Friday, August 31, 2012

The 350th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer

"All things should be done decently and in order."
~St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 14:40

This morning, while idly perusing the blog of Paul Barnett, New Testament scholar and former Anglican Bishop of North Sydney, I came upon his post on 2012 being the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer.  Why this anniversary had slipped my mind is anybody's guess.  Perhaps it was because the BCP is largely the work of the great Thomas Cranmer, who published the first two editions back in 1549 and 1552.  Nevertheless, having been reminded, I would like to reflect a bit on this treasure which, in God's providence, has been bequeathed to English-speaking Christians and has exerted immeasurable influence far beyond the confines of the Anglicanism that produced it.

I grew up attending an IFCA (a group I often, and only partly in jest, refer to as "I Fight Christians Anywhere") church that uncharacteristically, and thankfully, derived its order of service from two former Presbyterian pastors.  When, during my undergraduate days, I often attended Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church, I felt right at home despite the ecclesial and theological differences from how I had been raised that marked Tenth Church out as confessionally Presbyterian.  This was the type of church service I could really appreciate: solidly traditional, with a solemn formality and ample room for active participation by the worshipper, meaty hymns, recitation of the creed, prayer, Bible reading and, above all, expository preaching.

Of course I was aware other forms of worship existed.  My father often supplemented his Bible College professor income by preaching on Sundays, most often at independent or Baptist churches, which were decidedly less formal yet, strangely enough, appeared to be less existentially gripping.  The parts of the service I had always loved  the old hymns, the prayers, Bible readings, and creeds  were viewed, and sometimes even referred to, as "preliminaries" to the real point of the service, viz., the sermon, which too often rambled on for 45 minutes or more.  When I arrived in Dallas for graduate education in 1979, I was shocked to find every church I attended to be like this.  So it was no surprise to me when the evangelical churches started abandoning what they thought were "traditional" worship services to the new-fangled, informal and entertainment-oriented "praise and worship" services that today scar the ecclesial landscape from sea to shining sea.  

I wasn't satisfied then, and I am no more sanguine today about such schlock masquerading as "worship."  Unfortunately, all too many Christians don't know there are alternatives (and, I'm afraid, many simply aren't equipped with the experiential framework within which to appreciate such alternatives when they encounter them).  I would like to suggest that the services enshrined in the BCP provide us with perhaps the best of these alternatives, providing worship that is, in the best sense, evangelical, catholic, and Reformed.

One need not be an Anglican to use or benefit from this work.  I remember my father, a staunch advocate of ecclesiastical independency, speaking highly of it in my youth.  I also remember F. F. Bruce, a lifelong member of the Plymouth Brethren, writing in his autobiography that he kept a copy of it on his desk and read it faithfully.  I purchased my own copy of the BCP at St. Paul's Cathedral in London in June 1988, and often I have used it as a framework for my own Bible reading and "devotional" life.  One of the geniuses of the work is that it provides for morning and evening services each day of the year as well as for weekly Eucharistic services, services for special days on the yearly church calendar, and services for special occasions of life, such as birth, marriage, and death (the matchless phraseology of the last two of which are familiar to just about all English-speakers to this day).  The strength of the BCP, however, goes well beyond its comprehensiveness and glorious diction, which has exerted such a major influence on the English language (arguably, the three greatest influences remain the King James Bible, the BCP, and the works of Shakespeare).  Briefly, I would like to list three such strengths, the merits of which can hardly be disputed.

First, the BCP is dominated by Scripture.  Nondenominational Protestants in America often have designated their assemblies as "Bible churches."  I have even attended some such churches from time to time.  But I have often reflected on the irony that so many "Bible churches" have, so as to "save time," eliminated systematic Bible reading from their liturgies, and have replaced systematic expository preaching of large portions of Scripture with "practical," topical messages which often use the text to validate points derived from other sources.  By contrast, some 70% of the language of the BCP is directly sourced in Scripture, and each service has two Scripture readings ("lessons") which cover the vast majority of Holy Writ. By contrast, the saccharine, emotion-drenched entertainment provided in so much contemporary "worship" leaves me cold.

Second, the BCP provides exemplars of intelligent, theologically-informed prayer.  Another of the ironies of American evangelicalism is its distaste for liturgical, "written-down" prayer.  "You're just reciting other people's words," I'm often told.  Even worse, some have even said such prayers are examples of "vain repetition," somehow ignoring that Jesus warned against such repetition in the context of teaching his disciples the Lord's prayer (Matt 6:5-15).  But the historic prayers preserved and composed by Cranmer are models of brevity and theological clarity that certainly can be used either as is or as models for public (and private prayer) by Christians today.  Public prayer is becoming a lost art in American Christianity.  To be sure, there are some who maintain the practice admirably, such as Michael Rogers of Westminster Presbyterian in Lancaster, PA.  But all too often, in my experience, public prayer is an embarrassment of shallowness and incoherence, as exemplified by an opening  prayer I once heard at a megachurch from a "worship leader" whose introductory "Oh God" sounded like a painful expletive.

Finally, the BCP provides an explicitly sacramental liturgy.  Sunday worship climaxes, as it ought, with the celebration of Holy Communion, the "visible Word" instituted by Jesus to complement the spoken/written Word of the Gospel. (In this regard N. T. Wright has often made the trenchant observation that Jesus, in order to explain the significance of his coming death, didn't articulate a "theory" of the atonement; he gave his disciples a meal.)  This is one area where my Presbyterian church could learn a few things from the Anglicans.  Celebrating the table of the Lord on a quarterly basis is simply inexcusable for a church that prides itself on being "biblical."  As it happens, they are not only departing from historic church practice, they even are departing from Calvin, who (rightly) believed that the Eucharist should be celebrated every time the Word is proclaimed.  Alas, however, my Presbyterians followed the advice of Geneva's City Council rather than their pastor!

Much more could be said, however.  But enough, I hope, has been said to encourage some to pick the BCP up and use it for their own spiritual nourishment (if you do, make sure to buy the British version [still the 1662 edition] or an American edition prior to the revisions of 1979).  When the Apostle Paul instructed the Corinthians to conduct their worship gatherings  "for edification" (1 Cor 14:26) and "decently and in order" (1 Cor 14:40), he certainly did not foresee Cranmer's masterpiece  indeed, the differences involved are transparent with even a cursory reading — but he would have approved nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

N. T. Wright on "The Whole Sweep of Scripture"

No single scholar has influenced my thinking over the past two decades more than N. T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham and presently Professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews.  This morning my friend and erstwhile student Sam Spatola brought this video of professor Wright to my attention, which is filled with godly, mature wisdom direly needed by today's church.

Beyond reasonable doubt we are living in an age of biblical illiteracy in the West unparalleled since scholars like Martin Luther and William Tyndale translated the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old and New Testaments into the vernacular European tongues in the 16th century.  Prior to that time, of course, the reason for such illiteracy was the captivity of Western Christians to the Latin of both the Mass and the Vulgate text available to the clergy.  Today, ironically, English-speaking Christians live with a plethora of translational options which provide them with both textual accuracy and lucidity unavailable to previous generations.  Yet biblical illiteracy proceeds, seemingly unchecked.

This, for those of us who consider Scripture to be the primary means of grace given by God to his people, is a tragic situation.  The increasing complexity and sheer "busy-ness" of modern life certainly is partly to blame.  Likewise, the almost complete evangelical abandonment of historic liturgical church services, in which readings from the Old and New Testament play a central part, in favor of entertainment-oriented "praise and worship" and "practical" sermon(ettes) certainly is partly responsible.  I might also add that the common pietistic emphasis on reading the Bible "devotionally," though certainly not improper, has led to the common practice of reading and reflecting on the text in bite-sized morsels — certainly a practice not conducive to serious understanding of the text's meaning.

What is the solution?  When asked, "How should we read the Bible?" New Testament scholar and churchman N. T. Wright responds, "Frequently and thoroughly." Exactly!  The need for God's people is to get soaked in God's written Word.  We need to read all of it, and we need to read all of it in large chunks, i.e., complete books rather than individual, decontextualized verses, chapters, or paragraphs.  Even when we read or listen to "snippets" of the text, as Wright reminds us, we need to do so with the perspective that we are reading the whole of the Old or New Testaments through the window provided by the portion we are reading.  Only thus can we avoid the elementary errors of interpretation caused by reading the text out of its various literary and salvation-historical contexts.  These are some wise words by Professor Wright that we, as God's people, need to hear.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Gospel Coalition: Did Jesus Preach the "Gospel"?

Surely no subject is more important and dear to the hearts of Christians than the gospel.  The gospel message, after all, is the effective, powerful instrument used by God to bring about the “salvation” of all—Jew and Gentile alike—who believe the message and submit to Christ's Lordship (Rom 1:16).  What precisely the "gospel" message is, however, is a matter of some controversy in "evangelical" circles, a matter of no small irony in that "evangelicalism" is a movement defined by its supposed adherence to the biblical "evangel" or "gospel."

In my experience as one raised in a Christian home, nurtured in a fundamentalist church, and educated at fundamentalist and conservative evangelical academic institutions, most evangelicals derive their understanding of the gospel from the Apostle Paul, especially the argumentation in his letters to the Galatians and the Romans.  In such thinking, the gospel is a message of how an individual "gets saved."  In terms of content, such an understanding of the gospel defines it in terms of the combined theologoumena of substitutionary atonement and a "Lutheran" and/or "Reformed" understanding of justification by faith: people are "justified," declared to be "righteous" in God's eyes, not by virtue of their own meritorious works, but only through faith in Christ, who died as their substitute in judgment, and whose own "righteousness" is credited to their account ("imputed").

Understanding the gospel this way raises a host of questions, some easier to answer than others.  One major question concerns how this teaching coheres with the message of Jesus himself, who prima facie was concerned with matters of the "kingdom of God," a subject only rarely discussed (in such terms at least) by the Apostle to the Gentiles.  As anyone with only a cursory knowledge of the history of New Testament studies knows, the "Jesus-Paul debate" has been going on for centuries, with many would-be defenders of Jesus maintaining that Paul's teaching was sufficiently different/novel to make him the de facto "founder of Christianity" (supposedly a bad thing).  Defenders of Paul, on the other hand, have labored to demonstrate that Paul's major emphases not only are consistent with those of Jesus, but also find a certain adumbration in the teaching of our Lord.

The Gospel Coalition clearly falls into the latter of these groups.  Last week they announced that the 2013 TGC National Conference would have the theme of "His Mission: Jesus in the Gospel of Luke."  In order to whet the appetite, they have posted a video of a panel discussion with three of their prominent scholars, Don Carson, Tim Keller, and John Piper, discussing the question, "Did Jesus Preach the Gospel?"

Clocking in at just over 12 minutes, the video is short and to the point.  It is also informative and enlightening, not least with regard to the grounds on which they both ask and answer the question.  Carson indeed opens by posing the issue thus:

Increasingly today we're finding some people saying, in effect, "If you understand the gospel to be roughly what Paul says it is, then surely you can ask the question, 'Did Jesus himself ever actually preach the gospel, if that's the definition?'"

This way of posing the question is illuminating in that it explicitly sets the teaching of Paul as the base line against which our understanding of the gospel, and Jesus' own potential proclamation of it, must be measured.   As the discussion moves forward, this becomes painfully clear.  Using Luke as an example, Piper immediately points to Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) as an example of Jesus' teaching that "justification" is pronounced on the basis of God's mercy rather than on keeping the law, even if such observance is the result of God's working obedience in a person (he even introduces such anachronistic categories as Semi-Pelagianism here to make his point).  He then points to the succeeding story of the "rich young ruler" (Luke 18:18-30) to argue that Jesus implicitly taught justification via the imputed righteousness of Christ!  The text says nothing even remotely close to such a thing, of course.  Even worse, the juxtaposition of the parable and the pericope of the rich young ruler is a Lukan rather than Jesuanic/historical one (Luke introduces the latter with the simple connective kai, "and"), and thus cannot be used to make the point Piper wants to make (that Luke himself had a theology of justification is clear from the Pauline "quotation" he records in Acts 13:38-39, though articulated in a clearly non-Pauline way).  After listening I just chalked this up to Piper's increasingly manifest "goofiness" quotient, and took it with a pinch of salt.  Later, he asserts that the cross casts its shadow over the whole narrative (who doubts that this is true?) and that the words of Jesus at the Last Supper ("This cup is the new covenant in my blood") means, "'I purchase all the benefits of the new covenant, including the forgiveness of sins, by dying,' and that's the gospel."

Carson agreed "entirely," pointing to Luke's editorial comment in Luke 9:51 ("When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem") as evidence that the cross and resurrection constituted the climactic moment of the narrative, and that therefore all the intervening material must be interpreted in that light.  That is certainly true, though I might add that in Luke's two-volume work, it is the ascension of the risen Jesus that serves as the pivot on which his narrative rests (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11).  It is only by the use of an a priori theological Procrustean bed that one can locate the gospel almost exclusively in individualistic soteriological concerns that find resolution in the cross, with only tangential connection to Jesus' earlier ministry and subsequent resurrection/ascension.

It is here that I find the panel discussion most problematic.  Indeed, I find myself in agreement with much of what the panelists say (especially Keller, who cites a fine article by British New Testament scholar Simon Gathercole and had a perceptive comment about the relation between justification and ministry to the poor).  But their fundamental problem is this: they understand the gospel through the interpretive grid of (a "confessional" Protestant reading of) Galatians and Romans rather than that of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  And thus they approach the issue backwards.  Indeed, the "increasing" number of people Carson claims are asking whether Jesus preached Paul's putative "gospel" are not the run-of-the-mill liberals of yesteryear, but rather evangelical scholars like N. T. Wright and Scot McKnight who, while adhering to both substitutionary atonement and justification by faith (the latter within the parameters of a chastened "New Perspective on Paul"), define the gospel more broadly in light of all the New Testament evidence and its Old Testament background, particularly in Isaiah 40-66.  I myself have thrown my own hat into the ring with a very detailed, nine-part examination of the New Testament evidence (see herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here), in which I side decisively with Wright and McKnight.

Simply put, the answer to whether or not Jesus preached the "gospel" is a simple, unequivocal "Yes."  To use Luke as a witness, one need look no farther than the story of Jesus' rejection at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), which the author moves forward in his narrative (cf. the later location in his source, Mark 6:1-6) as paradigmatic for his ministry as a whole.  There Jesus is recorded as having read Isaiah 61:1-2 from the scroll at the synagogue.  The text reads as follows:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news ("the gospel") to the poor ... (Luke 4:18)
Then, shockingly, he rolled up the scroll and said, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21).  Later he spoke of his proclamation of the gospel as a matter of necessity laid on him by the divine purpose: "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose."

Here we see not only that Jesus preached the gospel, but also that the content of the gospel concerned the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom of God in his ministry.  Luke's presentation here is of a piece with that of his source, Mark, for whom the "good news" consisted of the whole story or narrative of Jesus as God's saving event in accordance with the prophecy articulated in Isaiah 40 (Mark 1:1-15).  The gospel, in other words, is not only the solution to the universal problem of individual sin and guilt.  It is that, of course.  But the individualistic component must be understood within the larger context of salvation history, with regard to which the gospel message provides the glad tidings of the eschatological fulfillment of God's plan for his creation as a whole.  In other words, the long-awaited denouement of history was set in motion through the events of Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection.  If this is true  and the labeling of the first four books of the New Testament as "Gospels" quite strongly suggests it is  then the attempt of Carson et al. to answer the question in the affirmative by trying to tease Paul's theology of the cross and doctrine of justification out of the Gospels is simply a category mistake.  

As N. T. Wright has said plenty of times over the years, the gospel is not the message of "how one gets saved."  It is simply the good news that God has, in Christ, established the kingdom of God through Jesus's messianic life, death, and resurrection.  This is the good news that results in people "getting saved" when they believe the message and submit to the risen Christ's Lordship.  St. Paul himself says as much in Romans 1:16, where he affirms his confidence in the gospel message because, as the effective instrument of God's power, it leads to salvation when people believe the message.  The proclaimed gospel, as the apostle says in verse 17, actually instantiates God's saving righteousness because it engenders the faith that saves and justifies.  If the gospel message leads to justification when that message is believed, the gospel cannot simply be equated with the message of justification per se.  If this point is granted, then the entire premise upon which the Gospel Coalition's question is asked is shown to be faulty.  If, on the other hand, one takes the Gospels as the primary datum as to what constitutes the "gospel," one can clearly see how such other Pauline texts as Romans 1:1-7 and (especially) 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, cohere nicely as shorthand summaries of what the Gospels present in fuller, narrative formats.  "Justification by faith," then, can be seen to be what it originally was intended to be, viz., Paul's answer to how Jews and Gentiles alike are reckoned "righteous" and members of God's covenant people in view of his faithful fulfillment of his promises to Abraham.  "Justification by faith" is, in other words, implied by the gospel, or rather one might say it is that aspect of the message entailing how it is that people individually become the beneficiaries of God's saving activity in Christ.  On this point I agree with TGC that Jesus and Paul were on the same page, even if we disagree on our definition of the gospel.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Good-bye to an Eagles Hero: Steve Van Buren, R.I.P.

Steve Van Buren in a classic pose

Philadelphia fans may be somewhat geographically circumscribed, but they are a loyal bunch — and they have looooooong memories.  Let an ignorant "fan" of some other team ridicule the Eagles for never having won a Super Bowl, and the Birds fan will immediately lecture the history-challenged offender that the NFL did not begin with the 1966 season, and that the Eagles have actually won three NFL championships: in 1960 (led by Norm van Brocklin, Tommy McDonald, "Concrete" Chuck Bednarik, and Tom Brookshier), and back-to-back titles in 1948-49.  The major reason the Birds won those first two titles was a Honduran-born, 200-pound halfback out of LSU (where he was a teammate of Al Dark, later the New York/San Francisco Giant infielder and manager) named Steve Van Buren.  Van Buren died yesterday of pneumonia at the age of 91 in Lancaster, PA.

I was not yet alive when Van Buren played, and so I have only seen his exploits on video.  Nevertheless, of all Eagles players, I consider Van Buren greater than all but two, Bednarik and the incomparable Reggie White.  Van Buren, with 5860 yards, ranks third on the Eagles all-time rushing list behind Wilbert Montgomery (6538) and Brian Westbrook (5995).  Montgomery is the greatest Eagles offensive player I have ever seen.  His 194 rushing yards against the hated Cowboys in the 1980 NFC championship game remains my most treasured football memory, and I will maintain to my dying day that a healthy Montgomery was the greatest rusher of his era, better than Tony Dorsett and even Walter Payton (an opinion shared by Vikings' HOF coach Bud Grant, by the way).  As good as he was, however, Montgomery never did what Van Buren did: four league rushing titles (1945, 1947, 1948, 1949) and five first team all-pro selections (1944-45, 1947-49).  He was the first player ever to lead the NFL in rushing three consecutive seasons (since done only by Jim Brown [twice], Earl Campbell, and Emmitt Smith).  Van Buren was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965, and in 1994 was one of four halfbacks (the others being Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, and O. J. Simpson) named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary team.

But to Eagles fans, Van Buren is best known for his exploits in the team's first two championship games.  The first, on 19 December 1948, was played in a driving blizzard in old Shibe Park in North Philadelphia.  Van Buren had to walk, take a trolley and the subway from his home on Manoa Road in Havertown to the subway exit at Broad and Lehigh, and then walk seven blocks through the snow to get to the stadium.  In the game Van Buren rushed 26 times for 98 yards, making up for quarterback Tommy Thompson's inability to pass due the inclement conditions (2-for-12 for only 7 yards!), and in the fourth quarter scored the game's only points with a five yard run into the end zone off tackle to give the Eagles a 7-0 win over the Chicago Cardinals.  The following year Van Buren outdid himself, rushing for 196 yards on 31 carries to lead the Birds to a decisive 14-0 victory over the Rams in Los Angeles.  This game marked the apex of Van Buren's career, as injuries limited his effectiveness the next two seasons, leading to his retirement, at the age of 32, prior to the 1952 season.

To me, what always has endeared Van Buren was his humility, such a rare attribute in people with marked athletic prowess (see the fine article by Hall of Fame writer Ray Didinger here).  When I see the preening and posing of players with but half of Van Buren's accomplishments in today's NFL, I can only shake my head with sadness in the recognition that Van Buren's tribe, though perhaps not yet extinct, is certainly an endangered species.  May he rest in peace.

Van Buren plunging into the end zone in the fourth quarter of the NFL Championship game against the Chicago Cardinals on 19 December 1948 at Shibe Park, 21st and Lehigh, Philadelphia (

Friday, August 17, 2012

"Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City"

Well, they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night
Now, they blew up his house, too
Down on the boardwalk they're gettin' ready for a fight
Gonna see what them racket boys can do

Now, there's trouble bustin' in from outta state
And the d.a. can't get no relief
Gonna be a rumble out on the promenade
And the gambling commission's hangin' on by the skin of its teeth

Well now, ev'rything dies, baby, that's a fact
But maybe ev'rything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Well, I got a job and tried to put my money away
But I got debts that no honest man can pay
So I drew what I had from the central trust
And I bought us two tickets on that coast city bus

Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold
But with you forever I'll stay
Were goin' out where the sands turnin' to gold
Put on your stockings baby, `cause the nights getting cold
And maybe ev'rything dies, baby, that's a fact
But maybe ev'rything that dies someday comes back

Now, I been lookin' for a job, but it's hard to find
Down here it's just winners and losers and don't
Get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well, I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end
So, honey, last night I met this guy and I'm gonna
Do a little favor for him

Well, I guess everything dies, baby, that's a fact

But maybe ev'rything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.

(Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City" [1982])

Last weekend  my wife and I celebrated our 33rd anniversary with our children and their spouses/fiancees and grandchildren in Atlantic City.  We were there because our granddaughter Mackenzie was participating in her first feis at the Sheraton Hotel right off the Atlantic City Expressway.

In the late 19th century Atlantic City became the holiday destination for working class Philadelphians to escape the sweltering summer heat of their brick rowhouse neighborhoods (hence the old moniker "the lungs of Philadelphia," repeated by Burt Lancaster's Lou Pascal in the brilliant 1981 film, "Atlantic City;" by contrast, the rich flocked south to Cape May and the religious to the dry, "family-friendly" resort of Ocean City).  By the early 20th century, Atlantic City had become the nation's premier resort, with a boardwalk 4 1/2 miles long, the central portion of which was lined by grand hotels and multiple piers jutting out into the Atlantic filled with amusements for young and old alike.  By mid-century, however, Atlantic City's glory was fading, leading to the referendum in the 1970s to allow gambling with the purported goal of revitalizing the city which by them had deteriorated to the point of being a massive slum with a large boardwalk.

The city still had mystique, however.  I can still remember looking north along the coast from the 4th Street beach in the more respectable Ocean City during the blessed summers of 1965 and 1966 to view the skyline of Atlantic City a mere ten miles to the north.  On a couple of occasions we actually traveled those ten miles to walk the boardwalk.  Even as a child, the sheer size of the piers and beauty of the old hotels amazed me and remain vivid in my memory to this day.

But the glory of Atlantic City was not to last.  Even before the allowance of gambling, the great Hotel Traymore was imploded in 1972 (this tragic event is shown at the start of the film "Atlantic City").  Once gambling became legal, one by one the great hotels began to drop like dominoes to the wrecking ball: the Breakers, the Chelsea, the Brighton, the Shelburne, the Mayflower, and, most tragically, the Marlborough-Blenheim, whose implosion may be seen at the beginning of the brilliantly stark video to Bruce Springsteen's austere classic, "Atlantic City."  Of the great hotels, only four survive as parts of larger casino complexes: the Dennis, the Claridge, Haddon Hall, and the Ritz-Carlton, from whose 9th floor "Nucky" Johnson ran his "boardwalk empire."

Today, Atlantic City engenders an overwhelming sense of melancholy, even sadness, in me.  The promised "revitalization," the subtext for the classic artistic contributions of the 1981 film and 1982 Springsteen song mentioned above, has not come after almost 40 years.  Large swathes of vacant land lie where rundown rowhouses and smaller hotels and businesses used to sit.  The old Italian neighborhood, Ducktown, now houses a variety of strip clubs in the shadows of the giant casinos along the boards (did no one even consider the Las Vegas factor?).  The boardwalk is full of litter, tacky stores and scores of "massage houses" and palm readers.  Topping everything is the sheer aesthetic wasteland that the city skyline has become.  No one should ever underestimate the sheer malevolent stupidity of property developers and their enablers among any city's "powers that be," who are only concerned with efficiency and profit margins, the public good be damned.  Atlantic City at one time boasted a string of beautiful hotels which were the envy of the world.  Today, with only a few exceptions, they have been replaced with vacant lots and über-tacky hotel casinos.  This is not only sad.  It is (or at least it should be considered) criminal, like much of the other activity promoted by the casinos that litter the beach line.  I leave you with a few photographs I took last week, along with some of the irreplaceable hotels knocked down in the name of "progress."

The Traymore Hotel in 1930. Note the old Madison Hotel at left
(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The empty lot at to the right is where the Traymore used to stand.
The ugly parking garage next to the Madison was the garage
for the since demolished Sands Casino

Bally's wretched 1979 tower and tacky surroundings, sitting on the spot where
the glorious Marlborough-Blenheim once sat proudly.
The Marlborough-Blenheim in its prime
(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Dennis Hotel today, restored (thankfully) by Bally's

The Dennis Hotel back in the day. Note the southern end of the Marlborough-Blenheim at the right of the picture (picture@

The Claridge today

The Claridge in its old context, with the Marlborough-Blenheim to the south and Brighton to the north (

Monday, August 6, 2012

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

The great preacher, Jim Boice, relates a famous story about the most important systematic theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth:
Several years before his death the Swiss theologian Karl Barth came to the United States for a series of lectures. At one of these, after a very impressive lecture, a student asked a typically American question. He said, ‘Dr. Barth, what is the greatest thought that has ever passed through your mind?’ The aging professor paused for a long time as he obviously thought about his answer. Then he said with great simplicity:‘Jesus loves me! This I know. For the Bible tells me so’  (Foundations of the Christian Faith [Downers Grove/London: IVP, 1986] 331).
Whether or not Barth actually said this — most assert he said this during his famous 1962 Chicago lectures, but the Q&A doesn't appear on the tapes from those sessions, and no one can reliably produce a chapter-and-verse for it — the sentiment is surely one consistent with his thought.  More importantly, it is a sentiment any theologian worth his or her salt should be able to say without hesitation.

I am no Karl Barth, of course, even if I am a somewhat controversial figure within certain certain circles in Lancaster, PA.  Nevertheless, as a theologian I have often been offended by the commonly articulated sentiment that theology is "boring" and "irrelevant." Eau contraireFor what is theology if not an exploration and exposition of who the true God is in light of his supreme and climactic revelation in the life, death, and resurrection of Messiah Jesus for meMy earliest recollection of Christian teaching is my love for the great children's hymn, "Jesus Loves Me," which we sang every day in Kindergarten 50 years ago at Grace Chapel in Havertown, PA.  This is still a song I think of on most days, especially when I have to remind myself, a person entirely undeserving of being loved, of this most personal and foundational of Christian teachings.

Saturday my wife and I "celebrated" our 33rd wedding anniversary (if one can say that working a 12-hour factory shift is a "celebration").  This is hard for me to believe, not simply because of the mere chronology involved, but more importantly because my wife still loves me, often undeservedly, after all these years.  Indeed, it is love — more specifically, the knowledge of being loved — that often serves as the impetus to carry on in the face of life's inevitable vicissitudes.

My wife, however, like I, is a sinner, and the love we share for each other developed mutually rather than in a cause/effect fashion as a result of unilateral, self-giving action.  This is where Jesus' love stands apart from ordinary human love.  At the end of the first century, John the Revelator provides us with the earliest extant example of a doxology directed to the crucified and risen Jesus:
To the one who loves us and has set us free  from our sins at the cost of  his own blood and has appointed us as a kingdom,  as priests serving his God and Father – to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever!  Amen. (Revelation 1:5b-6, NET Bible)
The crucified Christ rose triumphantly from the grave.  As a result, his past (note the aorist participle lysanti) sacrificial death (an allusion here to Isaiah 40:2?) and appointment of us to share in his regal and priestly offices (clear allusion to Exodus 19:6) are portrayed as demonstrating his present (agapōnti) love for us, and hence as justification to be accorded praise and adoration.

No one lived with more continual, conscious awareness of Jesus' undeserved and unmotivated love for him than did the Apostle Paul, the erstwhile Pharisaic scholar and persecutor of the church whose life was changed in an instant by God's sovereign, recreative "call" on the road to Damascus.  More than two decades later, Paul still claimed he was "not worthy to be called an apostle" (1 Cor 15:9), indeed, the "worst" of the sinners Christ came to save (1 Tim 1:15).  And this was not mere rhetorical flourish.  The existential wonder he still felt decades later at Christ's love for him is palpable in one of the most powerful segments of his most emotional letter:
For through the law I died to the law so that I may live to God. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God,  who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20, NET Bible)
Paul the former Pharisee was in the theological fight of his life.  He was writing in response to teachers who had infiltrated the churches of Galatia and "agitated" the believers there — uncircumcised Gentiles by background — with the teaching that they would have to undergo circumcision and adopt the Jewish Torah if they wanted to be counted as genuine "sons of Abraham."  Because Paul proclaimed his revolutionary law-free gospel, his opponents judged him to make Christ "the servant of sin" (Gal 2:17).  After denying the accusation emphatically ("Certainly not!"), he provides his rationale in verses 19-21, presenting his own experience as a paradigm for all Christians.  His demolition of the distinction between Jew and Gentile, codified in the Torah, didn't thereby make Christ the promoter of "sin" for one basic reason: "through the law" Paul (and, by implication, all Christians) "died to the law."  This cryptic statement has baffled commentators for centuries, but I suggest that its intent becomes clear when it is understood in conjunction with the following statement: "I have been crucified with Christ."  This statement anticipates his later assertion in Galatians 3:13 that in his crucifixion Christ redeemed Jewish Christians from the curse of the Torah.  The point is this: Paul's demolition of the law's programmatic distinction between Jews and Gentiles was not due to an arbitrary decision on his part to separate from Judaism.  It was rather a consequence of the law's own role in placing its curse on the crucified Christ.  Since Christ thus died "through the law," all those who died with him can be said to have died "through the law" as well.  And it is precisely this "death to the law" that enabled him to "live for God."

In verse 20 the apostle explains this new state of affairs with a strategic exaggeration.  Paul's co-crucifixion with Christ introduced a definitive, continuing state of affairs (note the perfect tense synestaurōmai).  His previous life of Torah-based service to God and, as he now saw it, murderous persecution of God's new covenant people, was nailed to the cross with the Messiah.  His new life henceforth was entirely empowered by the indwelling Christ and characterized — just as was the case with his initial acceptance before God — by faith in Christ.

It is at this point that Paul's continuing sense of wonder and gratitude bubbles to the surface, as he personalizes his theology and identifies Christ as the one "who loved me and gave himself for me."  It is probable that his language here reflects Isaiah 53:6, 12 (LXX) and thus sets up the contrast between Christ the accused "servant of sin" (Gal 2:17) and Christ the representative Isaianic Servant of YHWH who, by being "handed over" for the people's sins, "justified" many (Isa 53:11-12).  The love of Christ for Paul, and for me as well, was sui generis in that it was unilateral love demonstrated by the ultimate self-sacrifice for people who were utterly unworthy, and indeed worthy of nothing but God's wrath.  Such love brought Paul to his knees and compelled his proclamation of Christ's representative and substitutionary death (2 Cor 5:14).  Paul felt the wonder.  Do we as well, for whom Christ died?

Soli Deo Gloria.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Some Belated Thoughts on the Chick-Fil-A Nonsense

Wednesday night a friend asked me, "How bout a post on this Chick-Fil-A nonsense doc?"  Initially I was hesitant to do so, knowing that my penchant for idiosyncratic opinions often produces more controversy than the controversies themselves deserve.  Nevertheless, here I go again.

As everyone in America is aware by now, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy recently gave an interview with the Baptist Press in which he proudly (smugly?) claimed to be "guilty as charged" of supporting the "biblical definition of a family."  He continued as follows:
We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.
In a later radio interview he upped the rhetorical ante:
I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say 'we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage' and I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.
Not surprisingly, gay advocacy groups were upset at Cathy's public comments, not to mention the $3 million donated by the company to such "traditional family" advocacy organizations such as the Family Research Council.  The Jim Henson company pulled their toys from Chick-fil-A kids' meals.  Not to be outdone, a number of big city politicians got into the act.  Philadelphia City councilman Jim Kinney sent a strongly worded letter to Cathy, telling him to "take a hike" and "take your intolerance with you," and promising to introduce a resolution in council condemning him for his intolerance and "hate."  Boston mayor Thomas Menino likewise wrote Cathy, saying "There is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it."  Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel pompously declared, "Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values."

In response, former preacher, Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called for a national Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day Wednesday.  In financial terms, the day was a rousing success, setting sales records and causing at least one outlet to run out of food because of the heavy demand.

I must say that the whole "controversy" seems contrived and more than a little silly to me.  Nothing breeds theological shallowness more than knee-jerk political Christianity.  But in one sense the matter is exceedingly silly because Mr. Cathy, no matter what his views, is entitled to express them in a free society, and everyone else is free to agree or disagree with him.  What no one has is the right not to have their sensitivities offended by what someone else says.  And I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but expressing disapproval of someone's behavior is not the same as "hating" them.  To equate the two is to trivialize the hate that continues to desensitize public discourse today.

Nevertheless, the salient point is that Mr. Cathy is a businessman.  The matter of his views about homosexuality is relevant only if those views impinge on his treatment of homosexual employees and customers.  My initial reaction to the kerfuffle was to wonder why anyone would care what the religious or political views of a businessman are.  And who would not have guessed that Mr. Cathy, the son of the founder of a famously Christian company that shuts its doors on Sunday (much to my chagrin on many an occasion), held such views?  The point, however, is an elementary one: people choose to buy or not to buy a company's products because of their quality, not because of the beliefs or lifestyle of their owner/CEO — or at least the latter shouldn't be the determining criterion.  As I have often said, if I only rooted for teams with honorable and virtuous athletes, I would watch a lot less baseball and football than I do.  And I shudder to think what I would do if I could only listen to music written and performed by artists whose lifestyles I could approve and views with which I agree.  Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Miles Davis, the Stones, Zeppelin — all would be disqualified (of course, many of my fundamentalist forebears thought they should thereby be disqualified, but that is  matter for another time).

Nonetheless, reactions both from the left and the Christian right raise important issues that I would like to discuss very briefly.  The most glaring issue concerns the so-called "liberal" response characteristic of the three big city politicians mentioned above.  I must say that it is rare to encounter more glaring examples of pure, unadulterated, and unacknowledged hypocrisy.  No doubt, such politicians love to congratulate themselves on their "tolerance" and love of "diversity."  In reality, however, by their statements they only succeeded to champion intolerance in the name of tolerance.  Emanuel's claim that "Chick-fil-A values aren't Chicago values" is odd indeed with reference to a city well-known for the values of criminals like Al Capone and politicians like Richard Daley.  Darryl Hart thinks it "odd that bright people like Emanuel don’t see that they are erecting a form of intellectual orthodoxy that is just as inflexible as anything the Religious Right might construct."  Indeed, but such simply demonstrates with breathtaking clarity the effect of presuppositions and prejudices on one's thinking process.  Such views as Cathy's are simply beneath contempt for people like Emanuel and hence, by definition, not worthy of toleration.  But here is one example of where political "liberals" could learn a thing or two about tolerance from the libertarians.

As a Christian, however, I am more concerned with the Christian attitudes and response to the controversy.  And it is here that some cautionary words really need to be said.  There is nothing wrong with vocally supporting Cathy's right to free speech, of course.  Nevertheless, Huckabee's brainchild is somewhat troubling.  Not only, I would argue, does it fight culture war battles using the world's methods ("we'll win by spending more money and making the business more successful;" [even worse] "we'll show who really has more supporters for their view"), it fosters an unhelpful "us versus them" mentality that will only serve to reinforce the tendency to ghettoization of evangelical Christianity that certainly does not serve the church's mandate to mission well.  Indeed, I saw one of the most profound commentaries on the matter on my facebook wall yesterday, in the form of a sign outside of the Lamb of God Christian Ministries (location unknown to the author): "Sure wish the lines to volunteer at the food bank or VBS were as long as the lines at Chik-fil-A (sic!)... God."  Quite.

More significant is the all-too-typical typical shock and offense taken by so many Christians that the gay community and "liberal media" would take offense at Cathy's comments and advocate a boycott the business.  Such "shock" and offense ring more than a little hollow, however, since all they homosexual advocates were doing was mimicing classic evangelical political tactics.  Case in point: many evangelicals, including such organizations as the USA Christian Ministries, boycotted Starbucks back in May because of the coffee titan's support of gay marriage as a "core value of the company."  Well, what's good enough for the goose is good enough for the gander.  And, just as the boycott of Starbucks was ineffectual, so will the boycott of Chick-fil-A, especially in its home turf of the South.

What has often gone unexamined in Christian responses to the controversy are the twin matters of Cathy's actual statements and the (perhaps unintentional) public stance many Christians have taken toward the gay community.  It is one thing to believe that the Bible's teaching on marriage and homosexual activity are normative.  That, however, does not necessarily answer the question of how such beliefs could be made normative in a secular democracy (see my reflections on such matters here).  Claiming a position to be "biblical" may carry weight in the Christian community, but the Bible cannot, and hence does not have such an authoritative status in American law and public policy.  And I wonder how many of us have ever tried to consider how pompous and self-righteous ("we're still married to our first wives") such statements as Cathy's sound to those who do not operate with such presuppositions.

More troubling is Cathy's typical pop evangelical belief that societal approval of gay marriage will invite God's judgment on the nation.  I cannot tell you how many times I have heard and read 2 Chronicles 7:14 applied indiscriminately to any nation (usually the USA).  But America is not analogous to Old Covenant Israel.  We have no "special relationship" with God.  We are not even a Christian nation, and never have been.  For all its virtues, America is a nation founded on rebellion and the displacement of the aboriginal American population.  It is a nation that practiced and tolerated slavery, and later discriminated against those same people who were "freed" from their bondage.  It is a nation that still thrives on greed and too easily engages in warfare.  The sins of this country, like all others, are legion.  And to pretend that societal declension from biblical standards in this one area somehow is more problematic than similar declension in so many others is, at best, naive, and, at worst, an inexcusable example of selective outrage.

St. Paul concluded his epistle to the church at Colosse with a very important exhortation:

Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunities. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone. (Colossians 4:6-7, NET Bible)
"Redeeming the time," "buying back" time that would otherwise slip away along with the opportunities it affords, necessarily involves action.  The monastic , self-absorbed and often cowardly "holy huddle" is thus no option for a faithful, missional church.  But not all action is profitable action.  In Paul's view the only conduct pleasing to God and effective to "outsiders" is action characterized by wisdom.  And nowhere is this more relevant than in the area of our speech.  According to the apostle, such speech must be characterized by charis, a "graciousness" that finds its motivation and pattern in the charis of God that lies at the foundation of the gospel.  Furthermore, such gracious speech must be "seasoned with salt," characterized by a winsomeness that engages others without resorting to the blandly insipid platitudes that only serve to confirm the worst of stereotypes.

As often, I question both the wisdom and graciousness of the Christian response to the shifting cultural landscape in this matter.  I understand that homosexuals in our society will not be satisfied until their lifestyle is as accepted by the general public as the heterosexual lifestyle is.  Call this an "agenda" if you will, so long as one admits that the conservative Christians have an "agenda" as well (in other words, the term "agenda"  does not have necessarily nefarious connotations).  And I understand the societal and cultural implications for my religion if such an agenda ultimately becomes successful, an eventuality which, at this point in time, appears to be inexorable.  But I wonder if enough of us have contemplated how we appear to those Paul characterizes as "outsiders."  As one who works in a factory, I hear what people really think about Christians every single day.  It is not pretty.  Even worse, it is often deserved.

Christians are called to be wise in their speech and behavior.  Such wisdom entails more than just standing for the truth.  Truth, if it is to make any headway, must be spoken in love, and must be situated in the context of a cross-patterned life of service to others.  Cruciformity, indeed, is incompatible with any sense of aggrievement or the siege mentality that so often rears its ugly head.  Would that Christian fried chicken lovers everywhere would concentrate less on their self-righteous political games and more on actually working to love their homosexual neighbors as themselves.  That is the real issue from which no amount of "correct" moral views can excuse us.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Reflections on Yesterday's Phillies Trades

Yesterday marked the long-awaited end of an era for fans of the losingest franchise in American professional sports history, the Philadelphia Phillies (as of the time of writing, the number stands at 10, 349, dating back to 1883).  Philadelphia fans and pundits love to consider the years 2008-2012 "the most successful stretch in Phillies franchise history."  Perhaps, though I still would point to the era 1976-83, with 5 1/2 division championships, two 101-win seasons, two pennants, and the franchise's first World Series championship, led by perhaps the franchise's two greatest players (Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton), as at least the equal of the recent era.

But the end of an era it certainly is.  More than three weeks ago I declared the season unofficially over.  The team pretended it wasn't so, but after last weekend's listless sweep at the hands of the Atlanta Braves, they finally admitted the obvious and explicitly made moves with 2013 and beyond in mind.  For the rare Phillies fan who is not aware of the moves the team made, they traded centerfielder Shane Victorino to the Los Angeles Dodgers for 25-year-old righthanded reliever Josh Lindblom, double-A righty Ethan Martin, and a player to be named or cash.  They also traded rightfielder Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants for rightfielder Nate Schierholtz, AA catching prospect Tommy Joseph, and single-A righthander Seth Rosin.  With the departure of Victorino, one of the more important players in the Phils' recent success, only six players remain from 2008's World Series champions. 

My initial reaction was one of disappointment.  Victorino, I believe, had to go.  He was often fun to watch, was a fine defensive centerfielder and good baserunner.  Nevertheless, like the similarly frustrating Jimmy Rollins, Victorino was a wildly inconsistent hitter whose occasional forays into power hitting often led him to swing for the fences with his wiffle-ball worthy left-handed stroke.  I often wish the late Whitey Ashburn could have watched Vic play and provided us with his always-honest evaluations of his play.  To me, it is inexcusable that Victorino didn't hit .300 every year.  As it is, he never hit better than the .293 he managed in 2008.  In return we got a somewhat reliable 7th and 8th inning reliever in Lindblom.  In 48 games he has a 3.02 ERA and 1.259 WHIP.  What concerns me is that he has allowed 38% of his inherited runners to score, far higher than the league average of 28%.  Nevertheless, my initial disappointment was mitigated somewhat when I took into consideration the fact that Victorino is, in effect, a two-month rental player for the Dodgers.  It appears evident that the Phils were not going to re-sign Victorino.  What they got for him, though not optimal, is better than the draft choice they would have received had they allowed to go into free agency.

The Pence deal initially disturbed me.  Pence, though an unorthodox hitter and fielder, always hustled (too bad his intensity couldn't have rubbed off on "I'm too cool to run out grounders" Rollins).  In his 155 games for the Phillies, Pence hit .289 with 28 HRs, 94 runs, and 94 RBI.  His bat will not be easily replaced.  Plus, at 29 he was the youngest of the team's more important position players.  What they received from the Giants in return for Pence will not, in the short term at least, be his equal offensively.  Without question the key to the deal is the catcher Joseph, who now is considered the best prospect in the Phils' system.  The heir apparent to Carlos Ruiz behind the plate still has room to improve offensively, however, as his 8 homers and .260 average in 304 ABs at AA Richmond seems to indicate.  Having given up our two best prospects a year ago to obtain Pence, I initially believed we didn't get enough in return.  Upon further reflection, however, my initial disappointment has dissipated somewhat.  Had we retained Pence, we would have had to pay him in the realm of $13-15 million next season, certainly more than he is worth and an amount that would have inhibited any major action in free agency.  Dealing Pence also allows the team to give Domonic Brown and John Mayberry opportunities to play every day with the pressure of a pennant race.  As much as I hate to admit it, Ruben Amaro Jr. did the right thing.

I had initially hoped that the team would find a suitor for the disappointing Cliff Lee.  Once again, upon further reflection I believe Amaro did the right thing to keep him. The Phils are not in an enviable position.  They have well over $100 million guaranteed to a few aging and underachieving stars for next season.  Roy Halladay and Lee are not getting any younger.  Chase Utley, diminished by a string of irreversible injuries, will never again be a star.  As to Ryan Howard, who knows?  I suspect he will never again be the devastating power hitter he used to be.  The team has glaring holes at third base and centerfield.  This year is a lost cause.  Next season will be as well, barring trade and/or a significant free agent signing.  The Phillies faithful can only hope that the down period that begins this season will be considerably shorter-lived than the one that commenced in 1984.  The trades made yesterday could go a long way to helping make that happen.