Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism — which have greater or lesser authority depending on ecclesial or academic context —  or such dogmas as Trinitarianism, which have gained universal credence among all orthodox branches of the church.  Biblical scholars, on the other hand, as Enns points out, are singularly unimpressed by claims of authority located in theological tradition, no matter how venerable.  If a model is proposed that explains the particulars of the text more fully and more elegantly, they are wont to adopt the new paradigm, as always, provisionally.  It is this fact that explains the major paradigm shifts (to use the terminology of Thomas Kuhn) that occur from time to time in Old and New Testament studies, as well as the determined opposition to such shifts from traditionalists whose careers and livelihood often depend on maintaining the status quo.  In my experience, this has played out with regard to the so-called "New Perspective on Paul," which, despite the illumination it provides, inter alia, to the historical-critical contours of the Epistle to the Galatians, has been resisted with deadly force by those whose theological paradigms are thereby called into question.

The average Christian, including a large number of those studying for Christian service, remain blissfully ignorant of what biblical scholars do and why they do it.  A former student once told me she wished she could go back to the "simple" way she used to read and follow the Bible, before Bible College interrupted her previous bliss.  Well, I told her, it simply can't be done — at least if one wants to be a responsible Christian.

Indeed, it is easier to shut one's eyes and hold tightly to what Scot McKnight has recently called a "magical Bible," which is assumed to be about "me and my relationship with God" (understood individualistically and pietistically), and to which is ascribed an unreflective, unnuanced "inerrancy" and, even worse, a "perspicuity" understood as "what appears clear to me."  (BTW, I am not denying either inerrancy or perspicuity; both need to be defined and circumscribed carefully, however).  Sadly, most are even unaware that all Christians understand the Bible on the basis of an assumed theological model, whether that is the one consciously taught at their church or one infused by the assumptions of the larger culture in which they live.  Such an environment breeds heresy, especially where the stubborn democratic assumptions of American culture reign unopposed. 

As a practical matter, all of us interpret the Bible as it appears normal to us in our various historical and cultural situatedness, and all of us  are thereby guilty of shoving the stubborn bits that don't easily fit our paradigms under the rug, where we fervently hope that others won't notice.  Hence the importance of holding all our views lightly and provisionally, and of constantly working to refine our understandings.

But this means one more thing as well: the importance of rigorous academic training for those charged with the preaching and teaching ministries of the church.  I know this isn't popular in some circles.  Some, such as a certain breed of anti-intellectual fundamentalists, can safely be ignored.  Worrying about a slippery-slope to "liberalism" isn't justifiable warrant for perpetuating ignorance, and is in reality the antithesis to the faithfulness we should seek to embody.  Such folks won't have much influence anyway.  I have in mind rather the more culturally-aware brand of "Evangelicals" whose numbers are burgeoning in America today, whose influence can be seen in the redesigning of seminary curricula away from the biblical languages, exegesis, and historical theology toward more "practical" concerns based on the social sciences and, even worse, business models of success.

I am aware, painfully aware, of the financial cost of theological education and the rather bleak compensation most graduates of such schools will receive even if they land a job in Christian ministry.  I am also aware, as one who spent 16 years in graduate school, of the cost in time and personal relationships such education exacts.  I am aware that "success" in "ministry" is often inversely proportionate to the academic excellence one attains in graduate school.  I am aware that some desire to "train" Christian leaders and pastors in the two-thirds world without having them attend qualified, rigorous academic institutions (because of the desire not to "westernize" them — I ask, is it better to leave them reading the text without conscious awareness of their own cultural assumptions?).  But what is the option?  "Pastors" and "teachers" who cannot perform exegesis because of inability to read and study the text as it was written?  "Leaders" who approach the text with hermeneutical naivete, with a contemporary cultural awareness wedded to an ignorance of the biblical world?

It has often been said that one can prove anything one wants from the Bible.  Though slightly overstated — barely! — this is largely true.  What matters is the model one uses or the grid one applies to understand the particulars of the text.  I can think of no better or more important way to spend one's time than to work tirelessly to provide such a model or models for the people of God. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Roger Olson on Christians and "Social Darwinism"

Last week, theologian Roger Olsen asked a question that has been much on my mind these past three decades — indeed, ever since I moved away from my beloved Philadelphia to the conservative hotbeds of Dallas, Texas and Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Can a Christian be a Social Darwinist?  The question is moot, of course, for millions upon millions of American Christians are, whether they know it or not, or whether they like it or not, socio-economic Darwinists.  The more precise question concerns whether or not it is appropriate for Christians to hold to such ideas.

The bulk of Olson's post concerned the delicious irony that the very people most hostile to the biological views of Charles Darwin — conservative Christian Evangelicals, fundamentalists, whatever one prefers to call them —  are most likely to support (what I consider) the most radical and irresponsible forms of laissez-faire capitalism, even to the point of lionizing the views of the stridently anti-theistic author, Ayn Rand, the darling of such economic "thinkers" as Paul Ryan (indeed, I was shocked to the point of silence when I heard another adjunct professor at the Bible College where I taught propound her views enthusiastically).  The gist of Olson's article is found in the following short paragraphs:
What I really wonder is how so many even educated Christians fail to see the contradiction inherent in belief in the Christian God, the God of Jesus Christ, together with belief in Social Darwinism. Surely “In God We Trust” (in this newspaper) does not mean “In the God of Deism” we trust. Or at least that is not what most readers who applauded the motto’s inclusion thought it meant.

I am willing to bet that I am only one of a tiny number of readers who will notice this contradiction. I am willing to bet that IF the newspaper published an editorial including an affirmation of biological Darwinism there would be a huge outcry and many subscribers would drop their subscriptions. I doubt there will be even a ripple of dissent in this case.

Why do I say “contradiction?” I assume that should be obvious to any reflective Christian (or person!). The God of Jesus Christ does not endorse survival of the fittest; he endorses care for the poor, the widows and the orphans.

The reactions to Olson's post were hardly surprising, demonstrating once again how otherwise rational people check their senses at the door when confronted with criticism of worldview-defining identity markers (as a result, Olson was driven to post a follow-up to make sure everyone heard what he was actually saying in his previous piece).

With Olson, I believe that socio-economic Darwinism is incompatible, not only with the teaching of Jesus, but with the tenor of the Mosaic Law and the proclamation of the Hebrew prophets, not least Isaiah and Amos.  I also know that most of my Christian friends will disagree with me, no matter how clear I believe the matter to be. 

The reason, I believe, has to do with boundary markers, those fundamental beliefs and practices that serve as defining features of group identity.  After all, American "conservative Evangelicals" are, first and foremost, conservative (sometimes I wonder if "conservative" runs second to "American").  And the tacit assumption of most such "Evangelicals" is that "conservatism" must define, not only their theology and view of biblical authority, but their political, economic, and social views as well.  All such matters, it is assumed, are cut from the same cloth.

I reject that assumption.  To me, assimilation of the mind of Christ should inexorably lead to the rejection of a survival of the fittest posture.  At the very least it should call into question the propriety, let alone ultimacy, of a system built on the foundation of greed, pride, and lust for power (I hesitate to add individualism to the list for fear of further misunderstanding).

I know what many are thinking right now, for I have been asked this question before, by a very intelligent former colleague: "Are you a socialist?"  Well, no, not by any standard historical definition of the term.  I do believe (like Olson), however, in what the United States has been for some time now, that is, a mixed economy characterized by a managed, regulated capitalism.  Even Adam Smith famously spoke of an "invisible hand" needed to guide capitalism away from the excesses and disparities that are increasingly becoming commonplace in the post-industrial West.  In lieu of a divine hand guiding the process — those who still hope for this are really living in fantasy land — government has to step in to a degree (what Olson calls "Adam Smith's invisible hand made visible").  How, and the degree to which it does so is a matter of legitimate debate for political philosophers (I would add that there can be no definitive "Christian" view on the matter).  I would suggest, however, that the stated preference of most of my Christian friends, viz., an increased role for private charity, is both historically unrealistic and, as former British PM Clement Attlee believed, at least potentially demeaning to the people who need such help.

The real problem, as I see it, is caused by the confluence of two treacherous streams of thought: slippery-slope logic and simplistic, black/white thinking.  Thus one is either a conservative who values hard work, private property, and individual "rights" (i.e., one is an "American"), or one is an unmitigated socialist, perhaps even a Communist (i.e., one is a "European").  Any attempt to give government a regulatory role is deemed a fatal step on the slope to ruin; hence the calls for ideological purity and the lauding of extreme positions as manifestations of commendable "faithfulness" (an aside: here is another of the eerie similarities between the far right politicians and the religious fundamentalists with whom I was raised).  Most conservatives in my acquaintance are not so extreme.  But — make no mistake — some most definitely are.  And such ideas carry an unmistakable gravitational force on people who self-identify as "conservatives."  Arguing against such ingrained patterns of thinking is, in my experience, almost hopelessly futile in the majority of instances.  Nevertheless, as I have often said, somebody's got to do it.  And, as always, the goal should always be the same, to "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Two More Neglected Dimensions in the Gospel Story: Review of N. T. Wright, How God Became King, Part 6

In his new book, How God Became King, Tom Wright argues that Christians have, for the most part, misunderstood the main point of the Gospels. Using the picture of an empty cloak, he charges Western Christians of muddle on a large scale with regard to all the bits in between the narratives of Jesus' miraculous birth and death/resurrection/ascension.  Whether they have stressed Jesus as the divine Son of God, Jesus as moral teacher/exemplar, or Jesus as the perfect sacrifice/way to heaven, they have by and large missed the major point: the story of Jesus is the story of the new and ultimate exodus promised in Israel's prophetic scriptures.  To put it differently, as Professor Wright does in his title, the story of Jesus is the story of how God became king.

According to Wright, this story of the coming of the kingdom of God has four dimensions that act something like a quadraphonic stereo system, in which all four speakers must be calibrated precisely in order to hear each in their proper balance in relation to the whole.  In our previous two posts (here and here) we discussed the first and second of these dimensions, viz., Jesus' story as the climax of the biblical story of Israel and Jesus' story as the story of God's (YHWH's) promised return to his people.  In chapters 6 and 7 Wright discusses the third and fourth dimensions he sees as integral to the story as intended by the Evangelists.

The third dimension concerns the Gospels' significance as foundational documents for the launching of God's renewed people, the Jew-plus-Gentile people we know as the church, that fulfills rather than replaces Israel (a significant distinction, by the way, with regard to a somewhat volatile issue) (105-25).  In this chapter Wright sets his sights on  previous generations of New Testament scholars who read the Gospels as historicised narratives reflecting the faith and concerns of the early church.  No, says Wright.  The Gospel writers deliberately told the story of Jesus as it actually happened, but nonetheless "in such a way as to put down markers for the life and witness of their own communities" (109).  The Gospels are thus suitably understood as "myths," though Wright is careful to add what this does and doesn't entail: they are "myths" "not in the sense of 'stories that didn't happen.' but in the sense of 'stories communities tell to explain and give direction to their own lives'" (111). 

Wright proceeds to demonstrate from multiple Gospel texts (e.g., Matt 10:5-23; 18:15-20) that Jesus' teaching anticipated the continued life and ministry of his earthly companions in the unspecified future.  Indeed, "the gospels are consciously telling the story of how God's one-time action in Jesus the Messiah ushered in a new world order within which a new way of life was not only possible, but mandatory for Jesus' followers" (118).  And this, of course, involved mission.  Pointing to such texts as John 20:21-22 and Luke 24:13-35, Wright shows how the end of the Gospels precipitates a new beginning, and how "the unique and unrepeatable mission and achievement of Jesus becomes the mandate and pattern for the mission of the church" (119).

The fourth dimension of the Gospel story concerns "the story of the kingdom of God clashing with the kingdom of Caesar" (127-54).  Once again Wright turns to two major parts of the Old Testament whose conceptual backdrop is the Babylonian exile, Isaiah 40-55 and the Book of Daniel, texts he has mined repeatedly over the years:
The heart and thrust of the two great books that reflect that period, Isaiah 40-55 and Daniel ... is the clash of the kingdoms.  In both cases the theme is the same: the kingdoms of the world versus the kingdom of the true God.  Israel's God confronts the pagan idols and the petty princelings who worship them.  They are at present lording it over God's people; but when God acts, as he will, he will show them in no uncertain terms that he is God and that they and their puny little human-made idols (and cities) are not.  He will vindicate his people, rescuing them from their exile (Isa. 52; Dan. 9), exalting them to his right hand (Dan. 7), setting up a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Dan. 2), the true Davidic kingdom, which, built on the renewal of the covenant, will be nothing less than new creation (Isa. 54-55).  In Isaiah this will be accomplished through the work of the "servant of the LORD"; in Daniel it will be accomplished through the suffering and faithfulness of God's people.  It's the same story all the way through.  And there is no doubt that this is the story the gospel writers intend, in their different ways, to retell in the basic story of Jesus himself (130-31).
Wright next turns to highlight the neglected theme of Christ versus Caesar in the Gospels.  The famous "Christmas" story of Jesus' birth as David's son (= the King) in Bethlehem because of "Caesar" Augustus's census (Luke 2:1-5) literarily foreshadows the chief priests' accusation to Pilate that Jesus "was forbidding people to give tribute to Caesar" (Luke 23:1-2).  Indeed, Luke's purpose in telling the story of the decree was theological — and political: "Augustus's signature on the decree was Rome signing the ultimate death warrant for its classic pagan power" (136). 

John's Gospel is even more explicit and, indeed, penetrating (140-47).  John portrays the ultimate conflict as transcending the surface-level conflict between the kingdom of God and Caesar.  The real conflict, in his view, was being waged against a power, "the accuser" and "ruler of this world" (John 12:28-33; 13:2, 27; 14:30-31).  Indeed, he portrays the events of Jesus' arrest, trial, and passion as the climax of God's battle with the real enemy who was working through the betrayer, Judas, and the callous power of Rome, represented by Pilate.  In response to Pilate's interrogation, Jesus explicitly points to the clash of kingdoms and explains their fundamental difference.  Jesus' kingdom was not "of this world" (John 18:36).  This certainly does not mean that his kingdom is "spiritual" rather than political.  Wright explains: "His kingdom is certainly for this world, but it isn't from it" (144).  And it has an entirely different modus operandi: "Caesar's kingdom (and all other kingdoms that originate in this world) make their way by fighting.  But Jesus's kingdom—God's kingdom enacted through Jesus—makes its way with quite a different weapon, one that Pilate refuses to acknowledge: telling the truth" (144, citing John 18:37-38).  But the Judean leaders will have none of it.  "We have no king except Caesar" (John 19:15), they infamously told Pilate, pitifully unaware of the irony that they preferred the kingdom of Daniel's fourth beast to the kingdom of God which was irrupting in their midst.

Wright concludes with a discussion of the famous "Render unto Caesar" saying in the Synoptic triple tradition.  Here he repeats the interpretation he introduced 16 years ago in Jesus and the Victory of God.  In short, Jesus is not advocating a Reformational "two kingdom" theology (let alone the bastardized, Enlightenment offshoot of that).  What Jesus says rather has "everything to do with the fact that God trumps Caesar on all fronts" (149).  Indeed, his deliberate ambiguity was the perfect way to distance himself from both the revolutionaries and the pro-Roman loyalists in his midst, demonstrating that one's ultimate loyalty must be to the God whose image was not to be found impressed on a tawdry coin but stamped on the being of every one of his human creatures.

These chapters are not unexpected from any who have read Wright's previous works.  Indeed, his material on the Gospels as foundational for the launching of God's renewed people should not be controversial to any but the most dyed in the wool, old school dispensationalist.  Indeed, it was considerations like those discussed by Wright in this chapter that ultimately caused me to reject the dispensationalism of my youth.  Continuity and fulfillment, on the face of it, are assumed on every page of the Gospels.

Wright's discussion on the clash of the kingdoms also should not surprise.  After all, he is famous for his understanding of the "political" implications of the gospel's declaration of Jesus' risen Lordship.  "Jesus is Lord.  That means Caesar is not."  And he is right, of course.  Drawing on the background of Daniel 2 and 7, the narrated story of Jesus' death and resurrection is the story of how God enacted the promised overthrow of the world's kingdoms (at least provisionally) and establishment of the kingdom of God.  In this chapter Wright doesn't discuss inaugurated eschatology, but the continued presence of the kingdoms of the world does not negate the ultimate authority of God's already inaugurated eschatological rule.  Exactly how the Christian should navigate the treacherous waters of political engagement in the kingdoms of the world is left undiscussed by Wright at this point.

At times, especially in his discussions of Paul, I suspect Wright has overplayed the anti-Imperial thrust of the text—not to say that such a thrust is not there, but that it more often lies somewhere under the surface.  Here I think his emphasis is spot on.  John and Luke are especially clear in this regard.  Another clue, unmentioned by Wright, occurs in John 20, when "believing Thomas" makes a startling confession of faith when he sees the wounds in the body of the risen Jesus: "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28).  As the climactic confession of the faith called for by John, in a book whose opening sentence declared that the "Word" (the pre-incarnate Son) was "God," this undoubtedly carries the note of ontology later developed thoroughly and philosophically in the classic ecumenical creeds of the church.  But the polemical — indeed, anti-Imperial — thrust of the confession becomes clear when one reads Suetonius's The Lives of the Caesars.  According to Suetonius, the Emperor Domitian, who reigned from 81-96 CE —meaning that he was almost certainly the Emperor on the throne when John's Gospel was written — insisted on referring to himself and being addressed as "Dominus et deus noster," "Our Lord and God" (8.13.2). To John, the true Lord and God was not the vile Domitian, but the resurrected Jesus.  And the shocking thing about this claim is the belief that he attained to that kingship through being crucified on a Roman cross.  Our next installment will take up that theme.