Monday, January 30, 2012

Jesus and the Suffering of His Followers, Part 2

Last week I posted a piece designed to cast light on Christian suffering and persecution by invoking the very words of our Lord himself. There I turned to what I consider to be the most significant Gospel text on this subject, viz., Matthew 5:10-12, which present the eighth and ninth of the "Beatitudes" that open Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount. Far from being the occasion for resentment and self-pity, persecution heneken emou ("on account of [Jesus]," Matt 5:11) should cause the follower of Jesus to "rejoice and exult" (Matt 5:12). Why is this? In a word, theology. Theology, properly understood, is no mere branch of esoterica that, if anything, hinders the pursuit of holiness (the common pietist stereotype). Instead, theology is the most existentially-significant element by which a Christian must understand his or her experience in the world.

The theological rationale Jesus provides for his apparently counter intuitive exhortation is to be found in the fundamental New Testament notion of inaugurated eschatology. The kingdom of God, which (still) awaits its full manifestation in the future, has made its beachhead in the hostile "present evil age" by means of the Gospel events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Jesus' followers, in the here and now, are the beneficiaries of the spiritual blessings of this kingdom. In particular, they experience the transforming ministry of the Holy Spirit who produces in them the "righteousness" that both will occasion their future entrance into the consummated kingdom (Matt 5:20) and now serves as the occasion for their persecution (Matt 5:10). This "righteousness" of the kingdom inverts the world's value system and, so I argued, invariably arouses the opposition of those with a vested interest in the world as it is. Such opposition thus serves, paradoxically, as a sign of God's favor. Given this perspective, kingdom citizens are able to transcend their present circumstances in the sure hope of future divine vindication.

Inaugurated eschatology has another element that is not as often recognized, but which also sheds needed light on the persecution of Jesus' followers. This element becomes clear in Jesus' so-called "Missionary Discourse" in Matthew 10. The placement of this discourse in Matthew's narrative effectively interprets the commission it records as an extension of Jesus' own teaching (Matt 5-7) and healing (Matt 8-9) ministry. In this discourse Jesus sends his disciples on a short-term mission into the harvest field of Israel (Matt 9:35-38) to spread and embody the good news of the kingdom.

Matthew 10 raises a host of literary-critical issues that need not detain us. What is significant, however, is the juxtaposition of two apparently incongruous elements. First, Jesus explicitly limited the disciples' mission to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 10:5-6), so much so that they were prohibited from even taking roads leading to Gentile cities (eis hodon ethnōn mē apelēthēte, Matt 10:5). Second, Jesus anomalously speaks of the disciples testifying before Gentile "rulers" and "kings" (Matt 10:18), and envisions their mission as continuing until the "coming" of the Son of Man (Matt 10:23; whether this enigmatic phrase refers to the events of A.D. 70 or to the distant "parousia" or "second coming," or in some sense to both, is irrelevant to the point). This second observation is strengthened by the further observation that Matthew, in contrast to both Mark (6:30) and Luke (9:10; 10:17), never records a return of the Twelve from their short-term mission.

Matthew was a very skillful storyteller, and so these two elements of the discourse can hardly be an amateur contradiction. A moment's consideration leads to an inescapable conclusion: Matthew has apparently "telescoped" the historical mission of the Twelve to the Jews of Galilee with the post-Easter mission of Christian disciples to all nations, for which the former serves as a paradigm (cf. Matt 28:18-20, the so-called "Great Commission"). What is immediately striking is the predominant role persecution plays in the discourse, both in terms of its inevitability (10:16-23) and the perspectives (10:24-42) necessary for the disciple to persevere through persecution so as ultimately to be "saved" or delivered into the life of the kingdom (10:22).

Once again, eschatology—more precisely, inaugurated eschatology—provides the rationale for persecution's inevitability. Consider the following. First, Matthew's literary source for verses 17-22 (which includes the climactic "And you will be hated by all for my name's sake; but the one who endures to the end will be saved") is Mark 13:9-13. These verses, of course, are part of Mark's so-called "Eschatological Discourse" (cf. Matt 24, which reproduces and adapts large portions of it), and immediately follow the description, in Mark 13:8, of the "beginning of the birth pains." This image of "birth pangs" is frequent in the Old Testament (Micah 5:2-4; Jer 30:5-9) and in Second Temple Jewish literature (1QH11:7-10; 1 Enoch 62:4-6) to refer to the so-called "Messianic Woes" or Tribulation, the time of unparalleled judgment out of which the Messiah would come and the anticipated messianic kingdom would be established. The significance of this should not be missed. Matthew, by placing the text of Mark 13:9-13 in the context of the post-Easter mission of his followers, thereby interprets the present age as a whole in terms of the expected "messianic woes."  Christian persecution thus partakes of an "eschatological" character, the inevitability of which is essential to the drama of salvation-history.

This perspective illuminates two further texts in the discourse that speak of interfamilial strife as the expected lot of Jesus' followers:

Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death (Matt 10:21, ESV).
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household (Matt 10:34-36, ESV). 

The significance of these texts was brought home to me in a fresh way by the young Roman Catholic scholar Brant Pitre in one of the most significant works I have read in recent years (pp. 198-216, 259-61). Most telling is Jesus' quotation of Micah 7:6 (LXX) in verses 35-36. The prophet Micah locates this period of interfamilial strife immediately prior to the ultimate restoration of Israel in a New Exodus (cf. especially Mic 7:12-15), a restoration that would be witnessed by the nations and result in their eventual conversion (7:16-17). This strife, in prophetic context, is thus part and parcel of the times of tribulation to which it conceptually belongs.

These "messianic" woes also inform the counter intuitive, paradoxical proposition that Messiah Jesus came to bring a "sword" instead of peace (Matt 10:34). "Peace," of course, is one of the defining characteristics of the promised kingdom (e.g., Isaiah 11:6-9). Yet the "Prince of peace" (Isa 9:6-7; Zech 9:10) himself declares that he did not come to establish the anticipated utopia. His coming would instead result in division and hostility even at society's deepest and most fundamental relationships, those of families themselves.

In terms of theology, we might articulate the significance in this way: Inaugurated eschatology brings the blessings of the kingdom, but not the full-fledged, eschatological era of peace for which the Jews longed. It has instead brought the preparatory period of eschatological tribulation. This is the nature of the present age in which Jesus' followers live today. Is there any wonder why they (ought to) find themselves despised and persecuted by those who don't share their kingdom citizenship?

Persecution is, therefore, theologically inevitable. And it is only those who persevere in discipleship (10:22) and acknowledge Jesus before human tribunals (10:32-33) who will be "saved" and acknowledged by Jesus himself at the last assize. How, then, should the follower of Jesus respond? The richness of Jesus' teaching in this chapter precludes discussion in any detail. Nevertheless, I would like to summarize Jesus' major points under three headings.

First, Jesus' disciples should expect to share in the suffering and persecution of their master (10:24-25). Jesus does not demand of his followers anything more than what he has endured on their behalf. It is of course true, as Matthew will go on to explain, that Jesus' own sufferings have a ransoming and expiatory character that the sufferings of his followers, who benefit from Jesus' sufferings, cannot by definition have (Matt 20:28; 26:28). Nevertheless, the truism holds: slaves cannot expect treatment better than that received by their master.

Second, disciples must not fear their persecutors because God, the ultimate Judge of all, is absolutely sovereign (10:26-31). The doctrine of God's sovereignty isn't mere speculation. It is a doctrine that breeds fearlessness in those who believe it. Faithfulness to Jesus can, and often has, cost disciples their lives. But the follower of Jesus confesses that God alone is the judge of all, and that he alone has the power to "destroy" both body and soul in Gehenna, the ultimate judgment. One who thus confesses God's sovereignty likewise knows that martyrdom, even if it should occur, not only results merely in the destruction of the body, but also lies under the providential control of God, for whom even the demise of a lowly sparrow is not a random event.

Third, disciples' loyalty to Jesus must supersede loyalty to family and to self (10:34-39). These verses, I suppose, record the ultimate "hard sayings" of Jesus. Father, mother, son, and daughter describe the closest of human relationships. Yet, Jesus says, one who loves any of these more than he or she loves him is not "worthy" of him. Discipleship, in other words, must take precedence over all human relationships (10:37).

Jesus saves the hardest for last, however:
And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 10:38-39, ESV).

Nowhere does Jesus' perspective conflict with the world's more than here. His point is crystal clear: disciples must love Jesus more than they do their own lives. No one has articulated the point of this saying more profoundly than the 20th century martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die ... (p. 99).


According to Jesus, life lived in the pursuit of "self-fulfillment" is a vain one indeed—so futile, indeed, that such will result in the "loss" (apollymi) of the very life one sought thereby to enhance. Such "loss" describes a fate worse than the physical martyrdom that taking up one's cross might entail. It speaks of the very eternal death to which Jesus refers in Matthew 10:28. Dick France has expressed the thought well: "Discipleship is not a matter of life and death—it is much more serious than that" (p. 411).

If, then, true discipleship entails a cross-bearing that results in persecution, suffering and, at times, martyrdom, I have one question to ask myself as well as other self-proclaimed "disciples" of Jesus: Why don't we do it?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Can a Scientist Affirm Jesus' Virginal Conception? The Case of John Polkinghorne

Earlier this month I posted a short piece dealing with how a historian could affirm the Christian teaching of Jesus' virginal conception. This is a teaching, of course, that plays a role in the (independent) infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, but whose theological significance is never explored. Nevertheless, the virginal conception plays an integral role in historic Christian orthodoxy, as evidenced not only by its inclusion in the so-called Apostles' Creed, but also in the more developed Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of AD 381. Here orthodox Christian belief with regard to the "one Lord Jesus Christ" involves the confession that the very one who from eternity was "of one substance with the Father" was "incarnatus ... de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria virgine, et homo factus est" ("incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made a human being"). The creed thus places the virginal conception in the service of the mysterious theologoumenon of the incarnation ("enfleshment") of the eternal Son of God, which is as it should be.

As I noted then, such an affirmation, in the nature of the case, cannot be verified by the canons of modernist historiography. Nevertheless, I am convinced that Christian faith, for it to remain genuine, must not be characterized by blind credulity. Instead, Christian faith presents itself to the world as warranted belief. In that regard, I would argue that four facts, taken together, render highly unlikely the supposition that the early Christians would have invented the idea of Jesus' virginal conception:
  • The earliest church was convinced that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.
  • There was no pre-Christian speculation that the Messiah would be virginally conceived.
  • There was an almost universal expectation that the Messiah would be a descendant of David.
  • The church believed that Joseph was a descendant of David.
Of course, if one affirms the historical facticity of Jesus' virginal conception, he or she must do so with a prior commitment to the existence of God—not the Deist God who "intervenes" miraculously every once in a while, but the biblical, sovereign God who is at work in all the activities of "nature," and who not only "spoke" into existence the stuff out of which the universe was made, but who also was able to "create" life in the uterus of Mary without the help of male sperm.

But hasn't science eliminated the need for God? Are not religion and science fundamentally antithetical? So argue many of the resurgent and increasingly pugnacious anti-theists in the academy, such as Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago and "New Atheist" poster boy Richard Dawkins of Oxford.

I am no fundamentalist for whom a naively literalistic reading of the Bible trumps the consistent conclusions of science derived from a variety of diverse disciplines. For example, so-called "Young Earth Creationism," which posits an earth no more than 10,000 years old, is, in my view, both deeply troubling in its understanding of the hermeneutical interaction of science and faith, and profoundly embarrassing with regard to the "face" of Christianity it publicly presents to the world.

Yet I would suggest that Dawkins et al. commit an intellectual sin that is the mirror image of that which characterizes the most blatant advocates of antiscientism. The point is this: science, insofar as it explains observable, repeatable phenomena and provides explanatory models for how such phenomena came to be, is a necessary source of knowledge about the world in which we live. This is not to say that the current scientific consensus is inerrant or not liable to alteration as new evidence is discovered. Nevertheless, it is irresponsible to relativize scientific conclusions by pointing to the fact that they are mere "theories" in favor of alternative explanations that likewise are theories, such as the notion that the Bible intends to answer questions posed by modern science. At the same time, there are types of knowledge for which the empirical method of the hard sciences is not suited to adjudicate. Science is useful and necessary as an explanatory discipline, but it oversteps its bounds if it pretends to have the authority to provide ultimate meaning for what it discovers. Science and metaphysics are distinct disciplines, and must be kept apart. The current prestige of the former discipline emphatically does not negate the value of the latter.

No one has been more helpful in making this point than Professor Alister McGrath of King's College, London. McGrath was raised in Northern Ireland, and turned to atheism as a youth because of his experience of the religiously-tinged "Troubles" in his native land. Nevertheless, McGrath converted to Christianity while an undergraduate studying chemistry at Oxford. He proceeded to earn both a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics and a D.D. in systematic theology from Oxford, which has served him well in his various publications on science and faith. McGrath has been particularly prolific in his responses to Dawkins, both at the popular (here and here) and scholarly (here) levels, which have culminated in two book-length refutations of his former Oxford colleague (here and here).

Yet, it might be argued, McGrath is an explicitly evangelical theologian, notwithstanding his association with the Anglican church. This is where the curious case of John Polkinghorne becomes relevant. This was brought back to my attention this morning while reading a post by RJS over at Jesus Creed. Polkinghorne was a world-renowned theoretical physicist who served as Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge from 1968-79. His academic work, including his prominent role in the discovery of quarks, led to his being made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1998. Nevertheless, at the height of his academic prominence, he abandoned his career to study for the Anglican priesthood. The very thought of such a prominent academic performing the humble duties of a curate and vicar is an inspiring one.

Polkinghorne, however, is no evangelical, though he is no raging liberal either. Last year he wrote a small book entitled Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible, in which he argues that a scientist can, and should, take the Bible seriously (warning: evangelicals will find much of what he says, particularly about the Old Testament, to be profoundly problematic). In particular, Polkinghorne argues that the New Testament accounts should be take seriously as historical accounts, even those that involve what we today would call "miracles." With regard to the virginal conception he states:
The theological importance of the virginal conception lies in its lending emphasis to the presence of a total divine initiative in the coming of Jesus, even if this truth is much more frequently expressed by the New Testament writers simply in the language of his having been sent. Jesus was not opportunistically co-opted for God’s purpose when he was found to be suitable, but he was part of that purpose from the start. The virginal conception is a powerful myth, and I believe that in the religion of the Incarnation the power of story fuses with the power of a true story, so that the great Christian myths are enacted myths. On this basis, I find myself able to believe in the virgin birth, even if the motivating evidence is less extensive than for the belief in the Resurrection. (p. 68-69)
The suitability of the category of "myth" is beside the point (indeed, this is a term whose suitability is vitiated for a general audience because of popular, though not necessary, connotations associated with it). The point is that a world-class scientist sees no barrier to accepting the historicity of an event with no historical parallels because of the nature of the Gospels as historical documents and the theological import of the teaching itself. This, in other words, is a man who does not subscribe to a popular-level, "supernaturalist" worldview that is wont to see "miracles" under every rock of human experience. Instead, he understands miracles as they ought to be understood, viz., as actions by which God interacts with his people in the outworking of salvation-history, particularly in relation to his activity in the Gospel events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

Of course, this will fail to convince the minds of people who pretend that the only valid knowledge derives from empirical observation. But that is precisely the "myth" (to use the term imprecisely) that believing scientists like McGrath and Polkinghorne have exposed in their writings. It is at this point that we who believe the gospel to be God's power leading to salvation (Rom 1:16) need to take seriously the necessity of proclamation, for it is through the message of Christ (Rom 10:17) that the faith that saves finds its divinely-engendered origin.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jesus and the Suffering of His Followers


Woodcut of the Martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer,
Oxford, 21 March 1556


In his 1539 treatise, "On the Councils and the Church," Martin Luther provided a list of seven marks of what could truthfully be called, in the words of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, "una, sancta, catholica et apostolica ecclesia" ("one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church"). The seventh of these marks is striking to those of us raised in the comfortable West, where Christianity, at least in the dessicated form of civil religion, has historically been the dominant religious presence and contributor to the culture at large. This mark, in a word, is persecution:

Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil. the world, and the flesh ... by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ. And the only reason they must suffer is that they steadfastly adhere to Christ and God's word, enduring this for the sake of Christ.
First, a disclaimer. I am now 55 years old, and have never personally been the object of persecution. Yes, I have been laughed at, mocked even at times for my belief in what they describe as "my invisible friend upstairs." Yet I have never suffered bodily harm or civil consequences for my faith. Indeed, the experiences of Jan Hus, Thomas Cranmer, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, let alone millions of my contemporaries in the two-thirds world, are as foreign to my own experience as their faithful responses to persecution and martyrdom are inspiring.

This is why I stand perplexed at the stance of many in the "evangelical" Christian world today. It may be uncharitable to speak of a "Christian persecution complex," but the fact remains that an increasing number of American Christians view themselves as besieged defenders of a putative "Christian" America under attack from the nefarious forces of secularism and pluralism. Recent months have brought this phenomenon to the fore once again, both with the perennial chest-beating over the supposed "war on Christmas"—is the greeting "Happy Holidays" really offensive?—and the kerfuffle over Denver quarterback Tim Tebow's very public displays of piety.

Now, I understand full well the sense of loss involved here. I, too, remember a simpler time when liberal Protestantism was the de facto civil religion of the land and real Christmas carols were sung and performed in public schools—in my case, the late, lamented Oakmont School in Havertown, Pennsylvania. I remember a time when Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism were accorded a societal privilege not granted to other faiths. And, as a young Christian, I was fine with this. Time moves on, however. More than four decades down the road, I realize that the era in which Christianity was granted societal pride of place is in the past. More importantly, I am more than ever convinced that days may be on the horizon in which followers of Jesus, myself included, will indeed pay for their discipleship with their lives.

Nevertheless, the nagging feeling remains that much of the current penchant of Christians to complain of persecution is both unseemly and unChristian. First, the constant complaints trivialize the true nature of persecution. Whinging over mockery demonstrates thin skin more than it does faithfulness to the gospel of the cross. Of course, none of us enjoys being laughed at and ridiculed. But such treatment pales in comparison to that which millions of today's saints gladly suffer from Sudan to Indonesia and countless places in between.

Second, many of the current evangelical complaints derive, it seems to me, from displeasure over the notion of the separation of church and state enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Of course, interpretations of such separation that attempt to ban all public religious displays and speech are patently invalid. Yet so are attempts to deny that such constitutional separation exists or that, somehow, Christianity is not thereby refused pride of place in the public square. Constant complaints such as "Tebow wouldn't be criticised if he were a Muslim," or "Christianity is the only religion not allowed to be practised openly" are both empirically false and based on the presumption that Christianity, as the culture's predominant religion, should be treated accordingly. But time marches on, and de facto religious pluralism has arrived. Christianity must therefore relinquish its assumed pride of place and take its place in the public square. And this is, in my opinion, a good thing. Any would-be Christianity that resents its fall from cultural hegemony and shrinks from its God-given responsibility to confront the world in proclamation and apologetics is a bastard Christianity unlikely to be of any use for the kingdom of God.

Third, and most important, the current evangelical complaints about persecution are unChristian in that they patently ignore what Jesus said about the persecution his followers would inevitably experience. The place to start is the famous Sermon on the Mount. This is what our Lord reportedly said:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:10-12, ESV).
I would like to summarize the import of this text in three points. First, the theological context in which persecution must be understood is that of the inauguration of the kingdom of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This is seen most clearly in verse 10, in which the reason for the "blessedness" of the persecuted lies in their present status as heirs and citizens of the kingdom. This eighth beatitude indeed forms an inclusio with the first beatitude of verse 3: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The intervening beatitudes in verses 4-9 all promise future blessings for Jesus' disciples. By means of the literary device of inclusio Matthew thus intends to define these future blessings as kingdom blessings whose eventuality is made secure by the inbreaking of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus.

What is immediately striking to any American reader is the description Jesus gives of the types of people who meet God's favor and thus are "fortunate"—the poor (in spirit), mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after "righteousness," the merciful, the "pure" in heart, peacemakers, the persecuted. These are not the categories to which the world—especially America—aspires, and Christianity's elevation of such people has sparked derision from the wise of the world, not least Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom power was the summum bonum. You see, the values of the kingdom of God invert the values of the world. Those who by faith and through the Spirit live those values inevitably arouse the opposition and wrath of those who don't. By invoking the presence of the kingdom of God, Jesus supplies the perspective necessary for his followers to understand that all is not as it presently appears. This perspective likewise encourages them to persevere in the hope that they will be vindicated when the kingdom arrives in its fullness.

Second, persecution is a sign of God's approval and favor only if it is the consequence of the disciple's quest for "righteousness" and identification with Jesus, the crucified Messiah. "Righteousness" is a fancy theological word with various meanings. Matthew, however, consistently uses the word to refer to right conduct that God requires. As such, Jesus' followers are those that "hunger and thirst" after righteousness (Matt 5:6), seek the righteousness of God's kingdom (Matt 6:33), and thus who will enter the kingdom with a righteousness exceeding that of the notoriously pious Pharisees (Matt 5:20). What this "righteousness" entails is elaborated on in the content of the Sermon on the Mount. It is not mere external conformity to law, even God's law. Indeed, I would suggest that it is the "eschatological" righteousness of those who, by the Spirit, have circumcised hearts (Deut 30:6), who have been given a new heart and new Spirit (Ezek 36:26), and who thus have had the law "written on their hearts" (Jer 31:33). This righteousness, in other words, is the product of the transformation of the human heart as a result of the fulfillment of God's new covenant promise.

This "righteousness" is also one that must be tempered, as Richard Hays has suggested, by a "hermeneutic of mercy." This hermeneutic is especially clear in Jesus' citation of Hosea 6:6 ("I desire mercy and not sacrifice") in dispute with the Pharisees (Matt 9:13; 12:7). Indeed, those who have experienced God's mercy will temper their interactions with others with the same mercy they were shown by God. Anything less devolves into the very self-righteousness that far too many Americans see manifested in Christ's supposed followers today.

Finally, Christian victims of persecution are to respond by rejoicing in their suffering. This is one area where today's American Christians, with their propensity to whinge, clearly miss the mark. Nowhere does Jesus' ethic of nonretaliation come into greater relief. Those who love their enemies will pray for them and deal with them according to the golden rule. When insulted, they will not reciprocate but rather "turn the other cheek." And most certainly they will not complain about persecution but rejoice in it. Jesus indeed teaches his followers to understand such persecution as validation for their discipleship. Faithfulness to Jesus, like the faithfulness of the Old Testament prophets, will result inevitably in societal opprobrium. The kingdom of God, however, guarantees that their reward, which today is hidden, will gloriously be revealed when that kingdom is manifested in its fullness.

In the meantime, let us look to the example of the apostles who, when beat by the Sanhedrin, "rejoic[ed] that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name" (Acts 5:41). We can do no less for the one who suffered and bled for us.


The cross marks the spot on Broad Street in Oxford where Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer were burned at the stake on 16 October 1555 and 21 March 1556 (photo courtesy of the author, 19 May 2002)

Monday, January 23, 2012

To Moralize or Not To Moralize: Contemporary Reflections on a Saying of Jesus

"Do not judge so that you will not be judged." 
     ~Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 7:1)
This famous Gospel logion popped into my head this past weekend when I contemplated Newt Gingrich's staggering 12 percentage point romp over Mitt Romney in Saturday's South Carolina Republican primary. Even more staggering to me was the consideration that 44 percent of "evangelical" Christians—the same percentage that had voted for Baptist minister Mike Huckabee four years earlier—had voted for Gingrich.
On the face of it this is a puzzling phenomenon. How can self-described "values voters" throw such overwhelming support behind a thrice-married candidate whose two previous marriages met their demise because of long-term infidelities on his part? Aren't these the same voters who supposedly reviled the still-married Bill Clinton for his various dalliances?
Of course, the rationale, as always, lies in the Christian concept of forgiveness. It is commonplace (no matter how problematic) for evangelical Christians to view themselves simply as "forgiven sinners," seeing in the notion of forgiveness their only difference from those sinners-at-large outside the confines of the church. Thus many have apparently been willing to turn their gaze away from Gingrich's past and hope against hope that the leopard has indeed changed his spots (Jer 13:23) and that his repentance validates his "values" candidacy.
This urge to forgive, and the corresponding credulity regarding religious claims, remain, to be sure, selective, limited to those politicians who share the "conservative" political views of the religious right. Their swiftness to embrace Gingrich contrasts starkly with their previous skepticism regarding Clintonian repentance. Likewise, the thrice-married Gingrich is considered more "family friendly" than President Obama, whose apparently exemplary family life is ignored as irrelevant. Such selective moral judgments not only open them to the charge of hypocrisy of the rankest sort, but also raise a trenchant question: Have these "evangelicals" conformed their political views to their religion, or have they adapted their religion to their politics? To put it more simply, what is prior, being a Christian or a conservative?
If there is one thing that, in particular, bothers me about Gingrich's candidacy from a Christian perspective, it is this: His self-righteous moralizing fails to take into account the seriousness of his very public moral lapses. Indeed, as the New York Times opined last week, Gingrich, try as he may, has been "unable to escape the toxic combination of infidelity and sermonizing." Here is a man who, in the midst of a six-year adulterous affair, led impeachment hearings against President Clinton because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal—and still cannot see the hypocrisy involved in this. Here is a man who, in the midst of this affair, one day after allegedly asking his then-wife for permission to engage in an open marriage, delivered a moralistic speech entitled "The Demise of American Culture."  This is a man who, when asked by debate moderator John King about his former wife's allegations, denounced the very relevant question as irrelevant and was applauded by the spiritually tone-deaf South Carolina audience.
This is where Jesus' famous saying becomes very relevant indeed. Many in the wider culture have taken Jesus' prohibition, "Do not judge," absolutely, in service of a wider agenda to promote tolerance and discourage judgmentalism. Notwithstanding the public benefits tolerance (or toleration) brings, Jesus cannot here be advocating the suspension of one's critical faculties in evaluating others, let alone any type of moral relativism. This is evident, above all, from the context, in which Jesus warns his followers against giving "what is holy" to "dogs" and "pearls" to "pigs" (Matt 7:6). This warning is meant to dissuade disciples from expending fruitless energy in proclaiming the kingdom message to people who have hardened themselves in rejection of it. The relevant point, however, is that moral discernment is necessary in evaluating whether or not people are, by hypocatastasis, "dogs" and "pigs."
The verb "judge" must therefore be understood in the related sense of censorious condemnation. If so, Jesus' point becomes stark and clear: Do not set yourself up as a moral guardian and critic of others, so that you won't be condemned by God at the final judgment. Ultimate judgment is, you see, the prerogative of God alone, and it is unbefitting for a future object of this judgment to arrogate that prerogative.
The reason such condemnation would be forthcoming is elaborated in verse 2, where Jesus grounds his warning by revealing the standard of God's judgment: "For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive."  He continues in verses 3-5 by telling the delightfully humorous illustration of a person who notices a splinter in his brother's eye while being blissfully oblivious to the log protruding from his own eye.
Self-delusion is as endemic to fallen human nature as is self-importance. It is human nature, after all, to rationalize away one's faults and to see faults in others we ignore in ourselves. And it is also human nature, for those with public ambitions, to present themselves as paragons of virtue whether or (usually) not they fit the bill. Jesus demands what is inimical to human nature, namely, that we deal ruthlessly with our own protruding logs and cease setting up ourselves as moral watchdogs over others. If we fail to heed his demand, we thus expose ourselves to the terrifying scenario of judgment according to the very standards we have set for others. And this is not a scenario in which we can win.
Indeed, those who are cognizant of having been forgiven for their multiple protruding logs will not set themselves up as judges over others. The reason? In a word, humility. The realization of grace and mercy received invariably will color one's attitude toward others, for the simple reason that mercy bestowed is not earned mercy. Those who have been forgiven by God must, and will, forgive. Likewise, those who have been shown mercy must, and will, do likewise. Self-righteous, narcissistic grandiosity will not be the stance of one who understands God's grace.
Jesus himself, in one of his most striking beatitudes, says it best: "Blessed are the merciful, for it is they who will be shown mercy" (Matt 5:7). May we who claim the name of Christ resist the urge to moralize in the humble recognition that we are what we are by the grace of God alone.



Friday, January 20, 2012

The Faith of My Uncle Willie



Today would have been the 102nd birthday of my dad's brother, William James McGahey, a remarkable man whose patience, love, and selflessness were the glue that held together the various branches of the McGahey family for more than six decades. His penchant for always looking for, and seeing, the best in people—a trait he shared with my father—was born in a humble acknowledgement that he had been the unworthy beneficiary of God's grace.

Uncle Willie was born in Balleymoney, County Antrim, (Northern) Ireland, UK. In a way, he never left, for his love of his native land, and pride in his Irish/British heritage, was such that it rubbed off on all his nephews and nieces who held him in the highest esteem. But his dad, John, left for America in 1919, and "Bill," with his mother Sarah and sisters Maria and Isabelle, followed just over a year later, arriving in New York on the Carmania on 24 January 1921, just four days after his 11th birthday. They initially settled in Montchanin, Delaware, but later moved to North Jersey, eventually setting down roots in the now-tough city of East Orange.

My uncle was not a man the world would have considered impressive. Indeed, times being what they were, he left school early to find work to help support the family. He ended up working for decades at the massive Kearney Works of the old Western Electric Corporation. What strikes me as wholly admirable was his lack of professional ambition and utter obliviousness to the careerism that so mars the pride-based culture of today's America. His work paid enough to support his modest lifestyle. More importantly, it enabled him to spend time on what really mattered to him: his family and his faith. He rarely missed an athletic competition in which one of his nephews was involved. He never missed graduations. He would travel long distances to attend services to hear his brother preach, even on Sunday evenings when he needed to be up at 4 AM to go to work. As I have recently looked back on a lifetime of family photographs, I am struck at how often Uncle Willie took his own vacation time to go on holiday with us rather than spend it going where he wanted to go. You see, where he wanted to go was wherever his family went. A truly selfless man indeed!

Most importantly, Uncle Willie was a godly man to a degree that is very rare to my experience. He was, because of life's circumstances, not an academically learned man. But he was nevertheless a well-read man. He was an ardent student of history and, especially, the Bible. His knowledge of God's Word didn't "puff him up" with pride, however (1 Cor 8:1), but rather fostered an undying gratefulness to the God who had saved him and a life of faithful service to the Presbyterian and Evangelical Free Churches he attended as an adult.

Not long ago I received a parcel from my cousin Jack Smith, another of Uncle Willie's grateful nephews. Among the treasures in that parcel was a photocopied statement, in my uncle's hand, of his thankfulness to God. I cannot read it without having tears stream down my face. I present it now, in full, as a testimony to God and God's work in the life of my dearest uncle. Speaking as one who had the privilege of an academic education my uncle didn't, I can honestly say that neither I, nor any Presbyterian seminary professor, could have written a more eloquent or theologically-accurate testimonial to God's marvelous grace in Christ Jesus:



To God our Father



I am thankful to God for the clarion call of the gospel that has come down thru the years. I'm thankful for the gracious invitation of our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ "to come unto me all yea (sic!) that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest" [Matt 11:28]. I am thankful that God our Father by his marvelous grace gave me ears to hear that glorious call, and by His Spirit moved my heart to faith in His Blessed Son—Faith in the Blood of His cross that was shed for my sins and so I can testify that come what may on the road of life—come fair or foul weather, He that upholds all things by the word of his power has me under His care, and I am kept by His mighty love, untill (sic!) that glad day when I stand before the presence of His Glory with exceeding joy.

Bill McGahey                


I am thankful that God saw fit to give me Bill McGahey as an uncle, to serve, along with my father, as an example of what a Christian is and ought to look like. I am thankful as well that Uncle Willie is now, according to St. Paul himself (2 Cor 5:8), "at home with the Lord" along with, among others, his dear mom Sarah, his sisters Maria and Isabelle, his brother Jack, and his nephews Tommy Grant and Billy and Bobby Smith. And I am especially thankful that, because of the resurrection of the Son of God, all who believe in Jesus have the sure hope (1 Cor 15) of the resurrection to eternal life, and that I thus will have the privilege one glad day of joining all of them when we "stand in the presence of His Glory with exceeding joy." Soli Deo Gloria!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Curtis Institute's Lenfest Hall: An Assessment



One happy result of needing to convalesce from a particularly bad case of pneumonia is the chance to catch up on reading that one has either missed or would normally have ignored due to more pressing concerns. Case in point: This morning I happened upon a highly interesting and, I think, spot-on critique of The Curtis Institute's spanking new rehearsal hall/dormitory in the architecture blog, Philly Bricks. This is a building I have twice seen in person, last October and again in December. My initial, vague sense of disappointment was unfortunately confirmed by my second observation.

The Curtis Institute, as all music lovers know, is one of the most prestigious music schools in the world, boasting such notable alumni as Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Joseph Alessi, Cecile Licad, and, more recently, Hilary Hahn. No one—least of all yours truly—would begrudge them the need to construct new spaces to house and train their students, who will have the important and ever-more-difficult task of preserving and promoting the great musical heritage of Western Civilization.

A little context: Lenfest Hall is located in the 1600 block of Locust Street in Center City Philadelphia. This is one of my favorite blocks in my favorite city. Across from the Hall, on the north side of the block, lies John Notman's magnificent St. Mark's (Episcopal) Church, built in 1847-49. The south side of the block consists largely of imposing and stylistically diverse 19th-century townhomes. Lenfest Hall lies in the middle of the block on its south side.

The first thing to say is that Curtis could have done much worse. In particular, they chose to lessen the visual impact of the full 119-foot height of the building by setting back the tower after the first four stories. This not only preserves the scale of the street wall but, as Inga Saffron noted, allows sunshine to warm and enliven the delightful gardens of St. Mark's Church across the street.

Not only that, but they also flanked the new construction by restoring the original facades of two classic 19th century  brownstones, The Wilson Brothers' 1897 John Converse House at 1610 Locust, and Wilson Eyre's 1888 renovation of Notman's Henry Dallett House at 1618 Locust.


Initial stage of preserving and renovating the facade of the John Converse House.
Note Ritter & Shay's great Drake rising in the background.

Therein lies the problem, however. For their painstaking, immaculate restoration of the facades of the two venerable brownstones throws into stark relief the strangely soulless quality of postmodern architectural contextualization.



Example of restoration of the original facade of the John Converse House, replacing what had been
a plate-glass storefront (photo courtesy of the author, 3 October 2011)


It could, I said, have been worse. The new construction could have been glass-plated, angular, and totally out of context. In that sense we can be thankful that Curtis chose the firm of Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates. Venturi, famous as he is, was certainly capable of constructing hideous monstrosities such as the Guild House (1960-63) at 7th and Spring Garden and the ISI Building (1978-79) at 35th and Market, both of which still scar the city's streetscape. Yet he also was capable of much finer work, such as the famous Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery (1990) and Franklin Court (1976) on the 300 block of Market Street.

Venturi was an effective critic of banal modernism in architecture, but much of his work, it seems to me, amounts to little more than affected, Pop Art interpretations of classic architectural styles of the past. In such a context, "allusions" to traditional architectural elements, no matter how out-of-proportion or devoid of detail, count for more than the real thing. Sometimes this is effective. More often, it seems to me, it isn't.

Lenfest Hall is the work of Venturi and Scott Brown's "Associates," Daniel McCoubrey and Nancy Trainer. In it they show themselves capable of carrying on the tradition of the firm's founders. And, it must be admitted, they may have done as well as could possibly be expected in the current cultural context. After all, they used actual blocks of brownstone rather than the thin, brittle stone used in most of today's masonry construction. Yet certain elements, such as the overabundance of square glass plates and unfortunate lack of adornment and detail, disappoint. Dullness may not offend the same way ugliness does, but it still leaves the observer with longing for architects who work to design buildings that are both creative and beautiful.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream"



Having been laid up by a brutal case of the flu the last several days, I had not planned to post today. That plan changed, however, when I came across Scot McKnight's blog in my early morning readings, in which he reintroduced me to the glorious rhetorical and moral power of King's "I Have  a Dream" speech of 28 August 1963.

When I was a child, I was perplexed by the negative and, at times, overtly hostile reaction to King by the evangelical Christians with whom I was raised. Of course, I was at that time blissfully unaware of the cultural and theological forces that had contributed to the development of the fundamentalism I assumed to be historic Christianity. In particular, I knew nothing of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that rocked the American church in the early decades of the 20th century. That controversy not only drove a wedge between the "soterian gospel" of the fundamentalists and the "social gospel" of the "liberals." It also, in my circles, made suspect any theologian, especially from Europe, who did not hold to the "inerrancy" of Scripture, such as Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or even the more "conservative" G. C. Berkouwer (strangely, the only non-evangelical Christian writer of the period who wasn't thus vilified was C. S. Lewis).

King was no evangelical. He scorned fundamentalists and cast doubt on many tenets of classic Christianity. Moreover, he is known to have had numerous extra-marital affairs. Surely this means we should refrain from listening to him? (oddly, many conservative evangelicals look the other way with regard to Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, both Roman Catholic, the latter of whom has a highly checkered sexual and marital history).

I would suggest that we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to listen to him as Christians. For, you see, King's thought, nowhere more apparent than in this speech, resonates with the oft-neglected calls in the Old Testament prophets, not least Amos, for social justice.

Looking back at King from a distance of 44 years, my youthful perplexity has turned into disgust when I consider the rants of such so-called "stalwarts" and "defenders of the faith" as W. A. Criswell and Jerry Falwell against the Civil Rights Movement and for segregation. In a very real sense, such southern "evangelicals"—actually, fundamentalists—hadn't proceeded much beyond the explicitly pro-slavery positions of such 19th-century Presbyterian theologians as Robert Dabney and Charles Hodge. Perhaps, one might suggest, we should show compassion for our Christian forebears, whose sight was clouded by the intellectual and cultural baggage of the age. Well, of course. What I want to suggest is that the same courtesy be extended to Dr. King. Furthermore, if we really believe in the concept of inaugurated eschatology (to be discussed many times in future), we ought do all we can as Christians to implement the priorities and perspectives of God's kingdom in the here-and-now. If we don't, how can we make the claim—apart from an unacceptable dualism—to be working for the kingdom whose consummation we eagerly await?

After that (wholly unintended) long-winded introduction, here is the text of King's speech:
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Friday, January 13, 2012

Wistful Reminiscences of a Philadelphia Sports Fan



Sitting on Seats from Philadelphia's Connie Mack Stadium at
the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY, 2001


A voice says,"Cry!"
     And I said, "What shall I cry?"
All flesh is grass
    and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
     when the breath of the LORD blows on it;
     surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
     but the word of our God will stand forever.
~Isaiah 40:6-8 (ESV)
Turning 55 has a way of focusing the mind on the important and permanent things in life, the "unseen" things that St. Paul characterizes as "eternal" that will contribute to the "eternal weight of glory" in comparison to which all our "momentary" afflictions pale to insignificance (2 Cor 4:17-18). The flip side of this impulse is to reminisce about all the other things that, however formative and existentially defining, have been lost to the passage of time.

The wistful sense of loss reared its ugly head last week with the announcement by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that the venerable Monsignor Bonner High School in Upper Darby—alma mater of Jets' Super Bowl safety Al Atkinson, St. Joe Hawk standout Mike Hauer, and Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti—would be shuttered in June. Then, yesterday, I took a second hit when columnist Frank Fitzpatrick published a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled "Fading Philadelphia sports memories." 

Philadelphians of a certain age, like myself, remember when their greatest sports heroes were players from the past, like Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn of the 1950 "Whiz Kid" Phillies (who managed to get swept in the World Series!), or Chuck Bednarik, Norm Van Brocklin, and Tom Brookshier of the 1960 Eagles, who remain the city's last NFL champions. The reason, of course, is that their childhoods were dominated by such ignominious failures as the 1964 Phillies, who blew a 61/2 game lead with 12 to play by losing 10 straight games, or the "Joe Must Go" Eagles of 1968, who started 0-11 but managed to win two straight to lose out in the O. J. Simpson sweepstakes.

Yet thrilling memories remain—Dick Allen and Johnny Callison smashing homers at old Connie Mack Stadium in North Philly, Philly's own Wilt Chamberlain and the all-time great 1967 Sixers championship team playing at Convention Hall, the Broad Street Bully Flyers, the for-a-while unfulfilled potential of the Julius Erving-George McGinnis Sixers, the glory days of the Big 5 and doubleheaders at the venerable Palestra, Dick Vermeil's plucky Eagles, and especially the great Phillies teams of 1976-83 plying their trade on the unnatural green turf of South Philly's antiseptic Vet Stadium.

All these memories I cherish. They remain fixed in an eternal present tense for a man who still remembers the obscure statistics on the back of mid-'60s-era Topps cards more clearly than the literature, Latin, and calculus he ostensibly studied in his high school years. These are memories unavailable to younger fans who, in a fit of generational hubris, cannot imagine the truth of what I know first-hand, namely, that Chamberlain remains the most dominant force the game of basketball has ever witnessed.

Reminiscing like this, however, inevitably brings with it an overwhelming sense of melancholy. For, you see, memory underscores the ugly fact of impermanence. Connie Mack Stadium at 21st and Lehigh—gone now for more than 30 years, replaced by a large church campus (the row of houses on 20th Street remain, overlooking the church, but I can't drive past them without imagining the old photo of the houses sporting rooftop bleachers for the 1929 World Series). Johnny Callison, Wes Covington, and Chris Short of the '64 Phils—all dead. The great trio of Phillies announcers whose radio broadcasts graced every summer evening for years in the 1970s: By Saam, Rich Ashburn and Harry Kalas—all dead. Big 5 stars Ken Durrett of LaSalle and Howard Porter of Villanova, whose titanic battles from '69-'71 remain etched in my memory—both dead, the latter the victim of murder on a lonely Minneapolis street. The Vet—imploded seven years ago. Even the seemingly indestructible Chamberlain and Reggie White—both dead prematurely.

"All flesh," the prophet declared, "is like grass"—impermanent, susceptible to the decay that is the lot of all created things. It doesn't matter whether you are the King of Babylon (the intended target in Isaiah), a baseball Hall-of-Famer, a current NFL star, a college professor, or a humble factory worker. All share the same fate. And this alone should be sufficient to focus the mind on what is of lasting and eternal value.

The Apostle Peter quotes Isaiah 40:6-8 at length to apply the final clause ("the word of the Lord abides forever") to the message about Christ (kyriou is clearly an objective genitive in context, pace J. R. Michaels) embodied in the gospel message (cf. Isa 40:9) that, because it is "living and abiding," serves as the implanted "seed" bringing about the effective regeneration of his readers (1 Pet 1:22-25). What matters ultimately is what is permanent. And nothing is more permanent than the unilateral covenant promises of God. In Isaiah 40-55, the "good news" is the message of God's faithfulness to his promises in bringing Israel and Judah back from exile in a second Exodus. The New Testament authors, Peter included, believed this "gospel" came to fruition in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is this message, when proclaimed or read, that serves as the means by which God in his mercy brings people to faith and gives them the new birth because of which they will never die in the ultimate sense.

My own personal narrative is permeated by references to the sporting events and heroes who have delivered so much pleasure and, yes, pain down through the years. If that is all I had, however, mine would be a very melancholy, pitiful life indeed. Thanks to God for regenerating me through the gospel message, which alone provides coherence to my narrative and makes that life worth living. Soli Deo Gloria!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Some Reflections on the Tim Tebow Phenomenon, Part 2

In Tuesday's post, I introduced the subject of the burgeoning popularity of Denver Broncos' quarterback Tim Tebow among evangelical Christians and their defensive reaction to the skeptical—indeed, critical—response to him by the overwhelming majority of football pundits.

I have nothing personally against Tebow. Indeed, he is a brother in Christ who has, by all accounts, followed St. Paul's injunction to live a life "worthy" of the gospel (Phil 1:27) and has not intentionally drawn attention to himself away from his Lord Jesus Christ. So far, so good. Nevertheless, I have some, albeit minor, concerns about the propriety and effectiveness of how he testifies to his faith publicly, and more substantial problems with how his Christian defenders have responded to perceived and actual slights against him. In this post, I will address the former of these concerns, leaving the latter to a subsequent installment.

The matter of athletes using their fame as a "platform" for Christian witness has been taken up admirably by Tim Gombis over at Faith Improvised (see his posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Without duplicating what Professor Gombis has said, I would like to focus on three matters relevant to the discussion.

First, the type of Christian "witness" exemplified by Tebow's public post game "thanks" to God and John 3:16-highlighted eyeblack trivializes the nature of authentic Christian witness. The most salient factor in understanding Tebow is knowledge of his evangelical background, whose ethos he epitomizes. Evangelical Christianity, by any definition, takes seriously the parting commission Jesus gave his disciples to witness about him and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19; Acts 1:8), rightly discerning that this responsibility to "evangelize" falls upon all of Jesus' followers.

However, evangelicalism in its American incarnation, perhaps due to the pervasive cultural influence of advertising, has always fallen victim to, and even promoted, a sloganeering and visible token approach to witness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the "WWJD" craze of the 1990s or in the ubiquitous ichthys (fish) decals found on cars ostensibly operated by Christians—though the effectiveness of such may be questioned when, as happened to me once, the driver of said vehicle flashes a Bronx salute! Or consider a prayer I heard back in my high school days that we Christian students would carry our Bibles to school to witness to the gospel. I would likewise place Tebow's John 3:16 eyeblack in the same category. In all these examples the Christian message is reduced to a slogan and/or is portrayed by a visible token symbolically designed to represent and promote the truth. One might respond that such examples are harmless, and to a certain extent I would agree. Nevertheless, the fundamental question begs asking: Is this what the New Testament writers had in mind when they spoke of Christian witness in the world?

The irony is that this approach to witness bears striking similarity to the behavior of the "scribes and Pharisees" whom Jesus excoriated for "mak[ing] their phylacteries broad and their fringes long" (Matt 23:5, in literal observance of the Mosaic prescript of Deut 6:8), and for "lov[ing] to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners" (Matt 6:5). In contrast to such visible displays of piety, Jesus commands: "But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret" (Matt 6:6). Reflecting on this verse not long ago, I was reminded of N. T. Wright's dedication of his work The Climax of the Covenant (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991) to his parents for their example of, inter alia, "undemonstrative Christian witness" (xiii). I thought then, as I do now, that this wholly admirable perspective is less intelligible on this side of the pond than it is in England.

Yes, the New Testament enjoins Jesus' followers to evangelize—indeed, always to be ready to provide an answer to the inquirer (1 Pet 3:15). Moreover, I would argue that everything a Christian does must be done as a Christian. This means that the Christian is ultimately building for the kingdom in everything he or she does, and that one's identity and priorities as a Christian must influence how one proceeds in every endeavor, whether as a minister, professor, politician, printer, or athlete. There are truly no closet Christians, and Tebow is to be commended for joining scores of other Christians in the boldness of their faith. What I question is the necessity, or even the propriety, of thus trivializing such witness in visible, contextually-inappropriate ways that, whether designed to or not, serve ultimately to draw attention to oneself.

Second, the type of Christian "witness" exemplified by Tebow's public post game "thanks" to God and John 3:16-highlighted eyeblack trivializes the content of the Christian gospel. This claim opens a whole can of worms, which hopefully I will address in the coming weeks. Indeed, such a claim runs counter to a veritable tradition in evangelical circles that seeks to boil down the gospel mesage to its essence so as not to overly complicate matters. Some 46 years later, I still remember my 4th grade teacher at the local Lutheran grade school, John Kieschnick (who later went on to become a prominent Missouri-Synod Lutheran minister in Houston), say that John 3:16 is "the gospel in a nutshell." That it may be, but what it says must be fleshed out considerably to understand what exactly it is saying. The gospel, as I will argue, is far more than a message of the availability of "fire insurance" through believing in Jesus.

A far greater problem, however, is not limited to Tebow, but is shared by countless Christian athletes who thank God after victory, either explicitly or implicitly attributing the game's outcome to the providential hand of God (Tebow, it must be said, has also thanked God after losses, thus demonstrating keener logic than many others). This raises a question, articulated clearly by the most learned of American sports pundits, Bob Costas, as to whether or not God is in the business of caring, let alone actively deciding, the outcomes of sporting events. The simple answer to this complex question is, from a Calvinist perspective, both "Yes" and "No." Clearly, however, it would be precarious indeed to posit the outcomes of individual games to the workings of God's direct, causative providence, no matter how comprehensive one understands God's sovereign plan or "decree" to be. Thanking God for outcomes of individual games simply trivializes God's sovereignty and, ironically, does little to enhance Christian witness to people in the outside word who, like Costas, don't have to think too hard to dredge up countless counter-examples.

This last point leads to a third and final observation. The type of Christian "witness" exemplified by Tebow's public post game "thanks" to God and John 3:16-highlighted eyeblack is often counterproductive in today's cultural climate. Given the state of the cultural climate in the postmodern West, one common reaction could be characterized thus: "That's great. I'm glad that works for you, but I don't feel that need for myself." More commonly, however—and I say this as one with years of experience on a factory floor—the reaction is cynicism bordering on hostility. Gombis points to Sinclair Lewis's 1927 novel, Elmer Gantry, and I well remember the first time I saw Richard Brooks's 1960 film of the novel, starring Burt Lancaster in an Oscar-winning take on the title character. That is how vocal Christian evangelists are viewed by millions of non-Christians throughout the West, and trivial displays of piety, no matter how well-meaning, are not apt to convince them otherwise. It is very public displays of hypocrisy of this sort, not the theological message of the cross, that have contributed most to the immunity of many to the persuasive power of public displays of piety and would-be witness. We indeed live in a time that is less accepting of overt displays of Christian piety than in previous generations. No one disputes that. But if so, indulging in nostalgia or ignoring the indisputable are futile enterprises. Would it not be wisest to adjust our approach accordingly?

Our Lord, when instructing his disciples in preparation for their short-term missionary foray into Galilee (and, by implication, our post-Easter mission to the world), warned them thus of opposition: "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt 10:16). My concern is that wisdom is the missing element in much of evangelical witness today. How, then, should we proceed? How, that is, can Christians more effectively demonstrate the truth and power of the Gospel? Proclamation and reasoned argument have a necessary role, to be sure—but in the proper contexts. Just as important are the individual lives of Christ's followers as they "adorn" the message of the gospel with their good works (e.g., Tit 1:10). "Faith without works" is as deleterious to Christian mission as it is futile in the matter of one's individual justification.

Most important of all, however, is what Francis Schaeffer once called "The Mark of the Christian," namely, the love each of us is to show for other believers in the Lord (John 13:35). The question we need to ask ourselves is this: how zealous are we as Christians to manifest the love toward our brothers and sisters that Jesus said would be the mark of his followers? And if we are not thus zealous, why aren't we? And have we given due consideration to the unintended consequences of this failure on the progress of Christian mission?